Wednesday, 16 August 2017

REVIEW: "Assassin’s Creed: Forsaken" (Book 5) by Oliver Bowden

Book Review by Sapphire Ng 

Assassin’s Creed: Forsaken (Book 5)
by Oliver Bowden
Copyright December 2012
Paperback, 464 Pages

An extraordinarily meaningful narrative rounded off with an exquisite touch of irony, and executed with an excellence that appeared to transcend that of its predecessors in the Assassin’s Creed book series. The ending to this novel, perfectly engineered and complete with an element of delightful surprise, was profoundly emotionally effecting; it was a bittersweet and poignant culmination to a tale that I felt commendably explored an astounding theme, one that drastically expands the reader’s notion of the supposedly already known universe of Assassin’s Creed

Adroitly weaved into the narrative was this theme—a literary investigation of fluidity in identity between that of Templar versus Assassin, and an inquiry into the rigidity of the Templar-Assassin demarcation as perpetuated by previous books in this series. Alongside the protagonist, readers were invited to question the designations and labels attached to Templars and Assassins that seemed to be so definitively attributed since book one. Astounding thus was the subversive, and somewhat unexpected, statement made by action within the epilogue of the book, an almost painful mockery of the general tenor of this thematic exploration throughout the novel. 

As the fifth installment in this book series, it seemed apt that the narrative included treatment of certain issues. Including that of a more philosophical and existential outlook regarding the identities of Templar and Assassin, and their inter-factional conflict. Appropriate as well was the furnishing of an alternate point of view, from that of a Templar, a perspective that haven’t yet been offered in this book series, and with which readers could view the expanded franchise. A perspective that appeared to serve as a significant and timely counterforce against stubborn stereotypes, both of Templars and Assassins, that might have been established through prior books of the series.

I appreciated that the narrative took stances on various issues, even stances that seemed unsavory and poignant. Plot implications on the relative predominance and potency between that of familial ties and disparate factional loyalties were breathtaking, not to mention narrative insinuations that indicate the prevailing of unyielding beliefs and allegiance over truth and reality.

This book exceptionally explored the notion of the plasticity of factional identity through a very apt vessel, the main protagonist Haytham Kenway. Haytham’s familial background, intriguing and some might say convoluted, was very well told, and skillfully related to the influence thus on his professional vocation, decisions, visions, and even perception of the self. On the radar as well was the idea of childhood indoctrination.

With this being the fifth installment in the Assassin’s Creed book series, the reader can expect similar themes and even the occasional similar narrative circumstance that defined the franchise. Betrayal and deception of the highest order remained a primary plot driver, that which set in motion further themes of vengeance, retribution, and of meting out justice. The element of mystery also defined the plot, befittingly compelling one to dutifully continue to leaf through the pages. 

Excellent writing remained a staple. The following as penned by the author speaks for itself, “I tethered my horse at the back of the church then stepped inside, where it was just as bone-freezing, numbing cold as it was outside. Along the aisle were the remains of more fires and by the door was a pile of wood, which, on closer inspection, I realized was church pews that had been chopped up. Reverence is the first victim of the cold.”

The novel at times seemed flawed however. It was ironic and galling that the narrator and main protagonist of this novel, Haytham, at one point in the narrative perfectly embodied the expression of pot calling the kettle black. Haytham thankfully preserved a certain sense of self-awareness to realize that some of his actions “effectively sabotaged the work of [his] own Order,” thus making him a “traitor” to his own people. It was ironic that he could follow this personal realization with self-important accusations of another’s betrayal of his Order, passing the judgement that the one he accused have “forsaken the goals of the Order” and was “a disgrace to the Order, to put it mildly.”

This unfortunately undermined Haytham’s credibility in relating the story considering that his journal entries were the primary sources to which this narrative was chronicled. Thankfully this moment of hypocrisy occurred near the end of the novel, and thus only minimally diminished my enjoyment of the book. It was clear however one of the author’s strategies in attempting to convey Haytham’s objectivity and suitability as a narrator, by emphasizing his moderate tendencies and beliefs for the most part of the book.

On a side note, I couldn’t help but wonder what nature of justice it was that Haytham could evade the punishment of death when such a similar nature of treachery committed by others within his Order would have immediately painted them as targets for assassination, deeds to be completed by fellow members of the Order. Being the protagonist certainly has its benefits. 

A certain bloodlust personified by Haytham was also rather unsavory. Despite verbal indications to the contrary, Haytham’s concrete actions and behavioral quirks at certain junctures in the book, as further assisted by the author’s style of writing and choice of words, hinted at a certain eagerness and even sadistic pleasure in killing. 

This book is nevertheless an undeniably worthy sequel to the Assassin’s Creed book series. The narrative shines in its own way, with its own unique set of strengths and weaknesses. What I would give however for the beloved Assassin Ezio Auditore to make reappearances in the Assassin’s Creed franchise, as the protagonist once more or otherwise, even if it had to be in a non-human form.

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated to the publisher nor the author of the book. This book review is the result of my personal reading and honest opinion.

Friday, 11 August 2017

REVIEW: "Assassin’s Creed: Revelations" (Book 4) by Oliver Bowden

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

Assassin’s Creed: Revelations (Book 4)
by Oliver Bowden
Copyright November 2011
Paperback, 512 Pages

Another installment of the interminable Assassin-Templar conflict, and a remarkably fun narrative of purposeful voyages, intriguing puzzles, engrossing political sequences, and a curiously satisfying trace of the philosophical. This narrative featured a moderately thrilling climactic action, and a rather emotive and depressing ending, and is a reasonably adequate sequel to the Assassin’s Creed book series.

Central elements of this plot are intimately entwined with that of book three of this series, with countless references thus to scenes, events and items of its immediate prequel. I especially enjoyed this book’s narrative elaboration to specific exploits of book three, where interesting annexations in details and dialogues to past happenings distinctly increased my enjoyment of the franchise. 

Noting as well this narrative’s not infrequent allusions to characters and beings spanning books one to three of this series and even an ancient tradition of the Assassins, in ways that assume prior knowledge, potential readers would do well to first peruse at the minimum two prequels to, but of course optimally the three prequels to, this book. Those intending to read this book independent of its prequels should be mentally ready to reconcile with questions unanswerable by this very narrative that could very well affect one’s reading experience. 

I especially enjoyed learning alongside Ezio the unfamiliar Assassin combat techniques, weapons and knowledge specific to that of the Istanbul Assassins, as yet again Ezio’s adventures brought him to another foreign land, this time Constantinople. I certainly couldn’t explain my bedazzlement at the marvels of bombs as I, as a reader, joined Ezio in his crash course in bomb-making. I only wished that the action within this narrative actually further contextualized and demonstrated the use of these bombs of such a great intriguing variety.

As with prior books in this series, the exotic environments to which actions took place rendered the plot that much more enchanting. I absolutely savored the visuals conjured in my mind as one of Ezio’s mission in this book brought him into an underground city. I also couldn’t help but got the impression that the author, for this fourth book of the Assassin’s Creed book series, wrote with an increased exquisiteness and refinement, though subtle, particularly when it came to composing narrative dialogues. It certainly astounded me that even somber soldiers could speak as lyrically and expressively as such, “Do not bend the truth to match the contours of your passion.”

In a clear departure from that of prior books in this series, humor assumed a considerably greater presence in this narrative. I really appreciated and treasured the instances where multiple occasions in this book had me genuinely chuckling or laughing aloud, particularly so when Ezio the Master Assassin attempted to pass clumsily as a working musician. It was also refreshing as this narrative lightly remarked upon notions of erroneous killings, and even that of erudition and wisdom being virtues not lost to professional administrators of death. 

Not to my liking however was the still mystifying conclusion to the principal source of mystery and tension throughout the book—the contents of Altair’s library, more specifically, the true significance and implications of the nature of contents found within the library to the world of Assassin’s Creed. It seemed necessary as well to point out that this book’s climactic sequences appeared to fall short of its predecessors—they were tension-filled, fast-paced and exciting, but rather short-lived and filled with less twists and turns, and less setbacks to the protagonist. 

In another peculiar instance, a recounting in a specific juncture within this narrative of a past event—of the death of one dear to Altair—in book three held a point of clear contradiction to supposedly established facts, with regard to the locality of the wound that inflicted death. This nevertheless remains a very solidly written narrative with merits clearly overshadowing its imperfections. 

As for readers ready to be charmed yet again by Ezio the Master Assassin, a man filling the shoes of the primary hero for the very third time in the Assassin’s Creed book series, he or she might need to contend with another side of Ezio, a frailer side, as despite Ezio’s seeming nonhuman invulnerability, and my desire to retain an idealized image of him, he was but just human as you and I.

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated to the publisher nor the author of the book. This book review is the result of my personal reading and honest opinion.

Monday, 7 August 2017

REVIEW: "Assassin’s Creed: the Secret Crusade" (Book 3) by Oliver Bowden

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

Assassin’s Creed: the Secret Crusade (Book 3)
by Oliver Bowden
Copyright June 2011
Paperback, 464 Pages

A marvelous work of fiction, an excellent extension to the Assassin’s Creed book series, and a faithful rendition of the Assassin’s Creed videogame. This narrative is exquisitely rife with betrayal, the theme richly fleshed out in the plot. Climactic sequences nearing the end of the book is exceptional, engagingly melodramatic and even emotionally affecting. Most of all, this narrative explores the very roots of the Order of the Assassins, equipping the reader with a greater foundational understanding of the workings of the Order and of the Assassin’s Creed world, and perfectly supplementary to books one and two of the book series.

This narrative delightfully unveiled novel and refreshing dimensions to a very coveted artifact, the Apple, in the Assassin’s Creed universe. It was also astounding as I discovered through this book the relationship between the Apple and the enigmatic codex that made its appearances in the prequels to this book, including as well details of the origination of the codex and even a clue as to what brought about the fate of the codex as indicated at the beginning of book one of the series. 

Readers with a taste for vicarious adventure and with the predilection for indulging in tales of the assassin lifestyle will enjoy this book. This narrative is however more than merely action, it is also a meaningful tale about principles and integrity, honor and brotherhood, of leadership and making the right decisions, sacrifice and inevitably, heartbreak. This plot also harmoniously incorporates elements of faith, notions of allegiance, lessons of arrogance, and elaborate schemes of deception and subversion. 

The plot twists in the narrative are gold, the mystery tantalizing. I relished the presentation of an alternate side to the Order of the Assassins, one not dealt with in previous books of the series, one that noted the possibility of civic transgression by the Assassins, of the potential fragmentation of the identity of the Assassins as a force for good and with compassion. 

This book however might not be entirely unblemished. The mesmerizing action in the second half of the book, complete with heightened emotions, tension and high stakes plot complications, is reminiscent of the outstanding fictional work of previous books in this series. A segment within the first quarter of this book however paled by comparison and might even appear lackluster to more demanding readers, and dedicated fans of the Assassin’s Creed book series. 

Of Altair’s assassination assignments against nine Templar targets as indicated in the blurb of the book and which formed the preliminary subplot in the novel, the predictable structuring and recounting of each kill, particularly for the first and consecutive four to five kills, in the first quarter of the book came to be rather mundane. The repetitiveness brought to mind the familiar and ubiquitous expression “work, eat, sleep, and repeat,” which in this case translates into “report, reconnoiter, kill, and repeat” or more accurately “report, reconnoiter, report, kill, report, and repeat.” 

Such treatment gave the impression that this part of the narrative constituted a necessary evil that the author might have wished to briefly get over and done with in order to set up for and proceed to subsequent parts of the narrative presumably more personally intriguing to the author. This straightforwardness in narrative planning wasn’t particularly to my liking, but yet again, it seemed that the author cannot be faulted for austerely basing this work on the Assassin’s Creed videogame. Still, having been utterly convinced of the author’s finesse of the written narrative as evident in books one and two of this series, I can’t help but expect more out of the author with regard to this segment of the subplot. Minor editing errors were also scattered through the novel, the nature of which thankfully did not detract from the readability and flow of the narrative. 

Despite a few of my curiosities being left unaddressed by the end of this narrative, that which pertain to the Oracle and the archive as alluded to by the Templars, the exceptional overall enjoyment I’ve experienced from perusing this book and the previous two books of this series might have just made me an Assassin’s Creed convert for life. 

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated to the publisher nor the author of the book. This book review is the result of my personal reading and honest opinion.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

REVIEW: "Warcraft: War of the Ancients #2: The Demon Soul (Book 2)" by Richard A. Knaak

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

Warcraft: War of the Ancients #2: The Demon Soul (Book 2)
by Richard A. Knaak 
Pocket Star 
Copyright November 2004
Mass Market Paperback, 384 Pages

A vivid tale of extraordinarily fantastical magic and of forebodingly apocalyptic tones, this novel is an absolutely impressive and commendable sequel to the War of the Ancients series. The epic climactic battle of the narrative masterfully brings together themes of loss, revenge, betrayal and most of all, the irreverent desecration of the sanctity of life. This is yet another heart-thumping masterpiece by the author, fast-paced and filled with welcomed narrative surprises.

I recommend that readers peruse the first book of this series before moving onto this book. The author doubtlessly laid out the narrative backdrop that would allow readers to enjoy this book without necessarily having read book one of the War of the Ancients series. I nevertheless strongly believe that for those seeking a more enriching experience of the Warcraft franchise, and a fuller appreciation of the plot of this narrative would be well served by first devouring its prequel. 

For one, in reading this series in chronology, I appreciate the opportunity to grasp to the best of my abilities an accomplished author’s artistry at building up a series of such a famed franchise. Having read the prequel to this book, I appreciate the capacity for me to enjoy and further contemplate the narrative through a comparative lens. The refreshing change in mood, the maturation of events, and intensification of various facets of this narrative from that of its prequel enabled greater interaction on my part as a reader with this book. 

I loved an especially eerie set of scenes in the narrative that felt straight out of a horror story— a night elven scouting party’s venture into the spooky ambience of the demon-ravaged city of Suramar and the party’s freakish and spine-chilling encounter with and ambush by heavily bloodied and brutally lacerated night elven comrades. It was of literary perfection that the debut of such hauntingly macabre creatures in the series was in such befitting a setting. 

Another exceptional appeal of this book was the presence of characters of murky moral compass consequential to the narrative. The author’s dexterous depiction of the insidious formidability and ingenious evil of the colossal Neltharion captivated me immensely. It was equally riveting to be privy to the inner psychological world of the corruptible and morally-unanchored Illidan and the corresponding dark implications on the night elf’s practice of his craft of sorcery. I also welcomed the author’s treatment of Illidan’s theoretical and intellectual dedication to and rigorously cold practical outlook toward his sorcery work, an intriguing psychological angle for an area of proficiency that which transcends real life. It was also astounding when the novel brought to life the rather ubiquitous in-game phenomenon of the transmutation of creatures of a certain race or faction to that of another. Most of all, as the icing on the cake of the magnificent narrative was tinges of profound existential notions strategically integrated into the narrative at appropriate junctures.

The author’s wondrous flair for writing is in full display throughout the narrative, even more so in narrative circumstances that reward the utmost exercise of creativity and artistry. Yet again I’m wowed by the author’s mastery over, and descriptive prowess at conjuring vivid and rich visuals through, the medium of words, be it epic portrayals of battle scenes, the lyrical fabrication of fantastical environments, the delineation of magic in all of its gloriousness and artfulness as the author’s own boundless imagination dictates, or in generating anticipation in and titillating readers with what would follow in the narrative. 

As a finishing touch to this virtually flawless novel, the conclusion of the narrative on an elegantly enigmatic note also rather effectively spurs me onward onto the final installment of this trilogy.

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated to the publisher nor the author of the book. This book review is the result of my personal reading and honest opinion.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

REVIEW: "Warcraft: War of the Ancients #1: The Well of Eternity (Book 1)" by Richard A. Knaak

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

Warcraft: War of the Ancients #1: The Well of Eternity (Book 1)
by Richard A. Knaak 
Pocket Star
Copyright April 2004
Mass Market Paperback, 384 Pages

Breathtakingly told and exceptionally written, the narrative of this book climaxes in an epic and heart-thumping battle against the fearsome demons of the Burning Legion. I absolutely relish the astounding and spellbinding fantasy world that the author conjured, and admire the skill to which the author masterfully weaved together the intricacies in the plot which evoked a deafening sense of suspense. This is certainly a novel that I look forward to rereading in the future. 

The narrative generated much foreboding and eventually thankfully resolved into a dramatic triumph of good over evil. Before the change of luck and surprise victory for the forces of good in the narrative, I can’t help but sigh with a sense of resignation in anticipation of the heartbreaking consequences of what I perceived would be an actualization of a tragic tale of delusion, greed, egoism, and depravity of inhumane proportions.

It is this sense of impending tragedy and doom permeating almost the entire narrative that I feel makes this book so incredibly riveting. The dreadful irony of the queen of the night elves facilitating a brutal carnage of her own people, who were rendered especially vulnerable by an idea of her own conjuring, makes the narrative so sad but deliciously captivating. It is the queen and her counselor’s painful delusion, and the depiction of her almost sociopathic witnessing and even fascination by the sight of her own city being razed to the ground alongside unparalleled suffering and death befalling her own people that I feel defined a narrative apex.

I admire especially the author’s linguistic prowess, particularly in fluently articulating matters I personally could not translate with integrity from visual to written form. I’ve always adored and been captivated by the in-game peculiar beauty of fantasy creatures, and I’ve seen similar creatures to the hounds of the Burning Legion in various videogames I enjoyed but always never could quite put into words their peculiar beauty and grand magnificence. As such, it was so invigorating to read of the author’s masterful presentation of such creatures—“The beasts” whose “scaly hides were colored a deathly crimson accented by savage splattering of black and on their backs fluttered a crest of wild, shaggy brown fur,” and “atop their backs thrust two long, whiplike, leathering tentacles that ended in tiny sucker mouths.”

Having personally played the Warcraft 3 game when I was young, and now just finished reading my very first book in the vast Warcraft franchise, I’ve come to be convinced of the perfectly complementary roles to which the game and the novels served each other. I believe that my having engaged with the game universe of Warcraft 3 allowed me to experience a heightened sense of enjoyment as I devoured this book. I also returned to the game with a renewed appreciation and understanding of this much loved fictional world after reading this book.

I felt nevertheless that this novel additionally offered a cherished experience that eclipses that which the videogame format could offer. As a reader, I savored how I was privy to for example environmental stimuli from the intimate perspective of characters and creatures directly involved in the plot. This distinctly contrasts with the mostly top-down point-of-view as offered by the Warcraft 3 in-game experience, taking into account as well relatively brief cutscenes in-game that only temporarily bring the reader closer in vantage point to the action in question. As with the free availability of our rich human imagination as well when I immerse myself in this fantasy world as conjured by the written word, I personally felt that the Warcraft world appeared more real to and better integrated into my consciousness than offered by the in-game experience.

If anything, I relished the way the action in the narrative was capable of making strong emotions pulse through me, even if it meant experiencing vicarious fear and dread for the various protagonists in times of stressful predicaments. This was especially so in the instance when the spirit of a friendly night elf Malfurion, in his fearless attempt to sabotage a rival operation by treading in the realm of the Emerald Dream, was captured when the reader least expected it, and taunted with the ominous question, “How long do you think it will take your body to die without your spirit within?”

It was almost a magical experience in itself as I worked through the pages of this novel. Whilst the plot clearly contained common narrative themes such as time travel and the use of magic, the way the author adroitly marshaled these themes into a creatively extraordinary plot would remain a skill I could only dream of attaining in time to come. 

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated to the publisher nor the author of the book. This book review is the result of my personal reading and honest opinion.

Monday, 17 July 2017

REVIEW: "Assassin’s Creed: Renaissance" by Oliver Bowden

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

Assassin’s Creed: Renaissance
by Oliver Bowden
Copyright February 2010
Paperback, 496 Pages

A phenomenally entertaining and engrossing read culminating in a stunningly jaw-dropping and affecting climax and ending. This is a profound narrative of valor, duty, loyalty and resilience set in a captivating world spotlighting the antagonistic factions of the Templars and the Assassins, and which shadows a remarkably endearing Assassin by the name of Ezio Auditore. I personally enjoyed this book immensely and love the plot, and upon devouring the final sentence of this book instantly feel compelled to immerse myself in the next title of the series.

This book is exceptionally well-written: The dialogues are especially compelling and engaging; the rich and masterful writing, of the sensory, the scenic, and the architectural give goosebumps to the zealous literary and language lover; and this book is virtually never dearth of captivating details that suitably fortify the narrative. 

This narrative is extremely but comfortably fast-paced, and filled with a continuous stream of purposeful and refreshing action and plot twists. Most preciously, the plot pulses with a steadily captivating rhythm of excitement and sense of mystery. The flow and movement of the narrative felt seamless and was almost cinematic; one’s visualization of the Assassin’s Creed world fittingly aided by the author’s proficient and expressive writing. 

I devoured this novel alongside occasional watching of the gameplay of the Assassin’s Creed 2 videogame. With the game’s substantial emphasis on plot and character development, in addition to this novel’s religious adherence to the in-game plot, dialogue, action sequences and more, I personally found my engagement with this famed franchise in the written form to be sufficiently and even strongly satisfying. 

The in-game experience certainly would have offered elements such as interactivity and graphics unavailable in a written book form, I nevertheless am duly convinced that the novel is capable of offering an alternately enriching experience unattainable by the videogame. I savored the vivid narrative brought to life by the author’s linguistic prowess; there were plentiful sensory, psychological details and more in the novel that were rather simplistically portrayed or sometimes even absent in the videogame. This is especially so when the in-game graphics and sound were less able to capture with full integrity the subtle details in the dynamic range of human emotion and expression as compared to the written form where each reader’s individual imagination also come into play as one makes sense of and interprets the written word. 

Considering as well that this book was published after and explicitly based upon its videogame brethren, one could do well to expect that the author would conduct the necessary research to appropriately embellish and enrich the plot. Concerning the abundant cutscenes as found in the videogame, I’ve found the correlated scenes as depicted in this novel to feature distinctly more circumstantial details that enrich one’s experience with the narrative. 

Superfans, followers and avid gamers of the Assassin’s Creed series could complement their gaming experience, and augment their immersion in this popular franchise and its memorable characters by reading this novel. With this novel, literary fans and general readers disinclined toward videogames could also engage creatively and intellectually with the expansive Assassin’s Creed world through a favored or preferred medium. 

Character-wise, the magnetism of the protagonist Ezio is irresistible, and I found myself becoming increasingly smitten by this character as I progress along the narrative—Ezio’s near invincibility, his fearless shouldering and assuming of the most perilous tasks and roles, his uncanny talent and proficiency of the art of the assassin, and his ease at accomplishing the gravest and toughest of maneuvers were flawlessly rendered in the novel, topped off with delightful traces of sensuality. 

Despite the action, fights, deaths, and the virtually incessant spill of blood, profound words and lessons remain to the discovered within the pages of the book—notions of being an independent people, stories of loyalty to family, faction and cause, and of unsolicited wisdom and help in times of supreme hardship. This is made even more profound when the protagonist of the narrative Ezio, a practitioner in the “trade of death,” was celebrated for his heroism within the context of the plot.

This book isn’t entirely unblemished. The beginning of the novel wasn’t exceptionally riveting, with the quick progression of a series of events lacking in intrigue, mystery or wonderment, nor sufficiently generating reader anticipation. The general lack of context of these various happenings early on in the book left the reader with countless unanswered questions. I wished that the author would have included for example, an element of foreshadowing when it came to the mystery of the woman overseeing a bordello who seemed mystifyingly well versed and informed in the craft of stealth and murder.

At another rare instance near the beginning of the book, I wished the author wrote more illustratively and expressively. When I came across the use of the adjective “disgusting” in context within the following sequence—one that depicted a man hurled into “the water among the sewage and debris that had washed up around the foot of the first pier of the bridge” and thereafter “was too busy choking on the disgusting water that had poured into his mouth to notice that his companion had by now suffered the same fate”—I can’t help that other potentially more lyrical, creative or compelling descriptive possibilities to which the author would be capable of flitted through my mind. But of course, most might have considered this to be but an almost inconsequential detail. This book also contained a few minor editing errors, none of which are capable of detracting from the overall enjoyability and fluency of the narrative. 

One thing I’m absolutely certain of, I’m glad that my inaugural exposure to geographical, architectural and even historical traces of medieval Italy was through this exceptional novel, Assassin’s Creed: Renaissance

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated to the publisher nor the author of the book. This book review is the result of my personal reading and honest opinion.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

BLOG TOUR: "Strange Contagion: Inside the Surprising Science of Infectious Behaviors and Viral Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves" by Lee Daniel Kravetz

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

Strange Contagion: Inside the Surprising Science of Infectious Behaviors and Viral Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves 
by Lee Daniel Kravetz
Harper Wave
Copyright June 27, 2017
Hardcover, 288 Pages

This book is delightfully entertaining and educational. The author conscientiously charts his steadily progressive intellectual quest in researching and deciphering the significance of the phenomena of social contagions to the tragic occurrence of suicide clusters in the famed Silicon Valley, specifically the city of Palo Alto, California. This book makes for a pleasantly enjoyable read with its abundance of thought-provoking and fascinating material. 

Despite the seeming formidability of the subject matter, the ultimate essence of the discussions in the book boiled down to the condition of being human. Academically-inclined readers with an interest in psychology might most appreciate this book, readers from all walks of life however are also encouraged to read the book for the profound learning points embedded within. 

Personally, I feel that perusing this book has equipped me with a new kind of awareness and clarity in viewing life and its various constituents and stimuli. It is by no coincidence that the author’s competent tackling of the subject matter of social contagions eventually led to the realm of the intimate and the personal, of each and every person’s susceptibility to being subconsciously influenced by even seemingly the most unnoticeable detail in one’s surroundings. 

In further testament to the intellectual stimulation readers could expect from reading this book, the author meticulously documented progressively acquired knowledge and information as he crossed paths with various professionals ranging from scientists, psychologists to epidemiologists in his pursuit of remedies to the Palo Alto suicide clusters, and his eventual realization of the immense intricacy of the problem at hand. 

The author’s probing of the “strange contagion” led to incredibly fascinating territory. Discussions of the social contagion of violence along with associated concepts such as a city’s “threshold of tolerance for violence” was particularly compelling. When it came to purposeful and intentional use of the media to bring about changes in behavior in populations, a particular example stood out, namely that “a music video campaign in Nigeria led to a fivefold increase in the number of people seeking contraception every quarter.”

Certain psychological findings and assessments in the book was especially astounding. I really love this thought-provoking question posed by the author, “When is an emoji not just a shorthand emotional expression but a vessel carrying active ingredients of a virulent strange contagion?” Another remarkable revelation pertained to the potency and even insidiousness of “subtle priming” in allowing us to “register an idea and behave as though it has originated from within,” ideas related to for example one’s pursuit of goals. 

The author goes beyond impressing the reader with his quality research and cogent ideas to stunning with his elegantly eloquent writing. The following sentences about fear encapsulate the author’s writing proficiency, "As casual observers of life, our internal instrumentation, our antennae, our infrared understanding of the world, registers the way in which others respond to everyday objects and situations. Fear in particular trades in a unique currency, a kind of superstitious magical thinking that offers people a sense of control in situations that warrant none.”

Perusing this book distinctly expands one’s knowledge base. The notion of the “placebo effect” would have been a moderately familiar concept to the general reader; the “nocebo effect” on the other hand might be considerably more alien. I personally encountered the concept of the “nocebo effect” for the first time in this book, insightfully discussed within the context of the unfortunate suicide clusters in Palo Alto. The notion of a “laughter epidemic” was also a welcome addition to my vocabulary. Similarly cerebrally satisfying was when the author fascinatingly delved into the contagiousness of afflictions the likes of obesity and bulimia; I’ve never even vaguely perceived eating disorders or emotional disorders to be possibly contagious. 

With the book containing astute statements such as that “sometimes fear has a way of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy,” one could presume that the resourceful reader intent on maximizing gains from perusing this book would treasure each and every ideational opportunity available to come away with a more profound level of emotional intelligence and self-awareness that could better inform his or her approach to living life. 

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from HarperCollins and TLC Book Tours for this review.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

REVIEW: "Then Comes Marriage: United States V. Windsor and the Defeat of DOMA" by Roberta Kaplan, Lisa Dickey

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

Then Comes Marriage: United States V. Windsor and the Defeat of DOMA
by Roberta Kaplan, Lisa Dickey
W. W. Norton & Company
Copyright October 2015
Hardcover, 336 Pages

The United States v. Windsor case—previously Edith Schlain Windsor v. United States of America—competently examined from a legal and anecdotal vantage point. Legal concepts and issues of the Windsor case are delightfully intriguing, its underlying love story between Windsor and her spouse, Thea Spyer, intimately heartwarming. This legal recount boldly forefronts the human facet of the gay rights struggle additionally through narratives of the author’s personal journey and struggles as a lesbian, and other illustrative circumstances of homosexuals “scarred” by the inherently loaded legislation, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). 

This book, in charting the success of the Windsor case, is a rather heartening and uplifting read for homosexuals. The unique plights and struggles of the homosexual community as described in the book would also be most readily relatable to gays and lesbians. Parents of gay children would potentially find this book to be deeply meaningful and even spiritually transformative, and thus ought to read it. This book could be a timely gift for people who have gay relatives, friends and acquaintances; there will be much to gain in terms of greater knowledge and awareness of the legal climate encompassing the issues of gay rights and marriage equality.

This book is a compelling read for those intellectually and emotionally vested in the advancement of gay rights, those passionate about the gay rights movement, or about social and civil rights issues in general. Enjoyable and easy-to-read, this book is particularly suited for the general reader interested in uncovering the nuts and bolts of the landmark Windsor case. 

Furthermore, the extraordinary legal victory as achieved by the plaintiff’s attorney of the Windsor case despite having “never argued a Supreme Court case before” might just be the ideal narrative to reinvigorate a weary and uninspired practicing lawyer. The very unmistakable human facet of this case and its contribution to humanity might also serve as a powerful and opportune reminder to current legal practitioners of the motivations underlying their very first foray into the law, be it to champion the rights of voiceless minorities, to right wrongs, or otherwise. Most of all, the reader will have the opportunity to share in the intoxicating excitement and sense of purpose as experienced by the fiery plaintiff’s attorney as she tirelessly worked on the case. 

The most intriguing content in the book is justifiably the revelatory insights into the legal strategies employed by the plaintiff’s counsel for the Windsor case. The details never fail to be titillating from arguments persuading the Supreme Court to consider DOMA under the judicial review of heightened scrutiny, to the combined legal and emotional strategy for the case. It is beyond fascinating to learn of the shrewd legal strategy devised that helped to avoid “branding everyone who voted for the [DOMA] statute in 1996 a bigot or homophobe.” It is also astoundingly eye-opening to be privy to unconventional but brilliant anti-DOMA arguments—the peculiar fact that for same-sex couples, DOMA apparently aided in the couple’s or a spouse’s sidestepping of certain tax laws, federal laws and ethics rules. DOMA for example, notably “allowed same-sex couples to engage in tax avoidance in ways that opposite-sex couples couldn’t.”

It is also especially riveting to learn of the ingenious ways the plaintiff’s counsel tailored their arguments to subtly lobby certain justices on the Supreme Court—by echoing a justice’s language, and taking advantage of the knowledge of another justice’s “obvious” disapproval of “cases brought solely to advance social causes.” Along the way, the reader learns the essence of the plaintiff’s counsel’s argument through memorable catch phrases such as “already married, already gay,” and “all about dignity,” and recognizes the intent of the team to frame the Windsor case as more than “just an LGBT issue but a human rights issue.”

To the author’s credit, the book aptly painted a brief picture of the inching progress of gay rights in America prior to the Windsor case. In addition to discussing other prior and existing legal challenges to DOMA, the book noted the nature of discrimination homosexuals were subjected to—the lack of recognition of their marital rights, employment rights, and more. It was absurdly a “felony” and illegal “to be gay and employed in any capacity by the federal government” or by companies with federal government contracts at “the height of the McCarthy period.”

This book elegantly eviscerated the Defense of Marriage Act. The legislation was brazenly referred to as one that quintessentially and “officially sanctioned discrimination against one group of Americans,” that perpetuated “sweeping, undifferentiated and categorical discrimination” against homosexuals, and that shamelessly expressed moral and even insidious disapproval of homosexuality. With the additional use of immensely loaded descriptors such as “antigay,” “irrational,” and “terrible” in reference to DOMA, the reader would be coaxed to perceive the law as one that indeed did not seem to possess even any remotely redeeming qualities. 

The structure of this book appeared to mirror the plaintiff counsel’s tactical approach for the Windsor case, for better or for worse. The complaint the plaintiff’s attorney filed with the Supreme Court remarkably and unusually began with and gave preeminent emphasis to the romantic narrative of Windsor and her spouse; the legal issues in the complaint in turn seemed to be relegated to the sidelines, addressed disproportionately less, and some might even say, attributed secondary importance.

Whilst the title of the book explicitly proclaimed the Windsor legal case as its primary subject matter, the narrative appeared to primarily forefront Windsor’s love story. With a sizable bulk of the beginning of the book thus almost uniquely dedicated to the romantic past of Windsor and her spouse in a near vacuum absent the interposition of meaningful references to the Windsor lawsuit, the reader might feel occasional tinges of confusion and even start to harbor a bubbling question, is this book actually a romantic memoir? The narrative disconnect between the Windsor love story and the Windsor legal case early on in the book certainly bolsters such an impression.

Additionally, despite the distinctly practical and remarkable emphasis on the human angle of the Windsor suit in an attempt to humanize the legal battle, such an approach when unchecked however seemed poised to erode the merits of the book. It was more than faintly puzzling to realize that the issue forming the legal backbone of the case—the matter of tax-bill injury and estate taxes—mysteriously evaporated as the case progressed, not even to be mentioned again at the very least at the culmination or conclusion of the case. 

The general reader might get tripped up at a particular juncture nearing the end of the book—the Windsor case court dialogue between the defendant’s counsel and the Supreme Court justices. The inclusion of snippets of the court transcript, complete with undiluted and unsimplified legal discussion involving potentially elaborate legal concepts might pose some difficulty to the general reader. Considering the rather minimal inclusion of such potentially formidable legal dialogues however, the reader certainly ought to feel free to exercise the freedom to simply skim or even skip the dialogues.

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated to the publisher nor the author of the book. This book review is the result of my personal reading and honest opinion.