Sunday, October 15, 2017

Book Review: The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins

Although it was a bestseller for more than one year, I was never curious enough to check any review about The Girl on the Train or look for the book immediately the news of the success reached me. Actually, I was so detached from the media mainstream that when I took the book from the shelf of the library, all I knew about it was that it is a bestseller which happens in the case of over 50% of the books I read. This apparent information gap created quite an almost non-existent wall of expectations. I've just started reading the book without any knowledge about what it will happen and how the thriller may further  I may confess that once in a while I am doing it. 
During the couple of hours of reading, I went through the ups and downs of the story, made doubts and expressed concerns without being sure of my feelings and assumptions. Therefore, I enjoyed the full pleasure of the lecture. 
The lecture was pleasant overall, although sometimes it reminded me of some episodes of the Hausfrau, meaning there is a lot of daily nothingness with as much appeal as a very bored housewife. However, there is an insidous part of the story which warns about the everyday evil. How, in fact, a very innocent looking playboy with a penchant for lying can be as dangerous as a first page criminal. And there is Rachel, which is the genius character of this story, the key of solving the murder, although the least trustworthy witness. 'Drunk Rachel' which 'sees no consequences, she is either excessively expansive and optimistic or wrapped up in hate. She has no past, no future. She exists purely in the moment'. 
Although the story in itself is not the most brilliant in the world, Hawkins creates a fine work of writing, seismographically outlining the most common tensions, insecurities and doubts, in a killing cadence of morning/evening, following the dairy entries of the main women characters of the story: Rachel, Megan and Anna.
Overall, it is a book worth reading, if not for the story, for some fragments of good writing. Once I started the reading it was hard to leave it and sometimes it is just enough to want to recommend the book further.

Rating: 3.5 stars  

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Book Review: Nine Women by Frances M. Thompson

My motivation to keep reading in the given order and all the short stories of a volume of short stories is the chance of a journey through different characters and encounters, while discovering a bit about the author' style in each and every one of them. Nine Women by Frances M. Thompson is such an unique adventure.
You can read each and every one of the stories at your own pace, start in your desired order, read it again and again, or just keep the author's choice. Any of those choices are a guarantee of the pleasure of reading. 
The pleasure of reading does not have to do with swimming within your comfort zone. The women and men of those short stories do have doubts, emotional breakdowns or deeply hidden truths, are looking for emotional identity and are fighting hard with confusion and despair. The writing often takes a poetic turn, inviting the reader to float together with the charaters through ambiguity and incertainty. It is where the pleasure of reading can lead you without acknowledging it, but once there, a true reader will confirm that it is the best place to be. The writing of Frances M. Thompson makes you float between worlds in a realm shaped by words. I praised the intellectual adventure and the emotional topsy-turvy. There is so much to guess about ourselves only at the borderline. 

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

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The 12-Step Plan to Take Charge of Your Career

A healthy inspiration for both women looking to open their business or just to upgrade and adjust their career plans, Boss Bitch offers mind opening and straight forward professional advice. When you are embarking on a new career, you need honesty and reliable support.
Of course it is amazing to have your own business and be your own boss, but failures and bankrupcy can be as real as your dream of becoming a billionaire. 'There's no one-size-fits-all-path for your career', says Nicole Lapin and she is perfectly right. Taking the right decision is what you need, based on your skills and professional background, but do it fast because 'as they say, the road of life is paved with flattened squirrels who couldn't make a decision'.
Being a boss (bitch) means more than giving orders and having a top career enjoying the pleasure of an office and many (frightened) employees, it means an attitude and a way of life, while you 'run your life like a business'. 'A boss mentality is all about how you feel and carry yourself', and this idea is one of the best I got in the last months. It means being in charge of yourself in a majestic way, having the right screening capacity to make choices and decide, while eliminating the background noise of  naysayers and unproductive thoughts. 'No, you shouldn't change yourself or your personality drastically for any job (or relationships). But you should accentuate those parts of yourself that align with the company's brand and culture'. 
I am usually a very speed reader, but I wanted to take my time for carefully going through all the advice in the book, as I am right now in a very important career turning point. Put the swearing beside - but it is in fact a good example of being yourself and showing your way without complexes, regardless what people say - you will find a lot of extraordinary advice about tailoring the best outfit for your career and life. It starts with the very beginning of creating the plans and identifying what you are good at, and continues with shaping the right career path of being more than a manager, but a leader with a strong voice at the business table, inspiring other people and writing your own business story. It is more or less a question of defining success and happiness and moving forward accordingly, while staying with the feet deep into the ground.
I will definitely read this book more than once, as it really helps channeling the real you and creating both complex life and career opportunities. It is the kind of useful book that you wish you had in your hands before starting your business.

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

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Welcome to the House of Spies

After the Black Widow, I curiously waited the new adventures of the Israeli spy Gabriel Allon, now chief of the intelligence service. There is something addictive in the way in which Daniel Silva is telling stories about terrible events and complicated geopolitical structures, with the historical, intelligence and political background gently introduced into the narrative. 
House of Spies is following Allon's efforts to annihilate Saladin, his no. 1 enemy, the creator and orchestrator of a 'new generation of suicide warriors'. Based on the main trademark of Saladin: 'He believed that in terror, as in life, timing was everything', he creates an international team which is trying to decipher his traces going from Marseilles until the hidden corners of Morocco. 'His target was a man. A man who had built a network of death that had laid siege to the great cities of the civilized world'. As his main profits for investing in the terror plans are the narcotics, the intelligence agents are going back to the origins of the narcotics trade in Europe. As in all the previous book from the series I've read, it mentions current events and world stage evolutions, which are inserted into the story, such as, for instance, the fears of the cybercaliphate: 'Martyrs-in-waiting would be radicalized in hidden corners of the dark web and then guided toward the masterminds they had never met. Such was the brave new world that the Internet, social media, and encrypted messaging had brought about'. 
Until the very end of the book, there are interesting spectacular turn of events taking place, with unexpected changes and challenges and breathtaking surprises. What I liked less what the insertion of some new age elements, with some jinni hungers praying near a toilet seat in Morocco and some future reading lady in Corsica.
Right now, I set the countdown until the next book by Daniel Silva. Maybe I can fill the waiting time with some of his 17 books I haven't read yet.

Rating: 4.5 stars

A Summer at Rose Island that Changed it All

There is certainly a recipe for developing 'feel good' books: you have a new comer looking to start completely fresh and a mysterious, sometimes grumpy foreigner with a kind of dark history. Until the end of the story, you have a romance going on, frequently finished by a proposal.
What makes the difference though is how do you feel this matrix, the art of creating the story. Darcy arrives at White Cliff Bay after a high record of personal and professional failures, with a fresh new job at the local council and the promise of a new start far away from her overcritical parents. The lonely resident of the historical lighthouse, Riley, put his eyes on her and will become her boyfriend soon. 
What I love about this romance story, which goes on very nicely, is the context created: the fight for preserving the historical lighthouse, whose destruction is imminent for making place for a lavish hotel. Darcy's social involvement for preserving the lighthouse creates an interesting human background story which balances the relationship history.
Overall, it is a pleasant reading, with its English charm and an optimistic vibe, a good reading companion for the summer or the holiday season in general. 

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

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

What I Didn't Like about The Lubetkin Legacy, by Marina Lewycka

After completely disliking The Short History of Tractors - I love good humour, but stereotypical, slightly racist humour is not my cup of tea - and unable to finish other two books by Marina Lewycka, 50 pages into The Lubetkin Legacy I was a little bit thriller and decided to continue.
Mostly based on a compound designed by the architect Berthold Lubetkin which supported affordable housing projects in London, it takes an ironic twist to the bed-tax, which limits the number of rooms assigned to socially assisted families. 
After the death of his mother, Berthold Sidebottom a 50+ unemployed actor, named after the architect with whom she apparently had an affair, is dealing with the perspective of being removed from his flat. In order to save his legacy, he requests a bizarre woman, Inna, met at the hospital, to move with him and impersonate his mother. 
In parallel with his story, told in the first person, there is the story of Violet, the Kenyan-born young lady next door, which is always said at the third person, which is running at the same time. Although their lives cross for short, and always ridiculous amounts of time, there is not too sense of this second story which involve corrupt Kenyan politicians and dishonest London city companies. Each of the stories flow, but their presence in the same book do not make too much sense. 
The social message of the book with discourses about equality and social justice is understandable, but the characters are so ridiculous, greedy and created to prove that, it seems that human nature is not designed to reach this aim. Therefore, you have unidimensional, mostly greedy and superficial, characters, unfinished and soul-less. Actually, there are way too many stereotypes for one single book.
Note to self: the next time be clear about the authors you definitely don't like, which is not a frequent occurence in my case

Rating: 2 stars

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Book Review: Hausfrau, by Jill Alexander Nussbaum

A modern times version of both Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina, Anna is an expat version of an American 'Hausfrau' living in Switzerland, married with a local man working in the banking sector and mother of three. She is filling her uneventful life with sexual adventures with men met on different random occasions. Anna collects lovers, each a 'version of love'.
The action is taking place during three months, from September to November, and the period of time is filled with episodes from the past, fragments from therapy sessions, encounters with new and old friends and meditations on language. The story has an extraordinary construction, made of paragraphs reflecting each other like mirrors, creating a certain density of the story.  
From the very beginning, there is inequal intensity of the different fragments of the story, with reflections and projections being interwoven with intense sexual encounters and wanderings through the night. 
At 38, Anna is searching: for herself, meaning of friendship, understanding home, finding a sense of her memories, her loneliness...Her everyday lies, her treasons, the incapacity to resist the temptation of doing over and over again the same mistake(s) are hunting her day and night, with the strength of a deadly psychosis. The first half of the novel promises a lot, a promise not delivered in the end. I personally got caught and charmed from the beginning - I've read the book in just a couple of hours - but as the story was reaching it end, my disappointment grew. I was not expecting a spectacular end, but even the predictable can be shaped in a proper literary form. Instead, I felt like that the last quarter of the story, despite with some dramatic shifts, was just hurried up to the reader. 
The daily geographical and cultural background of the novel, especially the insights into the Swiss mentality, are authentic, probably based on the author's own experiences as expat in Switzerland.
Although the novel promises a lot but delivers only half, the author has a great writing potential and would be curious to read other works signed by her. 

Rating: 3 stars

The Magic of Poetry: The Age of Magic by Ben Okri

On their way from Paris to Basel to film a documentary about Arcadia, an imaginary land considered the classical epithome of the perfect co-existence between humans and nature, the 8 members of the film crew are going through dreamlike spiritual experiences. Their inspiration for searching and finding new depths into the concept of Arcadia is stimulated by their stay for 3 days and two nights at a hotel near the Swiss Regi mountain, whose mysterious reflection into the lake is a source of tremendous inspiration.
But inspiration is supposed to be a gift and a poison, and the search for Arcadia means also pushing the limits of creation, which is always a dramatic challenge for the being. Wrapped in an ambiance of dream, some of the conversations remind of some mild variants of the Platonic dialogues. Most of the discussions are though fragments of dreams: '(...) there are some conversations so strange that they are only remembered much later, but not noticed at the time'. 
As a reader, you often feel in the middle of a cocoon, where you go back and forth, looking for your own sense of life and humanity, or just being left out of a dream. At the end of the prose poem, each of the characters is taking the chance of a change and the opportunity of a metamorphosis; 'Standing on the shore, they sensed a syllabe streaming through all things. They heard the sustaining hum which seemed to originate in the depths of their hearts and in the farthes reaches of space. The hum washed through them and sweetened the taste of life'.
The text flows smoothly, like the background music of the meditation soundtrack. For me, reading this book was like a journey through the deep meanings and dream textures. A recommended read when you long for a creative touch for switching life paths.

Rating: 4 stars

Children Book Review: The Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotson

Abandoned as a child and found by accident in a church by two maids to a family of Austrian professors in Vienna, Annika was always dreaming about finding - or being found miraculously by -  her real mother. Far for being ungrateful for the life she was offered, but she was curious and hoped that the mystery of her birth will be revealed. She was ready to forget everything about being abandoned only to have the chance to meet her.
But take care what do you wish for. One day, exactly as in her dreams, an elegant lady is arriving at the professors' door, loaded with a noble title, a lot of documents proving the family connections and the promise of a glamorous future in Germany. With a broken heart, she is leaving those who were her closest family from birth while optimistically looking forward to her bright future. But things are not what are not supposed to happen as planned this time, and the more time Annika is spending in her new environment, the more suspicions arise. A curious and good nature, she is easily finding friends in any circumstances, as her new social status and condition doesn't change her dramatically.
The last episodes are deem of a fast-forward mystery, with some hilarious, but also some sad episodes and incredible adventures.
Probably I haven't read a classical children book with a touch of history for a long time, but although I am trying to come along with the new mindsets and styles, there is the old adventures' books which will always have my heart. Fast paced, with characters which you either love or hate, faced to make choices in face of adversity, The Star of Kazan is the perfect read for children passionate about history, adventures and a drop of mystery, looking for characters to fall in love with. It is the kind of book whose stories and heroes are staying with you longer after the book is finished, regardless the age. 
As it was my first encounter with Eva Ibbotson, I would probably continue reading her books.

Rating: 4 stars

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Bloody Secret of the Three Envelopes

A gripping debut thriller written by a professionist in the field of intelligence, Three Envelopes explores the darkest labyrinth of the mind of the psychopat master killer. Agent 10483 was recruited by the Organisation a structure within the Israeli secret services, succeeding to simulate sanity and on the other side, despite the fact that at least one person was aware of his serious mental instability. 
The problem appears when the puppet assumes he is the master and takes his role seriously. A dairy written in the present tense sent to the people responsible for him ten year after his presumed death shade light into some of his operations he was part of, but also warns that he might be ready to kick back again against those with a minimal involvement in his case. In fact, for a long time, Agent 10483 has embarked on an ssassination campaign on its own. The reasons are not security-related, but dictated by his sick mind. 
The novel takes back and forth from the dairy to fragments from the past and episodes taking place in the present, when his deep psychosis and the dangers of him being alive are finally acknowledged. The back-and-forth alternation of time sequences creates an interesting profile of the Agent, with its obsessions and psychosis. Maybe in 'real world' his issues could have been fixed through therapy and psychological support, but his drama is that not all gifts are equal and he was easily took for something that he was not. Intelligence has its own limits and this is clearly one of the lessons learned of this book.
As for the ending...the reader might realise that he or she is also part of a mind game, not sure if clearly understood where everything is leading. 
A very interesting thriller, written in a very alert style, hard to put down and with a haunting charm. 

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

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Jerusalem Ablaze: 13 Short stories with a taste of darkness

A collection of 13 short stories of different lengths, the debut of Orlando Ortega-Medina, Jerusalem Ablaze is an exploration into the darkest labyrinths of the mind and the soul. Introduced as 'stories of love and other obsessions', each story is an emotional roller coaster, which brings you Tokyo's Ginza to the Israel's Masada,  alongside with people on a journey to their inner self and dark sides. 
Although a debut, the book is written in a style mature enough to reveal admirably hidden feelings, secret desires and a cultivated ambiguity of the being. You will encounter people searching for their own self or who already found it and are scared enough to show it to the world. People with strange and maybe too many identities and confused feelings, lonely in their unicity and difference. A big role in the emotional investigation pursued in each of the 13 novels is played by the sharp dialogues which compliment the equally well-crafted descriptions.  
Very often, I felt I am part of an adventure set in the art of the Japanese masters of writings and it is no wonder as the author himself recognize his admiration for the mysterious Mishima Yukio. But the discussion on influenes is not so relevant, as long as the writer's style reveals to be unique despite all the literary references that can be identified in the stories. This is the case of Orlando Ortega-Medina, which promises even greater writing achievements in his next endeavours that I am curious to know and especially read about.

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

Saturday, September 9, 2017

My Thoughts about The Patriots, by Sana Krasikov

It is something about reading this book that didn't expect to happen: to make me feel at home intelectually, after so many years when I avoided to have anything to do with a world that I know so well. Better than any other worlds that I was blessed to know in the last years, because after all, the concepts and stories you grew up with are so much part of yourself, that even invisible crumbs of a Madeleine will bring you with the speed of life back in the past. 
I couldn't read The Patriots by Sana Krasikov as fast as I wanted to. I was so caught up by the dense writing, so powerful that you can even imagine the dialogues in English with a strong Russian accent. Every 30 pages or so I wanted to take a breath and think about stories I've read or or heard as a small child growing up in a communist paradise - not Russia - while eavesdropping the complex political dissident discussions of the adults. Revealing only a quarter of them to anyone outside the four walls would have bring long years of prison to the participants, and I was warned regularly that if I dare to share some of the things I've heard accidentally - including fact that they were listening to forbidden radio stations - the orphanage will be my next home, as my parents will for sure end in prison. Actually, it was more than a case when such episodes actually happened, as the classrooms were often the place where teachers working for the secret - intelligence was something rarely associated with those institutions - services were requested to check the ideological conformity of the families, through repeated interogations of children as young as 6. 
I had my own intellectual time when I was reading about prisons and communist delusions and comrades' betrayal and the state-supported anti-Semitism. In the last years though, I rather wanted the company of a 'chick lit' than to read the drama from the Gulag(s). I deeply disapproved communism, and hated the naive involvement of my own parents and family and their weaknesses and the fact that they gave up fighting accepting instead the daily compromises, even after the 'gods' were longed revealed as naked. Most of the people I know from those times are long gone and gone are my parents and the young people I used to know are out of my current sight. Actually, I gave up for a long time to go in the 'old country' and my contacts with that world are almost inexistent nowadays. 
As a fact, as a child, I've read once some Soviet literature about Americans who joined the Russian Revolution and ended up building socialism as far as Magnitogorsk. The characters in the short stories were happily sharing their achievements in a society where classes and races were not counting, but the full dedication to the ideals of the Party. The main character of The Patriots, Florence Fein, is one of them. She wanted to be part of a great future who was built now and then. She bought a ticket dreaming about a Soviet man she met while working in New York, and ends up being accused of being a spy and condemned to forced labor. Florence is not one of the top communist leadership of the Internationale - she is not even a party member - later kept prisoners in Hotel de Luxe in Moscow. She is just a young lady enamored with the Revolution who will be wiped out by the destructive forces of the history. 
Florence, as many middle level people in those times, will survive, whatever the circumstances. She has the right intuition to do it and to live to tell the story. Her husband, Leon, who can see clearly the failures of the system and it's becoming an ardent Zionist after the visit of Golda Meir to Moscow - proclaimed to his wife a well proved truth: 'Don't fool yourself. Everybody's tied together with the same rope' - will disappear without trace. In a personal way, I wanted to not like Florence, for her narcissism and her failures and her many compromises, but I ended up by admiring her. What should someone want to be a hero, until you are Nadejda Krupskaia? Following my personal and society post-communist interrogations I dare to say that the 'Party' suceeded to achieve a perfect confusion between victimes and perpetrators. Sadly, those who actually orchestrated the system often survived with their position unaltered, some of them even becoming successful characters of the new era. 
The episodes of the story are alternatively placed in various time periods, which creates a welcomed balance of the story. I waited for the 2008 episodes, relating the adventures of Florence's son and grandson into the new Russia, as bringing a certain relaxation into the narrative, after the heavy episodes about interrogations and the darkest time of the communism times.
I am glad someone wrote this book as no one before. With humour - I couldn't stop laughing when Florence was accused of being part of the spy cell 'mish-pok', a mispelling of 'mishpucha', the Yiddish word for family she mentioned in a letter to her brother from Brooklyn - , smartly, without drama and passion, using the historical background to create stories. A very good book which resonates with the life of many simple people who although lost the fight with their beautiful ideals, survived to tell the story.

Rating: 5 stars

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

What's in a Name: Curry, by Naben Ruthnum

I love to read and taste food stories because of the hidden promise of more than a combination of various ingredients. If you know how to read correctly a recipe, you can create incredible stories. Think only about the stories of how different ingredients were introduced into various geographical spaces and the full history of their appropriation by different cultures. 
In his collection of essays about 'Eating, Reading and Race', Naben Ruthnum analysed the case of 'curry' which he proclaims: '(...) isn't real. Its range of differentiations, edible and otherwise, rob it of a stable existence. Curry is a leaf, a process, a certain kind of gravy with uncertain ingredients surrounding a starring meat or vegetable. It's an elevating crust baked around previously bland food stuff, but it's also an Indian fairy tale composed by cooks, Indians, emigres, colonists, eaters, readers and writers'. I personally haven't cooked curry - yet - and I have a very limited taste experience therefore I can hardly go to far when it comes to the eating part of the stories. 
However, I can trace various interpretations and contextualizations acquired through the literary representations. Ruthnum outlines the requested literary conundrum assigned to the novels by and about that part of the world. 'Food and literature are the most definint elements of the Indian diaspora on the small world I've built around myself as a brown adult in the West. Curry's the vehicle I use to look at how we eat, read and think of ourselves as a miniature mass-culture within the greater West. Curry's just as fake and as real as a great novel, as a sense of identity'. 
The book is a collection of essays, with interesting references of authors exploring the limits of food and identity and the pressure to find yourself outside those limitations of the 'India's of the mind'. 'South Asian Writers is an identity, not just a pair of adjectives and a noun, and it's an identity that establishes a tacit promise to an audience that is seeking it, whether the author intended it or not'. 
It is almost impossible to think that this mindset will change any time soon, but the efforts to deconstruct this reality are small breaks into the wall of imposed creativity. Think about how much potential there is when the challenge of offering different streams of identity is really taken, word by word.

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

This is How We Talk. Another Novel about Tel Aviv

Recent books set in Tel Aviv - or Israel - aimed at a foreign audience, do have some common ingredients nowadays: post-Army depressed youngsters, eventually who spent an indefinite sejour in India or, more recently Thailand; Yitzak Rabin; leftist mindset; start-ups; the protests against the prices of housing couple of years back; secular background; the hedonistic night life in Tel Aviv. If there is space left, add a couple of expensive sky scrapers where one single apartment is the price of a lavish mansion in the priciest LA neighbourhood. A couple of observations about the rift between the Jews of Oriental origin and those of European origin. Sometimes, the kibbutz life is also present somehow, but this element is missing from This is How We Talk, the debut novel by Julian Furman. 
It is rightly described as 'a novel of Tel-Aviv' because it has sometimes more to do with the city mood than with its normal people. In the words of Yonatan, the first character introduced in the novel: 'Tel Aviv is a hive of activity, but he senses all the excitement is occuring above his head. Giant cranes swing lazily through the day and night, towers growing, teasing of bountiful heavens just beyond his reach'. 
Relationships do need context, and when the political and social context pervades the everyday life, it is almost impossible to ignore them. Especially when this context is foreign or assumed exotic to the reader, it might be so catching that in fact takes over the literary layer. 
Four young people: Yonatan, Lia, Nadav and Sharon are telling their stories. At the beginning of the story, Yonatan and Lia are together. Nadav and Sharon - Lia's sister - come late and relatively for the blink of the eye into the story. The have struggles, are confused and want to escape themselves, their family secrets and the weight of the country. They succeed on short term - as Nadav and Sharon - but fail on the long term - Yonatan and Lia. The story of Yonatan, which opens the novel, can easily stand alone as a short story and it has speed and a balanced back and forth exchange down the memory lane. For the following stories, the sparkle is fading and I ended up asking myself if there is really any real connection between the characters, besides the fact that they are together under the same book cover. They can be foreigners meeting accidentaly on a hot day at the beach or in a club, and meeting each other again only because it is a small city. 
Each character has the common features of being just your 'average Tel Avivian' next door, take it or not. Each story has a good flow and dynamic. There is a potential both in the story and in the writing. Maybe it is just me, expecting a bit more from 'a novel about Tel Aviv'. 

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

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Book Review: The Amazing Story of the Man Who Cycled from India to Europe for Love

Following an astrological prediction gave to him at birth, the enamorated Pradyumma Kumar, alias PK, decided to leave behind his life in India and cycle as far as Sweden to meet his beloved Lotta, a hippy girl he shortly met in Delhi. This is just the end of a story, which has also a lot to say about the discriminatory caste-based system in India and PK's first hand encounters as an 'untouchable', the lowest caste according to the Hindu-imposed ideology. 
The stories about his isolation are coming up and again into the story - after a while I felt slightly annoyed by the repetition -, which has also an interesting travel-related dimension, as it features the passage through Afghanistan and Iran, on the way to Europe. It looks like an open world, welcoming hippies from all over the world mesmerized by the lights and miraculous visions of the Far East, a world that in the last 3 decades closed progressively until becoming hermetic to most of the free-minded Europeans. The book succeeds to portray very well the personality of PK, from his hard early university years of sleeping on the stone floors of the train station in Delhi, until his unique encounters with the liked of Indira Gandhi and the cream of the Indian society. Thanks to his artistic talent, he succeeds to undone his socially assigned status, showing to himself and the rest of the Indian society how unjust and ridiculous the religious limitations are. 
There is a little bit of everything in this book: sad stories of a situation that seems so overwhelming that only suicide looks like the only solution out; hope and delivery as he sees how the work of his hands brings him comfort and fame, one drawing at a time; hilarious situations as when he realized, a couple of days already into his biking adventure, that his final destination is Sweden, not Switzerland; resilience and courage to start a new life despite the obvious dramatic cultural, linguistic and personal challenges. 
This book can offer motivation and some travel writing insights and also an interesting historical background. Strongly recommended to anyone longing for far away 'exotic' destinations - warning: things in the mind mirror might be exagerately magnified - or trying to start over a new life in a new country.

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

Monday, August 28, 2017

#Enshrine Blog Tour: Author Kay Bennson sharing her creative process story

Once again, I am honored and pleased to be part of another blog tour organised by Priya from Writerly Yours, featuring the debut novel of author Kay Bennson - Enshrine
Living in Northwestern Connecticut with her husband, Kay is a passionate professional writer and a competitive Irish dancer. Part of the blog tour, Kay kindly accepted to share with my readers the story of her creative process. 

Question to Kay Bennson: 'Where do you get your ideas from?'

People often ask me; "Where do you get your ideas from? I want to write a book, but I don't know where to start." My answer is to look to your dreams. In all the manuscripts I've completed, Enshrine included, it all started with a dream.

I remember that it was July 2014. I know this because when I woke up, I wrote down everything that I could remember on my phone. The dream wasn't gory or violent. but I could not get it out of my head. I was seeing the dream as if I was awake and through my own eyes, but I was in a foreign place. It was a bustling city, but it was ancient and unlike anything I'd ever seen. It was night time and I was terrified.

I was being pursued by soldiers. They were the henchmen of someone I never saw in the dream, but I knew he wanted me back at all costs. He was obsessed and manic and as I cowered out of sight I knew I would die before I let myself be found. I was ready to run when someone jumped out and offered me help. He knew how to get me home, but I had to trust him. We began to weave between buildings and people until we reached the ocean and we ran in. I woke up as we began to claw our way through the water.

When I woke up, I was stunned. Dreams fascinate me because while some people think they are meaningless, I truly believe there is something behind them and it might seem weird, but I'm impressed with what my mind can create. I almost see it as an accomplishment. When I have a nightmare about my old boss...not so much.

So where I'm going here is, while you may scratch you head or ask yourself why you dreamed about something bizarre, write it down. It could be something as simple as "Ex boyfriend is secretly half demon" or "Evil corporation takes over high school". As long as it helps you remember and you can come back to it later if something strikes you. You won't know until you try.

'What is the most challenging part of being a writer?'

Another question that people often ask me is what is the most challenging part of being a writer? There are many things that I could tell you, but I think I'm going to stick with the one that resonates with me the most.

Don't get so lost in pleasing everyone else, that you lose sight of why you wanted to write the story in the first place.

I used to be someone that worried about what other people thought of me. To be honest, I was terrified to have people read my writing because I didn't want them to tell me it was garbage. While I feel that I've gotten past that hurdle, I still find myself worrying about other people when I need to worry about myself. A great example of this is when I found out that my mother's friend wanted to by the book for her daughter and she wanted to know if it was appropriate. Enshrine is absolutely okay for Young Adult Readers, but I had started working on the sequel and was thinking about having two of my characters take their relationship to an intimate level. I was literally in a panic over what to do, to the point that I stopped working on the manuscript.  

I made a realization. A) That I needed a writing time out, and B) that I'm never going to please everyone out there. Some people might not mind the content of my books and others might not approve of what my characters do. Regardless of my readers choices and reactions, I can not control what they feel. Knowing that now is liberating, but man, it was a long time coming!

I know people won't like everything I do, (My own mother disliked how something went down in Enshrine) but at the end of the day, I write to make myself happy as well as others. I have learned that when you are happy with yourself nothing else matters and everything seems to fall into place, so I hope this advice can make you feel the same.

Titles and inter-titles belong to me. Photos from the archive of Kay Bennson

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:, 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!​