March 2021 Round-Up

March was a month of re-reads, and it was so wonderful. I had “forgotten to remember” the joy of re-reading – new books are so exciting and push me to learn and grow; but discovering and re-discovering layers to familiar and beloved books is such a sweet and almost poignant experience (okay I’ve been reading a lot of L.M Montgomery lately), like falling back in love with your own life, your own dear friends and family and values.

I pledged to not buy any new books for March, and I think that was at least partly the reason I went back to re-reading, although I could just as easily have tried to make an indent in my healthy TBR pile. I kind of almost want to pledge to do another no-buy month, but maybe a bit later in the year. It was relatively painless, to be honest, and not being able to mood-buy made me realize :

  1. That the books I’ve accumulated in my TBR stack skew dark and/or heavy! Whenever I buy in batches, I tend to read the easy ones first, and leave the heavier ones for later, so those tend to pile up.
  2. That I tend to read mood-buys immediately – when I feel in the mood for a thriller, I buy one! So I never have thrillers in my TBR stack – therefore in terms of Value For Money, there’s an immediate return on investment.

No conclusions, just reflections. I tend to work around to the stuff in my TBR stacks eventually, even if it takes a few years.

Anyway in March I read 19 books, taking me to 50 for the year.

Books I re-read in March

Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games trilogy I really enjoyed being able to read this trilogy all in one go instead of having to wait for each book (waiting for the second book in a trilogy is always the worst, because the second book is always a “bridge” book and also there’s always a cliffhanger, so its like okay, I obviously have to read it because its too long to wait till the third book comes out, but also zomg)! This time round I was very invested in Team Gale, and also really appreciated how Suzanne Collins created a heroine who was clearly always noble, but who also started off apathetic about politics and who then grew into political consciousness and action. Katniss wasn’t perfect, but she was fundamentally a very good person.

Naomi Novik Spinning Silver, Uprooted, The Scholomance #1 I really enjoy Naomi Novik’s fantasies that build and spin off folklore and fairytales and wizard schools, and knowing how they end didn’t reduce the thrill and sheer fun of re-reading them.

Nalini Singh Rock Addition, Rock Wedding Nalini Singh has long been a romance auto-buy for me, and in particular I’m a big fan of her contemporary New Zealand “Rock Kiss” series, which stars the members of the rock band Schoolboy Choir as they fall in love. I would call these romances fluffy rather than gritty, or fluff with elements of grit, but whatever they are, her loyal, longing, loving heroes are my jam.

L.M. Montgomery Anne of Green Gables, Anne of Avonlea I can’t count the number of times I re-read this as a teen, and I’m so happy to come back to them. Something that really stands out to me as an adult reader of these novels is the omniscient narrator, which I absolutely do not remember from my previous reads. If you’d asked me last week, I’d have said that these were written in third person, limited POV – mostly Anne’s. Which is probably a commentary on my own positionality while reading – I probably have a lot more in common these days with the omniscient narrator than the beloved Anne-child, Anne-teen.

Andy Weir The Martian I read this a few years ago, the movie is absolutely brilliant, and re-reading it while knowing how it ends enabled me to really enjoy Mark Watson’s resilient, ironic, determinedly cheerful voice.

Notable New Reads

Aoko Matsuda Where the Wild Ladies Are Feminist Book Club Pick! Short story collections are always tricky for me – how do I figure out how these short stories relate to each other, or not, what are the larger themes that draw this collection together etc. Anyway these retellings and subversions of Japanese folktales were super fun and I would definitely re-read – love as K said, how these highlight how sometimes the experience of womanhood in this world that is made for men, is essentially Other. We have not been allowed a space in this world, we are always contorting ourselves and ensmallening ourselves, and sometimes you just gotta MAKE that space.

Peace Adzo Medie His Only Wife I liked this story about a young woman coming into herself, and struggling to do so through her marriage to a man she loves, but who the reader isn’t quite sure loves her. And twisted questions of class mobility and what it costs, and how class manifests itself in a kind of cosmopolitan language of consumerism that you have to learn. And I REALLY liked the ending. It was super descriptive, Ghana felt like a character, and so much of it was heartbreaking in an everyday kind of way.

Taylor Jenkins Reid After I Do TJR does heartbreak-through-humanness-and-not-villainy so so well, and this novel about a couple who begin marriage desperately in love and the novel on the edge of divorceis no exception.

Nadine Jolie Courtney All-American Muslim Girl Read this one a bit too early – should have saved it for Ramadan! A Muslim teen who passes as non-Muslim, comes of age in a post 9/11 America. Her parents – her Jordanian father who gives up the faith, and her convert mother – are fascinating. Bright and a little draggy, but definitely worth a read. I enjoyed the “sisters halaqa” that the protagonist attends as part of her Islamic education.

Liane Moriarty Big Little Lies Dark, fluffy suburban drama

Bolu Babalola Love in Colour: Mythical Tales from Around the World, Retold As I mentioned in my Goodreads review, while I enjoyed these retellings of folktales that I wasn’t familiar with – a little cheesy, a little playful, with language that jumps and twists in fresh ways – I suppose I was looking for more depth, more subversion, more meaning to the retellings. I would definitely read more of Babalola’s work, and would be especially excited to read non-retellings from her! (One of my faves in the collection was the mythologizing of her own parents’ love story -which was such a sweet way of saying that sometimes the fairytales closest to us are the ones featuring our family – that real life is like a fairytale when its told that way.)

Now that no-buy month is over, there are a few books I’ve got my eye on, including Battle Royale, Professional Troublemaker, Yolk…but first to read my own FBC pick, Leila Aboulela’s The Kindness of Enemies!

Till next month, hopes and prayers for a blessed Ramadan for all. ❤

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February 2021 Round-Up

In Feb 2021, I read 13 books, and some were real bangers.

T.J Klune The House in the Cerulean Sea (2020) This magical fantasy about Linus the caseworker who assesses orphanages of magical children for a living was just so lovely and heartwarming! The story begins when Linus is sent to the end of the train line by Extremely Upper Management, to assess a secret island orphanage overseen by the enigmatic and patient Arthur. I loved how this book reminded me of how freeing the seaside is, and the characters are all so delightful. The prose almost feels like its written for children (and the cover makes it seem that way also?), but some of the scenes (and jokes) are definitely adult and/or dark, although they’re more allusive than graphic. Older children could read this, I think. I definitely cried at several points.

Camille Perri The Assistants (2016) This was an Ask A Manager recommendation, and reads like a Devil Wears Prada x Oceans 13 crossover. Tina Fontana is a 30 year old PA to a gajillionaire media mogul, and when a small expense account mistake (that the mogul never notices) enables Tina to pay off her debilitating student loans, it starts a small revolution amongst the assistants to the 0.01%. This is fun and easy to read, but there were a few details which I thought could have added depth to the story. Tina’s immigrant parents, for example, seem to be a big influence on the way Tina thinks about class and money, but it’s not really given much attention. Also I hated the love interest with a burning passion. Trash.

Tessa Bailey The Sweetest Fix (2021) Tessa Bailey is generally an auto-buy for me, and she doesn’t disappoint here. A really satisfying angsty contemporary romance feat. Reese, an aspiring dancer who is allowing herself one last desperate chance to make it as a Broadway dancer in NYC, and Leo, the grumpy baker who is the son of an acclaimed dance choreographer. This was just a really nice escapist read, although I side-eyed at the idea that an experienced dancer wouldn’t realize it would take more than one week of auditions to “make it”.

Abigail Dean Girl A (2021) Inspired by real life cases where children are tortured and trapped by their parents, this was a compelling and uncomfortable read. As Dean says in this interview, this thriller isn’t about whether the children will escape their parents – but about what happens in the years after, how they survive, and live, and try to thrive. I found this uncomfortable to read because I felt almost voyeuristic as a reader, in a position parallel to the media who shark-circle the children and the terrible, gruesome details of their lives in the house. For that reason I wouldn’t personally recommend it to others without lots of warnings and caveats, but despite that, it didn’t feel exploitative as a novel, just disturbing – and the prose was strong. I’ll probably look out for Dean’s next novel, depending on the subject matter.

Leila Aboulela Bird Summons (2019) I really enjoyed this novel about three diasporic Scottish Muslim women who go on a road trip in Scotland to visit the grave of Lady Evelyn Cobbold, the first British woman to go on Haj in 1933. The interactions between the three very different women, and the indecision and bureaucracy of the Muslim Women’s Group they belong to, felt very true to the many years I have spent in various MSAs and ISOCs. I’ve sometimes struggled a bit to get on with Aboulela’s prose, found it a bit stilted and abrupt, but her characterizations are spot on – and although I was a tiny bit skeptical of the Hoopoe and the sudden magical realist turn of the narrative in the last act, it was easy enough to go along with.

Honourable mentions

Tilly Wallace Manners and Monsters The first in a zombie-Regency series – light and fun! There was a lot of repetition in the prose, but the premise was engaging enough that I will look up the next in the series.

Jesse Q Sutanto The Obsession Girl meets boy. Boy is a stalker. Twist: She isn’t his first victim. Twist: He isn’t her first nemesis. Especially honourable mention for having admissions to Singapore’s NUS be a major plot point, lol, gotta love that SEA rep.

Some reflections

It occasionally happens that when deadlines pile up or I’m feeling creatively stunted, I procrastinate deeply by consuming a ton of media. This includes reading a lot, watching a lot of TV, listening to a lot of podcasts (I am burning through the Riverdale After Dark recap episodes) – anything rather than confront the blank page in front of me. (Or the page with lots of red marks and suggested edits and queries that’s been returned by the editor). I definitely felt myself going in that direction this month, and I know the antidote is always just to commit to bit more silence – writing patiently through the dread, finding mindfulness instead of filling time with music or podcasts. In essence, creating more than I consume.

My TBR library is getting a bit out of hand so I’m going to try a no-buy month in March for books. I guess I’ve noticed over the last few years that I’ve been tracking my book expenses, that I really do spend a tremendous amount on books, and while I’m old enough to be tremendously grateful for the blessing of one-click e-book buys, sent straight to me (no waiting for the weekend! Or realising that I would never be able to read something unless Best Eastern or Booker brought it in!), moderation in all things, and an acquisition mindset re-set, is probably good.

Currently reading

Peace Adzo Medie’s His Only Wife (2020)A contemporary Ghanaian love story – am not very far in, but enjoying the pacey, vibrant voice so far. And am cheered by what I’ve seen in reviews re: the heroine’s triumph (haven’t been spoiled, plot wise, but I like to be hopeful, going in to a book, that the heroine isn’t going to be trampled by Life).

Nathaniel Hawthorne The Scarlet Letter (1850) A definitely not contemporary American novel – it’s always a bit disorienting to finally read a Text you know so much about from popular culture, in the flesh, as it were. So far I’m feeling my way with the voice – seems snarky about Puritan values? There’s a demonic Rumpelstiltskin character? Hester Prynne is amazingly characterized at this point, and I’m kind of liking this not-quite-but-maybe-evil girl child.

Aoko Matsuda Where the Wild Ladies Are (Translated by Polly Barton, 2020) This collection of feminist retellings of Japanese folktales is our Feminist Book Club pick for Feb 2021! (We are a week behind meeting heh heh). Have heard many good things about this one, including a comparison to Zen Cho’s Spirits Abroad, one of my fave short story collections of all time.

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January 2021

Happy New Year!

Fresh new year, fresh new book aspirations. As always, I hope to have a good mix of reading for enjoyment, for growth, and for keeping abreast of cultural conversations – aiming for the usual 144-150 books. So these are less new reading aspirations and more a renewal of existing ones which have served me well in the past.

In January 2021 I read 18 books. Overall my impression is that they were a pretty good batch! I’m going to categorise the notables into genres below.

Southeast Asian Writing

Erni Salleh The Java Enigma Am OBVIOUSLY biased, because Erni was a fellow finalist for the 2020 Epigram Books Fiction Prize, but I enjoyed this! A young woman who has just lost her salvage diver father, goes on a treasure hunt (involving scuba diving!) with a guy who I was really leery of. This one needs a sequel – I don’t think Irin’s journey is over quite yet.

Sunisa Manning A Good True Thai Same disclaimer as above, but I genuinely genuinely would recommend this novel to anyone who is looking for an epic Thai novel. Set in the post-Chulalongkorn period, three young activists struggle for democracy – Det, the genuinely good-hearted, well-meaning aristocrat with high ideas about morality and responsibility; Lek, a Chinese student who is fiercely wedded to her duty to pull her family up and out of poverty; Chang, Det’s best friend and the most traditional revolutionary in some ways – the quintessential underdog, bookish and brainy.

There was so much I loved in the little touches of this tremendous novel, and so much I identified with and found eerily timely. I am a SUCKER for novels and stories which are brutally pragmatic about the fast-burning flare of youthful, idealistic passion and activism [see: my love for Les Mis (the musical) and that epic burn, “Who cares about your lonely soul/we strive towards a larger goal“]. Det is so beautifully privileged and charismatic, and Lek is so understandably, mercenarily manipulative, and Chang – classic underdog who does all the backbreaking work and gets so little of the glory and credit and – love.

Characters who broke my heart: Det’s father, Dao, the good hearted rural revolutionary who exemplifies goodness and truth.

Before this novel, I would not have known about the many many resonances of Thai culture, lese majeste in particular, that would find a home in me, including a powerful and powerfully articulate scene when revolutionary ideals and intellect come up flush against instinctive loyalty and love for the Thai monarch that is so internalised it feels primal. The fundamental problem with internalising ideas – like this, in a vein that throbs so close to the heart that it feels a part of it, is that we often mistake our instincts for truth, for conscience, instead of social and cultural engineering.

Anyway I loved this book, and the level of immersive detail is tremendous, and I would recommend thoroughly.

Bash Harry Oh My Darling, Words in Books I’ll Never Write First, how good is that title? In the interests of full disclosure, I was involved in the production of this book, so this is obviously going to be biased, like all the other books in this category!!! But absolutely had to mention this local book, a romantic and romanticising collection of vignettes, poetry, micro-fiction of all the boys the narrator has loved and lost and learned from, and I think it will definitely find a fond home in the hearts of many readers. There are some lovely turns of phrase and language.

Young Adult Fiction

Samira Ahmed Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know French American Indian Muslim teen Khayyam is in France for the summer, leaving behind in Chicago an ex-boyfriend (Zaid) and a failed bid at an art history prize.

I have really enjoyed Samira Ahmed’s other Muslim YA fiction – Love, Hate & Other Filters was so fantastic and I need to re-read it I think; Internment was chillingly plausible in a Trump era. Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know – I suppose I couldn’t help comparing it to S. A. Chakraborty’s Daevabad series, and the level of detail and world-building. It’s not a fair comparison, of course, because the Daevabad series is a fat trilogy, while Mad, Bad etc can only deal with the historical portion in snippets, and so of course the level of immersiveness is going to be different.

This novel just didn’t quite hit home for me. I liked the heroine, although I found her ruminations on being half-French, half-American, and the differences between the two nationalities a little repetitive and contrived; she was believably obsessive about her art history prize rejection. It felt like her two romances – with the desi dream Zaid and the French grandson of Alexander Dumas – came from two different wavelengths and neither of them really had anything to do with being attracted to the boys, but Khayyam’s own headspace, which I guess ties into Khayyam and Layla’s own struggles with envisioning a life outside of the men who influence them (and in Layla’s case, has power over her) so deeply.

I’m torn on this one. I think readers looking for a fun YA with an art history caper that also deftly showcases how history erases women and Islam and anything non-Western, will enjoy it muchly. As someone who knows this already, the story didn’t hit quite as hard. BUT I would absolutely LOVE a novel about Khayyam’s parents.

Sherry Thomas The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan I love Sherry Thomas’ romance novels, and her Lady Sherlock series, and this YA retelling of the story of Mulan is wonderful. I particularly liked how Mulan was upright and honourable (like most people I am a sucker for aspirational nobility of character) but also super pragmatic about wanting to survive the war, and not wanting to sacrifice herself for someone else’s cause.

Non-fiction

Allie Brosh Solutions and Other Problems Allie Brosh’s graphic essays are poignant, laugh-out-loud inducing, and occasionally a “no-really!” ride through the narrative line. So glad this exists – I think Hyperbole and a Half was a little tighter, but this one, despite some baggy bits, was fiercer and deeper. (I found the “more than 1600 pieces of art!” claim more threatening than enticing, but that’s also on-brand for this book I think.)

Annie Dillard The Writing Life I found this so thought-provoking and affirming when I first read it, and although I was struck by different parts and thoughts this time around, I think its still very much worth a read.

Romance

Patricia Gaffney To Love and to Cherish This romance is a joy to re-read for many reasons, including its frank grappling with the place of religion in relationships, the well-peopled narrative, and the dreamy description of setting.

Other

Tim Burton The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories A collection of macabre, off-kilter, strange poems about strange children – if you like Tim Burton’s animated films (which I do – A Nightmare before Christmas is an old favourite) you will like this. Full of beans.

Coming Up

One week into the square month of February, and amongst others I’ve already read a romance that made me cry buckets through the last three chapters (Tessa Bailey’s The Sweetest Fix), and a super fun Ask a Manager recommended caper The Assistants by Camille Perri, in which assistants to the 0.01% siphon a tiny bit off their bosses’ expense accounts to pay off their own debilitating student loans. A modern day Robin Hood.

On the TBR priority shelf this month: Leila Aboulela’s Bird Summons, Joshua Kam’s How the Man in Green Saved Pahang and Possibly the World, and a Read Like a Feminist pick, Aoko Matsuda’s Where the Wild Ladies are .

xx

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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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