21 February 2012

Review: The Corpse Walker and Other True Stories of Life in China by Liao Yiwu

The Corpse Walker and Other True Stories of Life in China by Liao Yiwu book coverI learned more about China from reading Liao Yiwu's The Corpse Walker and Other True Stories of Life in China than I'd previously learned in a lifetime.

The book comprises twenty-seven true life interviews with Chinese citizens from all walks of life and Liao Yiwu has been imprisoned for 4 years for writing the truth and recording oral history.  In fact, he is legally unable to leave China to promote his book or attend international literary festivals. 

His collection takes its name from an old practice in China of 'walking a corpse'.  When a person died far from home, the family would hire a corpse walker to transport the corpse home if they could afford to.  

The corpse was covered with a huge dark robe including a hood covering the face.  The 'corpse walker' walked ahead giving verbal commands to the corpse whilst holding a white paper lantern and tossing fake money every now and again to 'buy their way into the other world'.  It appeared to anyone passing them on the road that the corpse was walking, however the secret was that there was a second corpse walker underneath and the corpse was actually tied to his back.  Fascinating!

The author interviewed many interesting people including the following: 
Author Liao Yiwu

  • The professional mourner
  • The human trafficker
  • The public toilet manager
  • The leper
  • The rightist
  • The former landowner
  • The mortician
  • The former red guard
  • The Tiananmen father
  • The Falun Gong practitioner
  • The blind erhu player
  • The street singer
  • The migrant worker
  • The survivor
It was from reading these interviews and personal accounts that I learned about the Cultural Revolution in China, the Great Leap Forward and the Great Chinese Famine in detail.  I was also able to understand how each related to the other and put the political pieces together.  I was incredibly shocked to learn of the millions of Chinese who lost their lives in the Chinese Famine in the early '60s (approx 20-40 million people!) and to read of the cannibalism going on; families in rural areas killing their daughters to feed their families.  Just unthinkable!

It was only in reading their individual stories that I realised just how ignorant I had been about the real China.  It also highlighted to me how effective the Chinese Government has been in keeping the West in the dark and how thankful I am to author Liao Yiwu for taking the risks he has in getting them to us in the West.

It wasn't all doom and gloom though.  There were some uplifting and inspiring stories too, stories of incredible strength, forgiveness and spiritual endurance.

The Corpse Walker and Other True Stories of Life in China is an incredible book written by a fearless author who was imprisoned for his work and beliefs.  I can't recommend it highly enough.

My rating = *****
15 February 2012

Follow Up Interview with William F. Brown, author of Amongst My Enemies

Author image of William F. Brown
William F. Brown
Hi Bill, welcome back and congratulations on the release of your latest novel Amongst My Enemies.

You mentioned in your last interview with me that the concept for each novel you write begins with a simple concept; a one-liner. What was the one-liner that kicked off the writing for Amongst My Enemies?
Amongst My Enemies began with a thing – the Amber Room, which I came across in my reading. It was a large reception room in the Ekaterininsky Palace outside St. Petersburg, the walls of which were made of amber panels, encrusted with precious stones. They were there when the Germans swept past in 1941, and gone when the Russians took it back in 1944, and have never been seen since. It is priceless and remains one of the world’s great art mysteries. The Russians still believe the Germans know where it is, and they in turn have kept a lot of art they took from Berlin.

I had a double major in history, and WW II, the Cold War, and the current era of terrorism offer an endless supply of action, emotion and good stories. Good fiction, however, is about compelling characters, not background, and I completely rewrote Amongst many times until I got the characters right.

Amongst My Enemies is set in WWII and the majority of the story takes place overseas. Was it difficult for you to write a novel vastly different from The Undertaker or was that your intention?
I spent last year and will spend this year putting my existing books out as e-books, so I find myself working on a number of projects in different stages of development at the same time. Amongst My Enemies is partly WW II and mostly early Cold War, and had to be meatier, richer story to establish the background and motivation for what happens. The Undertaker, which by design is more of a fast, snarky, character-based, contemporary, ‘chase’ book didn’t need that help.

Thursday at Noon, which I’m now polishing up and will release in April, is also a fast paced story set in a few days in 1962, in Egypt. Winner Lose All, my newest, which is off with my agent, is mostly WW II, but an action, character-based story. One Good Shot, which will come out later this year, is a contemporary Middle-East terrorist thriller set in Washington and Virginia. As you know, The Undertaker is told in 1st person, which was my first attempt at that. It adds some immediacy and emotion, and I may do more of that.

I have another story in its infancy, Through the Glass Darkly, which may be first person, and may bring back Pete and Sandy from The Undertaker, since I had so many favorable comments on them. I’ve never tried a continuing character, but they are popular with readers, so we’ll see. As you can tell, I did not immediately shift gears from Undertaker to Amongst, but they are the opposite extremes of what I do. I was very concerned about that when I put Amongst out, but the early reviewers are people who reviewed and liked The Undertaker, and I’m very pleased to see they all liked both.

Did the fact that you've travelled to Germany and Russia help you when writing the novel? If so, can you tell us more?

Yes, for color and images. I’ve spent a lot of time in Germany, East, West, and Berlin, but only went to Russia two years ago, when my wife and I were able to spend 2 ½ weeks in Moscow, the Golden Ring, and St. Petersburg, including a visit to the Ekaterininsky Palace, where the Amber Room is.

It has taken the Russians almost 60 years to rebuild them, including a perfect copy of The Amber Room. It is very impressive, and no amount of photos can give the same impression as being there. Our tour guide was a young Russian woman whose parents and grandparents were Siege survivors, and you could feel the pride she took in her heritage.

What was the best book you read in 2011?
I can read or I can write, but it is hard to do both. In non-fiction, I read The Coming of the Third Reich by Richard Evans, the first volume of his three volume study of Nazi Germany which I think is a fascinating study of how tyranny can take over a country. It completely changed my understanding of the subject, and I highly recommend it to anyone.

In fiction, I read Daniel Silva’s The Rembrandt Affair and David Baldacci’s Divine Justice. Along with Michael Connolly, Robert Crais, and Dennis Lehane, they are my favorites, and always good.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?
No, just thanks for the interview and the review.

Thanks again for your time Bill.
14 February 2012

Review: Words You Thought You Knew - 1001 Commonly Misused and Misunderstood Words and Phrases by Jenna Glatzer

Words You Thought You Knew: 1001 Commonly Misused and Misunderstood Words and Phrases by Jenna Glatzer book cover
Instead of reviewing Jenna Glatzer's Words You Thought You Knew - 1001 Commonly Misused and Misunderstood Words and Phrases, I thought I would list the words from her book I discovered I misuse (the horror).  I'd also like to share with you the gems I learned from her along the way.

Words this reviewer is guilty of misusing

Adorable means worthy of being adored, and is not another word for cute.

People often use since as a synonym for because, but it is not. Since refers to time, from a time in the past until the present.

Comprise means "to be made up of" so the of is already included. You can say composed of, but it is incorrect to say comprised of. I'm guilty of this many times over, oops.

I was really surprised to learn that flags are only at half-mast if they're on a ship or a Naval base. Everywhere else, they are at half-staff. I wonder if this is applies to Australia too.

Did you know there's no such thing as a healthy meal? Healthy means having good health, but your food is healthful, bringing about good health. This mistake is everywhere you look and especially when it comes to packaging and marketing material.

I didn't know that nauseous means sickening, disgusting or gross, so that something that is nauseous causes nausea or makes somebody feel nauseated.

It's incorrect to plan on something and I'm definitely guilty of this one. It's correct to plan it, plan to or plan for something.

I definitely didn't know this one, but presently doesn't mean now, it means soon. If something is happening now, it's happening currently.

I'm guilty of misusing raise and rear - animals are raised and children are reared - but even now that I know the correct usage, I'm still reluctant to use them in this way. It just feels wrong, what do you think?  

The word vital comes from the Latin vita meaning life and should only be used to describe living things. Saying things like "it's vital that I have at least one can of Pepsi Max per day" is incorrect," because technically I can live without it.

Another think coming/Another thing coming
Even though we've all probably said and heard the phrase: "If that's what you think, you have another thing coming," apparently it's incorrect! The correct expression is: "if that's what you think, you have another think coming." It's surprising and even though it sounds grammatically incorrect, this is the correct phrase.

Even now that I know the correct phrase, I think I'm just going to avoid this expression altogether, rather than have people trying to correct me each time.

What about you?
So, what about you? Were you guilty of misusing any of the above words, or were there any surprises for you too? I'd love to hear your comments, or hear about other words that bug you.

My rating = ****

Carpe Librum!
09 February 2012

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore

I just watched the animated clip of The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore and it was so touching and beautiful I want to share it with as many people as I can.

It begins with a storm that takes the main character to a place where books can fly, walk around and have their own personality. Not a single word was spoken during the entire story (it runs for approx 15 mins), however it was very expressive and the ending was incredibly moving.

I thoroughly recommend it to everyone, even if you're not a fan of reading, you must see this.

Carpe Librum!
05 February 2012

Review: Amongst My Enemies by William F. Brown

* From author for review *

Amongst My Enemies is the second novel I've read from author William F. Brown, and I was eager to review it based on how much I enjoyed his previous novel The Undertaker, giving it 4 stars.

It was clear from the front cover alone that this novel was going to be different, however I didn't quite expect that it would be so different from The Undertaker that it could almost have been written by a different author.  

Sometimes an author will stick to the same genre, time period, subject matter, plot mechanism or writing style but not Brown.  As I was reading Amongst My Enemies, I was surprised at the author's ability to move so seamlessly between projects  and write a book that was a stark contrast in comparison to The Undertaker.

I mentioned the front cover earlier, and I must admit that it does kind of look like a Tom Clancy spy thriller but I can reassure you that the plot is completely accessible to the average reader.  Mike Randall is an American POW in Germany towards the end of WWII, and stows away on a U-boat in an attempt to survive the war.  What he doesn't expect is to be discovered and set free off the coast of Sweden by the U-boat Captain, only to witness it being bombed, carrying it's precious cargo - crew, gold, jewels and art - to the ocean floor.

Mike has survivor guilt, but he also wants revenge, while the Germans want their gold back and will stop at nothing to get it.  Brown writes really good villains, and there are certainly a couple in Amongst My Enemies.

Sometimes the plots of spy thrillers can be hard to keep up with, however this definitely isn't the case here.  This was an easy and enjoyable introduction to WWII thrillers and a really great place to start if you're new to the genre. (Here's a list from Amazon.com of 13 WWII Thriller Novels if you'd like to do any further list making of books to read).

When it comes to ratings though, I didn't find Amongst My Enemies as gripping and as engrossing as The Undertaker if I'm completely honest. 

My rating = ***

Carpe Librum!