Queen of the Tiles by Hanna Alkaf

“But life, like Scrabble, is like that—you get the rack you get, and you just have to figure out how to make do.”

Queen of the Tiles is an entertaining mystery romp that belongs to that subgenre of YA books that combines a whodunnit type of storyline with the kind of teen dynamics at play in Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars. Similarly to a lot of these books, Queen of the Tiles takes place in a ‘confined’ setting, but rather than going for the usual prep school/high school type of backdrop, Hanna Alkaf freshens things up by having her story take place during the World Warrior Weekend, an annual Scrabble competition. This tournament takes place in a hotel in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, a setting that, you must admit, we don’t get to see often in YA. Additionally, our lead is Muslim, and we also get a very casual non-binary rep with Shuba. The story definitely has some strong The Queen’s Gambit vibes and the author depicts the various Scrabble games in a really fun and dynamic way (so that they are anything but boring) and we can see just how devoted and ambitious some of the competitors are.
Najwa Bakri, our narrator, is taking part in this tournament, the first one she’s done since the very sudden death of her best friend.

“Every player knows that words can be twisted to suit your purpose, if the board allows it, and Trina knows this better than most. She is fantastic; she ignites fantasies. She is spectacular; she attracts spectacle.”

Trina Low died during the previous year’s World Warrior Weekend. Since her death, Najwa has distanced herself from the Scrabble world, but she finds herself going back to claim Trina’s former title, that of the Queen of the Tiles. She knows that people who didn’t like Trina, and who were in turn not liked by her, are also vying for that title, and Najwa isn’t ready to give them the satisfaction of winning. Competing again however proves harder than it used to be now that Najwa is struggling with anxiety and trauma caused by Trina’s premature death. The author is really thoughtful in the way she articulates Najwa’s grieving process, capturing just how suddenly grief can engulf you, regardless of how much time has passed since the person you cared for died. Alkaf also shows how grief manifests differently in different people.

Things get harder when new posts appear on Trina’s long inactive insta. Cryptic posts hinting that her death may have been very much not an accident. Joining a long tradition of kid-turned-detectives such as Nancy Drew and the Scooby-Doo gang (both of which get mentioned in the story), Najwa begins solving the posts’ ominous word puzzles and starts questioning the other competitors, most of whom were foes of Trina. There is the pompous boy she was competing against when she died, who seemed less concerned by her dropping dead than verifying whether her death meant he’d automatically won that final round. There is Trina’s ‘other’ best-friend, an ostensibly nice and obsequious girl whose subservience to Trina definitely gives off sycophantic vibes. There is that girl who was caught in a cheating scandal, and Trina may have been responsible for stoking those cheating rumours. And, of course, Trina’s off-and-on again boyfriend Mark, a possessive type who may have grown tired of Trina’s and what he perceived to be as her ‘blasé’ attitude. While Najwa has always been aware of Trina’s thorny character, and her need to prove herself and to one-up others, during the course of her ‘amateur’ investigation she will be forced to really confront the kind of person Trina was.

“That’s just how she was; she saw something she wanted and she went for it with a laser-sharp intensity that could border on the obsessive. All or nothing, perfection or perish.”

I liked the drama, the secrecy, the rumours and gossip. The Scrabble element was really well delivered and it worked really well for the mystery clues. My only quibbles are 1) throughout the story Najwa links words that are being used or were used in a game to her past or present situation. Sometimes this was effective, but the more this device was used, the less impactful it became, and at times I found the connection between word and situation to be a bit far-fetched 2) Najwa’s ‘tells’ got pretty annoying.
The characters weren’t particularly fleshed out or memorable, some were verged on being rather silly but this subgenre isn’t exactly known for having uber nuanced characters so it didn’t really negatively impact my reading experience. I would have however liked for Trina to have been portrayed in a slightly different light, as she ultimately seems a bit of a mean queen-bee cliché. I liked the lack of romance and Najwa made for a rather endearing protagonist. Their resolution to the mystery was a bit of a letdown, as I found the identity of the person behind those posts far too obvious. It would have been more satisfying to make someone else the culprit. There was also a metaphor about Mark being “a conquistador, trying to impose his will on Trina, colonize her spirit and reap her charms for himself, bend her to his definition of what a girlfriend ought to be” which struck me as a rather unhappy comparison to make.
In general, I did like the references we get, especially when they added a dose of humor and levity to the story’s ongoings (“Honestly. Murder. What do you think this is, an episode of Riverdale?”).
Still, I found this engrossing and fun read. If you are looking for a light-hearted whodunnit that focuses on a group of ambitious and possibly backstabby professional scrabblers, look no further.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼


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Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw


and this was supposed to be a horror story? the only unsettling thing about this novella is that cover.

Nothing But Blackened Teeth was probably my most anticipated October 2021 release, and boy, did it disappoint. I mean, given that N.K. Jemisin called it “Brutally delicious!” I went into this novella with high expectations. After getting through this novella’s opening scene, my expectations were quashed. There is an argument of sorts between 4 generic people that was as realistic-sounding as, say, any line of dialogue from Riverdale (“Besides, my money is your money. Brothers to the end, you know?” / “You nearly cost me everything,” Talia said, still staccato in her rage.”).
Our narrator is at this allegedly creepy mansion in Japan that will serve as a wedding venue because the bride happens to be in haunted places. Our narrator doesn’t get on with the bride, there is beef between them because of whatever. They bicker and swear a lot (so edgy of them). Nothing much happens. Characters think the place is creepy, they hear something, and then towards the latter half of the novella, the story gives a half-hearted attempt at horror. There were 0 stakes, the 4 or 5 characters in this novella were different degrees of bitchy and hysterical. Their reactions/responses and the way they interacted with one another struck me as unbearably fake and unconvincing. The narrator’s edgy descriptions of their hands, faces, and voices did nothing to make their words or actions credible. I made the mistake of listening to this audiobook as I was re-reading The Haunting of Hill House and let me just say that Nothing But Blackened Teeth ain’t it. This novella is devoid of nuance and seems to believe that it is being a lot grittier and more subversive than it actually is. The characters are paper-thin and the mc’s narration is so self-dramatising as to be unbearable. In addition to weak dialogues and non-existent characterisation, this novella fails at atmosphere and tone. The haunted house is described so vaguely that it never struck me as a real place. The ghost is cheesy. While the novella tries to be more self-aware of horror tropes it ends up dishing out the same tired clichéd and ‘twists’. The narrator is bi but she only shares romantic/sexual tension with the 3 male characters (she dislikes and is disliked by the bride-to-be). Also, as you may have by now realised, I have already forgotten all of these characters’ names. Our narrator is a bitch, the bride-to-be is a fake, the groom exists, there is a character who is supposed to be a joker but comes across as plain rude and unfunny, and, lastly, there is a white guy who tries hard to be the golden boy. That’s all I remember about them. And they all like to get into really inane arguments that serve as mere page-filler.
While Nothing But Blackened Teeth is by no means the worst thing I’ve read this year, it is a truly banal horror story.
If you liked it, fair enough. If you are interested in reading it I suggest you check out more positive reviews as I have nothing good to say about it (wait, i lie, that cover is relatively disturbing, so there you go).

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

“He spoke the spell under his breath, still a little uncertain after the agonies he had endured. But magic came, ever his friend—magic answered his call.”

Written in a playful pastiche style Sorcerer to the Crown will certainly appeal to fans of Susanna Clarke, Neil Gaiman, and Diana Wynne Jones. Cho’s bombastic prose, characterized by an Austenesque sense of humor, and madcap fantasy of manners story were a delight to read.
The first time I read this, back in 2015/6, I did, truth be told, struggle to get into Cho’s high register language. But, the more I read, the more I familiarised myself with her lofty and loquacious style. Sorcerer to the Crown was a brilliant read, a real blast!

“In truth magic had always had a slightly un-English character, being unpredictable, heedless of tradition and profligate with its gifts to high and low.”

Set in an alternate Regency England, Sorcerer to the Crown follows Zacharias Wythe, the country’s first Black Sorcerer Royal, who was raised by his recently deceased predecessor, Sir Stephen. While Zacharias clearly respected and was grateful to Sir Stephen, the two didn’t always see eye to eye. Moreover, Zacharias can’t forget that Sir Stephen bought and freed him, separating from his own family. This being Regency England Zacharias is treated with open animosity by most of his colleagues, some of whom are actively attempting to besmirch his name, claiming that he’s responsible for England’s decline of magic and Sir Stephen’s death. Zacharias is an incredibly level-headed individual, a thinker not a fighter. He’s serious, studious, punctilious. He’s also fair, loyal, and endearingly naïve. Yet, even he can’t quite keep his calm when his reputation, and life, are under attack. Attempting to clear his name and to discover the reason behind England’s magic drought, he leaves London.

“Magic was too strong a force for women’s frail bodies—too potent a brew for their weak minds—and so, especially at a time when everyone must be anxious to preserve what magical resource England still possessed, magic must be forbidden to women.”

He visits Mrs. Daubeney’s School for Gentlewitches, a place that is meant to snuff any magic from its pupils. In England, the only women who are ‘allowed’ to practice magic are those from the lower classes (and can only use spells to facilitate their daily chores/tasks). Due to her ‘questionable’ parentage (ie her mother was not an Englishwoman) Prunella Gentlemen, similarly to Zachariah, has always been treated as an outsider. Prunella is an orphan who thanks to her ‘generous’ benefactor, Mrs. Daubeney, was, for the most part, treated like the other students. When an incident threatens to change this, Prunella decides to take matters into her own hands and forge her own path to happiness.

“Your amoral ingenuity in the pursuit of your interest is perfectly shocking,” said Zacharias severely.
“Yes, isn’t it?” said Prunella, pleased.

Zacharias and Prunella cross paths and form a camaraderie of sorts. While Prunella is still very much self-serving, repeatedly going behind Zacharias’ back or eliding important information & discoveries, she does seem to enjoy bantering with Zacharias. Together they face disgruntled magicians, engage in some magical mishaps, attend/crash a ball, confront angry magical creatures, try to reason with a formidable witch, partake in discussions with some rather tedious thaumaturgist, and challenge the Society’s long-established traditions and hierarchies.

““Why, all the greatest magic comes down to blood,” said Mak Genggang. “And who knows blood better than a woman?”

While the witty dialogues and droll characters result in delightfully humourous, within her narrative Cho incorporates a sharp social commentary. From the rampant racism and xenophobia that were typical of this time to addressing gender and class inequalities. Through satire Cho highlights these issues, and, in spite of her story’s fantastical backdrop, Cho doesn’t romanticise this period of time and the England that emerges from these pages feels all too real. The use of historically accurate language and the attention paid to the time’s etiquette and social mores, result in an incredibly well-rendered historical setting.

While this type of narrative won’t appeal to those looking for action-driven stories, Cho’s sparkling storytelling is not to be missed. The follow-up to this book is, dare I say, even better.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Edge Case by YZ Chin

“[I]f I could make Americans laugh, then I would be accepted. I would be embraced and admired.”

Realistic, subtly off-beat, and keenly observed, Edge Case couples an indictment of the rampant misogyny that permeates the tech industry with an unsparing depiction of the everyday inequities and hurdles immigrants face in their pursuit of green cards and citizenship. Our narrator, Edwina, is a Malaysian woman of Chinese origin now living in New York and employed at AInstein, a tech startup working on an AI that can tell jokes. She’s married to Marlin, who is also Malaysian born but is of Chinese and Indian descent (his darker skin combined with him being from a majority Muslim country make him a target to both racism and Islamophobia). After the death of Marlin’s father, he begins to drift away from Edwina, and, much to her surprise, becomes increasingly preoccupied with the spirit world. One day Edwina returns home to discover it empty. Marlin has left her without leaving a note or any explanation.
A confused and hurting Edwina tries to make sense of his actions, compiling a list of the places he might have gone all the while questioning the motives behind his departure. Did he decide to return to Malaysia? Did he fall out of love with her? Or does it have to do with his newfound interest in spirits?

The novel takes place over the course of 10 days or so and we witness Edwina slowly coming apart. She struggles with her body image and food (after years of vegetarianism she begins to eat meat even if this results in her being physically unwell), with her self-esteem, and seems to experience difficulties wherever she is. Her calls with her mother, who has always been quick to criticise her appearance and life choices, are strained. Her best friend Katie seems oblivious to her crisis, encouraging her instead to forget Marlin and find someone else. Edwina is the only woman working at AInstein which results in her feeling understandably isolated. Her clannish male colleagues either ignore her, speaking over her, boohooing her ideas and feedback (for instance, when she points out that, surprise surprise, many of the jokes in their robot’s repertoire are sexist and or otherwise offensive, she’s told that she has no sense of humor because she’s 1) a woman 2) a foreigner). A white colleague of hers repeatedly toys the line between ‘banter’ and harassment, forcing her to proofread his crappy books and implying that she’s sleeping with other male colleagues.
Interspersed through this are flashbacks detailing Edwina and Marlin’s first meeting, their early days together, and their slow dissolution.
I liked and admired Edwina. Despite her situation, she’s determined to find out what happened to Marlin. At work she tries hard to be polite and agreeable but eventually, she’s forced into taking matters into her own hands. Her insecurities related to her body were certainly relatable and I appreciated how frank yet empathetic the author was when discussing this subject. Edwina’s desires, to be accepted by Americans, to be reunited with Marlin, were certainly understandable even if I did find myself questioning her devotion to Marlin. He behaves abhorrent towards and much of its chalked up to ‘he’s grieving’, which, fair enough, but, that doesn’t negate the months of emotional neglect and abuse. He drives Edwina to self-hatred, something I had a hard time glossing over. Having once shared a roof with an incredibly paranoid individual prone to gaslighting those around them, it just hit too close to home. His character never comes fully to life, part of it is because by the time the story begins he’s already gone MIA, and part of it is that even in the flashbacks he appears as a somewhat remote sort of figure, never coming into full focus.
Edwina on the other hand was an all too believable character. From her insecurities to her motivations, Edwina was a multi-faceted character one can easily relate to and root for. This made much of her narrative really hard to read. Many scenes focus on her being mistreated or overlooked. Her mother is constantly undermining her, claiming that in previous lives she was a terrible person. Her best friend is blind to her pain and despair. One of her colleagues is increasingly inappropriate towards her while the others behave like sexist tech-bros. Edwina struggles to navigate her male-dominated workplace, their harmful ‘it’s a boys’ club’ mentality.
Through Edwina’s perspective, we witness how her day-to-day life is punctuated by sexism (both in and outside the workplace), racism, discrimination, and body shaming. Edwina’s estrangement from Marlin affects the way she interacts with the world and she becomes increasingly disconnected from others. Her anxiety and loneliness are exacerbated by the fact that she’s surrounded by Americans. Her apprehension over Marlin’s welfare, her discomfort at work, her anxiety about her immigration status, her sense of inadequacy, all of these things result in a rather heavy-going narrative. While Edwina’s wry and self-deprecating tone does alleviate some of the tension, Edge Case is not a light read. The author’s deceptively simple prose belies the complex nature of Edwina’s story and this might not appeal to those who are looking for an easy-going or plot-driven narrative. Edge Case is a very introspective novel that provides a lot of food for thought.
I did find myself wishing for some more variety when it came to character interactions. Many scenes are just really uncomfortable to read, and, while I understand that they were realistic, it did get the repetitive reading time and again about people mistreating Edwina. Her passivity is understandable given her position, still, it was immensely satisfying to see her in action and I doubt many will condemn her for her actions. Marlin, as I said, remains a rather flimsy sort of figure, which detracted a lot from the story. The exploration of marriage also suffers because of it.
Another thing that detracted from my overall reading experience was the author’s choice to have Edwina recount these events—Marlin’s disappearance as well as their relationship—directly to us, her ‘therapist’, and addressing us as ‘you’. This framing device felt somewhat gimmicky and distracting. At times the prose could be a bit…icky, “ I felt his tongue spread like jam”, and we do get a few lines that were very superfluous, such as: “My belly button itched, and I scratched it”, or scenes that were trying to be ‘out there’ but struck me as contrived, such as that blood clot scene (it worked in I May Destroy You but here…eh).

In spite of these minor criticisms, I found Edge Case to be a thought-provoking and absorbing read. The author captures how it is to feel ‘other’, emphasizing how hard and exhausting it is to try to ‘assimilate’ into a culture different from the one you were born and raised in. Edwina believes that she will find acceptance through comedy, that by making people laugh she will belong but, as she herself realizes, it is all too easy to end up as the object of ridicule.

With acuity, clarity, and empathy, Chin presents us with an unsettling portrait, that of a woman in crisis. Alongside her exploration of Edwina’s identity, her marriage, her attempts at connection, Chin provides us with a candid look at contemporary America, underlining how sexist and toxic the tech industry is and the absurd rules and draconian policies immigrants have to circumnavigate. There are two scenes, in particular, one at an airport and another on the street, that truly emphasize how vulnerable Edwina and Marlin are in the U.S.
Lastly, this novel gets a plus just for mentioning one of my all-time fave books, Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson.
I look forward to reading more by Chin. Bravo!

my rating: ★★★½

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Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

Having loved Cho’s Sorcerer Royal books I was so hyped to read this…and now that I have, I am high-key disappointed. Whereas Sorcerer Royal is a fantasy of manners (a la Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell), Black Water Sister is an urban fantasy with a contemporary setting. The premise and cover for this novel definitely piqued my interest but sadly found its execution to be lacking. The central character of Black Water Sister is twenty-something Jess, born in Malaysia and raised in the States, who is going through ‘I don’t know what I am doing with my life’ crisis. When her parents are forced to relocate to Penang, Jess follows suit. Her long-distance girlfriend is growing frustrated by Jess’ indecisiveness about her future but Jess herself does not feel comfortable coming out to her parents let alone telling them that she has GF. Then, Jess begins to hear a voice. At first, she tells herself that it is the stress of the move but soon realizes that the voice belongs to her estranged grandmother, Ah Ma, who recently passed away. Keeping Ah Ma a secret proves hard, especially when Ah Ma drags her into a feud between a ‘terrifying’ deity, Black Water Sister, and a crooked businessman, who happens to be one of the wealthiest men in Malaysia. The story follows Jess as she tries to survive fights with gangs and supernatural beings.

CHARACTERS
Jess is annoying in spite of being largely nondescript. She has a vague half-formed personality (think generic America millennial) and she often does not act of her own volition (others make her do things or put her in situations where she is then forced to act).
Ah Ma was entertaining at first, she definitely has some of the best lines but she does something before the halfway mark that I found problematic, especially how the story seemingly glossed over her actions.
Jess’ parents should have played a bigger role in the story. Jess’ mom does get some page time but it did not really do her character any justice.
The story wasted time on characters we know are not all that (Jess’ uncle and the son of the crooked businessman).
Jess’ GF did not really have a personality. Her calls with Jess were few and did little in terms of her chararisation. I had no real grasp on her, she remains a disembodied voice at the other end of the line. Having flashback showing their first meeting, how they fell in love, and their decision to be in a LDR would have made me care more for them.

WRITING
Unlike Sorcerer Royal, which boasts a prose that is both elaborate and playful, the writing style here came across as relatively basic. The humor stemmed not to much from the narrative but from the occasional one-liners spoken by characters (most of them by Ah Ma or Jess’ mom). The writing failed to engage me and because of this, I found myself skipping quite a few paragraphs towards the end.

SETTING
The novel’s setting is easily its biggest strength. Cho vibrantly renders Malaysia, from its climate to its culture and languages.

FANTASY
The ghosts were intriguing at first but once we learn more about the temple and see the Black Water Sister the fantasy elements no longer grabbed me. The whole thing felt very anticlimactic.

All in all, Black Water Sister was not what I was hoping it’d be. Still, I am sure that many other readers will find this to be a positively captivating read. I just happen not to be one of them. Cho remains a favourite of mine and I eagerly await her next release.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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The True Queen (Sorcerer Royal #2) : Book Review

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The True Queen
by Zen Cho
★★★★✰ 4.5 stars

Now, this is what I call a great companion novel.

“Relations are a terrible burden to a girl with magical ability.”

It’s not easy to describe this series. A mad fantasy romp? A fantasy of manners? A pastiche of 19th-century literature?
I strongly recommend reading Sorcerer to the Crown before embarking on this one. I actually think I enjoyed this novel more because I started this knowing more about Zen Cho’s style and magical world.

The story focuses on Muna and her sister, Sakti, both of whom have lost their memory. Waking up after a storm they remember only their names and that they are sisters. The two travel from the island of Janda Baik (where Sakti is trained by the powerful witch Mak Genggang) to England. Sakti however is spirited away during their shortcut through the unseen realm (aka fairyland), and Muna arrives alone to England.
Here we are reunited with familiar faces such as the Sorceress Royal (Prunella!), her husband, Zacharias Whyte, and Henrietta Stapleton (a schoolmate of Prunella).
The novel follows different characters, and Cho easily weaves together their different storylines. Muna remains the central figure of the story and I was utterly absorbed by her determination to rescue her sister.
Along the way, she will have to lie (something she doesn’t like to do), accustom herself to a society that is not friendly towards women practising magic or foreigners (more than a few ‘respectable’ members of the British society throw racist jabs her way), trick a number of magical creatures, and forge an unexpected friendship (some which might blossom into something more).

Cho’s pays incredible attention to etiquette and modes of behaviour. She includes a lot of archaic English words (mumchance might be a new favourite) and really brings to life the old British empire without romanticising it. Yes, her world is enchanting but the society she focuses on has very conservative social mores (our protagonists are judged on the basis of their ethnicity, race, sex, and class). Yet, it isn’t all gloom and doom! Quite the opposite in fact. Humour and wit underline this narrative and I was smiling throughout.

Do you know that food must only speak when it is spoken to?

Cho combines different mythologies and folklores creating a unique compendium of magical beings and traditions: there are fairies, dragons, lamias, vampiresses, as well as Malaysian spirits and supernatural beings such as weretigers, bunians, and polongs. The unseen realm is richly imagined and I loved the parts set in it (those scenes gave me strong Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland vibes).

The more the polong said, the less reassured Muna felt. “But are not spirits famously changeable?”
“I will have you know that is an offensive generalisation,” said the polong. “No one could accuse me of inconstancy.

The way in which magic works in Cho’s world is just as interesting as I remembered (more cloud-riding, yay!).
The characters were another delightful aspect of this story. Regardless of their standing (wherever they were old fogeys or angry dragons) they were portrayed in an almost endearing way. Muna was probably my favourite character. I loved the way she looked up to Mak Genggang, her bond with her sister who is in many ways a difficult person to love, and her unwavering sense of duty and her empathy.

This is escapist fiction at its best. It provided me with a brilliant story, an interesting mystery, magic, funny mishaps, balls, a dash of romance, and non-stop entertainment.

“When I have mislaid my things, murder is not my first course of action,” said Prunella. “What I do is look for them—and quite often I find them.”

One of my favourite scenes features a depressed dragon:

“No one ever saw a longer face on a dragon.
He had never been overly fond of the usual draconic pursuits and in the circumstances, they lost all their savour.
At most he might dutifully pick off a unicorn that had wandered away from its herd, but he had not the heart to finish devouring the carcass before his appetite failed him. ”

Another brilliant scene was when Muna told off a bunch of paintings:

“I am a guest in your country, I am entitled to your hospitality, and instead, you hoot like monkeys. You dishonour your white hair by your conduct. Men so old should know better!”

There were so many funny one-liners and exchanges. Muna’s quest gives the narrative a fast pace so that we jump from one adventure/mishap to the next. I sincerely hope that Cho will write more books set in this world and if you are a fan of authors such as Susanna Clarke, Neil Gaiman, and Diana Wynne Jones you should definitely give Cho’s books a try.

 

THE NIGHT TIGER: BOOK REVIEW

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The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo
★★★✰✰ 2.5 out of 5 stars

“[His] voice was icy. He’s an ass if he can’t tell you’re obviously a virgin.

and they say romance is dead.

On paper The Night Tiger has a lot of potential but there were several things that prevent it from being a really good novel.

Things that I liked
This is the sort of story that slowly intertwines the fates of seemingly disconnected people. Set in the 1930s in Malaya the narrative brims with the promise of magic and legends and folklore underline the story.
Yangsze Choo’s alluring prose complements beautifully the romantic and dreamy quality of her story. She often uses sweet-sounding metaphors that really appeal to the senses. Her descriptions have this rich and smooth sort of flair that make her setting really stand out.
A missing finger links the story of Ji Lin, a young dressmaker apprentice + dancehall girl, and Ren, a houseboy whose master has recently died. Ji Lin finds herself in the possession of a detached finger while Ren was tasked with finding his master’s missing finger and burying it with his now buried body. The promising premise leads way to a slow paced narrative. The mystery behind the fingers and the ‘odd’ deaths were to me the main drive of the story.

Things that I didn’t like
Dual narrative
While I was intrigued I soon found myself disliked the ‘format’ of the dual narrative. The chapters ended almost with abruptness, as to pique the reader’s interest. I wouldn’t have minded but for the switching between 1st and 3rd person. It didn’t really add anything to the narrative, rather it made a lot of chapters clash with one another. One moment I was deep in Ji Lin’s story next thing I was an ‘outsider’ observing Ren, or worse still William.
Because these chapters interrupted each other’s ‘action’ there were a lot of observations and ‘realisations’ that are repeated, and often it seemed that I was getting a ‘recap’ of what had happened previously to that character.
Characters (Ji Lin is not like other girls, and all men are pigs )
I really wanted to like both Ji Lin and Ren. Sadly, I soon found Ji Lin to be insufferable and Ren was both boring and had some very non-child-like moments
Ji Lin is the typical gorgeous and smart girl who doesn’t know how beautiful and charming she is. She wanted to study medicine, like her step-brother Shin, but decides not to disobey her “tyrannical” stepfather. Ji Lin seems to find it unfair that Shin was able to study and that she is only excepted to become a wife…and yet Ji Lin soon reveals herself to be the type of young woman who judges and condemns women in situations similar to her own. She seems to think herself better than the other dancehall girls (and their shock horror promiscuous ways). If she is progressive enough to think that women should be doing the same things as the men do, why does she so quickly condemn those like her? Does she think she is the only one who works as a dancehall girl because she in desperate need of money? Is it not likely that the other girls are going through similar ‘hard times’?
Worse still is that the narrative and the other characters constantly remind us that Ji Lin is not like other girls:
—“Most girls in my position would probably be over the moon”
—“You don’t scream about things like this,”
—“You really are blunt, he said. Don’t you know how to act like a girl?”
—“You don’t talk like most local girls”
So, other girls are flirty, air-headed, and easily scared of spiders. Ji Lin is DIFFERENT, she is SPECIAL, she is NOT LIKE OTHER GIRLS.
Thanks to her new haircut everybody mistakes for Louise Brooks.

“Seen up close, she’s shockingly pretty. Or at least, she is to him, thought some might say her cropped hair and slender frame are too boyish.”

How can I believe that her beauty is ‘particular’ and ‘not to everyone’s taste’ when every single male character tries it on with her? There is only one guy (who makes only a brief appearance and is already married) who doesn’t pine after her. I kid you not.
Her whole character seems reduced to how men behave around her. She spent her time bickering with Shin, and failing to avoid/turn-down perverts. Her motivations and her actions seemed completely random.
Her character is clouded by her infuriating relationship with (view spoiler)
There are plenty of other vulgar men except that they are not as beautiful as Ji Lin’s love interest is…so they are just creeps.
William is this foreign (I think British) doctor who is made to seem like this possibly ‘bad’ man. Yet, his actions are far from monstrous. More than being loathsome, he seems pathetic. It would have been better to cut his POV entirely from the narrative since it just shows us how insubstantial he is. Really, what was the point of him?
All the men are either sexist or violent. They either act like animals, (“They were like two dogs sizing each other up”), look like animals (Koh Beng, who has a ‘porky face’ and is compared to a pig looks up Ji Lin’s skirt), or are compared to beasts(“Men are beasts, aren’t they?”). Their behaviours and actions are dictated by their reproductive organs. They have no brains! They are just there to behave inappropriately towards Ji Lin or mistreat other ‘lesser’ women.
Lastly, Ren did not act like a child. He is too self-aware to pass for a child. Yet, he also has these naive moments that came across as forced. We never get to know him well because his chapters often focus on William, his new master. Ren’s ‘cat sense’ was cringeworthy: his ‘tendrils’ travel here and there and can sense thing…how about n-o.

What could have been a great story focuses on a ‘will they/won’t they’ romance. The mystery of the fingers soon lost its appeal to me. The ‘murder’ storyline managed to be both disappointing and predictable.
I might try other books by Choo but this just didn’t work for me.

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THE WEIGHT OF OUR SKY: BOOK REVIEW

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The Weight of Our Sky
by Hanna Alkaf
★★★✰✰  3 of 5 stars

This is a promising YA debut. While there were a few elements that stopped me from being fully ‘immersed’ by the story and its characters, first I want to praise Alkaf’s depiction of OCD.
The story follows Melati Ahmad who is a teenager in 1969 Malaysia. Melati’s father is dead and her mother works as a nurse. While Melati enjoys spending time with her best friend, listening to the Beatles, doing normal ‘teenager stuff’, in the past year or so her OCD has proven each day a constant battle. While cases of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder are dated back to the 14th century, steps to understand its symptoms and causes have only been made recently. Melati attributes her impulses and visions to an evil djinn. Alkaf doesn’t shy away from showing us just how overwhelming Melati’s compulsions and visions of death are. Alkaf presents these in a way that is supposed to rankle us, and she succeeded.
Sadly, the story and its characters seem to lack the attention paid to Melati’s OCD. Scenes of shocking violence and that should have carried a lot of emotional weight came across as being flat. More than once I hadthe impression that things were almost excessively dumbed-down. For one, I found that the characters gave an unlikely amount of exposition. A lot of what they say is solely for the benefit of an english-speaking audience unacquainted with Malaysia’s culture and its fraught history. I wish I could have learnt certain facts without such an explicit approach.
I also got the sense that Melati, as well as some of the other characters, possessed a ‘modern’ awareness that was almost incompatible with the story’s time period.
Hopefully younger readers will be able to enjoy this more than I was able.

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