Tuesday 28 December 2010

The Year of the Flood: Review

The Year of the Flood: A novel
By Margaret Atwood
Published in 2009
Published by Anchor Books
ISBN: 978-0-307-45547-5

I own this copy of this book and was not paid for this review.

For quite a long time now, I have been interested in post-apocalyptic and dystopic fiction. Not the apocalyptic stuff where the world is about to end and everyone runs down the street screaming while buildings fall down en masse. No no no. I care about the what next? What happens after? What do you do when the fabric of society has been shredded to pieces and survival is your top priority. What happens to the people in this situation?

A number of years back, while studying English Literature at undergraduate level, a lecturer who is now happily my thesis supervisor introduced me to Margaret Atwood through Oryx and Crake. I was instantly hooked, completely consumed by the weird and wonderful future world she had created - so you can imagine my excitement when I heard a sequel was being released. I've been wanting to read it since I heard about it, so when a friend passed it along to me I was thrilled.

Only, I'm not sure I want to call it a sequel. It's another angle on the same story, told from the perspective of two women (Ren and Toby) this time instead of the male perspective of Jimmy. It's Oryx and Crake from the other side of the looking glass filling out and expanding on the same story whilst also being an entirely self-sufficient novel. If you haven't read Oryx and Crake it doesn't matter and if you have, this story won't bore you.

The story is told from the perspective of Ren and Toby, separately. We meet them in Year Twenty-Five, the year that the flood has hit but we are transported back in time for large sections of the novel to various points in time in the preceding twenty years when both Toby and Ren lived with a small environmentalist sect called The Gardeners. Through these flashbacks the reader learns a great deal about the lead up to the so-called "Waterless Flood" - a fatal pandemic of epic proportions - and life in the pleebs, the seedier living areas outside of the well-groomed corporate controlled compounds.

As with Oryx and Crake, human progress gone mad is a key theme in this book. The same weird animal combinations that exist as a result of gene-splicing are there as is the intriguing but terrifying darkness. No-one is safe - security is controlled by corporations, law is controlled by corporations and those who speak out or put a foot wrong usually disappear permanently or are found in a gruesome state a few days later. I think this is the part of this novel that captivated me the most because I kept thinking none of this is impossible. Every single thing that happened in this novel is possible right now in our world. The technology and power struggles already exist. Which is not to say that this is an inevitability for society but it should surely be read as a warning of the darkly possible future that is lurking in the shadows of today's multi-national corporations and technological advances.

I unreservedly loved this book. I thoroughly enjoyed the story, the characters and the possibilities it presented. I completely recommend this book, particularly if you're a fan of the dystopic/science fiction genre. But even if you're not, if you're a fan of a really good story that has really interesting and unique ideas - read this book. And Oryx and Crake too.

Have you read either of these books? Which other post-apocalyptic/dystopic fiction have you read and enjoyed?

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.

Monday 11 October 2010

The Big Ten of Grammar: Review

The Big Ten of Grammar: Identifying and Fixing the Ten Most Frequent Grammatical Errors
William B. Bradshaw, PhD (Pictured right)
Published by Synergy Books
Published in 2010
ISBN 10: 0-9842358-5-X
I received a free copy of this book for review and am not being paid for the review.

Grammar plays a fairly significant role in my life. When I'm not trying to explain the finer points of present perfect form, I'm proof-reading. When I'm not proof-reading, I'm attempting to write a thesis. I'm surrounded by it. For the most part, I love the English language but I totally understand the frustrations of those who are learning it. There's this complicated rule that you MUST remember but then also three or four exceptions to that rule. For no apparent reason. I get it, English can be a fickle tart but I do love her.

Which is the point at which I would note that this books is NOT for English as Other Language students. This book is aimed solely at those who have native level competence in English - more specifically those who want to brush up their formal writing and/or speaking. It tackles common problems such as the difference between 'that' and 'which', misuse of the apostrophe, and comma usage. It has a lot of useful examples and explanation although I did find that the layout of the content within the chapters wasn't as clear as I would have liked if I want to use this as a reference book in the future.

The first two chapters that deal with use of 'I' or 'me' and 'he/him' and 'she/her' were the ones where I had cause to debate. There is no doubt in my mind that "He rides better than I" is technically correct compared to "He rides better than me" but I can't help but think that if I were going to say that I would say "He rides better than I do" - the completed sentence form which is suggested by the author as a tester of grammatical correctness. It might just be me, but I think verbally "He rides better than I" sounds slightly awkward, which is why I suggest that this book is best for use in formal writing and speaking situations. Perhaps I'm not as strict a grammar cop as I thought I was!!

There is also a great bonus section of material, so much I'm not sure why it's a bonus section and not additional chapters, including verb charts and other commonly confused issues such as 'who/whom'.

This book is for those who are already pretty good with English and grammar and who are writing and speaking at a higher level than just your average day-to-day usage. It has easy to grasp concepts, doesn't get caught up in complicated explanations - it simply tells you what's correct, what's not and how to check it. I'll be keeping this on hand while I write my thesis to make sure I don't make these mistakes for sure!

Saturday 9 October 2010

Night by Ellie Wiesel: Review

Night is the kind of book that blows your socks off whilst simultaneously giving you the feeling of being overwhelmingly grateful for having any socks at all. It is a sparse 100 pages that shakes you to the very core. 100 pages of one boy's account of being ripped from a normal life and thrown into the nightmare of concentration camps in Nazi Germany. It is, in my opinion, a must-read. These things, however uncomfortable, cannot be forgotten just as as other atrocities being perpetrated throughout the world as we speak should not be ignored.

One thing that really stood out for me in this novel was the feeling of disbelief and denial of reality that so many of the Jewish people felt throughout the whole experience. When they were moved into the ghettos and stripped of their homes, they thought this was the worst that could happen. When they were rounded up and put on cattle trains, they thought that perhaps a better place awaited them at the end. The harrowing scene where the seemingly hysterical woman who proclaims to see fire in the train carriages (later proving to be a chillingly accurate prophecy of the chimneys at the camps ahead of them) is violently silenced by those around her only serves to highlight the unreality of the situation and the inability of anyone to truly comprehend what was happening.

How could they? How could any person possibly take in and process this kind of treatment? I tried putting myself into their shoes and found myself frozen, overtaken by the helplessness of it all. All that was left for them to do was survive, to try and get through to the other side alive.

This is not an uplifting book. There is no Hollywood ending, no light relief. It is horror after horror and then more horror. You cannot, at any point, become immune to it. You are made to sit in the sun without water with them, you are crammed into claustrophobic cattle carriages with them, you are dragged through mud and starved with them. Reading Ellie Wiesel's vivid and uncompromising narrative is the closest any of us will ever come to understanding the Holocaust from a survivor's perspective. It's not a pretty ride, but it is one that opens your mind and makes you realise - at no point can any of us become complacent. Never should we take for granted a warm bed and a good meal. At the end of this book, I settled down for the night and I swear that my bed had never felt so comfortable.

Read this book. Read it for those who survived, read it for those who did not survive and read it for those who suffer other cruelties around the world. Only when our eyes and minds are open can the world become a better place.

Wednesday 15 September 2010

Poetic breaks

The silvery notes of dreams
Cascade through my consciousness.
Drifting dreamscapes
and flitting fantasies,
Tumble down,
Splish splash
Into the bottomless pool.

Kath Liu, 2008

Monday 13 September 2010

Are you a Lone Reader?

I came across this BBC article a couple of days ago and it got me thinking about reading. Back in the days of yore, folks used to gather around campfires and entertain each other by telling stories but the advent of the industrial revolution and capitalism boiled this love of stories down into the individualised package that we know and love today: the novel. Ostensibly, this made reading an individual endeavour - if you've ever tried to co-read a book in a short-resourced English Lit class in high school, you will know why - but the social aspect out of sharing our stories is still very much there.

Reflecting on my own reading practices, I realised that while yes, much of what I read, I read alone I would KILL for someone to read a book to me. Or pay for it through the Audiobooks section of iTunes. As a kid my father read all sorts of classics to us, including all three books of Lord of the Rings. For a bloke who worked a 10 hour day that's some achievement. Hearing the story in your own voice in your own head is great but hearing it from someone else can add dimensions to it that you might not have thought of, like how Gollum sounds when he coughs or the pure terror of the Black Riders.

Perhaps my love of reading aloud also comes in part for my penchant for the sound of language. The beauty of a well-written sentence can't be underestimated. It's when it is spoken that words are most alive - light bounces off them and illuminates dark corners of previously unexplored ideas. I really could wax lyrical here about this but I'll spare you more details. Safe to say I'm a major language geek and prefer to hear poetry rather than read it.

My third and final point proving that I'm totally a social reader: book club. Nothing and I mean nothing gets me more animated than talking about books. When I have a mug of coffee in my hand, a slice of cake on my plate and several good friends all in the same place talking about the same book, I'm pretty well in heaven. In fact, if heaven does not have a good library and book clubs, I really don't fancy going there. Also the fact that I write on here about books proves that I'm a social reader. I want to put my thoughts out there and see what other people think too. Blogging is, in a way, a huge book club meeting online.

So yet again, I'm keen to know what you think. Are you a Lone Reader or a Social Bookerfly?

Saturday 11 September 2010

Bookish things I have been up to offline: Feature shelves

As I said in my last post, I've staged a quiet take-over of the small collection of books that we have at the Community Center where I work. We cater to the needs of the International Community in Taipei and, being a transient bunch, people regularly leave and donate their books to us. We've got about 900 books and each and every one of them has been registered on bookcrossing as we are now an official bookcrossing zone. Also I re-organised the entire collection to be categorised by genre rather than just alphabetically by author because I'm fussy. All of this has taken months as I only work part-time but has been achieved with a lot of help from some of our student volunteers and now it's finally in order and I'm feeling pretty chuffed.

Then my boss says "Hey, you know what? Why don't I give you a budget to buy a couple of recent books every month to keep our collection up-to-date?"

Pay me to go pick out books? Do you need to ask?!

And so the idea of the Feature Shelf was born in my mind. I decided that each month I would buy books in theme and set up a feature shelf showcasing these books and any others that were along the same theme. September is "Memoir Movie Tie-In" as Eat, Pray, Love is being released in cinemas here pretty soon (October) so I figured people might like the chance to read the book beforehand. Not to mention its a personal favourite of mine - that's totally nothing to do with it! So keeping in theme I also got Julie and Julia as I figured it was a pretty popular movie but most folks I know hadn't read the book but wanted to. So voila! September's feature shelf is up and running.

All I need to do now is come up with more themes! Next month I was hoping to have a Booker Prize shelf in honour of the winner being announced but I wanted to ask you guys to see if you had any fun ideas about possible themes. Let me know what you think - I'd love to hear your ideas!

Thursday 9 September 2010

Reading against type - Liu vs Palahniuk

I don't remember what it was that got me thinking about it but a couple of weeks ago I started thinking about the kinds of books I read. It was probably staring at the shelves and shelves of donated books at my work's small 'library' that I have taken over. We've got a pretty sizeable collection - about 900 books - from all genres, particularly the mystery/suspense/thriller category. You know the type, airport books that you buy, enjoy and generally never read again.

I've said it before, and I will say it again: there are far too many books in this world for me to waste my time on things I don't want to read... but. On the one hand it is true. I have absolutely desire to read another Dan Brown book in my entire life. But what about books that I just don't consider my type? What if I'm really missing out? So I decided to branch out. To Choke by Chuck Palahniuk.

So far I have knocked off 130 pages of the 293 in the book. And I am struggling. To be fair, this is a well written book and it covers some interesting ideas and themes but WOW it is so not my style. To say I find it confronting would be an understatement, there are times it makes me squirmingly  uncomfortable. Which is totally the point of the narrative but I don't like feeling this way. I've realised that I read to escape into another world and even if it's a harsh world, the worlds I escape into never feel like a bad fever nightmare that contain sentences that make me feel physically sick.

To all you Palahniuk fans out there, please don't take this as an attack on your favourite author. It's absolutely not. It's just that he isn't my cup of tea. That said, I do plan on seeing this one through to the end because as much as I'm not enjoying the way the book makes me feel, it kind of has me hooked and I want to know how it all pans out.

So have any of you read against your usual type lately? Do you even have a type of book you read? I'd love to hear your thoughts on this one!

Saturday 17 July 2010

The Dog Whisperer's Books: Review

About 2 months ago I was walking home from buying nearly half my body weight in groceries. It was a balmy evening - May was giving us a gentle prelude to the approaching summer - and I was full of thoughts of mango desserts and exotic salads. As I walked past the 7-Eleven at the end of our street, I saw a German Shepherd standing there outside of the store door, wagging his tail hopefully at anyone who walked past. Given our last dog was a German Shepherd, I took a quick photo on my phone to show hubby when I got back. I assumed that the dog's owner was inside the store picking up a quick bottle of milk or some noodles and carried on my way.

The photo I took on my phone.

The next thing I know, this dog is trotting along the street after me, first on the opposite side and then crossing through a swathe of traffic, oblivious to the dangers, to my side. A closer look at the lack of collar, filthy coat and ribs showing made it clear that this was a dog without a home. I called the husband and a few hours later, we had a dog in our apartment, freshly showered and fed fast asleep on our feet. We named him Kratos after a character in a PS3 game hubby was playing when I called him to come and help me. It all seemed perfect: we'd just decided to get a dog and here was one who seemed house-trained, well-mannered and very friendly. He hadn't even flinched when we gave him a bath, not 2 hours after meeting him. Surely nothing is this easy...?

No, it isn't. We soon discovered that this very human-friendly dog was very anti those of his own species. Our first walk in the park saw our passive pooch turn into a lunatic on a leash: lunging, barking, whining and generally making a huge scene whenever we just walked past a dog. The dog didn't even have to look our way, he just sparked right up and left us hanging onto the leash for dear life and calling apologies after people hurrying off the other way. I soon realised it was time to call in the professionals. I got a recommendation for Sean McCormack of Taiwan SPCA and we spent a good few hours with Sean trying to sort out this problem. This helped immensely but given this was a long haul not a quick fix, someone else recommended I also read a couple of books written by Cesar Millan, the "Dog Whisperer" as he and Sean used the same basic principles in dog training and behaviour modification.

I read both Cesar's Way: The Natural, Everyday Guide to Understanding and Correcting Common Dog Problems and then also read Be the Pack Leader. I was enthralled. The concepts were so simple in formulation that it stunned me. Your dog is an animal, not a human. Your dog needs you to be the leader so they can relax. Humans, step up to the plate and do our domesticated doggy friends a favour! This simple concept is a little harder to put into practice, however. I found myself particularly struggling with the idea of calm assertive energy, the key ingredient to getting your dog to do as you say. I'm not what I would describe as a calm person. Assertive, fine, but not particularly calm. I worry far too much, just ask my husband. However, as Cesar points out in the book, often dogs come into our lives for a reason so I figured that perhaps Kratos had come along to teach me how to chill the heck out. Goodness knows I need to learn that lesson. 

As I read the books, I realised that once you've got the idea there really isn't much more to it. It's a matter of getting out there and doing it. I lapped up the first book (Cesar's Way) but didn't get all that much more out of Be the Pack Leader, which served more as a companion guide to the TV series in my view. Cesar has a co-author to help him write these books but I felt like his voice was loud and clear in the narrative. It reads as though he is standing there next to you, telling you his life story, giving you illustrative anecdotes about dogs he has helped and teaching you the basic tenets of his dog psychology philosophy. This is both a very good thing and an occasionally irritating one - as with all conversations, he has a habit of going back over some things repeatedly, such as how he had to become calm-submissive to his wife. Cute and lovely the first couple of times but every time after that just doesn't add value. It seems to me that this book could have done with a little bit more vigorous editing to get rid of some of those aspects. 

Overall, however I loved these books. They are easy reading, helpful and empowering. The overarching message is YOU CAN DO THIS. And you can. With help from Sean and the reinforcement of these books, Kratos no longer goes batty when he sees another dog which makes our daily walks a whole lot more enjoyable! I would absolutely recommend these books to anyone thinking about getting a dog or who already has one - whether they have issues or not - but only one or the other of these books. Both is a little bit overkill. 

Who here has a dog? Tell me a little bit about your furry companion!

Saturday 29 May 2010

Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold

I thought I'd do something a little different today and read one of my favourite poems for you. It's called Dover Beach and is written by Matthew Arnold in 1867 - I discovered it when I read Ian McEwan's Saturday. I love the way it sounds and although there are several great recordings of it already on Youtube, I wanted to add my own. Besides, it would be lazy to pinch someone else's recording!

I hope you enjoy!


By Matthew Arnold

The sea is calm tonight,
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Agean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Sunday 23 May 2010

Literary mashups: What do you think?

Before we go any further I'm going to come right out and say it. It's been said before and if you read my blog you'll already at least suspect this. I am a book snob, a literary purist, a lover of fine writing and hot tea. I'm not ashamed of it and short of a sharp blow to the head I don't see this ever changing.

So when I saw the first of these so-called literary mashups Pride, Prejudice and Zombies, I just about choked. Granted, despite my love of classic literature, I'm not the world's biggest Austen fan. I've given her a go and I respect her work greatly but swooning and corsets and Mr. Darcy just don't quite get my pulse racing like it does some other folks. Anyways - to return to the point - someone thought that taking this classic and adding the undead into the mix was a good idea. More like someone (correctly) thought it was a darn good way to get some shock factor and cash revenue.

Back it up, you might say - you haven't read it so you can't judge. You're right on one count. I have not read it and I never will. There are just far too many good books in the world that I may never have time for that I really don't want to throw away precious reading hours on something I know that I'll hate. That said -someone else might really enjoy it and hey - that's a good thing.

So my question is this - literary mashups: love them or hate them? I'd love to know your thoughts!

Tuesday 18 May 2010

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society: Review

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
By Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Published by Bloomsbury
Published in 2009 (Paperback)
ISBN: 978-0-7475-9668-4

I read this book as part of a bookcrossing book ring and have not been paid for this review.

Every once in a while I come across a book that I REALLY want to read. Once this happens it is inevitable that I won't be able to read it for a variety of circumstances for a good long while, thus heightening my desire and anticipation. So many times this dangerous combination of expectations and desire has brought me crashing to my reading knees when a long waited for book turned out to be really rather average, or, worse, totally crud. I have waited for a very long time to read TGLAPPPS. Maybe close to 7-8 months. I was not disappointed.

Picture of Guernsey

Set in 1946, just after the end of World War II, Juliet Ashton is looking for a new subject to write about. Something serious, something meaningful - something that can get her away from her the comedic writer box she has firmly been placed in due to the success of her war-time commentary under the persona of Izzy Bickerstaff. Out of the blue, Dawsey Adams writes to her as he has somehow come to possess a book she once owned and has fallen in love with it. However, given his location on Guernsey he is a little hard put to find other books and so has written to Juliet for help. This initial contact begins a friendly correspondence that blossoms into something far far bigger.

The narrative structure of this novel is that of a series of letters to and from an ever-increasing series of characters which I found to be very engaging but those who prefer a more straightforward narrative style might find it challenging. I loved the personal element to it - each character had a distinctive voice that I felt connected to throughout the novel - and I felt that despite the limiting nature of the narrative structure, nothing was lost in terms of storytelling. 

The writing in this book is wonderful and satisfies you in a way that a bowl of chicken soup does on a cold day. It's not overly flowery but describes the island extremely well - so well in fact that I can still see the mental image of it in my head 3 weeks after I finished reading it. Add to that the subject matter - entirely about reading and books and well hey. You've really got a winner on your hands. 

One of the most interesting things about this book was that it taught me something I had no idea about. I had no idea that the Channel Islands were occupied during WWII and I had no idea to what degree the inhabitants of the islands suffered under German occupation. It was a huge hole in my historical knowledge - I mean I have many of these sorts of holes but this one was about a time period I knew a fair amount about and in a place that is owned by my home country. But far from being depressing and downbeat, this novel manages to deal with the awful things that happened in an upbeat manner that focusses on hope and everyone pulling together. The people of the GLAPPPS are exactly the kind of people you would want to be stuck on an island with under those circumstances, should you have to be.

I absolutely LOVED this book. My one complaint was that it was too quick - I read it in 2 days - but then again I would happily read this one again, just not this copy as I need to get it sent on it's way to the next book-ring reader! If you've thought about reading this book but have been a little put off by the hype - don't be. It's worth every bit of the hype and then some. It's a gem of a book that I'll be putting on my "You have GOT to read this" list.

Monday 17 May 2010

Some of my favourite sentences: Part V

That's what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you onto another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It's geometrically progressive - all with no end in sight and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment.
From The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Saturday 15 May 2010

Reading Habits Meme

This is a meme that is going around the blogosphere at the moment. I got it from Helen's Book Blog.

Do you snack while you read? If so, favourite reading snack?

I don’t normally but if I had to pick a favourite it would be a couple of nice biscuits.

What is your favourite drink while reading?

Tea. Always tea. All sorts of tea – English Breakfast, oolong, green tea…. I’m not fussy.

Do you tend to mark your books as you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you?

No I don’t mark books, I tend to write down stuff I like from it on a notepad although if I photocopy a page or two for study purposes, I go nuts and write all over the copy.

How do you keep your place while reading a book? Bookmark? Dog-ears? Laying the book flat open?

Dog-earing is evil! I use bookmarks or anything that casually resembles a bookmark.

Fiction, non-fiction, or both?

Mainly fiction but I do like a bit on non-fiction from time to time. It’s good to keep it real, if that makes sense.

Are you a person who tends to read to the end of a chapter, or can you stop anywhere?

I have to finish a chapter. If the book is particularly good and the chapter finishes where I can see the first page of the next chapter I have to put a physical barrier between my eyes and the next page or else I will never stop reading!

Are you the type of person to throw a book across the room or on the floor if the author irritates you?

No I just vocalize my frustration ;) Volume and colour of language vary with degree of frustration.

If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop and look it up right away?

Yes. I have to, I’m a self-confessed word nerd!

What are you currently reading?

Many things including theory books for my thesis and three different novels all set in India, one being a Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry.

What is the last book you bought?

Generation Kill for my husband because he loved the TV series. He has yet to open it.

Are you the type of person that reads one book at a time, or can you read more than one?

I always read more than one at a time. Always. I have a scattershot brain that wants to do ten things at once when really I can only humanly do five.

Do you have a favourite time/place to read?

When I have the house to myself or on the train/bus.

Do you prefer series books or stand alones?

No preference. I like good books, be they stand alone or series books.

Is there a specific book or author you find yourself recommending over and over?

Wuthering Heights (all time fave), Ian McEwan and Jodi Picoult.

How do you organize your books? (by genre, title, author's last name, etc.)

Right now they’re piled on shelves in no real order…. They used to be alphabetized but I gave that one up.

Thursday 13 May 2010

Skinny is overrated: Review

Skinny is overrated: The real woman's guide to health and happiness at any size
By Danielle Milano, MD
Published by Synergy Books
Published in 2010
ISBN: 0-9842358-3-3
Disclaimer: I was sent this book to review by Synergy Books, however I was not paid for this review.

If you put a bulldog on a diet, you don't end up with a greyhound. This is the chapter title of the first chapter in this book and as soonas I saw it I knew I was in for a good time. I couldn't possibly have thought of a better way to put, being something of a bulldog myself, that absolute realisation that no matter what you do you're only going to get to a certain size. I've never been skinny - ever - and I never will be. There was one stage where I got really big and I had to lose a LOT of weight to get back to a healthier size but no matter I do, I always seem to end up being around about the weight I am now. I was this weight when I was 18 years old and I am the weight nearly a decade later at 27 and I think the best I can do is lose some tummy jiggle and tone up a bit.

This book came at the perfect time for me. I'd lost sight a little bit of what it was that I did right when I lost 20kgs a few years ago, especially now I'm in a completely different country selling vegetables I can't pronounce and offering no gym classes in English. I needed a bit of inspiration to remind me which track to get back on and it's worked. Basically, reading this book was like having a good yarn with your favourite Aunt - the one who always puts you right and isn't shy of calling it like it is. Danielle's warm but frank manner beams right off the page and leaves no room for either the self-doubt or the silly justifications we give ourselves. What she's saying is pretty simple but it's something that we all need to be reminded of - stay away from processed, nasty food, eat more natural foods and plenty of greens and get moving more.

That said, although the basic message is simple this is a very well researched and written book. It has a lot of medical research and useful facts in it without being overwhelmingly in your face with the science of it all. The chapters are a nice readable size and focus on one essential point after another. I've read a few diet books in my time and each time I have come away from it feeling overwhelmed and like I'm facing a daunting task. This book is not a diet book - it's a book about how to change your lifestyle: something far more permanent and healthy.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is not looking for a quick fix but rather someone who is looking for a real and lasting improvement on their overall health. Take the focus off the number on the scales and place it on feeling better. The number on the scale will change for the better if you follow this advice but that shouldn't be the focus. This book is fun, readable and REAL written by someone who actually wants you to succeed. Weight is just a number but feeling good about yourself is unquantifiable. Enjoy!

Tuesday 11 May 2010

MISSION: Taipei Living 10th Edition - nearly completed.

Wow wow whee, have I ever been slack in the last month. At first I was insanely busy (brother in law got married, had the in-laws staying with us) and then that slid into a case of serious denial and writer's block. One good thing though is that in the last couple of weeks I have found myself in the final stages of my current editing project - we have a cover and the final proof copy and everything, how exciting!! The book is called Taipei Living (10th edition) and is basically an everything you need to know about living in Taipei as a foreigner. It's got info on areas for shopping, how to sort out your rubbish, where to get good coffee, how to get a driver's license, what to do if there's an earthquake, hot spring etiquette, info on the international schools and way, way more. It's a gold mine and it was an honour to be involved in bringing it to it's tenth edition. I even gave a nifty new cover and everything.

Anyway, hopefully now I have broken the barrier and posted here the drought will lift and I'll be back with more book-related stuff. Oh and for those of you who like photos, I started Project 365 over here a couple of days ago which should be fun!

Hope you're all well and talk again soon!

Saturday 27 March 2010

Small country, big talent

Image credit: Here

The question "Where are you from?" often causes me problems because it's not an easy answer of just one country. My identity is split between the land of my birth, England, and the country I feel is home, New Zealand. To make matters worse, I now live in Taiwan which is rapidly becoming 'home' also. By the by, the answer to the question is that I'm a British Kiwi - which sounds simple enough until people want to know how much British and how much Kiwi. But that's another story.

Image Credit: Here

The Kiwi part of me was stoked to recently read of two literary successes from our small part of the world. The first was that Mr. C.K. Stead has won the inaugural Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award in London. This is a new literary prize worth 25,000 pounds sterling building on previous success of the Times' short fiction pieces that appear weekly in the Sunday Times Magazine. Our Stead was up against some stiff competition - the complete long list includes some of our finest contemporary fiction writers:

  • Richard Beard - James Joyce, EFL Teacher
  • Nicholas Best - The Souvenir 
  • Sylvia Brownrigg - Jocasta 
  • John Burnside - Slut's Hair 
  • Will Cohu - Nothing But Grass 
  • Joe Dunthorne - Critical Responses To My Last Relationship 
  • Petina Gappah - An Elegy for Easterly 
  • Jackie Kay - Reality, Reality 
  • A.L. Kennedy - Saturday Teatime 
  • Adam Marek - Fewer Things 
  • Charles Mosley - Constraint 
  • Chris Paling - The Red Car 
  • Ron Rash - Burning Bright 
  • Simon Robson - Will There Be Lions?
  • Kay Sexton - Anubis and the Volcano 
  • Helen Simpson - Diary of an Interesting Year 
  • C.K. Stead - Last Season's Man 
  • Rose Tremain - The Jester of Astapovo 
  • Gerard Woodward - Legoland 
  • David Vann - It's Not Yours
Mind you, he's been around the block. Born in Auckland, New Zealand (my second hometown) in October 1932, CK Stead (CK stands for Christian Karlson has been writing since his twenties and has a long list of published work covering short stories, poems, fiction and literary fiction. If this local hero wasn't academically intimidating enough, he was a Professor of English Literature at the University of Auckland until he retired to write full-time. 

Image Credit: Here

The second Kiwi who has won international acclaim is kind of the opposite to CK Stead. She's female, young and the work that has gained her all the attention is her debut novel. Eleanor Catton's novel The Rehearsal has been causing a stir in literary circles for a good while now and this won't be the first big prize she has been up for. In fact, this stellar novel has been given the nod for the UK Society of Authors' Betty Trask Award, named best first book of fiction in the Montana New Zealand Book Awards as well as being long-listed for the Guardian First Book Award. Now it has been long listed for the Orange Prize. 2009's Booker winner Hilary Mantel is on the same list. I think "Phwoar" just about covers that! I've been wanting to read this novel for almost 2 years now (it was published in 2007) so I have finally taken action and ordered it from the university library. It will be showing up here as a review in a month or two, no doubt!

My heartiest congratulations to both of these Kiwi writers. You prove once again that although we might be a small country, we've sure got some big talent!

Friday 26 March 2010

Bookdrum - the Wikipedia of books!

This is just a short post but I wanted to let everyone who hasn't already heard of it know about Bookdrum. Basically, it's a website that is collecting in-depth profiles on all sorts of books with information about the author, the plot summary and facts about stuff in the book. It's an awesome project and would benefit from the input of you bookish types out there! I've already submitted a profile on Ian McEwan's Saturday. What are ya waiting for?!

Saturday 20 March 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Feminism

When it comes to over-hyped books I am the Ebeneezer Scrooge of readers. Bah humbug, I declare. You won't catch me reading that! I proceed to shun said hyped book until it has been forgotten by the rabid media dogs or it gets proven to be a genuinely good book by those with a half-decent opinion of what a good book looks like. Some might call me a book snob, but I just know what I like to read and don't fancy wasting X amount of hours on a book just because everyone else is reading it unless it's actually worth it. If you could see the size of my "To be read" pile you'd understand.

The Steig Larsson trilogy were firmly in the "Over-hyped" category for me so I decided to wait until the melee calmed down. Once it did and it was voted in as the April Book for our bookclub, I thought what the heck and bought it.

On the surface, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It kept me amused through two long and tedious flights from Hong Kong to Sydney and back again which is a fair achievement as planes are one of the only places on earth I find it nearly impossible to read (or sleep, but that's another story). It absorbed me. It scared me. It grossed me out. It was, all in all, a damn good thriller.

But there was something bugging me about it... Each new section of the book was marked with some proclamation about violence against women, for example Part One states that "eighteen percent of the women in Sweden have at one time been threatened by a man." Which made me think that the late Steig Larsson must have something to say about violence against women, but throughout the book the women were subjected to an near unbelivable amount of horrific violence, both physical and sexual. Something didn't sit quite right for me.

Indeed, I'm certainly not the first to point this out. A quick search of reviews showed that this issue has divided critics between claims that Larsson was a closet mysogynist and those who believed that Lisbeth Salander was a sort of feminist avenging angel that righted the wrongs of those who were abused. This article discussing these claims got me thinking.

Photo Credit: Here
Having studied feminism and long been a feminist I wanted to throw my hat into the ring. I don't want to accuse Steig Larsson of being a closet misogynist exactly but I think the problem is that this book doesn't entirely understand the truth about violence against women. Although there are undeniably psychopaths out there who do unspeakable things, the majority of violence against women is not perpetrated by these sorts of people. Those who beat, rape and intimidate women are, on the whole, not crazy - they're your average Joe Bloggs who come across as being very nice and normal sorts of people. Absolutely, they're the scum of the earth but they're not lunatics. On the whole women are not tortured in custom-built basements but in the spaces where you and I live out our daily lives.

By choosing to portray men who are violent towards women as psychopaths is essentially unhelpful. It hides the truth of the situation all over the world and does nothing to make us question why it happens and why nothing more is done to stop it. Lisbeth Salander is without question an ass-kicking woman who takes matters into her own hands but her actions are unrealistic. It's a cathartic read but she is the stuff of fantasy.

I wonder whether choosing the way this story played out was politically based or driven by what would make a 'better story'. Domestic abuse is not sexy in the same way as a serial psychopath with incestuous tendencies is - it's a depressing reality. Although the women who have survived the abuse and violence in this book do seem to get their revenge, I don't think that this book can be seen as feminist. It is too far outside the realm of reality and plays into the hands of necessary genre cliches. Women who have suffered the day to day actuality of abuse are offered nothing of use other than a few hours of escapism into a world where the normal rules don't apply and 'avenging angels' can inflict justice on the monsters of this world. The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo is a ripping read but nothing more.

**If you or someone you know is being subjected to any kind of abuse, please call your local Women's Shelter, Rape Crisis Line or relevant agencies.**

Tuesday 9 March 2010

A Gate at the Stairs: Review

A Gate at the Stairs
By Lorrie Moore
Published by Alfred A. Knopf
Published in 2009
ISBN: 978-0-375-40928-8

It's a feeling familiar to many of us, I'm sure, that desire for escape from the seemingly narrow-minded and suffocating hometown to the bright lights and stimulation of university in the city. It's an intoxicating mix of new people, new ideas and, most of all, freedom. At eighteen we think ourselves old enough to handle it all, but in reality most of us are only just finding our feet and so the results can range from the cringe-worthy to the downright disastrous. Enter Tassie Keltjin, daughter of an under-emotional mother and a father who has made his name growing gourmet potatoes, who has grown up in a nondescript small rural town who has been seduced by Chaucer, Sylvia Plath and Simone de Beauvoir and is doing all  she can to shed her old skin and become someone new.

She takes on a part-time job as a childcare provider for two professionals who are in the process of adopting a child, falls in love with a exotic boy from her Sufism class and along the way learns some very hard lessons. Tassie is a loveable character, endearingly neurotic and naiive, quick to fall in love and eager to try new things, be it learning Portugese or eating Chinese food. To be honest, she really reminded me of myself when I was 18 or 19 years old.

The writing in this book is excellent. Reading it is like savouring a really good cheese with a glass of wine outside on a warm summer's evening - it's blissful and almost a little indulgent but in the best way possible. Moore usually writes short stories, something which is evident in the way she puts her prose together. It comes off as thoughtful but at the same time effortlessly elegant making this book truly a pleasure to read.

The reason I read this book was for my thesis on post-9/11 literature. This book is the most recently published example of this genre that I've read and found it to be the most subtle in its dealings with the events of the day. This story moves beyond the horror, the smoke and the images and skates into less explored territory of estrangement and disconnection between people. It makes for a delicate and in-depth look into the psyche of America, one that has moved beyond the knee-jerk reactions, through the dead-eyed traumatic reactions and out the other side into the reflective. It's interesting to see the evolution of responses develop.

A Gate at the Stairs is a novel that will hold up under any level of scrutiny, from those wanting a piece of well-written escapism through to those who want to dig around in the bowels of the thing for further meaning. It doesn't matter who you are - I really recommend this book. There is only one thing I would say: before you read it, don't read the dust jacket blurb. It's a little misleading and can colour your expectations of the text in a way that will leave you dissatisfied. It's better to know less and enjoy the story as it unfolds rather than expect it to go one way and be disappointed when it doesn't!

Monday 8 March 2010

Where I've been

Mucho apologies for being AWOL for so long! I've just spent three glorious weeks in New Zealand after having been away for eight months. I'm now back in Taiwan and trying to get my head around being here again which is proving to be a little more challenging than I first anticipated. I was worried that a trip home would throw me out of whack and send me tail-spinning back into culture shock when I touched down here again but it's actually done something worse: it's landed me in Limbo Land.

Limbo Land is the place I'm sure all expats end up at one stage or another, that weird space of not quite belonging in one place or the other, not knowing where exactly it is that you feel most at home and feeling utterly torn between the two places. I am there. New Zealand has old friends, familiarity, a language I speak, a culture I understand, beaches, fish n' chips and greenery. Taiwan has new friends, opportunities, a chance to become a more interesting person, convenience, excitement and the most kick-ass food you will find anywhere. It's an emotional tug of war between home and adventure.

I know it will settle down as soon as I'm back into normal routines and life but until then I'm just going to have to put up with floating around here in the undefined. Never mind - here are a few shots of the beautiful New Zealand for you to enjoy. If you've never been, seriously consider adding it to you places to see before you die. It's something else.

Browns Bay, Auckland New Zealand

Bethell's Beach, West Auckland

Balmain Reserve, Devonport, Auckland

Thursday 11 February 2010

Where the heck have I been?

Sorry for the slack month so far, February has been a little bit on the crazy side. It's Chinese New Year next week, plus I'm going away for three weeks in a week so I had to get as much done on the book I'm editing as humanly possible before 5pm today to make sure the whole thing stayed on schedule. Luckily, I managed to cross of everything on my "To Do List".

I've just finished reading A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore which I'm planning to review soon, so watch out for that.

Happy Chinese New Year!

Friday 5 February 2010

My new toy!

I found this awesome Macbook cover by Twelve South after reading this post on the Books on the Nightstand blog. It was love at first sight. Luckily, after observing me drooling over my laptop keypad, hubby decided to get one for me. Isn't he just awesome?! You see why I married him!

The inside is velvety and soft and the outside is leather hardback. It looks and smells divine - like you just dusted off an old classic from the top shelf in your library. Perfection.

I'm so in love with it that I organised a mini photo shoot, the results of which are below. Enjoy!