October-November 2020

In October I read 15 books, and in November, 13. I upped my reading goal from 150 to 200 books this year in November – I hadn’t done it before that because I kind of liked how Goodreads kept telling me I was x books past my 2020 reading goal. Small affirmations.

I’d like to note, though, that keeping track of the number of books I read is only one metric I use for understanding and monitoring my reading. Generally I’m pretty happy if I can read about 3 books a week – I think that’s enough to keep my brain working, to make sure I’m reading moderately widely across a variety of genres, writers, and time periods. That works out to about 144-150 books a year, so as long as I’m within that range I know I’m reading enough for my professional and personal growth. So trying to reach 200 this year is just a fun thing to do.

I have found joining Goodreads this year a really fun way of seeing how and what others are reading, without having to interact too much. I think, like my bookish friends N and H, reading for me is fundamentally and enjoyably a solitary act. I was lucky growing up to have an older sister with whom I shared books and some thoughts about books. That was just enough contact to shed some light on other interpretations of the things we were reading, and still gave us plenty of space to retreat into our own experience of those worlds. I definitely enjoy hearing and reading what others have to say about books, but actively engaging in book discussion isn’t for me.

The exception: scholarly or critical discussion, but that, I feel, is less about reading, and the enjoyment of reading, and more about the joy of creation. Analysis, I think, (and by this I generally mean close reading) is a tremendously and joyfully creative act, and should and should not be taken too seriously. More and more I consider that tracing book histories, and histories of literatures, and maybe distant reading, is really what my own scholarship might begin to pursue.

Anyway, some notable reads in October and November! I’m just going to list them all here by category.

Fiction

Frances Cha If I Had Your Face In South Korea, four young women come up against the different ways that looks (both their own and the looks of others) are destiny, but also not. This one is dark and somber, but also has real moments of connection and kindness that just makes the not-inevitable cruelty of the world around the characters even worse.

Mona Awad Bunny MFA Campus Novel on hallucinogens. Been reading my niece’s If I were a Bunny picture book a lot too, and have concluded that, notwithstanding (or maybe inclusive of) Richard Adams’ Watership Down, bunnies are probably inherently demonic.

Mike Gayle Half a World Away I didn’t expect to like this British novel about a brother and sister separated in childhood and reunited in adulthood as much as I really, really did. It’s not a tearjerker – or at least, not just a tearjerker, and I rooted so hard for Kerry Hayes all the way to the end. And Noah Martineau. I feel like there aren’t enough bone-deep good protagonists in fiction outside of children’s lit, and I do have a soft spot for them.

Angela Makholwa The Blessed Girl Sarong Party Girls – the Bontle Tau, Johannesburg incarnation.

Sci-fi/Fantasy

Rivers Solomon The Deep What if all the pregnant enslaved thrown overboard had underwater, deep sea descendants? (I read this right after reading Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, a historical novel about two branches of a family tree which begin in Ghana and are split through slavery – reading these differently powerful attempts to reclaim and give voice to history so close together gave me some space to think about the work that fantasy and speculative fiction does alongside historical fiction or fiction rooted in realism, to broaden narrative and imaginative horizons, and in doing so insist on a future existence, a way forward, to take up rightful space).

Naomi Novik A Deadly Education (The Scholomance, #1) I loved this – a deadly Hogwarts, a lonely, angry heroine and the friends she is forced to make along the way. I might re-read soon, and definitely before the sequel comes out in June 2021!

Becky Chambers The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Wayfarers #1) Took me about a month of on and off reading to finish this futuristic sci-fi 500 pager, but in that way it became kind of comforting. I could dip in when I was in the mood to wind down, and Ashby and the crew would be there waiting, on their journey to a small and angry planet. It was wonderful to see how Chambers’ imagination stretched to describing and understanding non-human life.

Thriller/Horror

Ruth Ware One by One SKI THRILLER – a little slow to start with, but that final quarter of the book more than makes up for it.

Katherine Arden Small Spaces and Dead Voices Seasonal middle-grade horror with as much heart as eerieness (a lot). Kid protagonists to love and grow with.

So far in December I have read 7 books and am 7 books away from reaching 200 reads for the year! Currently reading Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots as recommended by Ask A Manager and really enjoying it! Up next I’d like to read Ponti because that is a book on loan, and I really should return it before 2021.

Have some thoughts from the recent Tiny Lit Fest 2020, and the third Salted Egg Theatre production, A Night of Female Voices, as well as post-debut-novel drop, but for now – at least I’m officially caught up here! =)

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September 2020 Round-up

A return to some semblance of punctuality and timeliness! In September I read 14 books, taking me to 158 for the year. I have really loved reading lately – I think I slogged through a spate of mediocre reads in the middle of the year so it’s really nice to suddenly be in the middle of a batch of fun and good reads. Currently reading: Mona Awad’s Bunny (2019) – really liking it so far, I’m a sucker for a campus/MFA novel x thriller/horror? (not quite sure yet); and just downloaded Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education (2020) which, I’m not thrilled at the fact it’s a new (incomplete, and therefore will have to wait for next installment instead of instant gratification) series, but I am thrilled at the fact that it’s a new series by Naomi Novik, who has been a fave for the last couple of years.

Some fun reads in September!

Charles Forsman I am Not Okay With This (2017) This graphic novel was a gift from the boo after we watched the Netflix series (loved it), and now that I’ve read it, I’m even sadder that the series has been cancelled! A dark coming-of-age story of a teenager struggling with her father’s death and her own supernatural abilities – it works as a metaphor for mental health, trauma, queerness. It’s dark and not very hopeful, so I would proceed with caution and check the trigger warnings, but I read it in one go – it sucked me in.

Emma Straub All Adults Here (2020) and Elizabeth Noble The Family Holiday (2020) I’m not normally very drawn to family dramas, but these were so lovely and well-written. All Adults Here follows the widowed matriarch of an American family of 3 grown children, and how her new relationship (and age!) allows her to truly understand her children in a way she could not when they were younger. And vice versa, I suppose. The Family Holiday is the story of the patriarch of a British family, who calls them all together for his 80th birthday and it’s so wholesome and everybody is trying to do their best in a difficult world – just a lovely, uplifting read.

Federico Garcia Lorca The House of Bernada Alba (translated by Jo Clifford) (first performed 1945) This all-female Spanish play of a family of women in rural Spain is a Feminist Book Club pick and I would so love to see it performed. Repressed sexuality! Oppressive culture versus rebellious daughters! Explosive dynamics and action – and the dialogue is so so good – snappy and quick and real.

Talia Hibbert Take a Hint, Dani Brown (2020) A contemporary romance feat a non-practicing Muslim hero and a Black, bisexual doctoral candidate (sidebar: loved how nervous and prepared she was for an academic panel!)- wholesome, sweet, sensitive and manages to be both realistic and swoony. Minor gripes: some of the angst is a tiny bit repetitive, and the Muslimness of the hero is surprisingly sidelined in a genre that is all about human relationships. I don’t need my Muslim protagonists to be practicing, or to have their Muslimness be the focus of their stories, but I would have liked a teeny bit more of a nod to the practicalities of an interfaith relationship.

Alexis Daria You Had Me at Hola (2020) Another sweet contemporary romance feat two Latinx telenovela stars navigating trying to break into mainstream television amidst unwanted publicity (I thought this novel was very likeably pragmatic about public life and choosing to be in it), messy breakups, and secret families hehe.

Tash Aw Five Star Billionaire (2013) Malaysians trying to make it in Shanghai – the American Dream remixed for extra disillusionment and alienation in China – this novel is a fast fast read, and the emptiness of a city, the futile struggle for more, the promises-for-the-sake-of-promises hollowness of capitalism – is illustrated through the unfolding of five characters’ stories. It is bleak, and although the plot moves forward, and the characters move forward, somehow they also don’t. The plot really only reveals itself over halfway through the book, when the story moves from being character study to revenge quest. Still – very worth the read, and it has inspired me to go back to The Harmony Silk Factory, which I DNF’ed a few years back.

Etaf Rum A Woman Is No Man (2019) My friends are DIVIDED on this one – some were enraged, some were saddened, and others were nonplussed. I fall in the first camp – yes it’s bleak, but it’s not exploitatively bleak. Three generations of Palestinian-American women in Brooklyn, who fight the oppressiveness of culture, who despite having travelled so far and for so long, end up moving within such limited, constrained physical parameters in New York that it just goes to show – sometimes your prison moves with you. Anyway, for me the ending was hopeful, and I am hopeful for humanity, and I think the characters all behave in frustrating but also incredibly understandable ways. So I was yelling at them to behave differently, but also understood why they didn’t or couldn’t.

Reads lined up for October –Bunny and A Deadly Education – I also have Frances Cha’s If I Had Your Face, a South Korean plastic surgery tale (I think), Ponti (!), the fat fat European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman (victorian retelling yesss), the unfinished The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, A Thousand Ships, The Deathless Girls, Children of Blood and Bone, House of Glasssssssssss – so much to be excited about!

(Also my own debut novel drops this month – I can’t think too much about this, so have compartmentalized it hard heh)

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July-August 2020 Round-Up

Whoooooooooooosh

That’s the sound July and August made while going by – ungrippably slippery and also drawn out at the same time. To-do lists growing and flowering in the kind of fertile, unstoppable way my actual plants refuse to do. Reading lists causing incredible FOMO that distracted me from sitting and finishing actual bird-in-the-hand books – – –

Since June I’ve read 28 books – 17 in July and 11 in August. I went through a bit of a reading slump in August – I think there was a lot of pressure to be reading for work, and in contrarian fashion, that made me want to only read non-work related books, but then I felt guilty for not being responsible, and so I ended up not reading at all.

The good news is, as of today I’m 6 books past my reading goal this year of 150 books! Yayyyy. The TBR pile continues to grow. 

July-Aug Favourites

Ingrid Persaud Love After Love (2020) My first read in July was also one of my favourites for the year. This Trinidadian novel was so full of craft and joy and tenderness. It’s the story of Betty, her son and the lodger they love, Mr Chetan, and how the love between each of them grows and changes over years and years and year. From the start the novel interrogates the relationship between love and self-worth, and how the lack of the latter warps and poisons the kind of love you are willing to accept for yourself.

Lily King Writers & Lovers (2020) This has been described somewhere as “a portrait of the artist as a young woman” and I think that’s pretty apt. I wasn’t sure how I’d enjoy this, because I’m a bit leery at the romanticization of the starving artist, but this novel was wonderful at showing the desperate hope that underlies the artistic desire.

Tayari Jones Silver Sparrow (2011) Their shared father is a bigamist, but only one daughter, one family, knows this secret. The other lives unaware. This novel is not as heartbreaking as An American Marriage, but it is just as powerful. By the end you’re reconciled to the fact that it’s not about choosing sides, because everyone is so so real and sympathetic. I think that’s what Jones excels at – refusing to demonize anybody even in a situation where it would be easy. She expands instead of flattening.

Randa Jarrar Him, Me, Muhammad Ali (2016) A collection of short stories about Muslim lives – there is magic, there is realism, there is absurdity and pathos, there are strong and vivid characters and arcs. 

Lauren Ho Last Tang Standing (2020) If you loved Sarong Party Girls, you will probably enjoy this Malaysian-Singaporean rom-com that skewers race relations, work-life balance and family pressure via its protagonist, the titular unmarried Andrea Tang.  

Silvia Moreno-Garcia Mexican Gothic (2020) Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher meets Cold Comfort Farm’s Flora Poste – sinister and creeping and mushroomy-cold fingers around your reading chair. 

Zen Cho The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water (2020) Wuxia fantasy in Zen Cho’s inimitably Malaysian writing – funny and warm and pragmatic and shyly romantic, all at once. 

Stella Kon Emily of Emerald Hill (1983) This was a Feminist Book Club read, and I’m glad it was. I remember the UBD production of this multilingual one-woman show a few years ago vividly – set in post-war Singapore, this is the story of how the patriarchy makes monsters of us all.  (It paired well with our other FBC read, Cho Nam Joo’s Kim Ji-young, Born 1982

Catherynne M. Valente Deathless (2011) The reimagining of the Russian folktale Koschei the Deathless into wartime Russia – brutal about the unspeakable realities of war, the battles of marriage, with a slippery, subtle message about heroism – its unexceptionalism, its exceptionalism, its dreary repetition. 

Becky Chambers Record of a Spaceborn Few (2018) The third standalone in a science fiction series by Chambers, this book concentrates on a few human lives, set in a world long after humans have vacated the Earth and spent centuries looking for life in space. I found the history moving and poignant, and the concentration on a few individuals makes this my favourite kind of sci-fi – the kind where the human story is the reason for the world building, and not vice versa. 

Frances Hardinge Deeplight (2019) Underwater fantasy, resurrected gods, fallible priests and toxic relationships. Hardinge is fantastic. 

These were definitely my favourites, but I read a few others that are worth mentioning: R.O Kwon’s The Incendiaries (the strongest parts were those on the grief of lost faith), Angela Saini’s Superior: The Return of Race Science (important, grounded, significant – drags a little in the middle, but otherwise well-pitched at the layperson), Kennedy Ryan’s Queen Move (angsty, second-chance romance).

I’ve just finished Emma Straub’s All Adults Here, which is really lovely, some wonderful prose and observations on family relationships. Currently reading Erni Salleh’s The Java Enigma (2020), and looking forward to diving into Sunisa Manning’s A Good True Thai (2020), both Epigram Book Prize finalists this year. ❤

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June 2020 Round-Up

The swiftest round-up, because I’m so late on this.

I read 15 books in June, taking me to 115 for the year.

Fave Reads in June

Grady Hendrix My Best Friend’s Exorcism I came to Hendrix because of the Teen Creeps podcast, and am grateful for it! I’m blown away by how well he writes women – the suburban housewife in The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires and 1980s teenage girlhood in this campy, earnest, delicious, gag-inducing novel. It’s so so good – pulpy and heartfelt and casually cruel. I want his entire back catalog in hard copy form, because the covers, the shapes!

Emily Henry Beach Read I definitely wouldn’t classify this as a rom-com or a romance, but it is very romantic. A romance writer is coming to terms with her beloved father’s death, and her own writer’s block and disillusionment with the idea of romantic love, and her next door neighbour is dark and broody and has his own demons to deal with. It’s very swoony and has an HEA and there’s a great bit where the heroine thinks ruefully that she knows the way she is behaving is annoying when you read it in romance novels, but she can’t help it, making yourself vulnerable in real life is hard okay. (Relate)

Maggie O’Farrell I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death This memoir about the brushes with death O’Farrell has had is just as compelling as Hamnet, which I read earlier in the year. It has that same visceral tenderness with the physical body, and the surrealness of some of these brushes has almost a Stephen King eerieness to it. Amazing and made me feel really, strongly, how fragile and stubborn life is.

S.A. Chakraborty The Empire of Gold The final of the Daevabad Trilogy! Middle-Eastern inspired fantasy, a wonderful, resourceful heroine, water gods and djinn, love everywhere. One of my favourite parts of this very satisfying finale was how Nahri, in her reflections on living after the end of the world as she knows it, is aware of how long it will be before she can heal from the trauma of just surviving the last few years. Heroes get damaged in novels – that’s part of being a hero – but a happy ending means healing, and that doesn’t happen straightaway. cc. Hunger Games. Anyway if you’re looking for a fat, delicious read – it is now complete!

Holly Bourne Pretending I think the ending of this is a little unconvincing, but I loved the female rage on display in this novel. LOVED.

Brit Bennett The Vanishing Half One of the most amazing books of the year so far, for me. Just incredibly wise and prescient about how race determines destiny in North America. The narrative rabbits you along this story of a pair of twins from a small town in America where African-Americans who can pass as white live – one twin chooses to pass for white and from then her path diverges and converges with her sister. One of my favourite questions this novel raises is – what kind of love is possible without knowledge? Anyway, beautifully written, compelling premise, loved this.

Sarah Frier No Filter: The inside story of how Instagram transformed business, celebrity and our culture I knew very little about Instagram going into this “inside story”, including that it had been acquired by Facebook, so every chapter made me go WHAT. It was hugely satisfying. I’ve never been particularly interested in tech memoirs, but this definitely made me realize that I SHOULD BE, because these tech politics impact and influence my life tremendously! Mo knowledge mo power.

Almost at the end of July now, and have read 10 books so far, putting me at 125 for the year. Some good reads in July! Currently reading SamanPontiThe Sellout and Superior. 

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May 2020 Round-Up

Ramadan readathon was a bit of a bust this year – in May I leaned heavily on easier reads to get me through the month. I also discovered Riverdale on Netflix and burned through Seasons 1-4 within a few days (I think the last time I did this was with Goblin in 2017). As with Goblin, I supplemented my binge-watching with reading – reviews from various sites and between-season novel tie-ins, written by Mikol Ostow (who also penned some Buffy tie-ins I believe), which was a truly fun activity. I don’t even know why I began watching Riverdale, or why it sucked me in so fast, but it did (have totally been listening to the music from the musical episodes on loop for the last couple of weeks. As Jughead says in response to a snooty classmate’s “It’s pulp” comment – “Pulp is not an insult to me.”)

Anyway, I ended up reading 20 books in May, bringing me to a total of 100 for the year so far. Here are some notables.

Grady Hendrix The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires I came to this from the Teen Creeps podcast, which rated it highly – and was not disappointed. It was campy (that title says it all), genuinely suspenseful and scary, and like all the best vampire novels, a scathing indictment of gender and race relations in society. Some truly infuriating moments that made me want to throw the book across the room and into the moon.

Mira Grant Into the Drowning Deep Oh Seanan Mcguire, you slay me. This monster-mermaids of the deep was SO GOOD for the first 95%, but the ending was so very disappointing it almost ruined the book for me. (Hoping very hard there’s a sequel) But that first 95% is stellar. Mariana Trench! Scientists on a ship! MONSTER MERMAIDS I will say no more.

E.M. Delafield Diary of a Provincial Lady This one was a re-read – I really wanted something light and easy, and this 1930s comic diary of an upper-class female from Devonshire, reads like a precursor to Bridget Jones, or a British counterpart to Anne Shirley. Much stiff upper lip-ping, agonizing over dresses and economizing, regular attempts to win literary prizes, dashing up to London and trying desperately not to betray her fondness and deep love for her husband and children. Delightful.

Zeba Talkhani My Past is a Foreign Country This memoir is subtitled A Muslim Feminist Finds Herself, and chronicles Talkhani’s journey as an Indian Muslim growing up in Saudi, through to higher education in Germany, India and Britain. She speaks frankly about her fraught relationship with her mother, who holds her to standards of femininity that she cannot live up to, and whose efforts bring her actual physical pain, and the support/resistance of her father, who supports her education while also placing limits on it. The memoir, like Amrou Al-Kadhi’s Unicorn, is generous in its attempt to understand and forgive the hurts inflicted by parents, themselves victims of a damaging and toxic patriarchy, acknowledging that love can be separate from kindness and grace.

Other Notable Media: The Belgian dystopia on Netflix Into the Night, in which a group of people try to outfly the suddenly apocalyptic sun.

In my previous post, I wrote about reading and working, and how imperative it is that one informs the other. To that end, here are a couple of links to Anti-Racist Reading Lists: I’ll try to add to these as I go along.

Books on Anti-Racism that you can read right now

An Anti-Racist Reading List 

 

We move onward into June, all of us. May the coming days and months see justice served, the oppressed lifted, and a world better than the one we leave behind.

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A Time for Reading, A Time for Working

Across the bookstagrams and other social media I follow, I’ve seen the same grieving lament echoed – It’s hard to read right now – since the beginning of COVID-19 and gathering in intensity over the last few days. There is so much urgent, angry work to be done to confront injustice, oppression, genocide – across the world that taking the time to read, to look away, can feel guilty, irresponsible.

This is perhaps because for many of us, reading is a form of escapism. And there are times when it becomes a moral necessity to not escape, to face and bear witness to the crimes and tragedies around us. See them, speak their names, the names of communities and the names of individuals. The Uyghurs, the Palestinians, the Rohingya, George Floyd, Breanna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery.

Because bearing witness is not just seeing, but testifying. We must testify to the truth of what is happening, carry that truth within us and to those around us, to those in power, to those who can effect change, in our own actions. The time to observe, to just watch, is long past. We all know the truth of what is happening – we must bear that truth upwards and outwards, in our hands and on our tongues.

Even reading to educate ourselves on the struggles of our brothers and sisters, can become a form of escapism if our efforts end there – with knowing and understanding. That part must be ongoing – we must continue to learn and listen – but we must also act. It’s something I struggle with myself, sitting as I do in academia, where “activism” and “advocacy” are sometimes seen as antithetical to the academic process, as if having a personal “bias” for justice, for causes, for truth, compromises your critical abilities. The anxiety of wanting to have all the information before passing judgement, weighing each word carefully before letting it free – can be crippling. But there is always more to learn. There is no end to learning. We must trust that this principle will always hold true – that all persons deserve to live in freedom. Freedom to live, and love, and laugh and grow – free from the fear of simply being.

There is a time for reading, and a time for working, for action. They must inform each other.

We seek comfort in reading – to find a way to make sense of this world, of these feelings, these wrongs. We can sometimes find that comfort by running away, into a different world, where problems make sense and heroes triumph. Sometimes we can find that comfort by seeing our hurts on the page, knowing that we have been seen and heard and recorded. Other times, reading can be an act of witness – to see others, to remember them, to learn from them, simply to be with them.

But if it is difficult to read now, it may be because it is not a time for reading, but a time for working. We are not helpless, we are not passive, we are not just observers. The world weighs on us, but we have presence and movement and words. We weigh back.

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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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