London Bookshops – Along the Regent’s Canal Towpath

Hello guys,

Tiny big update: I’m in London for a study-abroad semester. Actually I’ve already been here for three whole months, and will be around for about two more before I get unceremoniously sent home.

While I wasn’t initially too enthusiastic about living in London (think crowds, high expenses), the city sure has caught on me. I think you can call this a slow burn. One of the biggest reasons why I’ve fallen in love with the capital of the UK is the general existence of more than two big booksellers – in fact, there are tons of little independent bookshops (and a boat!) scattered around town, and this really snagged my heart.

I went on a little book-buying adventure yesterday afternoon to take advantage of the rare hot day (it was actually a bit too hot) and here’s a short story of my journey (gotta warn you though, I’m usually very long-winded):

1. Word on the Water – Regent’s Canal Towpath, King’s Cross, London N1C 4LW

I left the East End at around 1 p.m. in the afternoon. It was, on hindsight, a good decision, as the day had already warmed up enough so that I could walk around in shorts and not have to bring a jacket along. It was a short tube journey into King’s Cross / St. Pancras, and a 7-minute walk to Granary Square, situated behind the station (you gotta walk around the perimeter of the huge building). It felt like 15 minutes under the blazing sun, enveloped in a film of sweat (sorry, I’m disgusting like that). If you, like me, are going there on a hot day, the presence of naked children and half-naked adults bathing in the fountain would be the sign that you’ve arrived at the right place. The next thing would be to look for the correct boat. The thing about Regent’s Canal is that the boats look the same to the untrained eye. They’re all fairly flat and long, and most have chairs on the roof for obvious reasons. The one you’re looking for has potted plants and a sign saying “BOOKS”. Or look out for a medium-sized furry dog that bumps into things.

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Review: Girl with A Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

dutch art, 17th century art, johannes vermeer, tracy chevalier, girl with a pearl earring

Source: Amazon UK

I bought the Kindle edition of this book after my visit to the Netherlands. I absolutely adored the Mauritshuis, where the painting of the same title is on display, so when I found out that there was a fictional tale about said painting, I couldn’t resist.

Girl with A Pearl Earring is a delicately crafted novel told from the perspective of 16-year-old Griet. Her parents, having undergone a couple of misfortunes, send her away to work as a maid for the family of the artist, Johannes Vermeer. Yes, that Vermeer. Whilst the families live within walking distance of each other in the town of Delft, Griet finds that there is more than a world of difference between the two households.

Though slow-going, the novel’s focus on the thoughts, feelings, and observations of the perceptive Griet gives the narrative its strength. Yes, she is youthful, but she also has the gravitas of a woman twice her age. It was a refreshing perspective of a world very much dictated by social class, religion, and decorum. I felt that Chevalier presented the gloomy, almost stifling, atmosphere of 17th century Netherlands very well.

I really loved the attention Chevalier paid to Vermeer’s painting process and to how paint was made at that time. It was very fascinating (to an art newbie like me) to learn how colours were produced in the 17th century. You’ll definitely never look at those old paintings the same way ever.

With regards to the theme and plot of the novel, I can’t commend the author enough for handling it with dignity and care, considering that it involved a young woman. At first glance, I have to admit that I was expecting some sort of intense, passionate romp between Griet and Vermeer (also slightly disturbing, if you ask me). If you’re looking for that, I’d recommend looking elsewhere. Instead, what is presented to us is the emotional turmoil Griet experiences as she finds herself increasingly drawn towards her master. Given the title and cover art of the novel, we know that the girl with the pearl earring is Griet. However, what makes this book worth reading is her earnest, almost melancholic voice telling us the story of a significant chapter of her life.

tl;dr if you’re looking for a roiling-emotions-beneath-the-surface but sobering read, Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with A Pearl Earring will satisfy your literary urges.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

If you’d like a physical copy of the book, you can purchase it on Wordery here.*

*I get a 5% commission from all purchases at no extra cost from you. 🙂

Review: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

29777060The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Pretty funny at times, but quite hard to get into if you’re unfamiliar with the Bible or the Soviet Union (I had minimal knowledge of both). There are two ‘parallel’ storylines in the narrative: one set in 1920s Soviet Russia, the other in Yershalaim (Jerusalem) revolving around the events leading up to Jesus’s crucifixion.

Ironically, given my lack of biblical knowledge, I enjoyed the Yershalaim sections the most, because it paints various biblical characters in a rather comical light, and for once, they’re not written about as holier than thou beings, but almost silly people like you and me. The main character in this storyline is Pontius Pilate, the procurator famous for washing his hands off the crucifixion of Jesus. He is, to me, a wishy-washy character. I don’t know how someone with knowledge of the Bible would feel about him, but I wasn’t impressed by his giving in to the masses regarding the condemnation of Yeshua (Jesus in the novel). That said, it could be Bulgakov’s clever way of linking these historical-mythological events with the situation in the Moscow of his time. Despite this, I could feel Bulgakov’s sympathy for Pilate, and that made me like him as well. Yes, he’s a wimp, but a very complex one.

The Moscow parts were a little more difficult to get into, particularly because I was not at all familiar with Soviet history. I understood that there was communism, but that was it. It took me more than 200 pages to gain the momentum needed to finish the novel, but I’m glad I stuck with it. There were moments in which Bulgakov’s criticism of the society he lived in was so overt that I was worried for his safety! But don’t worry, he never was murdered for writing this book. The behaviour of the “citizens” is very recognisable, even in today’s world. I’d argue that since materialism has become such a large part of our culture, certain scenes in the novel are eerily accurate realisations of human greed and corruption.

I had no problems at all with the ‘magical realism’ happening throughout the novel and the absurd behaviours the human characters exhibit. In fact, I quite enjoyed how most of their actions were exaggerated. You feel almost gleeful reading about their shenanigans. Admittedly, most of them were unlikable, and in fact, I sympathised with the devil throughout (blasphemy!). In particular, with Woland himself. While his retinue were a little too gleeful and mischievous for my liking, the dark and imposing, but irresistibly charming Woland drew me in. The devil’s role here isn’t what you would expect, and in fact, you’ll begin questioning what exactly evil means.

That said, this novel is very dense, and quite a lot of the intent was completely lost on me. It was only when I referred to an online guide that I could appreciate the story better. Reading it is a time-consuming undertaking, but if you’re up for a challenge, The Master and Margarita is hugely rewarding.

What have I done? – Rounding off 2016 and beginning 2017

2016 wasn’t exactly the best year for many. I don’t think that needs much explaining. On home ground, far from the epicentre of global politics and celebrity culture, life didn’t exactly run as smoothly as I wished it would. On hindsight, that’s really alright. Who wants a life without hardship anyway? (NB: Let’s keep up our delusions)

2016 was the year my parents talked about going separate ways. It was the year I struggled very hard with my sense of self-worth despite getting on the Dean’s List for the first time in my life. It was the year I failed 4 internship interviews and wondered if I would ever be able to feed myself after graduation. It was the year I lost touch with who I was.

However, 2016 was also the year I told myself I’d had enough. I decided I wasn’t going to take any more shit from people if they don’t take some of mine (bad imagery :/). It was also the year I read more than 30 books (an achievement in a house full of people!). And last but not least, I left home (temporarily) and plopped myself down in Europe.

While I’m here on exchange, I’ve done a little bit of travelling and bookshop visiting! I’ll do up a separate post on the places I’ve visited, and I’d love if any of you could alert me to new places worth going to.

So anyway, 2017 began with me contracting a London bug. It was a horrible few days. I could stomach no food, I couldn’t sleep, and worst of all, I couldn’t read. Staring at words made my head spin. I’m now a lot better, thanks to my little sister who was here with me and who displayed a surprising amount of care and consideration I didn’t know she had in her! And also thanks to my friend who was in-transit in London and who slipped me a bottle of multi-vitamins before she hopped off the tube en-route to the airport. Along the way, people I didn’t personally know have also bathed me in honey. A random guy in my school library helped me with printing and didn’t want any compensation. A professor struck up a conversation with me, and made an effort to learn my name within the first 5 minutes of class. You’ll never know how much this means to me when even at home, people refuse to do that just because my parents didn’t give me an English name. Even a food thief at my residences returned a cup of yogurt she stole from me.

I guess before I start looking at this year’s reading goals and what-nots, 2017 has shown me an unbelievable amount of human kindness (in just 12 days!), and you know what? I think my number one goal in 2017 is to be a nicer, kinder, less cynical individual. Everything else can come later.

Why English?

I’ve recently been asked this question again, and I realise that it’s taking me longer than usual to look for an answer to that. Things have definitely changed since I began my degree. I was idealistic, passionate, interested, and fresh-faced. Now, I’m jaded, tired, and cynical about the world. I don’t know whether it’s because of the way my country works, or whether it’s because I’ve been loaded with far too many responsibilities these two years, but things have definitely gone awry, and I think I need to take some time off my work for reflection.

I love reading. I still do. I’ve heard many of my peers complain about how majoring in English has caused them to associate reading with work, but thankfully that hasn’t affected me. I think what’s wrong is how I’ve been finding it extremely difficult to detach work from leisure. I still love analysing texts, but I’ve been putting a lot of pressure on myself to do well, and it’s hurting my brain. It doesn’t help that everyone around me is solely working on getting ‘A’ grades for their courses, so much so that some of them skip exams by buying medical certificates, which allows them to repeat the module the following year without penalty. I’ve found myself working harder and harder each semester to ensure that I’m able to deliver stellar work. However, I realise that I’ve sort of lost sight of the pleasures of reading literature in that process.

Everyone covets that “First Class Honours” on their graduation certificate. It’s our ticket to getting a high-paying government job, and unfortunately for aspiring grad students, also our ticket for getting into graduate school. With all the competition going on, it’s getting harder and harder to get there. People resort to desperate means (one of which I’ve outlined above) to get there. It’s become a dirty race.

While I’ve insisted on finishing with a clear conscience, I’ve been unable to stop and smell the flowers (sorry, out of creativity!). I feel like I’ve lost sight of why I decided to study literature in the first place. Wasn’t it about passion? A love for humanity? A desire to engage in the artistic – and heaven forbid – spiritual side of the self? A rebellious yearning to defy materialism?

Thankfully, I know I haven’t lost it all. I know it’s because I need to do well in order to get into grad school, to get out of this toxic microcosm of comparison and materialism, that I’m running this race. Ironically, participating in this competition is the only way out of future ones. But now, at times, I’m going to stop, admire the view, and let the world carry me away for awhile.

Review: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Between Shades Of GrayBetween Shades Of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

I’m upset that it had to be this way, seeing how this book was so well-talked about in the online book community. I’m even more upset that I didn’t find it powerful nor moving enough despite being an account of war atrocities.

However, Between Shades of Gray does have its merits, so let’s focus on that before getting to the not-so-nice stuff. I finished this book in 3 days during hell-month, i.e. I had loads of essays to submit. I did have to exercise a large amount of restrain to stop reading for the night. I think what helped was that I was just as confused as the characters as to what would happen next.

On to the stuff I’m sorry I have to say. First, the protagonist, Lina, got on my nerves throughout the story. I thought she was impulsive, self-righteous, and irritating. Same thing with her brother – the one whose life was worth a pocket watch. The characters just felt flat for some reason. Jonas, said brother, was used as a foil to Lina’s rash behaviour. He’s perfect, nice to a fault, and it gets on my nerves. Their mother is pretty and intelligent and loves to help the underdog, and that gets on my nerves. Basically, the characters just don’t feel real. Most of the book also feels like a moral education lesson of sorts, which irritates me to no end. While Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief also highlights the power of humanity in tough times, the niceties of his characters are easy to relate to, and believable.

Next, the flashbacks. I always appreciate a little character background. In fact, I was happy to see the first two or so flashbacks, because it made Lina and her family’s capture by the Soviet more poignant. However, I was, again, irritated when I found out that the flashbacks weren’t linked at all to the main narrative. They were random, and not even provoked by something one of the characters said.

Now, the romance. Because it’s not stated in the blurb, I won’t tell you how the boy and girl met. However, I’m going to say that I didn’t find their romance that believable. It was more like (view spoiler). Call me a cynic.

Before I’m flamed by everyone who loved this novel, I have to get to the ending. Like this.

The End.

P.S. Well, that was exactly how I felt about the ending. All in all, it was quite a compelling and addictive read, because you just want to find out what’s going to happen to the whole cast of characters. I just expected more complexity and harshness in a novel marketed as YA war fiction. This felt more like a book for younger readers, and I’m afraid to say that even the supposedly most heartbreaking scenes couldn’t coax those tears out. If you do, read it for an insight into a non-mainstream part of world history. Also to pick up the Russian word for “faster”. You’ll see what I mean.

Bibliopanic: Why We Need Online Bookstores

Big bookstore chains, small independent bookshops, cramped up little secondhand bookstores with bad fluorescent lighting, they’re all testaments to our continuing love for the written word.

Enter online bookstores. It probably began with Amazon. I was too little to remember. It first occurred to me that it was possible to buy books online when I made a blogging acquaintance awhile back. I’ve found so many titles that bookstores here don’t carry, either because they’re ‘unpopular’ with local readers or because they’re outright banned. My early reading repertoire consisted of pop fiction with agonizingly similar storylines. I borrowed from my local library and occasionally bought books that I wanted to keep, e.g. the Harry Potter series, with each paperback copy costing a whopping $20.

As someone with not much choice when it comes to book-buying, I’m grateful for the existence of online book retailers. I know it’s detrimental to independent bookselling, and I’m afraid that bookstores will eventually shut. However, there have never been many good bookstores in my country, and the good ones sell their books at a premium. I would never have gotten my first black-spined Penguin Classics book without online bookstores. I would never have discovered so many writers with so many different things to say about the world without online bookstores.

If you, like me, live somewhere located far from the epicentres of literatures in English, i.e. Europe or America, you’ll also very likely face the problem of censorship (The Satanic Verses, anyone?). It can be downright frustrating to be hearing about great books online, but be unable to get your hands on them, because. Online bookstores are a way for us to get our hands on those books (thank goodness they haven’t resorted to parcel checks), and to open our minds up to alternative ways of thinking that have been suppressed by book-banning in our countries.


Online bookstores over this? No way.

However, I’ve heard horrible things about certain bookselling websites recently. It involves them making use of unethical means to keep their prices low, and that is why physical stores will never be able to keep up with their sales. It’s really giving me conflicting feelings about buying my books online, because I want to be able to afford books, and because there are some books that are really unavailable here, and it seems like a simple click and 3-4 weeks’ worth of wait are all it takes for a little paper friend to fall into my lap.

I think what we can do at the moment is to source for alternative bookselling websites. I’ve found Thriftbooks to be fantastic for secondhand books, though shipping can be a bit pricey if you’re situated outside America. Wordery is also a great choice, because it shipping is free and delivery is prompt. However, it does have its constraints in terms of pricing. Only major currencies are accepted as of now, and the conversion rate can be a pain. However, these are two alternatives you can look at if you’re located closer to the epicentres. I will continue my search in the meantime, and hopefully return with more good tidings!

Basically, online bookstores are a great thing – if they do it right. This is a loophole that, fortunately for us, hasn’t been discovered by the authorities. This is a platform for readers to reach out of their comfort zones, to look at things we’re not allowed to look at. After all, who said we must always believe what we read? Sometimes, just being aware is enough.

Review: The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

The Light Between OceansThe Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Confession: I picked this up because I saw the trailer for the movie adaptation (whoops).

I love books that involve few characters, because there’s just this voyeuristic side of me that’s interested in people’s motivations. Fortunately for me, Stedman sends her protagonists away from civilisation to the isolated Janus Rock (fictional), situated four hours away from land by boat. This is where our hero, Tom Sherbourne, functions as the keeper of a lighthouse. He basically keeps things in working order, and the novel constantly emphasises the nobility of his unusual career in helping seafarers get home to their families. His wife, Isabelle, is as understanding as a good wife of the 1930s gets. However, she is also bold and uninhibited, and she actually influences many, if not most, of the novel’s events. The love between them lies a little on the romantic side, but is still believable. Isabelle’s fiery and passionate nature balances Tom’s quiet caring and occasional aloofness.

The plot driver, however, is a baby that washes up on the shore of the remote island together with a dead man. In a moment of craziness / stupidity / sheer desperation, the couple decide to keep the child and raise it as their own, instead of reporting the incident to the authorities. Tom and Isabelle have to live with their (unethical?) decision, and just by following the narrative and wondering what would happen next really gives you a hint of the anxiety that must have haunted them after they’d made the fateful choice.

I loved the novel’s exploration of the human capacity for emotional suffering. You can almost feel the tension between the characters’ happiness and nagging discomfort that pursues them all the way to the narrative’s resolution. However, the language didn’t really captivate me. I found it a little too simplistic and lacklustre in some places. Instead, it was the dramatic tension and my investment in the characters that redeemed the book. I just wanted to know what was going to happen next, and found myself participating in judging each characters’ moral behaviour.

Of course, since this is a heavily plot-driven novel, I won’t tell you how it ends. But there’s quite a lot of crying going on throughout, and believe me, one of the participants might even be you.

Review: The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

The NamesakeThe Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This book is about a Bengali-American family trying to negotiate between the culture they came from and the one they’ve adopted. We start off with Ashima, a young woman from Calcutta who agrees to an arranged marriage to a Bengali scholar studying in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Fortunately, the marriage turns out well, and soon Ashima and Ashoke Ganguli are joined by a baby boy. Due to extenuating circumstances (which I won’t spoil), the desperate Ashoke names him Gogol, after the Russian writer. This name will form a huge part of Gogol’s identity, and the bulk of the narrative sees him growing up and navigating the world around him.

My Thoughts

I found Lahiri’s writing incredibly compelling and easy to follow. The narrative sucked me in, and though this is not a plot-driven novel, I couldn’t help reading on and on. It is a bildungsroman of sorts that revolves around the idea of naming. However, it is also about how traditional, conservative cultures clash with modern, liberal ideals, and how a close-knit family has to confront the ever-widening gulf between the old and the new.

Even though the story might not be terribly unique, Lahiri is amazing at conveying a lot through her characters’ actions. You can almost feel what they are feeling without being told what that feeling is, and this intuitive knowledge really makes you care for them despite the supremely normal lives they lead. At the end of the novel, maybe you’ll come to realise as I did, that every family has its own narrative, no matter how extraordinary it is.

P.S. Check out Mira Nair’s film adaptation too! I absolutely loved it.

Literary Milestones

Decided to do something fun and a little About Me-ish today because I’ve run out of blogging ideas. I’ve been reflecting on my reading journey a lot lately, so I thought I’d list down some of the books which have not just been good books, but which have played significant roles at certain points of my life.

Age 7/8: Enid Blyton short stories, Moby Books (you know those kid-sized B&W illustrated classics?). First loves. Titles include: Black BeautyRobin HoodThe Adventures of Tom SawyerThe Three MusketeersLittle Women, etc. Exposure to cruelty and death, as well as contrarian behaviour.

Age 9: The Hardy Boys  – a 2-in-1 edition from the library, possibly containing #3 The Secret of the Old Mill and #4 The Missing Chums. First full novel and page-turner.

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