Wednesday, 28 September 2022

#bookreview: Stranger Back Home | EL Haines

Stranger Back HomeStranger Back Home by E.L. Haines

I honestly don't know what to think of Stranger Back Home.

If Sparrow were a real person, he'd be the type of person that I'd actively start avoiding within an hour of meeting him: an arrogant, insufferable, know-it-all. But since he's a fictional character and there were many positive reviews, I figured I'd give him a chance and read his story in small doses.

Anyway.

Sparrow receives a text message from his half-brother, who lives in the magical world of Telleron which is populated by elves, gnomes, halflings, dragons, kobolds, and all sorts of other magical beings/races. He leaves America and goes back home to DragonsMouth to sort out his father's will and his inheritance. Between fighting off bandits and tax auditors, causing general mayhem, and attempting to solve the inheritance problem, Sparrow transplants American racial sensitivities based on skin colour into his interactions with Telleron society, confusing everyone, ignoring actual racial tensions between species, and making himself out to be a complete racist arse, when "really, he's not!"

Spoiler: really, he is. But oh hey, maybe he experienced character growth, or maybe it was all a con! Who knows?

On the whole, the story was quite entertaining, though the main narrative kept segueing into backstory narratives, infodumps, and side comments which is not something I'm particularly fond of, not to mention the use of footnotes which were in some ways rather Pratchett-esque.

Based on Haines' *wink wink nudge nudge* comments, it feels like he's trying to point out how some people can be oversensitive towards issues of race and the language surrounding it. Some of these still feel relevant, including using the terms "boy" and "Master", but others are over-the-top non-issues like the very general terms "black market" and "blacksmith" that Sparrow, for some obscure reason, completely misunderstood. And obviously, because Sparrow cannot read a room to save his life despite being a storyteller, he makes issues of things that no one else but him cares about, including assuming that the economic & power disparities in Telleron are the same as in America (i.e. based on skin colour instead of species).

A key to the plot also involves the use of blackface, where Sparrow has to confront the fact that while blackface is incredibly offensive in modern America, it's a cultural, normal way of life to a subgroup of gnomes in Telleron. And that maybe him donning a kobold disguise to gain information and the way he interacts with them may be more racist than he initially thought.

I suppose you can read Stranger Back Home as an allegory to how issues around race, skin colour, and culture vary around the world - and therefore cannot just be assumed without knowing the true history and tensions of that specific society. What offends some may not offend others. This holds true in real life as well. It does well in unmasking Sparrow's actual unwitting racism towards the other races in Telleron and makes him face up to the realities of hate based on your race (or in this case, species) and the way that he treats the kobolds.

Yet, at the same time, it also glosses over the complexity, breadth, and width of race relations (including disparate impact based on various factors) in real-world societies by "proving" how untrue it is in this fictional one. This undermines the realities of unconscious biases and systemic problems that people are still experiencing and trying to correct by implying that it's only racism if there is "real harm", which I suppose refers to physical and/or actual economic harm, as opposed to "perceived harm".

I can only conclude that as a white person, Haines has never experienced microaggressions and does not understand what it means and how it affects a person. Or he has a really thick skin and embodies the adage "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me." He further disparages such "perceived harm" by having Colburn, the dark-skinned coach driver, deliver a long monologue about being "flattered that someone like [Sparrow] would want to imitate me" and how "everyone should share cultures" (no one is saying we shouldn't) and to not let people "who can't see beyond their petty insults and imaginary offenses dictate your life".

It really gives me the feel of "the lady doth protest too much, methinks".

As I said at the start, this is a confusing one. YMMV.

Note: I received a digital review copy of this book from the author. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

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Friday, 23 September 2022

Dear Malaysian churches, here's how to pretend to be more creative than you really are

Look, the easiest way to be creative (when really, you're not), is to hire a creative. There are many hidden creatives in your church, most of them not doing anything because you do not ask them to. 

Ask them. Better still, pay them.

Whether you pay them or not, most Christian creatives will usually feel, uh, led enough to offer their time to you for free or at a severely discounted rate because, church, you know?

When that isn't an option for whatever vague reasons you tell yourselves, remind yourself that stealing is a sin. So, whatever you do, DO NOT STEAL. Even if your intention is to give credit and skate along on the safe side of the applicable laws.

However, as they say, "Good artists copy. Great artists steal.

What? But you just said don't steal! Go read the article. I'll wait.

---

You back? Well, okay. Here is a super handy-dandy cheat sheet on how YOU as a Malaysian church can ultimately pretend to be OH SO CREATIVE by being inspired by Christian shows from America. Because honestly, one come-to-Jesus youth summer camp romance is pretty much the same as another, and as the author of Ecclesiastes says, there is nothing new under the sun.

There IS nothing new under the sun. 

The idea itself (falling in love at summer camp and also finding Jesus) is not copyrighted, but the execution of it is. First of all, here are a few DO NOTS you should adhere to.

  1. DO NOT under any circumstances copy all the dialogue and present yourself as the scriptwriter. NO. That is copying, that is stealing, and that is LYING. 
  2. DO NOT use all the same songs (or 90% of the same songs) from the show because that is being really, really blatant. 
  3. DO NOT use the same names la. Even if you change the surname, it's pretty obvious ok. Can don't be so obvious or not?

Why? Really simple. Because if there are sufficient similarities, even if you credit the original inspiration, people are going to be like, "eh, copy only. So same wan." Very not creative!

But you have an edge here, okay? Because once you localise the show, and I mean seriously localise it, not just change a few words, you have the best opportunity to pretend to be WAH SO CREATIVE HOW YOU THINK OF THIS?!

Remember: the idea of it is not copyrighted, the execution of it is. So take the overall idea and run with it. 

Ok ok, but how? Here are some very simple pointers:


Change the main character backgrounds

The Boy is in his last-chance foster home? Foster system WHAT foster system. It kind of exists in name la, but in practice??? In Malaysia, the Boy is more likely to go to an orphanage or group home, or even, say CPS. Even where places mention "fostering programme" it's more towards child sponsorship (like World Vision-style) and not USA-style where the child goes to stay with another family. Also, the government portal talks about "Probation Hostel/Asrama Akhlak" not "juvie" and they seem to jump directly from shelter homes to adoption (though foster child is mentioned once or twice). Also, the Boy is in trouble for stealing a cop car. Do people steal police cars? IDK maybe they do. But that is a very recognisable plot point. So change it. Make him a Mat Rempit or something. 

Then the Girl is the daughter of the campsite owner? Look, no one in Malaysia owns a summer camp, ok. We all just rent a hotel or maybe a campsite owned by some big church or NGO. So "owner of the campsite and daughter" doesn't make sense. Change it to the youth pastor and his daughter. Wah tension already. You want more tension? Try senior pastor's daughter. Bwahahaha.

The rest are teens, everyone's in school, not much is said about them so it's fine to just not mention it.

Just changing these two key background stories would actually already make your story different enough that it's not immediately recognisable.


Localise the jokes & language

Look, the reason it was ridiculous/funny that the Boy lied that they were "cousins" was because the Boy is White and the Friend & Camp Mom are Black. It's an obvious LIE. Your casting has two Chinese guys, cousin ma cousin lor, your church is 90% Chinese, what's the big deal? Find another joke that makes it obvious they're not actually related. Or think of another joke altogether. 

Your localisation must be thorough. John Hughes who? If it doesn't make sense to you because it's too American or too old, find something else that people watch which has the same "makeover" impact. The Chinese-Ed/English-Ed divide is also big enough a barrier - and probably more relevant in a local context. If the final connection point between Friend and his Love Interest is a quote from some super obscure show from the USA that no one here knows, find some super obscure show from Malaysia (or Singapore) that they can be crazy about and quote from. (I like horrible, terrible, vegetable as an inside joke, but that's just me.)

Malaysia is very multilingual. We tend to call things by their original names, whether they're in BM or in Chinese or whatever. USE THOSE TERMS. Lean into stupid bilingual puns. It's what your audience is used to anyway.

You have your own version of church camps, each has its weird points and competitive aspects. At my youth camp, we used to have marks for how tidy our rooms were, so there was a guy who SLEPT ON THE FLOOR so he wouldn't have to make his bed the next morning. What dumb things have your own friends done in camp? Draw from your own experiences.

You can also draw inspiration from scouts/guides camps and their chants! 100% relatable because I was never a girl guide but I've heard them in school and from friends anyway. 


Choose new songs

Keeping one or two key songs might work, but if most of the songs are the same, there's no running from the fact that you're drawing very heavily from the original. You probably don't have time to write your own songs because duh, otherwise you'd have written your own script, but you can find songs with similar themes that may even fit your revised script better! Plus, if you consider local songs as well, you have a wider range to pull from. Or, well, yeah BTS will work. 

You have to pay for the music license anyway, no matter what songs you end up choosing.


Actually adapt it for stage

A screenplay and a stage play are very different things. There are many things you can do on screen that you can't do on stage, and vice versa. So the act of just adapting the script for stage will already change key scenes and how they play out, maybe even the sequence of events. You need to figure out entrances and exits because you can't tell people to only look at one part of the stage. You can't have a quick montage of days passing or camp games that involve the beach and diving, but you can't just remove the scenes either because then the heavy lifting of character development and establishing relationships would then disappear with those scenes. You'll have to find another way to do it on stage. 

The Boy has a fear of heights but brags about the Blob (a high dive) because he doesn't know what it is? That's not something you can do on stage. Find something else that he could possibly be afraid of but brags about anyway because the Camp calls it something else. I dunno, some food he just can't stomach? 

If you've changed the location, you can't have that special garden anymore. But you can still have a special hangout spot, especially if they always return to the same campsite. It just won't be a garden she's tended for eleven years.  

---

Just changing these four things would lead to vastly different dialogue, which would lead to a very, very different execution of the idea, which is still Boy meets Girl at Camp and finds both Jesus and love. 

Is it a lot of work? Yes. Will it take a lot of time? Yes. Will it make you seem more creative than you really are? Probably, yes, depending on how much you actually end up changing.

Now, wouldn't it have been more worth it to write your own script in the first place?

Wednesday, 21 September 2022

#bookreview: Invisible boy: A Memoir of Self-Discovery | Harrison Mooney

Invisible Boy: A Memoir of Self-DiscoveryInvisible Boy: A Memoir of Self-Discovery by Harrison Mooney
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reading Invisible Boy is like refreshing my memory about the weird pentecostal days I grew up in, even though I'm on a whole different continent with vastly different racial and religious tensions.

The book is Mooney's memoir about growing up black in white fundamentalist Christian churches & schools in Canada, but many of the same pervasive and, honestly, skewed messages that festered in white North American churches in the 90s also made its way over to Malaysia. The roots of what I've seen and experienced as echoes all the way over here are exposed in full technicolour in Mooney's experiences. It doesn't help that Malaysia still, on the whole, idealises and idolises whiteness and white proximity; and that Chinese Malaysians are often just as racist, especially with respect to Indians.

Mooney says in his author's note:
I acknowledge here that what is said is not the same as what is meant. It doesn't matter anyhow. Intent is not impact, and if we continue to prioritize the goodness of our thoughts above the violence of our actions, we will leave a trail of victims in our wake. Mine is a story of impact; I write for the millions impacted in similar ways.
I have seen this reflected elsewhere as well, with an acquaintance emphasising that when engaging, impact should be considered before intent. We live in tumultuous times and I think it's worth the wake up call for those who profess to be Christians to consider the unintentional harm the church has caused many communities in the name of Christ, even if the intentions were good.

After all, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Note: I received a digital ARC of this book from Steerforth Press via Edelweiss. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

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Wednesday, 7 September 2022

#NetGalley #bookreview: Silver Under Nightfall | Rin Chupeco

Silver Under NightfallSilver Under Nightfall by Rin Chupeco


Okay, I'll mark this one down to "not knowing what I was getting into". I basically went, "vampires, meh; but Rin Chupeco, ok lah, why not?"

Um so, probably disclaimers upfront because, uhhhhh. There are a lot of sexy times in this book (and not the fade-to-black kind), so if that is not for you, this book is not for you. Like really, really not.

Anyways!

Remy Pendergast is your typical pitiful downtrodden outcast who is discriminated against because of his parentage - his foreign mother is rumoured to be a vampire, or at the least, a vampire's familiar - but is very good at what he does. Which is being a Reaper, aka vampire hunter. But Lord High Steward Astonbury, leader of the dræfendgemot, is his father's bitter rival and sees to it that Remy gets none of the credit or any acknowledgement, despite him taking up the bounties every other Reaper passes on. Remy's one mission in life, as dictated by his father, is to hunt down the Night Court - the very vampire court that took his mother's life.

Enter sweet Lady Song Xiaodan, heiress of the Fourth Court and dashingly brooding Lord Zidan Malekh, King of the Third Court and you get this hilarious Regency-type romp of this royal vampire couple pursuing a blushing, self-deprecating human who believes that no one could ever love him. (Honest, this is a big chunk of what the book is about.)

Back to the plot, Xiaodan and Zidan want to establish an alliance with the humans - an unheard-of proposal in Aluria, and one that is met with much suspicion and scepticism. There's also rumour of a new mutated kind of vampire, one that turns mindless and can keep respawning bigger and stronger than ever. And so Remy sets off on a mission to discover who is behind the Rot...

... and discovers there is more to life than murder. I hesitate to use "coming of age" for this one because that usually implies YA, and this is decidedly adult. But yes, it IS Remy's journey of discovery. In many ways.

Remy deals with quite a bit of trauma, as does Zidan - though Remy's pain is the more present and dealt with throughout the novel. Remy's father, Edgar Pendergast, a nasty piece of work. Pendergast is the sole reason Remy is so broken - from putting him in impossible situations, to effectively making him have sex with older women just to get information that is otherwise denied to him. And the worst part is that he mostly gaslights and victim-blames his son, with the excuse that everything he's done is for the good of Aluria and for Remy.

But if you're thinking this book is entirely fluff (there is a whole chapter that's just... fighting and sex), it does have its scientific moments, especially when they're actually investigating the virus behind the rot.

The ending feels like it's set up to have a sequel, though the main arc of the story is ended.

Overall, while I enjoyed the story - especially the banter and the dialogue - I don't find myself superhyped about it. Or maybe that's the prude in me cringing.

Note: I received a digital ARC of this book from Hodder & Stoughton via NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

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Wednesday, 31 August 2022

#netgalley #bookreview: The Blue Bar | Damyanti Biswas

The Blue BarThe Blue Bar by Damyanti Biswas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The discovery of a dead body on real estate tycoon Rahul Taneja's lands sets Inspector Arnav Singh Rajput on a trail that may not only uncover a serial killer, but also dig up things in his own past that he's long since buried. Like his dead sister, who he's still trying to find justice for. Or Tara, his once-girlfriend, who vanished without a word. But the path to solving this case is blocked by rich men with friends in high places, corruption at the highest levels of government, and complications from two warring Mumbai gangs.

Biswas drops you into the heat of things in Mumbai, immersing you in a gritty world that is unlike the usual crime thriller settings in the UK or USA. In her words, you can almost feel the push and pull of the crowds gathering for Dussehra and Diwali and hear the street vendors offering bhelpuri and pao bhaji. She adds authenticity with the use of local terms, often following them up with a deft explanation, expecting you to remember it from then on.

Each chapter is told from a different POV--most of it Arnav and Tara, though occasionally we hear from the unsub and his assistant Bilal. In Arnav's voice, you hear his frustration and conflict, in Tara's, you feel her tenacity and her fear. It's the unsub's voice that is chilling in its depravity, callousness and anger--and when the final reveal comes, you're left reeling, like how...? and yet how inevitable.

Like in You Beneath Your Skin, Biswas is not afraid to show the seedier parts of India, highlighting the way women are often disregarded and their lives treated as nothing but "packages" and "item numbers". She shows the horrifying requests men make of women who have no other options, but she also shows the horrible things women can do to young, naive boys in their power.

The Blue Bar is very much a story of powerlessness, whether is Arnav against the serial killer and the corruption in the police force; or Tara against the seedy men who are out to destroy the life she's managed to build for herself; or the unsub against his tormentor, but it is also about choice and risk, and taking responsibility for those choices.

Where in many crime thrillers, you watch as jaded protagonists' lives are falling apart, in this one, Arnav is faced with a second chance at family and happiness. Will he take it?

Note: I received a digital ARC of this book from Thomas & Mercer via Netgalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

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Wednesday, 24 August 2022

#netgalley #bookreview: The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches | Sangu Mandanna

The Very Secret Society of Irregular WitchesThe Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Secrets can protect you. But they can also hurt you.

In an alternate Britain where anti-magic sentiments are high and a misfired spell has resulted in all magical children becoming orphans, Mika Moon has only known isolation and mistrust. She doesn't create strong ties and she definitely does not put down roots. But when a strange message on her social media account lures her to the mysterious Nowhere House, Mika has to decide if she should leave and report them to Primrose, ultimately separating three young children (and letting them grow up miserable under the very same Rules she's always hated)...or if she should stay and teach the three young witches how to control their magic (and maybe give them a sense of belonging and a semblance of a normal life).

The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches is a beautiful story of belonging, acceptance, and found family. The longer Mika stays, the more she realises that maybe the way she was brought up wasn't quite right, even if the strict rules were put in place for her protection. The strange assortment of adults in the house - a retired actor and his gardener husband, a long-suffering housekeeper and a prickly librarian - soon show her what it means to live in community and love each other sacrificially, even when they're at odds with each other. It makes her want to finally set down roots - especially with that hot, prickly librarian who is oddly spending a lot of time with her.

In that light, I suppose you can also read the story as a fantasy romance - with all the predictability that that involves: secrets kept, revelations that come just a little too late, a betrayal of trust. Can Mika and Jamie truly trust each other when the starting point of their relationship was built upon a web of lies? Secrets are costly, but they're not the only ones keeping them. (I did somewhat see that twist coming.)

Overall, the book is a funny and heart-warming read, though not exactly clean. There is quite a bit of swearing and a sex scene somewhere in Chapter 26 - so despite its overall feel-good nature, not exactly one for younger readers.

Note: I received a digital ARC of this book from Hodder & Stoughton via NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

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Wednesday, 17 August 2022

#bookreview: Silver Queendom | Dan Koboldt

Silver QueendomSilver Queendom by Dan Koboldt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Silver Queendom may be Koboldt's first purely fantasy work (the Gateways to Alissia series always felt more science-fantasy to me) and I love it. In the mood for a fantasy heist? With found family and a crew of misfits? But not too much magic that it makes your head spin? THEN THIS BOOK IS FOR YOU!

The crew from the Red Rooster Inn are having a run of bad luck. Their latest heist - at the Duchess of Eskirk's gala no less - went pretty well...until it didn't. Returning home with a pittance and a new crew member, Darin has to think of a way for them to earn coin fast - or face the wrath of The Dame, the criminal overlord of this part of the Queendom. So when a high-paying job with impossible stakes comes along, it feels impossible to refuse. After all, who else can say that they've stolen a shipment of imperial dreamwine and lived to tell the tale? That's if they live to tell the tale.

Koboldt's strength has always been in his characterisation and the Silver Queendom has the most compelling band of misfits you've ever rooted for. Darin is the man with a plan (or many plans) who's constantly trying to protect his crew (and his marks) while refusing to use metallurgy (a magic drawing from silver, reminiscent of Sanderson's Allomancy) despite all the ways it could really make his life simpler and safer. Evie dreams of returning to the high life - the one her father destroyed with his gambling habit - but now uses her background to blend seamlessly into high society while stealing their stuff. Big Tom may initially come across as the dumb muscle - but while he's clueless about the ways of the world and is overly kind to animals, his military knowledge and protectiveness are what often saves the day (or rather, Darin). And newcomer Kat is just chaotic hilarity with her nigh-undrinkable ale (it's an acquired taste) and her ever-growing list of adopted boys. Then there's Seraphina, the mysterious mentor-type, who's always there to welcome them home.

And as much as the story is about the heist, it's also about how all of them learn to truly rely on each other and start to call the Red Rooster home.

Note: I received a digital ARC of this book from Angry Robot Books via NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

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