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! 

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. 

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. 

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.

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?

Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami

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Squeezed in one last read for #JanuaryinJapan, a reading challenge on Instagram. I had read Kawakami’s work before in 2018, Ms Ice Sandwich. Although apparently that was published in 2013 (then in English in 2017?). This book, Breasts and Eggs, was originally published in 2019, then in English in 2020.

Kawakami was known first as a musician, then a blogger. If I’m not wrong, this book was written originally as a blog. It tells the story of three women, the narrator, Natsuko, who is about 30 and unmarried. Then there’s her older sister Makiko, who works as a hostess at a bar, and Makiko’s preteen daughter, Midoriko. Makiko, who is about ten years older than Natsuko, had to work to support them when their grandmother died (their mother had died some years ago). 

Makiko has come to Tokyo with Midoriko to get breast enhancement surgery. They still live in Osaka while Natsuko lives in Tokyo. Midoriko is worried about getting her first period. Natsuko wants to have a baby, but without a partner.

I was confused at first, as I had thought I was reading a novella. It turns out that the first part is originally a novella. The second part is about twice that length, and continues the story some 8 years or so later. It thus felt a bit uneven, the way the two parts were slapped together in one book. Sure, the same characters are there, but it just felt off balance somehow. Maybe because it’s mostly Natsuko’s story in the second part? We hardly see Makiko and Midoriko.

My interest in this title was because of the buzz, the startling title (especially for a Japanese novel), and I liked the exploration of topics such as single motherhood in Japan, as well as artificial insemination. Coming from Singapore, a country which still holds strong to its conservative Asian values, I understand how topics like fertility and artificial insemination are still difficult to talk about. And in both countries, the decrease in the number of births are concerning to its governments. Yet in Singapore, IVF isn’t available for single women, or for women over the age of 45. If I’m not wrong, even egg freezing has its restrictions in Singapore, such as requiring a valid medical condition. The result is some women have gone overseas to freeze their eggs.  

Out of all the Japanese novels I’ve read in January, this was the least strange, despite its title. Perhaps the others have been a bit too out there, and maybe I was expecting that bizarreness that didn’t happen. So it was interesting to finish up January in Japan with all the relative normalcy that happens in this book (other than weasels falling from ceilings). 

So Haruki Murakami praised her writing, but when they met in 2017, she discussed the sexism that she saw in his books. (The interview transcript is available here but here is one quote from the interview: 

“On the one hand, your work is boundlessly imaginative when it comes to plots, to wells, and to men, but the same can’t be said for their relationships with women. It’s not possible for these women to exist on their own. And while female protagonists, or even supporting characters, may enjoy a moderate degree of self-expression, thanks to their relative independence, there’s a persistent tendency for women to be sacrificed for the sake of the male leads. So the question is, why is it that women are so often called upon to play this role in Murakami novels?”

It is curious though that the translators (two names are listed on the book) for Breasts and Eggs are male. Would it have been translated differently if they were female? Random thought I know, but it does make me wonder. 

I read this for the Japanese Literature Challenge and the Books in Translation challenge.

Parade by Shuichi Yoshida

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“The me who lives here is most definitely the Apartment Me I created, and by that I mean she’s someone who just doesn’t do serious. The me who gets along well with the other residents (Ryosuke, Koto, Naoki, and Satoru) is Apartment Me… But maybe they’ve also created their own Apartment Selves, too. Which would mean that they, too, don’t actually exist in this apartment. Conclusion? No one is in this apartment.”

Five people. One Tokyo apartment.

Ryosuke Sugimoto is a college student from a small town. Kotomi Okochi doesn’t go out. She spends her time by the phone at the apartment, waiting for her maybe-boyfriend, an upcoming actor, to call. Mirai Soma is an artist who works at an imported-goods boutique and spends her nights drinking (and drinking and drinking). Naoki Ihara is the only one who seems to resemble an adult. He has a job at a film company but also has a strange relationship with his ex-girlfriend. The fifth person only enters the apartment some chapters in. Satoru Kokubo is 18 and at first everyone presumes he’s Ryosuke’s friend but it turns out he isn’t?

Then there is something strange about the visitors, often young girls and old men, emerging from the apartment next door. And there have been attacks on young women on the streets around their neighbourhood.

But really, it’s a story in which nothing very much happens. It’s the daily lives of these four (then five) young people. As I read on, seeing things from each character’s perspective, I realised that they didn’t really know much about each other. They lived together, the girls sharing a room and the guys in another, and they would sometime go out together but there seems to be a lot of disconnect. The use of the different points of view is very effective in this story – the characters reveal their innermost thoughts, as well as their true feelings about their flatmates. Although as much as I followed along with these secrets and hidden thoughts, I was still surprised by how it ended.

“A cowardly college student. A love-addicted girl. A freelance illustrator who likes to hang out with gay guys. And a health-obsessed jogger. If I hadn’t met them there, there’s no way I would ever talk to people like that.”

I found this quite a fascinating read. No way as weird and puzzling as some of the other Japanese novels I’ve recently (I’m looking at you, Earthlings) but it has that sense of alienation and detachment that seems to haunt a lot of Japanese fiction I’ve read.

Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton

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I hadn’t heard of this book before the movie adaptation, Midnight Sky, came out on Netflix. You might have seen it or heard of it, maybe? It has George Clooney acting and directing.

The movie was ok. It left me with many questions and a general feeling that a lot was missing. But reading the book allowed me to fill in many gaps, especially about Sully.

(I’ll try not to reveal spoilers but will talk a little about the plot. So skip this post if you haven’t seen the movie/read the book yet and don’t really want to know much about it! But come back when you have!).

Essentially the story is about an ageing (ageing in the book, sick in the movie) astronomer, alone in a research centre in the Arctic, after everyone else has evacuated because of a major global catastrophe that isn’t exactly detailed. But he’s lost contact with the rest of the world, and he’s alone, until he comes upon Iris, a young girl who doesn’t say much. What is she doing by herself in this outpost? The other part of the story is on board Aether, a spacecraft on its return trip from Jupiter. Because of this catastrophe, they have not had contact with Mission Control for some time now. And they’re wondering if they can get back to Earth.

It’s a contemplative journey.

However, I was really surprised by the many changes made in the script. Not just Sully – actress Felicity Jones was pregnant during the filming, which resulted in a pregnancy being introduced to the film. Also small things like different characters used, the fact that Augustine wasn’t actually actively looking to talk to Aether (in the book it seems like a coincidence that he picks up their signal), and the way a death and mishap happen. I suppose it was to spice it up and make it more dramatic for the movie audience. Although one of them made no logical sense at all. How can you crash through ice and live through it when you’re out in the middle of nowhere in the freezing subzero temperatures?

But for me, the ultimate difference was that small nuances were lacking in the movie. It didn’t feel like they were all that anxious about being out of contact with Earth. They didn’t explore more about the other characters. Everyone seemed like they were fine with being on the spacecraft – I suppose this also comes from my watching the Netflix space TV series Away in which one of the characters has space blindness, and all kinds of things (too many perhaps) happen to their spacecraft. So the movie was definitely an “eh” and a “meh” for me.

Also, the endings were so different! When I finished the book, I marvelled at how so many small changes were made. And so, while I cannot recommend the movie (except for its cinematography) , I would not hesitate to recommend this book. It was a great read, a reflective one, and a different take on the dystopian novel.

Gimme Everything You Got by Iva-Marie Palmer

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I love it when a book surprises me. And this one really did. I honestly wasn’t expecting very much out of it. But this was a fun read that explores first love and also, women’s sports!

It’s set in 1979 in the US. And while I have lived here for some years now, I didn’t know about how Title IX (established in 1972) was set down to establish access to any activity that receives Federal financial assistance, and that includes sports. So in this high school, a new athletics coach arrives to set up a girl’s soccer team.

It helps very much that he is good looking and wears shorts when he’s first introduced to the school. The shorts “hugged his butt like it was a package wrapped by an overachieving Christmas elf”. And lots of girls sign up for the soccer tryouts. Most of them drop out though, not realising soccer means more than standing around and ogling the cute coach.

Susan sticks it out, along with some of her friends. She begins to enjoy the game, and is getting to be quite good at it. But there aren’t many other girls’ teams to play against (they only have one game set up by their coach). She still has this hope that she’ll get close to Coach Bobby. And her infatuation for a teacher may mean that she’s missing out on some more age-appropriate boys.

It was especially interesting for me to learn about Title IX and the attitude that people had towards girls in sports at that time. One of the most amusing moments is when the parent of a boy Susan baby-sits sees her practising and asks if it has affected her menstruation. Oh boy. I suppose this was some kind of old-fashioned way of thinking that sports and exercise affects a woman’s ability to have children? Luckily Susan and her teammates chime in.

Susan is a great character – flawed, definitely, but she learns and grows so much, not just about her attitude towards sports and boys, but also with her relationships with her friends and family.

Gimme Everything You Got was a surprising, funny, fearlessly feminist read!