The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How it Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World


Synopsis: During London 1854, in an era predating common knowledge of microbes and germs, a cholera outbreak ravaged the city and left hundreds dead within a matter of days. Amidst the competing quack theories and medieval treatment methods that arose, an anesthesiologist by the name of John Snow sets out to prove the causal connection between the contaminated water source and the spread disease.

Review: Initially drawn to the book in part due to my penchant for the morbid, I had expected the book to be laden with gruesome descriptions. I will borrow word to which the author used to describe John Snow–consiliency. A major point of emphasis to solving the outbreak was Snow’s multitude of talents and his interdisciplinary approach of science and statistics, along with a local curate named Henry Whitehead who knew the city and its people intimately. Similarly, as if to echo Snow’s approach, the author documents the case from several perspectives: setting up the squalid living conditions and infrastructure, painting the portrait of the everyday average denizen from the night-soilers to the local tailor, describing the systematic process of how vibrio cholerae invades and depletes the human body, to the competing scientific paradigms as ideologies and classes pitting against each other, and construction of the eponymous “Ghost Map” which drew corollaries between the location of deaths and water pumps with a Voroni Diagram.

The parts which I found particularly fascinating was the scientific approach and thought process one ought to undertake the solve the issue: how does one connect observations with the conclusion/result? It is often easy (and convenient) to erroneously attribute cause and the result, for scientists in who subscribe to different paradigms tend to look for what their paradigm instructs. For example, the miasma theory — the idea that it was the noxious effluvia causing the ailment — an examiner who had been sent to investigate the Soho District only had looked at air conditions like temperature, pressure, etc. without insomuch as regarding examining the water quality. Consequently, since the report only contained evidence deemed relevant by the examiner, it concluded the miasma-causing disease assertions were correct. Could this thought process be applied to Snow as well, who believed in the waterborne theory? For when he interviewed residents, he inquired the source of water they consumed? Perhaps what made the discting stood out was the discussion of how Snow investigated outliers to determine why there were outliers.

If there’s one thing I admired, it was Snow’s diligent and meticulous tenacity to persevere to continue investigating and traveling to the centre of the outbreak itself in full peak in person to interview people, even if he was ridiculed for going against the common belief of the time. Another reviewer which he aptly put, “Snow was a badass.” Yes, yes he was. He developed usage of applying ether and choloroform as an anaethesia ground-up when surgeons where still hacking away limbs with only using opium/brandy as sedatives. Because he worked with gases, he knew basically the “bad air” theory was bullcrap and had observed something was going on in the small intestine, which he then conjectured that it was probably due to something people ingested, not inhaled.

ALSO I TOTALLY SHIP WHITEHEAD AND SNOW BC THEIR UNLIKELY FRIENDSHIP LIKE THE UNEXPECTED PLOT TWIST WAS MY FAV PART OF HOW THEY BONDED DESPITE WHITEHEAD NOT BELIEVING HIM INITIALLY BUT EVENTUALLY THEY COMPARED NOTES AND SOLVED IT TOGETHER DUDE LIKE WHITEHEAD KEPT A PORTRAIT OF SNOW SEVERAL DECADES AFTER HIS DEATH TO REMIND HIM OF HIS QUIET DEMEANOUR SERIOUSLY THOUGH HOW ADORABLE IS THAT

One major drawback of the book was the lack of diagrams illustrating the flow of water routes, streets, and overall infrastructure of the city. Considering how crucial understanding the inner working to the issue, the passages describing these complex networks and routes gets hard to follow. The conclusion of the book is mostly spent on describing recent phenomena of urban development, and improvements since then, which wasn’t nearly as interesting. I liked how the point was made that the cholera outbreak was the culmination of the decrepit living conditions that had allowed to fester, as it was a symptom of a the greater need to reform the entire sewage/water system, thus forcing city governments to play a more active/direct involvement in urban development.
Despite the author’s attempts to touch on many topics, I would recommend this book primarily for readers who are interested in urban geography and development, and for those who are interested in a landmark case study in statistical applications, and epidemology.

Crown of Midnight by Sarah J. Maas

crown of midnightI had my reservations after reading the first book of the series, Throne of Glass. Though enjoyable, some of the characterizations were mediocre, the narrative uneven, and the world, lore and magic vague, lacklustre, and underdeveloped. I sincerely hoped that Sarah J. Maas would find her footing and take the Throne of Glass seriesa fantasy with potential to have unique and interesting ideas and narratives, and make it better. With Crown of Midnight, Maas fulfilled that wish, took everything that Throne of Glass did (and didn’t do well at), and made it better and more – in every way.

The biggest (and most important) difference between Crown of Midnight and its predecessor is its scope and depth in story. Whilst Throne of Glass centres on a battle of strength and wit between a band of assassins (most of which were forgettable anyway), Crown of Midnight is filled with battles for power, between characters and values, has complex character development (especially our protagonist, Celeana), the intricate world lore that I – and probably many others – were waiting for, and a meaningful contribution to the series’s wider story.

No more petty girl-on-girl dramas, no more predictable villains and silly infatuations, Crown of Midnight is a book that is filled with mystery, the machinations of war and conspiracy, friendship and responsibility, betrayal and loyalty, rebellion and oppression, and insane, wonderful magic.

And the characters! Though I was still a bit disappointed with Chaol and Dorian’s characterizations (though they are improvements from the first book), that disappointment is curtailed by two outstanding characters in the book that outshine everything else: Celeana herself, and Nehemia. Both are incredible female characters who are fleshed and developed, complex, and show both strengths and weaknesses that are not influenced by tropes. More so, the strong female friendship between them was beautiful and well-written – and let’s be real, how many memorable female friendships are there out there? (Not a lot, unfortunately.) I felt more emotionally connected to Celeana and Nehemia’s friendship than the romances we have read in this series thus far. Maas shows that female friendships can be just as powerful, as enduring, as profound, and as important as heteronormative romances.

Maas developed Celeana to be a memorable character, especially in a landscape of forgettable YA heroines. Celeana grows in this book; she faces tribulations that test her abilities as an assassin, and also her character, will, and spirit. And though she may be flawed through and through (she’s a coward, she’s volatile, she’s aggressive), it is her flaws that allow her to grow, learn, and change. Celeana is the sort of female character that I love reading about – one that isn’t perfect or the superficial ‘strong female character’ ideal, but a character we can empathize with, grows and learns from her mistakes, and shows the many dimensions of being human and growing up.

And through Celeana’s journey, I am beginning to get an inkling of what this series may ultimately be about: a character whose disposition and profession makes her an unlikely and reluctant heroine, who must rise above her fears and weaknesses to become the saviour and warrior that she was born to be. With Crown of Midnight, she makes sacrifices, she loses so much and gains little, but all of this brings her closer to her destiny and perhaps save the things that she loves most.

Crown of Midnight is a worthy addition to the Throne of Glass series. With what we read in this book, I anticipate bigger, crazier, and more dangerous things to come for Celeana and her allies – and I’m excited. I can’t imagine, and I can’t wait, to see what Heir of Fire brings, and I have a really good feeling about it.

Rating: 4/5

Book Information
Book Name: Crown of Midnight
Book Series: Throne of Glass #2
Author: Sarah J. Maas
Publisher: Bloomsbury

Saga, Volume 1 by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples

saga 1Now this is the sort of graphic novel that everyone should read, regardless of whether they like graphic novels or not. The writing is witty and sweet, the art beautiful, the characters awesome and nuanced, and it is about love, loyalty, family, violence, morality, and war.

Illustrated by Fiona Staples and written by Brian Vaughan, Saga, Volume 1 is a strong start to, what I am certain will be, a fantastic series. Following star-crossed parents who belong on opposite sides of a galactic, bloody war, Saga Volume 1 follows their child’s birth and their ambitious escape. Saga is full of magic, strange creatures, and a world that’s truly imaginative – unlike anything I have seen before. Saga will push the boundaries of your imagination, and will feature creatures and beings that you never would have dreamed of.

Something that I loved immediately was its treatment of female characters. I think it is safe to say that there are many graphic novels and comics that portray women as voluptuous, high-heel wearing women with massive breasts that look like they’re almost going to pop out. Not hating on women who fit that description, but sexualisation and objectification is rampant in visual mediums. Saga is a breath of fresh air; all the female characters in this novel are written with a level of depth and humanness, rather than loose adaptations of stereotypes and cliches. From the main character Alana, to the half-spider, half-woman Freelancer (or assassin), known as The Stalk, every female character is interesting and give meaning to the word ‘kickass’.

But let’s also talk about how Saga has one of the most diverse cast of characters I’ve ever read about. Sometimes authors include non-white characters to make a show that they are inclusive and are okay with including non-white characters. However, Saga‘s inclusion of a diverse array of characters – different skin tones, different races, different species – is so integral in its storytelling and world that it wouldn’t be the same story if there was no diversity. It is truly wonderful to finally see something that contains a diverse cast of characters – all that are interesting and developed too!

To finish my fangirling, Saga is wonderful. It is awesome. There is never a boring page. I think it is a game-changing sort of story, and more people need to read it and see the depth and awe-inspiring story that is Saga. Vaughan is an excellent storyteller, and if you ever pick up Saga  – and you should! – it’ll hook you in, and you’ll never look back.

Rating: 4.5/5

Book Information
Book Name: Saga, Volume 1
Book Series: Saga #1
Author: Brian K. Vaughan (writer), Fiona Staples (artist)
Publisher: Image Comics


(Book triggers: graphic violence, graphic sex)

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

(Trigger warning: suicide, death)

13 reasonsFrom the very first chapter, I started asking myself how I would write this review. Should I withhold my thoughts? This book is about suicide, and thus treads on very sensitive and emotional ground. Suicide is complex, and often difficult to discuss. Because of this, I feel the need to make a few disclaimers before I talk about how I felt about Thirteen Reasons Why. 

1. I take suicide very seriously — as everyone should.

2. I know, and have known, people who have contemplated, seriously considered, almost committed, tried to and did not succeed, and committed suicide. I am aware of the effects of suicide on all parties involved.

3. I understand that suicide, its symptoms, and its comorbidities may manifest differentially in different individuals, and will be affected by the individual’s varying personal, social, cultural, racial, etc. lived experiences. Therefore, I understand that suicide is not only a personal issue, but is very much a societal issue.

Given all of the above, here are my feelings on Thirteen Reasons Why: meh + no + ugh.

This book made me uncomfortable — and not in a change-my-perspective way, but in a this-is-wrong-wrong-wrong way.

Thirteen Reasons Why takes a very important issue, and made an exploitative mystery-drama out of it (I’ll elaborate more on this later). It is poorly written, with cheesy dialogue, melodramatic writing (though I will concede that it might have been the point in Hannah’s narrative), and lifeless characters that embody teenager/high-school cliche tropes rather than real, human qualities.

Thinking back to my friends who took their own life, this isn’t an eulogy or a recognition of their suffering and pain. This is a book that does not explore the nuances, complexities, the tumultuous personal/individual emotions and thoughts of contemplation, but instead dwells on high school pettiness, a vindictive girl who takes her life, topped with a pretentious, half-hearted, shoehorned message of ‘be nice to each other, ok? because someone MIGHT DIE IF YOU DON’T’ in an attempt to be relevant.

This book is an insensitive mystery-thriller. Yes, it is compelling, but the only reason why is because we want to see who were the thirteen people that ruined Hannah’s life. This book feeds on society’s perverse need for closure. So the book is ultimately about stupid teenagers making stupid decisions (though their youth does not justify their actions) and the regrettable effect it had on Hannah.

And it is so, so, shallow.

This book misses what it ought to have been about – Hannah’s suffering. Instead, all of the focus is on the thirteen people and their actions. Hannah remains a mystery by the end of the book. The reader never knows the true depth of her suffering and her pain. Yes, she talked about how alone she felt, and how much it hurt her. We don’t need to know the graphic details of her pain. But it was glazed over, treated more like a reaffirmation of the effect it had, rather than something contemplative and thought-provoking. Putting it into simpler terms, this book is 10% Hannah’s pain, 75% people doing bad things and superfluous descriptions of those bad things, and 15% how shitty Clay, the narrator, felt.

The book’s message is conveyed in a way that postulates that we should be nice to others, because if you don’t, someone might kill themselves, and we should change our ways because, if you don’t, it’s going to make you feel bad and you’re going to feel awful for the rest of your life. (And the cherry on top is that Hannah hopes that you live with this guilt forever.) See, this book is not about Hannah and it is not about suicide. It is one disastrous manipulative guilt-trip.

‘But this is what Hannah did! She is just a character in a book and that’s the point.’ I am ranting and raving about this so vehemently is because this book’s underlying message really concerns me.

God, am I the only one who sees this as very problematic? Knowing how my then-suicidal friends thought, this book fuels that belief that people contemplating suicide need more power over their lives through revenge, or want their lives to have meaning, to be a lesson, so they become martyrs by punishing those who wronged them. And Hannah achieved that – she put herself in a position of power so they would be at her mercy. She succeeded in enacting her revenge, and that message is scary to me. Should those people in her tapes be punished? Yes, some of them did horrible and unforgivable things to her (and others). But they should not be punished with someone else’s life on their hands.

Let’s talk about Hannah. I can sympathize with her need to be understood and to be respected. But, she was bitter, whiny, immature, petty, and puerile. She was also manipulative, played mind games, and vindictive. (Yes, people did horrible things to her, but how are her actions an exception? Are they justified and why?) I mean – she makes thirteen tapes, detailing all the bad things that have happened her, narrated in a way that is very much about getting revenge and her twisted sense of justice. But, let’s be fair. Maybe that’s not Hannah’s fault, so I’ll be charitable; maybe Asher wrote her that way intentionally.

The issue, then, is that there is no talk or discussion on mental illness. Suicide has a high co-morbidity with mental illnesses. However, Thirteen Reasons Why makes no word about it, and this really concerns me. People who are mentally healthy do not do these things, lest commit suicide. When you talk about suicide, mental illness is an integral part of the picture and discussion. Whilst I recognize that not all suicides are attributed to mental illness, it more than often is.

To return to the point about her making the tapes: it is never addressed, suggested or acknowledged how Hannah’s actions were wrong. Instead, the narrator and other characters are left with the guilt and consequence hanging over their heads. Asher wrote Thirteen Reasons Why in a way that made Hannah to be the sole victim of the novel, and it sickened me; sickened me that this book is all about the implications of our actions, but completely ignores the implications of Hannah’s actions. People who have had loved ones take their life suffer their absence every day; they suffer by asking themselves question upon question about what could have been done to save them. Given the message behind Thirteen Reasons Why and given its themes of suicide, it is sloppy, poorly handled, and irresponsible.

Thirteen Reasons Why is a poorly written, horrible portrayal of suicide. I strongly discourage those who are suicidal or are having suicidal thoughts, and/or have lost someone to suicide from reading this book. There is very little to be gained from reading this book. If you enjoyed it and found something worthwhile in this book – great. But I could (and would) never, ever recommend this book to anyone.

On a final note, if you want to do more to help youth, don’t just ‘be nice’ (no one should get special rewards for being nice) — be aware, be open, be non-judgemental. Educate yourself on the signs, educate yourself on how to help and be there for someone who is suicidal, and understand that suicide is 100% preventable.

Rating: 1/5

Book Information
Book Name: Thirteen Reasons Why
Author: Jay Asher
Publisher: Razorbill


 

Resources on educating yourself about suicide

 

Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge

I think I am wicked enough to love a demon.

cruel beautyCruel Beauty is a retelling of the Beauty and the Beast that isn’t as sweet and lovely like its Disney counterpart. Cruel Beauty is dark and somber, but also terribly romantic. Not only is it a story about love, but it is also a story about duty, justice, the darkness we all bear in the small corners of our hearts, and also fierce, unyielding love.

Set in Arcadia, a world where fear of demons is ever-present, Hermetic magic is a way of life, and Greek lore and mythology are intimately intertwined with reality. In this story, Rosamund Hodge takes the would-be Virgin Sacrifice and gives it voice. Nyx, a young girl who has been prepared all her life to marry and then kill the Gentle Lord, the demon ruler of Arcadia, is, to her family, a sacrifice for her people, and a means to avenge her dead mother. As a result, rather than the pure and kindhearted Belle that we are familiar with in Beauty and the Beast, Nyx is resentful and bitter, conscious of her condition as a weapon and sacrifice rather than a person with her own future.

Nyx is a flawed protagonist, but it is her flaws that make her voice so compelling. The prose is inherently introspective, so we get to see all the hues and shades of Nyx’s mind – we see her moments of courage, of strength, of shame, of loss, and of weakness. The streams of consciousness is wonderfully done, and we gain insight to her thoughts and feelings uninterrupted. Furthermore, the internal conflict within Nyx, as she is torn between doing her duty and doing what she feels is best – a sort of Freudian conflict between the id and the subconscious – is explored.

Cruel Beauty also does something that I didn’t expect: it raises some very important questions about justice and the right thing. What if leaving someone to die was justice? What if doing the right thing would make you regret your actions forever? Cruel Beauty may also be about forbidden love, but it was also an exploration of righteousness, sin, justice, the soul, and conscience.

And the romance! I was a cynic at first, but Hodge’s immaculate writing won me over. Though there were moments where the romance felt choppy, I think the love that Hodge portrayed in this book was… well, beautiful. Really beautiful, raw, and heartfelt. Perhaps the love is doomed from the start because of their circumstances, but their love was without deceit and unconditional. I think there is much to be said to love someone despite what you may see in their hearts and soul; to see a darkness, malice, flaws, pain and imperfections, but to still love despite. To me, that is true love. The ending also made me sob so terribly; I’m a sucker for (spoiler, highlight: love transcending one life into the next.)

I really enjoyed Cruel Beauty, more than I thought I would but I love being proved wrong when it comes to books. All at once introspective, well-written, magical, mysterious and romantic, Cruel Beauty is a worthy retelling of Beauty and the Beast.

Rating: 4/5

Book Information
Book Name: Cruel Beauty
Author: Rosamund Hodge
Publisher: Balzer + Bray