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Maybe I'm being shallow, but are the new Penguin Popular Classics covers the ugliest in the known universe or what?
To me they look like they are missing something. All that green space in the middle ... it's like the graphics went astray as the covers were going to print and so it was decided to leave them out.
I'm getting the Penguin Red Classics edition Austens for my birthday because the covers are lovely and I want to retire the Austens I have now (the muddy brown Popular Penguin Classics editions). Here is the Penguin Red Classics cover for Persuasion (my favourite Austen).
The boxset is going for just under RM90, which is pretty good for six books! The ugly new Penguins cost RM8.90 each, which is very cheap. However, I wouldn't pay RM2 for one.
The original Penguin covers are supposed to be the inspiration for the ugly new PPCs but look ...
Here's a green one ... now that's classic!
I'm reading Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels (on loan from a friend) in which Death is the main character.
I think I might have to own these books. And then I should stop reading anymore Pratchetts, apart from the Tiffany Aching books of course (waiting for the paperback of Wintersmith!), cos it's too risky. There're so many of them and it could get very expensive.
Death's pale horse is called Binky.
He once had a fiery steed but it kept setting fire to its own bedding!
He speaks LIKE THIS. And when he winks it's like a supernova going off in his eye socket.
Would it be tempting fate to say that I love Death?
Oh, well, enough scribbling already. I need to get back to Reaper Man.
I interviewed Tunku Halim (left) on Friday and felt like a worm when he said that hardly anyone had reviewed his Children's History of Malaya.
(I interviewed him when that book was first published.)
I squeaked: "I mentioned you in my column."
OK, so it was a very, very brief mention ....
No excuses, so let's just look forward to his new book, 44 Cemetery Road, a compilation of his supernatural shorts.
For what it's worth, I still read CHM to my kids and have recommended it to a couple of home-schooling centres (where it is now used). The book makes history interesting for children. History is, of course, interesting anyway, but most textbooks have an uncanny knack of turning bloody battles, scandals and betrayals, turbulent lives, cruel dictators and courageous people into chunks of boring, lifeless facts. Quite a gift, that!
To get your kids interested in Malayan history, get them CHM.
And check out Tunku Halim's blog Write Lah! Writing for Malaysians.
44 Cemetery Road is due out in April.
In her introduction to The Little Bookroom (a collection of her own favourite short stories), Eleanor Farjeon talks about her book-filled childhood home:
"Our nurseries upstairs were full of book. Downstairs my father's study was full of them. They lined the dining room walls, and overflowed into my mother's sitting-room, and up into the bedrooms. It would have been more natural to live without clothes than without books. As unnatural not to read as not to eat."
She goes on to describe the room called the Little Bookroom: "There was no selection of order here. In dining-room, study and nursery there was choice and arrangement; but the Little Bookroom gathered itself a motley crew of strays and vagabonds, outcasts from the ordered shelves below, the overflow of parcels bought wholesale by my father in the sales-rooms. Much trash, and more treasure. Riff-raff and gentlefolk and noblemen. A lottery, a lucky dip for a child who had never been forbidden to handle anything between covers."
Farjeon was a lucky child whose parents did not restrict her reading. I too was as lucky and I believe that being given free-reign in my choice of reading material helped turn me into a voracious reader and develop my own taste in books.
And not only was I allowed to read whatever I liked (or rather, never questioned about what I was reading), I had choice and the freedom to read whenever I liked.
Not many children are as fortunate. Often they are allowed to read only parent-approved books and then only at prescribed times. Story books (or anything read purely for pleasure) also tend to take a backseat to school text books.
I daresay my parents were even more enlightened than I am now. They never practised censorship and I, sad to say, have done so (but in the past, when I was a new mother). It's something I make a conscious effort to avoid these days, but I do know how easy it is to panic and start restricting and dictating our children's reading, just because we think we know better ...
Tots to Teens, Star Mag
4th March 2007
Fed up with Grown-up Hang-ups
THE mother of a 13-year-old whom I tutor got a little upset when she discovered her daughter reading Lust, one of the books in Robin Wasserman’s Seven Deadly Sins
(Young Adult) series. I hastened to assure her that the book doesn’t
quite deliver what the cover picture or back cover blurb suggests.
Parents should realise that covers and blurbs are meant to “sell” books
and might not accurately reflect their contents. The only way to know
what a book is like is to read it. You may find that it’s not as
“shocking” as you believed. You may even find you like it.
But what if you don’t, and what if you think the
book is really as provocative/ controversial/ sexy/ violent as you
suspected all along?
Well, in my opinion, you should let your child read it anyway. You have
to because you know that if you say “no” she will want to even more and
she will find some way of reading it without you finding out.
If it makes you feel any better, you might negotiate some time to
discuss the story/language/issues after your child has finished reading
the book. Or you might like to express why you don’t approve of the
book and then ask her why she likes it.
It’s important that you don’t shoot down any of her opinions. She’s
entitled to them and if you acknowledge that, she’s more likely to
share them with you next time round.
Last week, I came across this comment from Roger Sutton, editor-in-chief of The Horn Book Magazine:
“Just because parents have the legal right to control their children’s
reading does not mean that we should encourage them to do so.”
Sutton was talking, in a blog post, about the uproar caused by Susan Patron’s Newberry Medal winner The Power of Lucky, all because the word “scrotum” appears in it!
I agree with Sutton, but, as a parent, I realise that it’s often hard
to control the urge to “protect” our children from everything. So, we
all practise censorship, whether or not we want to admit it.
When my eldest was a toddler, someone gave him a set of Peter and Jane
books and I’m ashamed to say that, in an effort to avoid exposing him
to sexual stereotypes, I stapled some of the books’ pages together.
However, I later removed the staples, deciding that exposure to and
frank discussion of the issue was better than total avoidance.
Speaking of censorship, it seems that Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen
is often “banned” by libraries in the United States. This is primarily
because Mickey, the main character in this picture book, appears
without his clothes on! I hasten to add that Mickey is a child.
I don’t know why anyone would think that a naked image of a child would
offend other children (who the book was written for), but then parents,
myself included, do tend to impose their own values onto children. (I
make a conscious effort not to, but frequently slip up.)
Well-meaning, older relatives are always crying “Shame on you!” on seeing my children running around topless.
And when Elesh was four, the little girls in his ballet class were told
that the reason he was getting dressed in full view of everyone, while
they had to do it behind a curtain was, “He’s a boy and you’re a girl
... girls must hide their bodies!” (I’m happy to say that my
little girl loves running around without a stitch on, all the while
patting her tummy lovingly and chanting, “Cantik, cantik, cantik.”)
Irked by the controversy surrounding Patron’s award-winning novel
(several libraries in the United States have pledged to ban it), Sendak
told Sutton, “This is such a putdown to those of us who spend our lives
creating art for children. It’s acutely embarrassing to adults, and
shows a complete lack of respect for children and their books,
especially when you know children’s fascination with and candour about
Personally, I think adults are often just protecting themselves. They
want to avoid explaining what “scrotum” means. They want to avoid
having to dissuade little Ming or Musa that, unlike Mickey, they can
not take a milk bath or prance around naked. For children, it’s all
just about exploring fascinating new worlds and new words ... and being
comfortable in their own skin.
Yet another long-overdue post (sorry, but my PC's been ill for the past month or so. It's OK now ... thank goodness). This one's about my new reading group for children.
Well, actually, it's MPH's new reading group for chikdren. It's called KidzRead and is held on the last Sunday of every month, at Bangsar Village 2.
MPH was nice enough to ask me to facilitate the group and we had our first session a couple of Sundays ago. The featured book was The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo.
Here's a pic of me, with the two mums and their little girls who attended!
(From left) Kaylin and Sally; Sarah and Animah; me.
From this month on, we're having a picture book-reading session (from 4pm) before the discussion, which should begin at about half-past 4.
Sally and Animah, the two mums who attended the first session, mentioned that they love reading children's and YA books and asked if they could they join in the discussions. Well, of course!
Anyone who wants to read the featured books and join in the discussion may. There's no age limit.
Here are the picture books I'll be reading from this month to July, as well as the books for discussion:
Picture Book: Lost & Found by Oliver Jeffers
KidzRead!: Witch Week by Diana Wynne Jones
Picture Book: Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
KidzRead!: Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce
Picture Book: Dear Greenpeace written and illus by Simon James
KidzRead!: Famer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Picture Book: Half a World Away by Libby Gleeson, illus Freya Blackwood
KidzRead!: The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
Picture Book: Where is the Green Sheep? by Mem Fox, illus Judy Horacek
KidzRead!: A String in the Harp
by Nancy Bond
This post is long overdue. My picture books were launched on 18th February (as mentioned in my post Talking About Books) and here are some pictures from the event.
Signing the poster to "officially" launch the books.
Faking it: Amir and I pretending to read our books (because we were asked to, by the press photographers). And, yes, we felt really stupid doing it!
(From left) Eric Forbes, our editor at MPH Publishing; Amir and me; Raj, from the Paediatric AIDS Fund (my royalties are going to this organisation).
Amir and me, signing copies of our four books!
Trying to sound intelligent during our interview with Bernama News Agency.
A picture with one of the kind souls who bought our books. Unfortunately, I can't recall her name. If anyone reading this recognises her, please enlighten me!
By: Daphne Lee Mei,
Blog: The Places You Will Go
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FINDING LITTLE SISTER
By Yoriko Tsutsui
Illustrated by Akiko Hayashi
Publisher: RIC, 32 pages
Naomi has to look after her little sister Ellie, but Ellie wanders away and Naomi is filled with fear that she has lost her baby sibling for good. I was drawn to this book because Ellie reminds me of my daughter. I think illustrator Akiko Hayashi has a real gift for portraying little girls. I also love this team's work for 'Amy and Ken Visit Grandma', which will be next month's featured Picture Book. The English versions of these books are published by RIC, a very special imprint/publisher that specialises in English translations of Japanese picture books.
The author of the Webs of Significance blog commented on my Gnooks post and, on checking out her blog, I came across this quote from a Malory Towers book. Pretty cool, don't you think?
"I want you all to listen to me for a minute or two. One day you will leave this school and go out into the world as young women. You should take with you eager minds, kind hearts and a will to help. You should take with you a good understanding of many things and a willingness to accept responsibility, and show yourselves as women to be loved and trusted. All these things you will be able to learn at Malory Towers -- if you will.
I do not count as our successes those who have good scholarships and passed exams, though these are good things to do. I count as our successes those who learn to be good-hearted and kind, sensible and trustable, good, sound women the world can lean on. Our failures are those who do not learn these things in the years they are here...
Some of you will find it easy to learn these things, others will find it hard...But, easy or hard, they must be learnt if you are to be happy after you leave here, and if you are to bring happiness to others. " - Miss Grayling,headmistress of Malory Towers, the girls boarding school in Enid Blyton's series. (From the Webs of Significance post Favourite Female Authors Follow-up Post.)
"Just because parents have the legal right to control their children’s reading does not mean that we should encourage them to do so." - Roger Sutton (editor-in-chief of The Horn Book Magazine and writer of the Read Roger blog) in The Horn Book Magazine, March 13, 1997.
Check out this website: Gnooks
Type in an author's name to discover other writers, literature maps, join in discussions, search for books etc.
It's really funny that the map for Elizabeth David comprises just three names: her's, JeffreySteingarten and Hunter S. Thompson. HUNTER S. THOMPSON???!!!
However, these maps are created based on readers' tastes, not the similarity of one author to another.
The site says: "The closer two writers are, the more likely someone will like both of them."
Well, interestingly enough I typed in Tove Jansson (the author of the Moomin books and definitely a big favourite of mine) and Aidan Chambers, floating very close by, is next on my "Must Read" list.
However, although Kenneth Grahame and C. S Lewis are also hovering nearby, so are Gail Tsukiyama and Liza Dalby who write, as far as I can tell, romances set in Japan, which are not my cup of green tea at all.
Well, as I said, it's about individual tastes and that's how Hunter S. Thompson came to beon the same map as Elizabeth David!
Tots to Teens, Star Mag
18th Feb 2007
I HAD the thrill, last Saturday, of attending the launch of my picture books. Now, before I go on, let me just say that I’ve been ribbed endlessly by friends and family about my “shameless self-promotion”. What can I say? Who else is going to blow my trumpet, right?
Anyway, back to the launch. It was fun. It was also nerve wrecking. I imagined no one turning up: How embarrassing! And then I imagined throngs of people: How even more embarrassing!
About 10 people showed in the end. Most of them were friends and family, and there was a girl who said she read this column, and a little boy who just smiled and took lots and lots of pictures….
esAnyway, thanks to my publisher, distributor and the bookstore for organising the launch. It’s cool to see more events being organised by MPH Bookstores. Today I went for the “press tour” of the latest store at Bangsar Village II in Kuala Lumpur.
Two interesting groups are being launched at this store this month. One is the Breakfast Club for Litbloggers, where bloggers who write about books can network; and Kidz Read! a reading group for children.
The Breakfast Club will meet on the first Saturday of every month from 11am to 1pm. Author Ooi Yang-May (The Flame Tree, Mindgame) will attend the first session on Feb 24.
Kidz Read! will be held on the last Sunday of each month. Each meeting will focus on two to four books, linked in some way, for example by theme, author or subject.
The books that will discussed at the first meeting on Feb 25 are Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane; The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams; The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban; and Frances Hodgson-Burnett’s The Racketty-Packetty House.
At each session, children will explore themes and discuss questions and issues raised in the featured books. They will also be encouraged to talk about how they feel about the books, why they like or dislike them; and to even recommend similar books to each other.
By the way, I’m the facilitator for this group and I decided that there should be more than one book for each session so that children at different reading levels can join the discussion.
So, you don’t have to read every single book on the list ... unless you want to, of course! If there’s a book you (or your child) would like discussed at Kidz Read! do write and tell me about it.
I’d also love to hear from readers about books that they love. A couple of weeks ago I received an e-mail, from 17-year-old Justine Lee, raving about Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. Justine says it’s “a beautiful story ... in a depressing kinda way ... full of wit and sarcasm”.
“I think this book will appeal to a lot of people, especially young adults,” she says. “I hope you can highlight the book in your column.”
Happy reading and Happy Chinese New Year!
By: Daphne Lee Mei,
Blog: The Places You Will Go
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Review by DAPHNE LEE
THE CHINESE WOMEN’S ASSOCIATION COOKBOOK
Edited by Maniza Jumabhoy
Publisher: Marshall Cavendish, 152 pages
A GOOD balance of recipes for familiar and exotic dishes are presented in this book. The contributors are members of the Chinese Women’s Association (CWA), Singapore’s oldest local women’s group.
Founded in 1915, the CWA remains a vital and vibrant force today, playing an active role in charitable fundraising. In fact, the proceeds from the sale of this book will go to the Henderson Senior Citizens’ Home, which the CWA considers its special project.
Seventy-two recipes are featured here, accompanied by mouth-watering shots of the dishes, as well as photographs and short biographies of their contributors. Interestingly, CWA members are not all Chinese. There are also contributions from women of other races who, presumably, are married to Chinese men.
The recipes themselves are mostly for Chinese food, but Western fare (eg, Venison Jaegermeister With Dumplings and Red Cabbage) and other Asian dishes are also featured.
I was excited to see many of my own favourites, regularly enjoyed when my grandmother and mother were still with us. I never cooked then and when I do attempt to prepare these dishes now, I have to call my sisters for the recipes.
It might be something as simple as Mee Hoon Kway (pieces of thin dough boiled in a tasty and fragrant anchovy-based soup) but if mum has been the one preparing it all your life, you might still appreciate some written instructions!
Other recipes over which my eyes lit up at are Tau Yu Bak (belly pork stewed in dark soy sauce), Ayam Buah Keluak (a Peranakan dish featuring Indonesian black nuts), Braised Duck, Penang Asam Laksa and Chicken in Rice Wine (usually something eaten during what the Chinese call the “confinement” period after childbirth, but delicious any time).
I have to say, though, that the braised duck I prepared following the recipe in this book didn’t taste like what I expected/remembered. Perhaps my mum’s method differed slightly. No matter. This version tasted pretty good, too.
I also tried making Bread and Butter Pudding and Pork Belly With Rose Tea. I chose these two dishes to experiment with because one, the pudding, was familiar and I have my own recipe for it, and the other is totally new.
In both cases, the recipes were easy to follow and the ingredients easily available (this is true of all the recipes, actually). The pudding here is a lot less rich than my own recipe (I use double cream, while the recipe here calls for milk), and I found it a little soggy, but it has a nice, subtle eggy flavour and is just sweet enough.
Other recipes for cakes and desserts included are Sugee Cake, Mince Pies, Kek Lapis (layer cake) and Coca Cola Chocolate Cake.
As for the belly pork, I think I’m going to be cooking this dish often. I love its distinctive taste, which comes from a combination of ingredients, including star anise, Oolong tea leaves, dried rose buds and pumpkin. This is an example of the many simple to prepare but unusual and tasty dishes featured here.
A glossary of some of the more uncommon ingredients is provided at the back of this book. There is also a handy measurements guide.
With the Lunar new year round the corner, the Chinese Women’s Association Cookbook may be just what you need to bring some variety to the dinner table at this year’s family reunion!
By: Daphne Lee Mei,
Blog: The Places You Will Go
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Tots to Teens, Star Mag
11th Feb 2007
SHOULD books be labelled according to age group? I used to do so when compiling lists of newly released children’s and young adult books for StarTwo’s Reading Room column. I stopped this week because I decided it was just a lot of nonsense. I mean, I was often deciding on a recommended age just for the sake of it, not because I really thought that a book was for children, say, age eight to 11.
They are just rough guides but I know that some parents take them very seriously, which is just crazy. So, if I suggest that a book is suitable for nine- to 12-year-olds, they wouldn’t dream of giving it to their seven-year-old. Heaven forbid the child should read above his level!
Reading above their level is one of the ways children improve their literacy. That’s why it’s important to keep on reading to children even after they can read on their own. Reading to children means that they can enjoy books that might be too difficult for them to read by themselves. Make the experience fun and they will revisit the books once they can manage them on their own. And so, I don’t believe that we should tell a child that a book is “too hard” for him. So what if it is? What’s the harm in having to look words up in the dictionary? It’s a cause for celebration if a child chooses a book for himself. It means he’s developing his own taste. If he tries it and hates it, at least he’ll know the kinds of books to avoid next time around!
Sometimes, just to get a reaction, I talk about how I read Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina when I was nine. People are so impressed by that, but I sometimes don’t bother adding that I didn’t read the book from cover to cover. I speed-read from a tender age: I skimmed through AK and (helped by the excellent BBC mini series) managed to get the gist of the story, but I read only some parts closely. They were the bits about grand balls and parlour parties and the opera, the bits where the characters flirted and bitched and discussed clothes. Later on I read everything else in between and around those parts. The point is that I read.
If I say a book is for seven-year-olds, that may just be my opinion. I’m not qualified – what do I know? Anyway, which 10-year-old are we talking about? Your 10-year-old may be reading The Catcher in the Rye, while mine continues to devour The Famous Five. They might even switch quite happily between the two. The best way to choose books for your children is to get to know what they like. Buy them a dictionary, be prepared to explain and discuss. And read with them!
Forget labels. Age is just a number. Good books are for life!
I just got myself some new books with my office annual book allowance.
I would like to start reading them all at once because they look so very delicious (flipping through the pages I read snippets that make my mouth water) and I am greedy.
The Book That Changed My Life: Interviews with National Book Award Winners and Finalists
Edited by Diana Osen
Publisher: Modern Library Paperbacks
Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books
By Paul Collins
The Child That Books Built
By Francis Sufford
The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop
By Lewis Buzbee
Publisher: Graywolf Press
The Art of Eating
By M.F.K Fisher (My friend at the bookstore said: "Her initials are rather rude, don't you think?" I never noticed before, but yes, they are, rather!)
Check out the covers here.
One of the books I'm reading and loving Forever and Ever Amen: becoming a Nun in the Sixties by Sister Karol Jackowski.I love books about nuns ... fiction and non-fiction. Maybe it's because there's always been a part of me that thinks of becoming one (I'm Catholic, lapsed). I don't think I could give up my books though, which I would have to with the vow of poverty.
Does My Head Look Big in This, by Randa Abdel Fattah, is featured in my column this week. It's not about nuns, but it involves a similarly important, religious-based personal decision.
DOES My Head Look Big in This? (Publisher:
Marion Lloyd Books, 368 pages, ISBN-10: 0439950589) Isn't that title a
gas? I love it! It's witty and a little smart-alecky, like the heroine
of the book, 16-year-old Amal Mohamed Nasrullah Abdel-Hakim, a Muslim
Palestinian-Australian who decides that she's ready to wear the hijab (veil) fulltime.
Amal is inspired by Rachel, from the sitcom Friends,
to take this life-altering step. Power-walking on the treadmill, she
watches Rachel jump on stage at a wedding dinner and belt out Copacabana. Somehow, Amal feels empowered by this scene and decides to “shawl-up”.
No biggie, huh? Well, perhaps not in Malaysia where we're all quite
used to Muslim women of all ages wearing headscarves, but in
predominantly white-Christian Australia, it's a major undertaking (Amal
in her hijab has to deal with everything from raised eyebrows to dumb
questions to racial slurs, but she manages to take most of it in her
It does occur to me though that although a female Muslim in a tudung
(scarf or veil) is a common sight in this country, the reasons for
choosing to wear one might not be known to many non-Muslim Malaysians.
The blurb on the book's cover says: “Every teenager in Britain should
read this book”. Well, make that every Malaysian teenager too.
For me, it's good to see a teenage novel in which the central character
isn't white, but I wonder how encouraged or otherwise Malaysian teens
will be to purchase My Head. Will the hijab-wearing model on its cover intrigue or repel?
I've been told that when beauty magazines feature dark-skinned cover
girls, the sales dip, whether here or in the States and Britain. And I
know teenagers who say that they prefer reading about white characters
and that they would not bother to even pick up a book with a black or
Asian character on the cover.
I wonder how popular TV series The OC would be if they had an all-black cast!
Well, books are supposed to allow us to explore new worlds and so it
would be a shame to limit the experience to white middle-class America
or Britain (or Australia), right?
Although My Head,
written by Australian-born Palestinian Randa Abdel Fattah, raises
interesting and serious questions about faith, tolerance and acceptance
of different beliefs and cultures, and racial and religious identity,
these potentially heavy topics are presented in a wholly accessible
way, thanks to their context: the life of a healthy, well-adjusted
teenager who spends as much (if not more) time and energy stressing
about clothes and boys as she does about her religion.
takes her beliefs very seriously, but she is not above laughing at
herself and the way she sometimes gets her knickers in a twist when
dealing with anyone unsupportive or insensitive.
Of course, being only human, she has her moments of doubt, indecision
and self-righteous rage, but these simply make her a more believable
and likeable character.
I would be interested to hear from any Malaysian Muslim girl who has read this book. Does she identify with Amal?
Does she face the same problems and challenges? If the teenage
Malaysian Muslim experience with the tudung is totally different from
Amal's with the hijab, wouldn't it be great if someone wrote a book
In fact, I would love to read anyone's (preferably any Malaysian's)
take on the life of Malaysian teenagers of any sex, race, religion,
shape or form.
Actually, I know a couple of people who are working on something. Hey, guys, don't take too long. I'm getting impatient!
I found Does My Head Look Big in This? quite unputdownable and finished it in a little over an hour.
I'm currently still reading the Abbey books and, yesterday, I started on the autobiography of a nun. Today, I was given the latest book in Diana Wynne Jones's Chrestomanci series. DWJ is always as good as a tonic for me and as The Pinhoe Egg is nice and fat, I am expecting some blissful hours ahead,!
Happy Reading to everyone!
LOST AND FOUND
Written and Illustrated by Oliver Jeffers
Publisher: HarperCollinsChildren'sBooks, 32 pages
A little boy finds and befriends a lost penguin and tries to help it find its way home. They journey to the South Pole in a row boat, but the closer they get to their destination, the sadder the little bird seems to get. This sweet tale of friendship is beautifully illustrated using simple, clean shapes and bright, clear colours that light up the page and the heart.
By: Daphne Lee Mei,
Blog: The Places You Will Go
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I love spying on people as they browse in bookstores. I pay attention to what the person in front of me at the cashier is buying. I always want to know what my friends and family are reading and what they have blown their allowance/pay packets on at their favourite bookshops.
That's why I love Nick Hornby's collection of articles on the books he's bought and the ones he's reading/read. If you are a book addict, you'll know that the two lists don't always overlap ...
THE COMPLETE POLYSYLLABIC SPREE: THE DIARY OF AN OCCASIONALLY EXASPERATED BUT EVER HOPEFUL READER
By Nick Hornby
Publisher: Penguin Viking, 278 pages
I was thrilled to see, on
first flipping through this book, that each chapter begins with two
lists: “Books Bought” and “Books Read”. There is a difference, as most
book lovers will tell you. If you own over a thousand books and you
haven't stopped buying more, it's unlikely that you will read every
book you buy, the moment the shrink-wrap comes off.
First of all, there's the question of mood. You may want to (nay, need to) buy a book on the spot, but, years may pass before you feel like reading
it! This is why my bedside table is stacked with books. I'm usually in
the middle of at least three at any one time because I never can tell
what I'll feel like reading first thing in the morning or last thing at
It's good to see Nick Hornby publicly
identifying with and acknowledging the problem. Not that it really is a
problem. It's only those spoil sports who read maybe half a book every
couple of years who see it as such. Their main concern would probably
be shelfspace or lack thereof, but if you truly love to read and like
owning what you read (or will, one day, so help you God, get around to
reading), shelfspace ceases to be an issue. Who needs bookcases when
there are other kinds of surfaces that will as readily hold your books?
Who says your wardrobe is only for clothes? Or kitchen cabinets are
just for crockery? Has it ever occurred to you that there's a lot of
useable space under your bed?
Anyway, if you're an enthusiastic reader and buyer of books (and if you're a Hornby fan) you will love The Complete Polysyllabic Spree. It comprises two year’s worth of the author’s column, Stuff I’ve Been Reading, for American literary magazine The Believer,
and, besides revealing that Hornby buys a lot of books and reads a lot
of books but that the lists don't necessarily overlap, it also
describes the method-in-the-madness way he chooses his reading
material; how one book or author leads to another; what makes him want
to read more, and what puts him off the activity.
written in a very chatty style. And at times Hornby also nags and
whines, scoffs and simpers. But that's the book's greatest charm. You
don't feel intimidated by Hornby. You don't think, “Cor, he's so widely
read, how will I ever catch up?” and “My goodness, that book sounds
deep! He must be a clever clogs!” Hornby is like that friend with whom
you go book-hunting on weekends, who sometimes buys books simply
because of their cool covers and who's looked at his copy of Candide
for the past seven years and never ever felt the slightest inclination
to read it. In short, a perfectly normal, ordinary guy who just happens
to like reading.
He does read widely, but he's guided by
curiosity and a desire to have a good time, not worthy reasons like the
pursuit of knowledge and the quest for peace. We've all been at the
mercy of people who stroke their chins and say stuff like, “Denise
Robbins? What could a book by her possibly teach you?” Oh, yawn.
I have not learnt a whole lot from Polysyllabic
apart from the titles of some books that I might very well enjoy and
the fact that Hornby is, like me, the sort of person who panics about
silly things like not having something to read (even though they live
in a house where there is no where to park your bum because there are
stacks of books on all the chairs). He is also the sort of person who
might impulsively buy books on obscure subjects like the migration
patterns of the peregrine falcon. I am much comforted by this fact as I
once bought a book on fly fishing in New England.
Hornby is as funny, wry and sarcastic in Polysyallabic
as he is in his novels, but this book is a much more enjoyable and
relaxing read than his fiction because whereas his characters are
always in the midst of personal crises and trying to come to grips with
life, Hornby, the main character, so to speak, of Polysyallabic,
is just a man wandering aimlessly through a wonderland of books,
rambling on, rather pointlessly, but quite engagingly, about the
delights and frustrations of reading. Well, it suits me anyway and I can't see why anyone who loves books wouldn't be just as entertained.
This week's Tots to Teens is about Elsie J. Oxenham's Abbey books. In the column I mention having transcripts of some of the books and invite interested parties to email me if they want to try an Abbey!
Here are the titles I own in transrcipt:
The Abbey Girls in Town
The Abbey Girls on Trial
Patch and a Pawn
The Abbey Girls
The Abbey Girls Again
Damaris at Dorothy's
Joy's New Adventure
Maidlin Bears the Torch
Margery Meets the Roses
Peggy and the Brotherhood
Tots to Teens
28th January 2007
Elsie J Oxenham's Abbey series is No Small Comfort
I STARTED re-reading my Abbey books last week and now I can't stop. There are 45 of them, but I have only a baker's dozen, plus 14 transcripts, which I have yet to read! How delicious to think that I have all those stories to look for ward to!
The Abbey books were written by Elsie J. Oxenham and are mostly out of print. The only way new fans can read them is to borrow them from a library (no such luck in Malaysia) or from someone with the books. Sometimes, some kind soul scans what they have and emails it to the less fortunate (that would be me!)
I belong to Girlsown, a mailing list which discusses girls boarding school stories and other girl-centric books, and another list that talks about Abbey books only. Through them, I've met many generous Abbey fans who have sent me their transcripts.
If you like stories about girls, and series with recurring characters who grow older and develop with each book, Oxenham's Abbey books may be worth checking out. For those who have never heard of the series, it's about a group of girls who live near Gracedieu, a ruined abbey in Oxfordshire. In the centre of the story is the Hamlet Club, which does country dancing, and crowns a May Queen every year.
While the first Abbey book, The Girls of the Hamlet Club, is about how the club is founded, the second book, The Abbey Girls , introduces the reader to the red-headed cousins Joan and Joy Shirley who go on be pivotal characters in the series.
Most of the main characters are in their tweens or early teens when they first appear in the books and by the series' end they have teenage children of their own! I love the character development. Also, the fact that the characters' personal lives, hopes, fears and dreams drive the books' plots make for compelling reading. After a couple of books following courtships, marriages and births, I am hooked, pulled into the world of the Abbey. It's quite similar to how one becomes addicted to a soap opera and deeply involved in the lives of its characters, to the extent that one starts talking about them as though they were real!
But truth be told, the rarified world of the Abbey girls is attractive because it is quite unlike the one I live in. These girls marry titled gentlemen (one of them becomes a countess) and live in large country houses (the countess lives in a castle), playing ladies bountiful by bequeathing scholarships to poor but deserving (read: musically talented) souls; adopting motherless heiresses; and giving penniless but genteel lasses lessons in grammar and etiquette. Yes, it's all rather snobbish, but also, terribly, morbidly fascinating. The girls love meddling in people's affairs, but it has to be "suitable" and "nice" people. A working class wench with a squint would not interest them.
The Abbey series was written between 1914 and 1959 and so the ideas presented in them are quite old-fashioned. Several of the characters give up successful careers to become wives and mothers, and the belief that having a husband and children is the only route to total fulfillment is a firm Abbey belief. Those who don't give up their jobs remain unmarried and devoted to helping their married chums. And for the married ones who still work, their careers as mere hobbies, not to be taken very seriously.
It's enough to make any independent mother-with-a-job stamp her foot, and I do! I have written many irritable posts about how the Abbey girls are narrow-minded snobs who would probably refuse to speak to me on account of my ethnicity and accent! And yet, I continue to read the books and be entertained and … comforted! Yes, Abbey books are a great favourite with me when I am feeling down. I think this is because they are such a splendid form of escape, the forever-summer world of the peaceful Abbey in its fresh green garth acting like a refuge from real-world cares. Also, while the characters can be insufferably arrogant, they can also be loyal, kind and resourceful.
For more about the series and the author visit the Elsie Jeanette Oxenham website ( home.pacific.net.au/~bcooper/popular.htm).
Independent publisher Girls Gone By have re-published several Abbey books, but each costs about £ 10 – too much to risk on something totally new. You may find the odd Children's Press (abridged) or Collins edition at second hand bookshops and jumble sales, but you'd have more luck in Britain or Australia than in this part of the world.
Or, you could email me for a transcript or two. Check my blog for the list of transcripts I have and research the stories on the EJO site. I'm looking forward to making Abbey fans out of more Malaysians!
TRAIN MAN: A Shojo Manga
Story: Hitori Nakano
Art: Machiko Ocha
Publisher: Ballantine Books;
For ages 13+
IKUMI Saiki is an anime fanboy. This breed of humans is notoriously anti-social. They do nothing but read manga, watch anime and hang out on Internet message boards. But, like most geeky fanboys, Ikumi harbours hopes, albeit not very high ones, of having a social life and, most importantly, a girlfriend. Well, wonders never cease, but one day, he tells a drunk off for harassing a girl on a train. The girl is impressed and grateful and sends him a pair of pretty Hermes teacups. Ikumi is filled with hope … could she be the one?
If you’re a manga fan, this story should ring bells. There have been several other versions of it, not to mention a television series and a movie! In fact, Train Man is based on a true story and its original printed form was edited copies of message board conversations between Ikumi (who called himself Train Man) and his various online friends to whom he turned to for advice on how to win the heart of Hermes (as the girl on the train was nicknamed, thanks to the teacups).
It’s a rather sweet story, I guess, if you’re into happy endings, but I don’t think it merits all the publicity it has received. Only in Japan, surely!
This manga was a chore for me to read. The way the pages are sectioned, it’s not very obvious what order the text should be read in. I also had problems recognising Ikumi. His hair seems to change colour every other page. Maybe it’s what they call art! Maybe I’m too cynical and this story is just too upbeat for me!
I wonder what the real Ikumi and Hermes are up to now. Instead of 500 versions of the story of their blossoming romance, someone should write a sequel. Are they still together, I wonder? Or has Ikumi, flushed with success, taken to stalking girls in trains and/or become a playboy? Someone hunt them down and find out!
The four picture books I wrote are now available in MPH outlets and (hopefully) other good bookstores. In my column in Star Mag today I talk about my first (and probably not last) bad review!
TOT TO TEEN BY DAPHNE LEE
WHAT better way to start a new year and the first Tots to Teens of
2007 than with the first bad review of my picture books? Hah, after
pooh-poohing the hard work of others, I now get a taste of my own
Actually, it’s fine. That is, yes, I got a bad
review, but it came from someone whose opinion I value and trust. The
criticism was valid and I think it will help me produce better books in
The critic, as regular readers might have guessed, is Kit, my friend
whom I usually refer to here as the “the best children’s book
merchandiser in the Klang Valley, possibly even Asia”. I found her
comments interesting, especially since they were about things I’d never
Her chief complaints were about the typeface and the illustrations. Kit
thinks the typeface is hard to read. It’s too thin and irregularly
shaped. Children may have problems deciphering the letters. Parents may
think, “My child won’t be able to read this”. Of course, I meant for
parents to read these books to their pre-schoolers, but I guess I should have thought of our kiasu Malaysian dads and mums who expect their kids to read by the time they’re three!
As for the illustrations, Kit thinks the colours are too garish. She
was surprised when I told her that Amir, my artist friend and
collaborator on the books, had used watercolours! She says she it looks
like he used magic markers! According to Kit, the tones are harsh and
unfriendly to the eye and this may put some parents off. Personally, I
rather liked the bright colours and I don’t think they would put a
I would have liked a glowing review from Kit, but I know the books
aren’t perfect and I appreciate her comments. As a bookseller she has a
different perspective and it’s obviously an important one that writers
and publishers should take note of.
The books (1 Red Flower, A is for Anklet, If I Were a Star and Sweet Pink Posies)
are now available at all MPH outlets and other selected bookshops. They
cost RM9.90 each and I am donating my share of royalties to the
Paediatric AIDS Fund, set up by the Malaysian AIDS Foundation in 1996
to look after the needs of children infected and/or affected by HIV and
I'm currently biting my nails over Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian, which is part-detective, part-horror fiction, about a group of scholars investigating the truth behind the legend of Vlad the Impaler, the cruel medieval ruler whose crimes formed the basis of the myth of Dracula.
Reading this book, prompted me to re-read Bram Stoker's Dracula. Coincidentally, two new versions of the classic tale arrived on my desk about a month ago: an illustrated edition, and a graphic novel.
Stoker strikes again
Two new editions of Bram Stoker’s classic bring back images of gothic horror.
Review by DAPHNE LEE
THE ILLUSTRATED DRACULA
By Bram Stoker
Illustrated by Jae Lee
Publisher: Studio, 400 pages
PUFFIN GRAPHICS: BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA
Adapted by Gary Reed
Illustrated by Becky Cloonan
Publisher: Puffin, 176 pages
AS my eldest sister (who is 13 years older than me) was a fan of the
macabre, in particular vampire stories, I was familiar with the legend
of Count Dracula from a tender age. My earliest brush with the
aristocratic fanged one was even before I turned five. My sister took
me with her to watch Christopher Lee in the Hammer House of Horror cult
This was probably very silly of her, but, thankfully, I suffered no
lasting damage from the experience. (Some may disagree though.)
I have next to no recollection of the movie (although I do remember
Dracula’s blood-red eyes), but I understand that although it is based
on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the script is not faithful to the novel.
For example, the film begins with Jonathan Harker arriving at Castle
Dracula with the intention of killing the vampire. Although he manages
to destroy one of Dracula’s brides, he is overpowered by the Count and
is turned into a vampire. His fiance meets the same fate and both are
killed by vampire-hunter Van Helsing.
In the novel, Jonathan is a solicitor at the English law firm hired by
Dracula to purchase property for him and when he arrives at Castle
Dracula, he has no idea that his host is one of the undead. He manages
to avoid being bitten, although he does end up very ill. Later, his
fiance, Mina’s life and soul is threatened by Dracula when the vampire
sets up home in Britain. However, Stoker allows the couple a happy
I suspect the movie wasn’t too scary or I would have remembered more of it ... just as I remember The Exorcist.
The book, on the other hand, is one of the creepiest tales of horror I
have ever read. It comprises the various characters’ journal entries as
well as log entries, letters and newspaper reports.
I’ve never been able to believe that anyone writes such detailed journals as they do here (or in Bridget Jones’s Diary
for that matter), complete with dialogue, but that may just be me
projecting my own sloth onto others. It doesn’t matter though, because
the reader gets so drawn into the story that unfolds that he soon
forgets its source and is simply swept along by the events described.
Like the best scary stories, the details are subtly drawn, relying on
the power of suggestion and imagination to horrify and repulse. The
scene in which Jonathan Harker looks out from his bedroom window, in
Castle Dracula, and sees the Count crawling down the wall is one of the
most powerful in gothic fiction.
Another episode that makes a lasting impression is set aboard the ship
carrying Dracula to England. The account, from the ship captain’s log,
is dark, despairing and heavy with fear, dread and nail-biting
suspense: One by one, ship hands disappear and the first mate suspects
the cause to be supernatural. When his worst fears are confirmed, the
captain makes a brave and horrifying decision. The episode ends with a
newspaper article about the arrival of the ship in port with the dead
captain strapped to its wheel.
The report is written in a dispassionate and stark journalistic style,
but the facts, as they stand, are ghastly enough to make your hair
stand, your flesh crawl, and all the other signs and symptoms connected
with having the daylights scared out of you.
Two new editions of this classic story were published last year: an
illustrated version and a graphic novel. Marvel Comics regular Jae Lee
provides the artwork for the former – mostly terribly slick and
sophisticated portraits, in which the subjects look posed. It’s all
very beautiful and very cold, and not terribly inspiring. I also
expected more action-oriented studies, for example, of the infamous
I prefer the illustrations in the graphic novel, drawn by Becky
Cloonan, which, although rather amateurish, possess a liveliness
missing in Lee’s work.
Gary Reed, scriptwriter for the graphic novel, has done an admirable
job, too. Stoker’s fans will appreciate how he has condensed the story
without losing any of the marvellous atmosphere of the original, while
those unfamiliar with the novel cannot fail but be enticed to read it.
The Costa Awards category winners:
Stef Penney THE TENDERNESS OF WOLVES
William Boyd RESTLESS
Linda Newberry SET IN STONE
John Haynes LETTER TO PATIENCE
Brian Thompson KEEPING MUM
The overall winner will be announced on 7th Feb 2007.
Read more at the official Costa book awards website.
By: Daphne Lee Mei,
Blog: The Places You Will Go
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Animals Should definitely Not Wear Clothing
By Judi Barrett
Illustrated by Ron Barrett
Publisher: Aladdin, 32 pages
Just think of all the reasons why animals shouldn't wear clothes. The writer and illustrator of this book certainly have! Imagine a sheep in a jumper ... wouldn't it get too hot? How about a hen in trousers ... would it make egg-laying difficult? The upside down opossums are sweet. And the elephant in a dress and hat reminds me of a family friend, which, as the Barretts point out, could be very, very embarrassing ...!
If you read when you're feeling depressed, what do you read?
I wrote about some of the my favourite comfort reads in this post and this one too. Some books help keep the demons away really well and I discovered another recently: Imagining Characters, which is conversations between author A. S. Byatt and psychoanalyst Ignes Sodre, on six novels by women. The books include Mansfield Park, Vilette, Beloved and Daniel Deronda.
This book helps now (yes, I am extremely depressed at the moment and have been for the last six months or so) because I have to concentrate very hard on the content (because it's all very clever and complex and it takes all my concentration to understand what's being said - I never claimed to be smart) and so there's no chance of my mind wandering, no chance of me thinking about the source of all my present woes. I'm reading it at the moment ... very, very slowly ... to make it last!
Other books I've found helpful are The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova and Bram Stoker's Dracula. I was also reading The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey until I stupidly left it somewhere in Elesh's school. Detective novels, if they are the sort by Tey, Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie are a good distraction. You're so busy figuring out whodunnit that there's no time to mope about your own troubles and wonder for the zillionth time "Why me???"
But my favourite type of escapism is Girlsown books. Yesterday I decided it was as good as time as any to start re-reading my Abbey books (including photocopies). I started with A Dancer in the Abbey and went on to Queen of the Abbey (I don't think I'll bother doing it in order). They're pretty good when you're down because there's a lot of talk
about friendship and family. Even so, I noticed (maybe for the first
time yesterday) that there's also a fair bit of "abandonment" by
mothers and parents. Quite a few of the characters have mums who go
running off to Europe and India and such, leaving their offspring to
the mercy of strangers in England. And no one seems to think it's unfeeling or even the slightest bit odd. Quite strange.
I have about 17 Abbey books that need to be printed and bound. They're out of print and next to impossible to buy, but kind souls from the Girlsown mailing group have sent them to me as word documents. This should be the year I finally get around to printing the lot out. The way things are going in my life, I should keep a large stash of comforting books handy!
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I read this review of Miss Potter (from The Horn Book website) after I'd written rather ignorantly about Beatrix Potter and the film, for Tots to Teens (21st Jan).
There is a very interesting "fact vs fiction" link in the article that you can also access here.
Tots to Teens
21st January 2007
APPARENTLY, the film Miss Potter, about the life of writer and illustrator Beatrix Potter, will not be released in Malaysia. Although it stars two big Hollywood names - Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor - its central character is probably not one whom most Malaysians would be familiar with. Can't you just hear the local movie distributors? "Potter? Does she make plates and bowls?" Or, with desperate hope ..."Potter? As in, Harry Potter? Is she a long-lost aunt? Can she do magic?"
I'm sure the decision makers decided that a film about Beatrix Potter would not make any money in this country. If Potter had been a nymphomaniac who'd lived it up in Paris with a string of lovers of both sexes, it would not have mattered if her only legacy was a slim volume of grammatically dubious pornography, but would anyone pay to watch a movie about a homely spinster who wrote about rabbits, mice and ducks? Well, would you?
Admittedly, I'd told myself that I would give Miss Potter a miss mainly because I try to avoid any film starring Zellweger, but also because I was scornful of the way the scriptwriters had, I believed, invented a romance between Potter and her editor, Norman Warne (played by McGregor).
I thought they did it simply to spice up the writer's otherwise rather unexciting life, but I have since discovered that Potter and Warne were indeed in love and that her family disapproved of the relationship. Warne died of pneumonia in anycase, and Potter eventually married a solicitor named William Heelis, gave up writing and became a successful sheep-breeder in England's Lake District! She willed her property to the National Trust and if you are ever in that part of the world you can visit her cottage, Hill Top, near Lake Windermere.
For fans of Potter and/or Zellweger, you'll just have to wait for the film to be released on DVD. You should also check out the excellent animated films of Potter stories released by Britsh television station ITV. They are available, on VCD, at stores like MPH and Speedy Video and include The Tailor of Gloucester, The Tale Of Peter Rabbit And Benjamin Bunny, The Tale Of Flopsy Bunnies and Mrs Tittlemouse, and The Tale Of Tom Kitten and Jemima Puddleduck.
And of course, there are the actual stories. You can buy each tale separately or all of them in one big fat volume. There are also all kinds of other editions including board books for toddlers.
I remember a time when Elesh, my eldest son, was Potter mad. His favourites were The Tailor of Gloucester, The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse, The Tale of Two Bad Mice and The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin. The first time I read to him the scene in which Nutkin gets his tail bitten off by Old Brown the owl, Elesh was inconsolable. The few times he asked for The Tale of Pigling Bland, I was (very nearly) inconsolable. Parents, be warned! This story goes on for far longer than any parent should be made to read aloud. Have rations handy!
I know some feel that the world inhabited by Peter Rabbit and his friends is just too foreign for Malaysian children's tastes. Why is it any more foreign than a boarding school for wizards? Children are more adaptable and accepting, curious and interested than we give them credit for. If they don't know what a poke bonnet (as worn by Jemima Puddleduck) is, they can look it up in the dictionary. No one would complain if Potter's characters spoke American on the Disney Channel a la Winnie the Pooh. Should Peter and his friends suffer the same gruesome fate? Quick, before it's too late! Beatrix Potter's original and charming tales are available at all good bookstores.