Posts tagged books
A Feast of Japanese Cusine
She said that was the only way for us to live, to be like the poets. That’s what she said. If all you ever see is reality, you just want to die. The only way to get over barriers, she said, is to live in the spirit of already being over them.
— Durian Sukegawa, Sweet Bean Paste

I just finished Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa, and I will admit, this kind of soft soft slice-of-life stories are not my usual fare, but they definitely deserve a place in any diet (When it comes to Japanese writing I am more a Yoko Ogawa / Junji Ito kind of a person.) If you liked Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen, you’ll probably enjoy this one a lot; it gives me that same warm fuzzy feelings. It is a simple story that follows the unlikely couple formula; washed out man working at a dorayaki store meets an extraordinary woman with extraordinary circumstances and gives him a new perspective in life and gently encouraging him. His problems aren’t all magically solved in the end but there is some hope for his future. And at the same time, the story sheds light on social issues in Japan - the way lepers (yes literal leprosy not a metaphor) were treated and continue to be treated today. 


And then a friend of mine introduced me to the mobile game Hungry Hearts Diner (Available on the Apple store and Google Play store). I highly recommend this! The game takes place in a post WWII Japan, where an old lady is trying to keep her husband’s diner going after he’s had an accident. You interact with customers, which unlocks conversations and you find out more about them as well as the old lady, and you have to be heartless to not be moved by the storylines.

I also adore reading the descriptions of the different dishes she cooks. The Braised Pork description is sassy “Some heathens leave behind the fatty bits” while Edamame is educational '“Selectively bred to accompany beer… or so you would think. Did you know they’re actually baby soybeans?” The game has also given me an intense desire to try to cooking Nikujaga, and also maybe giving Japanese potato salad (which is superior to the Western variety I maintain) a go.

The Wicked King, and more squealing about Holly Black
All hail the Faerie Queen

All hail the Faerie Queen

No spoilers below I promise

Yes, I know I gushed plenty about Holly Black in my previous post , but this is my site and I can do what I want, and what I want now is to scream to the world on how much I enjoyed The Wicked King and everyone should start on The Folk of Air series now.

I have been going around squealing about the series since finishing and have been demanding that friends began reading the first book, The Cruel Prince, immediately so we can discuss fan theories and just talk about the overall awesomeness of the series. I foolishly ordered it off Book Depository because I saw that Kinokuniya hadn’t stocked it yet and in the website they stated that it wasn’t in stock and would take two weeks and was almost twice the cost of the Book Depository item. So I ordered it off Book Depository and found it in stock in Kino two days later and was kicking myself every day afterwards until I received my Book Depository order.

To make it more bearable, I started to read Holly Black’s older Modern Faerietale series. While you don’t need to have read everything she’s written to get started on The Folk of Air series, it’s a lovely easter egg for longtime fans to see her characters pop up; the some characters from Tithe are mentioned in her other book, The Darkest Part of the Forest , but it’s only in The Cruel Prince that all the characters actually interact and meet. Tortured angsty elf boy Roiben (from Tithe, Valiant, and Ironside) pops up again a lot in The Wicked King.

Yes, it deeply annoys me that the covers are not a matched set. I’m this close to shelling out money for another copy of Ironside just so that they will.

Yes, it deeply annoys me that the covers are not a matched set. I’m this close to shelling out money for another copy of Ironside just so that they will.

It’s after reading her older writing that I really appreciate how ambitious The Folk of the Air series is. Black introduces a much larger cast of characters than in her previous books and you get to know them more intimately in this book. There are multiple intrigues and plot twists with enough setup and foreshadowing so that nothing feels like it’s completely out from the left field. Jude is the first protagonist we see who actually dishes out murder consciously and it shakes her up each time. I’ve been seeing how reviewers are complaining that a lot of her problems would be solved with better communication, but it makes sense that she doesn’t; much of the book sets up the reasons for her paranoia and she’s right to have trust issues.

Your ridiculous family might be surprised to find that not everything is solved by murder.
— Holly Black

I also really appreciate that romance isn’t the main focus of the book. Also, with the Modern Faerietale, we already knew that the love interests were head over heels with each other and as readers could only shout at them from the sidelines for being so stupid. In The Folk of Air, I still don’t know what to think of Cardan (male supernatural love interest) and his intentions. It helps that we never get a chapter in his point of view (which we did with Roibin in Tithe), which I think is fantastic as we constantly feel on edge knowing that Jude is not the most reliable narrator given her paranoia but don’t have any other point-of-view to corroborate with her reliability/unreliability.

Also that ridiculous mic drop of a cliffhanger is driving me nuts and 2020 couldn’t come quickly enough.

The Folk of the Air series books #1 and #2

The Folk of the Air series books #1 and #2

Beyond romance though, I think where Black really excels is in writing about dysfunctional families, and how difficult it is to not care or cut ourselves away from them, no matter how toxic they can be. We saw this a lot in The Curse Worker series, where the protagonist has a lying psychopathic brother who turns out to have been abusing him for years but they have to work together to save each other anyway. Jude is brought to Faerieland because her parents’ murderer takes her there, and basically brings her up like a daughter. It makes things complicated and my favourite scenes are the ones where the two of them interact; there is grudging respect and affection on both ends and Jude doesn’t know whether to count him as ally or not throughout.

If any of you get around to reading Holly Black please do let me know and we can talk! There’s a lot to unpack in this series and it was hard to write a spoiler-free post.

Books #2 and #3 of 2019: Fantasy binge
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I’ve been reading a lot of fantasy - starting with Holly Black’s The Cruel Prince, the first book of the Folk of Air series, and following that up with Naomi Novik’s novel Uprooted. 

I've read The Cruel Prince at least twice since getting hold of it last year in January 2018 and honestly, it’s Holly Black at her best. Which I truly did not think I would say after The Curse Workers series (very cool magic system in a modern day setting which includes crime families, dysfunctional families, tortured brooding protagonist, immensely satisfying female characters) as I just didn’t like the novels that came after as much. What I’ve always enjoyed about Black is her ability to write about protagonists who come from extremely dysfunctional and unsavoury backgrounds (a lot of the save-the-day plots involve being light-fingered and/or conning everyone they love around them). Her protagonists are also reasonably moral; they’re usually terrified reluctant heroes who still have excellent motivations for attempting to save everything falling to pieces around them. She develops her side characters well and you actually understand the stakes of dropping everything and running away instead of trying to fix things. 

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What they don’t realize is this: Yes, they frighten me, but I have always been scared, since the day I got here. I was raised by the man who murdered my parents, reared in a land of monsters. I live with that fear, let it settle into my bones, and ignore it. If I didn’t pretend not to be scared, I would hide under my owl-down coverlets in Madoc’s estate forever. I would lie there and scream until there was nothing left of me.
— Holly Black, The Cruel Prince

Whilst most of Black’s stories take place in modern-day settings, The Cruel Prince actually happens in Faerieland. The prologue is already terrifying and sets up so much of the characters; one day a man enters Jude’s home and murders her parents, then takes her and her sisters to live with him. The man turns out to be a faerie named Madoc (a bloodthirsty redcap who is also the general of the Faerie King’s armies to be precise), who her mother was previously married to, but left. If you can call burning down his estate and leaving the burnt corpse of a pregnant woman in its charred ruins ‘left’. Jude and her sisters grow up in Faerieland, and because her parents’ murderer/now-foster father is a Very Important Faerie she grows up amongst the gentry and attends classes with them and is constantly snubbed and belittled, and occasionally tortured. I highly recommend it. Also I was rereading it this time because the second book of the series, The Wicked King, is now out and will hopefully be delivered in my mailbox by the end of the month. 

I am going to keep on defying you. I am going to shame you with my defiance. You remind me that I am a mere mortal and you are a prince of Faerie. Well, let me remind you that means you have much to lose and I have nothing. You may win in the end, you may ensorcell me and hurt me and humiliate me, but I will make sure you lose everything I can take from you on the way down. I promise you this is the least of what I can do.
— BAMF Jude

After Neil Gaiman, Holly Black is probably my favourite writer and if I ever get around to setting up a list of #writinggoals it would be based on her work. Her portfolio is so extensive and she has written SO MUCH in the last fifteen years; she has done The Spiderwick Chronicles (five-part series of children’s books), The Good Neighbours Series (comics), The Modern Faerie Tales (Young Adult, and my first introduction to urban fantasy), and is currently writing the current Lucifer graphic novels. She also shares great writing advice and resources here.

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Those the walkers carried into the Wood were less lucky. We didn’t know what happened to them, but they came back out sometimes, corrupted in the worst way: smiling and cheerful, unharmed. They seemed almost themselves to anyone who didn’t know them well, and you might spend half a day talking with one of them and never realize anything was wrong, until you found yourself taking up a knife and cutting off your own hand, putting out your own eyes, your own tongue, while they kept talking all the while, smiling, horrible. And then they would take the knife and go inside your house, to your children, while you lay outside blind and choking and helpless even to scream. If someone we loved was taken by the walkers, the only thing we knew to hope for them was death, and it could only be a hope.
— Naomi Novik, Uprooted

I purchased Naomi Novik’s novel Spinning Silver after reading Straits Times’ journalist Olivia Ho’s review (sidenote do check out her supercool Instagram which combines my two loves: books and beautiful clothing) where she basically declared Novik as her favourite high fantasy writer. I love the book so much that I had to get Novik’s only other standalone book; I might just get started on Temeraire series next.

Also the stakes in Uprooted felt real throughout. A lot of character death happens at one point so you’re really unsure which one of your favourite ones would actually make it out alive. I also really appreciate the Eastern European influences in these novels! Most fairytales borrow from the Western European tradition so it’s always nice to read about different settings and monsters. 

Both novels feature female protagonists who battle all sorts of unearthly forces to save things greater than themselves; Family, Home, Identity - and throughout they’re dealing with so much fear. They’re still very different though; Jude from The Cruel Prince has learnt to be vicious and hard and her path to victory meant being as cruel and heartless as the fae around her. I’m really looking forward to Book II as it’s about how much she more has to bear in order to maintain her power and victory.

Agniesza, throughout Uprooted, sees violence and throws up, runs away, and eventually, commits it when necessary, but her victory comes about only because she wants to see an end to suffering. I really recommend both novels because they’re very different portraits of female strength, and both are still protagonists who grow into their own.

With bare feet in the dirt, fulmia, ten times with conviction, will shake the earth to its roots, if you have the strength, Jaga’s book had told me, and the Dragon had believed it enough not to let me try it anywhere near the tower. I had felt doubtful, anyway, about conviction: I hadn’t believed I had any business shaking the earth to its roots. But now I fell to the ground and dug away the snow and the fallen leaves and rot and moss until I came to the hard-frozen dirt. I pried up a large stone and began to smash at the earth, again and again, breaking up the dirt and breathing on it to make it softer, pounding in the snow that melted around my hands, pounding in the hot tears that dripped from my eyes as I worked. Kasia was above me with her head flung up, her mouth open in its soundless cry like a statue in a church. “Fulmia,” I said, my fingers deep in the dirt, crushing the solid clods between my fingers. “Fulmia, fulmia,” I chanted over and over, bleeding from broken nails, and I felt the earth hear me, uneasily. Even the earth was tainted here, poisoned, but I spat on the dirt and screamed, “Fulmia,” and imagined my magic running into the ground like water, finding cracks and weaknesses, spreading out beneath my hands, beneath my cold wet knees: and the earth shuddered and turned over. A low trembling began where my hands drove into the ground, and it followed me as I started prying at the roots of the tree. The frozen dirt began to break up into small chunks all around them, the tremors going on and on like waves. The branches above me were waving wildly as if in alarm, the whispering of the leaves becoming a muted roaring. I straightened up on my knees. “Let her out!” I screamed at the tree: I beat on its trunk with my muddy fists. “Let her out, or I’ll bring you down! Fulmia!” I cried out in rage, and threw myself back down at the ground, and where my fists hit, the ground rose and swelled like a river rising with the rain. Magic was pouring out of me, a torrent: every warning the Dragon had ever given me forgotten and ignored. I would have spent every drop of myself and died there, just to bring that horrible tree down: I couldn’t imagine a world where I lived, where I left this behind me, Kasia’s life and heart feeding this corrupt monstrous thing. I would rather have died, crushed in my own earthquake, and brought it down with me. I tore at the ground ready to break open a pit to swallow us all.
— Very different kind of badass, but badass all the same Agnieszka

Also! I have found out that Novik, besides being an amazing writer, also started up Organisation for Transformative Works, and played a huge role in getting Archive of Your Own (AO3) set up. For non-fanfiction readers, this is a site that was basically set up when websites like LiveJournal, DeviantArt, were all going through weird purges or becoming more commercialised. Fanfiction writers tend to be female, and members of the community basically banded together to set the site up and create a platform that is fan-run. There was a fantastic Tumblr thread going around at one point about how the AO3, for the first time, made the reader accountable for what they chose to read rather than make it easy for anyone to report and take down content because they found it offensive; something that was done on previous platforms whenever people didn’t like smutty content that their children might end up reading. I cannot find the Tumblr thread but you can check out this link for further academic research on how the site was a glorious move set out by female writers who were trying to carve out a space for themselves on the interwebs without getting it taken down. 

I’m going to be going through all my other Holly Black books whilst waiting for Bookdepository to get back to me; meanwhile I am severely regretting not waiting a couple of days after the release date and just getting it from Kinokuniya. I suspect my writing in the near future is going to be strongly influenced by all these fantasy elements. But then, I haven’t really been writing anything, and these blogposts are part of my attempts to prod myself to at least write something every once in a while. 

First Book of 2019
I wake up the next morning renewed. I am a girl with a plan. I’m just going to have to avoid Josh forever. It’s as simple as that.
— To All The Boys I've loved Before, Jenny Han

I paid the new local independent bookstore The Moon a visit on 4 Jan. They’ve basically taken the secret bookstore cafe I’ve always wanted - Because books that focus on women writers! And women of colour! And cake! - and turned it into an actual space! I highly recommend everyone checks it out. Came out with Ocean Vuong’s poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Durian Sukegawa’s Sweet Bean Paste and of course, Jenny Han’s To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. I haven’t actually finished a proper novel in a while - I’ve been too busy playing with the Nintendo Switch and reading fanfiction on the phone instead, so I figured the best way to kickstart reading the new year would be with something light hearted.

Whilst at The Moon, I was able to have a nice chat with the owner, Sara, and when she was checking out my purchases she asked if I’d watched the Netflix movie. I answered “Twice” with the biggest soppiest grin on my face and she told me to let her know if the book was good. I’ve read that book Kavinsky > movie Kavinsky, and movie Kavinsky (played by Noah Centineo) was already adorable so I had no idea how book Kavinsky was going to top that.

In the movie Lara Jean literally runs away, climbs out the window of her room on the second floor to tumble down to the first, and kisses a boy to avoid talking to another one. She has been no less dramatic in the book so far and I love it. I would also like to say I relate to these heavy handed avoidance methods but a friend of mine tells me that what I do with boys who displease me is hiss at them from a distance. I should probably be more ashamed at the accuracy of this description but I am too amused.

Literary Roundup 2018

I’ve been fairly anal about logging down all my reading activity on my Goodreads account and have technically completed 76 books this year, with like 15 other books I started but never got round to finishing. I’m a little disappointed that I got so close to a full 100 (I had almost 60 books in August so you can tell I really fell off the bandwagon there). BUT if you count the sheer amount of fanfiction and /r/nosleep horror stories I have read, not to mention that ridiculously long web novel which is supposed to be three times the length of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I did good.

Recommended Titles 

  1. Circe by Madeline Miller – I read this book three times this year, that’s how good it is. Greek mythology + feminist retelling seems like an overdone formula but Miller really brings the characters to life.

  2. The Adventures of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke – This was slow going at first because a lot of the first three hundred pages is devoted to solid world building.

  3. Hoshimaruhon series by Wena Poon – A hilarious but still deeply moving trilogy that that is a bizarre landscape of East Asian tropes – think swordsmen training in the mountains, and fox spirits, and ninjas – and also a loving tribute to all of these things.

  4. Gaze Back by Marylyn Tan – A lot has been written about how this book is obscene or taboo stomping. All true. It is also pushing at the boundaries of how we understand form and language in poetry. Go read it.

  5. Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik – For anyone who likes high fantasy. Devoured this 600+ page edition within a day because it was a story that was easy to swallow.

  6. The Book of Lost Things by John Connelly – A fairytale for adults that like all fairytales uses a literal adventure as a metaphor for grief and change and growing up before you feel ready to. This is basically the kind of novel I want to write at some point in my life.

  7. Pachinko by Min-Jin Lee – I first read this book in 2017 while on holiday in Japan and almost started crying in my tiny one-room Airbnb when my favourite character died. The book was no less brutal on the feels on a second read. This was probably my third book by a Korean author (the first two being Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and Human Acts) and was a complex family saga that spanned three generations which dealt with complexities of Korean-Japanese relations in the 20th century with so much grace and humanity. Highly recommended.

I’ve also been shockingly active on the publishing side. Besides releasing my book in June, I’ve been privileged enough to get accepted into most of the publications I’ve mustered up the energy to apply to. Some of the works listed below were actually listed in 2017 so I don’t really count them as it wasn’t effort put in this year, but still overall a good year despite the poor showing and effort in the last couple of months. Some days I keep beating myself up for not putting in as much effort into my writing as I feel I should; Facebook also likes to remind me that I was producing so much more poetry last year, especially in November and December, and that I am nowhere near the same levels of productivity. I think last year I was also really experimenting with subjects and voice while this year has largely been Angry Woman; while on one level I am glad I have finally embraced that voice (because for the longest time, anger was being emotionally vulnerable as I’m not used to showing it) I really hope to MOVE ON and write other topics soon.

Additionally, I’ve been fortunate enough to be invited to speak at events because people for some reason, are okay with hearing me talk, and also being able to read in foreign stages. The goal for 2019 is to keep doing it again, and submit my CV to various festivals overseas and hopefully get featured as a writer. When in London, someone told me after my set that I had made the world a little bit bigger for everyone else. This was probably the best bit of praise that I have received as a writer and is something that I really want to keep doing. There are so many stories to write and share and it would be a privilege to be a part of them.

Works Published/Accepted in 2018

‘Connect’ – My Lot is The Sky: An Anthology of Poems by Asian Women

Poem for my Breasts – Kindling Issue #5

Questions A Sheltered Singaporean Cannot Answer – Rambutan Literary Issue #6 (forthcoming)

and this too shall passa fistful of flowersNight Whisper – Eunoia Review

Nasi Kang Kang – 3 July 2018 Quarterly Literary Review Singapore (should really be spelt ‘Nasi Kangkang’)

But If You Can’t Set His Balls On Fire The What Was The Point, The Stuff of Every Strapping Man’s Nightmares – SingPoWriMo 2018 anthology

how i know i loveMedusa – Oct 2018 Quarterly Literary Review Singapore

The Wives Poem, Cassandra is Every Woman Who Tried To Speak, Almost a Fairytale – New Reader Magazine Issue #4

Apples – The Fairy Tale Review Pink edition, also Runner Up in their poetry competition in 2018 (forthcoming)

The Wolf Isn’t The Only One in Human Clothing – Corvid Queen Jan 2019