On Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic & Baby

Shopaholic & Baby

Yet another fellow senior from my good old university that I am proud of (erm … somewhere in Oxford, UK), I swear I might have met Sophie Kinsella or rather Madeleine Wickham back in my college days. Make no guess of how old I am please. Onto her fifth installment of the shopaholic series, this time round, our all-too-famous Becky Brandon is back … with a baby. To be honest, I am more interested in the success formula of Sophie Kinsella rather than the book itself.

Sophie Kinsella must have been one of the most consistent writers I have come to know and such an achievement is not at all easy to attain.  I have started with her Undomestic Goddess and now onto 5 of her shopaholic series. Every single book is as entertaining as ever making me laugh-out-loud unfailingly – something that I don’t usually do unless the book is really funny. I make a note that I shall read Can You Keep a Secret? next – a book that is sitting in my bookshelf somewhere. And I am certainly looking forward to her yet-to-be-released-novel Remember Me?

On average, each chapter is about 10 to 30 pages long  and each chapter may have 2 to 3 sub-sections. Each section is engaging on its own – however sequential it is. Sophie Kinsella creates her main character (always a female so far) not without flaw, but yet commands her readers to fall in love with that character. That, is art. If I could do what Liz Phair did to a song-by-song reply to the Rolling Stones’ 1972 album Exile on Main Street, I would write a series of books with titles as follows (okay, private joke between the shopaholic fans and me):

  • The Secret Binary World of a Geek
  • Geek at Silicon Valley
  • Geek found a Soul-mate (who is into Tetris)
  • Geek and his Long Lost Brother
  • Geek and his Techno-baby

On a serious note, “Shopholic & Baby” is certainly a good read. On surface, it is the typical Becky loves shopping, Becky encounters a problem that cannot be surmounted, and Becky comes out to be the hero once again. Deep inside (OK, you can’t go that deep for a chick-lit), “Shopholic & Baby” is not too much into shopping but more into her love relationship. For those who have complained that there isn’t enough character development for Becky’s husband Brandon, rest assure that in Sophie’s latest installment, there is more into that.

Overall, I enjoy reading “Shopholic & Baby” immensely. Certainly a light read for one of my trips to the SeaWorld and the Taman Safari. If you despise any of her previous work on the shopaholic series, you probably won’t like this one either. I do recommend reading from the beginning of the series because the storyline will make more sense to you.

Are her books memorable? Probably not. Do her books entertain? A million yes.

Related Entries: Remember Me By Sophie Kinsella – A Calculated Risk That May Or May Not Work For Some, Can You Keep A Secret?, and Undomestic Goddess – A Good Read

Scarlett Thomas’s PopCo – What A Mess?! (But I Do Know Better About Girls Now)

PopCo by Scarlet ThomasI think “The End of Mr. Y” (2007) is a classic. “PopCo” (2005) is not. Some may argue that plots do not necessarily require closure, protagonists do not necessarily be likeable.  Having read “PopCo”, I can certainly see “The End of Mr. Y” a much improved version of “PopCo”. Even the writing style is much better in her latest novel. The similarity is haunting between the two. They both full of big intriguing ideas, split storyline, groups of people from different disciplines, and tons of puzzles.

“PopCo”, like “The End of Mr. Y”, is split into two stories running in parallel – Alice’s present and her younger days living with her grandparents.  The one puzzle that strings the two stories is a necklace given by her grandpa that contains a code that leads to some ancient pirate treasure. The big ideas circle around Cryptology, marketing, and anti-consumerism that, to me, are pretty dry topics to read. “PopCo” started right giving the readers hands-on education on how to apply codes to encrypt messages. It is without doubt a fun read trying to break the codes together with Alice. The corporate retreat, that turns out to be one long brainstorming seminar in creating an ultimate toy for teen girls, dominates the majority of the literature. If I was the editor, I would have trimmed that a fair bit and I would create a more satisfying closure. I personally love to read Alice’s childhood story. Unfortunately, that too ends too abruptly. The final breaking of the ultimate code has totally gone past me – or perhaps I read a bit too fast towards the end. So much for reading a puzzle book.

One interesting takeaway though is my deeper understanding on the teen girls. It was not at all obvious to me.  Some of the highlights are as follows.  Perhaps some of you can verify for me?

  • Teen girls value motherhood a great deal. Many of their fantasies are connected to caring and responsibility (think soft toys).
  • With regards to friendship, there is a need to care far more than a need to be cared for. A typical sentiment would be: I want to be there for my friends when they need me.
  • Teen girls are non-competitive as a rule. In terms of priorities, girls from all cultures place friendship above all else.
  • The word “sharing” is very important for girls. The word “winning” is hardly important.
  • Of course girls do compete.  But they never admit that they are engaged in competition. Girls try to refine their identities to further their more general aims: to have important social relationships and find a “perfect man”.
  • Communication is of vast importance to teen girls. 79% of MSN Messenger users are girls. Closeness and telling secrets are important.
  • SMS text messaging is the most popular way for the teen girls to keep in touch. Communicating using text in this way reinforces the need girls have to exchange messages perceived as ‘secret’.

The Witch Of Portobello – It’s Still A Paulo Coelho Fiction

If you are new to Paulo Coelho – a Brazilian writer who has sold more than 85 millions books worldwide in 63 languages – I would certainly recommend “The Alchemist” and the trilogy “By the River Piedra I sat Down and Wept”, “Veronika Decides to Die”, and “The Devil and Miss Prym”. I think those are classic especially “The Alchemist”. The trilogy has a similar theme and is the most emotional piece of work involving the love of two people. There after, I would recommend “The Valkyries” – yet another classic that reminds me of “The Alchemist” – and “Eleven Minutes”, one of his best selling novels. If you are a Christian or you are open to an old story from the Bible, “The Fifth Mountain” is a great read. In there, Paulo Coelho has brought the story of Elijah alive. There are other works by Paulo Coelho that I have also read but I am not going to list them here for now.

“The Witch Of Portobello” is an interesting piece of work. Right from the beginning of the story, the protagonist Athena who was adopted by the wealthy Lebanese Christians and later migrated to the Western world was dead. And the remaining story attempts to reconstruct Athena’s life through the stories told by the people around her. This includes Athena’s mother, her teacher, her student, a journalist who was obsessed with Athena and researching on the topic of Vampirism (as an afterthought, I think this journalist is Paulo Coelho himself as he did write a less famous book called “Practical Manual of Vampirism”), and more. It is interesting because when you stitch up the versions of the story from different people, you see different facets of that subject. However, if you trim away all the emotional elements, the core of the story remains unchanged: it is an account of Athena’s journey into learning the various aspects of life, finally saw her special ability manifest, and how she surrendered herself to the Goddess and became a controversial spiritual leader in London. And of course, from the storytelling point of view, the question remains: how did Athena die?

The entire journey of Athena, in my opinion, is loosely based upon Jung’s four stages of individual progression: Persona, Shadow, Soul, and Wise Old Man or Great Mother (note: this is mentioned in the book from the perspective of a historian). Persona is the mask we use everyday, a self-centered view of the world around us. There comes the Shadow stage when we attempt to free ourselves from our Persona and start to look inwards. We may realize our weaknesses, our dark side, and some of us may regress back to the Persona stage. After realizing what we are lack of, we are open to the knowledge around us – the Soul stage. We improve ourselves despite the fact that we may not be unaccustomed to what we learn. Some of us may be able to channel all these knowledge into a solid center and become the Wise Old Men or Great Mothers – saints, tamers of spirit, or prophets. This four stages of individual progression is what Athena’s journey about.

I do enjoy reading “The Witch Of Portobello” and I read from his blog sites that many readers find the book inspiring and life-changing. As shown in the quote below, Paulo Coelho does not teach us directly via his books and he learns from his students (by the way, one of the popular theme of his books is to explore the feminine side of divinity). You can check out his “The Experiment Witch” project. I still recommend you all to read “The Witch Of Portobello”, perhaps after you have read some of his greater books if you have not already done so.

The witch of portobello knows all. But the best way of knowing the meaning of life is by learning from one’s student. A teacher can only make us aware of our capabilities but finding the right path is up to the student. There are many ways to achieve happiness by being close to the Mother.

Related Site: Paulo Coelho’s Blog Site

Scarlett Thomas’s The End Of Mr. Y – A Sci-fi Real Life Journey You Won’t Forget

At first, I was curious about the marketing tag line: If you knew this book was cursed, would you read it? That was the exact choice the main character Ariel has to make when she came across a rare book “The End of Mr. Y” by Thomas E. Lumas. Inside the story by Lumas – more like a story within a story (Lumas) within a story (Lumas’s character Mr. Y) – his character has found a way to step into Troposphere, an alternative dimension where one can travel through time and space and enter into people’s mind. Why is the book cursed you may ask? In the beginning of the story, we are told that Mr. Y did not live long (hence “the end”), the author Lumas died right after the book was published and so were all the major people involved in the book publishing activities. Now this rare book fell onto the hand of Ariel and you will have to find out what happened to her by reading the book.

“The End of Mr. Y” is a great book in many dimensions. The writing style is intelligent with concluding sentences at times unexpectedly displace you from your normal train of thoughts. The excerpt of “The End of Mr. Y” – the rare book that Ariel found – is written with a different writing style and truly reads like a book within a book. The real life portion of Ariel as a poor (and a highly intelligent) PHD student troubled with real life circumstances and too much bad sex draws readers into the emotional world of the character. The intellectual conversations between the characters of different disciplines awed me a great deal. The topic ranges from literature to evolution to theology to physics to philosophy and more. Scarlett Thomas has certainly done a great deal of research on parallel world and big bang amongst many other topics during the authoring of “The End of Mr. Y”. And then, there is the sci-fi portion where Scarlett Thomas’s imagination knows no bound. It is because all these imagination worlds are constructed based on well-known scientific theories, they read convincing enough to me. Within the book, some philosophical questions are being explored (such as “Is consciousness some forms of matter?” or “Are human beings being created or evolved from plants or evolved from something created by God?”) and although none are answered, different opinions are offered via different characters.

Is “The End of Mr. Y” an original piece of work? Does it not read like “Alice in Wonderland” (the artwork on the cover of the book has perhaps summarized the theme nicely by the way)? From a main theme point of view, perhaps just a little bit. The center character Ariel does read like Colene from Piers Anthony’s Mode series (e.g. a sci-fi fiction “Virtual Mode” [1991]). Colene was self-destructive in real life who was able to step into another dimension solving quests and puzzles while she was inside the “Mode”. Ariel has a somewhat similar character who was able to step into the Troposphere and solved some bizarre quests. While Ariel is inside the Troposphere, some scenes read like the movie “The Matrix” – the train station, the agents, and etc. Some of the literature on explaining the deep content can be a bit dry (read like some of the Paulo Coelho books trying to explain a certain idea via the narration of a few people and at times read like one person talking to himself). The way that the author attempts to involve the readers into the story? Certainly reminds me of my favorite Italian writer Italo Calvino’s “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler” (1979). But by and large, Scarlett Thomas has done a superb job in helping the readers attempt to understand difficult and unfamiliar contents. Parts of the book may not be entirely original. But to sum them up into one single volume is original enough to me.

I am not going to divulge what the ending is like but trust me, when you read that last chapter, it will hit you like a nail to the head. And then when I re-read the book from the beginning (just a bit), it suddenly hit me …

You now have one choice.

You … I’m hanging out of the window of my office, sneaking a cigarette and trying to read Margins in the dull winter light, when there’s a noise I haven’t heard before. All right, the noise – crash, bang, etc. – I probably have heard before, but it’s coming from underneath me, which isn’t right.

The very first sentence, that appears numerous times inside the book, makes me wonder. Am I already inside the Troposphere? Just Brilliance.

When trying to persuade Cynthia to give a try on “The End Of Mr. Y”, her immediate response was: is it a happy ending? (Erm …) Then got me thinking. Another brilliant thing about the book is that … it follows the general philosophy of Quantum Physics even till the end. You will see what I mean when you get there in terms of feel.

I will probably add Scarlett Thomas to my list of authors whom I will attempt to read every single title. I will probably publish that list shortly. Meanwhile, do give this young British writer a try (she was named as one of the twenty best young British writers back in 2001).

Scott Phillips’s Debut “The Ice Harvest” – A Decent Noir Fiction

I am not surprised that “The Ice Harvest” (written in 2000) was made into a film back in 2005. It has all the basic elements of a blockbuster – blood, money, and sex. One day I wandered into Cold Storage while killing time and at the book section, I picked up the hardcover version of “The Ice Harvest” selling at a discounted price of S$8. The novel looks short (about 60,000 words I reckon), which is just what I needed. I was intrigued by the excerpt of the story and the book comes with the marketing statement: “You’ll love it as much as Fargo … or your money back”. I don’t think contacting Marian Hursey on 01256 302 900 will get my S$8 back but such a level reassurance got me curious. I have not read the book “Fargo” yet (supposed to be one of the classic story of murder and mayhem). Perhaps one day, perhaps never.

Set in Wichita, Kansas on Christmas Even 1979, this merely 200 pages fiction takes the readers for a 24-hours journey of Charlie Arglist’s life in the form of black comedy. I especially enjoy how the author describes the surroundings and the people in details and then introduces the names mainly through conversations. Somehow it is more memorable that way. Nothing is in excess in “The Ice Harvest” and there are enough short events to keep me interested from the first page to the last. Some of the story development actually surprised me. Just enough amount of mystery is planted as the story unfolds that keeps the story engaging all the way till the end. I wish I could say more than just “blood, money, and sex” (note: if you don’t enjoy noir fictions, this book is not for you) but part of the fun of reading this book is to be surprised (like I did) so I better wrap up this blog right now.

I thoroughly enjoy reading “The Ice Harvest” and am now a new fan of Scott Phillips. Time to hit the library to borrow more of his books!