April Round Up 2020

I read 33 books in April, which is quite a bit more than usual. Reasons: Ramadan has started, and I always have a bit more time to read in Ramadan, coupled with the government and social injunction to teranah di rumah, and procrastination on a few deadlines, meant I had broad swathes of time to stretch out and read.

Currently I’m at 88 reads for the year, and over halfway to my annual goal. Here are some of my notable reads for April.

Non-fiction

Unicorn: The Memoir of a Muslim Drag Queen Amrou Al-Kadhi I must confess that I went into this one a bit skeptical due to the cover, which boasts blurbs from mostly non-Muslims, and non-POC. But this memoir of an Iraqi boy who attends Eton for a few years is profoundly frank about the dissonance that comes from being a person of a particular culture and faith, whose personhood is interrogated and denied by practitioners of that faith. It’s so articulate and unforgiving – of himself and of others – but it’s not sensationalist, and there is a hard-edged humour and incisiveness to the memoir that makes it more than performance and gets to the truth of things. There’s a really redemptive moment with his mother towards the end.

Everybody Died, So I got a Dog Emily Dean This memoir opens with “This is a story about losing an entire family and gaining a dog”. Dean has the kind of quirky, intellectual, troubled family that would feature as the backdrop to a Streatfeil novel, and although there is grief in this memoir, there is also a journey to self-understanding and self-construction that makes you root for Dean the whole way through.

When I was a Kid 4 Boey The fourth in this Malaysian artist’s autobiographical graphic novels – funny, poignant, familiar. Am definitely going to try to get the entire set.

Fiction

The Majesties Tiffany Tsao Chinese-Indonesian heiresses, fashion made of insects, the murder of an entire extended family clan. Sinister and fractured and surreal. So good.

The Librarian Salley Vickers Set post-WW2, a small British village is changed by the arrival of a new young children’s librarian who is just the  loveliest character. I loved the nostalgia of this that didn’t gloss over the hard edges of impoverished rural life, and not to spoil it, but the ending clinched it for me, it was so good.

Crooked Heart Lissa Evans I loved Old Baggage by Evans, featuring the afterlives of British sufragettes, and Crooked Heart didn’t disappoint. Longlisted for the Bailey Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2015, it follows orphaned Noel and the desperate con woman Vera Sedge during the London Blitz. It’s ruthless in its treatment of humanity – it can’t be taken for granted, but it isn’t a scarcity either, which makes it lovelier when people are good.

Expectation Anna Hope This was pitched as what happens to Sally Rooney’s characters when they grow into their thirties, and it’s not a bad description. Dreamily melancholy, nostalgically disappointed, all soft-edged and confused feeling. A trio of female friends grow up, but not the way they expected.

Mouthful of Birds Samanta Schweblin (Translated by Megan McDowell) A darkly confident collection of short stories that eschews explanation and exposition for pure story and action. Uncanny, and deserves a re-read. Loved this, have started on Little Eyes. 

Hamnet Maggie O’Farrell An evocation of Shakepeare’s wife and his lost son, Hamnet, after whom Hamlet was named. The suffocating still heat of English summer and the plague, the grief of a mother, the startling fragility of life and the body – an imagined truth so richly detailed that you can hardly believe it’s fiction. Lovely lovely lovely.

Northanger Abbey Jane Austen It’s been a long time since I read this send-up of gothic romances, and it was a delight to come back to it. The happy ending is so classically Austen-pragmatic, Isabella is sooooo odiously and perfectly arch, she might be my favourite Austen character ever.

Re-reads

I did a lot of re-reading this month, including a bunch of category romances, mostly by Iris Johansen – her earlier stuff, written in the 1980s. Generally speaking, Johansen has two kinds of heroes during this period – the alpha hero who is controlling and possessive, and the more laid-back almost-beta hero who lays it all out there and waits patiently for the skittish heroine to come to him. Sort of.

It was interesting to read how problematic alpha-hero behaviour is called out as problematic  – controlling, possessive, and a source of conflict between the lovers, usually because the heroine is afraid of losing herself or being controlled. When the hero admits to being in love, it leads to him trying very hard to control his problematic tendencies. Although he never quite succeeds completely, it’s okay because the heroine has a new source of power – his love as leverage. In situations where she is physically, economically, socially weaker, love becomes an equalizing force between them.

This power dynamic is covered by romance authors in the collection of essays Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women (ed. Jayne Ann Krentz) published in 1992, and I guess I’m just reflecting still on the expectations we have of masculine behaviour and how it’s changed now. A lot of the things the alpha heroes did just wouldn’t fly even in a romantic context today – kidnapping, controlling the heroine’s source of income etc. I know Fifty Shades of Grey has some of these elements, but I think the outcry about the gender dynamics there, no matter what interpretation you ultimately take – shows how differently we perceive “romance” today.

Anyway, obviously some other problematic things with Johansen’s 80s novels, including Sedikhan and the brutal, barbaric tribes etc – but nothing tremendously out of touch with 80s romance norms (which feels weird to say).

Into April. I’m currently glued to Mira Grant’s Into the Drowning Deep, which is a deep-sea horror fantasy and so so so good.

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(NABP) Salted Egg Theatre’s “Sticky Ladies” and Collaborative Writing

As a student, I hated group work. Like, truly hated it. I would have been willing to do entire projects on my own if it meant I didn’t have to “discuss” or “roleplay” or “get together after class” and “exchange numbers”. You know that saying, “if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together”? Well, I would have been okay going fast alone, slow alone, anything alone. The only thing I ever took from that saying is that doing things together slows everybody down.

(Obviously this only applies to work. Friends, family, I love you.)

Anyway, obviously I also have a lot of territorial tendencies over work. I’d rather own a piece that’s terrible than co-own a piece that’s good. I can understand and defend the integrity of my own work – harder to support something I don’t 100% understand or agree with.

Of course, now I’m 35 and I sincerely understand the value of team work, and buy-in, and patience, and I have 10 years of experience being in a job which requires a lot of communication, cooperation, collaboration, all that jazz. I have even occasionally co-written academic articles! But still. But still. I am by nature a solitary creature and co-writing Salted Egg Theatre’s second original play was always going to be – an experience.

The Experience

2018

This is the year of women’s panels in Brunei. There are so many. There is so much good in them. But also. So. Very. Much. Cringe.

Z, J and I complain endlessly about these panels. Complaints lead to creativity. We will write a satire about women’s panels in Brunei. After all, it’s time for Salted Egg Theatre’s second play.

November and we start on the first scene. Over Z’s dining table, we create four women, and write their lines in character. We’ve got an opening scene. We agree to flesh it out individually on Googledrive.

2018 leaves.

2019

Life happens, our play grows a little dusty. Our googledrive moulders. The moss of inertia is sly and insidious and relentless. A few texts here and there. We need to get going on this. Is what we keep texting each other.

Life continues to happen. We are supposed to have produced and performed the play by now!

March and we sit down, again, over Z’s dining table. The problem with the play is that we have voices and characters but no conflict. We create conflict. Several conflicts. Now the play is a conflict. Everything is conflict. Except with each other, we assure ourselves. We’re good. It’s just the play.

We’ll work on it individually, we say, getting up from Z’s table. Me first, then J, then Z. Googledrive? Sure.

The play lapses into slumber, untouched. International Woman’s Day comes and goes. More panels. More frustration. We watch other local plays. It is June and we drag ourselves back into our own. We will finish and perform it before the end of the year, we tell each other.

December and we take out the play again. It’s all conflict. We begin the work of paring it down, paring away the sensationalism to find the heart of the story. We disagree on the heart of the story. We add, we subtract. We all want different things from this play. We can’t decide, we can’t agree. We talk, talk talk talk talk but the words on the page move only reluctantly, and not into the right places.

The play resists us. It has settled into a rocky shape of its own, bulky and sulky and stubborn. We (I) hate it but it is ours. Z says she will Alpha us and firmly she fills in the blanks that remain in our play, and we dust our hands and say – it is what it is.

We need feedback, Z says. We agree. We are too close to the play, but we know it is still too far from where it’s meant to be. We will call a table read. Hearing the play in other mouths will help. It can’t hurt.

It is the end of the year, almost Christmas, almost New Year’s. We call some friends, not the actresses, to do a table read. My dining table this time. In the time since we started writing the play, I have moved house and sent a manuscript out to be published. Z and J have had their own triumphs, their own glories. Life happened to some effect, after all.

It is amazing, it is incredible. The characters come to life and the play reveals itself. Our friends laugh as they speak the lines. We are incandescent, we bubble on our own achievement, our own cleverness. We can see now, the parts where the play doesn’t work. Our opaque, misshapen creation has grudgingly unfolded some limbs for our inspection, and ruthlessly we wrench them into shape, we shear and pound and chisel. It still feels lumpy, still too-slippery in some places and crude in others. But still, it is done and it is recognizably a play, and we are ready.

2020

It is January and our actress friends have come on board. We have a small window of time before blackout begins. We have fixed on National Day weekend. Our actresses are memorising lines.

At the end of January, a trusted, respected friend gives us feedback on our play. “If I didn’t know better,” Friend writes, “I’d think this had been written by misogynists. But it hasn’t. So I’m really trying to understand it.”

Friend’s generosity kills us. We are in despair. Do we have time to overhaul the play. No, we say. Not before National Day. Yes, we say, we must. It’s been two years! If we wait until after blackout, we will lose momentum, we don’t know if our actresses will be available…

But we can’t put it on as it is.

Do we want to put on a good play, or do we just want to put on a play?

Both, both. We’ll make it work, we say. National Day weekend, two weeks away, it is.

It’s on, we tell the actresses. We rewrite. We have rewritten, we tell them. But give us feedback. We are all only trying, we can only guess and experiment. Tell us if it doesn’t make sense. The play opens, it flowers, words are changed and broken apart. Some moss clings, but it’s picturesque.

We lose an actress, we gain another one. The actresses rehearse together, fully, only twice, three times, before opening night. Z, J and I keep our thoughts about the play, the play, the heart of the play and the words to ourselves. They’re good, we say, of the actresses. They’re so good. They’re bringing the characters to life.

The Production

We sell out.

A makeshift theatre filled with invited women, just as it was at our first production, The Tudong Monologues. Two nights, this time. Twinkling lights and the hush of theatre. “Ladies… Again, that pause, that no-gap where gentlemen normally fits.

On opening night, Z and J look out for Friend’s reactions to our play. Are we still misogynists? We are anxious. But then the laughs come. And they come and come. We’ve done it. We have done it.

The play is, by our judgement, a success – we receive feedback to that effect, generous and loving and supportive. Our actresses have burned brilliantly on stage, just like the candles women and teachers are always supposed to be. I hate that, I hate how much it takes from our actresses, from us. How tired they are on the second night, and then the day after when they have to get up early and march and corral students in the bright hard sunshine to celebrate our country, so different from the glare of the lights on our pretend-stage, our pretend-Brunei.

And yet how proud I am to have seen them shine. Flickering across the stage on the waves of laughter and applause.

Two years after we began writing together and we are still friends after all. Perhaps my wryest observation of adulthood, of professionalism and growing up, is that this part was never in question during the process.

We did not go fast, but we did go far, together. Have I finally learned to love groupwork? Love is a strong word. Certain groups, certain work. There is no moral to this story, only the reflection, trite and worn and still true, that if it had to be done in this time, in this way, I’m very glad it was with them. Salted Egg Theatre Production #3…here we come.

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March Round-Up 2020

I have always been a polygamous reader, but in March book hopping felt less like being drawn gleefully away from books to other books, and more like a desperate search for something that would refuse to let me go. Something external to myself that would sit me firmly in place and force me to pay attention. It was harder last month to “fall thankfully” through the “hole in the paper” (Paul Sheldon in Stephen King’s Misery), both in reading and a little bit in writing.  I found that I had to work a little harder, a little more patiently, at reading, to continually draw my own attention back to the page and away from my phone.

In some ways it felt unfair to be so distracted – I am alhamdulillah so incredibly privileged that the pandemic and the measures to control it  have touched my life with only the lightest of fingertips. And yet those first few days after the first case was announced in Brunei, it was impossible to concentrate, to not gorge on news and whatsapp chats. And I know I was not alone in this.

Anyway, in March I read 20 books and enjoyed most of them. Quick round-up of notables below.

Nam-Joo Cho, Kim Jiyoung, Born in 1982 I’d been waiting eagerly for the English translation of this feminist bestseller about a South Korean everywoman to come out, and several friends had read it and given glowing reviews, but I had only a lukewarm response to it in the end. I appreciated it on an aesthetic level, but nothing really resonated with me personally or hit very hard, and the ending disappointed me and seemed like a cop-out rather than a revelation. It’s definitely an important novel and I’m glad I read it, but it didn’t find a place in my heart. I must conclude that it just wasn’t for me

Sweet Valley Confidential, and Sweet Life #1 and #6.  (Warning: This paragraph is going to be incomprehensible to non Sweet Valley fans) When the long awaited adult sequel to Sweet Valley came out in 2011, I avoided it because I was worried that any attempts to bring the twins into the new millenium would feature overwrought references to texting, Facebook etc. I’d also sort of seen in reviews that Jessica and Todd were together??? And I’m sorry but NO. This was always why I hated the SVH Secret Diaries as well, because they always tried to rewrite canon and introduce these cheapening backstories to ELIZABETH AND TODD/JEFFREY FOREVER OKAY. Teenage me could not deal with it, and apparently 25 year old me couldn’t either lol. Also they were written by Pascal herself instead of ghostwriters, and while I thought Pascal was a pretty good writer based on her Fearless series, it leaned too much towards gritty realism (instead of the pastel bubblegum HEA I wanted from SV) for my liking. Anyway, I finally thought I had the requisite emotional maturity and distance to read SV and its follow-ups, a six part miniseries about the twins at 30, Sweet Life. 

It was…interesting. It felt like it had been written by a creator who had watched ghostwriters try to interpret her creation for many many years, and who now had the reins and could explain the source material that they had all been working from. (I am perhaps influenced here by this excellent essay by one of the ghostwriters). It read like a scriptwriter’s notes to a director – heavy on exposition and explanation, an interesting depth of characterization that had somehow been flattened through the actual series. It wasn’t the Sweet Valley I remembered – somehow more and less all at the same time. I could understand the twins more, but that understanding took me away from the twins I had loved as a teenager. Understanding was never the point of reading SVH – vicarious experience was.

Anyway as you can see, I read Sweet Life #1, set after the conflicts of SVConfidential have been setttled, and then had to find out what happened (!!!) and skipped to Sweet Life #6 (disappointing and enraging, a cliffhanger that hasn’t been resolved) and having done so, had no motivation to read books 2-5, which, I think, tells you the draw of these novels.

It was a relief and a little sad to realize SV no longer has the claim on me it once did. Would I recommend reading these? Not really. The fans have already read it, and it would be less than meaningless to non-fans. If you’re interested in Sweet Valley, start with Sweet Valley High #1, Double Love. (And let me know where I can get a poster of that amazing cover!)

Kiran Millwood Hargrave, The Mercies  Set in 16th century Norway, all the men in a remote island community are killed in a freak fishing accident. The women have to survive on their own until the king decides to keep them in order by sending over a commander who is also a witch-hunting religious fanatic. Tragedy, inevitable and heartbreaking, ensues.

Lissa Evans, Old Baggage The afterlife of British suffragette Mattie Simpkin – it’s post World War I and the war has derailed the demands and fights of the British suffragettes. Mattie finds herself and her cause struggling to be relevant to British youth, and it’s such a bittersweet novel – Mattie is strong and honourable and loveable and pigheaded and kind, and erudite in a way and during a time which valued this quality. Something I loved about this novel is how Mattie, in living her ideals as best she could, inspired others.

Hallie Rubenhold, The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper We know Jack the Ripper, but how much do we know about his victims? This strong, responsible, forceful history of the women he killed, and how they have been misremembered and why correcting this erasure is important today, won the Baillie Gifford prize in 2019, and it’s so so so good.

Lucy Foley, The Guest List Fun, grown-up RL Stine fakeout x Agatha Christie whodunnit set on a remote, windy island during a wedding.

Nalini Singh, Love Hard The latest in Singh’s Hard Play series set in New Zealand, this was dependendably swoony with a rugby star single father hero, and a heroine who’s used to people leaving. Just good hearted goodness all around.

Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin Who hasn’t heard of this 2005 Orange prize winning novel about the mother of a teenage school shooter? This is an epistolary novel, written by Kevin’s mother to Kevin’s father after the fact, and I’m curious as to how much of our frankness today about motherhood was enabled by this novel. Eva, Kevin’s mother, does not at first want children, then decides to have Kevin after some rather intellectual discussion with husband, has to put her illustrious career as the creator of travel guides-on-a shoestring on hold while Kevin grows up, and then has to contend with her distrust and dislike of her own child as her relationship with her husband, the person she loves most in the world, changes. This novel was riveting.

Barbara Pym, Excellent Women Another post WW (2 this time) British novel, this one set in  a small British “village” (actually just inside London) featuring a mild-mannered, incredibly intelligent “spinster” (just over 30) who is constantly imposed upon by the dramas of the supposedly more exciting people around her, including her new neighbour, the glamorous anthropologist scholar Helena and her military husband. Helena is usually the kind of character – impatient, flawed, ambitious – who would be the protagonist of her own novel, but Excellent Women makes a claim instead for the heroic, patient goodness of the people who have to put up with such characters.

Angie Cruz, Dominicana A 15-year old Dominican girl marries a much older (30s) man for the chance to move herself and her entire family out of the politically unstable Dominican Republic to New York in the 60s. This was long listed for this year’s Women’s Prize, and it’s definitely worth a read. I was worried when I picked it up that it would be as painful as Colm Toibin’s “Brooklyn”, which is about another displaced young woman in New York, and ripped my heart out, but Dominicana had a lighter tread.

Kate Elizabeth Russell, My Dark Vanessa Whoosh. Vanessa was at an elite boarding school in her teens. Vanessa had what she thought was a consensual affair with her teacher. In the #MeToo present, another student is accusing the teacher of sexual abuse. But Vanessa’s relationship with Mr Strane wasn’t like that. She wanted it. Right? 

This was chilling and squirmy and all kinds of can’t-tear-my-eyes-away icky. Even reading it felt like being complicit. It might finally be time to read Lolita. (I’m scared guys).

 

That was March! So far in April I’ve read about 7 books and am continuing to book hop, although with less frantic-ness now. I did finally read The Castle of Otranto this week, which made me want to re-read Northanger Abbey, which is making me want to re-read – The Princess Bride, but I can’t find my copy! So before buying an e-copy, I’m going to try and work through some of the books I do have on hand – The Cactus, The Idiot, The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls. 

 

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January-Feb 2020 Round-Up and some reflections on reading

To date, I’ve read 34 books in 2020, putting me in a nice comfortable spot for reaching my reading goal for the year. I read 16 in January, and 11 in February, and have so far done in March. And the reason I’ve been so bad about updating this blog is because…I finally started using Goodreads! (!!!) I’ve resisted for so long because I found the interface really difficult to deal with (I have some latent Luddite tendencies, and also I am historically a late adopter of tech, with the exception of Facebook, which I joined in the first year it started up!) but I’ve finally figured it out. I do still think it’s a bit laggy and buggy, but it’s fun to see what people are reading, easy to keep track of the things I’m reading, and I have really enjoyed the Goodreads emails, to be honest. Great recommendations, although I’m always wary of the all-seeing eye of The Algorithm, and its sly manoeuvring, ostensibly with my best interests at heart.

Anyway, that’s the reason for my radio silence on this front, but I’ll endeavour to return to regularity this month.

I’m not going to list all the books I’ve read in January and February. Instead, I’ve been reflecting a bit on the kinds of reading I do. I do hit reading plateaus occasionally, but I’ve gotten pretty good at strolling my way out of those, and I think that’s because I read to suit my mood. I think I’ve spoken previously about following up heavy novels with lighter, faster ones – emotional journeys map their own paths! – but I realized that I sort of mentally categorize my reads into three:

(1) Books I read for pure pleasure – romances, thrillers, young adult fiction, things that I can rely on to sweep me up, to make me feel, but only in familiar ways

(2) Books I read to grow – these include heavy reads, non-fiction, poetry collections, translations and books from unfamiliar cultural contexts – books that I wouldn’t necessarily turn to for comfort or sanctuary but to push at the boundaries of my own knowledge, my experience, to directly challenge and grow my own emotional and intellectual capacities. These are the books which make me ache, which make me uncomfortable (in the best kind of way), which my preferences don’t lead me to, but which I know will teach me something.

(3) Books I read to keep abreast of cultural conversations – prize winners, longlists, bestsellers, books which everyone is talking about.

Of course, there is plenty of overlap between these categories. I often very much enjoy prize winners, and also grow from reading them. Romances and thrillers are also cultural touchstones, and they also expand my heartscape in different ways. As with any kind of attempt at genre or taxonomy, there is blurring and uncertainty, and final choices are as much made by guesses as any rational justification.

Anyway! here are my three top picks from Jan and Feb in each category!

Pleasure Reads

Tessa Bailey Love Her or Lose Her (second chance romance in a failing marriage, a couple who tries to learn each other’s love language, so so good)

Seanan McGuire Come Tumbling Down (the latest in McGuire’s Wayward Children series, featuring the beloved Jack and her lover in a Frankenstein Dracula landscape, as heartbreaking and poignant as always)

Kennedy Ryan Long Shot (a sports romance, which normally I’m not that into, athletes aren’t really my jam as heroes, but this one is angsty – the heroine is trapped in an abusive marriage – and despite being a star-crossed lovers scenario, its not through that annoying trope where everything could be solved if the protagonists just talked to each other)

Honorable Mention Lisa Kleypas Chassing Cassandra (another historical from Kleypas!!! Loved this but both liked and was a little disappointed by the minimal amounts of conflict in the novel. Character development was great)

Growth Reads

Gerry Alanguilan Elmer (A graphic novel by the late Alanguilan. Chickens achieve sentience and are granted human rights by the UN. How to get over a history of slaughter and nuggets? This is so equal parts serious allegory and sly, talur surface jokes – chickens bah! – that I felt guilty when I LOL-ed but also couldn’t help it)

Amanda Lee Koe Ministry of Moral Panic (This is a dark, whimsical collection of short stories set in and around and about Singaporeans. I read this for a grad student, but I enjoyed it for myself.)

Kiran Millwood Hargrave The Mercies (This one is also a sort of Cultural Conversation Read, tbh. Set in 17th century Norway, based on a true account of the remote island of Vardo, whose men are all killed in a freak accident at sea, leaving a community of grieving women who must learn to survive, behind. 18 months later the King sends a fanatic commissioner to oversee them. An inevitable tragedy ensues.

Honorable Mention Elif Shafak Three Daughters of Eve (Shafak has always been hit or miss for me. I liked Honour, but have really struggled to finish The Architect’s Apprentice and Forty Rules of Love. And Three Daughters of Eve had the same problems for me as Honour – pacing and a continual turning away from what I think is the heart of the story. Despite that, readable and pragmatic and – hits the cultural nail on the heart over and over.)

Keeping Up with the Joneses Reads

Kate Clayborn Love Lettering (everyone was talking about this romance featuring a letterer and the guy whose wedding invitation she lettered. It’s sweet and easy and I liked the fraught friendship component and the way the heroine forced herself to grow)

Dolly Alderton Everything I Know About Love (Alderton’s endorsements have seemingly been on the cover of every feminist collection/memoir/novel in the last two years, so I wanted to head over to the source, and I wasn’t disappointed. Like a contemporary millenial Caitlin Moran – heh – and it was lovely and sweet and again, the friendships made me teary)

Janice Hadlow The Other Bennet Sister (this combines two of my fave things – spin-offs and retellings from Victorian lit, and the recovery of female characters in the canon. Loved this, loved Mary, loved the writing – a true homage to Austen’s dry style.)

Honorable Mention Cho Nam-Joo Kim Jiyoung, Born in 1982 (I’d been waiting for the English translation of this blockbuster Korean novel for ages, and had heard rave reviews from friends, but was a little disappointed. The ending had shades of Han Kang in a way that betrayed the mundanity of the first part of the book, I think. It was an easy read, and the frustrations of the titular Jiyoung were so so familiar. Worth a read, definitely, also Gong Yoo is in the movie adapation. All the heart eyes.)

Currently Reading

Currently in my TBR pile – Alfian Sa’at’s The Invisible Manuscript (many thoughts! many feelings!), Nuril Basli’s Love, Lies and Indomee (repellent so far), Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House (slow going at the moment) and Shahriar Mandanipour’s Censoring an Iranian Love Story (same as above).

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Annual Round-Up: 2019

The annual round-up!

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Four years of reading!

In 2019, I gave myself a range of 144-150 books to read. I managed to read 149 books, falling short of my 150 goal but solidly within the 12 books a month/3 books a week timetable. So I’m counting that as a win.

Over the last four years, I’ve read around 610 books, averaging about 152 books a year.

Books per year 2019

I don’t see a pattern from month to month, except for a spike around May/June and December – most probably related to wanting to reach my reading goal to be honest! Hahah. Possibly the dips in April and Nov are related to exam periods at UBD, during which time I’m significantly busier with work.

Books Per Month 2016-2019

Keeping the pattern of favouring female authors over male ones, by a ratio of approximately 1:8.

Reading by Gender

And in terms of genre!

Reading By Genre 2019

I’m surprised – I’ve read a lot less romance (24???) and thriller (10!!!) than I thought I had. I haven’t done a proper genre breakdown in previous years, so it may be something to keep track of this year. I often use thrillers as ways of jumpstarting myself out of slow reading periods, so I was under the impression I’d read more than 10, but numbers don’t lie.

I am happy to have read more short story collections and graphic novels, and both the play/play collections I read were excellent – Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues and Volume 3 of Alfian Sa’at’s Collected Plays.

Expenditure

I totally gave up on tracking expenditure after May 2019, so I’m just going to extrapolate from that period. Up till May, I’d spent 984BND on books, so that works out to around 2361BND in the year. This tallies with my 2018 figure of 2500BND for the year.

In conclusion, books are expensive, and I could stand to cut down.

Top Ten Fiction Reads of 2019 (no particular order)

Seanan McGuire The Wayward Children series – I started 2019 with Seanan McGuire and loved this series about children who have come back from Fairyland and have trouble adjusting. Adult and dark and lyrical, the next one in the series comes out this month and I am excited!

Taylor Jenkins Reid Daisy Jones & The Six – I have been a fan of Jenkins Reid since reading the (amazing, feminist, compassionate) The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo last year, and I worked through a number of her back catalogue this year, but Daisy Jones is my favourite. It was also my pick for Feminist Book Club! Just fantastic fantastic storytelling – a cracking narrative, fast and zippy and distinctly voiced, this convincing and compelling faux-biography of the lives and loves of a rock band.

Angie Thomas On The Come Up – I liked this YA featuring an African American teenage rapper so much more than The Hate U Give, and it gave me a real appreciation for the lyrical skill and improvisational techniques of rappers. Full of heart.

Sabina Khan The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali It surprises me that this queer Muslim American YA is on my top ten list, because there are some pacing problems towards the end, and I do NOT like the heroine’s love interest, but it’s a story that continues to stay with me. (If you like this, honourable mention also goes out to Samira Ahmed’s Internment,  a YA dystopia about Muslim-Americans being rounded up and put into internment camps in a Trump America)

Tahereh Mafi Whichwood – I thoroughly enjoyed this dark Persian fantasy about a young girl whose job is to ritually prepare the dead for the afterlife. One of my favourite things about it was the sureness and comfort of the omniscient voice, something that’s almost exclusive to children’s fiction, and which has mostly fallen out of fashion.

Leigh Bardugo The Language of Thorns – Also loved this collection of short stories that re-tell and twist Grimm’s fairytales into something soaked and dark and poetic and cruel. (I ALSO loved Bardugo’s recent release Ninth House, which is secret societies, Yale, magic, privilege, whose Buffy-esque heroine contends with the sinister claustrophobia of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History to the contemporary beat of something like You or Pretty Little Liars)

Hanya Yanagihara The People in the Trees/ Ann Patchett State of Wonder – A bit of a cheat listing these two together, but how could I not? Not only did I read them within sort of a month of each other, but – academics! Annoying and destroying secretive unknown tribes in the Amazon for their medical miracles/secrets! Faux academic journal articles! Both wonderful, both very recommended.

Madelein Miller Circe – I read this Greek retelling while IN Greece, so that gave the novel extra piquancy and flavour, but Circe. The story of how she swam slowly to consciousness, almost despite herself, and began to recognize her upbringing and the world around her as unfair and awful, spoke very clearly to me. Many times epiphanies happen in stages, in gentle waves that push you inexorably towards shore, instead of a great breaking crash of clarity.

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ Stay With Me –  This novel broke my heart in the same way that Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage broke my heart earlier in the year. It’s so painful to read about how love and marriage and wanting the best for another person don’t necessarily always mean the same thing, the painful things we do to each other in the name of trying to make them mean the same thing.

S.A Chakraborty Daevabad trilogy – Am definitely looking forward to the conclusion of this trilogy! Fat, meaty, immersive novels that tangle Islamic history, Middle-Eastern culture, jinn, and a set of characters who are flawed and brave and struggling, and a slow-burn romance (but I’m not sure in which direction), I can’t recommend this trilogy enough. Halfway between Harry Potter and Outlander.

TOP NON-FICTION PICKS of 2019

Angela Saini Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – This was a Feminist Book Club pick, which I’m glad of as I probably wouldn’t have picked it up otherwise, that lays out how academic and medical research which continues to form the bedrock of beliefs and stereotypes we’ve internalized about women (e.g women want commitment, while men are wired for polygamy; women are more emotional than rational men) are…flawed.

Ann Patchett This is the story of a happy marriage – I love it when admirably good people write memoirs. This review by the NY times calls Patchett “uncommonly kind”, and this set of personal essays was just so wise and thoughtful and large in its compassion that it’s one that I hope to go back to and re-read this year.

-ed. Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape – Another Feminist Book Club pick! It’s no exaggeration to say that the essay “Towards a Performance Model of Sex” by Thomas Macaulay Millar, on how to rethink sex away from the economic model towards the collaborative music making model was hugely eye-opening for me. Most of the essays helped me to identify and then re-assess ideas about sex I’d internalized without realizing it. Just a great collection that offers a hope that if we can imagine a world without rape we can move towards it.

 

2019 Discovery: FRANKENSTEIN is one of my favourite books?

When I’m asked what some of my favourite novels are, I always struggle, both because I have the memory of a goldfish and because I have loved and fallen out of love with so many books in my life that I don’t know that I could winnow it down to even a top twenty. But this year I read two retellings of Frankenstein and Charlotte Gordon’s huge and fantastic biography of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley and I have an appetite for more, even though I have taught Frankenstein many many times, and read several re-workings…and so I realized that it’s a text I go back to again and again both for pleasure and work without tiring of it, and therefore  it’s earned a place on my (in-progress) Favourite Novels list.

It’s one of those rare and wonderful cases where the story about the novel rivals the story in the novel itself.

Anyway these are the ones I read this year, and would recommend the first two especially. The third was too cerebral for me.

Kiersten White The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein

Charlotte Gordon Romantic Outlaws

Jeanette Winterson Frankissstein

 

2019 Discovery: Eva Ibbotson

Thank you BookTwitter for bringing Eva Ibbotson on to my radar! Loved these sweet, mostly chaste romances with a core of honour and decency – Eva herself was Austrian-born, and her family moved to England when Hitler came into power. The two novels I’ve read from her so far (The Morning Gift and A Song for Summer) have that sense of heroism that was so necessary between the World Wars, undergirding sweet romances featuring heroines that come of age during a time of turmoil. Loved the suffragette aunties in A Song for Summer, but also the homage to the toil and value of domesticity.

Looking forward to more Ibbotson in 2020! Think – grown-up Heidi, Joan Wolf style romance, the femininity of Little Women or Rilla of Ingleside.

Feministy Recommendations

This is a list of books which would make for great discussions in a feminist book club!

Chanel Miller Know My Name – brave, searching, tender, this memoir from the Jane Doe of the horrific Brock Turner case is unflinching about the way that assault lingers, and the courage and community it takes to keep moving forward.

Christina Dalcher Vox  in this dystopian riff on The Handmaid’s Tale, women wear Fitbit type watches to monitor their speech during the day – they’re only allowed up to 100 words.

Amy Reed The Nowhere Girls – YA for the #metoo era – three girls take on rape culture in their small American town.

Margaret Atwood The Testaments – the long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale does not disappoint.

Bernadine Evaristo Girl, Woman, Other – the co-winner of the Booker Prize 2019, this many-voiced, many-storied history of black British women is a treat.

Eve Ensler The Vagina Monologues – say the word, own the word, own your body and inhabit it fully.

Lara Williams Supper Club – women eating hedonistically, bachannalian-ly, taking up space, Fight Club with food.

2019 Reflections and Resolutions for 2020

Inconclusive reflections on reading in 2019:

I’d like to do more re-reading in 2020 – sinking into and appreciating books in a way you can only do when re-reading. Some books are worth getting to know intimately.

I realized this year that I really like retellings of fairytales/mythology and stories about witches, in which women rise and fight and take revenge and I particularly like stories in which the sea or a winter landscape features prominently. One book I read that combined the two was Shea Ernshaw’s The Wicked Deep, about three girls who are accused of being witches and drowned, who then come back every summer to kill men. Earlier in the year, another one that combined the two Katherine Arden’s The Winter of the Witch concluded the amazing Russian mythology-based Winternight Trilogy (and I was so tempted to put it on the Top Ten list – if you’re going through Naomi Novik withdrawals, you may want to check this out)

So I suppose in 2020 I want to learn more about my reading tastes now as a 35 year old, in a more coherent fashion. I don’t think I’ve done that properly since I was a teenager. I think for myself I’d like to put together a favourite books list, (Outlander will probably be on it) books that I go back to for sheer pleasure, books that have changed or shaped my way of thinking so irrevocably that I can’t even remember how I used to think before that. So I guess in 2020 I want to reflect more on my readerness.

There were a couple of months in 2019 where I went through a number of not-so-good novels, like they were fine, but not great, and it was quite frustrating to be halfway through a novel and just be like – okay, I am interested enough to finish it, but not interested enough to like finishing it, but I’m not sure how to minimize these instances in 2020.

In 2019 I loved following bookstagram reviews! So will continue doing that. The photos give me serious hard copy envy too.

I’d like to maintain a good schedule of about 144-150 books this year, and prioritize pleasure but also growth in my choices.

Books I’m looking forward to in 2020: the next in the Wayward Children and Daevabad series; the next Outlander novel (fingers crossed!), the next Sally Thorne novel, Daniel Ortberg’s Something That May Shock and Discredit You, Lindy West’s The Witches Are Coming (technically out, but not available on Amazon UK Kindle yet) and the English translation of Cho Nam Joo’s Kim Ji-Young, Born in 1982. And I really want to read more Bruneian fiction, including the first Bruneian novel, Mahkota Berdarah!

To finish off this annual round-up, here’s a picture of other books I’m excited about that are currently on my bedside table.

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May we all read books that give us great pleasure and purpose in 2020.

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November 2019 Round-Up

In November 2019 I read 7 books, putting me at 132 for the year!

Now that the Tiny Lit Fest is over, I’m excited to throw myself back into reading. The goal is 18 books in December, to get me up to my 150 goal for the year. As of today, it has been 12 whole days since I read a book, which is madness, MADNESS. Oh, the irony that a literature festival could be so detrimental to actual reading. (I’m kidding, it was a wonderful festival, and I came away with a ton of titles that I am excited about picking up. And I hope others did too!)

3 weeks to go til 2020! Looking forward to slowing things down a little and finishing the year on a mellow kind of note. In the meantime, here’s a list of my:

November Reads

Mackenzi Lee The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue YA Regency Romp feat. a queer romance, a troubled teenage dandy, and the Grand Tour.

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Jeannette Winterson Frankisstein This Booker nominee is the third? book I’ve read this year that features a retelling of Mary Shelley’s life, and it wasn’t my favourite. In the modern day, Frankenstein is an egoistic doctor trying to revolutionize the use of AI, Mary Shelley is a trans-gender researcher in love with him, and there’s a blowhard entrepreneur who sells sex dolls. It’s fine, albeit a bit choppy, with some amazing observations about identity, but overall a tiny bit forgettable.

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Nicole Krauss A History of Love. I’ve spent about four years trying to read this story about a Holocaust survivor who was once a writer and who is living out his old age in New York, because it has been recommended so highly to me, and I finally have. The prose was so beautiful, and some parts of it, like the narrator purposely drawing attention to himself in public because he does not want to die on a day that he hasn’t been seen, are so poignant and struck very deep. “And yet.” And yet, I struggle to remember the actual narrative of it. It’s a novel I can only recall fragments of.

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Bernadine Evaristo Girl, Woman, Other This was the (co) winner of this year’s Booker prize, and deserves it. Sprawling, many-voiced, quick-footed, this epic manages to have the impact of an epic without its weight. It follows the life of several black British women and their children over several decades as they make art and make life. So good. My friend A is reading this as a follow up to Candice Carty-Williams Queenie, which is not the worst idea!

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Bridget Collins The Binding A recommendation from A’s other book group, I enjoyed this Victorian fantasy so much! The novel opens on the protagonist, the teenage farmer-in-training Emmett having just recovered from a summer of deep, memory-blacking illness, and being subsequently sent away from the farm to work with the local bookbinder, a feared old woman. Lovely questions of what it means to live with painful memories, and what it means to shut them away. I didn’t love the shift in perspective towards the end, but overall, great novel.

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Amy Reed The Nowhere Girls Published in 2017, this is YA for the #metoo era, and I really enjoyed it. Quiet Grace has just moved to town, and when she finds out her bedroom used to belong to Lucy, who left town after her rape by a fellow high school student, Grace makes friends with local outcasts Rosina and Erin to challenge high school rape culture, the pervasiveness of sexual violence. The novel did a great job of showcasing the variety of female voices and their desires, and how even though they don’t all agree on how to get there, what they collectively want is space and peace and freedom to walk in this world as themselves. Not as targets or prey or trophies.

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Lyssa Kay Adams The Bromance Book Club This was a fun lighthearted rom com about a professional baseball player whose marriage is dissolving. He’s so desperate to fix it that when a group of men approach him to tell him that the answers to his problems lie in – reading romance novels, he’s willing to try it. Some fun meta-commentary on the genre, its feminist roots and leanings, and the romance itself was serviceable. I mean it was obviously super talur but in the best way.

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That takes us to the end of November! Right now I’m reading Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism and Helen Fielding’s Cause Celeb – wish me luck as I chug towards 18 reads!

 

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October 2019 Round Up

October 2019 was a 9 book month – not the greatest, but putting me at the beginning of November at a solid 126 books for the year. To hit 150, I need to read about 12 books in November and another 12 in December – spoiler alert, two weeks in to November I’ve read a grand total of….three. Three books. Hahaha I’m really going to have to step it up to meet my 150 goal for the year.

October Reads

Nalini Singh’s Archangel’s War I love Nalini Singh’s romances, but her archangel series has always been my least favourite of her writing. Not because they’re not great, simply because I don’t love so much worldbuilding and political intrigue. Props to Nalini’s writing to getting me invested at all, but really the love story between Elena and Rafael has never really rung true to me. I may have a bit of Eve-Roarke fatigue with them.This was a great addition to the series, the villain was really cool, the battles high-stakes, so one of the more enjoyable archangel books imho.

Sherry Thomas A Study in Scarlet Women This was a re-read for class, and I enjoyed this gender-bent Sherlock Holmes just as much this time around.

Philip Pullman The Secret Commonwealth This is the second in the Book of Dust Trilogy, and I’d been waiting eagerly for it because LYRA ALL GROWN UP! It didn’t quite live up to expectations, mostly because Lyra herself didn’t live up to all the expectations I had for this feisty, half-feral heroine. And her strained relationship with Pantalaimon broke my heart. After the amazingness of La Belle Sauvage, I definitely got a whiff of second-book-in-a-trilogy syndrome with this one, but it was still good and I’m sooo looking forward to having a minute to watch the new BBC adaptation of His Dark Materials.

Catherine Powell The Madwoman Upstairs The last living descendant of the famed Brontes is now doing an English degree at Oxford and fending off journalist inquiries about her inheritance. A nice light read, perfect for Bronte fans, light romance fans, light mystery fans, and I liked some of the exposition about the purpose of an English degree.

Joe Lycett Parsnips, Buttered: Bamboozle and Boycott Modern Life, One Email at a Time I downloaded this because I wanted a humorous read on a flight, and wasn’t disappointed. I’m not familiar with Lycett’s work as a British comedian, but his writing is tremendously enjoyable. I’m a sucker for a series of nonsense emails and rationales and yup this is it. Perfectly readable even for someone who doesn’t know Lycett.

Margaret Atwood Stone Mattress Nine short stories from Atwood, summed up as revenge fantasy. As the cover of mine remarks, “if this collection can be said to have a clear uniting theme, it might be that by a certain stage of life we’ve all got at least one person we would really like to kill” (Independent).

Sophie Kinsella Christmas Shopaholic Becky Bloomwood at Christmas. Heartwarming and funny and just the perfect christmassy read. Particularly liked a scene in a zero-waste store loool.

Eva Ibbotson The Morning Gift Came across this while trawling through book twitter. Ibbotson was described as akin to Georgette Heyer for the post-war era, and the comparison’s not far off! Gentle, poignant, I would also liken this romance to a grown-up Noel Streatfeild. Fans of Joan Wolf will enjoy.

Rainbow Rowell Pumpkin Heads Graphic novel about two American teens who work at a pumpkin patch. They’re about to graduate high school and Deja is determined that Josiah will finally talk to the girl of his pumpkin patch dreams. Adventures and hijinks through memory lane and the pumpkin patch ensure. Loved the illustrations, and that Rainbow Rowell YA vibe.

That was it for October! I’m going to try to step up my November reading, because my last two books took me a week each, which is kind of crazy. And they were just okay, to be honest. Maybe that’s why. I’m on the hunt for a novel that will suck me in and spit me out. Thriller time maybe???

In the non-reading but reading-adjacent domain of words, I am really happy to share two bits of news! The first is that my manuscript Kingdom was recently long and then shortlisted for the 2020 Epigram Books Fiction Prize (zooomg, I was so excited when they opened it up to non-Singaporean writers this year, and am so thrilled to be shortlisted! And so touched by the support that’s been coming my way sniffs).

The second is The Tiny Lit Fest is happening, you guys! That’s right, I’m the Festival Director for the tiniest literary festival in the world (unverified claim). Hosted by Heartwrite Co, it’s 5 days, 15 micro-events, 8 partners, 9 locations and the amazing Progresif and YSEALI Women’s Leadership Academy – Alumni Network as supporting sponsors. We’re bringing in the wonderful Hanna Alkaf and Mina V Esguerra zooomg. I can’t thank Huwaida enough for bringing me along on this ride and having my back the entire way. We take turns being the YOLO and WAIT A MINUTE REALITY CHECK people lol and it’s worked out so far. She’s got some words about it over here, and I hope the bookish, the writers and the publishers all turn out in full force to make connections, have conversations and grow grow grow the production and consumption of local literature. ❤

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