Saturday 31 October 2009

My book review policy

Thanks to Bookopolis for the outline of this policy

1st November 2009:
I am currently open to review requests.

What to expect: I love reading books and writing book reviews. I understand that a book is very personal to its creator but I do reserve the right to post an honest review. I will never be nasty, however and I can usually find something good to say about any book.

Genres I prefer: Contemporary fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Women’s Fiction, Mysteries and Psychological Thrillers, Non-fiction, Memoir and Biographies

Genres I prefer not to review: Christian fiction, science fiction, romance, or erotica
(although I have made exceptions before and may do so again)

Acceptable book submission types: I typically don’t accept self-published books BUT in certain circumstances I will consider reviewing them.

I prefer not to review e-books - my eyes take a bad enough beating from the amount of reading I do as it is!

Review timeframe: Typically a review will take me 2-4 weeks upon receipt of the book, however if you require a more specific deadline, please let me know.

Cross-posting: If there is anywhere else you’d like my review posted please let me know in advance.

Miscellaneous: Your ARCs are safe with me – I do not believe in selling them!

For any other questions or concerns, please feel free to contact me: kathmeista AT gmail DOT com

Homeless like me by Donald Parker: Review

Homeless Like Me is a novel/e-book published by Sword of the Spirit Publications, a small Christian publishing house set up by the author and a few others interested in spreading the word of God. I was approached by Donald through Book Blogs and invited to review one of his books.

Homeless Like Me has taken inspiration from the international bestseller Black Like Me, written by John Howard Griffin, a white man who posed as an African American for six weeks travelling through the more racially segregated areas of America in the late 1950's.

Although Homeless has taken its cue from Black Like Me, it has gone off on a very different pathway. Brian, the protagonist, is a guy interested in making a quick fortune by writing a book about what it is like to be homeless. As part of his research he visits the local homeless shelter posing as one of those down on their luck but things get hairy when he is busted by Zeke, a big bear-like man who doesn't take kindly to Brian's covert mission. However, they soon find that each has something that the other needs and an uneasy friendship is formed and their journey takes them to some very unexpected places, both physically and metaphysically.

This book contains a lot of different strong themes: homelessness, homosexuality, Christianity and the global economic crisis - which makes the 200 odd pages seem very crowded and a little confused in places. In the first half of the book, I felt that the narrative relied too heavily on character dialogue, mainly between Brian and Zeke, but the flow improved greatly in the second half.

As readers, we join Brian and Zeke, two non-believers as they struggle with their skepticism about God and religion in general. The spiritual struggle that they go through, Brian's in particular, was very effective and realistically mirrors a lot of people's internal conflict about God. With the help of Brian's love interest Angel and the perceptive Soaring Eagle, Brian and Zeke eventually resolve their own struggles and take on the struggles of others.

Being not of the Christian faith myself, I have to admit that at times I found this a highly challenging read. The evangelical religious content of this book is very clear and holds no punches - something not often found on the bookshelves of your local bookstore.

The mission of Sword of the Spirit publications is, according to their website:
to distribute uplifting, inspirational, exhortational and
challenging literature, both fiction and nonfiction, that will help
non-believers understand and embrace Jesus and solidify the faith of
the believers and aid them in the quest to live a Godly lifestyle.
I think this book meets that mission with (spiritual) guns blazing through this interesting and compelling story.

Eleven by David Llewellyn: Review

By David Llewellyn
Published by Seren
Published in 2006

It's another day at work. Uninspired and wondering for the 67th time this week why on earth you are still in this job, you stare with glazed eyes at the emails pinging up on your screen. Mindless chatter, forwarded jokes, yet another blithering email from head office about appropriate use of the lunchroom dishwasher...

This is Martin Davies' life. He's a wannabe screenwriter stuck in a finance office in Cardiff, Wales. It's just another mind-numbing day at the office... except it isn't.

Today is September 11th, 2001.

Eleven is one of many books that have been written about and around the events of September 11th - a growing genre of literature called "Post 9/11 literature" about which I am writing my Masters thesis next year. Overall, this was an interesting book, the most unique thing about it being the way it is written. The narrative is presented through the emails that are coming into Martin's inbox as well as his replies. His thoughts are drafts that are saved but never sent. The placement of the events of another ordinary day against the backdrop of the unravelling of the one of the most historically significant events in recent history serves as a poignant reminder to all who remember this day just how it felt and "where were you when".

The atmosphere of this novel is ultimately depressing as we observe Martin's sanity unravelling thread by thread. It's unclear whether this unravelling is triggered by the events of 9/11 but I'd say it was safe to assume it is. Obvious other contributing factors include his failed relationship, his loathing of his job and position in life but this event seems to tip the balance. The novel ends ambiguously, and kind of unsatisfactorily. There isn't the typical crisis and resolution - 9/11 happens but nobody seems knows what it means or how to react to it. Then again - those who lived through that day know that this is pretty much exactly how it was all over the world: people staring at the TV in astonishment, completely lost for words.

I'm not sure if this will be useful for my thesis, but it was an interesting and quick read. As a representation of the events of 9/11 I think it does very well to capture the confusion and disbelief everyone felt. It doesn't pretend to have anything meaningful to say about what happened or try to explain it. It simply offers a snapshot of the day, from the other side of the globe, through the eyes of Joe Normal. A slice of history, happening in your inbox.

Tuesday 27 October 2009

Some of my favourite sentences: Part IV

This nugget of wisdom comes from Jess Walter's novel The Zero, one of the post 9/11 novels I'm reading for my thesis.

"No kid ever choses to have his parents. They're just there when you wake up one day. And you can't just keep having sex and have more parents if these two don't work out."

Ah, ain't that the truth!

The Samurai's Garden: Review

The Samurai's Garden

By Gail Tsukiyama
Published in 1994
Published by St. Martin's Griffin, N.Y.

Normally, people think of book reviews as being mainly for recently published fiction, to introduce the latest novels written by the latest authors to the world. And usually, this is all good. But once in a while, I think it's good to mix it up and put a review of a less-recently published book out there, like this novel The Samurai's Garden by Gail Tsukiyama. Before this was given to me to read for my new book club, I had never heard of this book, nor its author. It's all part of the too many books, too little time problem - sadly I know I will never even hear about all of the 'must reads' out there, but I'm glad I got introduced to this one. And or that reason alone, I am writing this review, just in case anyone out there has missed this gem of a book.

Gail Tsukiyama is ethnically half Japanese, half Chinese but given she was born in San Francisco, 100% American. Given that I'm married to a Taiwanese guy and we both live in Taiwan but both feel that New Zealand is home, I am constantly intrigued by others who also walk the line between two cultures. Indeed, walking the line between two conflicting cultures is at the very heart of this novel.

Stephen, our narrator, has been sent away from his native Hong Kong to rural Japan to recuperate from tuberculosis on the eve of the Japanese invasion of China in the late 1930's. Although the two countries are locked in a bitter conflict, Stephan finds peace and comfort in the village of Tarumi where he stays with Matsu - a servant of his family for many years. As Stephen gets to know the silent Matsu more and more, he comes to realise that the hardship he feels in being away from his friends and family pales in comparison to the hardship those around him have suffered. This realisation spurs Stephen to grow in maturity and spirit and to look outside of his own introspection to find ways to help others.

Another factor which aids his recovery is Keiko - a fleeting, elusive presence in his life who captures Stephen's attention - but given the war between their two countries, their different cultures and her excessively strict father, can they ever find happiness together?

My favourite thing about this novel was the sheer beauty of the writing. The simplicity of the writing reminds me of an old-style Chinese painting of the mountains, it feels restful yet stimulating at the same time. Not once does the writing become boring or tired - just as I can look at these sorts of paintings for hours on end and not tire of it. It was a joy to read and has been added to the exclusive list of books I know that I will re-read, it really was that good.

If you haven't read this book, or anything by Gail Tsukiyama before I would definitely recommend that you have a look for her writing. I know I'm going to be scouring the bookshops for more!

Image credit: Here

Saturday 24 October 2009

Books to movies.... always bad?

"Hollywood, in particular, seems to be like an exocet missile to hone in on whatever was good in a novel and remove it, destroy it and then proceed from there."

So said Robert Harris who is the author of many books (most recently Lustrum) on BBC Radio Five Live's Book Reviews with Simon Mayo.* From what I could gather, it sounded a lot like he'd had some very bad experiences of people adapting his work for the big screen - as have many other authors. Audrey Niffenegger, author of one of my all-time favourite books The Time Traveller's Wife was also on the same programme. She commented that she had been advised to completely let go of all artistic control when TTTW was adapted and as a result hadn't even been to see the finished result. This was particularly because the movie is not her book and you can't unsee what you have already seen - the memory of the movie will henceforth always taint her experience of the book.

It's for this very reason that I haven't gone to see TTTW in the movies - I loved this book and for me it lives in my memory as a place I can revisit when I next read the book (and I know I will) and I just don't want anyone else's idea of what the book looks like getting mixed up in all of that. Reading a book, after all, is a very personal experience. The settings of the books, the voices of the characters, the atmosphere of the places - you and the author have created that together just for your enjoyment. Nobody else ever sees or experiences the novel in exactly the same way, which is one of the great joys of literature. If you go to the movies with a friend, however, you know that they have seen exactly the same thing that you have seen.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not beating up on movies - I'm actually a great fan of them and very much enjoy watching a good film. It's just that they are two completely different mediums and I fear that something is always lost when the two worlds collide. There has only been one time that I have ever watched a movie adaptation of a book and not been disappointed by it and that was Peter Jackson's interpretation of Lord of the Rings. But even then - his vision of Mordor, whilst fantastically dark and horrifying, was not the same as my vision of Mordor. And so, a little something is lost - now I can only ever see Jackson's Mordor when I think of this novel.

Ultimately I'm not here to wax lyrical about whether the page is mightier than the silver screen. The choice here is not black and white and one is not better than the other, in my opinion. I just personally believe that if you really enjoyed a book and have a strong personal connection to it, it is wise to think twice about watching the movie adaptation of it.

What do you think? Have you ever seen a movie adaptation that ruined your enjoyment of a book? Or, have you ever seen an adaptation that improved a book? I'm keen to hear your thoughts!

* This quote was taken from the podcast released on 15th October 2009. Podcast is available through iTunes or the BBC World Service website.

Thursday 22 October 2009

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time: Review.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
By Mark Haddon
Published in 2003
Published by Vintage Contemporaries (this edition)

I took this little gem with me on my morning commute into Taipei city from TaoYuan yesterday. Usually the 35 minutes drags by with me counting down the stations until I finally arrive but yesterday was different. The stations whizzed by with me wrapped around the pole in the centre of the carriage, nose buried in this book. I was so engrossed I was scared to read it on the MRT just in case I missed my station.

This novel commences with a 'take no prisoners' opening - Wellington, the neighbourhood dog, has been killed by a garden fork. The narrator and protagonist, Christopher Boone, an autistic 15 year old, makes this gruesome discovery on one of his late night walks and decides to solve the mystery of who has killed Wellington in the vein of his favourite detective, Sherlock Holmes. Along the way, he uncovers some disturbing truths that rock the foundations of his carefully ordered world.

Written as a first person narrative, the reader gets an insight into the workings of somebody with autism. Mark Haddon had worked with autistic individuals when he was younger, according to my edition's author notes. Seeing the world through Christopher's eyes you vividly feel the overload of information and the stress that everyday life that we all take for granted causes him. I could relate somewhat to his feelings of being overloaded as there were times when I first moved here to Taiwan where it all just felt too much - stimulation overload - and I would have greatly liked to have just sat and rocked in a corner.

In addition to being an insight into the world of those who suffer from autism, this is a raw and honest look at the effects that caring for a child with special needs can have on parents, completely without passing judgement or taking some sort of moral high ground. It made me think - what if that were my child? How could I handle it? Indeed, would I be able to handle it? The characterisation of Christopher's parents is unflinching and in my opinion, it is this honesty that makes this book so valuable.

Overall, this book is an absolutely cracking read. Although you'll probably find that you'll get through it very quickly, it isn't a book that you will forget any time soon. Now I can see why people have been telling me to read this book for so long - so if you haven't already read it, now I'm telling you. This one is a must-read.

Friday 16 October 2009

The rights of the reader: Review

Image credit: Here

The Rights of the Reader
By Daniel Pennac (Trans. Sarah Adams)
Published October 2006
Walker Books Limited

Cast your mind back. You're seven years old and you've just got your very own library card. Surrounded by silence and the smell of words and promised adventures, you run giddily towards the children's section. You run your hand over the shelves of books, some smooth, some bumpy, all tagged with some weird and unfathomable code. Before you know it, you've picked up something that has caught your attention and you've settled into the bright red beanbag for the long haul. You forget where you are, consumed by the voices and exploits of Asterix or the Famous Five and you can't believe it's time to go already when, an hour later, your Mum comes round the corner to find you.

Every week you come back and you always leave with a pile of books, one of which you're usually half way through by the time you get home. The need to read consumes you: you sneak off to the toilet to get in a few pages, you read late at night with a torch under the bedcovers. You are, in fact, a veritable addict, looking feverishly along the shelves to find your next hit.

Then, somewhere along the line, something happens. Reading loses some of the joy it once held - it becomes, unthinkably, a chore. A task that has to be completed by next Monday, with an 800 word essay to boot. High school literature studies have come home to roost. English class is now peering over your shoulder, pointing out that you shouldn't be reading that book, you should read this one, the required text. You know, the one sitting ominously on your desk, unreadable and daunting.

This is where the education system, according to Daniel Pennac, fails our kids. I recently read his amazing book The Rights of the Reader (translated by Sarah Adams) as part of a bookring through Bookcrossing and was very pleasantly surprised. I was expecting something completely different - a fun and lighthearted look at reading as a hobby - but was met with an entertaining and brilliantly written manifesto on the importance of teaching our future generations to love reading and not make it a "should" - a word sure to kill any desire to do something.

Pennac points out that as kids, we loved to hear stories and would beg our parents again and again to read us our favourite books. It is in this tradition of oral storytelling, he argues, that reading is based. It's our desire to hear new stories and follow new heroes on new adventures that drives us from one finished book to the next new one. But as soon as interfere with our child's relationship with books and we disturb the private "alchemist's voice" in their minds, we start to suck their joy out of their reading experience. This, claims Pennac, is a crime of epic proportions. A relationship with books is one of the most consistent and satisfying ones that most people will have in their lives, after all.

The solution? Simple, claims Pennac. Take it back to the basics - oral storytelling. Read to those who have become disenchanted by the hard slog of required textbooks and compulsory reading. Re-introduce that spark. Draw them back in. Before you know it, they'll have rediscovered that "alchemist's voice" and they'll be off in their own private world of books again.

This book was a really fascinating read for me as I recognised that I had suffered a period of book fatigue until pretty recently. As a kid, I was the one hiding under the sheets with a book and a torch. I read an insane amount of books from all sorts of genres, right up until the age of 15 - that's when it started for me. Required reading to be completed within a ridiculously short period of time, essays to write and not to mention maths homework and geography study.... Luckily, I've rediscovered that old spark and have come back to the ranks of the voracious reader - one "right" at a time. If there's anyone out there that has lost their spark, or knows someone who is struggling with reading - I highly recommend this book. It'll surely help you bring them back from the brink of a world without books.

Monday 5 October 2009

Bookcrossing makes the whole world a library

Up until 2 months ago, I was a booklover with a serious case of hoarding. It was getting to the point of ridiculous - I had just moved to Taiwan and now, with more limited space, I was having to double shelve my books. I was running out of room and I knew that this wouldn't (more likecouldn't) stop me from buying more books. Then it happened. One of the biggest epiphanies of my life, a major conversion - you could compare it to a "born again" moment: my aunt introduced me to bookcrossing.

Oh, sure, at first there was resistance: "You want me to what?! Give away my books? To random people?!" and denial: "I couldn't possibly do that, it's just not me!" but the sight of my groaning bookshelves and the thought of not being able to buy books because I wouldn't have anywhere to put them spurred me to action. "Fine!" I thought "Possibly there are a few books on there that I've read and won't ever want to read again.... Maybe."

After about 2 minutes I realised I had pulled about 10 books off my shelf that I had categorised "Never going to read that again" or "Hmm, what is that book doing on my shelf?!" Maybe there really was something here. Maybe I could clear some space on my beleaguered shelves for future purchases. I plonked down in front of my laptop with this pile of books and before I knew it I had registered myself and the books.

So what is bookcrossing anyway, you might be wondering? The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines bookcrossing as "the practice of leaving a book in a public place to be picked up and read by others, who then do likewise.” But as a short search of the site soon showed me, actually there is a lot more to bookcrossing than just this. The site also provides the forum for those a little shy of leaving their beloved books in public places to share books with others through either direct swaps, known as RABCKs (Random Acts of Book Crossing Kindness) or through bookrings or bookrays – a kind of extended, travelling bookclub where one book travels from one person to the next, all over the world.

The best thing about bookcrossing for me is the tracking aspect of it - every book is tracked through the website. A book that has been registered on the website is given a bookcrossing ID number (BCID) which is written in the front cover of the book. The person releasing the book then makes a journal entry about the book, saying what they thought of it, what their plans are for it and give it a rating out of 10. The book is then released, either in the “wild” - a public place such as a cafe, second-hand bookstore or park bench, or through a “controlled release” as a RABCK or as a bookring or ray. When the book is found or the intended recipient receives it, the releaser is notified by email when they make a journal entry – and so the record continues!

Within minutes I was seriously hooked. Now, after four weeks of it I have released 2 books into the "wild" at the Community Services Center in TianMu, Taipei and sent out 4 other books on controlled releases. This week I'm setting up my first attempt at a bookray. As if this weren't enough, I'm also trying to make the library of donated books in the Community Services Center an Official Book Crossing Zone so I can get more people in Taipei's international community involved in bookcrossing. With the amount of expats that come through there, just imagine where some of the books could end up!

Once my library dreams were constricted to just my own set of shelves but now I'm coming to embrace a bookcrossing motto - that the whole world is a library and if you truly love a book you set it free. If you find a bookcrossing book out there - check it out and sign up. It's a serious fun!

Image credit:

Thursday 1 October 2009

What does your bookshelf say about you?

I recently stumbled across this article about people and their bookshelves on the bookcrossing forums. At first I was delighted, then somewhat disturbed, particularly by the following quote:

Books aren't essential - you don't need them to sit on or eat off (unless you are a student). If you want to read, or check a reference, there are libraries.

I struggled past my feelings of indignation to see where she was going with this whole idea. It seemed, in the end, that she had concluded that the reason people keep books on their shelves is to show people how well read they are (or, as she puts it, claim to be). Why else would people keep books on shelves rather than in boxes?

Being an avid reader and a lover of books I felt this premise to be somewhat offensive, or at least ill-thought out. Why do I keep books on shelves and not in boxes? Er, for ease of access of course. These are books I keep because I want to read them, sooner or later, and I'd rather not be scrabbling around in the bottom of a box trying to find said book. Plus I have an awful memory and I need to be reminded of which books I actually own.

Plus, isn't a shelf of books an enjoyable sight, as evidenced by the wealth of options to fake well-stocked bookshelves she listed like the fake books and the bookshelf wallpaper? Who wouldn't want to look at a shelf of books? Well, I suppose those sorts of people ARE out there but since this is a book blog, I don't suppose they're bothering to read this so I'm safe. But in all seriousness, concluding that keeping books on shelves is purely for the display of ones reading prowess missed the far more interesting aspect that this article only lightly touched on.

I love looking at my books as it's tracking a journey in my life. I can see the novels I studied for my favourite undergrad literature classes; I can see books given to me as presents; I can see books that I read in a particular location and time in my life... Books are a part of my life. So when I go around to another person's house and look at their bookshelves, it makes me feel like I'm getting to know them a little better. Although some people might tell you I'm a book snob (and my reading tastes would rather suggest that so I understand) I certainly wouldn't judge another person on their bookshelf. A bookshelf stocked to brimming with well-thumbed lighter fiction is, in my view, a far more pleasant sight than a bookshelf only a few unread copies of "literature". Books are meant to be read and enjoyed. I can far better connect with someone that has bothered to read stuff on their shelf rather than just put it there because they think it looks good.

In answer, finally, to my own question - I wonder what my bookshelf says about me. I expect it reflects that while I appreciate some of the classics (Wuthering Heights is just fantastic) I definitely have a preference for contemporary literature. And yes, it might give you the impression I'm a book snob but actually I don't make any apologies for that. I know what I like and don't particularly fancy wasting time or reading energy on books that don't tickle my fancy. So many books and so little time and all that.

Take a sneaky peek at your own shelves. What do you think they say about you?

Some of my favourite sentences: Part III

I've been very re-miss on keeping this up to date, but that doesn't mean I haven't come across some fantastic turns of phrase, truisms or use of the English language.

One that I wanted to include here is not for its beauty but for how true it is. If you're a booky type like me, you'll know.

"Bookish people, who are often maladroit people, persist in thinking they can master any subtlety so long as it has been shaped into acceptable expository prose."
Carol Shields