Sunday 31 December 2023

2023: A Year in Review

 I'm starting this at 4:22pm on 31 December 2023, let's see if I actually finish it before the new year. heh.

2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015 | 2016 | 2020 | 2021 | 2022

Right so on to this year. I seem to change my format with each year, so I guess I'll just start with some random something and see if I'll go with it again next year.

Blog Life

I haven't posted about blog stats for a while, so here's a graph from off the stats page.

I... did not know I passed a million views. But then again, this place is over a decade old. Not entirely sure what I did in 2021, though the 2021 review post suggests it was Amok-launch related. 

Readership for 2023 itself isn't half bad, though I haven't been half as consistent at posting as I used to be. 

I have also apparently gained a Singaporean audience. *waves from over the Causeway*

My top 5 posts for the year are all Very Old Posts, which is weird, and which is also why I don't really trust stats. lol. (All-time top post is still my Malaysian Englishes post, which I guess makes a bit more sense.)

Reading life

I read a total of 59 books (2022: 46) this year! Goodreads has my year in books... or you can check it out myyearinbooks for a snazzy new version.

I gave 14 books 5 stars this year, but if I were to select my top 5 reads for the year, they would be:

If you all remember, I tried to take part in the 2023 Booktempter's TBR Reduction Challenge. I started off pretty well, and then slacked off towards year end. It was a good challenge, though, and got me to pick up some books that have been on the shelf (whether physically or on the Kindle) for many, many  years!

My TBR goals for 2024 are going to be a bit more intense, because I have a few boxes of books I need to read/discard/etc. The limits for this challenge is to be mean enough to DNF any book that fails to really capture my interest by page 50, or by about 15% if it's an ebook. I may extend this limit because sometimes I try to be nice, but this is me giving me permission not to *have* to finish every single book.

Writing life

Actual writing has been slow this year, but I have finally, finally finished writing the Tea Novel. It's out with beta readers at this point, but once that's done and I do a final edit based on their feedback (probably by January), I'll be pitching this one to agents. 

But in writing-adjacent stuff (which includes publishing! and editing!), the highlight of the year would be A Spoonful of Malaysian Magic: An Anthology which launched at GTLF in November!

Oh, I also had launches for Absolution at Hikayat and Riwayat once the print book finally appeared in March.

Amok made it to the finals of the Anugerah Buku Malaysia 2023 but lost out to I think Muhammad Haji Salleh. 

We re-started Readings in Penang this year in collaboration with Dabble Dabble Jer Collective, and renamed it Readings@Tanjong! Give us a follow for updates about when and where we are. We had like 6? Maybe 7? events this year but we are absolutely slowing down for 2024 and probably only having 4. lol.

It's only 5:34pm so I guess I made good time on this post. I have this vague feeling I've glossed over many things, and that I should maybe do a top 5 teas section or something but I think I'm good with this. Honestly, the best way to get consistent-ish updates right now is on my Instagram, which I think has taken over the random-post portions of this blog.

Wednesday 20 December 2023

#bookreview: Our Tethered Skates by Naadhira Zahari & School of Thieves by Sabrina Ismail

Might've binged a bit, because these were short. These are MG/YA novellas written for both younger & ESL readers, so I'm not quite judging them against like International Publishing standards. Instead, I'm leaning towards a viewpoint of IF I WERE A TEEN, WOULD I LIKE IT? in the star ratings, with my overall notes in the review.

Our Tethered SkatesOur Tethered Skates by Naadhira Zahari
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Let's go with 3.5, rounded up.
It's a fascinating novella - much more could be developed if it were a longer story, but this worked fine as a short piece.
I had several weather & clothes-related questions that probably can be handwaved away with "magic" (Verglas a magical portal world, after all), but I'd really like to know the age gap between Maya and Layla because that seemed to be the fuzziest point given the 10-year gap between Maya's disappearance and Layla looking for her.

Not quite sure that the present tense quite worked for this story; it was a little clunky in places maybe because it kept wavering between simple and progressive for unclear reasons.

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School of ThievesSchool of Thieves by Sabrina Ismail
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Hmmm. A little conflicted on this one. It was an interesting enough read, so I figure it's a little under 3 stars. Like, the plot moves you along enough that you get kind of invested in the story but when you reach the end and think about it, you're like... really? Really?! *side-eyes author*

I like the heist aspect, and the side quest of getting back at Amra's deadbeat father. The characters are likeable and relatable. But ultimately the whole point of WHY the School of Thieves exists and what they're trying to achieve doesn't really make sense.

Like MAYBE if the whole School of Thieves thing was just left vague (i.e. the school exists, don't question it), it would have worked better. I think it was the epilogue that threw me off. (It felt a little like the author was trying to be clever but didn't quite pull it off.)

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A final musing: 

It's fascinating that these Very Malaysian Writers writing for a Very Malaysian Crowd would choose to set their magical worlds in Not Very Malaysian settings. 

I mean, Our Tethered Skates was set in some undefined country with four seasons, the Layla's family name was Montgomery or something like that. Verglas, being a magical world can get away with having ice all the time. But why would the main family have to be White? (Not that they were described physically, but I mean the names, the setting.) I would have liked it better if say they were Malaysian transplants in some foreign country, or they live in KL and visit the local ice-skating ring (Sunway Pyramid?? lol) because they want to be figure skaters (we do have those!).

School of Thieves never quite says where they are and the school itself is set in some mystical island, but Amra's family name is De Silva, which fair, we have De Silvas in Penang (an old line of Eurasians), BUT! then it says her dad is from Mexico, which... WHY. This one at least seems to have a mix of races (there's Khai, Lee, Ratna and a bunch of ambiguous English names.)

I have a bunch more to read, so we'll see. 

Wednesday 13 December 2023

#bookreview: New Name | A.C. Williams

New Name (Morningstar: Destiny Trilogy #3)New Name by A.C. Williams
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I took a long break between reading the first two books in the series and finally completing this one, so I had a bit of a rough start. One thing to remember (lol) is that Xander discovers a lot about her past and who she is in Namesake. So when this one started off, especially since I took such a long break, I had to back up a bit with "Aura, who?" But it's pretty much a new start for her anyway.

If I said Namesake was dark, this one goes kind of... darker... in many ways before finally going PLOT TWIST but ACTUALLY! Then becomes pretty much hopeful again. Which on one hand is kind of cool because Aura really needs a break, but on the other... I guess there were enough subtle cues that I'm okay with it happening.

Williams sets it up so it sounds like there should be another book in this world, even though this book 3 of a trilogy - and honestly, if she does one exploring that whole side quest on the Al units and why this one guy is hunting down the Alpha Prototype, I'd be all for reading it. (I see other short stories in the Morningstar Universe but none that addresses this. Though Promise: A Morningstar Series Novella might be interesting to read.)

Note: When I say "darker", it's not so much about being more graphic. I think the level of violence is about the same, but it's really very... sex-negative. I get that Williams is portraying villains in this (and is giving the Stormcloud sisters a Very Difficult Childhood), but their main means of control and coercion seems to be primarily sex, especially kinky sex, and abuse in the name of kinky sex.

So "content warnings", if you will: difficult discussions on abortion vs bodily autonomy, mentions of pedophilia, and copious references to rape and sexual assault.

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This finally finishes up March's TBR stretch goal. hahaha. I'll work on December's goal, but I think I'll give up on the stretch goals. 

Monday 11 December 2023

#musicmonday: Christmas Unicorn

Facebook reminded me of the existence of this, so now you have to listen to it too. 

Wednesday 15 November 2023

#bookreview: Wings of Truth | Aaron DeMott

Wings of TruthWings of Truth by Aaron DeMott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Two warring nations separated by a deep dark secret, a captured queen, an honourable crown prince, cultural misunderstandings, secret factions that might just destroy the whole world... and only! one! tent!

It is also a clean read, despite that trope.

Is this science fantasy? I feel like it's science fantasy because it reads very fantasy with these non-human characters (the Vincetii are purple-skinned and have wings) plus they drink this strange metal thing to... I guess regain power? And Enrik, the Alandran Crown Prince, has a magical sword called Vinrid, which I really thought stood for "getting rid of the Vincetii" lol.

BUT when you get into the details of the Obelisk and other Weapons of Power, it all starts to sound very sciencey in a "we kinda destroyed the world and now we don't know how all this tech works" way and now they need to find out how. Like with secret manuals and underground labs.

It's a light, enjoyable read and leans into the fun and fantastic. Enrik and Natiah have great chemistry, even if they fall in love really, really quickly lol.

There MAY be a slight squick moment when Natiah reveals that her vow either makes her Enrik's wife or slave, which again is very on-brand with current fanfic type tropes, but it's also very squint-and-you'll-miss-it because this is, as I said, a very clean story. No sexy times, a lot of war deaths, but nothing really described in detail.

Overall, Wings of Truth is a solid story simply told, if a little trope-ish.

Note: I won this book in a giveaway! :)

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This is November's updated book on the 2023 TBR Challenge. I may, unfortunately, have to skip this month's stretch goal again, but we'll see.

Wednesday 8 November 2023

#NetGalley #bookreview: The Book of Witches | Jonathan Strahan (ed)

The Book of WitchesThe Book of Witches by Jonathan Strahan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I picked this up for review from NetGalley because I thought it would go well with my October TBR, and what better way to end the month with some witchy stories! Unfortunately, this review is coming in late because I overestimated my personal capacity for reading multiple stories about witches in one sitting and had to pace myself lol.

Two overarching themes stand out in this anthology: the disempowered woman snatching back power for herself and ignoring the wise woman at your own risk. It may even seem a little sexist from a certain lens: there are few men with magical power here, and the antagonist(s) - while sometimes other women or various sections of society - feel mostly of the male persuasion. It's no surprise, really, given the idea of witches and what they usually stand for.

Speaking to that gender point, "What Dreams May Come" by C. L. Clark is a thoughtful exploration of what it means to be transgender. If the Dreamscape is only meant for women, what happens when Pol transitions to be a man? What then happens to his magic - and why does he still have access to the Dreamscape after his transition?

Yet despite the similarity in themes, these are all very different stories (and poems; I will admit upfront that I kinda skimmed the poems). I normally associate witches to a more rural, old-school context, but a surprising number of stories playing around with the question of how magic would interact with tech - "Good Spells" by Ken Liu was an entertaining example. And if you're looking for something in the mystery vein, "The Liar" by Darcie Little Badger would fill that (various members of the "Coven" group chat are going missing and turning up dead - who's the one killing them?)

Apparently, there's a trope in this anthology that I enjoyed more than the others, which I'll call "BUT WHO ARE THE REAL MONSTERS?" This has a predictable answer: Not The Witch. The ones that stood out to me were "The Witch is Not The Monster" by Alaya Dawn Johnson, "The Nine Jars of Nukulu" by Tobi Ogundiran, and "Orphanage of The Last Breath" by Saad Z. Hossain.

To round up this review, I'll just throw in some of the other stories that I really liked:
"Through the Woods, Due West" by Angela Slatter
"The Cost of Doing Business" by Emily Y. Teng
"John Hollowback and The Witch" by Amal El-Mohtar

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

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Wednesday 1 November 2023

#bookreview: To Form a Passage | Sharon Rose

To Form a Passage (Arts of Substance, #1)To Form a Passage by Sharon Rose
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There's this thing about Sharon Rose's books, at least for me. For every new series of hers that I start, it takes a while for things to gel together. It's like there's this high price of admission - you need to be persistent, to press on, to get to the payoff.

But, as with all her novels, oh boy, what a gem. You'll be glad you persisted. You'll close the book with a sigh, eager to read the next one.

To Form a Passage takes place in an all new fantasy world, one where the people live underground and have special gifts from Ellincreo that help them survive. There are the Formers (which I capitalise, even though Rose doesn't, so I kept stumbling over it) who can form stone and metal. There are the Streamers, who can sense water and guide them to wherever they wish. And then there are the Wind Weavers, who do the same with air and wind.

Living underground, emphasis is placed on Formers who are fundamental in making sure that the roofs are stable, that new caves and light sources can be found, that metal and ore can be extracted to trade for food. Streamers help with finding water and rivers - often food sources in their own right and necessary for living - but Wind Weavers are almost forgotten, because who remembers about the air until it runs out?

And so (obviously) there is a catastrophe, and suddenly everyone underground is cut off from the land above, including access to food, resources, and their main government in the form of the King and his Judges.

Whilst this struggle to survive encompasses the core of the conflict, visions and gifts are the most important aspect of To Form a Passage. The novel revolves around Devron in Jourandia and the vision he saw right before the catastrophe. It's beautiful and awe-inspiring, and Devron is convinced that it came from Ellincreo. It's something he feels compelled to build, as dangerous as it is. But as fear grips the underground cities, the gifted - especially the Formers - are banned from using their gifts, despite the fact that it is those very gifts that have kept them alive so far.

Thematically, much of this struggle pings my Christian radar, as if Rose is pondering on that verse in Matthew 25:29 which says:
For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.
Or Luke 12:48(b) which says:
From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.

Because as the story progresses, and the ban on using their gifts continues, Devron has to ask the hard question: Are the Formers not using their gifts because they are blindly obedient to the law? Or is it because they have lost them altogether?

And what now should he do with the vision which may be both Jourandia's salvation and his death?

Weighty reflections indeed, wrapped in a fantastic story.

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

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Get on Amazon! To Form a Passage releases 2 November 23 (Affiliate link) 

Wednesday 25 October 2023

#bookreview: The Christmas Appeal | Janice Hallett

The Christmas Appeal (The Appeal, #1.5)The Christmas Appeal by Janice Hallett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I hadn't really been looking to add ANOTHER ARC to the review list, but when the notification popped on Edelweiss saying that I'd been granted this DRC, I just had to make an exception.

EVERYTHING about the blurb appealed to me. The stage play, the Christmas setting, the murder mystery! What's not to love? On one hand, it was a sure hit because of the themes and tropes. On the other, it could turn out to be super generically uninspired...

What makes The Christmas Appeal an unconventional read is that there is no long-form narrative at all. I've read a few short stories that incorporate forms of text messaging and emails, but not a whole novella that's written entirely in emails, WhatsApp/text messages, police transcripts and the occasional newspaper article. It does, however, take a bit of easing into because of the way it's written. (Or maybe if you're forewarned by this review, you'll be able to sink into it right away.)

The Christmas Appeal is a comedy of errors, and it's pretty hilarious. You're seeing the events as it happens through the communications between the characters. It's not quite unbuffered thoughts, but you get to know them in the ways that they express (or expose) themselves to others, unhindered by side thoughts, or narrator's thoughts, or other kinds of wordy buffer. There were many oh ho! points especially when you get to some of the more backstabby and gossipy characters, so it was pretty fun to read through some of those texts (and also get annoyed by how stupid and/or annoying some of them are lol)

At any rate, as much as I enjoyed it and sped through it, it's not quite a 5-star read for me for the following reasons:
- It's framed around a bored, retired KC sending the communications (or notes from the "case") to his ex-students, who take it upon themselves to try to solve the mystery which, I guess, is okay - however, it felt like the weakest point of the entire setup.
- The body doesn't turn up until quite late in the story so the story could have stood alone as a farce without any murder.
- At the risk of a spoiler (?), the "murder" isn't really actually connected to anything that's currently happening. So that felt a little like a let down.

There were some allusions to the previous case (The Appeal) that I haven't read. I think that might have given more background to some of the characters but I could follow it easily enough without knowing what happened in the earlier book.

As a last note, I'm usually one for e-books nowadays, but this novella is probably best read/navigated in printed form. Despite the fact that it was written in mostly digital comms formats.

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

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The Christmas Appeal releases on Oct 24! Affiliate link below:

Friday 20 October 2023

#bookreview: Hantu Macabre | Jill Girardi

Hantu MacabreHantu Macabre by Jill Girardi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Hantu Macabre started off great. Suzanna Sim, the half-American, half-Malaysian protagonist is based in George Town, Penang, so I started off loving the Penang vibes. The setting is described with so much detail and love that you can tell that Girardi really did enjoy living here. There's a series of grizzly murders and Sim sets off to solve them with the help of her assistant, a toyol named Tokek. Some of the cases take Sim to other parts of Malaysia as well, but I felt those places weren't described with as much care or detail as she did George Town.

The thing that ultimately felt off to me was the way it was written and/or structured. The series of murders are all interconnected, but in many ways, it felt like a bunch of short stories/novelettes that were put together instead of a cohesive novel.

Part I, the one titled "Hantu Macabre" itself, felt like the best part of the book.
Part II was a leeeeetle bit too outlandish for me, involving magical Japanese swords and undying generals from the Japanese occupation. But whatever. Here's where we figure out who the recurring antagonist is, and that she's going to be the actual main nemesis in this book.
Part III flipped back to a more Malaysian paranormal crime feel, and also reveals more about Suzanna Sim's past. It's the most substantial part of the book and should've probably been the climax. See, there was this big black magic event that happens and felt like it could be the Big Battle but it doesn't... end... there.
In Part IV, Sim spends a lot of time doing nothing especially interesting before the final show down happens. It does, however, also solve the mystery of Sim's past besides resolving the main crime issue of the whole book. And then it ends on a line, which I guess sets it up to have more books in the series.

Ultimately, I felt like, as a novel, Hantu Macabre started off with great promise but kind of petered out.

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I've been behind on posting reviews, so I figured eh, whatever, I'll post even if it's not a Wednesday. lol. So, bonus post, I guess? Or belated one.

This one's for October's TBR challenge. I have a couple of ARCs to read this week for books that are releasing in October, so I'll probably be skipping the stretch goal. 


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Wednesday 11 October 2023

#bookreview: The Blue Monsoon | Damyanti Biswas

The Blue Monsoon (Blue Mumbai, #2)The Blue Monsoon by Damyanti Biswas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I took a while to write this review because I've been having a tough time trying to reconcile my feelings about The Blue Monsoon. Where The Blue Bar was gripping and easy to love, ending on quite a hopeful note, this one picks up again two years later on a somewhat dreary note. And as the rains and flooding in Mumbai threaten Arnav's case, so does the dreariness sometimes overwhelm the reader.

When I say dreary, I don't mean that the story is slow in any way. It's quite as gripping as The
Blue Bar
, maybe even more so because we already know, and are invested in, the main characters. In this one, Arnav is faced by how much he doesn't perceive or understand because he is a high caste man in Indian society; Tara is struggling with her lack of independence due to her high-risk pregnancy and injury; Sita is just trying to do her job without complicated relationships; and in the midst of it all, the deaths--dismembered men with tantric symbols carved in flesh--and threats keep coming. Links to influencers and hopeful politicians again push these cases into the limelight... and maybe there's a point where Arnav's weariness seeps through the narrative and makes everything feel too much, too bleak.

In many ways, The Blue Monsoon is a critique on the lingering caste system in India; but more than that, it attempts to show how privilege blinds one to injustices, how affirmative action policies don't quite solve anything (and sometimes makes them worse), and how gender (or rather, being female) exacerbates everything. It's not an easy read by any means, but then again, none of Biswas's books are.

Overall, the Blue Monsoon is a dark, gritty, crime procedural/thriller and probably should come with some trigger warnings. (Some gore, including castration; sexual abuse and harassment; difficult pregnancies; discrimination/slurs against transwomen)

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 13 September 2023

#bookreview: The Epic of Bidasari and Other Tales

The Epic of Bidasari and Other TalesThe Epic of Bidasari and Other Tales by Aristide Marre
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are four tales included in this book, which was first published in 1901. This edition doesn't seek to retranslate or even clean up much of the text, so the writing isn't exactly...stellar lol.

The Epic of Bidasari itself is amusing, a Snow White type of fairy tale written in epic verse that's divided into six songs. There are several key differences: Bidasari is a lost princess; the evil queen (Lila Sari) isn't related to Bidasari in any way; there's no magic mirror (heh) but the queen sends out her maidens to scour the land for "a face more beautiful than mine". It's not just pure vanity, though. The reason she does this is because her husband tells her TO HER FACE that if he finds anyone more beautiful than her, he'll take her as his second wife. Which, I mean, I can sympathise a little?

But of course, as this is a fairy tale, this very act of Lila Sari looking for the beautiful maiden then makes it a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's nice to note that the actual stepparents in the story (well, not really "step" but the merchants who find and adopt Bidasari) are the good guys.

There's hints of Sleeping Beauty, insofar as after escaping the palace, Bidasari is cursed to sleep throughout the day until the spell is broken. But seeing that her prince charming is a married man who's all like "I love you because you're more beautiful than my wife" and who goes back to visit his first wife and says "but it's all your fault that I married her because you beat her and hid her from me!!"... ugh.

Yeah, so not very romantic at all. Anyway, it's all very dramatic and twisty, with a lot of false accusations, quests and side quests, and "I cannot bear to part with you!" declarations so maybe it's worth it for that kind of OTT drama. Which kind of feels on par of what little I know of the stories of that era. (Most of these would have been told orally, and probably incorporated music and dance and singing.)

The main problems with the readability of this text (besides it being really old-school) is the inconsistency in titles (lack of modern editing!), where Lila Sari is Queen on one page, but Princess on another, and Djouhan Mengindra is sometimes Sultan, sometimes King, sometimes Prince. It's fairly easy to follow at first, but when the other Kings/Princes from other lands come into play, that's where the reader needs to track who's who very carefully. It's rather amusing, though, to look at transliterations from an earlier century and snigger a little at how odd they look - eg: dyang, mantri, tjempakka - or to try to puzzle out what on earth that word was really supposed to be.

I skimmed through the second one, Sedjaret Malayou, because I've read the full text of (Sejarah Melayu: The Malay Annals) which is a much, much better (and complete) translation. I feel like I should get around to reading the newest translation, though (The Genealogy of Kings), which would probably be more accurate and less clunky, seeing that it's a 2020 translation by Muhammad Haji Salleh.

The Princess Djouher-Manikam is another fascinating tale, this time set in Baghdad. It's about a princess who really has no agency and is just shunted from place to place and through harrowing events "because of God's will" (but mostly because of horny men who think they should own every pretty woman they see). It gets a little annoying the longer goes on, but towards the end, the princess does take matters into her own hands in a meaningful way to direct her own life, albeit by dressing up as a man. It's hard to criticise this meaningfully because those were the constraints of the time, for a woman in her culture.

The final piece in this book is Makota Radja-Radja (The Crown of Kings), which isn't so much a single narrative, but a collection of stories/extracts about various kings that's intended to showcase how a king should act. It was a little jarring to read at first because most of the stories are centred around Middle Eastern countries, but the foreword sheds light that it was originally written in the 1600s by a Bokhari who lived in Djohore (Johor). The text jumps around a lot and doesn't have any meaningful arrangement or sequence, though I don't know if that's a translation problem or the fact that it feels like just a fragment of the original text.

ANYWAY. Read this for the TBR challenge. I don't know if I'd recommend it as a "you should read this" but if you're on a fairy tale/folklore kick and want to know more about stuff from Asia, this would fit. I'd say just focus on The Epic of Bidasari and The Princess Djouher-Manikam though.

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This was supposed to be August's stretch goal but it took longer than expected, because I had other books to review and post. Plus, I did change my book at the last minute. 

Saturday 9 September 2023

#releaseday #bookreview: Second Chance Superhero | HL Burke

Second Chance SuperheroSecond Chance Superhero by H.L. Burke
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Brayden Waters aka Megawatt has fixed his life and is now a superhero working with the Department of Super-Abled (DOSA). He's back in his hometown of Ashridge to take care of his estranged mother for a few weeks but a chance meeting with his ex, Rachel Blum, may make him want to actually stay.

Second Chance Superhero reads like a Hallmark Christmas movie. Big city guy meets (well, meets again?) small town girl and falls in love - Check. Their pasts and goals in life are stumbling blocks to the relationship - Check. Both of them have secrets that blow up in their faces the minute they are Almost. Going. To. Kiss - Sooorrrta check. (There may have been a couple of stolen kisses before that.)

And I mean, Brayden's secret isn't a big deal, but Rachel's reaction is wayyy out of proportion until you find out what she's hiding.

If you like all those romance tropes and want it clean, AND want a little bit of superhero action in the mix, then Second Chance Superhero is the book for you. Even though it's part of a series, Second Chance Superhero can be read as a standalone, and I say this because I've only read one other book in a related series (Blind Date with a Supervillain). I don't doubt that knowing who the other characters are, or what Brayden has done as a superhero, would probably make it more exciting, though!

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

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"Can superheroes be cozy? Second Chance Superhero is the novel equivalent of a Marvel movie, a shopping cart of wine, and a scented candle." 

— C.O. Bonham, author of Runaway Lyrics

"Great story! It’s like a Hallmark movie with a sci-fi budget."

— Max B. Sternberg, author of The Rhise of Light

“H.L. Burke’s superhero books just keep getting better and better! (And they were amazing to begin with.) I have devoured every book in the series and eagerly await each new release. In Second Chance Superhero, I was sucked in to Brayden’s and Rachel’s plight, rooting for them to overcome their pasts, and couldn’t stop reading. No matter which book you pick up in this series, I highly recommend!”

— Michele Israel Harper, award-winning editor and author of Kill the Beast


H. L. Burke has written more books than she can count—because she's written a lot of books, not just because she can't count very high. 

Easily distracted by shinies, she has published in many subgenres including fantasy romance, Steampunk, and superhero, and always creates story worlds with snark, feels, and wonder. 

Married to her high school crush, she spends her time writing, spoiling her cat, and supervising her two supervillains in training (aka her precocious daughters). 

An Oregon native, she wilts without trees and doesn't mind the rain. She is a fan of delicious flavor, a follower of the Light, and a believer in happily ever after.

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Wednesday 6 September 2023

#bookreview: Lime Pickled and Other Stories | Marc de Faoite

Lime Pickled and Other StoriesLime Pickled and Other Stories by Marc de Faoite
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am not making the same mistake I did with reviewing de Faoite's TROPICAL MADNESS - that "coming soon" long review will probably never come now. (That said, I probably should reread that one, if only to see why I remember liking it more than this collection.)

Comparisons aside, Lime Pickled and Other Stories is a fascinating collection of 27 short stories by Marc de Faoite, some of which have been published in various platforms or anthologies over the past decade. The collection is a little on the darker, grimmer side of stories than I usually prefer to read, so you'll have to adjust my feedback accordingly, I guess.

We burst on the scene with "Red Monkey Sam", which sets the tone for the collection. This is Malaysia, laid bare in words. Many of these stories are about cultural clashes: between Malaysians and expatriates, Malaysians and migrant workers (what makes one a migrant worker vs an expatriate anyway?), between different groups of foreigners, between the different ethnic groups in Malaysia. There is a feeling of transience and otherhood, and yet also one of a strange sort of belonging, even though it's hard-won, clinging to the crevices, through sheer familiarity.

I felt like the longer stories were often the stronger ones, but also more chilling, laying bare the darkness of human nature. "Floodbaby" is one of them, as is "Dr. Fintan" and "Kurang Manis". Many details in "Kurang Manis" might as well have come directly from a newspaper article; "Big Balls" might have well been referring to uh, you know, someone real.

Even in the darkest stories, de Faoite offers no moral judgement, no long backstory or explanation. It's just a story written, a thing that happened, it is what it is. Which, in a way, makes them even more frightening because there is no justification for why and how such things could have come to be. (Troubling that these are also the stories that ring most true to current events.) That, I think is a strength, because modern storytelling is often too prone to excusing evil by blaming circumstances and trying to shoehorn in redemptive arcs.

The shorter works often ended very ambiguously, almost as if they were somehow truncated or never quite resolved. This open-endedness is an oft-used literary device, but it's one that often leaves me underwhelmed especially when there's no sense of closure.

The pandemic-related stories - "MCO: Manicure Control Order" and "Ah Girl Wants A Vaccine" - really shone, and there's a little of the supernatural in "Return Guest" and "The Green Fuse", which I appreciated.

At the end of the book, de Faoite offers some insight into how he came to be in Malaysia and why he left - and the context of many of the stories included in this collection.

Overall, Lime Pickled and Other Stories is one I'd recommend if a) you like dark stories and b) you'd like to read more about Malaysia.

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Wednesday 30 August 2023

#bookreview: Blind Date with a Supervillain | H.L. Burke

Saturday's cover reveal caught your interest? Here's my review of the first book in the Supervillain Romance Project series!

Blind Date with a Supervillain (Supervillain Romance Project)Blind Date with a Supervillain by H.L. Burke
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this during my 6-hour layover in the Haneda airport because WHY NOT? I did purposely pack it in the hand-carry because it looked like a light enough read for travelling, both in weight/heft and brain space required.

Blind Date with a Supervillain is a sweet college romance - but with superpowers. I'm not a big superhero story fan so I haven't actually read any of the other books in Burke's Supervillain (or Superhero) series but you don't really need to, I guess, because this one works fine as the start of a new series. (I've mostly read her other works: Spellsmith & Carver: The Complete Boxset and Spice Bringer are great reads!)

Saying that, I went in slightly unsure, but ended up loving the book. It's light, it's funny, and it's a sweet romance that hits all the right spots.

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Saturday 26 August 2023

#CoverReveal: Second Chance Superhero | H.L. Burke

Once a slacker, now a superhero, but will his ex buy the change?

Eleven years ago, Brayden Water's high school sweetheart slammed the door in his face. Floundering, he found purpose first in the military, then by volunteering for genetic enhancements and joining the Department of Super-Abled as a full-time hero. Just when everything's looking up, a family emergency summons him back to the hometown he gleefully put in his rearview. And guess who else is back in town? 

Rachel Blum has had it with men in general. A single mom who managed to scratch her way through medical school, she's accepted that she can't depend on anyone ... especially not her sometimes criminal baby daddy, and definitely not her high school ex who has popped up out of nowhere after a decade of radio silence. Dang, though, Brayden's even hotter than she remembered, and there's ... something different about him now, though she can't quite put her finger on what. Could he really have finally gotten his act together? Can she take the risk?

Brayden's bitterness over Rachel's rejection slowly turns to admiration and begrudging affection. But even if he drops the fact that he can now fly and shoot lasers out of his eyes, will she ever see him as anything but a small-town loser? When her son's father starts causing trouble, though, Brayden realizes, she might just need a hero in her life after all.

Preorder on Amazon

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Second Chance Superhero is a new Superhero Romance from author H.L. Burke and part of the longer, multi-series SVR/DOSAverse expanded universe of superhero fiction. 

The book launches on September 9th, but you can now pre-order it for 99c on Amazon. 

It’s a tale of love after heartbreak, coming home, and second chances featuring a cocky but damaged superhero and the high school sweetheart who broke his heart but is now a single mom (and doctor)  haunted by her own past… also, French fries, a cart-load of wine, and surprisingly high number of dinosaurs. 



"Can superheroes be cozy? Second Chance Superhero is the novel equivalent of a Marvel movie, a shopping cart of wine, and a scented candle." 

— C.O. Bonham, author of Runaway Lyrics

"Great story! It’s like a Hallmark movie with a sci-fi budget."

— Max B. Sternberg, author of The Rhise of Light

“H.L. Burke’s superhero books just keep getting better and better! (And they were amazing to begin with.) I have devoured every book in the series and eagerly await each new release. In Second Chance Superhero, I was sucked in to Brayden’s and Rachel’s plight, rooting for them to overcome their pasts, and couldn’t stop reading. No matter which book you pick up in this series, I highly recommend!”

— Michele Israel Harper, award-winning editor and author of Kill the Beast


H. L. Burke has written more books than she can count—because she's written a lot of books, not just because she can't count very high. 

Easily distracted by shinies, she has published in many subgenres including fantasy romance, Steampunk, and superhero, and always creates story worlds with snark, feels, and wonder. 

Married to her high school crush, she spends her time writing, spoiling her cat, and supervising her two supervillains in training (aka her precocious daughters). 

An Oregon native, she wilts without trees and doesn't mind the rain. She is a fan of delicious flavor, a follower of the Light, and a believer in happily ever after.

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Wednesday 23 August 2023

#bookreview: Her Radiant Curse | Elizabeth Lim

Her Radiant CurseHer Radiant Curse by Elizabeth Lim
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I suppose it must be said that the mysterious origins of the Nameless Queen in Six Crimson Cranes and The Dragon's Promise was intriguing enough that I requested Her Radiant Curse when I saw it on NetGalley, even though I've been telling myself to stop picking up ARCs when I have no time to write reviews.

Here is the story of the two sisters, one beautiful and one hideous, and how their very existence changed the world. It is, thankfully, not one of sibling rivalry and resentment because of the disparity of how they're treated, but one where the two sisters love each other so much that they would give up their own lives for the other.

It is a story that deals a lot with the idea of beauty - how one is treated because of how they look, the expectations and burdens of both beauty and ugliness. Whilst the focus is on Channi as the protagonist, it is also about Vanna and how the beautiful sister has to always act in acceptable ways because everyone expects it of her. It brings to mind Isabela Madrigal from Encanto.

There are beautiful and touching moments in Her Radiant Curse and I think that the relationships in the book are the core of what kept me reading, from Channi and Vanna's special bond, to Channi's close friendship with Ukar and her tumultuous alliance (frenemyship? lol) with Hokzuh. Unfortunately, for it being written in first person from Channi's POV, I did not really like Channi very much at all - which, I suppose, is the reason for this rather detached review.

I will have to say the ending was great though.

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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Monday 21 August 2023

#musicmonday: How Long (Song of the Martyrs) // Jesus My Beloved | Josh Yeoh

This momentary light affliction

Is working in me an eternal weight of glory

And in the waiting

Keep me steady

Until You come

Saturday 19 August 2023

#mycheveningyear: Anna's guide to #tea in London

Everyone knows about the British and their tea. What not everyone realises is that most of the tea drunk in England, especially in local homes, is either black sludge or milk with a dash of tea.

Okay, that's a little harsh, but it's also mostly true--at least in my experience. I don't really know why, seeing they have so many great local tea brands. Maybe I just meet the wrong people lol.


ANYWAY, I apparently abandoned this post in January 2020, but after talking to this year's batch of Chevening scholars, I felt like maybe I should finish it. This isn't a definitive guide! This is just a list of the places I went and the teas I liked. (I favour fruit/floral + black tea blends.) Also, I mostly buy looseleaf because it's cheaper and lasts longer, so everything I mention is probably looseleaf unless stated. 


This was from my 2016 trip. I didn't take a new photo in 2018.

This is number 1 on my list because the two "famous" English tea brands you get in Malaysian shops is Twinings and Ahmad Tea, so you're likely to have already heard of this, or tried it before. Many cafes do use Twinings. You can probably get many of their teas in shops around London, but their flagship store is worth the visit because it's "the oldest tea shop in London". (I was just gonna say bla bla bla history, but they do mention it on their website)

What I especially liked was the mix and match section towards the front of the store where you can buy a bunch of individual teabags to see whether you liked it instead of having to commit to a whole box of like 15-20 teabags. (I used this to test the ones I wasn't sure about.) 

Favourite teas: Nutty Chocolate Flavour Assam Tea; Lady Grey (teabags)


You'll see that I also had a couple of Whittard teas in that big first tea splurge. I discovered Whittard at Covent Garden in my 2016 trip, so that's where I went back to. There's a bunch of shops in London, so it's not hard to find. Also, for continuity's sake, there is now a Whittard shop (tiny little island) in One Utama, and they do ship Malaysia-wide, so it's not impossible to find here. (Which can't quite be said of the others.)

I don't know if they're still doing this post-Covid, but what I liked about this shop was they always had various testers out so it was fun to try new stuff and consider whether I should get them.

Favourite teas: Piccadilly Blend; Baked Apple*; Lucky Lychee**

* They still don't have this in Malaysia booooo. Turkish Apple is NOT THE SAME.
** Not sure if this is a CNY special?

Bird and Blend

This is my recent favourite, and it's sad that I only discovered them in my last few months in the UK, in the middle of Dissertation Summer. I wish I'd discovered them earlier! The most convenient shop is the one near Borough Market (which also has a few independent tea shops inside, but those have quite a limited range.), and it's probably on the way to one of the tube stations, because my association is something to do with Shakespeare's Globe + tube + Borough Market. 

I literally just stumbled upon it while walking, but the reason I noticed it particularly that day (instead of just following Google maps and walking by) was because someone in the Sheffield group mentioned "Bird and Blend" while we were there on our road trip so the sign caught my attention. 

Unlike the first two, Bird & Blend does not have a Malaysian store so I have been relying on people to hand carry it back to Malaysia haha. In previous years, they used to have free international shipping on Boxing Day but that's been discontinued. I mean you can pay for shipping but... 

Favourite teas: Tea & Toast, Earl Grey Paradise (might be a special now?)

Also, the advent calendar is worth looking out for <3. I had a lot of fun with this!


Okay, TWG is is a Singaporean brand so you don't particularly NEED to go there, but they have a fancy shop with quite a large range of teas downstairs and a cafe upstairs at Leicester Square. If' you're in the area to catch a play, it's just a nice place to stop and have afternoon tea and feel a little atas lol. 

Favourite teas: I used to quite like their French Earl Grey but I don't know anymore. I don't think I have any repeat buys from TWG, especially not from London.     


Main Takeaways

These are the bigger tea brands in London that are easy to get and have quite a wide range of teas. But I also enjoyed walking into tiny little teashops just to see what they had. Here are some:

From a random market stall in Scotland:

From random shops in Bath and Stratford-upon-Avon:

From some tourist shop in Dublin:

One thing I ended up regretting was not getting a tea subscription when I arrived. They usually do this as an annual thing and could either be a subscription to a tea that you like, where they send you a new batch every quarter or so, or one of those tea boxes where they send you random new stuff every month for you to try! I kind of knew vaguely about stuff like that before, but just thought it was out of my budget. By the time I looked at how much tea I was buying and figured out what the options were, it was kind of too late to get a year's subscription. I'm not sure if they do shorter term subscriptions, but it's worth checking out if you know you're going to buy a lot of tea. 

Final thing to note: London has funny-tasting water, which sometimes translates into weird-tasting tea. (California had that as well but at least London admits to it.) I inherited a Brita water filter from Evelyn, which really helped haha (she was leaving, I was arriving). 

Anyway. This is all. I'll leave you with a tea stash from when I visited Europe.