Category Archives: Books

BOOKS – Anthony books ‘em

My friend Anthony Koh whose roving bookstore I blogged about a couple of months ago, is on track to achieving his dream – a physical bookstore for writers. It may take a while but he’s getting there as his business gains traction and more lovers of the written word are aware there’s someone passionate about promoting reading and writing in an age when many only have enough attention for short messages and videos.

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Last Sunday, he held his fourth book fair at the Armenian Church. ‘We had our first at Caffe Pralet, a cafe cum culinary school in Tiong Bahru area. The second book fair was in their old kitchen. The third was held at The Arts House in conjunction with a writing workshop that I conducted.’

As the Church is the oldest Christian church in Singapore, opened in 1835 and gazetted as a national monument in 1973, Anthony had tourists as well as locals of all ages wandering in. ‘I don’t know if they came in for the books or they just looked at them after a tour of the church compound.  Possibly, the former because I hung two book fair posters outside the gate.’

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The response has been encouraging as Anthony gathers new customers. ‘Our very first customer in the morning was a bibliophile from the Philippines. Like me, she can’t stop buying books. She wasn’t aware of our book fair but she saw the posters, walked in, and bought a bag of books from us! The other early customer was a school librarian who was strolling in the garden with her husband and overheard my conversation with the Filipina. She was so inspired by what I do that she invited me to go to her all-boys school to fire up the students’ interest in reading.’

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After a few fairs, Anthony has a better idea of what people like. ‘I would say books on writing and award-winning novels sell equally well, followed by quirky books. I observed that people who bought books on writing also asked for books on grammar. We had several books on grammar but they flew off the shelves in the first two book fairs. Sales of books on writers and literary criticism has been slow.’

Anthony tells me the website I mentioned is wrong, so here we go again – visit http://booktique.weebly.com or https://www.facebook.com/WriterBooktique  to find the next Booktique location.
For all book lovers, what could be a nicer gift ?

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REFLECTIONS – Mary, Mary quite extraordinary

What would you do if you saw the Virgin Mary?

I would seek medical help.

David Guterson’s book Our Lady of the Forest (Bloomsbury) brings the phenomena of Marion sightings to life, not in some misty, ethereal way, but in today’s chaotic, skeptical world.

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Would the Virgin Mary appear to an asthmatic 16-year-old non-Catholic mushroom picker sheltering in a campsite? This darkly funny story of losers in a fading town is as mesmerizing as Ann Holmes’ visions. When word of Ann’s forest encounter leaks over the internet, the community of faithful descend in hordes to share in the miracle while the investigating priest is convinced the girl is hallucinating.

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether the visitations are real or imagined.  Whether balderdash or God working in mysterious ways, it makes you think about where you stand, and that theology and evidence go out the window when pitted against faith and hope. But surely, that can’t be bad when it brings solace and comfort – something to ponder on Christmas day.

BOOKS – The aunties investigate

Fans of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series will find Princess Play by Barbara Ismail (Monsoon Books) and Aunty Lee’s Delights by Ovidia Yu (William Morrow) much easier to relate to.

Both set in this part of the world (Southeast Asia), the stories involve nosy mature women who are led by instinct and niggling details. Although separated by time – Princess Play happens in 1970s Kelantan, Malaysia while Aunty Lee is right at home in contemporary Singapore – there is something familiar about these hospitable, motherly women.

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In a languid style reminiscent of coastal Malaysia in a time of few distractions, Mak Cik (aunty) Maryam finds herself once again drawn into a police investigation into the unnatural death of a neighbor. The second in the Kain Songket Mysteries series returns us to the kampong environment, sandy beaches, bustling marketplace where Maryam plies the famous brocade of Kelantan, and to quirky Malay idioms.

We become better acquainted with Maryam’s family, and to her own vulnerabilities which has to be resolved by the fascinating ceremony known as Main Puteri (Princess Play), thus described by the U.S National Library of Medicine:

The permainan puteri (usually abbreviated to main puteri) is an indigenous Kelantanese healing ceremony in which the bomoh (traditional medicine-man), the sick individual and other participants become spirit-medium through whom puteri (spirits) are able to enact a permainan (‘play’). It has been successfully used as a psychotherapy for depression. The bomoh assisted by his minduk (master of spirits) and a troupe of musicians, is able to provide a conceptual framework around which the sick individual can organize his vague, mysterious and chaotic symptoms so that they become comprehensible and orderly. At the same time the bomoh is able to draw the sick individual out of his state of morbid self-absorption and heighten his feelings of self-worth. The involvement of his family, relatives and friends tends to enhance group solidarity and reintegrate the sick individual into his immediate social group.

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In Aunty Lee’s Delights, Ovidia Yu gathers all things Singaporean to create a delicious stew of murder, expats, homophobia, class consciousness, foreign domestic workers, maternal love, derangement, and food of course.

Be patient. The first quarter of the book crawls, but it takes off as the widow, Aunty Daisy Lee, owner of a Peranakan eatery prods the police in the right direction while serving snacks and meals to all and sundry. You get hungry reading about fluffy coconut-fragrant rice and curry puffs that can make a policeman swoon.  And then, there are Aunty Lee’s apt (but funny) cooking-and-life analogies.

BOOKS – The write effort

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When Anthony Koh plunged into full-time freelance journalism, it was a leap of faith. He did not start off at a publishing house – the usual route for journalists in Singapore, and he had no real experience in chasing stories or identifying news points.

What he did have was gumption and an innate sense of how to attract readers. So, Anthony offered story ideas and miscellaneous musings willy-nilly until he got his first bite – from me. What he wrote about I cannot recall, but his persistence led to more writing assignments and his bohemian writer-for-hire lifestyle.

Now, Anthony has started his very own book business, catering specially to the writing community. It’s a very brave move in a country more focused on economic growth and material wealth. When he temped in a bookstore, he realised how a bookstore business can be suicidal because of rental.

“The idea of Booktique grew out of my frustration at the lack of books on writing at major bookstores, and that the limited stock is too general or too expensive. After I started ordering books for Booktique, I realised why. A local distributor told me this: our writers’ market is small, hence, bookstores resist stocking up books on writing.  This in turn deters distributors from ordering more titles from their overseas publishers.  This is where Booktique comes in.”

 The first Booktique fair is tomorrow at Caffe Parlet, 17 Eng Hoon Street, #01-04, 5pm-9pm. 

What started you writing? It’s a tough road not seen as a serious career unless you get established as a columnist or author (whose books actually sell).

I have loved writing since I was a child, but it was only in my early 20s that I took writing seriously. I contributed articles to The Straits Times and when one of them that I wrote about former TV actor, James Lye was published, I read it over and over again. The thrill of seeing my writing in print was beyond words. But that phase passed and I continued from one day job to another. It was only in 2007 that I quit to become a full-time freelance writer.

My friends said I was crazy; I had an established corporate career but I had neither a writing portfolio nor any connection to the publishing industry. I was not discouraged. I wrote many articles and one day, I sold one of them to NTUC Media. 

That was how my writing career started.  This is my sixth year and I’m really thankful for the regular assignments from various publications.

You started as an entertainment writer but moved into other genres. Why and what have you learnt from doing so?

Actually, I didn’t set out to become an entertainment writer. I have always wanted to write about issues close to my heart. For example, lessons about life. But it just happened that after I did an entertainment story, I received more assignments to interview celebrities.  Today, it has become my area of specialisation.

While it is good to specialise in a particular genre, it is more practical to write widely as the magazine market in Singapore is small.  More importantly, I discovered that I don’t have to know everything about an unfamiliar subject to write about it.  In a way, I learnt more about how to research. Now, I write both lifestyle and current affairs stories. I’ve even done copywriting for a book!

You shared your reasons for starting Booktique. You really think there are enough wannabe writers who need a niche supplier? 

Booktique is Singapore’s first book retail company for writers. By that, I mean we sell books mostly on writing and writers and encourage reading of literary works. I would think that these needs have to be accessible even though writers remain a small group.

To me, accessibility also means affordability. That’s why I buy cheap and pass the savings to my customers. Books are cultural products; you can’t really price them with a business mindset. George Whitman, founder of Shakespeare and Company said: “Give what you can, take what you need.” This is the philosophy that I follow in running Booktique.

Right now, I’m constantly looking for unique venues to host our book fairs. The long term plan is to build a small but purposeful bookstore for writers. I strongly believe that writers should have more books to help them in their writing and to motivate them along their writing journey.

Singaporeans don’t seem to be readers like in the West or Japan where so many – in parks, in trains – have their noses buried in books. We don’t appear to have a reading culture because people are distracted by mass media, social media, shopping … and so our writing skills are lacking. Do you think the reading segment is unlikely to grow but it’s still worth providing for the small reading core?

On hindsight, I would think that those distractions you mentioned do more than just rob us of our time to read; they sink us deeper and deeper into our existing capitalistic society. Sure, we will read. However, if we only read to enrich our life but not our soul, the reading culture becomes questionable.  

Although bookstore businesses are gloomy worldwide, I find it worthwhile to provide an additional platform in the market for new writers and I mean writers, not the average readers. Besides enjoying a good book, they also read to learn.  For aspiring novelists, they would support a bookstore that genuinely supports them. In this aspect, Booktique sells the books of lesser known authors at our book fair and don’t take a cut from the sales of their books. Call me a maverick bookseller but it takes a writer to know the plight of another writer.

Have you made new friends/acquaintances since starting Booktique? Who are the customers – students, writers, office workers?

Yes I have met authors and like-minded people who are supportive of the local writing scene. The Writers Club has been especially helpful since I started Booktique. Thanks Jamie!

Booktique is set up for aspiring writers (young and old), students attending writing courses and professional writers.  As we also sell award-winning fiction and special edition classic literature, we hope to attract readers of literary novels and bibliophiles.  

Will you have a website for orders?

Booktique now has few selected titles in our online shop (booktique.weebly.com) but it is not fully operational. I think the whole point of a bookstore for writers is for people to mingle and be inspired by the books and each other. To a certain extent, Booktique aspires to be a bookstore like our Shakespeare & Company. Even the latter is launching an online store. So I’m not sure if I will follow suit once the bookstore is built.