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.


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.

Judith by Noel Streatfeild

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I loved Streatfeild’s “shoes” books for many years. We had a copy of Ballet Shoes and it was a book I reread many times (and still reread today). We also had Apple Bough (known as Traveling Shoes), Curtain Up (also known as Theatre Shoes), White Boots (also known as Skating Shoes). My favourite was always Ballet Shoes though!

While Streatfeild has written other books, I had not ventured past those books I had grown up with.

But once again, a reading challenge has pushed me to reading different things. This year I am hoping to do much better when it comes to the Back to the Classics challenge. One of the challenges was to read a “new-to-you classic by a favorite author”, and so who better to read than Noel Streatfeild?

The appeal of her books was typically that it was comforting yet also quaint. The families all tend to have problems with money and their parents tend to be a bit vague, so a Nana-like guardian figure always manages to wrangle things and keep the household together. But there’s always talent. Whether it be for ballet or ice-skating or dancing or acting.

So it was with these themes in mind that I started reading Judith. And aha, there’s the absent father, the vague mother who in this case is particularly cold and ignores her child. Judith is pretty much a child emotionally abandoned by her mother. She so longs for Mother’s attention which never happens, and which brings Judith and her governess Miss Simpson (or Simpsy as Judith calls her) together. The three of them seem to travel around Europe quite a bit, apparently because “Mother hated many things, amongst them cold weather, seeing the same dreary faces too often, publishers’ cocktail parties, and “your Father’s family.””

So the kind guardian figure in this book is Miss Simpson. She’s respectable and trustworthy (important characteristics for Mother) but also loving and kind towards her charge. In her own way, she takes the sting out of Mother’s criticism of Judith, rephrasing Mother’s orders in a nicer way, such as Judith’s being sent out for a walk as being indoors won’t give Judith a nice complexion.

Mother’s family looks down on Judith’s father’s family. Her father lives in the US with his new wife (there is a divorced couple in a Streatfeild book!). But the big news is that he will be in England for his sister Charlotte’s wedding. And Judith is to be a bridesmaid.

“Judith collected kind words and kind looks dropped by Mother. As she grew older she exaggerated these looks and words and on them built day-dreams.”

Essentially, Judith is about a young girl (we first meet her at age 12) who’s constantly let down by her family. Because of her circumstances, she doesn’t know how to interact with children of her age, like her cousins when she finally meets them. And what makes it worse is that the adults often use her as entertainment, due to her talent for imitating people.

And the thing is, she is not a likeable character. She is meant to be pitied. She’s clingy and needy and naive. So this wasn’t exactly the delightful Streatfeild read I was expecting. It didn’t leave me with that warm-hearted feeling of her children’s books. But well, I shouldn’t have been expecting a children’s book type read, should I?

In terms of a read, this wasn’t exactly the easiest, because although parts of it were amusing, there were few characters that were likeable or charming. And you desperately want someone to just be there for her (there are some glimmers of hope). I’m looking forward to reading more of Streafeild’s books as there are quite a few that are available as ebooks from my library. Now that I’ve had a taste of her non-Shoes books, I feel like I’m better suited to try more.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

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It is interesting to read this book today. A book I have heard about, had a relative idea of its plot, read of the many times it was banned, including an attempt in 2000 at one California high school (one parent was quoted as saying: “It teaches how very easy it is to smother somebody…I don’t want to put these kinds of images in children’s minds. They’re going to think that when they get mad at their parents, they can just ax them out.” (This makes me wonder what kind of TV shows they watch in their household.)

In 2013, it was banned from production by an Alaskan theatre company for a different reason – because it’s racist and misogynistic.

So why did I read this book this year? Partly because of Nurse Ratched, the Netflix TV series. I happened to watch the first episode the other day and thought, ok I better read the original book first! And also, a comment from Jen at Introverted Reader on my blog post about Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings. She mentioned The Combine in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, similar to how the characters in Earthlings talk about The Factory.

Kesey worked as a night aide on a psychiatric ward in the Menlo Park Veteran’s Hospital and it was his experiences as well as his experience with drug use (he was in an Army-sponsored hallucinogenic drug experiment) resulted in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It’s funny to read of how Menlo Park and Palo Alto used to be places where experiments in LSD and other psychedelic drugs were carried out – not exactly the image that I associate with it at all today.

First off, I’m going to admit that this is not really a review. Just some random thoughts as I was reading this book. It’s incredibly hard to review a book that plenty of people have read – and some, even thoroughly studied. But well, since this is for a reading challenge, some thoughts must be put down, and a blog post to be uploaded. So here it is.

I’ve not seen the movie version yet (but I guess I ought to now that I’ve read the book), but I definitely had Jack Nicholson’s image in my head when reading about McMurphy, the trickster, the rebel, the one who champions the underdog. Yet while he’s meant to be seen as the tragic hero, he’s also the guy who decided to go to the psych ward instead of serving a prison sentence.

I constantly felt uncomfortable reading this. It was controversial for its time but it still makes for an uncomfortable edgy read even today. It’s full of themes such as individuality and power through the constant struggle between Nurse Ratched who’s trying to maintain the status quo and McMurphy who keeps trying to break it. But I kept wondering why it is a woman who is the tyrant, the cold heartless character. The doctor (of course, a man) is on the other hand, easily manipulated by McMurphy. Also, I kept pronouncing her name (in my head, that is) as “wretched”. The other women characters (except for another nurse I think) are prostitutes…

“What she dreams of there in the centre of those wires is a world of precision efficiency and tidiness like a pocket watch with a glass back, a place where the schedule is unbreakable and all the patients who aren’t Outside, obedient under her beam, are wheelchair Chronics with catheter tubes run direct from every pantleg to the sewer under the floor.”

Then there’s Chief Bromden, a large Native American who pretends to be deaf and mute. And how it wasn’t just that he started acting that way, but that people started acting like he was “too dumb to hear or see or say anything at all”. It’s a clever tactic, using this narrator (although reading it today makes me go ‘ugh’ about a white man writing the part of a Native American), as he is always in the hallways sweeping, and since everyone presumes he’s deaf and mute, they talk freely around him. Also, I’m never quite certain if what he’s talking about is a hallucination or real life. With regards to minority characters, I’m frustrated with the use of “boys” when it comes to the Black men who work at the ward. The patients are referred to as “men” though.

I don’t know how to sum up my feelings about this book. I’m glad I read it, for at least now I know more about it. It was an uneasy read not just in terms of what feelings it’s supposed to churn up (down with the man! for one thing) but it was also a book full of stereotyped minorities, as well as women who are either there to be used or to belittle the men of the ward.

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. 

Latitudes of Longing by Shubhangi Swarup

I love it when reading challenges push me to try books I’ve not heard of before. This book was a finalist of the JCB Prize, a book prize celebrating Indian writers. Latitudes of Longing was shortlisted for the 2018 prize, which was awarded to Benyamin for Jasmine Days.

Latitudes of Longing opens on the Andaman Islands, which already for me perked my interest. It made the news a couple of years ago after an American missionary traveled there (illegally) to visit an uncontested tribe known as the Sentinelese. They are one of six native tribes that live on the islands and Survival International termed them the “most isolated tribe in the world”.

Well, at any rate, this book – or at least the first section (novella?) – takes place on the Andaman Islands. Girija Prasad is an Oxford-educated scientist and is newly married to Chanda Devi, who sees ghosts and talks to trees. His work takes him to the islands, which was a former British naval base and penal colony, then captured by the Japanese during the war, and now owned by the Indian government.

I enjoyed reading about their life on the islands, and their growing relationship. The author brings in the environment and nature into the story in a lyrical way.

Unfortunately, while the first section was well told and evocative, the rest of the book didn’t enchant me as much.

Mary is a Burmese woman who works for Chanda and Girija, and she is the main character of the second novella. Her son, whom she hasn’t seen since he was a baby, is a political prisoner in Burma. He has renamed himself Plato. The third section focuses on Thapa, who is Plato’s best friend, and was the one who located Mary in the Andaman Islands. Thapa is a smuggler in Nepal. And his travels lead us on to the final section in the book, which starts out by being set in the remote mountain village. I don’t know if it continues in this setting as I eventually gave it up.

How does a book start out well like that and then result in a book I ended up just skimming through? I’m not entirely sure. I wanted to like it and finish it, but I found myself being easily distracted and bored towards the end. Maybe this was just too ambitious a book? Could it have been improved with better editing? Maybe if it were a novella, just the first section on its own?