Himawari House – Harmony Becker

HIMAWARI HOUSE by HARMONY BECKER, pictured with some Singapore treats – love letters and pineapple tarts. 

A delightful graphic novel about three international students who move to Japan. The main character is Nao, who’s in Japan to connect with her birth country. She moves into a house and becomes good friends with two girls – Hyejung from Korea and Tina from Singapore. They all attend the same Japanese language school. 

Himawari House is a story about growing up, about being out there on your own and far away from home. 

I was definitely not expecting a Singapore accent in this book but the writer really hit it spot on. 

The use of different languages in the book was a great highlight. Not just Japanese language but also Korean. And I guess Singlish (Singapore-style English) can also be counted as a language? (“Like English but deluxe flavor”). 

I loved this book. I loved how the different languages were used – casually, yet effectively showing us how it is to struggle in this multilingual world. It feels weird to write this but I guess it shows that Asian people are different, are distinct. The Korean girl is unique, the Singaporean girl is unique, the American girl who is half-Japanese is unique. We are Asian, and to many people we may look similar (black hair, black eyes) but we are so different from each other. 

The Woman in the Purple Skirt by Natsuko Imamura

The Woman in the Purple Skirt is an ordinary woman who only ever wears a purple-colored skirt. She doesn’t do anything particularly unusual or unique. She looks for work. She eats a cream bun while sitting on a park bench. She seems to barely make ends meet. 

Our narrator isn’t the Woman in the Purple Skirt. It’s the woman in the yellow cardigan, who watches the woman in the purple skirt, and know her life thoroughly. She seems to want to be friends with the woman in the purple skirt. 

“When the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan goes out walking in the shopping district, nobody pays the slightest bit of attention. But when the Woman in the Purple Skirt goes out, it’s impossible not to pay attention. Nobody could ignore her.”

But it’s not just watching, the reader realizes. The narrator helps the woman in the purple skirt by putting out the job listing magazines at the convenience store, she drops off shampoo at her apartment to make sure her hair gets washed. She eventually finds the Woman a job at the same hotel, cleaning rooms. 

This is part of her attempt to befriend the Woman, by making them colleagues at the same job. But still she watches from afar. 

The Woman in the Purple Skirt becomes popular with the other employees. But the narrator remains invisible, not just to the woman but it seems to almost everyone else working there. 

Some might say this book is disturbing. But I just felt this sadness for the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan. A nameless, faceless woman who nobody knows, not even the reader. The loneliness of living in a city leads her to longing for a friend, into voyeurism and idolization of an everyday person.

Infinite Country – Patricia Engel

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These love letters are so delicate that there’s little point packing them in luggage and bringing them back with us. So I’m just eating them every day instead. And enjoying it with a mug of milky tea and Patricia Engel’s Infinite Country

This book is about a family who moves from Colombia to the US and the father’s deportation. It’s a book that asks, what is home? Where is home? Is it one where your family is? Is it one where you can live your life to its fullest? 

Back in Singapore after more than two years of not seeing our families, we are ourselves asking these very questions. Where do we belong? Is it where my children were born and have been growing up? Or is it where I was born? Where I grew up? 

This book asks if America was the right choice. And that’s something I wonder too. 

Another book on the Tournament of Books list.

Afterparties – Anthony Veasna So

Seamlessly transitioning between the absurd and the tenderhearted, balancing acerbic humor with sharp emotional depth, Afterparties offers an expansive portrait of the lives of Cambodian-Americans. As the children of refugees carve out radical new paths for themselves in California, they shoulder the inherited weight of the Khmer Rouge genocide and grapple with the complexities of race, sexuality, friendship, and family.

A high school badminton coach and failing grocery store owner tries to relive his glory days by beating a rising star teenage player. Two drunken brothers attend a wedding afterparty and hatch a plan to expose their shady uncle’s snubbing of the bride and groom. A queer love affair sparks between an older tech entrepreneur trying to launch a “safe space” app and a disillusioned young teacher obsessed with Moby-Dick. And in the sweeping final story, a nine-year-old child learns that his mother survived a racist school shooter.

With nuanced emotional precision, gritty humor, and compassionate insight into the intimacy of queer and immigrant communities, the stories in Afterparties deliver an explosive introduction to the work of Anthony Veasna So.

Book thoughts: Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

IRON WIDOW by XIRAN JAY ZHAO, pictured with a slice of homemade pandan chiffon cake. 

Sometimes a book comes along and it’s just that very book that you need. Iron Widow was it for me. I read it on the 6 hour drive from the Bay Area to LA, a drive that took longer than usual thanks to impatient drivers and some accidents (including one that happened to the car right in front of me, luckily I braked in time!!). 

Angry impatient drivers. Ugh. When we finally reached our destination, I took refuge in this book for a while. 

Wu Zetian is 18 and offers herself up as a concubine-pilot. So yes, that very Wu Zetian, former Empress of China, inspired this character. But it’s set in a very different China, one where giant mechs called Chrysalises battle aliens. These mechs are piloted have to be piloted by a boy and girl pair, to provide the right qi needed. 

Zetian offers herself as a pilot-concubine. Her plan is to kill the boy who made her sister concubine and killed her. When she gets her vengeance, she becomes known as the Iron Widow. 

Zetian is ruthless yet I couldn’t help but root for her. She lives in a society where women are subservient and dispensable, their feet meant to be bound, their heads bowed. Who wouldn’t be full of anger? Who wouldn’t want to rage against the system? 

A bold take no prisoners heroine is exactly what I needed. You probably do too.

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.