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Lit Review: ‘A Sprinkle of Sorcery’ by Michelle Harrison

by Elaine Lau

I picked up Michelle Harrison’s newly published middle-grade novel, A Sprinkle of Sorcery, with keen anticipation. The book is a follow-up to the absolutely delightful first novel in the series, A Pinch of Magic, which I enjoyed immensely and could not stop recommending to young readers at Lit Books.

In A Pinch of Magic, we are introduced to the three Widdershins sisters — there is the eldest and sensible one, Fliss; the feisty and adventurous Betty; and the youngest, Charlie, who’s sassy and fearless. The sisters live on an island called Crowstone and help their granny run the Poacher’s Pocket inn. They were condemned to never leave the island because of an ancient family curse, and the story revolves around the trio as they set about figuring out how to break this curse with the help of some magical family heirlooms.

A Sprinkle of Sorcery sees the Widdershins embark on a mystery-adventure when a mysterious girl who needs help appears at their doorstep accompanied by a glowing wisp and a magical hagstone. The girl, Willow, had escaped from the nearby island of Torment, where family members of those imprisoned for crimes are sent to.

Willow is adamant to prove her father’s innocence, and the Widdershins decide to help her. But then Charlie goes missing after being snatched away by two men masquerading as warders who were out to capture the escapee. Fliss and Betty are thrown into a perilous mission where they encounter fearsome pirates, a sunken smuggler’s ship, and a magical island that does not seem to exist on any map. It would take all their wits and every ounce of courage to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges to help a complete stranger and find their sister.

Much like the first book in the series, Harrison combines a winning formula of strong girl characters, a suspenseful, pacey plot with a conundrum not too easily solved, and just enough surprises and twists to keep even a slightly jaded adult reader such as myself captivated throughout. Threaded with themes of sisterhood, friendship, and kindness, this rollicking fun read is just as good as the first novel. While it does make mention of some happenings from the first novel, you do not need to have read it in order to enjoy this one — A Sprinkle of Sorcery works as a standalone.

I very much enjoy Harrison’s breezy style of writing and loved that I genuinely did not know how the story was going to unfold — it was thrilling to be taken on this journey of wonder and discovery. Harrison has a knack for imaginative storytelling, even if the individual elements of the story are not at all unfamiliar. In her capable hands, she has woven these various popular tropes into a magical tale that feels wholly original.

Verdict: A thrilling, enchanting story that will delight children and adults alike. (8/10)

Availability: Paperback, RM49.90

Special thanks to Pansing Distribution for a review copy of the book.

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Lit Review: ‘The God Game’ by Danny Tobey

by Fong Min Hun

The God Game is a high-concept thriller that takes the well-used science fiction trope of runaway artificial intelligence and places it in a highly plausible contemporary setting: author Danny Tobey need not stretch his imagination very far to imagine a intelligence who, thanks to the Internet of Things, is omniscient and omnipresent (by hacking mobile phones and speakers) and omnipotent (what powers does a being with absolute control over electronic devices wield?). And what is God if not an intelligence that is omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent?

The story follows a group of five high-school geeks — all of them outcasts and misfits — who muster together under the anachronistically-named group The Vindicators to seek redress and justice through pranks. The leader of the group is Charlie, a former honour student whose life has been turned upside down by his mother’s death; Vahni, an ambitious daughter of Indian immigrants with grand designs to attend Harvard; Kenny, a cello-playing, philosophy reading son of medical doctors; Alex, a troubled youth with more than skeletons in his closet; and Peter, an enigmatic rich kid with nihilistic tendencies. 

Everything kicks off when the group stumbles on the mysterious God Game, where players commune with a mysterious being who refers to itself as God. Created by a group of bored hackers who poured all existing literature related to gods across human history into an AI core, the virtual God takes it upon itself to play a direct role in the real world through its interactions with the game’s players and its ability to control pretty much any electronic device tenuously connected to the internet. 

This in itself isn’t a problem, except that this God AI, an amalgam of the various traditions, has an odd sense of morality and justice. Imagine if you will a schizophrenic being that, on the one hand, subscribes to gentle Christian love but simultaneously demands living sacrifice a la as would more violent gods. It also demands complete fealty from its players and rewards obedience with virtual currency “Goldz” and punishes defiance with demerit points known as “Blaxx”. With enough Goldz, players can “buy” abilities from the game such as the ability to spy on other people via their phones and mobile devices, while accumulating sufficient Blaxx will result in punishment — usually a beating, or even death, at the hands of other players who are motivated to do so by the game. 

It never becomes clear why the God AI makes specific demands of its players — God works in mysterious ways — but it becomes quickly apparent to our heroes that anything less than complete surrender would not suffice. Meanwhile, they have to navigate the tribulations of American teenage life — unrequited love, unwanted attention from popular jocks, parental expectations, etc. God offers them aids to help them deal with their own personal morasses, although everything has a price. They need to get out of the game and quick, but the game is not about to let them just leave.

Danny Tobey’s high-tech thriller The God Game is a peculiar novel. While it deserves high plaudits for its originality and keen insight of the dangers and ramifications of our increasingly interconnected world, it borrows extensively from overused teen tropes. As a result, the novel as a whole becomes a lot more ordinary, but not uninteresting. The characters, with one exception, are, I am sorry to say, one-dimensional and their motivations no more complex than those of an Archie Andrews or a character from a 90s teen drama. But it is an intriguing moral poser, and raises the question of what it means for us as moral actors if the supposed source of morality is a tangible experience in the world.

Verdict: 6.5/10

Availability: Trade paperback, RM79.90

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COVID-19 Service Update

SERVICE UPDATE AS AT 7/6/2020

Dear friends

We are still operating limited hours at the present time and will likely continue to do so until the government makes a decision on the movement control order. Here are our hours again:

Tuesday to Friday: By appointment between 1pm and 7pm
Saturday, Sunday and Public Holidays: 1pm to 7pm

We would like to thank everyone who has been so supportive of us during this challenging period. Thank you and we hope that you and yours continue to stay safe and healthy.

Some Frequently Asked Questions
Q. I can’t find the book ‘XXXX’ in your online store. Can you special order it in for me?
A: Yes, but we don’t know when we will receive regular supply of books at this point in time. We can still inquire with our distributors but we may not be able to obtain the book right away.

Q. Are you still getting new stock?
A: Yes, but there may be delays in obtaining new releases.

Q. Can you ship internationally?
A: Sadly, not at this point in time. Additionally, please be advised that international shipments are interrupted owing to the disruption in flight schedules resulting in longer-than-usual wait times.

Q. Why is there a cat on your page?
A: Her name is Houdini and she is the Favoured Cat of our household. We put her picture up because cat pictures always make people happy.

Q. This isn’t a very good FAQ. Where can I direct my questions?
A: You can message us on Facebook or Instagram, or send us an email at info@litbooks.com.my.

Thank you for your continued support.

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Introducing our Online Shop

Dear friends,

We hope and trust that you are staying safe and keeping well.

The restriction movement order (RMO) imposed by the government has meant that non-essential businesses like ours had to be shut down, and Lit Books has complied with this directive, closing our shop on 18th March 2020. Thankfully, e-commerce can continue as per usual–and indeed we have been fulfilling requests from customers who wrote in to us and we are so grateful for that–but the lack of a proper online shop limited the service we could provide to you.

During this past week, Elaine and I have been frantically putting together the infrastructure and hours of data entry to create a workable online shop. You can find the link on the top right corner of our website and it should take you to a basic storefront: You can add products to your cart, you can edit your cart, and you can checkout your orders. But unfortunately, we cannot take online payment (as we do not have an account with the appropriate payment authority yet) and we still rely on bank transfers for payment.

So here’s how it works:

  1. Add your selection(s) to the cart.
  2. View your cart to finalise your choices.
  3. Click the checkout button.
  4. There is a flat RM8 fee for shipping within West Malaysia and RM12 for East Malaysia. Shipping is free for purchases above RM200 for West Malaysia and RM250 for East Malaysia.
  5. At this point, you will receive instruction to bank in payment to our bank account and to send us a screenshot of the bank transfer record.
  6. While this happens, the item will be placed on ‘hold’ which means no one else can buy the item.
  7. The item will be on ‘hold’ for roughly an hour during which time you should be able to transfer the funds and send us the screenshot.
  8. We will complete the transaction and ship the item(s) out to you on our next shipping run.

Some questions you might have:

  1. Do we have to pay using a bank transfer?
    Yes, unless you don’t mind doing an eWallet transfer to my personal account. I can presently accept Touch N Go, Grab and BigPay. Message us on Facebook or Instagram if you’d like to arrange to do one of these alternative modes of payment. However, do checkout your item first so it will be held for you.
  2. How will you be shipping the books and how long will it take?
    We ship by PosLaju by default. During this past week, customers have reported receiving packages as early as the very next day and three days at the latest (within the Klang Valley). We can also arrange for shipping via Grab Delivery or via another e-hailing service. Again, get in touch with us to arrange for alternative shipping methods but please note that the shipment fees will change accordingly.
  3. I live nearby. Can I pick up the books from your shop?
    No, because we want you to stay at home. We’d hate for anyone to expose themselves to infection during this time and we would rather rely on the professional delivery people–whom we can’t thank enough–to handle this task.
  4. This FAQ didn’t answer all my questions. How can I get in touch with you?
    The best way to reach us at this time is to message us via Facebook or Instagram. Understandably, nobody is at the store at the present time to pick up the phone. Our Facebook page is http://www.facebook.com/mylitbooks and our IG handle is @mylitbooks.

One final note: A big THANK YOU to all our customers who have purchased books from us this past week. These are uncertain times for all business owners and prospects are opaque for a small book retailer such as us. Thank you also in advance to all those of you who are thinking of supporting us during this difficult time. Every little bit helps and is so much appreciated.

A quick verse to end this rambling post (one of my favourites):

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

— Emily Dickinson

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Lit Revew: ‘Impractical Uses of Cake’ by Yeoh Jo-Ann

by Elaine Lau

Friends know that I’m a sucker for cake. I am also a sucker for books with interesting titles. And so, when I came across Yeoh Jo-Ann’s debut novel, Impractical Uses of Cake, winner of Singaporean publisher Epigram’s Fiction Prize 2018, I had to bite. And what a treat it turned out to be.

Different types of cake – yuzu coconut cream, lemon sponge, sugee, coffee pound, and orange chiffon, to name a few – feature throughout the novel, as the main character, 35-year-old English literature teacher Sukhin, is something of a cake fiend. He loves eating them, baking them, and sharing them. In one hilarious and all too relatable scene (to me, at least), Sukhin is out on a date with a woman who chooses an organic soy latte over cake for dessert, and he spirals into an internal monologue where it dawns on him that the love of cake is a criterion to be considered “his people”.

One person who does share his fondness for cake is Jinn, his former secondary school sweetheart whom he stumbles upon one afternoon in Chinatown. He discovers to his astonishment that Jinn is now living as a homeless person in cardboard boxes in an alleyway. She disappeared several years ago and he had taken her for dead. Seeing her again shakes him to the core.

Sukhin sets about to slowly unravel the mystery surrounding her initial disappearance and present situation, and he does so with the patience of a saint. He doesn’t demand answers right off the bat; he discerns that she will open up in her own time, on her own terms. Meanwhile, Sukhin finds himself fashioning ever more elaborate “shelter” out of cardboard boxes for Jinn and baking her cakes to sample. This beautiful portrayal of a gentle friendship, of what it means to be there for someone, is startling and heartwarming to behold.

The novel also touches on this whole notion of seeing the unseen – both in the sense of discovering Jinn again, but also in the broader sense of the urban homeless, an invisible segment of Singapore society. More pointedly, the novel deftly explores how life isn’t just what happens to you but what you make of it, and how the only way to truly live is according to your authentic self, even if the choices you make seem nonsensical to the rest of the world.

Yeoh’s writing sparkles with wit and empathy in this poignant, quirky novel told in an unhurried pace that’s part of its charm. Sukhin as a character is likeable, and I appreciated the literary references peppered throughout the book (he is, after all, a literature teacher).

Like a good lemon pound cake (a personal favourite of mine), this novel has substance but isn’t dense. It strikes the perfect balance between sweetness and tartness, and it is tender and charming without being saccharine. The story gives you plenty to chew on but doesn’t sit heavy on the stomach.

Verdict: A sensitive, lovely tale with a touch of whimsy (8/10)

Availability: Paperback, RM45

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Five books on women by women to read this month

In The Second Sex, French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir wrote that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”. Woman-ness, accordingly, is an existential state that follows upon the myriad experiences that are specific — women’s experience, so to speak. Though this philosophical insight is not unproblematic, there can be little argument that there is a uniqueness to the perspectives and experiences of women (though this author also acknowledges that the assumption of uniqueness presupposes a patriarchal normativity which is again troubling). We celebrate International Women’s Day in March and we do so by highlighting some extraordinary women and the way in which they have brought their own unique insight into a variety of activities: travel, parenthood, grief, data analysis and, of course, storytelling.

Stories of the Sahara by Sanmao (RM74.90)
Chen Mao-Ping , or better known by her pen name Sanmao (三毛), was a Taiwanese travel writer who is instantly recognisable to her legions of Chinese reading fans who have been inspired to dream of lives less ordinary. An irrepressible writer and adventurer — the book opens with the following line: “When I arrived in the desert, I desperately wanted to be the first female explorer to cross the Sahara” — Stories of the Sahara is a testament to Sanmao’s spirit and timeless romanticism of adventure and discovery. Elegantly penned, the book invites the reader to share in Sanmao’s experiences of love and loss, freedom and peril, in a voice that deftly dances from sharp wit to languorous expression. The book was first published in 1976 to immediate acclaim, and it is inexplicable that it has taken more than 40 years for it to have been translated into English. Sanmao’s voice fills a lacuna in the travel writing genre which continues to be dominated by the white, male voice.

Motherhood by Sheila Heti (RM59.90)
Sheila Heti’s Motherhood is a powerful novel that follows the life of Heti’s unnamed writer/narrator as she struggles with the question of whether or not she wants to have children. For the narrator, she recognises that the question has as much to do with externalities as it does with her own existential struggles: with her insecurities, her sense of authentic self and her uncertain impulses and feelings of motherhood. Riven with ambivalence, she decides to pour her anxiety into a book in hopes that the end product may give her some clarity on what she truly wants. The book takes the form of a dialogue with three coins, which are flipped to give her yes or no answers to questions and concerns. The narrator’s struggle with motherhood — realising that something is irretrievably lost however she chooses, and desperately hoping that that which she loses is not irredeemable — is couched in Heti’s intimate prose which may very well be a reflection of her own struggle with potential parenthood.

The Way Through the Woods by Long Litt Woon (RM99.90)
Following the sudden death of her husband Eiolf, author and anthropologist Long Litt Woon finds herself bereft and “in free fall… I, who had always been in command and in control”. Disoriented without her partner of 32 years, Long discovers solace out on a walk one day and literally stumbles on the one thing that would lead her out of her “tunnel of grief”: mushrooms. Long, a Malaysian by birth and a Norwegian by marriage, has written a monograph on mycology, a personal grief diary and a mushroom cookbook, and woven them together into a compelling narrative that moves nimbly from one subject to the next. The books treat each subject discreetly (and are colour-coded to help the reader identify the appropriate sentiment with which to treat the paragraphs–the true mark of a scientist) which, rather than interrupts the pace of the book, creates a unique structure where the personal, the scientific and the culinary overlap and intersect. The book reveals a relationship that was at once united by love, but also by a shared spirit of adventure and scientific curiosity.

Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez (RM84.90)
“Instead of believing women when they say they’re in pain, we tend to label them as mad. And who can blame us? Bitches be crazy, as Plato famously said.” And hysterical pain is only one of many examples of the way that the androcentric world continues to marginalise and delegitimise women’s experience. Invisible Women, which won the Financial Times and McKinsey Book of the year prize for 2019, is a revelatory monograph that uncovers — and, in some cases, merely points — at the way that inventions, policies, workplaces and the like fail to take into account women’s experience in their conception and development. Central to Perez’s thesis is the claim that the fundamental evidential unit of experience, datum, is ultimately gender-biased, flying in the face of the long-held faith in the objectivity of scientific research. Seatbelts, school admissions, municipal policies on the clearing of snow — nothing escapes Perez, and they are exhaustively revealed to be fundamentally gender-biased in her excellently researched book.

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal (RM75.90)
Elizabeth Macneal’s evocative debut historical fiction set in Victorian London is an intoxicating tale of obsession and pursuing one’s passion. Iris works as a painter of dolls at Mrs Slater’s Doll Emporium but harbours ambitions to be a real painter, and she secretly does so in the cellar at night after everyone is asleep. When Iris is presented with the opportunity to model for pre-Raphaelite artist Louis Frost, she agrees on the condition that he teach her to paint. Even as she is finally living her dream, her life is about to be turned upside down due to Silas Reed, owner of a curiosities shop and a collector entranced by the strange and beautiful, whose chance meeting with the red-haired beauty at the Great Exhibition sets him on a dangerous path fuelled by obsession. The novel is a bit of a slow burner at first, but it picks up halfway through to unfurl a series of nail-biting, shocking twists to make for a truly engrossing read.

This article appears in the March 2020 issue of FireFlyz, the in-flight magazine of Firefly airlines.

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Lit Review: ‘The Mercies’ by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

by Elaine Lau

After having conquered the world of children’s fiction, British novelist Kiran Millwood Hargrave sets out to make her mark in adult fiction with The Mercies, a historical novel that throws into sharp relief the struggles of women forced to live lives dictated by men, and the perils of self-righteousness.

The novel is based on the witch trials that took place in 1621 in Vardø, Norway, where more than 91 women as well as Sámi men were found guilty of witchcraft and put to death. At the site today stands a memorial by Louise Bourgeois and Peter Zumthor to mark the tragedy which itself is the the main catalyst of Hargrave’s novel.

At its heart, The Mercies is about the complex lives of women told through the lens of two very different ladies, Maren and Ursula, or Ursa. The novel begins on Christmas eve, 1617, in the remote fishing village of Vardø, where a sudden, ferocious storm claims the lives of 40 fishermen out at sea, leaving the women of this tight-knit community reeling in shock and horror. Among them is Maren, whose betrothed, brother, and father all perished in the storm. In the following months, led by the feisty Kirsten, Maren and the women take on tasks that are usually the purview of men, such as going out to sea to fish. Even though it is a matter of survival, Pastor Kurtsson (who was sent to shepherd the community after the tragedy) and a few of the women disapprove and deem it improper for a woman to do. Kirsten, Maren and et al carry on, regardless, and the women thrive in their new reality without their men.

The narrative then switches to Ursa, a well-bred young woman from the city of Bergen in the south who is made to marry a man chosen by her father, the sanctimonious Absalom Cornet. He has just been appointed the new commissioner of Vardø, and the couple set off for the north soon after the nuptials. Ursa is ill-prepared for her new life as wife to a man who has little regard for her other than in the bedroom, and is also clueless at keeping house having grown up with servants. She turns to Maren for help, and Maren on her part finds herself irresistibly drawn to Ursa. The two soon become inseparable.

Meanwhile, the commissioner’s true purpose for being appointed to Vardø is made chillingly clear: he is to root out witchcraft and all who practise it. Some of the women in the community, namely those who were opposed to Kirsten and her taking charge, are only too eager to help Cornet along and take it upon themselves to condemn the other group of women, leading to devastating outcomes.

“[Maren] had thought she had seen the worst from this harbour, thought nothing could rival the viciousness of the storm. But now she knows she was foolish to believe that evil existed only out there. It was here, among them, walking on two legs, passing judgment with a human tongue.”

Parallels can certainly be drawn with what we see in today’s “witch hunts” that often take place on social media. With a fervour fuelled by self-righteousness, keyboard warriors draw conclusions based on suspicion and scant knowledge, and proceed to hang the accused out to dry, confident of their judgment. The Mercies is a timely caution against this treacherous path that is all too easy to tread, and the harm it causes.

Hargrave has written a surefooted novel that, while a bit slow in parts, makes for an absorbing, if sobering read. You feel for both Maren and Ursa and their individual as well as collective struggles as women bound by the dictates of society and by men. But perhaps the most heartbreaking thing of all is the depiction of women rising against other women.

In an interview with Kirkus, the author reveals that she did not want to focus on the violence of the trials but on the lives of women. She says, “I’m always quite queasy when I read a witch trial book because it does feel voyeuristic, and it does feel like you’re luxuriating in the violence being done to women. I’m also interested in how you get to that stage and I wanted the propulsion to come not through these kind of unimaginable acts [of violence], but through very imaginable acts.”

Verdict: The ending feels a bit rushed but the solid main characters and intriguing story more than make up for it. (7/10)

Availability: Trade paperback, RM79.90. Purchase here.

Special thanks to Pansing Distribution for an advance review copy of the book.

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Books on love and its many guises

It is both surprising and not that love continues to remain such fertile territory for scribblers: after all, we are nowhere closer to understanding what this emotion is although we would be hard-pressed to find anyone who can truly claim that they feel not its impact. Whether it be love romantic or platonic, worldly or divine, sui generis or populous, love is perhaps the emotion par excellence describing the tension that exists between the wants of our inner and outer lives. Those of us lucky enough to succeed in aligning the conflict are truly blessed, and those of us who are not must continue the struggle. But for both, there are always books on love to read.

A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende (RM79.90)
Set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War and the subsequent exodus of Spanish refugees to France and Chile, this sweeping, majestic new novel by Chilean author Isabel Allende explores love in many guises: love for one’s country, for your fellow humankind, and for music and poetry, but also carnal love and the kind borne out of deep mutual respect and trust for another person. The story centres on Victor Dalmau, a young medical student fighting on the Republican side at the start of the novel and who eventually has to flee the country. He ends up in Chile, together with his dead brother’s pregnant girlfriend, Roser Bruguera, who agrees to marry Victor out of convenience. As the years go by, they build their lives — he as a successful cardiologist, and she as a renowned musician — and raise Marcel, Roser’s son, together. But when the Pinochet dictatorship unseats Chile’s Marxist president in 1973, they find themselves once more endangered by their political views. Allende’s storytelling prowess shines through with wonderful characters and a truly engaging story that feels timeless, yet perfectly on pulse with today.

Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry (RM75.90)
Longlisted for the 2019 Booker prize, Night Boat to Tangier is reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Irwine Welsh’s Trainspotting and, perhaps to a lesser degree, Graham Swift’s Last Orders. In a sentence: Night Boat is a story of two former conmen, past their prime, waiting at the port of Algeciras for a daughter who may or may not appear — a daughter lost to them owing to their turbulent past coloured by fast money and fast drugs — and who while away the time in heavy nostalgia and reverie through dialogue interspersed with Joycean banter poised always on the edge of a knife. And yet, through it all, love remains the grounding theme, be it a love of self, the romantic love of an Other, the parental love of a child, or the platonic love between friends. Night Boat is a wistful read that navigates between remembering and forgetting.

Calligraphies of Love by Hassan Massoudy (RM62.90)
What happens when you combine timeless love poems from masters including Ibn Zaydoun, Rumi, Kahlil Gibran, John Keats and Paul Eluard together with the art of master calligrapher Hassan Massoudy? You get Insta-poetry at its very best, and the way it ought to be done. No more slapping together a wistful black and white photo of a cigarette burning down to its filter with a few lines enjambed willy-nilly: “Time / is like / a / Cigarette / it burns / down / and / kills / You.” Instead, we have Massoudy’s beautifully stylised Arabic calligraphy, which has been exhibited throughout Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, and is housed in the permanent collections of the British Museum and the Jordan National Gallery. His signature strokes and vibrant colours reifies immortal verse such as Augustine’s — “The measure of love is to love / without measure” — in brush art that vibrates with spirit and meaning.

Impractical Uses of Cake by Yeoh Jo-Ann (RM45)
Singapore-based Malaysian author Yeoh Jo-Ann’s Impractical Uses of Cake won the Epigram Books Fiction Prize 2018 and is the story of one Sukhin Dhillon — wealthy, handsome and eligible. However, he has completely given up on life, and spends most of his time dodging uncomfortable questions about matrimony. Quite content with his lot in life, he bumps into the past when, one fine day, he stumbles upon his ex-girlfriend Jinn who has now become a homeless vagrant. Feeling sorry for her, they rebuild their bond over their shared fondness of cake, and thus begins a shared journey together of discovery and rebuilding. Overall, Impractical Uses Of Cake is refreshing and perhaps a less than conventional love story.

Where the Crawdad Sings by Delia Owens (RM49.90)
This debut novel by Delia Owens topped the American bestseller list for over 44 weeks. Part bildungsroman and part crime drama, Where the Crawdads Sing is the story of Kya, known in her town as “Marsh Girl” because she grew up in a shack in the marshes of North Carolina. Abandoned by her family, she is forced to fend for herself but nevertheless manages to survive and thrive despite the challenging conditions. She eventually attracts the attention of two men in town, but she becomes the prime murder suspect when one of them turns up dead. While much of the book is about Kya’s resilience, it is also a book about love, companionship and forgiveness. It doesn’t hurt that there a thrilling denouement to the murder mystery awaits in the wings.

This article appears in the February 2020 issue of FireFlyz, the in-flight magazine of Firefly airlines.

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Lit Review: ‘A Long Petal of the Sea’ by Isabel Allende

by Elaine Lau

Gripped by the plight of thousands of Spanish Republicans who fled the country at the end of the Spanish Civil War only to be interned in horrid concentration camps in France, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda in 1939 chartered the cargo ship SS Winnipeg to ship 2,200 Republican refugees to Chile where they were welcomed with open arms.

This incredible humanitarian feat is the platform for the new historical novel by acclaimed Chilean author Isabel Allende titled A Long Petal of the Sea. Although Allende had grown up with direct, first-hand knowledge of the great rescue — her grandfather was amongst those who welcomed the refugees when they docked — it was only after she met Victor, one of the last surviving refugees who made the trip, and learnt about his story that the desire to write A Long Petal was sparked.

And what a glorious novel it is: expansive in scope — the novel’s timeline spans more than 50 years — and rich in historical detail. A Long Petal of the Sea, Neruda’s description of Chile, is a complex tapestry comprising myriad characters and narrative strands, but at its heart is the story of a young medical student, Victor Dalmau, and his dead brother’s expectant girlfriend and gifted pianist, Roser Bruguera. With the noose tightening around them in Francoist Spain, the desperate pair agrees to a marriage of convenience that would enable them passage on the SS Winnipeg and a new life in Chile.

Once there, the wealthy del Solar family take the Dalmaus under their wing. Victor returns to medical school and becomes a sought-after cardiologist while Roser becomes a successful musician. Together, they raise Marcel, Roser’s son from her relationship with Victor’s brother. The arrangement is a pragmatic one for the couple who essentially live separate lives: Victor has a brief but deeply consequential affair with Ofelia del Solar, while Roser pursues her own love interests as well. Nonetheless, as the years go by, the two find that their affection for each other has blossomed into something more than mere platonic love. But it doesn’t end there, for, when the Pinochet dictatorship unseats Chile’s democratically elected president in 1973, the Dalmaus once again find themselves in danger because of their political allegiances.

Allende has written an engrossing tale that sweeps one back to the turbulent times of the Spanish civil war, and yet it is a tale that feels perfectly on pulse with today. It is a beautiful story of family, loss, survival, hope and belonging. But it is also a story of love and its many guises: familial and patriotic; love for your fellow humankind, for art, music and poetry, and also carnal love and the kind borne out of shared adversity that results in deep mutual respect and trust for one another.

Above all, the book is a tender homage to Neruda, his poetry, and his extraordinary deed of kindness — an urgent reminder of our shared humanity, and that the refugee crisis around the world today needs to be met with courage and compassion, with political will and direct action.

Verdict: A captivating drama anchored by a wonderful cast of characters and imbued with humanity and a lot of heart. This story will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page. (8/10)

Availability: Trade paperback, RM79.90

Special thanks to Bloomsbury for the advance review copy of the book.

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Lit Review: ‘Such a Fun Age’ by Kiley Reid

by Fong Min Hun

Such a Fun Age is Kiley Reid’s debut novel which has drawn much admiration for its witty and sharp observations of modern life couched in fluent and pacey prose. The novel’s protagonist is Emira Tucker, a 20-something black babysitter fresh out of college with little direction and limited means to orient herself. Unlike her group of more successful friends—one of whom is a medical professional and another an upwardly-mobile business executive—Emira depends on her babysitting gig to make ends meet. While her well-off white employers, Alix and Peter, are generous enough to remunerate her above scale, Emira is aware that her situation is neither sustainable nor desirable (although that doesn’t stop her from buying a leather jacket when she comes into some money unexpectedly later on).

Events are set into motion when she is accosted one evening at an upscale grocery store by a security guard caught in the throes of white paranoia. Tasked by Alix to take two-year old Briar out from the house late one evening, Emira is accused by the security guard, on the word of a too-good Samaritan, of kidnapping her young ward. After a brief but heated confrontation reminiscent of the many #WhileBlack episodes that made the rounds on the internet this past year, Peter, the girl’s father, arrives to defuse the situation but the damage is done.

The Grocery Store Incident (GSI) will be a pivotal moment for several characters in the novel (incidentally all white) but, and this is not without a little irony, not for Emira who’s too busy trying to make rent and eat. Characters notably affected by the GSI are:

  1. Mrs Alix Chamberlain, Emira’s employer and go-getter who’s lost her groove after leaving New York City. A social media type who initially got famous by writing polite letters to brands and corporations for freebies (and subsequently changed her name from Alex to Alix) and founder of the #LetHerSpeak woman’s movement, Alix is equally troubled by the GSI and her apperception of the stagnation in her professional and personal lives. Following a conference call with her inner circle of friends, all of whom are highly accomplished and of the “I’m being a good friend right now and asking how much weight you’ve gained” variety, Alix decides that she needs to put her life in order, which in her world means first keeping hold of Emira as her sitter whatever the cost. Ostensibly to keep her precocious two-year old Briar company, but, more importantly, as a project that would somehow be equally validating for both her and Emira.
  2. Kelley Copeland, a seemingly well-intentioned witness to the GSI who video-records the exchange between Emira and the security guard (as a precaution in the event that things went south). It turns out that Kelley is a successful IT-type and both he and Emira eventually start dating. However, it becomes quickly apparent that Kelley has a type: all his friends are black, he is completely immersed in black culture and casually dips into black lexicon in both speech and manner. Kelley is super-woke, which brings with it all the baggage such enlightenment implies. Additionally, it turns out that Kelley may have had a run-in with Alix in the past.

Alix and Kelley become increasingly involved in Emira’s life, constructing a narrative for her that becomes stifling and unwelcome particularly when Alix resorts to cunning means to manipulate her sitter. Emira, who has no interest in being a martyr and is bound to Alix only by her affection for Briar, finds the growing attention and the high-handed approaches of both Alix and Kelley unbearable, and things come to a head. Neither Alix nor Kelley are malicious, of course, and they both demonstrate genuine concern for Emira’s well-being. However, it becomes problematic when the two of them start seeing Emira as an extension of themselves rather than who she really is.

Gushing reviewers have compared Reid’s Such a Fun Age to the novels of the other young, virtuoso writer, Sally Rooney. Central to the two writers is the way they impute meaning to millennial life which is often unfairly depicted as shallow and trivial. But Reid, as with Rooney, writes sympathetically of the unique challenges of modern life, which in her case is the hyper-aware, hyper-polarised sociopolitical landscape (read “fun” age—see what she did there?). Reid also has a sterling ear for writing dialogue, be it in describing the lively exchanges between Emira and her friends in black vernacular, or the kid-friendly tone when Emira is dealing with Briar (Reid was a babysitter before she became a writer and that experience probably came in handy).

On the whole, the novel is charming and skirts the edges of cliché but pulls back from the brink to provide a refreshing take on the rather well-used life-as-a-minority trope. There is a verve to her writing style that can be aggressive and tender in equal measure, and she expertly weaves in nuanced observations of race and modern life that are alternately funny, cutting and wry. There is a concern that the subject matter of the novel may be too localised to be relatable to readers who are neither young nor American, but Reid is talented enough of a writer to spin a compelling yarn all the same. The characters, especially the white ones, also seemed a little one-dimensional with little self-awareness, but perhaps that depiction is also a deliberate one.

Verdict: Good, and will likely be one of those massively talked about books in 2020. (7/10)

Availability: Trade paperback, RM65.90