Curious About Book Reviews? With Bookstagrammer Grace Phua
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I’m a copywriter by profession 🤗 I like going out and about (ice skating, occasional sports, and traveling) - and it’s always a war between staying at home to finish an exciting book vs spending an entire day out soaking up the sun!
How did your passion for books start?
When I was little. My siblings and I communicated with our parents through sign language and that made ASL our primary language at that time. For me at least, I didn’t think spoken English was the norm (I wrongly assumed all parents are deaf too!)... until I entered school. So when I was really young, I spent all my time being okay with silence, reading and absorbing words. Books spoke and opened worlds for me, and it was then that I found the written word very alluring.
What are three Sing Lit books, novels or poetry, that you would recommend to someone newly discovering Singaporean literature?
1. Mahita Vas wrote Rain Tree which is like a Singaporean version of a Jane Eyre-ish novel 😜
2. Soy Sauce for Beginners by Kirstin Chen - A “millennial”, 'Crazy Rich Asians' read
Who are some of your favourite authors?
Philip Yancey, Agatha Christie, Annie Dillard, Sophie Hannah, Steig Larsson Series - Sadly, I don't have many favourite authors. It's more favourite books than authors!
The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf
Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman
The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
Flying Tips for Flightless Birds by Kelly McCaughrain
The Seven Imperfect Rules of Elvira Carr by Frances Maynard
What made you want to start a bookstagram?
The idea of cataloguing books - like my own personal library - is so charming to me. Growing up I’ve played “library” with borrowing and returning books, and made little book chits with friends and family... It just became a part of me to want to keep track of my books.
How important are aesthetics when choosing a book?
Quite important (I am wired to check if it’s Instagram worthy) haha! Although there are many times props and setting can help prettify a not so pretty book 😋
What was the first literary text that had a big impact on your life?
It’s Disappointment with God by Philip Yancey - answered all my existential crisis questions and more. The next would have to be Anna Karenina. I read it when I was 16, didn’t fully grasp it but I remember being stuck in the story and its details for the longest time. It’s a beautiful and psychological read.
What are your opinions on the local publishing scene and its expanding popularity?
I’m really happy to be in such exciting times. Truly! So much talent to read and uncover; Singaporean writers continually surprise me. I think it'll be great to incorporate more of our Sing Lit into the reading programmes in school - to start early. We've (1990s/1980s) been so used to the international books growing up that when we have no idea about the Sing Lit world and what it is like - which is shortchanging ourselves because we alienate so many great Singaporean works which are more relevant to us than we think.
What makes Singapore Literature special?
I like that we have extra ammunition of a contextualised language at our disposal: Singlish. Although we can write and read in English, it's the fact that Singaporean Literature can be either in English and Singlish, or both that makes it very special for me. It's like our secret weapon.
How has writing book reviews changed your outlook on literature?
I wrote my honours thesis on “The Evolution of the Book Review” as a cheeky tribute to bookstagram accounts and reviewing (I don't recommend it - it was crazy!)
Reviewers are always, always second to writers. A writer's art is far greater than a reviewer's art, and I feel that writing book reviews is about appreciating what a book has to offer - even if it's not very well written.
I used to be very judgmental about books that seemed "boring" or "irrelevant" to me and would chuck them aside, but I've come to appreciate the hard work, vulnerability, and effort that comes with writing and publishing a book. I feel like every writer deserves to have that appreciation (unless it's really atrocious - grammar or otherwise), and thus would only rate the books I've read not with the number of stars but with a more vague and subjective (p.s. there's hardly such a thing as objectivity when reading a book) rating system: curiosity levels. It's subjective, yes, but it highlights the merits of the work and directs it to people who might be interested in a similar scope, e.g. “Curiosity level: Peer into Mixed-culture marriages!” - rather than trying to please everyone, because you can't!
(Image credits: Grace Phua / @curiousbookreviewer)