The Girl and the Ghost by Hanna Alkaf

This was the book I didn’t know I needed last night. I’m not from Malaysia but there are enough similarities between Malaysia and its neighbor Singapore for me to feel at home when I was reading this. I couldn’t sleep last night and while a ghost story wasn’t exactly what I was looking for at that moment, the library ebook was due in a couple of days. So The Girl and the Ghost it would be then

The ghost is a pelesit, a dark spirit who takes the form of a grasshopper to stay hidden. His master, a witch, dies and he has to find a new master. The witch had told him a pelesit needs a master to control his craving for destruction and chaos. As he is bound by blood, the new master has to be of the same blood. And so it is to be Suraya. Suraya is a lonely child, her father is dead and her mother withdrawn.

“Maybe that was what she was. The durian of friends. Maybe people would learn to like her one day. Maybe she just had to meet the right ones.”

So quickly she and Pink become inseparable. But Pink’s dedication to her has a dark side as he lashes out relentlessly at those who bully her, then takes an even darker turn when she makes her first real friend.

It was a dark and endearing read, full of the sights and sounds and smells of Malaysia. It was a beautiful and emotional tale of friendship and family. It made me long for home and made me tear up as I thought of my family and wished I could be there for them, especially this week, with the passing of my grandmother

The Wandering by Intan Paramaditha

My boys were into those Choose Your Own Adventure books last year, although that interest faded away surprisingly sooner than I expected. I remember liking those quite a bit when I was a kid. Then again, the variety in children’s literature nowadays is so much better, maybe the Choose Your Own Adventure books no longer hold kids in thrall these days?

Or maybe I am just still a kid at heart, for I was tickled with delight when I reached that moment in The Wandering where I got to pick between two choices. Do I go with (choice one) and turn to this page, or do I go with (choice two) and turn to this other page? What would be a wiser choice? Or really, what would be a more thrilling choice?

When you get to pick, would you pick something you personally would have gone with or would you pick the one which make for a more exciting story?

We begin with the devil. And you are his lover. He worships you and courts you with gifts of chocolate and flowers. But soon, you tire of his gifts. You ask him to grant you a wish – to get away from Jakarta, Indonesia, not to be a tourist, but to live in places far away, places you’ve never been to. The next day, you wake to find a pair of glittering red shoes by your bed and a contract. The contract says, if you return home, you will lose everything, your home will not be what it was. To accept the contract, you wear the shoes.

And find yourself in a taxi, heading to the airport, ready to leave New York. But as you leave the taxi, you realise one red shoe is missing. And here you are given the first choice – return to New York, report your loss to the police, or continue on your journey to Berlin.

It is a wander through the world, through self-discovery, through mythology and Indonesian folklore as well as popular culture.

And as I finished one version of the story, I immediately went back for a different version. Until I finally read through all the different storylines. In the end, it wasn’t really about the plot lines, but like the title, it was a wandering between alternate possibilities, a meandering through different countries (although admittedly, fewer than I was hoping), different stories, via the decisions the reader takes.

The Wandering is an especially interesting book to read during these times (it was originally published in Indonesian in 2017 and then in English in 2020) – when border crossings are restricted, when flights have dwindled to just a handful a day, newspaper articles about families separated for months because of illness, immigration issues, visa problems. Personally, I have often wondered (and more often since the way the mangled way the US has handled the pandemic), what if we had returned to Singapore, instead of staying on here? What would our lives have been like?

Dim Sum of All Fears

This is the second book in the series, the first was Death by Dumpling. And Lana Lee is back but this time she is (gasp!) put in charge of the restaurant while her parents visit her grandmother in Taiwan. She’s not exactly thrilled about that. But worse news are to come – her friend Isabelle, who works at the new business next door, and her husband are found dead.

An enjoyable read with some interesting twists that I wasn’t expecting! The different characters that are involved in the series (set in a strip mall full of Asian-owned businesses in Ohio) are what make this series for me. I did however find the romance part a bit awkward, maybe it will be discussed more in the next book?

A fun cozy mystery that will make you want to eat some dim sum and drink tea

Recent reads – magic, urban fantasy, Chinese sci-fi.

Ok it has been forever since I actually talked about the books I read recently. So while I have the willpower and the kids are taking a break and playing Lego, here are some thoughts!

 

sorcerycecelia

Sorcery & Cecelia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot: Being the Correspondence of Two Young Ladies of Quality Regarding Various Magical Scandals in London and the Country – Patricia C Wrede and Caroline Stevermer 

I adored this epistolary story that was written separately by the two writers, in a kind of writing exercise – they didn’t plan out the plot, and Wrede wrote as Cecelia, Stevermer as Kate. And here, I have to add that I wish the title were different. Kate is just as an important character here, why doesn’t she get into the title?? Or just not put any of their names in the title and call it something else, like Sorcery & Crumpets; Sorcery, Tea, & Biscuits. At any rate, if you’ve never heard of this book, it’s set in 1817 England and there is magic. It was the first time I’ve read anything by either author, and am curious to see what else they’ve written. Let me know if you have a recommendation.

trailoflightning

Trail of Lightning (The Sixth World #1) – Rebecca Roanhorse

I’ve been drawn to more speculative fiction lately, escaping from our current reality you say? Why yes indeed. Roanhorse is another new-to-me author and she has set this series in the Navajo nation, with most of the world drowned beneath the rising tides. Maggie is a powerful monster slayer who lives alone, far from anyone else, but she needs help from a young and handsome medicine man as there is a strange new monster threatening her people. Maggie takes a while to grow on the reader, emerging from her isolation and learning to accept others. The introduction of Navajo magic and legends was quite fascinating, the pacing of the story was quick and just what I needed as a distraction from the world.

 

threebody

The Three-Body Problem – Liu Cixin

I had a really hard time with this book. Parts of it was quite fascinating but a lot of the science went way over my head and many times I wanted to give up. But at the same time, I wanted to know what was going on. It was clever and thought-provoking but honestly a bit too much of a slog for me at the moment. Will I continue with the rest of the series? I do not know at the moment. Definitely not in the near future…my brain is not ready. I need to read more fluffy floofy things.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gideon the Ninth

This book is an absolutely brilliant, soul-sucking, bloody, batshit crazy yet completely absorbing read that has you holding your breath with every insane twist and turn of this roller coaster of reading ride.

It is impossible to really describe this book accurately but I’ll try.

Gideon the Ninth is set in a very distant future (perhaps?) in which there are nine houses and all of them deal in a kind of death-related magic. 

And there is to be a tournament in which each House sends a necromancer and a cavalier who is an expert at sword fighting (although there are clearly more advanced technologies around, these Houses feel very ancient somehow, including the tournament’s preference for the cavaliers to use rapiers). 

Gideon Nav is the cavalier (well, sort of, more like a sub really) to the Ninth House, to Harrowhark, with whom she has had a mutual hatred since they were young. But she has been promised freedom if she accompanies Harrow to this tournament to become a Lyctor. Lyctors are insanely powerful and work directly for the Emperor in his war against an unknown enemy (I’m guessing it’s to be revealed in the rest of the series). And guess what, this tournament takes place on another planet. And it turns out all the Houses exist on different planets. 

So yes, let’s see, there are necromancers, there are warriors, there are skeletons and death magics and they all take place on a galactic empire. And the Ninth House is the creepiest, the weirdest House of all, the kind which has people avoiding their gaze in case they inflict a curse on them or something (and yet dying to watch every little thing they are doing).  Sounds a bit insane but it is gloriously brilliant (and also insane). 

Ok so this might sound a bit too “out there” for some but this was for me, an absolutely compelling read. The crazy world building, the heart-thumping action, the dark whimsical magic, and that Gideon, that funny, irreverent humour, that hate-not-hate relationship with Harrow, it was everything. 

 

 

Review: Know My Name by Chanel Miller

I’ve been struggling with this, trying to figure out the best way to write about this book.

What can one say, what should one say, when reading this? It’s not an easy book to read, but it is such a brave and powerful book.

I soon learned that I couldn’t read this in bed, I couldn’t read this before falling asleep as it made me very tense, it made me grit my teeth while reading it, it made my head full of thoughts, angry thoughts, swirling around and keeping me awake instead of lulling me into a deep sleep. I learned to read it in the daylight.

“They were deciding whether I’d make a good victim: is her character upstanding, does she seem durable, will the jury find her likeable, while she stay with us moving forward. I walked out feeling like, You got the job! I did not want this job. I wanted my old life. But let him walk away? I could not let it happen. Pressing charges was my choice, they’d say, but sometimes you feel you don’t have one.”

As I read it, I kept thinking, but this is so readable. It reads so easily, it reads so beautifully. But really, why am I reading this at all? Why did this book exist? Because of Brock Turner, a man, a vile person who sexually assaulted an unconscious woman behind a dumpster on the campus at Stanford University. And a judge, who decided that putting this man in jail for six months was enough punishment for such a deed. He was released three months early.

As a review in The Atlantic put it: “When trauma is transformed into art, there will always be a paradox at play: The art’s existence is beautiful. But it shouldn’t have to exist at all.”

So many people have written about this book more eloquently than I can. So I’ll point you to Book Marks, which has already put together links to reviews of this book.

“His fault, her fault. How quickly victims must begin fighting, converting feelings into logic, navigating the legal system, the intrusion of strangers, the relentless judgment. How do I protect my life? From the investigators? The reporters? I was being equipped with a prosecutor, going into battle, but no one could tell me how to hold all this hostility, this wrecking sadness.”

What I can tell you is what I took away from this piece of writing. This is an important book by a brave young woman. This is also a brutal read. It is precise, unflinching, as Miller takes us through the whole process – being swabbed, photographed, examined all over at the rape processing rooms; and that ridiculously time-consuming legal process. I didn’t really follow the news at the time, so it was disheartening to see how the media portrayed both Miller and Turner.

“They counted my drinks and counted the seconds Brock could swim two hundred yards, topped the article with a picture of Brock wearing a tie; it could’ve doubled as his LinkedIn profile.”

Know my Name is powerful, heartbreaking and infuriating (teeth-clenching and all), and I am full of admiration for Miller who writes her story with such wit and determination.

 

 

Stargazing by Jen Wang

Wang wrote the fantastic The Prince and the Dressmaker, a comic with a wonderful message about acceptance and love, and so I was looking forward to this one, which seemed less fairytale-like with its cover of two young girls sitting together.

But similar to The Prince and the Dressmaker, this is a story about an unlikely friendship.

Moon Lim and her mother move into the granny flat behind Christine’s house, after Christine’s parents offer it to the struggling widow and her child. Christine isn’t sure about Moon at first, she’s rumoured to be free with her fists, she’s impulsive and rambunctious, while Christine is reserved and obedient, trying hard to please her parents. But they soon share a love for dancing to K-pop music and plan to join the school’s talent show.

Moon has a secret though, she sometimes sees celestial beings who want them to join her, so she says. Christine eventually learns what the reason behind that is. And that kind of surprised me, but later, when I read the author’s note about her own background, it made a lot of sense.

I really liked how Wang showed the diversity among the Chinese-American community. Christine’s family is what you would consider more typically Asian – hardworking, studious, plays the violin, attends Chinese school, strict parents, that kind of thing. Moon is more of a free spirit, she doesn’t know much (if any) Chinese, she’s vegetarian, and more drawn to the arts.

Stargazing is a great comic for kids but I think adults will like this one too. I definitely did.

Dystopian near-future or present? Reading A Song for a New Day

In A Song for a New Day, there is the Before, that is, before the virus hit, and before the terror attacks on large public gatherings. And then there is the After, when large gatherings like concerts and performances are banned.

Tied in with both Before and After is Luce Cannon, who had been on her way to stardom with her hit song Blood and Diamonds. And despite the ban on concerts, she’s persisting in playing live, via a series of illegal performances. Then there’s Rosemary Laws, who doesn’t quite know of life in the Before. She lives in a virtual world, in what is known as the Hoodspace, where she works her online job, helping customers with their drone deliveries. She isn’t good with crowds – or real live people in general – as she works in isolation on her parents’ farm. But a job opportunity comes up with a company called StageHoloLive or SHL to discover new musicians for their virtual reality performances. That means going out into the real world and finding them.

Reading this book in today’s COVID-19 panicked world, I can so easily see this happening, and in a sense, it has, in parts of the world. Cities in Hubei province in China have been locked down. A live fashion show in Italy was altered in that models walked the runway to an empty theatre and the show was live-streamed. Travelers in a hotel in Tenerife have been quarantined.

And I wonder, how far will this go?

Could life end up like in A Song for A New Day?

I really enjoyed the music aspect of the book and wish there could have been a soundtrack to go along with it! Pinsker effortlessly captures that magic of being in a concert, amidst a sea of fans all singing the lines together. She’s a musician herself and her love for music is evident throughout.

Rosemary is a fascinating character, having lived all her life on the farm, she’s not used to, well, people. And when she begins her new job, she has to attend concerts, be among a crowd, take public transport. Life in the After means isolation booths in restaurants, and interstate buses. It means drones delivering you everything you need. Imagine growing up in that and never being out and among other people besides your family. This new job requires such growth from her and Pinsker gradually coaxes it out, nothing too shocking or dramatic, and in the end, satisfying.

A Song for a New Day is an entertaining and immersive read that will stay with me for a long time.

The Girl Who Reads on the Métro

Which booklover can resist a book about books? A book about readers? And also ticking some boxes for me, a book written by a woman, and translated into English from French.

And then it begins with one of my favourite quotes, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library” by Jorge Luis Borges. 

We begin on the metro where Juliette spends her commute watching people who are reading. There’s the man in the green hat reading a history of insects. The young woman reading romance novels whose eyes begin to tear around page 247. Juliette prefers watching readers to reading her own book. 

One day, Juliette steps off the train at a different stop, takes a walk around the strange neighborhood, and finds herself at a house with the front door wedged open with a book. 

There she meets Soliman whose house is full of books. And book passeurs come by, they deliver books to people. Not just randomly, but people they have watched, followed, until they can sense the book that person needs. 

And it all sounds kind of lovely, the way I’m describing it, but while I expected to be enchanted by this book, I just wasn’t. Although I can’t quite put my finger on it. Maybe because she doesn’t seem to really do much as a book passeur. And maybe because I didn’t really feel much of a connection to any of the characters. Maybe I was looking for something more whimsical. 

This book wasn’t quite for me but maybe it will be for you.

Comics: The Girl from the Other Side; Nancy

THE GIRL FROM THE OTHER SIDE: SIÚIL, A RÚN vol 2

First read of the year is a strange one. Also it’s the second volume in the series as I started and finished the first one on the last day of 2019. A series I hadn’t heard of until browsing the library’s ebook catalogue and the cover just stood out for me.

Who is this strange creature and why is this little girl with it? I also loved the stark colors. And the inside, like pretty much all manga I’ve read, is only in black and white. 

There is a fairy tale-likeness to this series. A young innocent girl separated from her family and into the house of this beast with horns. But he is no vile monster. He looks after her, feeds her, and cares for her. She calls him Teacher. But she can not touch him for those who touch these beasts are cursed. 

The curse itself isn’t really explained much in the first two volumes but it is horrible enough that people have died, villages emptied, and armed soldiers sent to look for this possibly cursed young child in the woods.

A fascinating series with beautiful artwork

NANCY BY OLIVIA JAIMES

Book 2 of 2020 is another comic. This one also one I hadn’t heard of before. Apparently it started in 1938 and was at its height in the 70s (in over 700 newspapers). Growing up in Singapore, our one newspaper was (and pretty much still is) The Straits Times and they didn’t carry Nancy. Or at least I don’t remember that they did. I remember they had Sherman’s Lagoon and Baby Blues. Probably Peanuts.

So it was another case of browse the ebook catalogue and oh this looks fun and hit download.

And what a delight this was. Seeing the cover I expected an older comic so I was thrilled to see how phone addicted Nancy was – and also soon realized this was the new Nancy. One that was published from 2018 with its first-ever female author who goes by the pen name Olivia Jaimes.

And Nancy is such a hoot. She’s grouchy and she’s sassy. And it was such an absolute delight to read. I just loved every page of it, especially those meta ones!