Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Smoke of Spirits: Review

Smoke of Spirits
By Claire Frances Raciborska
Published in 2010
Published by Falconers Press
ISBN: 986-865-170-0

I was sent this copy in exchange for my review by the author. I was not paid for this review.

Before I moved to Taiwan, someone once told me that in every expat community there tends to be a significant proportion of people who have run away from something in their home country. Whether or not you agree that this is true, this concept of running away from your past is the basis of this novel. Lucy, our protagonist, has found herself in Taiwan after what feels like a mad dash away from her native South Africa in a bid to maintain her sanity and salvage her identity. What she finds here is a raft of unlikely companions and an affinity with this crazy wonderful island that I also call home.

Who are we? Are we our culture? Are we our past? Are we who others think we are? These questions are universal as people from everywhere struggle to figure out who they are. When Lucy comes to Taiwan, she is guilt-ridden and cast adrift from her immediate family as a result of a recent tragedy. We find out in the prologue that she believes that she has killed someone and that this someone was very close to her - but that's about all we find out about it until the very end of the novel. In between time we meet a cast of characters who become Lucy's makeshift family: Rashnid, who has left India to escape religious and social restrictions; Missy, who has left Australia due to commitment phobias and Jenna, also South African, who has come to Taiwan to celebrate her new-found freedom from the shackles of an unhappy marriage and the responsibilities of motherhood.

Something this book does extraordinarily well is to track the arc of culture shock that most foreigners experience upon arriving in Taiwan. From the oft referenced "trafficking drugs carries the death penalty" sign which you see as soon as you get off the plane to the inexplicable feeling of menace lurking around every corner, the description of this experience was so close to mine it was like reading my diary! Luckily, as Lucy settles in to Taiwan, she comes to love Taiwan with all its hidden beauty and the warmth of her people meaning that the experience of culture shock is contextualized and dealt with rather than leaving the reader with the feeling that Taiwan really is a scary, nasty place. Reading this book really gives you an excellent insight into what it's like for someone from a western culture coming to live in Taiwan. If you're interested in coming here, this book is a good place to start. Yes, it's fiction but all in all, it's an accurate depiction.

There were a couple of things I had a problem with in this book. The first was how long it took for the full story of what happened to make Lucy run away to be revealed. I really don't like being given repeated teasers of "Something terrible happened to me" without being told something new about it. I don't mind waiting for the full story but I do take issue with being reminded that I still don't know. Building suspense for a reader is great but stretched too far can just cause frustration.  The second issue I had was that the ending was a little strange for me. The concept behind it is really good but it didn't feel like it was smoothly woven into the fabric of the rest of the story.

Overall, this was a very high quality novel. So far it has been self-published but I wouldn't be surprised at all if a publisher picked this up - in fact I really hope they do. It's very well written, it has a great story set in a setting that not many people know that much about but it has themes that are international in their reach, making it a tantalizing mix of the original and the universal.

If you're interested in getting a copy of this book, please check out this webpage.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Bookdrum Honour!

I was casually reading the Bookdrum email newsletter a couple of days ago when I came across this:

Most Popular Profiles

The Top 5 profiles, by number of Facebook "Likes" are:
1. Saturday by Ian McEwan. Profile by Kathryn Liu
2. The Cure by Antoine Devine. Profile by the author
3. Dracula by Bram Stoker. Profile by Victoria Hooper
4. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. Profile by Jenny Martin and Kat Matfield
5. Clan by David Elliot. Profile by the author
If you'd like to see your profile in the Top 5, encourage your friends to click the Facebook Like button on the profile index page. This will also plant a link on their Facebook wall, bringing new visitors to your profile.

Hey! What the... I'm number one!!! Cue happy dance (which I'm glad no-one saw!) and much whooping! The coolest thing was that the Likes had all come from people I didn't know. Very cool. Made my month.

Anyway, if you'd like to see (and potentially "Like"!) my profile, click here and check it out. 

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Shibuya Intersection November 2010

This is a gif of photos I took of Shibuya Intersection in Tokyo on a recent quick trip there. This wasn't even peak hour, just 3.30pm in the afternoon!

The Secret Life of Bees: Review

The Secret Life of Bees
By Sue Monk Kidd
Published by Penguin Books
Published in 2002
ISBN: 0-14-200174-0

I found this book at the CSC-Taipei's Official Bookcrossing Zone and I am not being paid for this review.

"Then, without warning, all the immunity wore off, and I felt the hollow, spooned out space between my navel and breastbone begin to ache. The motherless place." (151, TSLOB)

This was, for me, the most heart-rending and accurate lines in a novel that I've ever read. Lily, who accidentally shot her mother in the midst of a domestic between her parents has been living with overwhelming guilt and grief her entire life. Not only this but she has had to tolerate a mean-spirited father whose idea of a fair punishment is to make her kneel on grit for extended periods of time. Lily, as a result is left, un-parented and desperate for love and affection.

She finds this in the least likely of places - she runs away from home after rescuing her coloured maid, Rosaleen, from a certain doom at the hands of a bunch of racist men she insulted. Not knowing where else to go, she heads for a town scribbled on the back of a wooden placard with the photo of a Black Madonna her mother once owned. What she finds are the Boatwright sisters, three coloured women living together who make the brand of honey that bears the mark of the same Black Madonna that Lily clutches in her hand.

This story unfolds in South Carolina in 1964, a time of great racial unrest in America. In theory, segregation had been outlawed but the prejudices still remained deeply entrenched. In stark contrast are August Boatwright's bee hives, where hundreds of bees live in harmony with each other and nature. The symbolism of the hive is strongly drawn upon throughout this novel as Lily struggles to come to terms with her past, her feelings and find her place in the world.

I loved this novel. It is beautifully written, deeply involving and very thoughtfully presented. The symbolism of the hive and the bees was very interesting to me as I felt like I'd learned a lot about bees through reading this. The sisterhood of the Boatwright sisters and their Daughters of Mary friends draws a warm blanket around the shoulders of all those who read this. Nobody is an outsider, all are accepted. I would recommend this novel to all who are looking for a novel that will challenge them uplift them and leave them with something to think about once it is finished. It really is top-notch.