Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin #RIP

It actually felt like autumn this morning. The air was fresh and cool. The fog lingered over the school field. There was a smell of Autumn as I took a walk around the neighbourhood.

Of course it’s all temporary. It’s going to hit 31C later today and it’s already warming up.

But ah, I am glad to be done with summer. Aside from summer produce, it’s not my favourite season.

That’s why I always dive into the spooky reads once September hits. And there have been quite a few so far. Today, I’ve got this book on my mind, although I finished it a few weeks ago.

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Little Eyes – Samanta Schweblin

This defies genre. A story about little toys called kentuki. It comes as a crow, dragon, mole, or bunny. It has cameras for eyes, a motor for rolling around. But the weird part is that a stranger controls it. This person is known as the “dweller”. They use their computers to control the kentuki that’s assigned to them. They get to watch and listen to everything that goes on. The kentuki however can’t speak. But some dwellers and keepers manage to communicate eventually.

The “keeper” is the person who buys the kentuki and brings it home. Or maybe someone gave it to them. I mean, I guess it’s meant to be a cute toy. But really it’s all kind of sinister, the thought of someone watching you and your home through the eyes of this toy.

Schweblin is quite good at convincing the reader about the benefits of being a “dweller”. To see the world in a different way. An escape from your life. Like Marvin, a boy in Guatemala, who’s dwelling in a dragon kentuki in Norway. He’s unhappy, his father is always nagging him, and his mother died recently.

Another is a man who buys the kentuki for his son, as his ex-wife wants it for him. But he develops a strange affection for it. His son, meanwhile, hates it.

I’m not sure why anyone would want to buy a kentuki, knowing that someone is there watching. Maybe it’s because it’s a trendy thing at first? Like, everyone has one so I need to have one too. Or it’s out of curiosity? Or they just like being watched?

Little Eyes is written as a series of vignettes. Sometimes a chapter about one dweller. Another chapter is about a keeper. There are many of them around the world. This style of writing might not suit everyone but I enjoyed having a peek into the various lives of characters. But it felt like it lacked something at the end. It has stayed in my mind ever since reading it though, and unsettled me.

The Near Witch by V.E. Schwab

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Perhaps it’s appropriate that my first V.E. Schwab book is actually her debut novel. It went out of print a couple of years after it was first published but was reissued in 2018.

In her introduction, Schwab says that this “was a small book, quiet and strange at a time when everything that sold well was loud and vaguely familiar”. It was originally published in 2011. The year of Divergent, The Martian, Ready Player One, Fifty Shades of Grey. Those were definitely loud books. I can see how a quiet book like The Near Witch could get lost in such a world.

And maybe it’s just the time of year to be reading it, or the mood that I’m in. But The Near Witch was just the right read for me at this time. Quiet reading in a quieter house than usual (the kids are back in school after more than a year of distance learning). But it’s also a book about fear. Fear of those who don’t belong. Fear of a stranger who appears in a small town at a time when children begin disappearing.

And Lexi, a girl of the town of Near who is different from the others.

Not right. Not proper.

I enjoyed the fairytale-like feel to the story. A small town on the moor. An insulated, isolated place where everyone knows everyone else. But two sisters who live on the edge of town are thought to be witches.

Schwab is brilliant at creating atmosphere in her book. I felt like I was standing on the moor, the wind sighing. The moor itself is almost like a character in the book, rippling and swaying, keeping secrets, hiding mysteries.

The Disaster Tourist – Yun Ko-eun

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Simple dinner tonight of a salmon, mushroom, spinach miso soup over rice. Also, some kimchi on the side because I love kimchi! 

It’s probably just me growing old but I often crave simple meals like this soup and rice these days. Although in THE DISASTER TOURIST, they mentioned samgyeopsal (grilled pork belly) a couple of times and that made my mouth water…😅 

This book isn’t about food of course. It’s about a woman who works in a disaster tourism agency. She surveys disaster areas, turns them into travel destinations. She’s told to go to an area where the tour isn’t doing so well, a remote island with a sinkhole that’s not living up to people’s expectations of a disaster area. 

And turns out that’s because it’s not exactly a disaster area anymore. 

“According to the rules, it’s only possible for you to quit in the middle of a business trip if you die.”

A quick read, although not exactly the thriller the blurb makes it out to be. 

This book takes off in unexpected ways. It touches on capitalism, the dark side of tourism. Towards the end, it veered off toward the surreal. 

Strangely entertaining and thoughtful. 

Ham Helsing: Vampire Hunter – Rich Moyer

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It’s hot. So this calls for ice-cream and a fun comic! This is HAM HELSING VAMPIRE HUNTER by Rich Moyer, and it was such a blast! The kids read it first and it looked like such fun that I knew I had to read it too. 

Ham Helsing is on his first assignment, to hunt down a vampire. But the vampire isn’t the one terrorizing the town. So who is? 

The illustrations are delightful. The dialogue is witty. And the characters are great. A vampire with social anxiety. Treasure-obsessed rats. A ninja pig. 

Just brilliant! 

Reading: Last Words from Montmartre by Qiu Miaojin

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I’m very slowly making my way through LAST WORDS FROM MONTMARTRE by QIU MIAOJIN, translated by Ari Larissa Heinrich. 

This book begins by telling the reader to “begin anywhere”. It’s a collection of letters. Some to Xu. Some to Yong. Some that read more like a journal entry. But the narrator is unnamed. 

The reason I’m taking this book slowly is it’s full of all this raw emotion that’s pouring out. It’s intense in its musings and meanderings over love and loss. 

Perhaps the hardest part about reading this is knowing that Qiu committed suicide not long after finishing this book (before it was published). She was only 26. And knowing that, I can’t help but read this novel wondering if it’s fiction or based on Qiu’s life. 

“True love makes it through any ordeal. I yearn to be in a relationship that can shake off the frosty wind and the couple still stands hand in hand. I yearn for a love that, because of devoted vigilance, can withstand time’s ceaseless erosion and come out alive.”

Qiu is known as the pioneer of Taiwanese queer literature. She also wrote NOTES OF A CROCODILE. 

Operatic by Kyo Maclear and Byron Eggenschwiler

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(I previously posted this on Instagram)

Oh this graphic novel is such a gem. It was a book I randomly pulled off the shelf at the library while grabbing some books for the kids. 

Charlotte “Charlie” Noguchi is one of three Asian girls at her middle school. Her music teacher’s latest assignment is to choose a song for this moment of their life and to write about it. 

Charlie feels a bit lost with this assignment. As she sometimes feels unsure about what she is in school. As she thinks about the music she wants to use for the assignment, she thinks also about Luka, who’s been absent from school after he was bullied for his gender nonconformity. And also about Emile, a boy in class she’s intrigued by. 

Charlie also discovers the music of Maria Callas, an American-born Greek opera singer, who’s one of the most influential opera singers of the 20th century. I’m clueless when it comes to opera so it was interesting to learn about her background. 

This book is about being both part of a community, a group, but also being an individual. It was about being open to new ideas and about accepting others for themselves.

I really appreciate how the color scheme changes when we go to a different character such as when the focus is on Maria Callas, red is used as the main color. It makes it obvious to the reader that oh, this may be a different timeline or a different feature in this book. I say this also because a recent comic I read, ONION SKIN, was confusing because there wasn’t this clear distinction between past and present. And sometimes it meant reading a page, feeling a bit lost, then reading the next page, only to realize that oh it’s a flashback. 

This book was thoughtful and beautiful. And I’m glad it just happened to be on the library shelf that day! 

Heiress Apparently by Diana Ma

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I was thinking about this book after I read about the cancellation of Kim’s Convenience and how a spin-off series is being created around the only non-Asian character in the show. 

They stopped the series after its fifth season (it was supposed to have six). Then decided the only non-Asian character would become the star of a new series?? Ugh. 

So this book doesn’t exactly have a direct link with that (although Kim’s Convenience is mentioned in it!). But it does have a young Chinese-American actress who clinches a starring role in a movie. 

But it’s being filmed in China. A country that Gemma’s parents have told her never to go to. She goes anyway. And it turns out she looks a lot like a socialite and influencer named Alyssa Chua. 

And that’s because… they’re cousins!

Sounds rather soap opera-like, doesn’t it? Very dramatic. And there are some elements in the story that didn’t quite gel with me but I decided to let that go and keep reading. 

The author wrote that she wanted to write a story that she wanted to read when she was a teenager. A story that had Asian-Americans who went on adventures and had romances. And that she did. 

This was a book my teenaged self might have enjoyed. I didn’t grow up as a minority as Singapore is about 76% Chinese. But pretty much all the books I read were by American and British writers. And I don’t remember reading many (any?) books with Asian characters. Much less one with an Asian actress as a lead character. 

I liked when the characters discussed life as an Asian actor. How there aren’t many roles for Asian actors. How they know every Asian actor and the roles they played. How, when the film industry thinks of an Asian woman, it’s of someone who’s “small-framed with delicate features”. 

Anyway, this was Heiress Apparently by Diana Ma. Pictured alongside a salad of cherry tomatoes, avocado, homegrown radish and basil. 

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

This was a series that I never read as a child, although my sister actually owned the books. Why did I never venture into this world, I’m not quite sure. I did love lots of books written by British authors, like Noel Streatfeild and Enid Blyton.

This was a series that I never read as a child, although my sister actually owned the books. Why did I never venture into this world, I’m not quite sure. I did love lots of books written by British authors, like Noel Streatfeild and Enid Blyton.

Well I’m making up for it now. And just nicely, this fits into the Back to the Classics challenge for “a children’s classic”.

And I must say, that Vintage Classics cover is rather a striking one, isn’t it?

When I started reading this, I wasn’t sure that I would enjoy it. It took a while to get into it but when I did, it was a fun read.

In case you’ve not heard of this series before. Here’s a little about it. It was published in 1930. And the Walker children (also known as Captain John, Mate Susan, Able-Seaman Titty, and Ship’s Boy Roger) are given permission to sail their boat Swallow and stay on Wild Cat Island. They meet the Blackett sisters, who are also a sailing family. They’re the “Amazon” part as they’re the “pirates” and their boat is named Amazon. Luckily they become fast friends.

Camping on deserted island, sailing, cooking their own meals, sailing to the nearby farm to get fresh milk. What a life!

It was interesting to be reading a book about these young children allowed to go about doing all this on their own. I mean, sure their home wasn’t too far away. But still, they were pretty much left to figure things out for themselves. Like cooking meals and fetching fresh milk.

There’s something rather charming about this more innocent way of life. When children are able to roam independently. I think especially in contrast to this past year, where we have been largely confined to our home and neighbourhood. Would I even let my kids walk to the nearby park (about 15 minutes walk) by themselves? Um, probably not.

While it was a pleasant read, I honestly didn’t even consider borrowing the second book in the series. I don’t think I ever felt so absorbed in any of the characters that I longed to remain in their realm. Maybe because I’m reading this book decades too late? Would I have loved it more as a kid?

Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

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What is a funfetti cake? Pretty much a vanilla cake with sprinkles in it (in this case, I used candy quins which are disc-like sprinkles). What is a cupcake? Pretty much just a small cake with a mound of frosting on the top. 

And what is this book? Adorable. With a side of snarkiness and a hint of politics. Just that fun read that brightens up your day, just like these funfetti cupcakes I made for the 9yo’s (almost 10!) mini early birthday celebration with some friends. 

And just like a funfetti cupcake, it leaves you with a sugar high from how fun and cute a read this is. 

Just like a sweet treat, it’s not something you have all the time but in times like these, it’s the best remedy for a not so good, not so terrible day, or sometimes just random meh days in between. 

Two books about incarceration

Somehow I ended up reading and listening to two books about incarceration at the same time.

I had borrowed the audiobook of Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam (narrated by Ethan Herisse) for the Reading Women Challenge – book about incarceration. I had also borrowed Gong Ji-young’s Our Happy Time for Read the World, an Instagram challenge. I borrowed Our Happy Time without any clue of what it was about, just that it’s written by a Korean author, only to find out later that it’s about a death row prisoner. For some reason, I didn’t feel that two books about prison was too much. They had very distinct voices and sentiments.

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Punching the Air

This novel in verse is just amazing. I chose to listen to it as I’ve enjoyed listening to other verse novels such as those by Jacqueline Woodson. The only drawback is that now I can’t quote things to you, except for what I find online (I suppose I should learn to take notes when I listen to an audiobook?).

Yusef Salam is one of the exonerated Central Park Five and he and Ibi Zoboi have created an incredible story and a great character in Amal Shahid, a black teenager who’s been accused of beating up a white teen who’s now unconscious.

I find it hard to write a review about an audiobook, but there are very many parts that stick in my mind.

The jury, the media, they all see him as the black defendant, as a fully-grown man. Compared to the white teenager, who’s the “boy”, although they’re the same age. Amal is already viewed as guilty before his conviction.

His art history teacher throwing him out of class because he asks if non-white people had works of art that were worth featuring too.

His mother asking him to persevere. And reminding him what Maya Angelou said about dust. “It rises.”

Amal drawing all over his cell with markers that he stole from the poetry teacher.

The writing was honest and true. It was such an emotional ride. I’m not the best at listening to audiobooks, I get easily distracted. But this one held my attention. It hit me, hard, and wouldn’t let go. It was hard hitting and devastating.

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In Our Happy Time, Yujeong is in hospital after her third suicide attempt and her aunt comes to visit. Her aunt, a nun, asks Yujeong to accompany her to the prison. Aunt Monica has been visiting the death-row prisoners, and one of them has asked to meet Yujeong, who used to be a singer and once sang the national anthem at a baseball game.

Yunsu was sentenced to death because of his role in a rape and murder. In some notes that he’s written, that are interspersed throughout the book, we learn of his childhood with his younger brother and abusive drunk father. He had to take care of his younger brother, Eunsu, as they lived on the streets and did whatever they could to survive.

Yunsu and Yujeong couldn’t be more different. Yujeong’s family is wealthy, she works as a professor after her success as a singer. And I suppose that’s the point of it. That when they first meet, she judges him based on what she knows about his case, which had been in the news recently. But as they continue to meet and talk, she begins to understand that her initial thoughts about him were wrong. And as they get to know each other, Yunsu realises that despite her affluent background, her success in life, she too is broken inside.

Our Happy Time is a beautiful book about the fragility of life.

This book was made into a movie, called Maundy Thursday, and at least from the Wikipedia entry, it sounds like the plot is the same.