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.