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.

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! 

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. 

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.

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. 

Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

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“With the coffee in front of her, she closed her eyes, and inhaled deeply. It was her moment of happiness. As per his insistence, the coffee had been made from mocha beans with their distinct aroma, which coffee drinkers either love or hate. Those who enjoy the aroma, like Kohtake, can’t get enough of it. In fact, you could say that the coffee picked the customers.”

A book about time travel. But one with limits. It takes place solely in a cafe. And there are very strict rules. There is one particular seat at the cafe that allows time travel. The person cannot move from the seat. And the time traveler must return before the coffee gets cold (and also drink said coffee).

It all takes place in Cafe Funiculi Funicula (if you aren’t familiar, Funiculì, Funiculà is a song to commemorate the opening of the funicular railway on Mt Vesuvius back in 1880). There are a few regular customers of the cafe which is owned by Kei and Nagare, who are married. Kazu, who is Nagare’s cousin, helps out when she’s not at university. Kazu is the one who has to pour the cup of coffee that allows the time travel.

In this book, there are four time travellers in this book – and also another four in a separate book titled Before the Coffee Gets Cold: Tales from the Cafe (although known as Before Your Memory Fades in Japan).

It was only after reading the book, then reading a review of it that I learnt that this book was originally a play. That may explain why I wasn’t enamoured with the writing. The writing was fine, nothing to shout about, and you have to put aside your doubts about the way the time travel works (why is it only Kazu who pours the coffee? was a constant question for me!). But I really appreciated the thoughtfulness put into how their stories unfolded, the emotions touched on.

It was a slightly quirky, quick read that doesn’t feel like a quick read. It’s a gently told tale. It made me long for a day when I can finally go sit in a cafe and read a book – no indoor dining or even outdoor dining at the moment in California.

It made me think of the days when I worked at a newspaper in Singapore. I worked odd hours. At first, for the online edition, working the early shift, starting around 6am I think? Then later, sub-editing which meant we put the paper to bed and finished after midnight. Also, that meant I had to always work either Saturdays or Sundays, and had a weekday off. All those weird hours meant I would often find myself having time off but no one to hang out with. I would often take myself out to a cafe, sit down with a book, and enjoy a flat white.

The Deep by Alma Katsu #ripxv

Creepy book set on both the Titanic and the Britannica (its sister ship that also sank) that is perfect for Halloween season. Also since I’m not going any where near a cruise ship in the near future, perfectly fine to be reading about water spirits and that unsettling feeling of being on the deep sea (at least for me). I don’t know much about the history of either ships but later learned that a few characters in the book were real life passengers and that indeed there was a staff member, Violet Jessie, who served on both ships – and survived. Fascinating. Also rather disturbing… I can see how she served as inspiration for this book.

But back to The Deep. Like Katsu’s previous book, The Hunger, this is historical fiction with a supernatural twist. But it is done so very skillfully and woven into the plot and brings in both ages-old mythology and superstition as well as the spiritualism that was popular at the time. 

I loved all the detail and research that went into this book. Even the minor characters are just felt so well-rounded and believable. And while we all know the fates of these ships, I couldn’t put this book down thanks to great characters both real and imaginary, all those small historical details, and that delightful satisfying feeling about reading a well-written book.

Loner by Georgina Young

This is a book my early-20-something-year-old probably would have appreciated

Lona is 20, a university dropout, she works at a skate rink and at a Coles supermarket in Melbourne. And she’s lonely. Her friend Tab is in a new relationship and Lona is infatuated with a former classmate but she doesn’t know what to do about that. She’s learning to be an adult, she’s moved out of her parents’ house and into the curtained-off living room of a house that two other friends are renting. And she feels like she’s weird, she would rather leave a party early and go home to watch TV, or just stay in with takeout and watch Buffy. She wonders why she can never say what she really wants to say, why others can, and why they don’t seem as awkward as she always feels

I appreciated the super short chapters and its cynical, humorous tone. It’s a book that would be relatable if you’ve ever felt lost or unsure about what you want to do with your life. It’s not exactly plot-driven so it was a bit hard to get into initially but I really enjoyed reading it as I felt that Young managed to capture that adult, but not quite an adult, feeling of being a 20-something. Also, that cover, which so happens to match my crocheted throw