Bright Young Things – Scarlett Thomas

Some books are just weird. This is one of them. BRIGHT YOUNG THINGS by Scarlett Thomas was a random pick to fulfill a reading challenge topic – an author with the same initials as you. 

And it was entertaining, with a frivolous premise – six 20-somethings from the UK answer a job as in the newspapers: “Bright Young Things wanted for big project”. While waiting for the interview to start, they’re apparently drugged and then wake up on a small island in the middle of who-knows-where. 

There are 3 men and 3 women, from various walks of life. There’s a house with six bedrooms, it’s stocked with food and drink. But they don’t know where they are or how to get off the island. There’s also no way of communicating with the rest of the world. 

Despite their situation (or maybe they’re resigned because of it?) they have rather ordinary conversations that have to do with pop culture. Very 1990s discussions like favorite band that are rather amusing to me, because I was a teenager in the 90s and loved the whole Britpoprock scene. 

“Thea chooses Blur. As soon as she does, Emily tries to unchoose Take That and claim them for herself. Clearly the ironic choice wasn’t the one to go for this time. They start to bicker about which album came out in which year, when they bought each one, which is the best album (The Great Escape vs 13) and who’s met Damon.” 

I mean, who has this conversation not long after finding out they’ve been drugged then dropped on an island and can’t get out? 

All those pop culture references are a bit dated now. And I wonder what a current 20-something would make of this book. In Thomas’ preface, she did say she wanted this book to be a time capsule of sorts, and how “in a sense, every good novel is a time capsule”. Reading this definitely made me think of the 90s again when life seemed a lot simpler but also a lot more angsty (teenagers 🤷‍♀️). 

Not a lot happens in this book, which is funny considering how I was drawn in by the whole “dropped on a deserted island” idea. But there were amusing conversations and it made me want to listen to some Blur and Placebo. Ooh maybe some Suede too.

Mademoiselle Revolution by Zoe Sivak

Sometimes a book takes me by surprise. Like this one, MADEMOISELLE REVOLUTION by ZOE SIVAK. 

A story about a biracial Haitian woman who escapes to Paris when the Haitian Revolution explodes. Sylvie de Rosiers is the daughter of a wealthy plantation owner, her mother is an enslaved woman. 

Sylvie and her brother Gaspard seek refuge in Paris with an aunt. Their neighbor is Cornelie Duplay, the mistress of revolutionary leader Maximilien Robespierre. 

First of all, a huge YES! to diverse historical fiction. Also, it sent me off to go read some things about world history that I never knew of – not just the Haitian Revolution but also the French Revolution. (I grew up in Singapore and our history lessons never went that far – but ask me about the history of Thailand and I can tell you quite a bit!). It’s 

Sylvie is a fascinating character. As a biracial woman of privilege in Haiti, she grows up in the lap of luxury while waited on by people who looked like her. In Paris, she finds herself more accepted but still on the fringes of society because of the color of her skin. She struggles to find her place in society but is also not afraid to challenge the status quo. 

There’s a lot to cover in this ambitious book. And with a story that has to do with not just one but two revolutions, there is violence and bloodshed. But I was absorbed in Sylvie’s story, her clandestine relationship with Cornelie, her role as a revolutionary. Well researched. A remarkable debut! 

The Picture Bride – Lee Geum-yi

A gloomy Sunday morning needs some homemade waffles and this lovely read, PICTURE BRIDE by Korean writer LEE GEUM-YI, translated by An Seon Jae. 

A story about three women from rural Korea who travel to Hawaii in 1918 to marry complete strangers. They are picture brides, whose marriages have arranged based just on a photo. They’ve been told that their future husbands are young landowners in Hawaii. Unfortunately when they arrive, the women learn that they’ve been tricked by old photos and that the men are just workers on plantations. 

Willow is the main character, and she’s relieved to learn that her groom is at least still a young man. The grooms of her two friends, Honshu and Songhwa, are much older. But Willow’s husband, Taewan, is distant and cold at first, until she learns about his previous relationship. 

The three women continue their friendship throughout the years. And that’s really the crux of this story – friendship. Despite all that goes on, politics, death, abuse, these three women have one another. 

I enjoyed learning about these picture brides and what their lives in Hawaii was like. The struggles faced by the overseas Koreans during the Korean independence movement was quite interesting, as Willow’s husband Taewan is heavily involved in the movement. 

I did enjoy this book. The writing is straightforward and simple. But occasionally, I longed for a little bit more. More what exactly? I don’t know. Something that would make me feel more for the characters, maybe? 

I have to give this a solid 3.5 ⭐️ – a good read, with some slightly bland characters. But an eye opener in terms of the lives and struggles of these overseas Koreans during the independence moment.

Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung

CURSED BUNNY made me realize what kind of horror really gives me the heebie-jeebies – toilet horror.

Sure, cemeteries and woods can be creepy places, but I can avoid those places. The toilet though? How can anyone avoid that? So when Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung (translated by Anton Hur) opens with the story called The Head, the day after reading it, I wake after a strange dream about a woman in the toilet.

In The Head, a woman is about to flush the toilet when a head pops out and calls her Mother. It keeps appearing in the toilet but when the woman tells her family, they tell her to leave it alone. It doesn’t affect them, so they can ignore it. But the reader can’t, and the writer doesn’t want us to. She wants to send the message out that this is often what it’s like to be a woman – easily dismissed.

The stories in this collection are disturbing. It’s a relentless march through stories with characters who are full of greed, rage, despair. The characters are often nameless: “the daughter”, “the man”, “the youth”. A family creates cursed objects, a man finds a trapped fox that bleeds gold, a woman finds herself pregnant after taking birth control pills.

It’s hard to describe what genres the stories fall into. One reads like an urban ghost story, another like a fairy tale, this one a science fiction one, that one a fable. It’s impressive. It’s grotesque. It’s dark. It’s also mesmerizing. I couldn’t stop reading it.

Read in February 2023

February was a much slower month in terms of reading. I got into a bit of a reading slump and few of the books seemed to work for me! But somehow I managed these 12 books:

The Swimmers – Julie Otsuka
Light From Uncommon Stars – Ryka Aoki

Charming As A Verb – Ben Philippe
Love Is A Revolution – Renee Watson
Anne of Greenville – Marino Tamaki
The Fever – Sonia Shah
Spy x Family (vol 3 & 4) – Tatsuya Endo
Broken Marino – Waka Hiroko

Bullet Train – Kotaro Isaka 
The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida – Shehan Karunatilaka
Pixels of You – Ananth Hirsh and Yuka Ota

Light From Uncommon Stars

This is the book that broke through my reading drought. I’ve been meandering through several books, not finishing several, this February has been an unusual one when it comes to reading. I finished 24 books in January and so far, in February, I’ve only managed 9. 

But hooray for LIGHT FROM UNCOMMON STARS by Ryka Aoki. It has aliens! Doughnuts! More specifically, aliens refugees running a doughnut shop! They also happen to be running from an intergalactic war. There’s also a trans violinist who’s run away from an abusive home. Katrina Nguyen attracts the attention of Shizuka Satomi, a brilliant violin teacher who has made a deal with the devil and needs one last soul. 

It’s a delight. I love that this book that revolves around music is joyful and at the same time, heartbreaking. It’s weird and wonderful. All the different characters’ lives intertwine although it doesn’t sound like they even belong in the same book. But it works. It really does. 

I’m not familiar with Béla Bartók’s work but I listened to Sonata for Violin Solo after reading about it in the book. And it has this strange otherworldly feel to it and adds to the atmosphere if you listen to it while reading this book. 

“Perhaps this is why the violin fits the human soul so perfectly – only such a simple, mortal object can hold its fragility and turn it into a prayer.”

The Fever by Sonia Shah

How is malaria still around and still infecting hundreds of millions of people around the world? THE FEVER by Sonia Shah is an in-depth look into this mosquito-borne disease. It’s chock full of information, not just the science behind the attempts to rid us of malaria, but also the history. 

Some rather fascinating things that have a link to malaria include the unsuccessful attempt to establish a Scottish colony in Panama in the late 17th century. Most of the colonists died of malaria. And the colony was abandoned after just eight months. Spoiler: The immense debt from the failed expedition played a large part in Scotland’s reluctant acceptance of unification with England. 

I was interested in reading this book as dengue fever, another mosquito-borne illness, continues to plague Singapore today. Of course these are two very different illnesses and transmitted by two different species of mosquito. But no one seems to have written a book about dengue fever for the average reader. 

It’s a bit of a depressing read, when you think of how malaria continues to infect and kill people today. But it’s a very interesting and somewhat approachable book about this disease and how it’s affected the world. 

Anne of Greenville by Mariko Tamaki

I grew up reading the Anne of Green Gables series and watching the original TV series. (I haven’t finished watching the new version though!). 

So it was exciting to see that Mariko Tamaki had written a reimagined modern version of this classic! I’ve loved Tamaki’s previous works like Skim, Emiko Superstar, and Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me. 

Her version of Anne is delightful. She’s a queer half-Japanese teen with two mums. She loves disco, colorful vintage clothes, and roller skating. Her family just moved to the small town of Greenville, where she just can’t seem to stay out of trouble. And ugh, the bullying she faces. My heart just goes out for her, as she struggles to be herself but also to fit in. 

I think Tamaki captures the spirit of Anne really well. She’s unique and quirky, and she has a quick temper, which causes more problems. But in this modern version, the issues that Anne faces are a lot more difficult, such as racism and homophobia. 

It must be hard to take on a reimagining of a classic story. Maybe it would be easier to say that this book is inspired by Anne of Green Gables. I loved the updated version of Anne, but the essence of the story feels different. In the original story, part of Anne’s struggles is with Marilla Cuthbert’s reluctance to take her in, as they originally wanted to adopt a boy. But Anne of Greenville was adopted at a young age by her two mums, and so the problems that this Anne faces are less with her family and more with her classmates and the residents of Greenville. 

An enjoyable read.

Read in January 2023

It’s mid-February and I’m finally posting this January wrap-up!

Lots of good reads from manga to romance to YA. Also, a lot more non-fiction than I was expecting…!

Also, I decided to bravely give up on a book, despite being at least 1/3 of the way through. It was Cult X by Fuminori Nakamura. I’ve previously enjoyed his work so it was hard to give it up, but the story about cults in Japan was frankly tedious with its lectures by one of the cult leaders.

So here’s what I read, with links to my reviews.

Notes On Your Sudden Disappearance – Alison Espach

The Violin Conspiracy – Brendan Slocumb

The Fox and the Little Tanuki vol 1 – Mi Tagawa

I was Born for This – Alice Oseman (cute story about a band and its fans)

A Man and His Cat #1 – Umi Sakurai

Parade – Hiromi Kawakami

Winter in Sokcho – Elisa Shua Dusapin

Booked on a Feeling – Jayci Lee

The No-Show – Beth O’Leary

Girlfriends and Catfriends – Frederic Brremaud and Paola Antista

Ducks – Kate Beaton

Spy x Family vol 1 – Tatsuya Endo

Unicornado – Dana Simpson

A Man and His Cat vol 2 – Umi Sakurai

Hooked: How Crafting Saved My Life – Sutton Foster

Legends and Lattes – Travis Baldree

Vladimir – Julia May Jonas

Farm City – Novella Carpenter

Hello, Molly – Molly Shannon

The Goblin Emperor – Katherine Addison

Everything is Ok – Debbie Tung

Why We Swim – Bonnie Tsui

Spy x Family vol 2 – Tatsuya Endo

I’m Glad My Mom Died – Jennette McCurdy

Everything is Ok by Debbie Tung

I am an introverted and anxious person. I overthink things, even when writing a message back to someone. Let’s not even mention having to talk on the phone with someone.

Reading Debbie Tung’s EVERYTHING IS OK, I recognized myself in some of her story. I was the shy kid. The quiet kid. I always remember the horror of being called upon in class and my mouth feeling like it’s been zipped shut and I would stand there, knowing in my head that I could say something, answer something, and the teacher would move on, but I would feel frozen and my lips wouldn’t move and it would just get worse as everyone in the class stared at me.

While I still would probably freeze up if I had to give a speech in front of a large crowd, I think I got a bit better at participating, and at talking to people, although I’m still usually the one who talks much less when in a group of people. I guess I forced myself into situations where I had to voice my opinions and talk to strangers – graduate school, working at newspapers, and at one point, saying yes to every blind date that came my way.

Tung’s book is full of little nuggets that may seem simple but are reassuring and encouraging. Like learning to accept yourself and embrace your awkwardness. And to be kind to others and to yourself.

It’s important to appreciate the small things. The husband bought a handheld coffee grinder for me last year and it’s strangely pleasing turning the handle and grinding the coffee beans, then adding it to the French press.

I also find delight in reading your posts and stories, whether you’re sharing a travel snapshot, your meal, an old photo. And especially the book posts. I love discovering new-to-me authors, and adding to my ridiculously towering (virtually, that is) the lists.

So, Everything is Ok, it really is.