The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh

The YA genre seems saturated by heroines who are (allegedly) neither beautiful nor intelligent but they are spunky and clumsy and bursting with goodness. Well, I have had my fill of these girls.

Wholesome, vanilla, inoffensive, The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea is a relatively enjoyable YA read that tone-wise will definitely appeal to younger audiences (with very few alterations this could easily have been a middle-grade book). As usual, I was sold by the comparison, which in this case happens to be one of my all-time favorite films, Spirited Away. While The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea does present readers with some vivid descriptions of the Spirit Realm, the characters and world-building were not as nuanced as Miyazaki’s ones. Also, I couldn’t help but compare (unfavourably) this to other fairy-tale-esque YA books such as Daughter of the Forest and Six Crimson Cranes.
Anyway, the story is fairly plot-driven as we follow our ‘spunky’ heroine trying to put an end to the curse afflicting the Sea God, a god who once protected humans but for generations has been destroying her homeland by causing deadly storms. To appease him every year a beautiful maiden is thrown into the sea and becomes his bride. This year it will be someone from Mina’s village, the lovely Shim Cheong who happens to be the object of affection of Mina’s brother, Joon. Seeing how much they love each other Mina hijacks the ceremony and sacrifices herself instead. Once in the Spirit Realm, she discovers that the Sea God has been asleep for years and that only his ‘true bride’ can put an end to his curse. We don’t learn much about what happened to the previous brides, with the exception of one, and she doesn’t really get much page time. It would have been nice to know what these other brides got up to in the Spirit Realm but alas the plot is very much focused on Mina who is determined to save her people from future heartaches. She’s somewhat aided by the ‘mysterious’ Shin, and his two sidekicks, the funny one and the surly one. They do come into contact with other gods and spirits but these scenes are short-lived and rather rushed. Mina makes a few heedless choices because she just can’t bear not to do what’s right (le sigh), and she eventually develops feelings for someone.
Mina manages to make people help her left and right because her goodness is just that motivating. Eventually, we learn more about the Sea God and the identities of Mina’s newfound allies.
It would have been nice to have Mina think about her family more. She mostly thought of her grandmother when the plot needed it and it felt a bit unrealistic that she would so easily get over them. I was also tired of the narrative telling us that Mina was not beautiful or intelligent when it is quite obvious that she is the most special girl in the whole bloody book. The love interest was a bit bland and his sidekicks were rather cliched. The Sea God’s curse and the events that led to it were somewhat anticlimactic. The story tries to have Mina bring these gods and spirits to their senses by reminding them that there are humans who pray for them and need their help, but her arguments were so simplistic that it made it hard for me to believe that her words/actions would be so ‘touching’ to others. The ending could have easily been shorter as it came across as prolonged for no reason whatsoever. While there were certain elements that I liked and I did not find this to be an unpleasant story, well, it felt very mid. I guess I could see this book working for readers who enjoyed Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow.
Sadly, I was rather disappointed by The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea, as I was looking for richer storytelling, a more developed cast of characters and world-building, and a less predictable plot. Overall this was an easy if forgettable read and I’m not sure whether I would read more by this author.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith

As per usual I was swayed by a pretty cover. I mean, just look at it!

Anyway, as much as I wanted to like Build Your House Around My Body, it left me feeling rather underwhelmed. The narrative seems very much intent—hellbent even—on nauseating its readers, at times adopting a playful tone to do so. Ultimately, the story’s relentless efforts to be as abject as possible succeeded only in making me feel nothing for the characters.

The novel’s first few chapters were intriguing in a Neil Gaiman kind of way but with each chapter this reminded me more and more of Mariana Enríquez (not my cup of tea).
Build Your House Around My Body takes place in Vietnam, shifting between a cast of interconnected characters, and moving from the 1940s to the early 2010s. In 2011 a Vietnamese American woman named Winnie living in Saigon goes missing, less than a year after arriving in Vietnam. Over the course of the novel, we learn of what led her to Saigon and of her stint as an English teacher. A section of the narrative follows the Saigon Spirit Eradication Co. who are called to investigate some ‘spooky’ ongoings at a Vietnamese farm, another introduces us to a Vietnamese French boy sent to a boarding school during colonial rule, and then there are chapters focusing on three childhood friends, Binh, a supposedly feisty young girl and two brothers, Tan and Long, who share the same kind of bland personality.
The setting is vividly rendered, that’s for sure. We feel the oppressive heat and humidity experienced by the characters and the author has a knack for bringing to life the environments in which her characters are (be it a cemetery, a forest, or a dingy bathroom). The various storylines however don’t really flow that well together. The author wastes too much time poking fun at secondary characters that she loses sight of her novel’s central figures. Take Winnie. She remains a half-formed character, and while some of her vagueness may be intentional she could have still been fleshed out more. But her chapters often detail the silly routines of her colleagues or try really hard to gross you out through unpleasant descriptions of bodily fluids. Each storyline seems punctuated by slime, sweat, and shit. Which…yeah. The supposed revenge storyline doesn’t really come into play until the very end of the novel and by the end, it was glaringly obvious what had taken place in the past. The only section that made me feel somewhat amused was the one featuring the Fortune Teller’s First Assistant, but she was at beat a minor character (more of a cameo appearance really).
I had the distinct impression that this it the type of novel that is confusing for the sake of being confusing and I never much cared for these types of stories. Not only did the characters feel flat but I felt at a remove from them. The narrative spends so much time ridiculing them or comparing their facial features or appendages to foods/animals that I never saw them as ‘real’.
To be perfectly honest I don’t think I entirely understood what this book was going for. As I said already the novel’s raison d’être seems to be that of repulsing the readers. The issues the narrative attempts to touch upon—female agency? maybe? I don’t really have a clue—are lost in a murky melange of disparate storylines that don’t really come together that well nor do they succeed in bringing the characters or their struggles to life. While the setting was rendered in startlingly detail. the characters—their experiences and their relationships to one another—remain painfully vague.

my rating: ★★½

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Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson

“Names have power. This is the fundamental principle of magic everywhere. Call out the name of a supernatural being, and you will have its instant and undivided attention in the same way that your lost toddler will have yours the second it calls your name.”

First published in 2000 Monkey Beach is a deeply evocative and multilayered coming of age. Monkey Beach transports its readers to Northwest British Columbia, to Kitamaat, home to the Haisla people. After her younger brother Jimmy goes missing during a fishing expedition, twenty-year-old Lisamarie Hill is overwhelmed by grief. As she makes her way to the place he was last seen, Lisa looks back to her childhood and teenage years. Lisa recollections ring incredibly true to life. The author captures the way children think and speak, celebrating moments of silliness and happiness that occur between siblings and childhood friends. While there are many moments of lightness in Lisa’s childhood, the author doesn’t shy away from portraying the many injustices and struggles experienced by indigenous people. Lisa’s relationships with her family members—in particular, her loving uncle Mick and her resilient Ma-ma-oo—are as powerful as they are moving.
As a child, Lisa is very much a ‘tomboy’. She doesn’t back down from a fight, has a bit of a temper, enjoys getting into scrapes that frequently land her into trouble. Her uncle is her biggest fan and their interactions are simply a joy to read. I also liked that although Lisa does exhibit some of those ‘Not Like Other Girls’ traits, the narrative ultimately subverts this, introducing us to multiple tough girls and by not dismissing those girls Lisa had a falling out with.
The author depicts the realities of growing up indigenous and female, emphasizing the importance of family ties, however knotty these may be, and Haisla beliefs and customs. The narrative also delves into magical realism territories as throughout her youth Lisa is visited by a strange if ominous figure. Lisa’s premonitions and her ability to see ghosts are a terrible weight as she is often unable to stop tragedies from unfolding.

This novel has easily some of the most realistic dialogues and interactions that I have ever come across in a book. The setting is as vividly rendered as the characters, and there are many stunning descriptions of the landscapes surrounding Lisa.
While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this to lovers of plot or fast-moving narratives, Monkey Beach will definitely resonate with those readers who are looking for a nuanced family portrait. I truly appreciated that while the author manages to convey with crystal-clear clarity Lisa’s childhood, some things in her story retain a sense of ambiguity.
While the first half of this novel is brimming with more light-hearted moments, the latter half is heartbreaking and unexpectedly dark. Lisa’s voice and character arc were truly compelling and I found myself not wanting to reach the end (as that would mean saying goodbye to her).
I came across an interview in which Emily St. John Mandel says that Monkey Read is her favourite book to re-read, and I actually think that this novel would indeed appeal to fans of Mandel (the remote & atmospheric setting, the magical realism). Readers who enjoyed Hannah Tinti’s The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley should also consider giving Monkey Beach a shot as the two share a similar ‘feel’.
Monkey Beach was a truly absorbing read, one that I am already looking forward to reading again.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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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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Where the Wild Ladies Are by Aoko Matsuda

Where the Wild Ladies Are is a collection of short stories that traditional Japanese folktales a modern and feminist twist. The premise behind these stories is certainly interesting and I would probably recommend it even if it didn’t quite ‘work’ for me. Most of Aoko Matsuda’s stories are interconnected as they feature recurring characters and places. I quite liked this aspect of the collection as I was curious to discover how certain stories were related to other ones. The surreal atmosphere and zestful tone lend this collection a rather offbeat quality that brought to mind authors such Kevin Wilson and Hilary Leichter. These stories are unapologetically weird as they are populated by quirky characters facing some peculiar scenarios. Ghosts seem to be the norm and many characters undergo fantastic transformations.

My favourite stories were the very first two in the collection. One stars a woman who has been recently ‘dumped’ by her boyfriend. She spends time and money in order to enhance her looks (hair removal galore) but finds herself questioning existing beauty standards when her body hair begins to have a life of its own…and yeah, she also happens to talk who to her aunt who is a ghost. The following story has a vaguely Kafkaesque feel to it as it focuses on a unemployed man who finds himself answering the door to an unusual sales duo. The subsequent stories, in comparison, were very uneven. They had some interesting elements but they would eventually peter out, leaving me kind of wanting more and questioning what was the point of story itself. The writing was okay. It wasn’t particularly funny or insightful. The feminist ‘twists’ were kind of there…but kind of not. At the end we get brief summaries of the folktales that inspired each chapters but I still could not really see how Matsuda’s stories were all that empowering for women (yes, she acknowledges sexual misconduct in the workplace or that woman are often regarded as wives or mothers but acknowledging these things hardly means challenging them).
Still I do think Matsuda presents her readers with a vivid portrayal of Japanese culture and society today. If you enjoy eccentric stories with a dose of magical realism you might want to give this collection a chance.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Parade by Hiromi Kawakami

In this short volume readers will be reunited with Tsukiko and Sensei, from Hiromi Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo. After sharing a meal together, Sensei asks Tsukiko to “tell me a story from long ago”. Tsukiko obliges. When she was a child two tengu started following her around. Other children in her class age were also being followed by spirits and creatures from folklore. Kawakami’s sparse prose has lulling quality. She combines quotidian moments or reflections with surreal elements. Tsukiko is regretful about her behaviour towards one of her classmates, so that some of what she recounts is given a bittersweet note.
Throughout this short story there are two-colour illustrations by Takako Yoshitomi (geometric shapes and patterns as well as anthropomorphised figures).
I love Kawakami’s prose, the timelessness of her stories, the vague sense of nostalgia that permeates her narratives. Parade felt just a bit too short.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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The King of Crows by Libba Bray — book review

unnamed.jpgI hate to say it, or write it, but The King of Crows wasn’t a very satisfying conclusion to The Diviners series.

“Who got to decide what made somebody an American? America, the ideal of it at least, was its own form of elusive magic.”

While it isn’t as drawn-out as the finale to the Gemma Doyle series (which was around 800 pages) it struck me as being similarly anticlimactic.
In The King of Crows the pacing of the story is all over the place and the characters have very rushed and unsatisfying arcs.

Nearly three years have gone by since the release of Before the Devil Breaks You. Given that this series started back in 2012, it isn’t all that surprising that I’d forgotten a quite a few major plot-points. Still, I remembered the diviners, their personalities and powers, as well as their group dynamics. Libba Bray doesn’t spend too much time recapitulating old events, and once I caught up or remembered what was going on I found the first few chapters of this novel to be promising enough.
Once the diviners are scattered across America however the story’s upbeat pace comes to a halt. What follows over the course of the next three-hundred pages is a tedious repetition of similar scenarios.
The diviners encounter good folk, who are willing to help them or understand what it means to be different (such as the members of a circus), as well as horrible individuals and groups of people (the most noticeable being the KKK). They all come to terms with their simultaneously beautiful and terrible country/world. All the while we get random chapters showing us that ghosts are coming (phrases such as ‘ghosts are coming’ and ‘this country is full of ghosts’ are repeated so many times as to loose the initial sense of danger and urgency that they carried). The confusing showdown between our good guys (aka the diviners) and the baddies is crammed in the last hundred pages.
The narrative in The King of Crows lacked the mystery-factor that made the other volumes in this series intriguing.

In short: the story is just padding.

Characters behave as flimsy versions of their former selves (Evie and Ling, both of whom I previously really liked, were simply irritating) and had very rushed storylines that seemed to add very little to their overall arc.
Take Henry. Most of his scenes revolve around the way in which his sexuality is deemed abnormal by his society. That’s pretty much it. Ling’s sections also often emphasise her sexuality. Whereas those scenes that focus on characters such as Memphis and Theta seem to focus on other aspects of their lives (their general desires and fears, etc). Jericho has the most eye-roll worthy storyline which sees him (view spoiler).
Even the banter between the various diviners felt unimaginative. At times their conversations and discussions seem to rely on their catchphrases (Evie says something ‘scandalous’, Sam says something flirty, Jericho doesn’t get whatever is going on, Ling is disapproving…).
None of the romances were interesting. They mostly revolved around cute nicknames (such as baby vamp) and on scenes featuring some very uninspired flirting.

The King of Crows is a Disney type of villain. I remember that the first instalments of this series presented us with creepy or fascinating antagonists…but this guy is just dull. He has a few cameos here and there, scares our protagonists, does some mayhem, and is very much the novel’s boogeyman.

The setting too seemed to lack its usual spark and vibrancy. Previously I loved the way in which Bray brought 1920s New York to life. In this volume however most of the ‘action’ is outside of New York, and we read of a series of small and forgettable towns…which do not make very intriguing backdrops.

The plot was full of convenient coincidences. What frustrated me the most was a ‘revelation’ towards the end, which came as no surprise whatsoever (view spoiler)

Bray draws an unsubtle parallel between the rampant racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, anti-Semitism, othering, and other forms of bigotry of the 1920s and today’s political climate (there are phrases such as ‘get out of our country’). Her approaches to some of these topics came across as rather on the nose. For example when Theta learns that someone she likes was raised by slave-owners she has such an unbelievably naive ‘how could she?’ reaction.

The epilogue struck me as predictable….(view spoiler)

All in all…this was an incredibly disappointing followup to Before the Devil Breaks You.
While Bray is an undoubtedly good writer The King of Crows simply lacks the glamour and electricity that made the other instalments so much more engaging and atmospheric. It had a meandering narrative, with lots of repetition regarding the importance of storytelling and stories, a passage from Nietzsche which felt rather out of place, some lacklustre cosmic horror, and a cast of one-dimensional characters.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars 

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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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