What I read in Singapore (1): Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

I always have such plans to do all kinds of reading when I’m holidaying in Singapore. But the truth is, with two kids, with family and friends to see, with things to do, places to go, foods to eat, it isn’t an ideal reading holiday.

So every time I go, I load up my Overdrive app from the library on my Nexus 7 tablet, and also download a few Overdrive-Kindle books, and this time also, some Scribd books. All with good intentions to do lots of reading. I did manage to read a few books this time. Here is one of them.

 

Silver Sparrow – Tayari Jones

I loved this book. I loved loved loved this book. Tayari Jones is such a good writer. Why don’t we talk about her and her work more? Perhaps it’s because she’s just finished writing her new book, which I recently saw on her Instagram

Silver Sparrow opens with, “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist.”

And that kind of explains it all. It is a story about two teenaged girls caught up in a lie of their father’s making. Dana is the secret daughter. The one whose story we first learn of, the one we sympathize with because we are reading it from her point of view. The one who only gets her father once a week. The one who has to be kept a secret and keep secrets.

Chaurisse is the ‘real’ daughter, the one who is publicly acknowledged. She lives in a different part of the same city as Dana. And she and her mother do not know about her father’s other family. We hear from her in the second half of the book.

Eventually the two girls meet and even become friends, but how can this be, with one knowing what the other does not?

While the book focuses on Dana and Chaurisse, the strength of Silver Sparrow lies also in the way Jones’ other characters are so fully developed. The two wives, the bigamist himself and even his best friend Raleigh. All of whom contribute to this unusual family. Even James’ mother, whom we only meet for a while, is fully fleshed out, that even now, it’s so easy to imagine her as a character.

Raleigh was, to me, an especially intriguing character. He’s an outsider but also part of the family, almost a second father to the girls. At the same time I am never entirely sure what he gets out of this, why he aids and abets in this deception.

Silver Sparrow is such a beauty of a book. It is elegant in the way the narrative is divided into the two girls’ point of views, not in a flitting back-and-forth way as many books are written, but how we hear the story from Dana’s viewpoint, then in the second half, the plotline continues but from Chaurisse’s side. It is mesmerizing in the lies, the half-lies, half-truths that envelop them all. And with its two young women at its centre, it is bold and full of life and youth and heart.

 

You can read an excerpt of the book and listen to Jones’ interview with NPR’s All Things Considered here

 

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I read this for Akilah’s Diversity on the Shelf challenge and

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 Read Diverse Books Year-Round

 

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The Partner Track by Helen Wan

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I hated being singled out for reasons I’d had nothing to do with. As long as I could remember, high-er-ups—not just bosses but teachers, professors, deans, recruiters, and HR directors—were forever asking me to serve on this committee, come to that reception, be a mentor, speak on a panel. I didn’t flatter myself by thinking that because I was pos-sessed of such wit and charm, such keen legal acumen, my absence was unthinkable. I knew the rule: When you find an attractive, articulate minority woman in your midst, who’s neither too strident nor too soft-spoken, who speaks English without accent or attitude, who makes friends easily and photographs well—you want her.

Ingrid Yung is a senior associate at a top Manhattan law firm and she’s up for partner. As one of the “women of colour” at the firm (or really, one of the few non-whites), she’s the “golden girl”, their diversity representative. And when some shit happens at the firm’s annual outing, the firm has to scramble to do damage control, that is, a “Diversity Initiative”. And of course Ingrid gets dragged in, her boss more or less makes her get involved, dragging her away from a very important deal that he already assigned her to.

“This country isn’t ready yet to ignore race or gender,” I snapped, regretting it the instant it was out of my mouth.

Silence. My words hung there in the air.

“I didn’t know you felt that strongly about it one way or another, Yung,” Murph said softly.

“Yeah,” Gavin finally said. “I mean”—and he said this gently, in a conciliatory tone—“I wasn’t even talking about Asians.”

Murph shot him a you are fucking hopeless look.

Gavin went on, “Seems to me like Asian Americans have done all right.”

“Gee, thanks,” I said. “I’m really glad it seems that way to you, Gavin.”

“Come on. I’m just saying that by any objective economic measure, Asians are right up there with whites.”

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This is workplace fiction. Law firm fiction. Not the more exciting courtroom drama kind of story but the kind of law that deals with mergers and acquisitions, deals, finance. That sort of thing. Nothing that I have the faintest idea about nor the slightest interest in. But what drew me in was Ingrid Yung. She is an Asian woman in a white man’s world. A determined, intelligent, confident woman, one who just happens to be Chinese-American. Her mom calls her often, worried about her single status, still wondering why she didn’t become a doctor. She was the kid in the elementary school cafeteria who ate all the funny foods. She was relatable. She was hardworking, determined, but also very human.

I did not appreciate Murph or anyone else scrutinizing what I was eating. It always felt, just a tiny bit, like I was back in my fourth-grade cafeteria, shyly unwrapping the scallion pancake or shrimp toast my mother would pack in aluminum foil in my lunchbox. “What’s that?” Becky Noble would wrinkle up her nose, her own tidy baloney-and-cheese sandwich raised halfway to her mouth, causing all of the other girls to giggle.

 

Helen Wan is herself an attorney so she writes a pretty good workplace novel, although some parts of the dealmaking went over my head, she did set the place well and I enjoyed immersing myself into that cutthroat Manhattan law firm world for a little while.

I had completely bought into the myth of a meritocracy.

Somehow I’d actually been foolish enough to believe that if I simply kept my head down and worked hard, and did everything, everything, that was asked of me, I would be rewarded.

So the best way to describe this book is that it is about race in the workplace. It hits hard in some places but still manages to have a light, breezy tone, one that makes it easy to read, but also a little predictable and perhaps a bit too stereotypical. To explain that more would reveal a little too much of the storyline. I came into this book with no expectations, it being a completely random choice from the Scribd catalogue (because Scribd forces us to use up our credits or not get any new ones!). I hadn’t heard of the book before, nor the author, and the cover, well, you might know that I am not a fan of the half-hidden woman, especially the half-hidden Asian woman, much less the woman seen from behind, so I do not like these covers at all. But don’t let that stop you, don’t let the ugh covers push you away, ignore the fact that you’ve not heard of the book (unless you actually have!!!), and just go ahead and read it. It’s not for everyone of course, it is contemporary fiction, set in New York, in a law firm, a little predictable, but it has at its heart a wonderful main character, a strong (yet vulnerable) Asian woman. And you know what, we could always do with more books like that!

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I read this for Akilah’s Diversity on the Shelf challenge

Recent diverse reads:

Ah, that word ‘diverse’. I don’t know about using it, because when I come to think of it, how ‘diverse’ is it, for me, a Chinese-Singaporean living in the US, to be reading a book written, say, by a Chinese-American. If I were to read ‘diversely’, I guess I should be reading something by an old white man (haha!). As diverse more or less means (according to good old Merriam-Webster which I am guessing, was founded by old white guys):

  • : different from each other

  • : made up of people or things that are different from each other

So being different from me would definitely be an old white guy.

But no, we are not talking about reading diversely in that sense. But more of the publishing world at large. That there is a need to expose more people to diverse views, translated works. Because many of the books out there are indeed written by white men. (And yes, white women too)

(Also, if you haven’t yet read this article in Lit Hub by Matthew Salesses about diversity in publishing, please do:

Even when I read, as a boy, about animals fighting medieval battles, I read about animals who were culturally white. When I read about time travel or magic, I read about white time travelers or white magicians. Children who didn’t fit in, sure, but children who fit into an idea about what those kind of books should be like and who could be their heroes.

)

As a reader, who happens to be Asian, I really appreciate stories that aren’t about diverse characters being diverse. As in, the Asian character doesn’t have to be “Asian”. I don’t know how to really explain this. But it’s the reason I don’t really read Amy Tan. And also why “Oriental” covers turn me off!


Fresh off the boat – Eddie Huang

Lots about Huang’s life resonated with me. While I didn’t grow up in America, his anecdotes about growing up in a Taiwanese-American family were amusing and familiar.

“I remember for Thanksgiving at our house we would just eat hot pot or some strange spread of sautéed Chinese items, cranberry sauce, sweet potato casserole from Boston Market, and sushi from Public ’cause I guess it really made the table pop. These days my Jamaican friends have turkey but it’s flanked by oxtail, beef patties, rice and peas, cabbage, etc. My Cantonese friends have turkey with lobster steamed over e-fu noodles, salt fish fried rice, and stir-fried squid with yellow chives.”

In case you haven’t heard of Huang, he is famous for two things, his New York eatery BaoHaus and the TV series Fresh Off the Boat which is loosely based on his life and was only the third prime time series to center on an Asian-American family (and which he is no longer involved in).

The funny thing is he is proud of being Asian and also very proud of not being your typical Asian (i.e. the studious, obedient, parent-approved Asian). And he’s always reminding the reader about that.

“It wasn’t that I wanted people to carry around little red books to affirm their “Chinese-ness,” but I just wanted to know there were other people that wanted this community to live on in America.”

The thing is, I want to like Huang. I kind of understand the issues he went through as a minority kid growing up in the US (note, I didn’t grow up in the US, but my kids are, and I wonder whether they will face similar issues when they go to school). But he is hard to like.

Then of course he writes something like this:

Whether it’s food or women, the ones on front street are supermodels. Big hair, big tits, big trouble, but the one you come home to is probably something like cavatelli and red sauce. She’s not screaming for attention because she knows she’s good enough even if your dumb ass hasn’t figured it out yet.”

I mean, I understand the sentiment behind this quote but ugh.

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Mayumi and the search for Happiness – Jennifer Tseng

This should have really worked for me. It had all the right boxes ticked – Asian female character, set on a small island (I have a bit of a fascination for small towns), and bookish, for Mayumi is a librarian (who recommends Elena Ferrante!), so there is plenty of book talk. But I felt so distanced from the book.

I was as common as the weather, as was he, as were we. Show me a middle-aged woman who lacks desire and I will show you a liar. Show me an unusual young man and I will strip him down to commonness. I have no intention of making public excuses. I do find myself looking within for reasons I might give, if only to myself, for my own behavior. I obsessively recount the past in search of my mis-steps.

Mayumi has a failing marriage, a young daughter, and an unhealthy obsession with a teenaged boy she first meets when he comes to the library. And starts sleeping with him. In case that’s not enough, she becomes friends with his mother.

I marveled at Tsung’s writing, her phrases and words, beautifully written. But Mayumi is not a likable character. I suppose that may be the point, this flawed woman in a strange relationship with her own husband and child, creating an even weirder, uncomfortable (at least for the reader) relationship with this teenaged boy. All while living on this little island, working in its library. Not all characters have to be likable. But surely at least one character in a story has to be? I didn’t care for this young seduced boy, I really didn’t like Mayumi’s in-the-background husband or demanding child, and as for the boy’s mother, I’m not sure if I really had any feelings for her either. So I am quite puzzled by this book. It is a story about obsession. An unrelenting obsession.

Perhaps in an attempt to normalize my questionable undertaking, I developed an appetite for stories of deviant love: Lolita, The Price of Salt, The Cement Garden, King Kong, Beauty and the Beast, even The Thorn Birds, which was, though not particularly well-written, with its blasphemy and incest, doubly satisfying. That spring I read more queer novels than I had read in my entire adult life. (Queer was a term I was borrowing with increasing looseness and frequency. Indeed if this was queer society, I too was a member.) I both relished their transgressive hotness and tortured myself with the fact that many a homosexual would find me morally repulsive. Heavily peppered with scenes of socially unacceptable sex, descriptions of guilt, fear, and forced secrecy, fascination with beauty and frustration with an uncomprehending world, such novels were like compact mirrors that I carried in my cloth bag. One could always pop one open, look in, and see oneself reflected there.

However, while I have mixed feelings about this book, I would definitely read more of Jennifer Tseng’s work!

 

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Modern Romance – Aziz Ansari

I am going to give two thumbs up for the audiobook version! Because Ansari is an excellent reader. He reads fast, he reads quotes in funny accents just for fun, and he occasionally makes an aside to the audiobook listener, like pointing out that there’s an awesome graphic here but as we’re listening, we can’t see it so he’s going to have to describe it. Also they kick off the audiobook with some incredibly sleazy music. Hilarious.

But audiobook version aside, this was an interesting listen/read. I am not sure if I would have picked up the print version otherwise actually. I was looking for books to use up my audiobook credits on Scribd (because that evil corp limits the number of credits that can be accumulated) and just happened to enjoy the preview then picked it up as a full title credit.

Wow is dating these days difficult or what. Sure dating sites and apps have opened up a whole new world and people whom one would not ordinarily meet but it’s like that thing where you stand in the supermarket trying to buy some jam and you end up not buying any because you can’t decide which one to buy as the mind is completely bamboozled by the options.

 

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Paper Menagerie and other stories – Ken Liu

Liu’s short story Paper Menagerie won SO MANY awards (Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy) and it is easy to see why. It is achingly beautiful and sad. (And hey you can read it for yourself here. Now, don’t just ignore this link, go read it. It will move you and break your heart.)

In Paper Menagerie, Jack is the son of an American who wed a Chinese he picked out of a catalogue. His mother makes these paper animals that come to life, which he plays with at first, but as he grows older,  he becomes ashamed of them and of  his Chinese heritage.

One of my favourite quotes from Paper Menagerie:

Mom looked at him. “If I say ‘love,’ I feel here.” She pointed to her lips. “If I say ‘ai,‘ I feel here.” She put her hand over her heart.

Dad shook his head. “You are in America.”

As with all short story collections, there were some that I liked more than others. But unlike some other collections, there was not a single one that I skipped. I liked how many of his stories brought in bits and pieces of Asian culture. Like Good Hunting, which involves a father and son demon-hunting team searching for a fox spirit. The Litigation Master and the Monkey King has a man who communes with the Monkey King. And they span various genres like SF, fantasy, steampunk and dystopia. The only thing I would say is that the stories tend to have an tinge of sadness, gloominess. So this collection is something that you would kind of need to be in the right mood for.

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Who Slashed Celanire’s Throat?: A Fantastical novel – Maryse Condé

This is my introduction to Condé (although this is her 12th novel!) and it was a beguiling and colourful one. Condé was inspired by a real-life crime on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, in which a baby was found abandoned on a heap of garbage, her throat slashed.

The bewitching Celanire, always with a scarf around her neck, turns up in a village to take over a home for ‘half-caste’ children and proceeds to turn life upside down for the villagers, empowering women, enthralling men, and leaving death, violent deaths, in her wake (the director of the Home she has come to assist, for instance, dies after a giant spider bites him on his penis).

The story moves from Africa to Celanire’s native Guadeloupe and to Peru. And it is lush and colourful and enveloping. A little meandering and mysterious, but full of passion and poison.

 

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I read these books for Akilah’s Diversity on the Shelf

 

The Old Garden

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Korean literature is becoming quite popular these days, although I just realized that the Korean authors who are buzzed about tend to be female (which is great!) like Shin Kyung-sook (Please Look After Mom), Han Kang (The Vegetarian), Suki Kim (The Interpreter). Or maybe it’s just that I tend towards female writers? I don’t know. But hey, Vanity Fair lists five Korean novels to read now (or at least read in November 2015) and they’re all by women. 

Anyway, so here’s the thing, I could not name a single Korean male writer. And so I read this book. I found it on the Singapore library’s Overdrive catalogue (I love that I can borrow ebooks from two different countries’ Overdrive libraries!) and was intrigued, not by The Old Garden, but by Princess Bari.

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Part of the Goodreads synopsis goes: “In a drab North Korean city, a seventh daughter is born to a couple longing for a son. Abandoned hours after her birth, she is eventually rescued by her grandmother. The old woman names the child Bari, after a legend telling of a forsaken princess who undertakes a quest for an elixir that will bring peace to the souls of the dead.”

Doesn’t that make you want to read this book? I sure did. Except that it was already borrowed out. So I put a hold on it, and went ahead to borrow a different book of Hwang’s, The Old Garden

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The Old Garden didn’t have as interesting a cover. But at least mine wasn’t this blurred (possibly) Asian person’s head. I don’t like covers with blurred (possibly) Asian people.

Or you know, Asian women’s backs. Or necks. Or eyes (because the rest of the face is covered by a fan).

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Anyway, I was drawn in by the story, more than I expected to be. The Old Garden is essentially a just-out-of-prison story. A political prisoner,  Oh Hyun Woo, is released after twenty years and he discovers how much life has changed on the outside. It’s not about learning about new technology that kind of thing. But a reflection on how South Korea has changed over the years. Hyun Woo also discovers that the woman he loved is dead, but he finds her letters and paintings and learns about her life in the past twenty years. As a ‘girlfriend’ she wasn’t allowed to visit him. Life in Korean prisons is harsh.

It is a story told in a lot of flashbacks and letters. A gentle meandering pace, as if allowing for Hyun Woo to slowly relearn to live life outside of prison. It is a story about South Korea and its political history, its struggles, especially the Kwangju (or Gwangju) uprising, in which hundreds of civilians were killed after rising up against military rule, and which the author himself took part in. Hwang too was a political prisoner, sentenced to 7 years in the 1990s. I have to admit that sometimes it drags a little, and that Hyun Woo isn’t the most exciting of people, but as the narrative switches from his perspective, his current life, his past and that of his girlfriend Yoon-Hee, it seems to work.

I’m curious now about Princess Bari, as that sounds like a very different book from this one.

 

Hwang’s works (translated into English)

  • Princess Bari (Periscope, 2015)
  • The Shadow Of Arms (Seven Stories, 2014)
  • The Old Garden (Seven Stories Press, 2012)
  • The Ancient Garden (Pan Macmillan Hardback, 2009)
  • The Guest (Seven Stories, 2006)
  • “A Dream of Good Fortune” (1973, translated in the anthology Land of Exile: Contemporary Korean Fiction)

 

 

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2016 Reading Challenges

Ah, a new year, a clean slate! And this year, with my number of books read set back to zero, I would like to begin again and join some challenges. More importantly, I will try my very best to maintain my enthusiasm for the challenges throughout the year!

 

BackToTheClassics2016

 

Karen at Books and Chocolate is once again hosting the Back to the Classics Challenge,  where we will be reading books written at least 50 years ago (by 1966) in 12 different categories. Or at least I hope to be able to read books in all 12 categories!

1. A 19th Century Classic – any book published between 1800 and 1899.

An Old-Fashioned Girl – Louisa May Alcott (published 1869)

2.  A 20th Century Classic – any book published between 1900 and 1966.

The Making of a Marchioness – Frances Hodgson Burnett (published 1901)

3.  A classic by a woman author.

Read: Miss Happiness and Miss Flower – Rumer Godden (published 1961)

The Time of Man – Elizabeth Madox Roberts (published 1935)

4.  A classic in translation.

Read: Alberto Moravia’s Conjugal Love (translated from Italian)
Journey to the End of the Night – Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Ralph Manheim (Translator) (published 1932)
Dom Casmurro – Machado de Assis (published in 1899)
The Makioka Sisters – Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, Edward G. Seidensticker (Translator) (published 1943)

5.  A classic by a non-white author.

Read: The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki

A Raisin in the Sun – Lorraine Hansberry (published 1959)
Go Tell it On the Mountain – James Baldwin (published 1953)
The Train to Pakistan – Khushwant Singh (published 1956)

6.  An adventure classic – can be fiction or non-fiction.

Read: Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl

Wind, Sand and Stars – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Lewis Galantière (Translator) (published 1939)
Annapurna: The First Conquest of an 8,000-Meter Peak – Maurice Herzog (published 1951)

7.  A fantasy, science fiction, or dystopian classic.

The Man in the High Castle – Philip K Dick (published 1962)
When the Sleeper Wakes – HG Wells (published 1899)

8.  A classic detective novel.

The Crime at Black Dudley – Margery Allingham (published 1929)
And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie (published 1939)

9.  A classic which includes the name of a place in the title.

Howard End – EM Forster
Winesburg, Ohio – Sherwood Anderson

10. A classic which has been banned or censored. If possible, please mention why this book was banned or censored in your review.

A Separate Peace – John Knowles

according to the ALA: Challenged in Vernon-Verona-Sherill, NY School District (1980) as a “filthy, trashy sex novel.” Challenged at the Fannett-Metal High School in Shippensburg, Pa. (1985) because of its allegedly offensive language. Challenged as appropriate for high school reading lists in the Shelby County, Tenn. school system (1989) because the novel contained “offensive language.” Challenged at the McDowell County, N.C. schools (1996) because of “graphic language.” Source: Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom, May 1980, p. 62; Nov. 1985, p. 204; Jan, 1990, pp 11-12; Jan. 1997, p. 11.

11. Re-read a classic you read in school (high school or college). 

Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift (published 1726)

12. A volume of classic short stories. This must be one complete volume, at least 8 short stories.

Stories – Katherine Mansfield (published 1956)

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#ReadMyOwnDamnBooks over at Estellas Revenge

 

I’ve got a pile of books on my night stand, and another next to my Macbook. Both of which I hope to clear by the end of 2016.

 

  

 

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Diversity on the Shelf 2016 over at The Englishist

I’ve taken part in Aarti’s Diversiverse for the past couple of years now, but I try to read as diversely as possible throughout the year too. I just need to post about these books already. Hopefully this challenge will encourage me to do more of that.

I’m going for 5th Shelf: Read 25+ books

BOOKS READ 

1. Delicious Foods – James Hannaham
2. Supermutant Magic Academy – Jillian Tamaki
3. Loyola Chin and the San Peligran Order – Gene Luen Yang
4. The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye – Sonny Liew
5. The Makioka Sisters – Junichiro Tanizaki
6. The Wrath and the Dawn – Renee Ahdieh
7. The Old Garden – Hwang Sok-yong
8. Nijigahara Holograph – Inio Asano
9. The Book of Memory – Petina Gappah
10. Fresh off the Boat – Eddie Huang
11. Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness – Jennifer Tseng
12. Modern Romance – Aziz Ansari
13. The Paper Menagerie and other stories – Ken Liu
14. Who Slashed Celanire’s throat? A Fantastical Novel – Maryse Conde
The Partner Track by Helen Wan
15. Half a Lifelong Romance by Eileen Chang

I’m not going to list all the books right now, instead, I’m noting some books already on the lists of my other challenges (see above)

In the Light of What we know – Zia Haider Rahman
Ten Things My Father Never Taught Me and other stories – Cyril Wong
The Makioka Sisters – Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, Edward G. Seidensticker (Translator)
A Raisin in the Sun – Lorraine Hansberry
Go Tell it On the Mountain – James Baldwin
The Train to Pakistan – Khushwant Singh

I’m also adding to that some books on my list for Diversiverse last year that I never got to
Skin Folk: stories by Nalo Hopkinson
Grace of Kings by Ken Liu
Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho

 

Nonfiction Reading Challenge hosted at The Introverted Reader
Non-fiction Reading Challenge – The Introverted Reader

Explorer–Read 6-10

What makes this book so great – Jo Walton
Why I read: the serious pleasure of books – Wendy Lesser
Fire shut up in my bones – Charles M Blow
Four seasons in Rome – Anthony Doerr
Population: 485 – Michael Perry
Between the World and Me: – Ta-Nehisi Coates
The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up – Liao Yiwu, Wenguang Huang (Translator)
As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto

(and more to come)