Lemon by Kwon Yeo-sun

Truth be told, when I finished reading this book, I wondered, is it me? Did I not get what I was reading? Was I just in the wrong mood to read this book? 

LEMON by KWON YEO-SUN opens with the interrogation of a murder suspect. A young girl is dead and the media have called the incident “High School Beauty Murder”. There are two main suspects, one a rich kid and the other a part-time delivery driver. But neither are charged. 

But soon the book moves onto three women who knew the victim, Kim Hae-On, and how they’ve been affected by the murder as the years go by. 

The chapters jump from one point of view to another, and different years. It’s confusing. I struggled with this book and its disjointed narrative. It doesn’t help that the book doesn’t make it obvious whose perspective each chapter is being told from. The chapters in the form of a phone conversation in particular threw me off. 

Maybe it’s just me as LEMON has plenty of 4 and 5 star ratings on Goodreads, as well as raves by critics. It just didn’t work for me.

Hellbound vols 1 and 2 – Yeon Sang-ho

HELLBOUND VOL 1 and 2 by YEON SANG-HO, illustrated by CHOI GYU-SEOK, translated from the Korean by DANNY LIM

This two-part manhwa is set in Korea, where certain people are visited by a supernatural figure that tells they are bound for hell and how much time they have left. And when that time ticks down these terrifying monsters appear out of nowhere and end your life. We learn that these chosen people are ones who have committed crimes of some sort. So what happens is that religious groups (some are more like cults) start preaching that this is a sign from God and that everyone needs to repent for their sins. And they begin to take things into their own hands… 

So these hellish creatures, scary as they may be, aren’t the real monsters of this story. The real monsters are those walking the streets, driving their cars, eating and drinking, living and breathing human beings. It’s about how humans react and behave in the midst of this horror. 

HELLBOUND is also a 6-ep tv series on Netflix, that has been renewed for a second season. I haven’t watched the show yet though. And to be honest, I may not watch it now, knowing what the premise is. I’m happy to read horror but I prefer my tv to be less intense and more cheerful.

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.

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. 

If You Could See the Sun

I’ve loved stories set in boarding schools since I was a kid reading Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers (did you read that too?). But many of these boarding school stories often take place in western countries like the UK. So when I learnt that If You Could See the Sun by Ann Liang was set in an international boarding school in Beijing, I quickly put a hold on the library ebook. 

Alice Sun discovers that she has the power of invisibility. And she uses it to do favors and secret tasks for the other students – for a fee. She needs that money to pay for her school fees as her parents are no longer able to afford it. She enlists the help of academic rival Henry to build her an app, Beijing Ghost. (Which would have made a great title for the book, I reckon). She does make some questionable choices, and learns more about herself along the way. 

I like how Liang uses the invisibility power to illustrate the idea of Alice feeling unseen by her peers, who are children of the wealthy and powerful of Beijing. But as she gets to know some of them better, she too realizes that these classmates are more than just the daughter of a famous model, the son of a rich businessman. The best part is that her rival Henry maybe doesn’t really see her as a rival at all? For me, their relationship was the best part of this book.  

When it comes to her invisibility power, she can’t seem to control it and it just turns on and off without any explanation. Maybe I’m overthinking it but I would have preferred more details about this magical ability. 

Still, this was a unique story in one of my favorite settings, the boarding school. And better still, a boarding school in Asia. It’s a story that my teenaged self would have lived, but as an adult I definitely appreciate it too.  

Four Treasures of the Sky by Jenny Tinghui Zhang

An unflinching story about a young girl kidnapped from China and smuggled to America in the late 1800s. Her journey takes her to a brothel in San Francisco to a mining town in Idaho, where she poses as Jacob.

“Daiyu to Feng to Peony to Jacob Li. When will I be me again? And if I become me again, will I know who she is?”

Not an easy read, as I kept wondering if life would get easier for Daiyu/Jacob. But this is the 1880s and the Chinese Exclusion Act is in play. While I had heard about the Act, I wasn’t aware of the many acts of anti-Chinese violence throughout the country at that time.

Four Treasures of the Sky was thoroughly researched and beautifully written. But I found it difficult to read the parts where the tragic heroine from Dream of the Red Chambers Lin Daiyu manifests herself. Not quite a ghost but perhaps an alter ego of the main character? It’s a way for teenaged Daiyu to emotionally extract herself from the trauma she faces. And she has a lot of traumatic experiences.

Beautiful but brutal.

Asian diaspora

While AAPI month is more of an American event, I wanted to highlight some Asian diaspora from Singapore. I’m from Singapore although I’ve lived in the US for over ten years now. But like many other Chinese Singaporeans, my great-grandparents came from China. And I still have distant relatives who live in China, although I’ve never met them and likely never will. 

In case you’re not familiar, about 75% of Singapore’s population is ethnically Chinese. About 15% are Malays, 7.5% Indians, and 1.5% Others (these are the official term used). 

Are Singaporeans diaspora? Yes, although Singapore is part of Asia, our ancestors migrated from China to Singapore, and there they stayed and started families. 

What am I? I’m Singaporean, I’m Chinese, I’m Southeast Asian. But living in the US has made me realize that the term “Chinese” is more closely related to China than what it means in Singapore. So at times when I have to fill in a form and tick off my ethnicity, my pen hovers over “Chinese”. Am I Chinese here? Because there’s also other boxes like Taiwanese, Indonesian, Malaysian etc. Maybe I should just be Singaporean. My kids, after all, have declared themselves “Ameriporean”.

Ghost Forest by Pik-Shuen Fung

Good things come in small packages. Like dim sum. Siu Mai and Har Gow are perfect one or two bite dumplings, any bigger and they just seem a bit too much. 

And in Ghost Forest, the scenes and vignettes, are sometimes just one or two pages. Sometimes not even reaching one page. But they convey so much. 

This is the story of a family that moves from Hong Kong to Canada before the 1997 Handover. The dad remains in Hong Kong to work. He’s known as an “astronaut father”, visiting his family for Lunar New Year. 

A Chinese painting by my grandfather

The story opens with 21 days after the father’s death, and the daughter watches a bird perched on her balcony. She says, “Hi Dad”. That made me think of that huge moth that stayed in our house for a few days after my grandfather’s funeral. Some Chinese people believe that moths are the spirits of your dead loved ones visiting you. And maybe that’s just superstition or us clinging to any little symbol that brings us meaning, but somehow that brought some comfort. 

At 272 pages, this is a short and simply written book, but it’s best if you take your time with it. I tend to be a fast reader, so when reading a book like this, I’m forced to slow down, to take a pause between these segments and reflect on them. 

Ghost Forest is a quiet and soft read but it managed to wring out all these emotions from me via its spare prose and blank space. 

Almond by Sohn Won-pyung

I woke up super early Thursday morning to catch the BTS Seoul concert livestream at 2am PST and it was so worth it. I couldn’t really sleep after it ended at 445am. Yes, I really am a big fan of the group! Because it’s the second book I read that is linked to BTS’ series In The Soop and it’s the second one that I’ve been disappointed by (the first was Midnight Library by Matt Haig. I really did not like that book.). But BTS, especially Namjoon aka RM, have previously mentioned several other books that are good reads, like Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, and Kitchen

“This story is, in short, about a monster meeting another monster. One of the monsters is me.”

Ah, I probably had too high expectations of this one as it sounded a bit quirky, since it’s about a boy who doesn’t feel emotions. He has a disorder called alexithymia because of underdeveloped amygdalae, two almond-shaped neurons in the brain. 

Also, his mother runs a secondhand bookstore and uh yeah, that’s definitely a draw for many readers. I love a book that’s set in bookstores or libraries! 

But while I enjoyed the first part of the book, the ending seemed too…easy. Also, the main character just never quite drew me into his story. 

Overall, it was an interesting read but I just wanted more. More depth into the friendship between the boy who can’t feel and the boy who feels too much.

The Red Threads of Fortune by Neon Yang

(Pictured: The Red Threads of Fortune with two Singapore/Malaysian-style dishes. The bottom is a plate of char kway teow or fried rice noodles with bean sprouts, prawns, and squid. The top is also rice noodles, but this one has a gravy poured over it, this is known as horfun or, since we picked it up from a Malaysian restaurant, wat tan hor.)

I had completely forgotten that Neon Yang is from Singapore until I saw the curse word on the page. It’s a rather vulgar word and it stunned me for a second to see it. I’m not used to seeing Singlish (Singaporean English) in fantasy stories!

The Red Threads of Fortune is set after the events in The Black Tides of Heaven, and it’s told from Mokoya’s point of view. We find her chasing a giant Naga in the desert, where she meets Rider, who’s chosen to remain genderless. That’s unusual for this society, where children aren’t assigned a gender when they’re born, but get to choose it for themselves when they know. I’m hoping this is explored more in the rest of the series?

This novella is quite different from The Black Tides of Heaven, reflecting the differences in personality between the twins Mokoya and Akeha. I found that I enjoyed this one more, perhaps because I was already familiar with the world building and the characters, whom we first meet as children in Black Tides. It took me a few tries to get into Black Tides when I read it last year, but it eventually won me over.

It’s been said in a few reviews that these two novellas can be read in any order, but I think reading Black Tides first then Red Threads was better for me as it’s more chronological this way.

And oh, just behold those magnificent covers. I can’t wait to read the rest of the books in the series,