The Shadow King and The First Wife

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I read these books thanks to the Instagram challenge, ReadTheWorld – February was South/East Africa.

THE SHADOW KING by MAAZA MENGISTE

It wasn’t the easiest start and it was the fact that my library ebook loan was expiring that got me finally going past the first chapter but in the end, a really worthwhile read.

I will have to admit though that I went into this book expecting some kind of a fantasy twist, I guess the title threw me into that spin. But in the end, this historical fiction really won me over. And I think that was due very much to the unforgettable character of Hirut. She is vulnerable when we first meet her and it was amazing following her journey. 

A brief synopsis: This story is set during Italy’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia. Hirut is a young girl working as a servant in the home of Kidane and Aster. Kidane is an officer in Emperor Haile Selassie’s army. And he’s off to round up the men to war. The women’s role is to cook and fetch water and tend to the wounded. At least that’s their role traditionally but Aster soon turns that around when she gets on her horse and gets hold of guns and other supplies. Hirut is the one who comes up with the idea of disguising a farmer as the Emperor. The real emperor has gone into exile in England. He is thus, the Shadow King.

But really, this book isn’t about the Shadow King, but the women, the women whose stories were left out of the history books. But who had important roles to play in this war.

This was definitely eye-opening. It made me wonder about the many other untold stories of war. 

I’m just so glad I push through with this book as it was thoroughly satisfying. 

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THE FIRST WIFE by PAULINA CHIZIANE

Rami is the first wife. Or rather, she thought all along that she was just “the wife”. She one day discovers that her husband Tony, the police chief, has four other families.

What would I do if I found that out? Definitely not what Rami did.

She goes in search of love spells. She organises the women and in the polygamy tradition of old Mozambique, the women demand that Tony marry them with a bride price, support their families financially, and conform to their schedule.

While quite a bit of the story is funny, it’s also difficult to read because of the ways in which women are treated. In the South, women are expected to serve their husbands on their knees, and eat only the leftovers.

“The string always breaks at its weakest point. It’s the cycle of subordination. The white man says to the black man: it’s your fault. The rich man says to the poor man: it’s your fault. The man says to the woman: it’s your fault. The woman says to her son: it’s your fault. The son says to the dog: it’s your fault. The dog barks furiously and bites the white man and the white man, once again angrily shouts at the black man: it’s your fault. And so the wheel turns century after century ad infinitum.”

The First Wife‘s original title is Niketche: Uma História de Poligamia. Chiziane is from Mozambique and was the first woman to publish a novel in her country. It looks like she’s written 5 novels but retired a few years ago. She wrote in Portuguese although I’m not sure if her other books have been translated into English.

Grown by Tiffany D Jackson

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I started reading this book on Sunday night. It was getting late and I reluctantly put it away to try to go to sleep, not quite realizing it would keep me wide awake for much much longer. It was full of rage-inducing moments that made me want to throw it across the room. It had this despicable man who used his fame and his charm to cajole and to enchant young girls. 

It does open with quite the shocker. Enchanted, age 17, finds herself in a hotel room, covered in blood, and there is Korey Fields, a famous singer, lying dead. What does Enchanted have to do with this? Did she kill him? 

The narrative moves back to Enchanted, pre-Korey, where she dreams of being a singer and enters an audition. That’s where they meet. He offers to help her but their text conversations soon start to get a bit creepy (at least to the reader). And soon the relationship turns abusive. But she’s far from her family and friends. 

This was such a difficult read. The way their relationship builds, the way Korey influences and manipulates Enchanted is so skillfully managed by Jackson. 

Don’t go into this book expecting a murder-mystery, although the synopsis does make it sound a bit like one. This is a story about abuse, psychological and sexual. This is a story about a pedophile and how he manipulated his victim. But this is also a story about how society turns a blind eye to these victims, questioning if they are to blame for what happened. 

Furia by Camille Saied Méndez

(A review I had somehow forgotten to post. This was a book I read in November.)

It’s been a while since I’ve stayed up to read a book – ok so I usually sleep at 1030 and staying to finish this book just meant that I slept closer to 11 last night. But I just really wanted to finish reading it! It was such a great read full of heart, full of energy, full of dreams.

Camila Hassan is 17, she lives in Rosario, Argentina, and hides her passion for football from her family. Her brother is a professional player but that world is not a place for girls, or so her family thinks. But Camila is not just good, she has talent. On the field she becomes La Furia. If she were a boy, football clubs would be snapping her up. But her only way to succeed in this game is to hope someone will take a chance on her and let her make her way to the US. 

Camila is such an awesome character. I love her passion for the sport. She will not back down, and is determined to stay on the right path that will take her there. And the focus is on her dreams, her terms, not by following a boy. 

FURIA doesn’t shy away from the expectations and realities that Argentinian culture has on women. But we also sense the love that Méndez has for Argentina in all the immersive details of everyday life there.

Highly recommended!

The Girl and the Ghost by Hanna Alkaf

This was the book I didn’t know I needed last night. I’m not from Malaysia but there are enough similarities between Malaysia and its neighbor Singapore for me to feel at home when I was reading this. I couldn’t sleep last night and while a ghost story wasn’t exactly what I was looking for at that moment, the library ebook was due in a couple of days. So The Girl and the Ghost it would be then

The ghost is a pelesit, a dark spirit who takes the form of a grasshopper to stay hidden. His master, a witch, dies and he has to find a new master. The witch had told him a pelesit needs a master to control his craving for destruction and chaos. As he is bound by blood, the new master has to be of the same blood. And so it is to be Suraya. Suraya is a lonely child, her father is dead and her mother withdrawn.

“Maybe that was what she was. The durian of friends. Maybe people would learn to like her one day. Maybe she just had to meet the right ones.”

So quickly she and Pink become inseparable. But Pink’s dedication to her has a dark side as he lashes out relentlessly at those who bully her, then takes an even darker turn when she makes her first real friend.

It was a dark and endearing read, full of the sights and sounds and smells of Malaysia. It was a beautiful and emotional tale of friendship and family. It made me long for home and made me tear up as I thought of my family and wished I could be there for them, especially this week, with the passing of my grandmother

Stargazing by Jen Wang

Wang wrote the fantastic The Prince and the Dressmaker, a comic with a wonderful message about acceptance and love, and so I was looking forward to this one, which seemed less fairytale-like with its cover of two young girls sitting together.

But similar to The Prince and the Dressmaker, this is a story about an unlikely friendship.

Moon Lim and her mother move into the granny flat behind Christine’s house, after Christine’s parents offer it to the struggling widow and her child. Christine isn’t sure about Moon at first, she’s rumoured to be free with her fists, she’s impulsive and rambunctious, while Christine is reserved and obedient, trying hard to please her parents. But they soon share a love for dancing to K-pop music and plan to join the school’s talent show.

Moon has a secret though, she sometimes sees celestial beings who want them to join her, so she says. Christine eventually learns what the reason behind that is. And that kind of surprised me, but later, when I read the author’s note about her own background, it made a lot of sense.

I really liked how Wang showed the diversity among the Chinese-American community. Christine’s family is what you would consider more typically Asian – hardworking, studious, plays the violin, attends Chinese school, strict parents, that kind of thing. Moon is more of a free spirit, she doesn’t know much (if any) Chinese, she’s vegetarian, and more drawn to the arts.

Stargazing is a great comic for kids but I think adults will like this one too. I definitely did.

The Dragon Republic by RF Kuang #tlcbooktours

 

 

The Dragon Republic picks up where The Poppy War ends and the reader is thrown right back into the war zone.

(I’m trying to keep any spoilers for the first book out of this post, so please bear with me).

The Poppy War was, for me, an amazing read. For too long, much of the speculative fiction I read didn’t reflect myself or my culture, so to read this very Asian dark fantasy novel, it blew my mind. It made me think of all those (somewhat cheesy) myth-based Chinese TV series I grew up watching as a kid in Singapore – Journey to the West, Nezha – and all those Chinese movies like Red Cliff, Three Kingdoms, that my Dad watched.

So I definitely was excited to get my hands on the second book, The Dragon Republic. And it was just as awesome.

The focus here is very much on Rin, as she comes to terms with her actions in the first book. It’s still very much dark and war-centric (there are navy battles!) but the pace is less back-breaking than the first.

And Rin, well, she’s still Rin. She’s headstrong and determined. She makes horrible choices sometimes and terrible things happen to her. But that’s what makes her human, despite having a god’s powers. This second book is very much her story. It feels a little like the other characters are sidelined, and I was a bit disappointed with that, especially as the rest of the Cike don’t play much of a part.

Sometimes second books can be a big letdown and this one was absolutely not one of those. The Dragon Republic was exciting and complex, it was full of energy and passion and all kinds of darkness, and it kept me in good company on a 16-hour plane ride to Singapore.

 

 

 

Thanks to TLC Book Tours and

publisher Harper Voyage for sending me a copy of this book.

Check out the rest of the stops on the tour

Grab yourself a copy of this book: HarperCollins | Amazon | Barnes & Noble
 
Find out more about author RF Kuang: WebsiteTwitter, and Instagram

Emergency Contact by Mary H K Choi #AsianLitBingo

 

It was thanks to being laid up in bed due to a minor procedure that I borrowed this book. All the other books on my tablet were just too serious and heavy reading for that day and I was looking for something that would be fun and lighthearted and so I reached for YA.

I love how there is so much diversity going on in YA and while I had said earlier in a previous post, how I wished I could be a teen and reading all this, I’m just going to go ahead and get my diverse YA fix now.

Emergency Contact is definitely one book my teenaged self would have approved of. Because Penny is that kind of awkward, cynical, and not very sociable person I was (and sometimes still am). She is introduced to Sam as he is her roommate’s uncle of sorts (his mom and her grandfather were married for a quick minute). But only really talks to him after she notices him having a panic attack in the street one day. She makes sure he’s ok, gives him a ride back to the cafe where he works (and unknown to her, where he lives) and adds her number to his phone to make sure he gets home safe. She’s now his “emergency contact”.

This book has been on the back of my TBR list for a while, but I think that I’ve always been a bit hesitant because I didn’t think I wanted to read a book in which texting seems to be at the forefront. But in the end, the text conversations actually felt quite natural and comfortable to read.

And I found myself just hanging on to every word in this book. I read it in one sitting.

It seems like this is the kind of book that you either detest or love (at least judging from the polarizing Goodreads reviews). I loved it. I can see why some people may not like it but for me, this was a thumbs up.

 

 

I read this for Asian Lit Bingo – romance with POC love interest

The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo

A book like this just makes me wish I were years younger! When I was a teenager, YA didn’t really exist. And really, pretty much all the books I was reading as a teenager were probably written and starring white people. Don’t get me wrong, plenty of these books I read (especially for school), were great books. I am especially grateful to one of my A-Level English lit teachers for introducing Carol Shields to me. But I hardly remember reading anything with an Asian protagonist. Or if there were Asian characters they tended to be your stereotypical nerdy Asian kids.

So to read this book by Maurene Goo, many years too old for this genre, was with a wistful, oh, if only I could have read this when I was younger. But also a eh, who cares if I’m reading this too late, I’m just glad someone out there is writing this for the young girls of today.

Clara Shin is a prankster. But she takes a prank one step too far and is suspended from school, along with, Rose, the girl she fought with.

Clara’s dad, who owns a food truck selling Korean-Brazilian food, convinces the principal to switch the suspension to having them work on the KoBra for the summer and pay off the damage they caused. And that becomes a life-changing experience for her.

First of all, I love that this book was pretty much a love letter to LA. I have been to LA a few times but I don’t really know it that well, still it was fun to read about places they go to. And while I live in the northern part of CA, where there is a pretty decent variety of food from Asia, it cannot beat LA especially when it comes to East Asian food.

And on that note, a book that features food always makes me happy. I really want to try some kimchi and cheese pasteis. I love kimchi (although I’ve not eaten it with cheese!) and we eat Korean food regularly but I’ve never had Korean-Brazilian food before.

Clara wasn’t easy to like at first. She comes off initially as really immature but as the story progresses, she grows into herself and I really liked being on this journey with her and her friends.

I’m excited to read the rest of Maurene Goo’s books. And whee, she’s got a new one out!

This is my read for East Asian MC for AsianLitBingo

American Like Me: Reflections on Life Between Cultures – edited by America Ferrera

I listened to this one and it was such a great audiobook. Quite a lot of the chapters were narrated by the writers themselves. And what a wonderfully diverse group of essay writers! I love that they were from so many different ethnicities and cultures and backgrounds. These are not just people who write for a living (of course there are plenty of writers in the mix) but there are also politicians, people in sports (like Michelle Kwan and Jeremy Lin), people on TV/stage/screen (like Padma Lakshmi, Lin Manuel Miranda, and Wilmer Valderrama), activists like transgender advocate Geena Rocero.

They all have amazing stories to tell about being American – some wanted to blend in, wanting those white-bread sandwiches that would help them feel less different, others determined to stand out and be different.

Listening to this as an audiobook was a great choice. I loved hearing them read out their stories, and it was nice to put a voice to an unfamiliar name.

As America Ferrera writes: “I believe that culture shapes identity and defines possibility; that it teaches us who we are, what to believe, and how to dream. We should all be able to look at the world around us and see a reflection of our true lived experiences. Until then, the American story will never be complete.”

The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo is an enchanting read

Dark, magical, and bewitching, The Night Tiger transports the reader to colonial Malaya where weretigers supposedly roam, strange deaths are happening in a sleepy town in Ipoh. A young boy is searching for a missing finger and is mysteriously connected to a woman trying to make some money as a dance hall girl.

Choo permeates her story with all the sounds, smells and tastes of Malaysia. She brings in so many Malaysian foods that I am often left hungry after reading a few chapters (Malaysian and Singaporean foods are quite similar).

She deftly weaves in a variety of folklore and superstitions like the pontianak and weretigers. It’s a great mix of supernatural and historical. And overall, a beautifully written, magical tale blended with some mysteries that left this reader guessing until the end.