Postcard from my bookshelf #6

Another potluck selection from the more than 200 entries to this project this month. This time, the random-number generator led me to the following comment from Aina Qistina:

Hi Ann!! I was just blog walking and end up here. Your idea of postcard from your bookshelf really excites the bookworm side of me. I’m new here but I would really love to receive one of your books.

I’m stuck with my reading habits when I was stuck in a hospital for almost a year. Before that, I do love reading but I’m not too keen of having books yet. Until one day, during my boring days when I was bed ridden, there was this one volunteer group..they were foreigners. They approach me, and play a bit with me. They offer me two things, one of it is a story book. It was my first novel. Enid Blyton. Since then I learn that by reading books makes me leave the current world I’m in. I’m in love with the wide world inside books. I can travel anywhere I like. I love to read adventure books. As i grew up, my adventures cross to some heavy literature like Haruki Murakami’s. I’ve tried various genres, like science fiction and love stories.. but nothing beats the beauty of those flowery literature writings in adventure books. I’ve read dark books such as the series of “Flower in the Attic”. It’s dark, twisted and lots of dramas but the way the author spins the words makes me love it so much.

I’m just a normal girl from Malaysia. I love reading and treats it as my savior. I was 8 when I was bed ridden. But i fought off my sickness and live strongly till today. I take courage from the characters in the books I’ve read. I learn to be positive from them too. And now I’m in University learning engineering.
I’d love to see what kind of adventure books you have in your bookshelves that you can offer to me. Some that have a strong and unexpected endings. 😉 Or maybe you have something else to offer that will broadens more of my adventure world.

I hope you would choose me. Thank you for reading this Ann. ❤

I was pleased with this chance selection for several reasons. Firstly, Aina is in many ways representative of the numerous people I’ve heard from over the past five years who have found books to be a source of strength and support often in very difficult circumstances. It’s amazing how stories have the potential to transport us, allowing us not only to travel to new places but also to escape tough situations, even if only for a while.

Secondly, I identified with Aina’s childhood discovery of the power of reading. I wasn’t bedridden as a child like her, but I did suffer from an illness that restricted my movement. At around the age of seven, I was diagnosed with juvenile arthritis and over the next six years or so, the condition migrated around my body, affecting my knees, elbows, jaw, hands and feet at different times.

I was lucky that I recovered with relatively little lasting damage. However, one legacy of that experience – along with my appalling handwriting – is undoubtedly my love of reading. At a time when walking was often painful, I could always rely on a book to take me away.

For me, it wasn’t Enid Blyton who unlocked this door (although I did enjoy many of her books) but the Canadian writer LM Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. When I finished it, aged eight, I knew that I would go to university to study literature. (I also decided to spell my name with an ‘e’, but that resolution didn’t stick!)

Finally, I really like the way Aina expresses herself. ‘Blog walking’ – what a lovely way to describe surfing through sites online. And the fact that she is in Malaysia feels fitting too – the first person to show the generosity that I received from so many strangers during 2012 was Rafidah in Kuala Lumpur, the woman who volunteered to choose my Malaysian book and post it to me four days after I launched my appeal for people to help me read the world.

As for Aina’s request, well the book selected itself before I’d got to the end of her comment. I’m not a big reader of adventure stories, but during my quest there was one such book that had caused a sensation in its region and made it onto my list as a result. The novel in question was Telesa: The Covenant Keeper, the first in the self-published YA trilogy by Samoan author Lani Wendt Young.  This fusion of Samoan myth and culture with American high-school fantasy had found fans in several countries and proved to be an intriguing read.

So there you go, Aina. It’s on its way to you. Thanks for stopping by the blog and all the best for your studies.

If you’d like a chance to receive a postcard from my bookshelf, visit the project post and leave a comment telling me a bit about you and what you like to read. The next recipient will be announced on July 15.

Samoa: myth fits

Deciding which book to read from a particular country can be tricky. However, as I work my way around the world with the help of readers across the globe, I’m finding that some titles choose themselves.

That’s certainly what happened with my Samoan novel. In fact, everyone whose been in touch with me about Samoan literature – from the Auckland Libraries Service to the Director for Economic Governance of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat – mentioned the same book among their recommendations, saying it had caused a sensation in the region. One person even stopped by the blog to tip me off when it was on sale for download.

With such widespread enthusiasm for this particular title, it would have been perverse not to choose it. And so Lani Wendt Young‘s Young Adult fantasy novel Telesa: The Covenant Keeper joined the other titles jostling in my virtual library.

From the little I know of the YA fantasy fiction genre – gleaned mostly from sharing a flat with a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan in my early twenties – Wendt Young’s book conforms to a tried and tested formula: misfit teen with supernatural powers is forced to make difficult choices and sacrifices in order to save the world.

In this case, 18-year-old American-Samoan Leila returns to her dead mother’s homeland, Samoa, in search of her roots. But as the secrets about her past begin to come out, Leila discovers that she is not as helpless as she first thought and that the very things that made her feel like an outsider at her Washington high school could be the source of extraordinary power, whether she likes it or not.

So far, so Sarah Michelle Gellar. What lifts the story out of the familiar mould, however, is Wendt Young’s use of Polynesian myths and culture as the framework within which Leila’s supernatural powers exist. Discovering that she is Telesa (a kind of spirit woman with powers connected to Mother Earth), Leila is forced to inhabit the mythology of her island heritage to gain control of her gifts and head off disaster.

Samoan culture plays a fascinating role in other aspects of the novel too. From siva songs and dances to malu tattoos, Wendt Young has the knack of weaving traditions into the narrative without making their inclusion and explanation feel worthy or forced. Her bold choice of making one of Leila’s best friends, Simone, a fa’afafine (one of Samoa’s ‘third gender’, as Leila’s uncle explains) is particularly intriguing – I suspect there aren’t many other YA novels that feature a transvestite teenage boy without making that the main subject of the book.

This cross-cultural element adds another layer to the novel’s discussion of identity. As Leila confronts her own fears about being an ‘in-between nothing’, she is given a powerful insight into the blind spots and failings of the Western culture she grew up with, not least the limitations of po-faced political correctness. ‘You Americans are so easily offended by our Samoan indecency’, teases Daniel, the boy Leila has a crush on.

The editing could have been tighter. There were a few too many will-they-won’t-they moments between Daniel and Leila and, as I followed Leila from Geography to Maths, to English class and back again, I found myself wishing with her that I could have cut school.

Overall, though, this is an enjoyable and engrossing book with a gripping story that whips the reader along. Its depiction of Leila’s struggles with identity, sexuality and society’s expectations will resonate with teens and ex-teens all over the world, while its warm portrayal of Samoan culture gives it a character all its own. No wonder it’s already found so many fans.

Telesa: The Covenant Keeper by Lani Wendt Young (Lani Wendt Young, 2011)

PACIFIC APPEAL: do you know any good novels, short stories or memoirs from other Pacific nations? What about people who tell stories in other ways – through poetry or song? Do you have friends or relatives in the region who might be able to suggest stories? Leave a comment or email ann’at’ and let me know.