Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Map of Lost Memories - Book Review

The one thing to remember about an adventure is that if it turns out the way you expect it to, it has not been an adventure at all.”
                  ~Map of Lost Memories

Imagine if F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby) had written Indiana Jones, with a female protagonist. There would be adventure, but there would also be lush, rich prose. There would be a treasure hunt (with snakes!), but there would also be seething emotional undercurrents, an exploration of twisted personalities and questionable motives.

This is that book, the Map of Lost Memories, a debut historical fiction from Kim Fay. Set in 1925 in Shanghai and Cambodia, the story is about the search for a rumored hidden temple and a set of copper scrolls that will reveal the history of the lost Khmer people. I first encountered this novel many years ago when I read the first chapter of the manuscript in some contest. I was so immediately enthralled, so pulled into Ms. Fay’s premise and her rich story-telling style, that I immediately wrote and begged for the rest of the story. Sometimes you just know when you’ve touched something special. This work haunted me for years. I am so glad that Ballantine Books agreed and now the rest of the world can discover what I did.

Irene Blum, the protagonist, is a unique character—stubborn, driven, in many ways ruthless, but still with a hidden core of insecurity, of vulnerability. She is a study in control, a focused list maker. She lies with ease if it serves her goals. Early in the book is a description of Anne, an unconventional friend of Irene’s mother, a woman Irene deeply admires and has longed to emulate since her strange childhood days, growing up in a museum while her father was the night watchman:
As teachers fretfully noted her [Irene’s] lack of interest in domestic skills or other female pursuits, the life Anne was living in Shanghai gave Irene hope. It proved that a woman could do anything she liked as long as she did not care what others thought. Every day, with her maps and books and dreams of lost treasures, Irene practiced not caring.”

This is the woman who, in 1925, dismissed from a longed-for job as a museum curator, a job for which was eminently qualified, except for the fact that she was a woman, comes first to Shanghai and then to Cambodia to prove them all wrong.
I’m having the hardest time walking back through this” Irene says, “… Not just last night but these past days in Shanghai, the last months in Seattle, I’m trying to get back…before I lost my job, before my father died. There’s a path, there must be a path from here to there, but I can’t find it. I can’t make the connections.”

This then is the crux of Irene’s story. To find a way back to the life she’d planned, by any means, the life that was thrown so off course with her father’s death and the loss of the job she felt she’d earned. This is a book about going after a goal so hard that you lose yourself in the process, and only midway, when you’re in too deep, stopping to wonder if it is really the right goal after all. And if you are really willing to do all that it takes to achieve that, or if the price will be too high.

Her business partner in the hunt for the scrolls is Simone Merlin, a woman who often reminded me of Daisy Buchannan in The Great Gatsby. She is an intelligent woman, but she is driven solely by her emotions, which are almost always raw and on the surface, exacerbated by a mind that is frequently addled by opium or whatever other drug she can get her hands on. She’s brilliant, and Irene needs her, but she’s utterly unstable and unreliable. Simone is a study in contradictions: emotionally and physically fragile, but with a core as hard as the stone temples she seeks. She’s almost bi-polar in her mood swings. Irene describes Simone:
Welcome to the rabbit hole. I could sit here guessing for a year and the only thing I’d know for sure is that whatever I concluded, if Simone is involved, I wouldn’t be right.”
Both women have been raised with a love for the Khmer people of Cambodia, the lost people who built the largest temple in the world, Angkor Wat, then disappeared as silently as the Mayans or the Anasazi. Each woman has a soul deep need to find their lost history, to find out what happened to them. But each of the women has an entirely different—mutually conflicting—agenda of what to do with the history— purportedly a set of the lost copper scrolls—if they find them. Irene’s and Simone’s goals align, to a point. Where they diverge, it could be deadly. As another character says,
Both of you plan to use the scrolls to fulfill a dream. The problem is that you have such different dreams.”

There are the men in their lives as well. Henry Simms, the secretive, dying, wealthy art collector who instilled in Irene the love of the treasure hunt, who sets all the players in motion. Roger, Simone’s husband, a volatile political animal more interested in raising money for the Communists than in his wife. Louis, Simone’s former lover. And Marc Rafferty, expat, bar-owner, man of many secrets.

Unlike so many novels today, this historical fiction takes time for descriptions, brief, lush pauses that will put you into the story so fully you’ll feel the humidity on your skin and swear you smell jasmine and spices overlaying the scent of mold and rot and unwashed bodies in the dirty streets. She describes walking into a bar: “The room felt sullen with heat, Shalimar, and the masculine reek of cigars.” And just like that, you’re right there with Irene in a 360 degree immersion into the tale.

In the end this is a love story. Love that can be twisted and dark and suffocating. Love for a people and a place. Love that can save you, if you will let it, but where no one emerges unscathed or unchanged.

Irene’s mentor, Anne, says:
I’m thankful every day for that moment of recklessness. How else would I ever have made it to the other side?”…”The place where one feels truly alive. Too many people surrender to a place of safety. That place where all they do is long to sleep so they can dream about living. Even if you don’t find what you think you’re looking for, darling, it’s the going out and looking for it that counts. That is the only way you know you have lived.”

I was so grateful to Ms. Fay for taking me along on this enticing adventure, and am looking forward to more from this wonderful author!

Tell me, do you have a book that carried you away and that still haunts you?

~Guest post by Kat Sheridan

Born in Seattle and raised throughout Washington State, Kim Fay lived in Vietnam for four years and still travels to Southeast Asia frequently. A former independent bookseller, she is the author of the historical novel "The Map of Lost Memories" and "Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam," winner of the World Gourmand Cookbook Awards' Best Asian Cuisine Book in the United States. I am also the creator/​editor of the To Asia With Love guidebook series. The Map of Lost Memories is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, as well as fine independant bookstores like Elliott Bay Book Company.

Monday, August 27, 2012


Having a book published is a joyous thing for a writer. The first idea to finished product is a lot of work and while you can breathe a sigh relief because it’s done, there is still much work ahead of you. What about reviews and blog tours? Let's talk about reviews.

  • What sort of groundwork have you laid, as an author, to get your books from the sale shelf to the hands of readers? 

  • Are you creating a buzz for your work (notice I said work and not just the current book)? Have you planned which reviewers to approach?

  • If you’re with a small press or self published, will you have reader’s copies (electronic or print) available in enough time to allow reviewers to read it and publish the reviews before the book is released?

The reviews are generally released the month leading up to the release date. That buzz builds anticipation in readers for getting their hands on the book and reading it—because so and so said it was really good. Good, but honest reviews can boost your sales.

How does the book get to a reviewer?

Some traditional publishers are more involved than others in getting author’s books to reviewers. Aside from the handful of reviewers they might use (and most aren’t going to be People magazine or the New York Times) they will also make copies available to review sites.

Netgalley  is a big one of late. Reviewers (they’re touted as professional readers) can request books from the publisher to review. NG has publishers big and small, which is good because it’s equal opportunity. Reviewers have a profile on the site that publishers can vet prior to releasing a book for them to review (it’s a publisher/publicity team decision). The publisher may only release a few books to a few reviewers or they can release a blanket amount available to many approved reviewers (and because most of the books are electronic galleys or uncorrected Advance Reader Copies {ARC}, it’s very cost effective).

Night Owl  is another good-sized review site and they have a group of reviewers on hand to review about any genre. There are also Book Blogs that review books.

What about the author?

The author cannot simply rely on the publisher to do this work. Authors need to be proactive, not reactive. A smart author has done their research, especially with book blogs and they know who reviews what. They’ve asked fellow authors for reviewer recommendations, they’ve checked out the names of those who do reviews, for example, on Goodreads, and know what genre those reviewers read. Or at least they should have been doing that.

When approaching people to review your books, here are a couple of things to keep in mind.

  • Look for those reviewers who read the genre you write. This is important because the best reviewers are going to be those who enjoy reading the type of story you write. They know what to expect from the story, they know the type of words used, plot settings, and characters. They are your target audience (the ones you’re writing for and who buy that genre) and those who read their reviews or follow their blogs, for most part, read your genre. 

  • Keep in mind reviewers (and book blogs) are booked in advance. We have been provided an ARC (advance readers copy) at least two to three months prior to release date (for example, I’m now receiving ARCs for November and December release). That gives us time to read and write the review. Don’t approach them a week before your book is out and expect to get a positive response. If you’re self-publishing, plan to have a reader’s copy ready at least four to six weeks before you release the book. Hint: electronic galley copy

Don’t forget your beta readers. Get them involved to write a review. 
If I might offer a suggestion, don’t have them all release just the book cover and blurb (that’s not a review) on the same day on their blog. I may want to support the author, but oh my god, fifteen blogs with the exact same information is not fun. Have each add something different—tell me something unique about the author, about a character, or something fun about the setting, or something brief about what they enjoyed about the book. 

It’s all about laying the proper groundwork. Planning the release of your book with as much care as you did in writing the story.

  • What sort of groundwork do you put into the release of your books?