Friday, January 14, 2011

Book Review: The Prophecy of the Sisters

Author: Michelle Zink
Genre: Historical/Fantasy
Length: 352 pages
Age Range: Young Adult
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: August 2009
My Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of 5

When I came across this title while I was browsing through Barnes and Noble and I became intrigued by the synopsis. A lot of other readers gave it good scores as well, so I picked up a copy for my Nook.

The Prophecy of the Sisters is the author's debut novel and the first book in the series of the same name. Set in 1890s New York, it tells the story of twin sisters Amalia [Lia] and Alice Milthorpe, orphaned at the beginning of the book. After the death of their father under mysterious circumstances, an equally strange mark appears on Lia's wrist. Readers are then introduced to the Prophecy, to which the destinies of the twin sisters are tied.

Here is an excerpt from the Barnes and Noble synopsis:
"...Lia, who bears the mark of the Jorgumand (a snake devouring itself) on her wrist, soon learns that she and her twin sister, Alice, are fated to play crucial opposing roles in a mystical struggle that goes back to the dawn of time; unfortunately neither girl is temperamentally suited to the role she has been assigned."
I liked the main premise of the story, being fascinated with prophecies and all. According to the author in this interview, the prophecy is based on "...a biblical legend about a legion of angels called the Watchers that were sent to watch over mankind. In the legend, the Watchers fell in love with mortal women and so were banished. After that, they weren’t called the Watchers anymore but the Lost Souls... With that in mind, I fast-forwarded the legend a couple thousand years and asked what would happen if the descendants of those original mortal women had to pay a price for their ancestor’s relationships with the angels..."

But as with any story, I rely on the characters to pull me in. I consider them the heart and soul of any good work of fiction. One of the things I liked most about the book was how the nature of the characters were slowly revealed. Lia for instance, narrates the story. She is portrayed here as a teenage girl, in love with a boy, but also struggling with other responsibilities as a typical girl would. I like that the author doesn't make her out to be overly naive, or the type who misses out on things that are right in front of her. She is bright and determined, but not overly so, as she also struggles with some self-doubt and fear.

Also, I absolutely loved how the author portrayed the other sister, Alice. The mystery surrounding her is revealed gradually with an element of darkness, making for your good old love-to-hate antagonist. You get this feeling of being in danger in the presence of Alice as though you are truly seeing through Lia's eyes. But it is still obvious in the story that Alice has her own inner conflicts that she is battling against, that she is not written in just to be the evil counterpart. She does bad things because that is her "real nature", but somehow her love for her sister makes her think twice. Or at least until the end of the first book. It's good that the author also explores the role the relationship between the sisters plays in the unfolding of the Prophecy.

I think it was the intention of the author to write in the first person perspective so that the reader would feel a deeper connection with Lia. However my problem is that although the story gets really good when exciting events occur, when it's boring it really gets dragging. I actually almost nodded off at one point. There were some parts that were too well-explained, and some parts that were explained only in passing. Some problems also felt too easily and conveniently solved. The ending though really got me to shed tears. The novel is effective in taking readers through Lia's emotional roller coaster but only near the end of the book.

For the most part, it felt like an extremely long teaser. But all in all, it isn't a bad debut novel. The idea is good, sustained by developing characters. It's interesting enough for me to consider picking up the second book just to see what happens next.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Wanderlust: The Last Days in Vietnam

December 29-30, 2010-- Ho Chi Minh

The city Ho Chi Minh is named after one of the most iconic figures in Vietnamese history. In fact many Vietnamese people worship Ho Chi Minh, giving him god-like stature.

Ho Chi Minh was born Nguyễn Sinh Cung on May 19, 1890, but is more well-known as Nguyễn Ái Quốc (In Chinese that translates to "Lover of Country"). During his lifetime, he employed more than 30 aliases while he worked and studied all over the world. After the last president Bao Dai (in my previous post) was ousted, a lot of political chaos ensued before Ho Chi Minh finally became the Chairman of the Communist Party in 1951. At the time, Vietnam was torn into a North side and a South side. In an effort to unite the two sides, Ho Chi Minh established the Democratic Republic Vietnam where he became the Prime Minister in 1946.

One of the things I like most about him was that he liked playing volleyball, which is also the sport I love playing most. He died on September 3, 1969 while assisting his countrymen in the Vietnam War. By this time, he had lost power as Prime Minister but remained a strong figurehead. When Saigon was recaptured after the war on 1975, they renamed it after him. Obviously such an influential figurehead would have a Museum exhibiting his life and his revolutionary work, and it wouldn't be right for a visitor to pass by Vietnam without visiting a Ho Chi Minh Museum. There are museums scattered all over the country, where children can come for educational trips, and visitors may learn more about Ho Chi Minh.

Ho Chi Minh is mostly known for its colonial architecture and pagodas.

One of the most famous landmarks is that of the Reunification Palace (so named after North and South Vietnam reached a truce). Before, it was called the Independence Palace, where the president of South Vietnam worked and lived during the Vietnam War. The whole lot is 12 hectares big, and the palace facade itself is 80 meters wide. There are many spacious sitting rooms, conference and meeting rooms, and even a very retro-looking gambling room. The Palace is said to have more than a hundred rooms. The main stairs itself is sealed off from the use of visitors, as it was restored after it was bombed in warfare. The Palace also has an underground war room and bomb shelter, where the family of the President would run to hide in in case of an attack. On the ground floor, in the hallway across the kitchen and past one of the courtyard doors, a father-daughter team set up shop selling locally made traditional musical instruments. The instruments themselves are interesting to play, and with proper practice, the music produced is rather pleasing to the ears.

Vietnam also has its own version of the Notre Dame Cathedral. It was established by the French colonists around the 1860s. It has two bell towers reaching a height of 190 feet. All the materials used to build the Cathedral was imported from France.  The reddish bricks are from Marseille. The Cathedral was built to showcase the magnificence of Catholicism and French civilization among the people of Vietnam. Vietnam currently has the fifth largest Catholic population in Asia.

Interestingly, in 2005, the statue of the Virgin Mary was reported to have shed tears, running down the right cheek of the statue's face. Thousands of people flocked to the area to see the phenomenon. However, the top clergy of the Catholic Church in Vietnam dismissed the matter and stated that the Virgin Mary in fact did not really shed tears. For several days after that announcement, many people still went to the area to see the statue, often causing heavy traffic around the Cathedra, as the people were too many for traffic enforcers to handle.

The Cathedral is located downtown, right across the Saigon Central Post Office.

Aside from being a place to mail letters, the post office is also home to a souvenir shop which sells stamps and fridge magnets of Vietnamese landmarks and traditional outfits. There are two sets of stamps being sold inside, one older (I forget the range of the years), and one with stamps that have been more recently produced. The stamps sold are interesting and colorful in that they have drawings of the many different ethnic groups and minorities that live in Vietnam. They come in a book with plastic panels where the stamp is kept covered and flat, for the benefit of stamp-collectors and fans.

Here are some of the other places we visited in Ho Chi Minh:
When we visited the War Remnants Museum, I caught a glimpse of the ugliest effects of war that fell upon a generation of Vietnamese people that had nothing to do with it. The special photography exhibit in the museum at the time of our visit was about the effects of the US Army's Agent Orange dioxin to the descendants, not only of the Vietnamese soldiers, but for the American soldiers in the Vietnam War as well. There were so many haunting and horrible photos of disfigured children that make you stop and wonder why there needs to be war and cruelty! The things people come up with to harm others can only end in tragedy for all parties. But I'll save my thoughts on that for another post before this one gets too long.

To end this post are some interesting food finds in Ho Chi Minh:

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Wanderlust: Vietnam Day 4

December 28, 2010-- Da Lat to Ho Chi Minh

Driving back to Ho Chi Minh will take 8 hours by car, or in our case, by bus, so we spent most of our time in transport. When we got there it was nighttime already. However, we did stop by some places to stretch our legs and look around.

Ahead of leaving Da Lat, don't forget to get a taste of the Vietnamese green apples. I munched on these for a couple of days during breakfast and they are as sweet as they are tiny! It's one of the things I'm actually missing now that I'm back home.

Before exiting Da Lat proper, we stopped by the Prenn Mountain Pass, which boasts the Prenn Waterfalls of Da Lat. If you've been to visit other waterfalls (ie. Yosemite Falls, Niagara Falls), this one is a far cry interms of being spectacular, as it is a relatively low waterfall. However the misty air near the falls is nice, especially when you stand on the bridge behind the waterfalls. There are a few things to do around the area, like archery or elephant and ostrich riding.

An hour before lunch time, we arrived at the Tam Chau Tea and Coffee Company. One of the major products of Da Lat are tea and coffee, and you can see many people here letting coffee beans dry under the sun outside their houses. Vietnam in general is known for their coffee, and the Tam Chau company is one of the biggest importers and makers of tea and coffee in the country.

The store itself is very spacious and impressive, with a restaurant at the back where we had lunch later on. Aside from their famous Atiso Artichoke Tea, they also sell different types of peanut brittle, candied strawberries, mulberries and tamarind. They also have the dried vegetable chips similar to the one I photographed from Vietnam Day 1, although here, the products are noticeably fresher as it is closer to the source. In comparison, the products found in the markets of Ho Chi Minh City have traveled from one of these factories and have been stored possibly for days before reaching end consumers.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Wanderlust: Vietnam Day 3

December 27, 2010-- Da Lat City

The 13th and final king of Vietnam's Nguyen Dynasty was a man named Bảo Đại (born Nguyen Phúc Vĩnh Thụy) and we went to his Summer Palace early in the morning. Much of the interior and furniture were preserved, and efforts have been made to beautify and further maintain the exterior of the Palace. We were given a glimpse of the lifestyle of the Vietnamese ruler. We were able to observe as well some of the practices of the Vietnamese royal families, like how the children dined in a back room separate from the King and Queen, as only the crown prince, the eldest son, was permitted to dine with the parents.

Photo from VietFun
King Bao Dai ruled from 1926-1945. He was born on 22 October 1913 and died on 30 July 1997 in a military hospital in Paris, where he was living with his last wife who was French. His first wife, Marie-Thérèse Nguyễn (given the title of Empress in 1945), was said to be the most beautiful woman of Indochina during her time. He had five children with her, but he also had children with his girlfriends and his other wives. He married three other women while he was married to his first one as opposed to previous kings who married more, but he did have many other girlfriends. After the death of his first wife, he went to France and married Monique Baudot.

The summer palace was actually built for him as a gift from the French, which is why many people accused him of sympathizing with the French too much. He was ousted from position in 1955. Bao Dai spent most of his childhood studying in France. When he eventually ascended to the throne, many people perceived him to be a "puppet king" for the French.

Inside the palace there is a room that allows guests to pay to dress up in traditional costumes of Vietnamese emperors and empresses. Be careful though as the photographers here snap a lot of photos and you might end up paying for more than you intended. Then again, if you do want to have a lot of photos taken and buy everything, have someone who can speak Vietnamese help you bring down the price.

True to the Asian love for myths and legends, the Tuyen Lam Lake has many stories surrounding it, most ending in tragedy with the heroine dying for her true love. Riding a small deafening motored boat across the Tuyen Lam Lake, we visited the silent Tuyen Lam Forest. They say the sound of the forest is similar to that of the sighing man. The forest is known among birdwatchers and has many hidden trails and pathways. However you can opt to ride the elephant, which will take you on a tour around the forest. I personally didn't ride the elephant because it looked sad. Haha!

After the boat-ride back, the next location we went to was Love Lake, but first we passed by the Truc Lam Temple and its pagodas. If you've been to Japan or China, the pagodas in the temple are small compared to the majestic ones in those countries, but their designs are lovely nonetheless. The temple has many of the city's lovely flowers, and following a path to the back will lead you to a view of the Love Lake. You have to option of going down to get a closer view of the lake, or you can spin back around to the entrance where you can purchase some accessories, dried vegetable and fruit chips, or ice cream!

The last place we visited was the Da Lat Flower Park. As I mentioned, Da Lat is known as the "City of Flowers" so it makes sense that they have quite a few Flower Parks in the city. This particular one houses about 300 different kinds of flowers, from the exotic to the native. All the flowers are labeled by their common and scientific names.

Some extra notes:
The chicken curry from the Sammy Hotel's Sunrise Restaurant was one of my favorite dishes during our stay in Da Lat. The Vietnamese have a habit of dipping their crunchy French bread into curry dishes and they are absolutely scrumptious!

The Da Lat night market is located in the Hoa Binh Zone, in the area around Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street, Le Dai Hanh Street and Tang Bat Ho Street, within walking distance of many restaurants. (Source)

Wanderlust: Vietnam Day 2

December 26, 2010-- Da Lat City

I might have employed four different sleeping positions during the ride to Da Lat. This is the first time I slept in a bus overnight, having had spent nights in a plane (where there's really no other choice but to recline your seat), and a train (where I had a bed). Having two empty bus seats to yourself can really test your flexibility creativity.

Photo from WikiTravel
We left Ho Chi Minh at 10PM and arrived at around half past 5 local time (GMT +7 because Vietnam is operating on Daylight Savings Time). It was soooo cold my teeth started chattering on its own. I would guess it was about 15 degrees at the time, a vast drop in temperature from Ho Chi Minh's 30 degrees.

Da literally translates to "stream" while Lat is the name of the minority group that settled around the area. So Da Lat actually means "stream of the Lat people".

They call Da Lat "The City of Flowers" because a lot of different and rare flowers bloom here, mainly due to the weather. But it is also "the City With Four Seasons In A Day": Mid to late morning is said to be springtime, while lunchtime to the early afternoon is summer. As soon as it hits 4PM to 6PM, autumn arrives (my favorite season!). Evening to early morning would then be wintertime. Da Lat also prides itself in being "Le Petit Paris", even erecting a smaller Eiffel Tower in the small town. In the past, the French and Vietnamese Heads of State would come to the city to escape the heat of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh) and to vacation or relax.

We stayed at the Mai Vang Hotel (3 stars). The thing about picking hotels for me is that, it doesn't have to be a five-star hotel, but it can't be anything close to the nightmarish Travelodge Motels (had the misfortune of staying in one during a trip to the US). As long as the room and the bed is clean to sleep in, and the bathroom is clean with water heaters, it's okay with me. Fortunately, the WiFi is actually quite fast in the hotel, and is inclusive in the room fees unlike in some five-star hotels I've stayed in.

After breakfast and freshening up, our first stop was at Đồi Mộng Mơ (Hills of Dreams), a popular tourist spot in Da Lat. There are quite a few flower and bonsai arrangements all over the area, as well as some relics, statues and a wishing tree. In one of the old houses there is a table that is said to spin left or right by sheer mind-power.

Across the street is the Su Quan Historical Village, which houses a lot of magnificent needleworks by XQ Embroidery. They look like paintings and are extremely expensive intricate, each taking at least two months to finish. Photos aren't allowed in the showroom. In the backyard of the Historical Village is a quaint little cafe-restaurant where they serve fried sweet potatoes, mushrooms and tea (all must-try's).

After having lunch, we headed over to the Domain de-Marie Church.

The Church was built through the generosity of Suzanne Humbert, wife of the French governor-general from 1940-1945. This was her favorite place of worship and so when she passed away in 1944 from a car accident, she was buried in the Church grounds in accordance with her will. The Church is now home to French-speaking nuns. At the side of the church is a small store that sells handmade sweaters, bonnets, trenchcoats and scarves, which are made by the nuns themselves, and are quite lovely and cheap. There are also dried foods and crackers being sold. Proceeds from purchases benefit the nuns.

Da Lat is a small city. You can get to one place from another in less than 20 minutes by car.

We drove to Da Lat's Highlands, specifically to Lang Biang Mountain, to get a better view of the city. You can either hike up to the top of the mountain, or hire a Russian jeep-driving man to take you there in less time. The view is fantastic and peaceful, as the sunlight makes the city's famous Golden Stream Lake sparkle and mirror-like. They also sell some rabbit, crocodile and snake meat up top if you're feeling gastronomically adventurous.

Having a taste of the Golden Stream Lake's magnificence from afar wasn't enough, so we drove over to see it up close. The grasslands, pine trees and gardens surrounding the lake was so picturesque it was hard not to want to just sit down with a good book and the breeze blowing over your head. Golden Stream Lake is situated in the Golden Valley, and consists of two smaller lakes (Dankia and Ankroet). Walking around with the grass on your feet and the wind caressing your face, it is very difficult not to fall in love with the serenity and beauty of this place.