Saturday, August 19, 2017

Middle Grade Fantasy Review: The Girl of Ink&Stars

Set on the imaginary island of Joya, in an imaginary world, The Girl of Ink&Stars is a middle grade fantasy book recommended to curious and ready for adventure youngsters on the way to becoming teenagers. 
First and foremost, it not only has a dream-inducing cover - if you read my blog you might know already how interested I am in the cover of books as well, besides the writing of books -, but also has fine graphic inserts on the pages.
Daughter of a cartograph, Isabella is living on an island dominated by a heartless governor, whose daughter is her friend. When a girl school colleague of them is found lifeless, the monotonous life on the island is disrupted and the layers of magic and fantasy are invading the space, not always with benefic effects for the humans inhabitants. After the daughter of the governer herself disappears trying to bring light into the murder, after a fight with Isabella to whom she is trying to prove she is not 'roten', an expedition starts to find her, headed by the governor himself. The entire journey is unpredictable, with cruel episodes when the chance of survival seems to be impossible.
The book, aimed at readers between 10 and 14 years old, has elements typical for this genre, such as a moral challenge or the confrontation with death. The elements of dreams and fantasy are wrapping the story as cotton candy clouds, whose slow pace infuses the story with an outerwordly fragrance. 
However, I had a couple of issues with the book. For instance, I had more than once the feeling of deja-vu - or, deja-lu, to be precise, which for a beginner reader doesn't count maybe, but still would have expected more originality. Another critique is that if you are expecting a fast-pacing story you are in the wrong place. There are a lot of descriptions, most of them beautifully written, but they often overweight the chain of events as much as you can feel the narrative being caught somewhere between two sequences. Overall, I felt that the book has a bigger potential than achieved.
It is a recommended read for a long summer day, for poetry and fantasy loving kids.

Rating: 3 stars

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Book Review: All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood

I rarely read a book which is beautifully written, emotionally challenging - even draining - with complex characters but with the main story completely deceiving. 
The love story which started when Wavonna Quinn was eight years old with a man at least 17 years her senior might be break taboos, but in fact it is the weakest point of the entire story. The evolution of the romance is so predictable that sometimes I was tempted to skip the pages describing the details, convinced I was not supposed to miss anything. Except that actually I was missing the short rhythmic polishes sentences bringing the emotional turmoil of the characters into your life.
When there is so much emotional weight, and characters out of the normal world, the choice for a different kind of romance makes sense, but the romantic story as such should be more than your soap opera adventure next door. When everything fails and humanity fails too, the search for wonderful things makes sense, but it could rather be friendship or anything else but not that upside down grotesque relationship. It doesn't have to do with the underage sex, but with the way in which the reader is offered the story, like you really have to like it and consider it the best thing that can happen in the book. And it probably is, but not without encountering the risk of creating a stereotypical predictable story. It is so easy to ruin a book with the potential of being a good piece of literature.

Rating: 3 stars

Monday, August 14, 2017

Book review: The Accidental Apprentice, by Vikas Swarup

After the world-acclaimed Slumdog Millionaire, Vikar Swarup used the same background - the intricacies and often deceiving slums of the Indian life and society - creating a page turning novel with a bit of all: adventure, thriller, love, social meditation. 
Like in an average Bollywood movie, masks fell down, the hidden drama enfolds and there is not always a happy ending. Sapna Sinha, a young lady is randomly selected by an eccentric billionaire to be his next CEO if she passes 7 challenging tests aimed to reveal her leadership and human values. 
The ways in which the trials and challenges are described opens the eyes to the daily Indian realities, and this is one of the things that kept me reading the book until its very end. However, after a couple of 'tests', the pace slowed down and the stories became more than predictable. After all, not all Bollywood movies are equally entertaining.
At the end, after a long last trial, I felt a bit betrayed, as too much set-up completely damaged the good story, which at the end looks more as a succession of pranks than a novel. Hovewer, the portrayal of Sapna is very good and she is a character with depth, humar and an interesting personality. The kind of persons you might love to meet in the real life too.
Although I only give a modest 2-star to this book, those interested in Indian histories might find it interesting and entertaining, and Vikas Swarup definitely has something more to say on the literary front. 

Rating: 2 stars

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Book Review: Before We Visit the Goddess, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

The stories between mothers and daughters are never easy to be told. The literary shape is only a polite way to create meanings and sometimes to offer excuses.
Three generations of women, two of them were born in India, are coming at age, longing for a sense of home and emotional belonging. Recently I was suggested that we, in fact, might replicate, more or less consciously, the family relations and patterns we already witnessed. I am not convinced it is like that - and I refuse to believe that things are so simple in life.
For the simplicity of the narrative, this story actually follows such an unrealistic pattern, but fortunately, the developments are less predictive. Through betrayal and abandonment - who else but your mother can forgive you for those - strive for independence and nostalgy when it is too late to say 'good bye' or 'I am sorry', the heroines of the novel are revealed in their emotional, although unusual emotional complexity.
Regardless if they lived in India all their life, left the country to never see it again or never had any direct connection with this culture, the longing for home is the red line painfully overpassing continents and failed relationships. Also stereotypically - especially when it comes from non-European cultures - the remedy for sadness and alienation is food, which predictably is savourously described - but not recipes though although at least for some puddings I wish they are as I am stereotypical enough myself too to be an easy pray of such culinary intermezzos.
Despite my relative disappointment with some literary approaches, I still enjoyed the book because recurrent or not, all of us we can find ourselves sometimes in episodes of mother-daughter relationships. After all, maybe life is simpler as we try to convince ourselves it is.

Rating: 3 stars

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Book Review: The Return by Hisham Matar

I knew more that Qaddafi was the clown-dictator of Libya and for different reasons I followed the 'opening' of the West to the Libyan (oil) regime, started by the then-EU member Great Britain. In various circumstances, the gossips about his excentricities as a human and the abuses of his sons were known at many levels of the international organisations, including those with a certain 'soft power' impact, but it was outrageous how the situation in this country was rather taken as a joke instead of seriously being considered as a reason to increase the pressure for democratization. As in the case of other dictators, it seemed that Qaddafi will most probably die peacefully in his tent.
The Return, by the American-born Libyan author - the first literary work I ever read associated to this country - Hisham Matar is the beautifully written story of his desperate search of over 2 decades of his father, Jaballa Matar, an anti-Qaddafi dissident kidnapped with the conivence of the Egyptian secret service and brought to Libya where he probably was murdered. 
Part of the book is dedicated to retell the story of Libya through the personal histories of his family members, starting with the grandfather who fought against the Italian occupation, and continuing with his uncles and cousins and father. If he would have lived in a 'normal' country, he would have been part of a political family, but instead, once back to Libya after most of his life spent in 'exile', he is searching for traces to re-create the last years and even moments of life of his father. In those moments, he is no more the journalist and the well-balanced and factual journalist, but a child searching for his memories, searching for his father and building the relationship with him again and again through the despair of knowing that despite all the political activism and desperate searches from the last years, he is dead and it is almost impossible to know about his end. 
The memory lane has ups and downs, it repeats itself, sometimes the same memory taking completely different shapes. The memory re-writes over and over again the past and the present. Those fragments of the memoir are directly personal, slow, reierative. More than once I couldn't wait for the factual information, also because I felt overwhelmed by the proximity and the impossibility to see a way out of the labyrinth. 
Those who grew up, even for a short while, under dictatorships can easily relate to the stories. Those who are reading it and never encountered other than democracy, might take notes and understand to praise their freedom gifts much better.

Rating: 4 stars

Monday, July 31, 2017

Book Review: The Girls, by Emma Cline

The Girls is a book with many ups and downs, both emotionally and from the point of view of the writing but raises many deep questions about age and being a girl, regardless the decade and the country. 
For instance, it has many meditative paragraphs about the fate of the girls as such - 'That was part of being a girl - you were resignet to whatever feedback you'd get. If you got mad, you were crazy, and if you didn't react, you were a bitch' - and it does give account about growing up - but not yet old - in the 1960s, but from the point of view of the events related in the book, some of the emotions and the rational of the story do not go well together or somehow, the connections are lost while telling the rest of the story. 
After a while, from the descriptions of the youngest heroes of the story - Sasha's friends -, we are told that the 'girls' used in fact to be part of a cult, but besides some sexual details and a dictatorial behavior of the 'leader' other descriptions regarding the practices of the cult are completely absent. Most of the book is a torrid slow description of coming to age, from the first sexual experiences to breaking up rules and borders, therefore, the violent crime which in fact changes completely, at least for a while, the pace of the story, might be an interesting episode which could bring some mystery thriller into the story, which does not happen. 
The life of the girl telling the story, who had her rebelious moment of joining the cult, only because attracted by a hippie girl she saw begging and stealing around her school, her alter-ego she will never be, remained basic and normal. 'Suzanne and the others would always exist for me; I believed that they would never die. That they would haver forever in the background of ordinary life, circling the high ways and edging the parks. Moved by a force that would never cease or slow'. The short time she spent with this strange group looks like the most eventful episode of her life until late in her mature age. 
Based on event descriptions and other story details we realize that the episode takes place during the summer vacation, but the time sequence is so hard to define that period of time otherwise. It could be one month or one week or only a couple of days, it is hard to estimate if you take into account only the way in which things are taking place within the commune. 
Despite some flaws, this book is an interesting and thoughtful read. If you are into psychological introspection and coming to age books, I recommend to not forget to take it with you for your summer vacations.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Friday, July 28, 2017

How to Juggle with Social Media to Promote your Writing

The main reasons many intellectuals and writing people I know refuse to use social media, despite understanding the advantages for their brand and books is its assumed 'time-wasting' features. Once you are in - on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram - they say, your time dedicated to research and writing is dramatically diminished and it is extremely unclear at what extent this activity will convert to book sales. 
Social Media Just for Writers is a crush course in the main social media channels, from Facebook to LinkedIn and blogging or visual marketing. Besides the introduction to those channels, it offers useful advices about how to create an online brand as a writer, by being available, sharing your interests - not exclusively your book-related information - and answering the requests of your potential and current readers. A recommendation good not only for writers, anyway. 
I particularly liked the way in which the advantages of different platforms are outlined, as for instance the case of Twitter, which is for years a good medium for writers and readers. Personally, I made a lot of friendships with writers via this microblogging tool, many of them I've met in real life too. Useful too is the list of hashtags to be used for those conversations aimed at bookish audiences. 
On the other hand, it was completely new to me the appeal of LinkedIn for writers, particularly non-fiction authors. Especially if you are also doing consulting and editing work, you might have the opportunity of visibility among your peers and potential clients. 
Another positive aspect of the book is the focus on the culture of images, promoted particularly via Pinterest, which doesn't have to be considered detrimental to the quality of the writing, but a smarter and interesting way to promote the writing word culture. I personally prize the good looking intelligent covers therefore Pinterest is worthy more than a mention. Frances Caballo has detailed suggestions in this regard for both fiction and non-fiction writers. The same goes for Instagram and Snapchat, although once Instagram introduced the live stories features, this medium is losing its relevance among many non-millenials users. The mention of Tumblr, also with a high visual dimension is equally relevant, as I see it as a perfect tool to reach YA readers, among others. I personally used to have also a Tumblr blog, but didn't update it for years, so maybe once in a while I should reconsider my decision. 
The book is a very good read for the writer interested to reach new audiences and readers, and has the advantage of offering systematic information about different tools, targeted at a special niche and readership.

Rating: 4 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Friday, July 21, 2017

A Delicious Summer Read: Love Apples, by Melissa van Maasdyk

Before starting to read Love Apples, the debut novel by Melissa van Maasdyk, get ready for craving for at least one glass of red wine and a delicious, home-made-from the heart meal. Or two, because you can be so caught up into the story that you rather skip lunch and dinner altogether to read it in a matter of hours.
Written with passion - both for food and for writing - this novel brings to from the hot beaches of Mauritious to the rainy London, in the world of glossy magazines and their cruel intrigues and revenges. Meet Kate, a passionate food writer and recipe tester, and her wine taster boyfriend Daniel. While on a work assignment in Mauritius, Kate is exploring the local meaning of tomatoes - called here love apples - but put at risk her relationship, especially after her adventures were noticed and mentioned by her boss. The beehive is stirred and the situation is going out of control after Kate succeeds to promote an article she wrote on her own initiative. A lot of emotional suspense and drama follows, but in fact, only 'happy beginnings' matter.
Although the characters are either good or bad, they do have psychological depth and even complicated stories. The pace is relatively slow but filled with delicious recipes - shared at the end just in case you want to create your own 'love apples' variant.
Definitely, a recommended read for your summer vacations.

Rating: 4 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Book Review: The Worrier's Guide to the End of the World

If her previous memoir, Love with a Chance of Drowning was a story of getting in love and conquering fears through travel, Torre DeRoche last memoir deals with falling out of love, grieving and finding home. 
Her father died, her almost 10-year old relationship ended - 'I can't keep waiting. Need to live my life' - , and she is overwhelmed by anguish and fears and depression. Travel can heal but can also lead to a way out of the road. While walking the roads of Italy and on the footsteps of Gandhi in India - sounds like a serious travel article lead, but the reality on the ground is less spectacular - with her adventurous friend Masha, herself in search of her own self, Torre is starting slowly to build a new her, the way she want it to be, not how she is expected to be. 
As a passionate travel writer myself, I love her sincerity, her refuse to be just another glamorous adventurer excited to take a selfie of herself in the middle of a hill of cow poo just to show how beautiful her life is. Nomad life is not for everyone and setting a home, even if you keep discovering the world doesn't sound so bourgeois after all. 
Torre DeRoche writes good, in an entincing style, with a lot of talent for good travel writing. Her (black) humour is the final salt and pepper touch which makes the memoir even more readable. I've read the book in a couple of hours and although there are no bungee jumping from the top of the highest mountains or other adrenaline-driven adventures, its human side and honesty are the most appealing treats of this book. 
A recommended read, especially if you feel you are going nowhere and all you are left are your untreated worries. Or just because you want to see other sides of the travel 'business' than what you are generously offered via social media. (Not that I will ever give up travel myself)

Rating: 4 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review  

Monday, July 17, 2017

A football thriller like no other

After The Prussian Blue, an impressively well-written political thriller set in the aftermath of WWII, I wanted to read more by the same author whose style I've found entincing. Hand of God has a relatively unfamiliar setting for me - the world of football - but enough political references to the Greek economic debacle to keep me relatively interested. The only book I've ever read touching upon the football was Fever Pitch many years ago, so it was a relatively new topic for me, but the thriller pace made everything more readable. 
True is that the first 100 pages are rather developing various fotball and politics related issues, with many details about strategies and tactics on the ground. Especially for someone greatly indifferent to sports in general, it was a big challenge to keep reading, but the writing made it look like an introduction to a greater, bigger story. Those pages are used wisely to create the context of the story and actually it helps someone like me, completely unfamiliar with the context to slightly understand the next steps. It is a practical approach, but the disadvantages are that sometimes the discourse is too doct therefore artificial and unnatural, and that the reader is soaked into way too many details. 
And when the crime is taking place, the private investigation started by Scott Manson, a former cop that built a career in the world of sports is navigating against the all odds to bring light to a very complicated case which involves a drawn escort and the sudden death of a player during a match. As the entire team is stucked in Athens until the case is solved, Manson is fighting against the clock to put together all the small pieces of the puzzle, in a dysfunctional environment. I loved how the details are coming together and the suspense following until the very last pages. 
It is a page turning novel, with an interesting story construction. Recommended to those not very keen to go watch a football game, but curious enough to spend their time in the company of a good thriller.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Day of Joy Book Tour

Just another self-help books ready to grab for the summer, but unrealistic enough to forget about it until the winter holidays, you might say and sometimes I do say too. What I find the most difficult to deal with when it comes to such books is how to match with the daily realities which cannot be changed miraculously only if by thinking positively despite the fact that everything around you is a deep misery. A life in denial is as toxic as a life unwell spent worrying and being angry all the time.
The Joy Plan by Kaia Roman is on the happy ending of such approaches. Well-written, based on personal struggles it doesn't deny how insecure are the sands of searching for happiness. Actually, it doesn't look for happiness, being rather focused on 'joy'; in her own words: 'While happiness is a state of mind based on circumstances, joy is an internal feeling that disregards circumstances'. 
It starts with a 30-day plan with business-inspired projections and evaluations, but this first month is rather the beginning of a long process. Again, it doesn't disappoint by showing off miracles. Especially if you are an anxious nature, it is hard to keep smiling around you every time, every day, every single moment. An artificial experiment is this book not, as it doesn't ignore or underevaluate the importance of challenges and moments of dispair and even depression. Instead, it is part of the plan too to learn from those situations and change the way to react to such circumstances. One of my favorite aspects of the book is how it does use scientific arguments and information about the brain functioning. 
I recommend this book to anyone ready to challenge him or herself this summer, embarking on a mission of finding better joy and more mindfulness in enjoying his or her lot. Because life is too short to waste the precious moments in anxiety and anger.

Rating: 5 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

An excellent book for children: The Lion Inside

I am looking for good English books for children those days where both the story and the illustrations are coming along perfectly. The Lion Inside is one of those who arrived into my children library lately and which I keep reading at least once the day to my son.
The story is very insightful, especially for the little children: doesn't matter how small and insignificant you feel, there is always a way to make yourself seen. Plus, even the most popular and strong lion might hide some deep fears and insecurities. 
The big format of the book, outlining the extraordinary appealing illustrations, allows a lot of creativity in story telling, in case your little one is to small and impatient to finish the story faster and unable to focus on the text read by the parent in charge. If you are at this stage when your baby is quiet enough to wait to hear the entire story while browsing the illustrations, your pleasure of reading will be complete. The texts are smart, engaging, and suited for a little play set up if your voice is strong enough to utter a strong 'rooarr' from the deep of your lungs.
A great book from age 2 onwards, to take with you on vacation or to keep it for reading at length before the sleep lands.

Rating: 5 stars

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Book Review: Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien

After Balzac and The Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie, Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien is my second book featuring about the dramas of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Overall, I have a diverse experience of literature covering excesses of communist regimes, especially Soviet Union and former communist countries, but no book until now compares to the beautiful writing and delicate approach of Madeleine Thien.
The book, whose title is a verse from the communist Internationale song, is covering the story of three musicians friends from the beginning of the Cultural Revolution until the Tienanmen Square protests. The story is told on different voices and intensities, creating, similarly with musical scores, a unity in diversity of the story. The cruelty of the Cultural Revolution is maybe less known in the West where at the time when intellectuals were tortured and humiliated publicly in China, some students on the streets of Paris were protesting with the Red Book of Mao in their hands. 
Thien is using the troubled context of the time to create individual stories and characters, that although do not have more chances than to be the pawns of the historical occurrences are fighting in their own, discrete ways, for their rights to a life. Composer Sparrow, violin prodigy Zhuli and the myterious piano player Kai abandon their dreams of a musical career in a world who is turned over. Music is forbidden, instruments are destroyed, musicians are humiliated in public. There is no place for the works of the spirit and the biggest drama is to give up life. Many heroes of the Gulag literature are able to re-imagine intellectual worlds in their mind silently and patiently waiting the end of their prison time. The anti-heroes of the Chinese Cultural Revolution do follow the political destiny and got transfigurated by the ideological requirements. At the first sight, I was appaled by the apparent resignation of the characters, but in fact, it might be - or look like - fully assuming the circumstances, no dreams attached. It saves from desperation and the suicide of Zhuli means acknowledging the fact that there is no other way to change the reality.
Besides the story telling, there is something else fantastic about this book: the choice of words to describe musical experiences. I am trying for a long time to find the right wording and literary approach to music and in most cases I failed, but this book offers brilliant inspiration.
A recommended reading, to be consumed slowly, embracing the reader in the pleasant of lecture, although the topic is deeply tragic.

Rating: 5 stars

Book Review: Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy is hard to describe in a couple of words, but the poetry of the prose is enchanting. Caught too much into everyday stories, we forgot easily sometimes that there is a much deeper way to look into facts and stories. 
25-year old Sofia arrives with her mother Rose in Spain for proceeding to medical checking of the mother's ailing situation. The writing has its own inner rhythm, alternating between the accumulation of details and small observations and realistic descriptions to dream-like projections in the manner of Surrealistic writings and psychoanalitical observations. Here is one of my favorites: 'The cortado is made with long-life milk, which is what they mostly use here in the desert. It is the sort of milk that is described as ''commercially stable'''. 
There is not exactly an unique story, but a process of discovery, analysis and introspection. A recurrent motif which appears in the book in many places is the Medusa - with its banal version of the jellyfish - a matriarchal terrible Greek goddess whose gaze turn into stone anyone who looks at her. At certain moments, it can describe the tensed love-and-hate relationship between Sofia and her mother - 'My love for my mother is like an axe. It cuts very deep' -, suffering of a disability rather provoked by emotional and mental disbalances rather than simply medical ones. 
Sofia is struggling hard to come at age, to get free from the dominance of the mother. 'I want to get away from the kinship structures that are supposed to hold me together. To mess up the story I have been told about myself. To hold the story upside down by its tail'. An anthropology graduate, she is tempted to see the world through her academic inquiry for research topics. But her scientific curiosity doesn't always - if ever - lead to answers or solutions, and Sofia seems to be the prisoner of her own dilemma and weight of a life which cultivates confusion, be it at the gender or knowledge level.
Hot Milk it is an unusual beautiful novel and definitely I will read and probably review soon too more books by Deborah Levy.

Rating: 4 stars

Book Review: Foreign Gods Inc. by Okey Ndibe

Ike, a New York-based Nigerian car driver with an Amherst magna cum laude degree but a strong accent plans to steal during his stay back home a revered statue of a goddess in order to seal it to a gallery specialized in 'foreign gods'. An anti-hero par excellence, with an impressive record of failures and a mouting debt, he has to deal with a financially demanding family home and a nauseating curiosity and respect for his 'Americanness' among relatives and former school colleagues.
It is a captivating story, which leads the reader ironically through the ridiculousness of new and old religions or greediness prompted by belief. There are mentions about the stereotypical - but real - Nigerian corruption but the focus is more anthropological than political, debating the conflicts and genesis of new religions and belief. 
The writing is captivating and takes you into the various episodes of the story. Shortly before the end, you might forget why you are there as the actual aim of the trip to Nigeria, stealing the statue of the deity, is taking place too fast and ends up as another failure in the life of Ike, with a verdict of the 'Foreign Gods' Gallery owner that 'African deities are no longer in vogue'. Ike is offered a check covering less than a small share of his debts, but the piece of wood is operating in mysterious ways but sometimes. But it is too late for a change and the game is over before Ike realizes it. 
Although I recommend the book, I was greatly disappointed by the relatively weak story construction within an otherwise very good story. This novel has all the good ingredients of something much bigger, but somehow, it emulated its main character and failed mid-way.

Rating: 3 stars

Friday, July 7, 2017

Bookish interview: Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, author of Sarong Party Girls

Sarong Party Girls, by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan was one of my favorite books of the last year. The author was not new to me, as A Tiger in the Kitchen, a collection of food experiences and memories from Singapore was another favorite of mine, many years back. Always busy writing or introducing her book, Cheryl was kind enough to answer a couple of questions for my blog. You can find her also on her website: www.cheryllulientan.com, or on Twitter: CherylTan88 or Instagram: CherylTan88 (Warning: her social media accounts will encourage your glutony and wanderlust). If you haven't read the book yet, SPGs is available as paperback too!

Photo credit: James Veall

What was your inspiration for the Sarong Party Girls? 


​I've always found SPGs and the culture around SPGs completely fascinating -- this little world in Singapore, to me, says something significant about the ​country and the sexual and racial politics of the place. Why is it that there exists a certain type of woman who sees status and material value in having a Caucasian husband or boyfriend? What are the forces of our history -- colonial or otherwise -- that have shaped this desire and belief in the value of Caucasian-ness?
 
​Seeing SPGs and SPG bars in Singapore always made me ponder these questions, so when it came to writing my first novel, this character that had always fascinated me​ came to mind. This all came to a head when I was in Singapore researching A Tiger in the Kitchen, ​and ​I reconnected with many childhood friends, ​some of whom were recently divorced and had started hitting the bars and clubs again. The more time I spent with these women at these clubs, the more interesting characters and vignettes I kept coming across.
​ One night, a friend who had recently started dating a British man jokingly told me her big new goal: A "Chanel baby," which is a half-expat, half-Singaporean baby, named as such because it's such a status symbol, "the Chanel of babies!" I remember going home and writing that term down right away. 
It wasn't intentional but when I sat down to write SPG, 
​a lot of ​
these little backdrops and scenes all formed the tapestry that ended up being Jazzy's world. 


Why it was important for you to keep Singlish as the communication language of the protagonists? 

I've said that Jazzy really dictated this book -- in Singlish -- to me and I'm not entirely joking! Jazzy's voice came very clearly to me from the very beginning and I realized immediately that there was no point trying to write this in proper Queen's English or American English. It would be futile -- and I simply wouldn't be doing her justice. She was going to tell her story the way she wanted it told and I was simply the messenger. 

Having said that, I love Singlish. I find it to be one of the most beautiful things about Singapore and Singaporeans -- it is a deliciously rich patois that is so many things: incredibly to the point, expressive, playful, cheekily vulgar, efficient and musical. More important it really speaks to the heart of who we are -- it threads together our languages and dialects so seamlessly and its expressions so accurately telegraph our very essentially Singaporean spirit. When we talk of racial harmony in Singapore, I often think that Singlish is the most beautiful and important examples of that, since it's all of our languages tossed together into an irresistible salad. Also, it's a huge unifier -- whenever I meet strangers overseas who are Singaporean, once the Singlish starts flying out of our mouths there is an instant, very tight bond. I love that.

Of course, there was slight concern on my part that some readers wouldn't want to try to understand Singlish, but I had to wonder whether Anthony Burgess worried about something similar when writing A Clockwork Orange or Marlon James when he wrote A Brief History of Seven Killings. The truth is, you have to tell your story how you hear it and feel it or it's just going to be garbage. And then hope that when you send it out into the world, someone will want to read it. That's the best -- the only -- thing you can do. 

How important is Singapore for your writing as a a source of inspiration? Will it be the next background for your next novel too? By the way, what will be the next novel about? 

​Singapore is hugely important to me -- I found it an endlessly fascinating place when I was growing up there and still do, whenever I return to visit my family. (Almost my entire family still lives there and I go back a few times a year.)​ I find it interesting how the country is so known to the world in some ways -- as one of the most expensive places to live, a tremendously wealthy country, a place with caning as punishment and strict laws on everything from chewing gum to flushing the toilet. And yet the Singapore I know is much more nuanced than that -- it has murky characters, situations and a multitude of stories that beg to be told. These are the stories I want to tell. My next novel, which I'm currently working on, is set in Singapore as well. I'm not talking about it yet but am very much looking forward to sharing that world when I can.

What is your advice for the first time writer, including how to fight writers' block?

The best way to write a book is to just sit down and write -- so many people I know (myself included, when I'm stuck) feel paralyzed and go out of their way to avoid just sitting down and putting pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard. Sometimes the act of sitting down and doing that is all you need to trigger the words -- they may not be the most perfect words or the best story that day but at least something is coming out and you can finesse it all later. That's how I fight writers' block anyway -- I'm not sure but perhaps it was Woody Allen who once said, "80% of success is showing up." I normally loathe platitudes but this is one I don't mind.  

Will it be a continuation of SPGs?

​I am working on a new novel but it isn't a sequel in any way to Sarong Party Girls. It's also set in Singapore but in a very different world -- and not written in Singlish. When I wrote SPG I saw it as a contained story but some have argued that the ending perhaps begs for a continuation. Perhaps in the future!​

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Book review: Siracusa by Delia Ephron

Siracusa by Delia Ephron starts as an average saga of two couples on vacation telling their own account of the events unfolding during their holidays. Predictably, there is at least one break-up in sight, a cheat - or rather a cheater -, bedroom drama. However, what makes a story more readable than the other is the talent of the author to fill up an over-used matrix with quality writing. Skeptical to start it, although on my to-read list for this year, I hardly accepted it finished, as I got caught into the net of the stories and the diamond-shaped emotions.
Finn and Taylor Dolan and their daughter born during a blizzard, Snow, on one side and the childless - 'We didn't have children, our lies were our children' - couple Michael Shapner and Lizzie Ross, plan together a vacation in Italy. Lizzie and Finn were lovers 15 years ago, Michael is having an adventure with a Kat girl from a restaurant and Snow is bizarre soon-to-be teenager. In other words, two complicated - almost dying marriages, and one complicated kid, all you need to carry on in your emotional luggage to Italy.
Each of them - except Snow and Kat - are telling dairy-style their version of the events the day after. Sometimes the interpretations are different, sometimes the details are others. But, as Lizzie said: '(...) suppose you see the corner of a building at sunset and one side is beige and the other flamingo pink when both are in fact the same drab red prick? And a second later the vision is gone because the earth has moved infinitesimally. Was what you saw reality? Is there always more than one?'. For me, Lizzie is one of the most 'quotable', therefore interesting character, also maybe because she is the one strong enough to break up a marriage that was not going anywhere. Meanwhile, she was deeply analysing both at an individual and general level matrimony and its discontent, like this remark: 'There are some people who dump all their misery into marriage, make wedded bliss their neurotic nest, and the best version of them lives outside that 'ugly place''.
Tension is in the air all along the story, but is mounting following the sudden presence of Kat, a naive girl who dreamed about a happily ever after with a married man many years her senior. To have it all, there is also a bit of mystery thriller pinch, just to make the story even more interesting.
All the pieces of the stories are coming together very nicely, like pieces of a beautiful writing mosaique and there is a lot to learn and be delighted while reading Siracusa. Because it is good writing and such a delightful best case writing scenario is not a common occurrence nowadays, even there is an impressive amount of books on the market. 

Rating: 4 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review


Sunday, June 25, 2017

Book review: After Birth by Elisa Albert

As I am writing this, I am at the end of the very exhausting weekend when the baby threw as many tantrums as possible, by day and when possible, by night too. I felt more than once at the end of my strength, while trying to finish a book about traumatic post-birth first-time mothers experiences. 
The main characters had a different story than mine as I neither had a C-section nor went through post-partum depression. I don't have a devoted husband either to eventually take care of me when I might have enough of 'that furious impotent infant scream'. But any women that went through the first year of motherhood can easily connect with many of the experiences and feelings shared. 
The motherhood experiences are told mostly from inside the house, not from the street when everyone can look nice and clean and with a large sympathetic smile on the face. Therefore it goes rather into the authentic than in the make believes. The true is that one can hardly know what to expect after birth. From the hormones-infuses clouds of the pregnancy one lands into the hardship of sleepless nights and the pains of breastfeeding, the impossibility to communicate with the little something that we can die for but sometimes we feel they are about to kill us slowly. 'Sometimes, I'm with the baby and think: you're my heart and my sould, and I would die for you. Other times I think: moron, leave me the fuck alone so I can slit my wrists in the bath and die in peace'.
Most of the to-do-list assigned to mothers is from outside and this goes also to the role assigned to the woman as children bearers. Or the psychotic attachment to our children until their old age as they are still part of us, of our womb, and not individuals with their own life and body. 'These tiny people, they're not about you. They are not for you. They do not belong to you. They are under your care, ijs all, and it's your job at being a decent human being, love them well and a lot, don't put your problems on them, don't make your problems their problems, don't use them to occupy empty parts of yourself'. 
The men and the baby too are background characters of this story, but the relationship with other women, including her own, now deceased mother, are obsessive, toxic and only fuel the tension. Her self-hate relationship with her Jewish identity is the most stereotypical part of the story, which actually I didn't enjoy at all. But for those who don't care too much about this, it is a good book with fantastic ironies and sarcasm and cruel reality. Believe me, motherhood is not for the faints of heart!

Rating: 4 stars

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Book review: The Idiot by Elif Batuman

During her freshman year at Harvard, the American-born Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, is falling in love with an older mathematics student from Hungary, Ivan. Set in 1995, the love story starts via e-mail, a novelty form of communication at the time, but doesn't go beyond the word level, although Selin will decide to spend a couple of weeks in Hungary teaching English in remote villages hoping to be closer to him.
Although not rich in events and actions, this book has a continual flow of observations and intellectual games. This is an example: 'The professor was talking about the differences between creative and academic writing. I kept nodding. I was thinking about the structural equivalences between a tissue box and a book: both consisted of slips of white paper  in a cardboard case; yet and this was ironic - there was very little functional equivalence, especially if the book wasn't yours'. 
Selin, an autobiographical character, lives her life through stories and believes there is a sense in language, but doesn't necessarily find any connection with feelings and encounters. Her virtual relationship with Ivan, although completed through meetings in real time is just a projection as she is unable to connect the words to life and real emotions. The entire book is Selin journey through words trying to start her life. The constant monologue is creating an image of an active interior life, the permanent struggle to make order in the daily chaos through words. It is Selin's search for meaning and her formation time. She might look lost and the dialogues can sound sometimes like absurd and non-sensical, but did you ever hear how does your interior life conversations sound like?
It is an intense intellectual novel, with unexpected references and associations, a delightful walk to discovery of the limits of rationality and words, with many comics and humorous episodes. 
It took me more than usual to read it because it is a different way of story-telling, but the reading adventure is fully worth the intellectual effort. 

Rating: 3.5-4 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review 

Bookish interview: Martin Wheadon, author of Networking Thoughtfully

Networking is almost everything nowadays. We need to know how to do it correctly for work or for a better, inter-connected life. But are we sure we are doing it properly? In the last years, plenty of books were published aimed to help a better and thoughtfully networking. As an intensive social media user, I am always happy to read and introduce to my readers new ideas and books. M. Wheadon is the author of a recent book aimed to offer fast assistance for an efficient networking. He was kind enough to share his impressions as an author with my readers in the following interview:

- What does it mean for you, *networking thoughtfully'?
It means networking with the other person in mind: changing the emphasis from what can I offer you to what is it you want, and then seeing if you can satisfy that need.
- Does networking work for any domain of activity, for instance mathematics or engineering, domains by excellence confined to the silent world of the lab or research?
Networking only works when people want to network. If people genuinely want to find out what others are doing and if you genuinely want to help them, then networking works in any sphere. It concentrates your mind into fully understanding what your product offers, but integral with that must be a desire what the other party needs, so there can be a successful dovetail of information.
With the readers
- What are the risks of a not-networking attitude, both personally and professionally?
To me, I think it just means you don't broaden your horizons as well as you could. By networking, you can understand trend, foresee patterns and get an in depth understanding of the market in which you operate - the swapping of stories. It's not all about selling product, it's about learning your industry and learning about the marketplace in general.
- What is, in your opinion, the percentage played by networking in the success of a business? 
I think we are networking 100% of the time. Whatever we do, whatever we say and how we do it, is in some respect networking.
- What was the biggest challenge for you of writing this book?
Overcoming the fear that nobody would buy it. But, I knew that whilst it is not a huge book, it genuinely contains tips that worked for me and, therefore, I thought it was worthwhile putting it out there in the public domain.
- What are your next writing plans?
None. I wrote the book a little while ago but tragically my wife died of cancer and it was inappropriate to market the book. Since then, I've left the world of banking and don't think I have anything else to offer on that subject. But, as your question has prompted me to think, there may be a book called Pastoral Caring Thoughtfully, building upon my experiences as a minister of religion.

Photo: Archives of the author

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Book review: Prussian Blue, by Philip Kerr

A political thriller with a German background, going back and forth between 1956 and 1939, Prussian Blue is a dense book with interesting dialogues and an overdose of history.
The 12th installment of Bernie Gunther mysteries, a policeman trying to remain honest in the Nazi Germany without being a party member, the books brings into the story various episodes from the contemporary history, shortly before the start if WWII and during the Cold War. As the story advances, there are some similarities in the structure of the narrative which does not limit the development of the events. 
The investigation requested from Gunther into a crime committed in the 1930s against a relatively low level bureaucrat at Berghof, the dictator's headquarters in the South of Germany brough to life the extent of corruption within the party's leadership. Characters from that time are coming back to life under different uniforms in the Stasi-dominated Communist Germany asking Gunther, refugiated after the war at the French Riviera, to poison a British pawn considered disposable. While trying to escape this task, and his Stasi followers, Gunther remembers his assignment in the South of Germany, where he went through the dangerous beehive of the Nazis. Both stories do have an ending hard to predict, but as the detective is getting closer to the truth, the life is becoming more and more dangerous.
I personally was a bit disappointed by the ending, but it could also be that the dialogues and the writing in general are so captivating that you can hardly want the story to end, regardless of the ending. 
A recommended read to anyone interested to read a good thriller with a solid history background and interesting legal twists. 

Rating: 4 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Book review: Girls' Weekend, by Cara Sue Achterberg

Dani, Charlotte and Meg are heading to a well deserved girls' weekend, far away from their family stress and work overload. But after the two days of rest are over, none of them is ready to return to their everyday lives.
Although maybe the ending is predictable, the way in which each of the three women is developing the relationship with her self is interesting and not without surprising discoveries. At the rented house near the beach, in less than one month, the friends are completely reinventing themselves, looking back to their complex past and starting to get over the failures of their professional and personal lives or grief after loss of a child. 
Most importantly, they learn to discover what it really matters in their life, by finding the inner resources for more rewarding personal relationships and more meaning in life. The women characters are complex and interesting case studies, while on the men side, there is a disbalance, as they are portrayed as almost the same, selfish and pretty simplistic in their approaches to married life.
If you are looking for a thoughtful read at the beginning of the summer or during your weekend - with or without your girls - this book is a good choice, that makes you think about and maybe reconsider your couple life. You may also decide to stay longer out of your usual routine, but what is important is to never think you are done with your life and always keep looking for meaning and never accept getting lost in other people's lives.

Rating: 3 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Bookish Stuttgart

My trip to Stuttgart, at the beginning of this year, was a well-planned and much waited experience, which involved 48 full hours of exploration and the promise of a coming back. Although not on purpose as early, as I got lost trying to find our way to the hotel, it started with a visit at one of the top libraries in Germany, the Municipal Library - Stadtbibliothek - am Mailänder Platz.
The library is part of an area still in development - Europaviertel created around the main central station where main financial institutions are located -, aimed at offering a contemporary architectural alternative to the usual urban structures. If before, the castle was the beating heart of a city, in the modern world, knowledge overpass social status. The facade is made of a concrete cube made of 9x9 panels, which are illuminated from inside during the night. 
The building can be accessed from all the four sides of the building. The visitors can start their journey with a stop at the meditation room. Inspired by the Pantheon, it has in its center a small fountain wrapped in blue lights. 
After this first silent memento, the bookish adventure can begin. From floor 1 to 8, the soundproofed building lavishly displays an intricated maze of books. There is an art and children section, a music library and a big section dedicated to German and world literature. You can either read on one of the couches placed near the stairs or at the big tables indoors. The 79 million Euro investment, the work of Yi Architects, is an aesthetical surprise, rewriting the way in which libraries are created. A visit at the library means more than hurrying up to pick up your books, but can last as a search for new unexpected sources of knowledge in an inspirational environment. From the last floor, a terrace and a bar, one can also have a view over the new and old Stuttgart. 
After I left, my biggest regret was that I not live in this city to have the regular pleasure of searching for books on the shelves of this work of art.
But it seems Stuttgart has a tradition in terms of bookish love, as a couple of hours later I was exploring a 150-year old bookstore, Buchhaus Wittwer. Situated in the busy area of the Schlossplatz, the old times equivalent of the Europaviertel where the modern library is situated. The four-floor building hosts permanent conferences and meetings with the authors and has a significant English-books section. My favorite corners to explore was the one dedicated to thrillers - Krimi, in German - written by local German authors and the cute children section.
If you are a book lover and you visit Stuttgart, you will not be disappointed as this city has a generous offer for the bookish people like you - and me. 

Monday, May 22, 2017

Meet the Mumins

Meet the Mumins! They are a family of 3 white-hippos looking alike creatures - Moominpappa, Moominmamma and Moomintroll - , carefree and adventurous, curious and nature lovers. The creatures created by the Swedish-speaking Tove Jonsson and later her brother Lars Jonsson, they are considered a symbol of Finland, with a thematic park dedicated to them in Naantali.
Compared to other graphic novels that I devoured, my first encounter with the Mumins, through the volume 9 of the series published a couple of years ago by Reprodukt edition house in Germany, specialized in this genre of literature, wasn't memorable and not even encouraged me to run to the library for reserving the rest of the collection. Actually, it took me a long time to decide to continue with the stories, but I was strongly driven by the curiosity to explore a famous national literary brand.
Apparently, the style of the stories changed from a story to another, with more topics explored including of political and social nature. For instance, in my book, it was approached the issue of colonialism and democracy. The dialogues are usually simple and every snippet has a lot of action going on. 
As the topics approached are relatively complex, I recommend to read it after 9-10 years old. The Mumins are easy going and can be easily resonate with many one-child families.
Probably, my only problem with them is that they are not necessarily my cup of graphic novels, which means either too sophisticated politically or displaying beautiful illustrations for first time readers.
However, I would definitely would be curious to read more critique about them and interpretation of their inclusion part of the Finnish national literary Pantheon. 

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Book review: Rich People Problems, by Kevin Kwan

The third and last installment of the Crazy Rich Asian series, Rich People Problems is back with a slightly different novel which maintain the absurd and non-sensical lavish ambiance of the previous books but adds some insightful unexpected details to this hilarious family saga.
Su Yi, the matriarch of the family is on her deathbed and the future inheritance of Tyersall Park is unknown but creates suspense, envy and tensions among the members of the clan, reunited from all over the world. One of them is the grandmother's favorite, Nicholas - Nick - who was considered a disgrace after marrying for love to an educated woman with an 'inferior' pedigree. He arrives just in time for a reconciliation, but his presence only increases the tension and the suspense which will continue until the will will be read after Su Yi's death.
As in the previous books, there are a lot of gossips and envy and many many brand name dropping, psychotic characters paying thousands of dollars for an eye lift for a fish and soap opera intrigues. Forget the children of the Russian mafia featured in glossy magazines with golden toys and limited edition high-fashion designer clothes, Singapore tycoons - naming their children Harvard, Carlton or Scheherazde - can do it much better.
There are also subtle observations about the evolution of wealth and the matrimonial alliances, mostly uttered by the only fully coherent character, Nick. After his favorite noodle bar, Sun Yik, disappeared, he uttered a long lament about the fate of Singapore: 'Everything I love about Singapore is gone. Or it's disappearing fast. Every time I'm back, more and more of my favorite haunts have closed or have been torn down. Restaurants, shops, buildings, cemeteries, nothing is sacred any more. The whole character of the island I knew growing up is almost completely obliterated'.
Another complex and insightful character is Astrig Leong, who after a complicated divorce and the permanent pressure from her family to conform to the model assigned decided to break free and find herself on a small island in the Philippines.
Especially the last 100 pages of the novel are surprising and add elements of spy novels to the many pages dedicated to real estate tycoons and extravagant private jets rides to buy millions worth dresses. Apparently, Su Yi was modestly hiding many secrets, including a love affair, and her extraordinary services during WWII changed completely the fate of Tyersall Park.
Although one may find the topic too soft, the book has a good structure and there are enough characters that can be easily loved. Kevin Kwan is obviously a writer whose talent can go beyond the glossy magazines intrigues and I am curious what will be the next novel after the Crazy Rich Asians saga is over.

Rating: 4 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The 25th Fall for Commissario Brunetti

As much as I love to read modern crime fiction, with spectacular geopolitical and cyber-terrorist connections, I prefer once in a while the pleasant read of a classical novel, where the fast speed is replaced by a temperate pace, without hold-ups but eventually featuring an intelligent, well-read detective.
The 25th installment of the series dedicated to Commissario Brunetti from Venice, The Waters of Eternal Youth, doesn't take your breath away but invites to a subtle investigation for finding the person responsible for an accident taking place 15 years ago. As in the case of the other stories featuring the famous Italian detective, there are many local intrigues and spicey Venetian gossips and rich-people stories - and their problems, but also interesting reflections on current political and social issues, as the Italian divisive situation or the position regarding immigration and immigrants.
The fall - finding what happened with the granddaughter of a local personality, who after being throw into the waters suffered a severe mental retard - seems to go nowhere after the first half of the book. In fact, it seems that everything is possible to happen in this book except to solve the riddle. Until he is identified, completely by accident, but Venice is a small world and sometimes things just can happen, there is no trace of him into the story, but the elements that make sense of the final answer are carefully created. 
As all the books by Donna Leon I've read, you need to use both logic and creativity to understand the end of the story. It also has many educated references, to Greek tragedies or classical literature.
This book is recommended to anyone interested to spend some intelligent time reading a classical crime fiction novel. In the company of Commissario Brunetti the (literary) life is never uneventful.

Rating: 4 stars

Thursday, May 18, 2017

#IStillRemember: Meet the author Priya Prithviraj

This month, part of my usual book tour stop organised by WriterlyYours I decided to invite Priya, who just published an interesting Young Adult novel I Still Remember, to share her writing process experience.
Priya is writing poems that were published, among others in Eastlit and New Plains Review, but also write about books and recommendations. You can find her here.

You can find her book on AMAZONhttp://a.co/h6LTpn8

The life of the manuscript

Thanks Ilana for offering this space to share my writing process. So, to keep it short and precise, I’m going to talk about just the process up to the manuscript phase leaving out the further editing that the manuscript may undergo prior to publication.

If I could narrow it down to 5 simple steps, those would be:

  1. Plotting - rough plot - ideas
  2. World building - developing the world, characters - research
  3. Outlining - structure and organising
  4. Drafting - draft 1, print, draft 2
  5. Polishing - print, read, polish

I get started with a project when I have a basketful of ideas. As a writer, I’m always looking for ideas and inspiration, and I collect them in my digital diary. Sometimes I get ideas when I’m travelling and I jot them down using the notes app on my phone. There could be visual inspiration too - pictures I click and pictures I find online, are all saved at one place. When I think I have enough ideas to form the story, I try to put them together to form a rough plot.

The Research Stage

Once I have the rough plot, I start with research. Research could involve reading, interviewing, watching movies or documentaries, travelling, and doing things that you want to write about. I even tried my hand at Korean cooking while writing I Still Remember because I wanted to lend some authenticity to the story setting especially since I was writing out of my culture and country.

The next step in my writing process is world building and it involves rewriting the plot in a more elaborate manner in the light of my research. It would magnify the plot and would include developing the places and people in the story. The places could be real or fictional or a mix of both, and once I’ve developed the place, I add the places to the plot. While developing the characters, I try to develop a complete profile or story for each of them and that makes writing about them easier. For example, if I know that a character is an optimist, when I have written a scene where something goes wrong, I can imagine what the character would say and write that down. So I work around the characters and the places a lot to build a world that readers can immerse themselves in.

Once I’m done with world building I start building my story. I develop an outline of the story which would mean putting together the larger plot alongside a timeline and working out a structure for the story. When I have the outline ready, I begin writing my first draft.

Working the drafts

Many a time, getting that first draft written is what takes a lot of time and once you have that done, you feel more confident and organised about the whole writing project. I like to print out my drafts so that I can spend more time with it, reading and making notes on it, even when I’m not at my computer. So after the first round of reading and editing, I would start working on my second draft which is basically fleshed out of the first.

When I have completed the second draft, I would take some time off and then get back to it to follow the same pattern as with the first draft - print, read and polish. When I’m happy with the draft, I may share it with someone or just send it for editing directly.

As you can see, my writing process is not very difficult but it demands patience and perseverance. So, get back to those drafts you abandoned halfway and begin afresh with a writing process that suits you.   


Note: The title and undertitles belong to me