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