Review: Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

beauty queensThis review was first published in The Star on 31st July, 2011

(I’d forgotten about this YA novel and that I’d reviewed it until the all-female remake of The Lord of the Flies was recently announced.)


By Libba bray

Publisher: Scholastic Press, 396 pages

A PLANE full of teenage beauty queens crashes on a tropical island en route to the 41st Annual Miss Teen Dream Pageant. There are 14 survivors, including Miss Texas, the super-efficient and scarily perky Taylor Rene Krystal Hawkins; Miss New Hampshire, razor-tongued Adina Greenberg; Miss California, super-assimilated Shanti Singh; and Miss Nebraska, secret wild-child Mary Lou Novak.

The stress and hardship bring out the worst and the best in the girls. You don’t look the way beauty queens do without being hard as nails (Miss Mississippi is initially gleeful about the lack of food on the island, immediately thinking in terms of weight loss rather than starvation), and one broken nail too many and even the most disciplined beauty bot might blow a fuse.

Still, the girls eventually rise to the occasion, turning their beauty apparatus and pageant-wear into tools to help them survive. And as the girls dig latrines and spear fish together, they learn to trust one other and let their guard down.

The demons each one privately wrestles with range from the usual teen problems with self-esteem and body image to sexuality, gender and race issues. While some of the girls come clean with their new friends, others are not yet ready to be honest with themselves, let alone the other girls.Read More »

Review: Sad Girls by Lang Leav

sadThis review was first published in The Star on 9th July, 2017

Sad Girls: A Novel

Author: Lang Leav

Publisher: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 362 pages

‘Your first love isn’t the first person you give your heart to – it’s the first one who breaks it.’

That line, on the cover flap of Lang Leav’s debut novel Sad Girls, is a quote from the book, but also a prose poem (from Leav’s collection Lullabies).Read More »

Re-read: Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones

cover_of_fire_and_hemlockInspired by this Guardian blog post, I chose Fire and Hemlock as my third Diana Wynne Jones re-read.

This story is a Tam Lin re-telling, and although I am interested in the ballad and interpretations of it, and this book is one of my favourite DWJs, I’ve always felt uncomfortable about the relationship between Polly (Jones’s Janet) and Thomas Lynn.

OK, if you haven’t read Fire and Hemlock, there will be spoilers in this post, so click the Read More button at your own risk.Read More »

Re-read: The Time of the Ghost by Diana Wynne Jones


My re-read of Diana Wynne Jones IS continuing, I swear, although it keeps getting interrupted by me being in the mood for other books (currently, Qiu Xialong’s Chief Inspector Chen mysteries). After a hugely satisfying Hexwood re-read, I started on the Unexpected Magic anthology, abandoned that and moved on to The Time of the Ghost.

The Time of the Ghost was my very first DWJ, bought in 1986, in Singapore when I was doing my ‘A ‘levels at National Junior College. I seem to remember a table with books laid out on it, at some kind of market or near a hawker centre. I think it was in Jurong West, where I stayed in a rented room. I still have the book I bought (above), a hardback Macmillan edition, with cover art by Maggie Heslop.Read More »

Book Review: The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

First published in The Star on 9th February, 2016

AUTHOR: Francis Hardinge
PUBLISHER: Macmillan, 410 pages
ISBN: 978-1447264101

MY newsfeed informs me that The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge has been named Costa Book of  the Year. That it is a children’s book is mentioned in the BBC article’s standfirst. Imagine, a
children’s book winning such a prestigious award!

When something like this happens, those of us who have always valued children’s literature are particularly delighted. As Hardinge says, in an interview with The Guardian, ‘“In the wider world, sometimes children’s fiction is seen as a bit lightweight in a way that is not deserved.’”

Indeed, this award may persuade book snobs of a particular kind to stoop to reading “kiddy lit”, but sensible readers who don’t need awards to tell them what’s worthy of their time, may already have discovered the dark delights of Hardinge’s seventh novel.Read More »

Book Review: The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean

the white darknessFirst published 4th December, 2005 in StarMag


By Geraldine McCaughrean

Publisher: Oxford University Press, 272 pages

I HAVE been in love with Titus Oates for quite a while now – which is ridiculous, since he’s been dead for 90 years.”

The reader gets a pretty clear idea what Symone, heroine of The White Darkness, is like from the first line of Geraldine McCaughrean’s latest (and, in my opinion, best thus far) novel.

Captain Lawrence “Titus” Oates, one of the men on Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated 1911 expedition to the South Pole, is not usually the sort of bloke 14-year-olds obsess about. but Symone, shy, sensitive and romantic, has neither the vocabulary nor the stomach for the preoccupations of the average 21st century adolescent. While her classmates discuss snogging and boys, she dreams about glaciers and snow storms and Oates.

Read More »

Book Review: How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

Here is my review in all its original smutty glory.

Actually, I have a confession to make: I don’t consider the reviews I write reviews at all, not according to the Wikipedia definition anyway: ‘A book review is a form of literary criticism in which a book is analyzed based on content, style, and merit.’

Once upon a time I wrote those kinds of reviews, now I guess I just talk about what the books mean to me.

How to Build a Girl reminded me of growing up ‘fat’ and doubtful in 1980s Batu Pahat, Johor. Left to my own devices I would not have doubted anything, least of all myself, but encouraged by some friends and some family members, I suffered from periodical bouts of self-hate and self-doubt. Sure, I should not have let what they say get to me, but hey, that was before I knew anything about life, or myself, way before I became the fabulous Me that’s typing this post.

Anyway, I should perhaps write a post about being a ‘fat’, sexually-frustrated teenager for my personal blog. It would be a book-length post though, so perhaps I should think of writing a memoir. That would be one way to get thrown out of the country.

Until then, my review of How to Build a GirlRead More »

Book Review: More Than This by Patrick Ness

more than this patrick nessFirst published on 27th October, 2013 in The Star

NESA, my friend and fellow-book junkie, said recently that the right books always come along just when they’re needed: “I wonder how they know?”

More Than This by Patrick Ness was the right book for me last week. I received a review copy a month ago but only started reading it when I remembered the review (which you’re reading now) was due. Incidentally, Ness’ A Monster Calls is always the right book. It makes me cry. And cry. And cry. And it always feels so good, so cathartic.

More Than This … it turned out to be an unexpected antidote to a psychic punch in the solar plexus. It’s about a boy, Seth, who drowns and then wakes up in the house he lived in as a child. At one point he wonders if he’s in hell: Something happened to Seth when he was eight years old and living in that house, in England. It was something terrible – so terrible that the place might well qualify as the setting for Seth’s own, personal hell.

Read More »

Book Review: The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr

lucyvariations sara zarrFirst published on 28th July, 2013 in The Star 

YOU may know that one of my favourite books of all-time is Virginia Euwer Wolff’s The Mozart Season, and that I love reading all books about the performing arts (or any of the arts, really). Call it the wishful thinking of an adult who did not have the typical opportunities afforded most middle-class, urban Malaysian children, including music and/or ballet lessons.

The lives of young dancers and musicians fascinate me: The talent, the passion, the dedication, the discipline. The Mozart Season is about a young violinist, Allegra; and I have also reviewed here, Four Seasons, the story of Ally, a conflicted teenage pianist. Two years on, and we have Lucy Beck-Moreau, the 16-year-old protagonist of The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr.

Read More »

Book Review: Codename Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Code_Name_VerityFirst published 21st March, 2013 in The Star

Review by DAPHNE LEE


Author: Elizabeth Wein

Publisher: Electric Monkey, 451 pages

I USUALLY have to speed-read books I’m reviewing because I’m too busy to savour every sentence. Sometimes this is a blessing because not all books I review are enjoyable reads. (I usually re-read the good ones later, at a more leisurely pace.)

I knew Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity was one of the good ones from its first paragraph, though, and I actually read the first two thirds of the book fairly slowly despite never having been busier in my life. I think, despite it being a rather harrowing read, I decided that it would serve as welcome respite at the end of the day, when I’d given up on all the writing and editing, when I was dead tired and would have knocked back a gin or two if I actually drank, when I was forced to stop working because the mosquitoes were biting despite the heavily-smoking moon tigers and layers of organic repellent covering every inch of exposed skin.

This morning, despite not having to be up early on account of it being the school holidays, I woke up at 7am anyway so I could finish the book and write this review. I’m afraid I rushed through the final third of the book so I could send this column in. I also couldn’t bear any more suspense.

This is one of the many books that I didn’t get around to reading last year and so, did not include in my best of 2012 list. Otherwise, it would certainly have won the top spot. It’s even more glorious than Seraphina, which was my pick for the best of the best of 2012.

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