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!

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

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I don’t know where to begin with this book. Perhaps I should start with, it’s not for the faint of heart. It is intense. It is full of taboos. There is abuse. And so very much more. And there is the way the mind works to handle all this trauma. It is, in its strange way, about survival. Don’t be fooled by that kawaii cover.

The story opens with a young Natsuki, age 11, who is convinced that her stuffed hedgehog is an alien from Popinpobopia. She shares this with her cousin Yuu, who is also her boyfriend, when they meet in the mountains at a family gathering.

(Something happens at this gathering but I don’t want to unleash any spoilers). But after the first two chapters, we fast-forward to Natsuki at age 34. She’s married, but to someone who has a similar mindset, both of them feeling alienated from society, preferring to believe that they themselves are aliens.

“Everyone believed in the Factory. Everyone was brainwashed by the Factory and did as they were told. They all used their reproductive organs for the Factory and did their jobs for the sake of the Factory. My husband and I were people they’d failed to brainwash, and anyone who remained unbrainwashed had to keep up an act in order to avoid being eliminated by the Factory.”

Natsuki and her husband return to the mountains where Yuu is staying and the three of them decide to train to avoid becoming Earthlings, to come up with their own ideas for living on a planet that isn’t their own. And it descends into something shocking and bizarre, that, as I said, isn’t for the faint of heart.

“I want to use the form of the novel to conduct experiments,” Murata once said in an interview. And this is one extremely outrageous experimental story. Yet to be honest, is it really all that outlandish? The trauma that a young girl experiences from the various abuses she suffers, from people who ought to be her defenders, has led her to believe that she’s not of this earth. For who would want to be, if you were in her shoes? And that feeling of being alienated, not fitting into the norms of society, is something many of us can relate to, I reckon, although the three characters take it to such an extreme level.

Earthlings is an uncomfortable read, it’s dark and twisted. It’s not for everyone. I hesitate to say “read this” because I know some are likely to be put off by, well, many parts. But for me, it was something I couldn’t stop reading. It’s way out of the box and unconventional but well, this past year has been anything but ordinary. Maybe I just needed something extremely bizarre to kick off my 2021 reading. Whatever the reason, Earthlings is a book I’m definitely not going to forget.

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