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‘I Am Thunder’ by Muhammad Khan

Who: Secondary school teacher Muhammad Khan wrote I Am Thunder as a response to the three British schoolgirls who fled to Syria to join ISIS in 2015 — this is Khan’s debut YA novel. He took inspiration from the children he teaches, as well as his own upbringing as a British-born Pakistani.

What: Muzna Saleem is a 15-year-old British Pakistani who harbours a secret ambition of becoming a novelist, even though her parents have decided she should become a doctor. Muzna isn’t brought up to disobey elders or to rock the boat, and so she goes along with her parents’ fantasy. Her quiet and unassuming life gets disrupted when she meets high-school stud, Arif Malik, who, to her utter surprise, takes an interest in her. She discovers a troubling secret about him and his brother bears a grudge against the powers that be for what he perceives to be the demonisation of Islam. As they start down a progressively darker path, Muzna has to make a difficult choice: keep quiet and betray her beliefs, or speak out and betray her heart.

Why: The perennial question of whether to follow the head or heart is addressed in two different scenarios in this bildungsroman. Muzna is made to question her beliefs and desires, and has to find the courage to do the right thing, although it is not always clear what the right thing is. The struggle here is very real.

The novel also examines the idealism of young people and their easy exploitation by opportunists and extreme ideologies. Exploitation, the book carefully shows, is a gradual process that simultaneously preys on vulnerabilities but also reaffirms and panders to the ego. It is a study of contemporary psychology, and attempts an explanation at the all too familiar lament of the naivety and simple idealism of the young.

Best/Worst Line: “I am Muzna. I am the cloud who brings the rain.”

Verdict: While the novel is not unpredictable, it is ultimately an empowering and uplifting story with a lot of relevance today for teens and adults alike. (7/10)

Availability: Paperback, RM49.90

Special thanks to Pansing Distribution for the ARC.

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ARC Review: Willy Vlautin’s ‘Don’t Skip Out On Me’

Hey folks!

First, a big thanks to our suppliers APD Singapore, MPH Distributors, Pansing and Times Distribution for the advance reading copies they’ve kindly given to us. They really help us make our buying decisions, and keep us in the know of what’s going on out there. This week’s ARC of Willy Vlautin’s Don’t Skip Out On Me comes to us courtesy of Times Distribution. Thanks guys.

Generously blurbed by Donna Tartt, the late Ursula K. Le Guin and Colm Tòibìn, and featuring a sketch of a horse on the front cover, I was expecting a gritty western with tobacco chewing, hard-as-nail cowboys and swaggering chaps. Perhaps a bit of a romance, some fights, and characters with quick tempers and penchants for vengeance. ‘Don’t Skip Out On Me’ is and isn’t that kind of novel.

The story revolves around Horace Hopper, a half-Irish, half-Indian ranch hand with dreams of becoming a champion professional boxer. Strangely, he believes that he has to pretend he is a Mexican in order for this dream to come true because ‘Mexican boxers are the toughest… They go toe-to-toe. They’re true warriors who never quit, who never back down, who are never scared’. This despite being unable to learn the most rudimentary Spanish and a latent inability to stomach Mexican food.

This naïve outlook on his route to success is bolstered by the teachings of a third-rate self-help guru — “To be a champion you have to create your own future… You have to build your boat little by little and brick by brick until it’s unbreakable and unbeatable” —, an almost unbearable fear of failure and, arguably, an overly coddling adoptive father/employer. But perhaps this is preferable to the alternative of viewing one’s self an unwanted half-breed, good for nothing except as a drain for a bottle of cheap grain whiskey.

The caricature of the half-Indian may seem harsh but it is nevertheless not an untrue one. In the two years that I spent in Indian country as a news reporter in Fort Smith, Canada, I bore witness to the systemic abuse faced by many native Americans — abuse that came from both within and without. I’d met a few native Americans, who like Hopper, had internalised the worst of these. Unlike Horace, the majority of them fell into a spiral of self-debasement leading to substance abuse and generational cycles of recrimination.

From this perspective, Horace’s optimism for himself — even if he has to reject his identity to don the trappings of Hector Hidalgo, an el boxeador — is heartening. But, as with all adopted identities, it is a fragile shell and one that is easily cracked. To his disgust and immediate regret, he lies to protect his identity as Hector Hidalgo with the most preposterous of claims:

“Horace Hopper is the name I was given later on, it’s what’s on my ID, but my real name is Hector Hidalgo. That’s the name my dad has — that’s the name he gave me before he got murdered… He got murdered in front of me when I was 12. In the driveway of our house. he stood up against a drug cartel and they killed him for it. After that, my mother was so worried she changed our name to Hopper.”

Meanwhile, he ploughs onward in life the same way as he does in boxing: He gets hit a lot, but hits back harder. It didn’t matter how many punches he had to take to get his hard, solid punches in so long as he was the only one left standing in the ring. The strategy works for a while and he enjoys some early success with his boxing career. But success earned under a false name and identity always rings hollow, and leads to difficult questions about the suppressed self.

Who: Willy Vlautin is an American author and was the lead singer and songwriter of the Portland, Oregon band Richmond Fontaine and is currently a member of The Delines. His previous novel Lean on Pete was adapted into a major motion picture and screened at the 74th International Venice Film Festival.

Verdict: I finished Don’t Skip Out On Me in two sittings. It’s not a boxing book and it’s not really a Western, but Horace is a sympathetic protagonist. The setting of the novel may seem a bit alien to local readers, and the Latino flavour of the book may not be up everyone’s alley but it’s a book that sits well with perseverance. (7.5/10)

In-store Availability: Trade paperback, RM86.95

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Reading literary fiction enhances our capacity for empathy

Empathy: if there’s one thing the world needs more of right now, it would be that. Not a week goes by that the news headlines fail to blare some horrible crime or act of hatred and prejudice against a specific individual or group — Muslims, the LGBT community, women, you name it. The lack of empathy, defined by the Oxford dictionary as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”, seems to very much be at the root of these wanton and sometimes senseless acts of violence where perpetrators seem to be unable or unwilling to put themselves in their victims’ shoes.

Fortunately, the lack of empathy is a problem we can fix. Recent scientific research has shown that by immersing ourselves in literary fiction, our propensity and ability to empathise with others increase in tandem. Cognitive psychologists Keith Oatley and Raymond Mar from York University in Ontario, Canada have spent the last 10 years gathering data which shows that reading fiction results in a better understanding of actual human emotions.

“Experiences that we have in our life shape our understanding of the world… and imagined experiences through narrative fiction stories are also likely to shape or change us. But with a caveat — it’s not a magic bullet — it’s an opportunity for change and growth,” said Mar in a speech at the 2014 American Psychological Association’s Annual Convention.

In a particularly interesting study done in 2006, Oatley and Mar tasked 94 participants with determining a person’s emotional state by looking only at a photograph of their eyes. They found that “the more fiction people [had] read, the better they were at perceiving emotion in the eyes, and…correctly interpreting social cues”.

But why literary fiction? One possible answer is that compared to other genres, literary fiction focuses more on the psychology of characters and their relationships. So though they may be imagined, the stories nevertheless come from a very real place, namely the writer’s own experiences and understanding of the human condition and their accompanying complexities. Literary fiction, from this perspective, communicates a truth about life and people that goes beyond the mere descriptions in the prose.

By reading novels with an emotional import, we immerse ourselves intimately in the psyches of the characters and their unique worlds of experience. We have a unique point of view of their experiences, which in turn generate feelings as though they were someone we knew. The spill-over effect is that these experiences help us to better interpret and respond to those who are different from us. The emphasis literary fiction places on psychological realism helps reinforce respect of ‘Otherness’ and encourages readers to get beyond the insularity of their own worlds.

So pick up some lit fic today. You’ll thank yourself for it.

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‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ by George Saunders

Who: George Saunders was, prior to Lincoln in the Bardo, an award-winning short-story writer, with his collection of stories Tenth of December particularly singled out for commendation. Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunder’s first novel, won the 2017 Man Booker Prize.

What: Young Willie Lincoln, the most beloved child of the 16th US President Abraham Lincoln’s children, is dead. For one night, he finds himself in the bardo — that intermediate space between life and death in the Nepali tradition — mingling with other of his ilk. The dead who remain (they are slightly freaky a la Beetlejuice) are unaccepting of their fate; they believe they aren’t dead but merely ‘sick’ and their coffins are ‘sick-boxes’ where they recuperate. They cling on because they believe that they can be healed of their ‘ailment’ and thereby return to the material life that they are unable to give up.

Although most young children tend not to linger on in the bardo, Willie, believing that he has instruction from his father to stay, resists the call to move on. However, his guides in the bardo — a homosexual suicide, a printer engorged with lust and a terrified man of the cloth — know that to remain and wallow would bring about a grievous end to the boy. Matters are made worse by late night visit of Willie’s grief-stricken father, which convinces the young boy that his waiting is justified.

Why: Lincoln in the Bardo is one of the most deserving Booker prize winners in recent memory. Centrally a study of grief, suffering and loss, it is also the role of attachment in contributing to these psychological states. Lincoln in the Bardo is an explication of the Buddhist concept of suffering as a self-inflicted pain brought about by the inability to separate the essential self from its desires. Being caught up in the tendrils of attachment prevents the ensnared from pursuing good, final ends — or again in the Buddhist tradition, from pursuing enlightenment. Attachment is fundamentally selfish, and the selfishness manifests physically in those unwilling to leave the bardo, i.e. those unwilling to set down their lives in the ‘former place’. Willie’s guides, for the first time in a long time, find themselves in a position to go beyond themselves to see that the young boy ‘passes on’.

Saunders’ narrative structure takes a little getting used to at the onset. He uses a pastiche of actual works to set the context for the night Willie dies, filling in the missing bits with his own accounts. He borrows extensively from the copious amount of Lincoln literature to set the background, revealing not only just how divided opinions over Lincoln and the Civil War were at the time, but also the fundamental untrustworthiness of eye-witness accounts. These divergent accounts are scattered throughout the novel, but a particularly telling one was a passage where these various eye-witnesses failed to provide a single, coherent account of the moon the evening before Willie died:

Many guests especially recalled the beautiful moon that shone that evening. (In A Season of War and Loss by Ann Brighney)
In several accounts of the evening, the brilliance of the moon is remarked upon. (In Long Road to Glory by Edward Holt)
There was no moon that night and the sky was heavy with clouds. (Wickett, op. cit.)
A fat green crescent hung above the mad scene like a stolid judge, inured to all human folly. (In My Life by Dolores P. Leventrop)

Nevertheless, the various individual voices, each tinged with their own specific set of attachments and back stories create a greater texture to the novel by providing, in various times and places, comedic relief, lush historic background and character tension to the overall narrative. But perhaps the winningest element of the novel is Saunders’ descriptions of loss and grieving — the beloved are not easy to give up.

Best/Worst Line: “’This is the hardest trial of my life,’ he confessed to the nurse, and in a spirit of rebellion this man, overweighted with care and sorrows, cried out: ‘Why is it? Why is it?'”

Verdict: A masterful study of loss, longing, grief and suffering with a touch of the whacky. Touching, funny and poignant. (9.5/10)

Trivia: The movie rights for Lincoln in the Bardo have been acquired by Megan Mullaly and Nick Offerman. No cast, director or release date available as yet. It is a dark and atmospheric piece with fantastical elements, and would require the disciplined whimsy of someone like Guillermo del Toro. Just say no to Tim Burton.

Availability: Hard cover, RM79.95.

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Huzzah! The first book arrivals of 2018!

I’ve been staring nervously at our depleted stacks these last few weeks, wondering if anyone else had noticed that our stacks were growing barer by the day. Some creative shelving helped mask the growing number of brown spots, as did some emergency runs down to one of our distributors’ warehouse. But deliverance was at hand — the first of what I hope to be many shipments of our January stock came by way of our favourite delivery guy Ayau yesterday. Definitely some interesting stuff in the package yesterday, with two books from the frontlist. Here’s a quick run-down:

Front List

  • What the Hell Did I Just Read by David Wong: The latest book by David Wong of John Dies at the End infamy, What the Hell Did I Just Read promises a good time. Check this:

    While investigating a fairly straightforward case of a shape-shifting inter-dimensional child predator, Dave, John and Amy realised there might actually be something weird going on. Together, they navigate a diabolically convoluted maze of illusions, lies, and their own incompetence in an attempt to uncover a terrible truth they — like you — would be better off not knowing.

  • The Vagina Monologues (20th Anniversary Edition) by Eve Ensler: Hard to believe it’s been 20 years since the publication of the original Vagina Monologues. The monologues, which delve into a wide range of female experience, has become a cultural marker of the 20th century, and continues to remain relevant in the 21st. Not uncontroversial, this edition of the book includes six previously unpublished monologues and a new foreword.

Mid and Backlist

  • How to Measure a Cow by Margaret Forster: The English novelist’s final work before her death in 2016, How to Measure a Cow is the story of a former convict who is seeking a new beginning in a northern English town. She fosters an unexpected relationship with the curmudgeonly widow, Nancy, across the street who–and I am guessing here–teaches her how to measure a cow. Quite looking forward to this one.
  • Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns: A classic, overlooked tragicomedy where a flood in a small English village brings more than wet shoes and socks to a cast of poor village sops. Subsequent to the flood, they are afflicted by a madness causing each of them to summarily commit suicide in, from what I gather, not uninteresting manners. An introduction and summary to this edition is available here:
  • The Man from the Diogenes Club by Kim Newman: I first stumbled onto this book after Googling ‘Diogenese Club’ after listening to Stephen Fry’s excellent 60-hour performance of the Sherlock Holmes’ novels. I was somewhat familiar with Newman’s Anno Dracula series, and thought this could really work given the impressive summary provided by the publisher:

    The debonair psychic investigator Richard Jeperson is the Most Valued Member of the Diogenes Club, the least-known and most essential branch of British Intelligence. While foiling the plot of many a maniacal mastermind, he is chased by sentient snowmen and Nazi zombies, investigates an unearthly murderer stalking the sex shops of 1970s Soho, and battles a poltergeist to prevent it triggering nuclear Armageddon. But as a new century dawns, can he save the ailing Diogenes Club itself from a force more diabolical still?

  • Deep Red by Hisashi Nozawa: We picked this up because of the cover, if we are going to be absolutely honest. But it helps that it’s also a prize winner that has been well reviewed. From what we gather, it’s a Japanese thriller where lots of people have been killed, and a protagonist who has to make sense of it all and survive. Why not?
  • 50 Greatest Stories: Ah, the short story compilation, edited by an unknown editor, published by a company that bills itself as the House of Bestsellers, this is a book of enigmatic provenance but nevertheless contains a good selection of classic short stories including The Gift of the Magi, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and features an author list including Chekov, Dickens, Fitzgerald and Conrad. Makes for a nice gift for a young reader embarking into the world of classics.

We’re looking forward to more books coming in this week and we will be reviewing some of these in the near term so look out for them. Signing out for now with a modicum of relief.

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‘Manhattan Beach’ by Jennifer Egan

Who: Jennifer Egan won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in fiction for the postmodern novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad. She takes a more traditional storytelling approach with historical novel Manhattan Beach, published last year.

What: The novel begins with Eddie Kerrigan paying a visit to mobster Dexter Styles at his home on Manhattan Beach. Eddie’s 11-year-old daughter Anna Kerrigan accompanies her father on this visit, and it leaves an indelible impression on her – she gleans from the encounter that Dexter is crucial to the survival of her family. Years later, her father has mysteriously disappeared and the country is at war. Anna works at the Brooklyn Naval Yard at a job once the exclusive purview of men, who are now soldiers abroad. By sheer will and gumption, Anna becomes the first woman diver at the Naval Yard, doing the job of repairing ships underwater. Then, a chance meeting with Dexter at a nightclub throws open a doorway to uncovering the complexities of her father’s life and why he vanished.

Why: The main narrative revolves around Anna Kerrigan and how she navigates a world vacated by her father and overshadowed by war, the Great Depression, and the shared responsibility of caring for her disabled sister, Lydia. It is a tale of quiet fortitude and doggedness, of coming into her own during an era of limited options and opportunities for women. But while the story is anchored by Anna’s life, the narrative switches between her perspective and that of the mobster, Dexter’s, chronicling his rise in the underworld. In the last third of the novel, the spotlight finally turns to Eddie and the misfortunes that led to his disappearance early in the story.

Essentially, this novel traces three distinct but intertwining stories recounted in the close third person to give the reader insight into their inner lives. Each character’s story is languidly told, replete with lush details and poetic nuance to the point where a less patient reader might find the pacing off-putting. A thread that connects all three is their individual need to break from their present circumstances, and the resulting consequences of attempting to do so. A constant prop is the ocean, but it does take on a metaphysical nature as it envelopes each of them in different ways.

Best/Worst Line: “He hungered for a sense of progress, of new things approaching while old familiar ones receded. It seemed far too long since he’d had that sensation.”

Verdict: It’s a sweeping novel with cinematic scope that unfolds at a protracted pace. (7.5/10)

Availability: Trade paperback, RM79.90.

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‘Little Fires Everywhere’ by Celeste Ng

Who: American Chinese author Celeste Ng’s much anticipated sophomore effort, Little Fires Everywhere, is the winner of the Goodreads Choice Award 2017 for fiction. It follows her standout debut, Everything I Never Told You.

What: The story begins with a literal fire, whereby someone has deliberately set ablaze the Richardson house, situated in Shaker Heights, an affluent neighbourhood. The reader is then taken back in time to reveal the history of the Richardson household, as well as mother-daughter pair Mia and Pearl Warren, who have taken up residence at a rental owned by the Richardsons. Their worlds mingle in unexpected ways but eventually collide as they find themselves on opposing sides when an old friend of the Richardsons tries to adopt a Chinese-American baby.

Why: The story plays out a bit like a soap but without the sordidness. While Ng takes her time to tell the story, it by no means drags on as she drops tantalising clues throughout the book to make this an engrossing read. Although the characters are not unfamiliar — the picture-perfect suburban Richardson family versus the enigmatic artist, Mia, and her teenage daughter — the nuanced manner in which Ng paints these portraits make them compelling.

At the centre of the intersection of these lives is the youngest Richardson, Izzy, torn between the two worlds on offer: a structured, rule-abiding life of security and stability, and a free-spirited, nomadic one that can promise little but nevertheless is more meaningful and substantial. Fundamental values rub up against one another leading to an inevitable clash of worlds, which in turn spark ‘little fires everywhere’. That these sparks would set something smouldering further deep inside that would potentially turn into a raging inferno becomes the tipping point of the novel.

It isn’t quickly apparent, but at the heart of the story is an examination of what it means to be a mother and the bonds that bind. The decision to follow or not follow one’s passions and where that inevitably leads, for better or worse, is also a thread in the book.

Best/Worst Line: “All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control.”

Verdict: Ng is a deft storyteller, pulling the reader in from the get-go. (8/10)

Availability: Trade paperback, RM72.90.

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‘Reservoir 13’ by Jon McGregor

Who: Jon McGregor is the author of four novels and a story collection. Reservoir 13 was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2017.

What: Reservoir 13 is a novel about a mystery, but is not itself a mystery novel. The book opens with a girl lost upon the moors of the rural English countryside. Nearby villagers anxiously search for the missing Rebecca, Becky or Bex, as she is sometimes known. Her disappearance would anchor the novel which unfolds over 13 years, during which life in the village carries on — people are drawn in, people leave; they fall in love, they fall apart; new lives are had, older ones die. The foxes, badgers and bugs observe their natural cycles, as do the birds, butterflies and bees. But the spectre of the missing girl remains in the collective psyche, appearing in dreams, hallucinations and memories.

Why: One of the finest novels we’ve read in recent memory, McGregor’s narrative structure ingeniously pulls the reader into the book. It’s incredibly meta and sets the reader up from the start to think that a mystery is there to be solved. There are hints and foreshadowing that the resolution is in the very next line, or paragraph, or page, or chapter. The reader is driven by this singular temptation, but meanwhile McGregor creates a lush, vivid background, ostensibly to contextualise the mystery. The man lies. He is not creating a background, but another, richer foreground that will supersede the mystery.

With his austere but elegant prose, his omniscient camera flits from scene to scene in his massive single paragraph structures, controlling the attention of the reader — first to the park keeper who is conducting his annual test of the river water, next to a group of teenagers drinking down a bottle of stolen wine, then to a farmhand who is necking with the parish council’s chair’s wife, and then to reports of sightings of the missing girl who may or may not be responsible for the various incidences of arson in the village. Each year that passes in the village is told within a chapter. The villagers grow a year older, perhaps not wiser, and the same narrative device is repeated to remind readers that though everything is different, it is nevertheless the same.

This may sound a painful and clumsy attempt to stall the progress of the plot; on the contrary, the reader soon finds these secondary arcs to be more important than the resolution of the missing girl. How does Irene deal with an abusive special-needs son? Will the Jackson boys’ flock survive the winter? Will the career-minded Su Cooper adjust to being the mother of rambunctious twin boys? It is these moments in the lives of these villagers — arrayed as a field of snapshots of many separate but interconnected moments — that carry the readers’ sympathies. Resolution, he reminds us, is not found within the solving of a grand mystery, but in the consummation of each individual moment in our lives.

Best/Worst Line: ‘The girl’s name was Rebecca, or Becky, or Bex. She had been looked for everywhere… There were dreams about finding her on the night she went missing, stumbling across her on the moor in the lowering dark and helping her back to her parents. In the dreams the parents said thank you, briefly, and people muttered something about it being no problem at all.’

Verdict: Friggin’ incredible. It’s not a perfect 10 because readers stubbornly clinging on to the need for plot development (a justifiable need, in our opinion) may be frustrated by this book. (9/10)

Availability: Trade paperback, RM79.90.

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‘Frankenstein’ turns 200 today

by Fong Min Hun

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus, published 200 years ago on Jan 1, 1818, is still among the foremost novels dealing with the themes of unfettered human creativity and the consequences thereof.

Frankenstein, for the uninitiated, is the story of Victor Frankenstein, a brilliant chemist obsessed with reproducing natural miracles. His scientific investigations are turned towards the search for the mystery of life when his mother dies suddenly of scarlet fever. Unable to accept her death, Frankenstein dedicates himself to the search for the immortal spark of life.

Frankenstein’s obsessive labours are successful; but rather than the creature of beauty he had envisioned as his aim, he creates a hideous, distended monster which immediately brings about profound feelings of disgust and regret:

I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart… Oh! No mortal could support the horror of that countenance. A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch.

Frankenstein turns his back on his creation. But as with all newborns, the Creature yearns for love and acceptance. Spurned by his creator, the Creature turns to others for succour but kindness does not come easy for the aberration. Enraged by his abandonment, the Creature kills Frankenstein’s young brother William in revenge, and threatens further harm unless the scientist created him a mate. Frankenstein initially agrees but cannot bring himself to create a second creature, subsequently causing the Creature to kill his fiancee Elizabeth.

The plot is sensational — at least for its time — but the philosophical questions raised by the novel continues to challenge contemporary readers. While Frankenstein’s subject matter of a reanimated corpse may seem quaint, its warning of the danger of science unleashed remains relevant. Unlike Pandora who unleashed the horrors of humanity through sheer curiosity, Shelley’s eponymous protagonist Dr. Frankenstein — the “Modern Prometheus” — laboured under morally justifiable grounds to uncover the secrets of the gods only to birth a tragedy. And just like the story of Pandora’s box, once the secrets are unleashed, there is no way back.

Shelley’s Frankenstein celebrates the 200th anniversary of its publication in 2018. Lit Books is pleased to announce that we will be joining the rest of the world in hosting a Frankenreads event on Halloween 2018 to celebrate the year of Frankenstein. Stay tuned for details closer to the date!

If you’re looking for a collector’s edition of the novel, Lit Books carries a wonderfully tactile faux leather hardcover edition, artfully accented with foil details for RM110.


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The first 14 days…

Hi folks, Min Hun here. Every now and then, I will be writing a bit about what’s been happening at our store, and what I’ve been reading. This would be an example of such a thing. 

It’s been two weeks since Lit Books opened its doors to the public, and lessons have been learnt:

  • Malaysian readers  are an enthusiastic and sometimes zealous bunch;
  • It’s difficult to not hoard books for one’s self;
  • The logistics of the book business, especially for a small, independent bookshop, can be infuriating.

Two weeks is no doubt insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but the level of enthusiasm greeting our presence has been humbling, to say the least. We are very grateful to visitors who dropped by after reading about us on social media (special thanks to TimeOut KL, Poskod.myTongue in Chic  and for the feature pieces) as well as to our friends and neighbours in the community. Your presence has helped alleviate some of the anxiety associated with all new enterprises, and we look forward to seeing you again.

In the meantime, we are playing around with some ideas of what we would like to do events-wise in the new year, and we will keep everyone posted via this blog as well as through social media. These include:

  • Author readings – which local author would you be interested in?
  • Book clubs – we’re hosting our first group in January, but perhaps an in-house book club?
  • A collaboration with a broadcast partner?
  • Group of book reviewers – if we can swing an agreement with our distributors and publishers, we’d like to form a group of book reviewers. We might be getting advance review copies and there’s no way Elaine and I can go through them all.

Let us know what you think in the comments below.

Stuff I’ve recently read (that just happens to be available in store)

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

Who: Matt Haig dips his pen in myriad ink pots, writing in various genres. How to Stop Time is his first adult novel.

What: How to Stop Time is about the life of one Tom Hazard who suffers from anageria, a genetic disease that slows his ageing process to about a fifteenth of a regular person’s. There is both loss and suffering in the centuries he’s been alive and the story picks up in the here and now where Tom attempts a reconciliation of his existential grief and a normal life. Oh, there’s also a Secret Society in the mix.

Why: At its heart, How to Stop Time is a romantic fantasy. It feels like a confessional, similar to Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire sans the supernatural gothic horror. It probably wouldn’t give away too much to say that witch hunters are involved. And did I mention a secret society?

Readers expecting a lush adventure with the protagonist at the centre of key historical events in the past 500 years will be disappointed. However, there is a brief encounter with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald in the roaring 20s, as well as a run in with Beethoven and Shakespeare.

Best/Worst Line: ‘The first rule is that you don’t fall in love… There are other rules too, but that is the main one. No falling in love. No staying in love. No daydreaming of love. If you stick to this, you will just about be okay.’

Verdict: It’s a straightforward book which tries hard to transport the reader away to Tom’s fantastical life. Unfortunately, the protagonist is a bit of a downer, which gets in the way of his, and our, having a good time. A good book to pick up in between heavier reads and for a quick one whilst lying down by the beach. 6/10

Trivia: English character actor Benedict Cumberbatch will produce and star in the film adaptation of the book – makes sense with the book’s cinematic romp across time.

Availability: Paperback, RM55.90. Mention the phrase: “Time is Money” at our cashier to get 10% off while stocks last.

A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert (Published 1 Aug 2017)

Who: Author whose debut novel The Dark Room was shortlisted for the Booker in 2001, and whose subsequent work has been listed for various other prizes.

What: A Boy in Winter is set over three nights in Nazi-occupied Ukraine in 1941 following the retreat of the Soviets. Apprehensively greeted by the Ukrainians as liberators, the Nazi occupants quickly become instruments of terror and fear, shattering all trepidatious hope of a return to a bucolic, pre-Soviet countryside. The story is told mainly through the lens of three protagonists and their families – Yasia, a peasant girl who dreams of hearth and home; Pohl, a high-minded and moralistic German engineer grudgingly enlisted into the Nazi army; and Yankel, the boy in winter of the title.

Why: Seiffert is unsparing but sympathetic in the book. She accurately captures the terror of the Nazi invasion, and the fear and dread inspired by the Schutzstaffel’s (SS) assault squads – legions who defy all demands of morality, justice and rationality to comprehensively destroy hope in the mercy of conquerors; in the compassion of neighbours; in the basic tenets of human decency. The lives of the protagonists are intertwined in despair with little room for heroism. The novel’s inflection point is obvious–it plays off the illusions of the main characters, each of whom respectively thinks that pragmatism, heroism and morality will see them through. Then the SS officers round up the Jews.

The complacency builds to the point where one gets an almost irresistible urge to shake them by their collars and shout at them to wise the #$! up! But that doesn’t happen. It seems unimaginable even within the scope of poetic license that hundreds of men and women would allow themselves be led to slaughter; irrational, even. The complete surrender described is unthinkable save that history does bear out this sad point.

A Boy in Winter is not an unfamiliar story (think The Book Thief), but it is one that is nevertheless refreshing in Seiffert’s adroit hands.

Best/Worst Line: ‘He could have taken twenty, thirty, forty. He could have selected so many – men and women both: they wanted to be chosen. But he refused them. He did nothing. And Pohl could see nothing on the pages but his own pride and blindness; nothing but a rope to hang him with.’

Verdict: Spare prose reasserts the bleakness of the Ukrainian winter and the grey terror of the Nazi occupation. The book fails to delve deep enough into the psychology of the players so character motivations and responses are sometimes left to the reader’s own imagination, especially that of the titular boy in the winter. 7.5/10

Availability: Hard cover, RM122.00. Mention the phrase: “Winter is Coming” at our cashier to get it for RM99.90 while stocks last.