She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

sunPeasant boy Zhu Chongba is promised greatness by a fortune teller, while his sister (unnamed throughout the book) is declared ‘nothing’. But when Chongba dies, that sister (already shown to be the more shrewd and competent of the two siblings) decides to take on his identity and claim the greatness that Zhu Chongba’s destiny. To escape starving in the famine that grips the land, the girl goes to Wuhuang Monastery, which her brother was dedicated to as an ailing infant, and by sheer will and persistence, is enrolled as a novice monk. Thus begins her life as Zhu Chongba and despite setbacks and hardships, she does succeed, first at the monastery where her potential is recognised by the abbot, and then as one of the leaders of the Red Turban rebels and so on to the ultimate triumph: the dragon throne.

No spoilers — this novel, Shelley Parker-Chan’s debut, is the first book of a trilogy about the rise of the first Ming emperor. We come to the book knowing that the main character (Zhu) will achieve her goal. How she goes about it and whether she becomes great simply because she has tricked Heaven into thinking that she’s ‘Zhu Chongba’ or because it is her destiny (despite her gender) to be great are questions that fixed my attention and held the story in my mind when I was not in the middle of it (I listened to the audio recording) and even after I completed it.

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Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

The audio book image for ‘Black Water Sister’ by Zen Cho, narrated by Catherine Ho.

I completed the audio recording of Black Water Sister by Zen Cho a couple of weeks ago. The story is set in Penang and tells of Jessamyn Teoh, a young woman who has lived in the US most of her life, but must move back to Malaysia with her parents when her father falls ill and loses his job in the States.

To complicate the whiplash-sudden change of life and lifestyle, Jessamyn is a closeted lesbian  who plans to escape Penang and reunite with her girlfriend when the latter moves Singapore for graduate school. Plus, once in Penang, she finds herself haunted. By her recently-dead maternal grandmother.

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Book Club: The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper

By Elijah Hall on Unsplash

We read The Dark is Rising this month, or rather some of us did. I couldn’t fit it in, what with re-reading Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin and listening to She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chen. Perhaps book club reads should take priority, but I suspect I would have made more of an effort if I’d wanted to. I like The Dark is Rising, and I know it’s a much better book than Over Sea, Under Stone; that it’s wonderfully atmospheric and haunting, intense and exciting, but I’m just not in love with it. This has something to do with Will Stanton who is a nice boy, but just not my favourite as I find him too bland and unobjectionable. Jane is arguably just as boring, but she is the one whom I love, so I will definitely be re-reading Greenwitch, September’s book.

I did not choose to make time for The Dark is Rising, but I did spare a thought for Herne the Hunter. When I first read the book, the wild hunt made a strong impression on me. I suspect it was the first time I encountered anything as mysterious and frightening in English folklore. When I lived in England in the 90s, I was disappointed to find that no one I met (then) had heard of him, but in the early 90s, I was delighted that Herne was a key character in ITV’s Robin of Sherwood. Alas, the show has not aged well and the mysterious, mystical Herne now just looks like a man taking the piss in a deer costume. (One of my flatmates in Eastbourne came from Herne Bay, but to my great disappointment, the town was not named after the antlered man, but merely refers to a neighbouring village and its geographical placement, herne or hyrne meaning corner in Old English.)

A screenshot of Herne (played by John Abineri) from ITV’s Robin of Sherwood (1992).

Book Club: Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper

This is not a review, but some thoughts I have about Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper, and the Famous Five series by Enid Blyton. Beware of spoilers.

I belong to a Fantasy Book Club that focuses on YA and children’s fantasy fiction and in July we started reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence. Unfortunately, I did not have time to read the first book, Over Sea, Under Stone, but this is one series which I’ve reread so often that I know it well, or well enough to join in a discussion without needing a fresh re-read.

Now, The Dark is Rising Sequence is one of my all-time favourite fantasy series and you know how it is with favourite books: They’re almost like your children in that you feel a little protective about them. Therefore, when the club met up on Google Meets to discuss OSUS and one of the group seemed less than enthusiastic about the book, I kinda bristled with indignation, but tried to cover it up with an understanding (and probably strained) smile. However, when she said the book was ‘kiddyish’, I was ready to throw hands. Read More »

The Blood Prince of Langkasuka by Tutu Dutta

Blood PrinceIf you’re a Malaysian who reads fantasy fiction and enjoys those that draw on Celtic, Norse or Greek mythology, you may have longed for stories based on the myths and legends of our land. True that we are probably better acquainted with dwarves and elves than with pelesit and bunian, but this is precisely why we need more fiction that links us to these old tales, our own old tales.

I have been a fan of Tutu Dutta since I reviewed Timeless Tales of Malaysia, her collection of eleven folk stories, published by Marshall Cavendish in 2009. Before I read this book, I had only a sketchy idea of the stories in it, and Timeless Tales was the first really decent (English language) collection I’d come across.

Dutta has since published other folktale collections, as well as novels for young readers and a picture book. She has also co-edited an anthology of short stories inspired by local folktales.Read More »

Re-read: Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones

Picture by Carlos Cram on Unsplash

The next time someone who has never read high fantasy asks me to recommend a book to start with, I shall point them in the direction of Dark Lord of Derkholm. It’s a parody of the genre, but also a good example of a high fantasy novel.

It is also packed with irony (a joke in itself considering the effect iron has on magic and how magic is the backbone of high fantasy), is delightfully subtle, and lacks the tedious self-importance  that plagues most of these works.

Derkholm is set in a world that is practically enslaved to host fantasy adventures for tour groups from another world (which sounds like ours). These organised adventures are practically all that the inhabitants of the world do; it’s being going on for years; and they’ve just about reached their limit.

A decision is made to put a stop to the tours and two oracles are consulted as to how to go about doing so. The book recounts what follows.

DLoDIt’s genius how DWJ hides the main tropes and themes of high fantasy (like the reluctant hero and the battle between good and evil) behind the sham situation that is the plot of Derkholm. Nothing is quite what it seems as every character is playing a double role in the story, and fulfilling meta roles too.

As with all DWJ’s books, the moment everything clicks into place is so hugely satisfying that you can almost hear your bones and brain sighing in contentment. I’ve heard that the author had once mentioned that she wrote her novels without much planning, but simply by letting the story flow out of her. Sounds like magic to me.

This re-read was done via audiobook (using Scribd), published by HarperCollins UK Audio and narrated by Jonathan Broadbent.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Picture by Sandy Millar in Unsplash.

I read this book when I was a teenager and had never re-read it until some weeks ago. I chose to listen to the audio book and realised that I did not remember anything about it. This wasn’t so surprising — my memory isn’t the greatest and first reads tend to be skim-reads, so details usually escape me.

These days, I notice that my attention wanders when I read (a symptom of our difficult situation or just me?), and listening to audio books works much better as I’m not tempted to skip sections when someone is reading me the story (I usually listen while I cook or when I’m working on my miniatures.)

I admit I was daunted by the length of the book — 25hrs — but it hardly felt that long. The chapters are short and the pace is brisk. Wilkie Collins first published this novel in installments, from 1859 to 1860, in All the Year Round, a magazine that belonged to his close friend Charles Dickens magazine (and also in Harper’s Weekly in America), and he knew how to keep his readers in suspense and wanting to know what would happen next!

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Desert Island Ahoy!

I saw this take on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs on Calmgrove‘s site and thought it’d be fun to do. Who doesn’t love the radio programme? With books, it’s just up my alley, but in my version I’m doing books and music. Is this cheating? Well, it’s all a fantasy anyway, so …

So, here’s what’s allowed if you’re stuck on a remote island with no hope of rescue: 

i. eight books: The ones you want are, by some miracle, growing on the mango trees in the well-stocked forest that spreads lush and green over a large part of the island.

ii. eight pieces of music: Snap your fingers and they are played on shuffle, pouring out of the morning glory blooms that grow on the island.

iii. a podcast, TV show or movie – for when you really wish to take a break from reading and listening to music.

iv. one luxury you can’t do without — let’s just say the island has plumbing OK? I don’t want to waste my luxury on a flushing toilet. Read More »

Re-read: Deep Secret by Diana Wynne Jones

DEEP SECRET

By Diana Wynne Jones

Publisher: TOR Books

Back in 2016, I started a re-read of Diana Wynne Jones’s books, but did not get at all far. All I managed was Hexwood, Fire and Hemlock and The Time of the Ghost. I think it’s time I admit that I can’t do reading challenges if it involves listing specific titles ahead of time. I can only read what I want to read right then and there. I guess that’s fine.

deeep-secretA couple of weeks ago, I happened to want to re-read Deep Secret by Diana Wynne Jones. This is a book that has been one of my Top Ten favourites by Diana Wynne Jones for the longest time, and a year or two ago, I bought a Tor Books first edition to replace my ratty, abridged Starscape paperback.

When I say ‘abridged’, I really mean censored. This was my first read of the ‘original’ Deep Secret and it’s only now that I know what got cut.

Thing is, Deep Secret is one of DWJ’s adult fantasies so I have no idea why the need for censorship. Most of what is snipped is to do with sex, but none of it is explicit. ‘Orgy’ is removed twice, but they are just mentions of such an event, not detailed descriptions people having wild sex. There is also the deletion of a description of someone’s face after it’s been shot off, but it’s a one liner and hardly dripping with blood and gore.

There is one sentence that made me sit up and gag a little, but more about that later.Read More »

The Dark is Rising

A book club I belong to is reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence next. We spent the last six months reading The Thief Series by Megan Whalen Turner and so, having immersed ourselves in the world of Attolian politics, diplomacy and intrigue, we will now be entering a world of Celtic magic and mythology and lingering there a while.