Wednesday 29 May 2019

#bookreview: This Brutal House | Niven Govinden

This Brutal HouseThis Brutal House by Niven Govinden
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This Brutal House is moving, visceral; Govinden makes you live every moment, each line evoking a mood, a world.

You are there with the Mothers as they sit in silent protest on the steps of City Hall.

You are Teddy growing up broken but driven, learning to lie in order to fix things, to quietly ease things for the Mothers, using his position in City Hall to try to find a resolution.

You walk the floor to the shade of the vogue caller, living the chaos of the balls, the noise and heat of the dance floor.


Where This Brutal House fails, for me at least, is in its clarity. It's not enough for me to feel it. I need more concrete details. I have the bare bones of the story, but as Govinden throws us between the Mothers, Teddy and the Vogue Caller, it feels like information is falling between the cracks.

I'm not of this world of Mothers and Children and balls and drag. I don't know enough to understand the underlying meanings, to read between the lines. I don't have the history to fill in the blanks.

At the end of the book, I am left slightly confused. Emotional but confused.

Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Dialogue Books via Netgalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

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Monday 27 May 2019

#musicmonday: Even If | Mercy Me

This probably resonates with Mikal's mood:

They say it only takes a little faith
To move a mountain
Well good thing
A little faith is all I have, right now
But God, when You choose
To leave mountains unmovable
Oh give me the strength to be able to sing
It is well with my soul

I know You're able and I know You can
Save through the fire with Your mighty hand
But even if You don't
My hope is You alone
I know the sorrow, and I know the hurt
Would all go away if You'd just say the word
But even if You don't
My hope is You alone

Sunday 26 May 2019

Day 10: I hate everything I've written

It's technically three weeks since I've started, but somewhere in the middle of last week I decided that I needed to change my POV. So instead of writing in the third person alternating between Mikal's and Yosua's POVs, I'm now doing first person present in Mikal's voice. And that's restarted the timer to something like day 10. 

I'm not entirely sure I like it. I'm not entirely sure it works. But it's what I've got. I'm at that stage where I both love and hate everything I've written. And I don't know how to fix it. I just have to finish this thing.

I'm trying to push myself to get to 30K this weekend so that I'm back on my original schedule. I don't really have to--I can probably pick up the slack over the weeks, but it feels better to go back to the plan. Mostly because the plan is structured such that I will have downtime to edit in between writing and to do other stuff. I worry that if I don't at least get somewhere near the goal posts I'm just going to keep freaking and panicking because that's what I do.

Anyway. 30K might not actually happen by tomorrow, but if I push a little, I should start June with 40K and can take time off to actually plan my Great UK Dissertation Road Trip. :D


I think I'm afraid of first person because it's too close, too raw. I'm obviously not a sixteen-year-old boy, but the core of what he's struggling with is all too real. 

I'm afraid that the yearning will grow all too strong, and that the bitterness and the grief will overpower the rest of the story. 

I need to reach the catharsis of the story, but there's also a chance that where Mikal finds his strength, where he finds his faith and his power and his certainty, I will only lose mine. 


I have never been certain. I don't know if I ever will be. 

Wednesday 22 May 2019

#Bookreview: The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games | Ebony Elizabeth Thomas

The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger GamesThe Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Dark Fantastic is a fascinating read for anyone who is interested in how race affects the character development of people of colour in fantasy, as well as their reception by readers/viewers regardless of race.

Thomas analyses Black characters in four fantasy narratives (books & shows) [Rue in The Hunger Games; Gwen in BBC's Merlin; Bonnie Bennett in The Vampire Diaries; Hermione & Angelina Johnson in Harry Potter] and unpacks the impact of these depictions in society. I have to admit I don't watch much TV, so I have no background/context to the discussions around Gwen and Bonnie, both of which were apparently race-bent for the shows (my knowledge of Arthurian legend is mainly from Disney's The Sword in the Stone, neither have I read the books Vampire Diaries is based on). I have read both The Hunger Games and Harry Potter, so there at least I have some basis of comparison/actual knowledge of what's being discussed.

"Your imagination is more controlled by the dominant social formation than you're probably willing to admit."

One of the problems with publishing English books centering non-white narratives, or even featuring non-white characters, is the usual complaint that "readers can't connect with them". These readers are not just white readers, but sometimes also people of colour themselves. Representation (now and then) is often problematic, even when it exists. The Dark Other has historically been the thing to be feared, the evil that lurks, and the villain that must be defeated--or is just there to serve the storyline and the White Saviour--and even when we try to step out of that mode, to break the cycle of spectacle/hesitation/violence/haunting, we often fall into it again and rarely ever reach true emancipation. It's too easy to fall into trope, it's too easy to fall into the familiar and Thomas puts it thus:
"subverting the traditional positioning of the Dark Other in the fantastic requires radical rethinking of everything we know. It is why, I suspect, when characters of colour appear in atypical roles, they are often challenged, disliked, and rejected.

Thomas also discusses how fans of colour are starting to take back the narrative through alternative means, whether through racebending, shipping, creating alternate universes, etc via fanart, fanfiction, fan videos, or essays and how these collective efforts help fill the gaps where traditional publishing and mainstream media are still struggling.

I will also have to note that coming from a multicultural background, with various media featuring people of colour as the heroes in their own stories, I don't have such a strong disconnect as those from USA or UK, where such media is either hard to get or inaccessible due to language. Still, I've got a lot to think about in terms of how ideas about race in fantasy works and how it will play out ultimately in my own work.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from New York University Press via Edelweiss. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

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Wednesday 15 May 2019

#bookreview: Leaves of Fall | Patricia Lynne

Leaves of FallLeaves of Fall by Patricia Lynne
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

4.5 stars, because it's not like super *omg wow writing* but it has a lot of feels. I wavered between 4 and 5 and decided to let it stand with the .5.

Leaves of Fall is a beautiful and tragic, yet hopeful, story about the war between humans and trees. In this dystopian America, the trees have come awake and waged war against humans for all the crimes humanity has committed against trees and nature. Entire populations have been decimated and small human communities now band together for survival in cities, whilst nomads roam around, raiding and killing and raping. Everyone is suspicious of everyone else, even if they're also human.

When sixteen-year-old Armory is kidnapped by nomads, she's rescued by a tree nymph. With no other options, she has to trust the enemy of her people to bring her home safely. But Birch is an optimist. He doesn't just want to lead Armory home--he wants to find a way to make peace with humans and bring an end to the war.

My first thought upon reading the book was "oo Ents!" but then they were angry Ents, not like Treebeard who was still kindly towards hobbits and good people. Leaves of Fall is an easy read, told in the voice of the main protagonist, Armory. So you do have to suffer through some teenage angst, even though Armory is mostly trying too hard to stay alive to be too angsty.

Lynne put a lot of thought into her character development, and I found myself fascinated by Birch, this peace-loving, kindly tree nymph with a really dark past. I loved the way his back story is slowly revealed over the course of their journey, with each revelation causing Armory to have to stop and reevaluate their friendship. Does your past define your future? Is there true redemption for those who have done evil things in war? Yet the most important question is this: can you forgive and reconcile with those who have hurt you, who used to mean evil towards you, but who now seek forgiveness and want to change? Lynne explores this through the various reactions towards Birch throughout the whole book.

Minor complaints, which is me justifying the not-quite-5-stars:
- There's a little bit of resolution at the end that felt a little too simplistic. There was some set up for it in the earlier parts of the book, but I felt like it never quite followed through, and then it popped up right at the end so I wasn't quite convinced. Still, it's not a major part of the storyline, so eh.
- I wasn't quite convinced with the almost insta-love towards the end (not between Armory and Birch); it felt a little too convenient, but then they are teens and teens are teens so it's believable, even if this curmudgeonly reader didn't like it.

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

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Tuesday 14 May 2019

13 May surprise #bookreview: The Weight of Our Sky | Hanna Alkaf

I'd had this book on my TBR for a while--I'd initially been excited to read it when it first came out in February 2019, but it took about 2 months for Amazon to ship it to me and then I didn't have the time.

This morning, I woke up to a Twitter feed full of May 13 posts and 50-year-on commemorations, including some which very explicitly said YOU MUST READ THIS BOOK today, so I did.


The Weight of Our SkyThe Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a heavy book. Not weight-wise, it's light enough, it's short enough--I read it in half a day. But it is weighty.

Melati Ahmad and her friend Safiyah head to the Rex after school to watch a Paul Newman movie. Within the span of the movie, Kuala Lumpur as they know it changes. Stuck in Auntie Bee's house far from home during the curfew, Melati must find a way to reunite with her mother--whilst dealing with the djinn in her head that keeps telling her that her mother is dead, everyone around her will die, and it's all Melati's fault.

What possessed Hanna to write about the weighty matter of dealing with OCD on the same pages as she evokes the terror of the never-talked-about May 13 riots? I don't know, but it makes for one compelling and emotional read. I found myself tearing up at multiple places--Hanna's writing is powerful and evocative, drawing you to feel with Melati instead of standing at a distance. The fear is palpable as is the anxiety, the constant counting and counting and counting acting both as a way to calm Melati as well as a grip upon your heart that asks oh no, what's going to happen next? Maybe if you count along with Melati, nothing else bad will happen.

Is there a right and wrong side to the 1969 riots? Does Hanna give any certainties as to who holds the moral high ground? Who was the worst? Whose fault it all was? We don't talk about May 13 because we don't talk about racial politics, even though its effects are still felt in the everyday lives of ordinary Malaysians. Hanna doesn't seem to side one way or the other--the harshest statement she says is in Jay's one statement:
"Bloody politicians and their bloody stupid rhetoric, speeches, ideologies. You ever hear anyone say words don't matter after this, you tell them about this day, when Malay idiots and Chinese idiots decided to kill one another because they believed what the bloody politicians told them."

Instead, throughout and despite the bloodshed and the terror and the racialised statements that she doesn't shy away from (because it was a politically-charged race riot), Hanna highlights the kindness and grace many had for each other regardless of race; from Uncle Chong and Auntie Bee who rescue Melati and other neighbours; Vince and Jagdev Singh who volunteer with the Red Cross to bring food and supplies to various communities; to Puan Salmah, Melati's mother, who treats the injured of all races; and to Melati herself--who learns to stand up for herself and for others in need.

It's not all dark and grim. Hanna indulges in puns and Malaysiana. Auntie Bee is every Malaysian Auntie you've ever met, who will bully you into acquiescence and ask if you've eaten even if she's about to die. Hanna invokes long distant memories of being in school, with the blue pinafores and the chanted terimakasihcikgus, slipping 10-sen coins into payphones to call home and hoping they'll work. There's air mata kucing in cold steel bowls, the fortune teller at the market and the ghost that haunts the cinema.

What holds together the entirety of The Weight of Our Sky is the Malay proverb "Di mana bumi dipijak, di situ langit dijunjung." Aunty Bee explains it as "where you plant your feet is where you hold up the sky", or to use a familiar English phrase, "when in Rome, do as the Romans do." There's a sense of futility in that phrase when Aunty Bee first says it, when as much as they try to fit in, her family is never seen as one of the community. Yet it evolves through the novel as Melati comes to the realisation that Malaysia is all of theirs, the Malays, the Chinese, the Indians, where the wise words of her history teacher reminds her that Tanah Melayu has always had the influence of the Hindus in ancient Kedah and the Malaccan sultan's Chinese bride, so Melayu, Cina, India, though we live and die by the rules of the land, "this country belongs to all of us."

And you feel the weight of sixteen-year-old Melati learning to hold up the sky as it comes crashing down around her.

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For some context, here's a special news report on the May 13, 1969 riots. I'm obviously too young to have experienced any of it, and most of what happened in KL whilst my family was either in Penang/Ipoh at that time. There was the Penang Hartal, though I don't know that it affected anyone in my family and it wasn't to such a big scale as May 13 (I think? idk, history is not my strong point; we also never talk about the Hartal). But also, everything that happens in KL is a Bigger Deal because that's the capital city, so.

The politics in Malaysia have always been racialised, something we inherited from Britain's colonial meddlings. But it's not all their fault. Policies put into place after May 13 helped keep the physical peace, but it also further stratified society by race and class. For all its relatively low body count, it had long-lasting effects and the threat of May 13 has long been used to keep the Malaysian Chinese quiet (because you know, curfews and bloodshed is bad for business).

At any rate, it's an interesting juxtaposition because just five days ago, Malaysians were celebrating the first anniversary of May 9, where the then-opposition coalition pulled off a surprising win in the 14th General Elections against the incumbent Barisan National--without any bloodshed. It was a similar election win that triggered May 13 fifty years ago, when the Chinese parties won a majority and the Malays were Not Having Any Of It. And maybe that shows how disgruntled everyone has become with BN, or maybe it shows how far we've come as a society since then.

And so maybe there is hope for Malaysia, one where we do not shy away from talking about the hard things, but where even if we do, we also tell of the good things and of all the things that makes us Malaysian. <3

Edited to add: you can get the book here.

Friday 10 May 2019

My April/May West End spree

Right after formal classes ended last month, I went a little crazy and decided to buy tickets to as many shows as I could afford. Obviously, I'm also rather cheapskate and I need to save money, so I ended up buying cheap, upper circle tickets to three shows (altogether less than GBP100, so yay me).

My selection felt rather eclectic overall so I thought I'd talk a little about why I picked the shows and also what I thought about them. 

The first show I watched was Betrayal on 15 April, for two reasons: I've still regretted missing the PenangPAC run with Marina Tan and OHLOOKIT'STOMHIDDLESTON. Lame? Maybe. But I'd heard that the story is amazing, and it has a famous actor, so why not? 
Well, the show was fantastic. I do have to admit that I didn't always pay close attention to the acting, mostly because I was fascinated by the staging as well as the moving pieces of the stage. (This might be a thing with me; I remember being super distracted by the moving stages in Lion King too LOL). I was waaaayyyy at the back so I might probably have missed some frontal projection cues if they were blocked by the overhang (and maybe super close facial expressions), but it was a really good vantage point to see the lines between the actors, the use of space, that revolving stage indication of going back in time. It was a really minimalistic staging (except for that revolving thing) that played a lot with lights and shadows--the silhouettes were so sharp you could actually just watch that instead of the actors. 
I loved Tom Hiddleston's and Charlie Cox's performances, but Zawe Ashton just gave me the feeling that she was trying a little too hard? I don't know what it was but somewhere between the tone of her voice and some of her actions/reactions, I just got a little annoyed at her. I might probably be judging her a little too harshly (always that but *I* wouldn't have made those acting choices) but I could just be disliking the character, though (which by implication would mean Ashton did a great job, so idk).

The next one was The Phantom of the Opera on 29 April. A classic choice-- loved the songs, wanted to see it because I'd seen the movie and wanted to see how they could do all that on stage. Realised that I have fuzzy memories of the plot, so there were some bits where I was like, eh, did that happen? Not sure if there were substantial changes in the movie version, though. (I have read the book, the book is 0% like the musical. Well, 20%. The characters and the basic setup are the same-ish. If I recall correctly (it's been decades), it was very much focused on the phantom, I think, and Christine was really a side note. But reading the book you'd be like, how did this become the musical?!)
Anyways, mixed feelings about this. I'd been pre-warned by Choon Ean that it might not have aged well, seeing it's a really old show and it's using the same original stage, so whatever was new/fresh/impressive then would seem kind of old-fashioned now. 
I liked all the dungeon scenes, with the moving bits and the lights and the smoke and the candles and the tilting walkways and the boat! (See, moving stages gets mentioned again haha). The singing was impressive, the staging and the acting and the mirrors and illusions... everything was AWESOME, except the one key bit that spoiled everything. 
When the chandelier "fell", you could literally SEE THE STAGE HANDS WALK OUT THROUGH THE CURTAINS AND CATCH IT. 
Another thought that struck me though, was that my memory of the Raoul-Christine-Phantom triangle seemed rather romantic? The Phantom had a sort of sad romantic vibe, like, aww you like this girl so much but she doesn't love you in return, poor puppy let me give you a hug. Seeing it again, the Phantom was all kinds of creepy. Like the friendly neighbourhood dad/teacher/helpful uncle/starstruck fan, who suddenly turns into a perv. And I was going like, NO THIS IS NOT ROMANTIC. The Phantom is AWFUL. And then the songs don't seem so romantic anymore. lol. 

Finally, I caught Fiddler on the Roof yesterday! This was 100% nostalgia and throwback to the time when we were stuck in a house in Sweden and had the movie on replay until we could sing all the songs word for word. I can't do that now, but I *know* all the songs. 
It was fantastic! No moving stages for this one--it was flat and static boo--but the scene changes were as interesting to watch as the show itself, so yay. I might decide to watch this one again from a better vantage point--the place I was sitting had a bit of a restricted view, so there was this corner/angle of the stage that I couldn't quite see. Idk yet though, if it comes down to it, I'd rather watch a new show than to re-watch one. We'll see. 


As a minor writing update, this is today's stats!

I didn't do all this today, it's just that I didn't update my stats yesterday, being out and all. Things will seem more slowgoing from now on though, since I've reached the end of my pre-edited stuff. From now on, it's actual writing and slogging!

Wednesday 8 May 2019

#bookreview: The Porpoise | Mark Haddon

The PorpoiseThe Porpoise by Mark Haddon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This started off really lovely and poignant and sad, and then it became... confusing?

Haddon plays with the various myths of Pericles of Tyre (Appolinus / Apollonius) and it's all very well done, very well written, very heart-wrenching. I don't know the original mythology well enough to tell you how accurate the retelling is or how much liberties Haddon as made. However, taking each section, each shift and retelling on its own, Haddon crafts each of them perfectly, entrancingly.

The problem lies with the fact that throughout the twists and turns of the mythology and symbolism, the storyline gets muddled. A character from the start (or the "real life" story) merges in the character of the myth, but instead of staying parallel, instead of staying true to type, the types seem to interchange and jump about until you're wondering: didn't Pericles start off as Darius? Why is he now seemingly Philippe? Is Angelique Chloe or Marina? Or both? It felt like several storylines and characters were lost in the shuffle and then conveniently forgotten about. Could this be because I don't know the core myth? Maybe. Still, it feels like something is missing--somewhere during the jumps between myth and life, some connections seem to have broken or were messed up.

Another thing that wasn't made clear enough for me: how does the myth relate to the real world? Is it all in Angelique's head? Or maybe in Darius's (since the shift starts during his timeline)? Are the intersections real intersections or are they just convenient shifting points for Haddon?

The material itself is also potentially triggering. It deals with grief, abuse and incest, leading to murder and self-harm. These are never fully resolved. There is no happy resolution. Instead, the ending is rather dark so if these are subject matters you have trouble with, this is not the book for you.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Random House UK, Vintage Publishing via Netgalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

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Deep dive into the novel: Day 2

So. The plan is to go into a deep dive from May 6 - June 30 and write 10K per week to reach 80K (and the end of the novel) over 8 weeks.

Unfortunately, due to events over the last week (last minute plans, unexpected laziness), I did not manage to clear up all the things I wanted/needed to do before the start of the week. Which meant all of yesterday and half of today was spent catching up and finalising consignment statements and accounts, chasing people to reply emails and generally a lot of hair pulling. Which means I'm starting off 1.5 days late.

The good part is that I've already got working drafts of chapters 1 - 3, approx 8K-ish words, so I do have some time to get into the groove. I've thus spent most of my time reediting chapter 1 today. And googling the Malaccan sultanate as well as church hierarchical titles. (This will make sense eventually. hahahaha)

So I'm still sorta on track!

I don't know how often I'll post updates (I might do a dailyish blog, but I might not) so if you want to keep tabs (and push me on), here's my goal tracker.

Note: The dissertation actually only needs max 40K, but well, I might as well get the whole novel done, no? The other goal is to get an agent before I leave, for which I do need a completed novel. lol.

Wednesday 1 May 2019

#bookreview: The Beekeeper of Aleppo | Christy Lefteri

The Beekeeper of AleppoThe Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are books that you love right from the start and books that grow on you as the author takes you on a journey to unexpected places. Lefteri's The Beekeeper of Aleppo is one of the latter.

When I first started reading it, I was really all like, what's the buzz? It read like just another refugee narrative, the story of Nuri & Afra's journey from Syria to England--I was drawing comparisons to Abdulrazak's By the Sea--but as events unfold, it becomes clear that things aren't as they initially appear. An exploration of the strange things our minds do in the face of terror and loss, Nuri's narrative appears to be reliable at first--he's the one guiding his blind wife through their perilous journey--but cracks soon appear, signalling that maybe he's not as reliable and steady as we thought he was.

Lefteri switches seamlessly between present and past, each section linked by a key thought, idea, or image. There is a sense of mystery, a sense of "what are you not telling us?" as you read, akin to Oyeyemi's White is for Witching; not the kind that leaves you unsatisfied, but the type that leaves you hoping that the next word, the next paragraph, the next page will reveal what you really need to know. It's beautifully crafted, like a hook in your soul that draws you further on, deeper in, to a kind of inevitability I felt while reading Blackberry and Wild Rose.

As Lefteri leaves the whimsical and hard truths are revealed, the book turns sad and sorrowful. A heaviness sits in your soul, not just because terrible things happened to this refugee couple, but because terrible things are still happening to real, living refugees in our war-torn world. I admit to tearing up at the end of the book, not something I do very often (as much as I read and feel emotionally, tears are often hard to come by). It also ends with hope.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Bonnier Zaffre via Netgalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

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