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Book Review: Siege and Storm

Siege and Storm is the second installment of Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, which is now an epic Netflix series. Having read the books and watched the series (twice!) I have to say I like the Netflix version better. Rarely does this happen in a book vs screen battle but it did happen here. With that said, in my opinion, Siege and Storm was generally a more exciting book than the first.

Plot

Siege and Storm starts pretty bleak with Alina Starkov the Sun Summoner not being able to use her powers because she is in hiding with her childhood friend and love interest Mal Oretsev. Everyone will be able to track her down if she gives a hint that she can summon light, so she is pretty dependent on Mal. Which as we all know is a recipe for disaster. Sure enough, they get caught by the Darkling and he imprisons them (again) on a ship that is searching for Rusalye, the fabled sea serpent. The Darkling believes Rusalye is the second amplifier. With both amplifiers then Alina’s powers will be further maximized, which of course he intends to manipulate.

The reason I think this book is much more exciting is that a new character comes in who saves the day not once but several times. You guessed it. It’s Nikolai. I actually can’t wait to see who Netflix casts for him in season two.

Women empowerment theme

With regards to the women empowerment theme that is such a big part of this series, I think author Leigh Bardugo did a nice job positioning Alina to be the General of the Second Army. Sure, Alina is not ready and inexperienced and was just introduced to the Second Army about a year ago, but a large part of this book is Alina adjusting to her new role of leadership and command instead of being the trophy prize that she was in the previous installment.

Be on the lookout also for how Leigh Bardugo weaves the concept of organized religion in and out of this series, quite fascinating if one remembers her origins. Born in Jerusalem, Leigh is a nonpracticing Jew.

Have you read this series / watched the show? What did you think?

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Book Review: Roof Toppers

I came across this book via a discussion on Mad Tea Book Club’s Twitter account. We were talking about our favorite women authors. Mine is Diana Wynne Jones – I’m a huge fan of her character Sophie Hatter from Howls’ Moving Castle. From that thread, someone introduced me to Katherine Rundell, whose book Roof Toppers was inspired by Sophie Hatter herself.

In fact, Roof Toppers’ heroine is even named Sophie. Baby Sophie was found floating in a cello case wrapped in Beethoven symphony music sheets to keep her warm. Charles, an English gentleman who was aboard that ship, found her and decided to take care of this baby. Sophie grows up most unconventionally but was as loved as any child can be loved. Yet, she has a deep longing for her mother, whom she believed must be a cellist, and must still be alive all this time.

No one believed Sophie because at that time women did not play the cello. Women could not be professional musicians. Thank goodness we’ve come quite some way with this regard eh! Back to Sophie…

Mother Hunt

She finds a clue that the cello case was made in France, and so Charles goes with her to Paris on a “mother hunt”. It is here in Paris that Sophie meets Matteo and the other roof toppers. They are orphans who do not wish to live in orphanages. Instead, they choose to live free on the rooftops of Paris. They learn skills like climbing impossibly high trees, running and jumping from roof to roof, hunting birds to feed themselves, and swimming in the Seine for coins whenever they need some money!

“Do not mess with a mother hunter. Do not mess with roof toppers. Do not underestimate children, do not underestimate girls.”

Sophie, the rooftoppers

Will Sophie find her mother? And what happens to Charles, if indeed Sophie’s wishes are true?

This middle grade fantasy book is an enjoyable quick read with a definite emotional punch. In her Goodreads page, the author hints that she would like to revisit this world. When she does, I’ll be reading it too!

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Movie Review : In the Heights

One of the most exciting composers/creators of the music industry at this time is surely Lin-Manuel Miranda. He is currently most known for the hit musical Hamilton which retells the story of the American revolutionary via rap and involves a diverse cast and crew.

Miranda’s first musical was In the Heights, which premiered off-Broadway in 2007. At that time, nobody knew who he was. The New York Times published, “his name was a household name only in his household.” Since then, he has received much recognition and awards through his song “See the Line Where the Sky Meets the Sea” in Disney’s Moana, his role in the revival of Mary Poppins, and eventually Hamilton.

One of the best movie-musical to date

In the Heights was very recently produced into a movie-musical, and I must say it is THE BEST movie-musical up to date. It brings the genre up to another level. It is both movie and musical, and the final product here is a sum far greater than each of its parts.

What struck me most and left me breathless was how the movie was able to get out of the box of cinematography to create unforgettable, magical moments. The two most mesmerizing scenes were Benny and Nina’s dreamy duet “When the Sun Goes Down” and Abuela Claudia’s showstopper subway solo “Paciencia y Fe”. I mean, I’m a huge believer in the power of old ladies. Anthropologist Frances Bowden Affandy once told me that she believed old ladies are the apex of human evolution. They carry so many memories and wisdom in their minds and bodies, that it is no wonder old ladies as often seen as powerful witches. Yet, I have to say, I never see musical solos of glorified old ladies. Here, In the Heights pulled it off with hair-chilling choreography.

Motifs that hit home

The immigrants’ theme is a leitmotif with Miranda, as he himself is also an immigrant. This show focused on Latino-Americans’ lives and values: work hard, save up, make a better future for yourself than where you came from. This is always touching for me. There is one line where Nina’s father says what made me cry:

“This is where you become greater than me. Not because of some fancy degree, but because you can see a future I cannot.”

In the heights

This hit me personally because you know what? My father never said that to me. Never ever. Many times I share my dreams, my work, my passions. But for him, it didn’t matter. All that mattered to him was that I was not living the life girls should live, according to him. He saw one future for me, and that was that. It didn’t matter that I saw a thousand possible futures for myself. It took a long time for me to learn to distrust his figure of authority, and instead go with my guts.

This is why I love In the Heights and Miranda, because all of his work has a strong angle of women empowerment. From Elisa Hamilton to Nina, he always writes women alongside men in the narrative.

The music? Was there any doubt from the beginning? Never.

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Book Review: The Priory of The Orange Tree

Wow. The reviews on Goodreads for The Priory of the Orange Tree were stellar, and let me tell you they’re true! It is like the feminist version of Game of Thrones, while not half as gory nor as sexual. After a while, I was so disappointed in GoT because it was pages after pages of fights, sex, or food. I get it, real life is like that, but that’s not why I escape to books! Spoilers alert readers!

An Epic Which Breaks Traditions

The Priory of the Orange Tree reminded me why I escape to books when reality gets TOO MUCH. It’s an epic fantasy with a social structure that’s gender-equal. There are as many women rules as men (if not more), and plenty of skilled mages, sorcerers, witches, and straight-up female warriors. By warriors, I mean DRAGON RIDERS. Sounds good so far? It gets better.

“I was only observing how the fiercest of warriors can hide behind such gentle faces.”

Queen Sabran the Ninth is the last of her line, being unable to produce an heir for the queendom of Inys. Not only that, she finds out that the whole religion upon which her heritage was built was a lie. Her ancestor twisted and manipulated facts to benefit himself. No surprise there, this is just Politics 101. But what the author Samantha Shannen does that is SO COOL is she gets Queen Sabran to accept the hard facts and to DENOUNCE her religion. At the very end of the book, after everything is said and done, Queen Sabran will not only abdicate but will also change the whole structure of her queendom’s monarchy and beliefs. She plans to do this in 10 years, after which she will retire to be with her beloved Ead Duryan.

A Better World

Do you know who this reminds me of? This reminds me of George Washington. YEP. The founding father of the United States of America did not run for the presidency a third term. Instead, he purposefully stated that he wished to say goodbye and rest under the shade of his own tree. If more world leaders behaved like this, the world would be a much better place eh?

In addition to all of the groundbreaking and earth-shattering, the characters of The Priory of the Orange Tree are so REALISTIC. From the mage Ead Duryan, the dragon rider Tane, the alchemist Doctor Roos, and of course Queen Sabran herself are so three-dimensional. They all have fears, guilts, ambition, selfishness, strength, love, and solid character growth arcs. They all seem like people you would run across in your daily life, with their concerns and hopes. This makes you sympathize easily with all the different viewpoints, although some of them are in direct contrast from each other.

At the heart of this book is open-mindedness. Thinking with courage, accepting that which is different, and learning to work together despite the frameworks of distrust which has been passed on from generation to generation. It kind of reminds me of Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon.

Five Stars.

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Book Review: If I Stay

If I Stay is an Indonesian chick-lit – the first Indonesian book I read this year! I don’t read in Indonesian that well, but I will take up the challenge for special people. Last year I read Perempuan yang Dihapus Namanya (Women Whose Names Were Erased) by Avianti Armand, poet and also Cung’s (my second husband) partner in many architectural projects. This year, when Sherry, fellow co-founder of the Mad Tea Book Club sent me her novel, I decided to give it a go. Spoiler Alerts!

First of all, the structure of the book is so poetic, with titles inspired by musical terms and even excerpts of songs weaved into the narrative. You can tell this book is a project of love from the young author. She has even produced it into an indie film on her youtube channel.

Second, the premise is so relevant to this day and age. Karina is a high school girl who is in a happy relationship with her boyfriend Lintang. She also has an anonymous social media account by the name of snowfairy which has 18M followers on the platform called Art & Pages. These days many people of the younger generation go anonymous on social media to protect their identities. This would never have crossed my mind or anyone from my generation. We went on social media to connect with our friends – not to “disconnect”. How interesting. 

Phantom Stalkers

One day, one of Karina’s anonymous followers starts to stalk and send her threatening notes. Think Phantom of the Opera. He threatens her with one of her private secrets, and with that knowledge manipulates Karina to do things she does not want to do. As someone who has received hate speech on social media, I’ll tell you that this fear is real. It makes me rethink the model of influencers and personal branding.

So how do Karina, Lintang, and her friends (online and offline) deal with this phantom? Don’t worry, it’s an almost happy ending. If there is anything I can change, I’d wish for much heavier punishment for the stalker. For me, this is bordering harassment! I do wish our country has a better justice system, especially when it comes to cyber-harassment or bullying.

All in all, If I Stay was an enjoyable read. Thanks again to Sherry for sending me the book!

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Series Review: Shadow and Bone

The first season of Netflix Shadow and Bone, based on the trilogy by Leigh Bardugo has so many great things going for it. Warning: this review has tons of spoilers. With that, let’s unpack!

Worldbuilding

Fantastic! Plenty of lush scenes that will get you to buy in on this exquisite universe. Equipped with religious tie-ins, social strata, and historical tidbits, the Grishaverse appears solidly in front of the watchers. Costumes are fabulous, with special shout out to Alina’s various outfits: cartographer, Sun Summoner, saint / goddess-to-be, and runaway. Your eyes will be spoiled with summoning of the powers of the Grisha – some really cool visual effects happening there.

Casting and Characters

Jessie Mei Li gives just the right amount of vulnerability to Alina Starkov, the seemingly average girl who turns out to be able to summon light. This makes Alina one of the most powerful and coveted being in the world. That kind of rags to riches (in this case sainthood) hysterical contrast was portrayed convincingly. Archie Renaux as Mal Oretsev-Alina’s childhood friend and the tracker who finds the legendary stag is so charming! I have to say though, he was overshadowed (ha!) by Ben Barnes’ General Kirrigan, who has the power to call shadows and darkness.

I’ve heard that the love triangle between Alina Starkov, Mal, and the Darkling was a big thing in the books. In the Netflix series it was quite clear that Alina and Mal were head over heels for each other. The Darkling didn’t really have a chance.

The crows: Kaz, Inej, and Jesper

The crows: Kaz, Inej, and Jesper played by Freddy Carter, Amita Suman, and Kit Young? They steal the show. Honestly. This hilarious slash absolutely serious bunch of criminal masterminds will take your heart away from you, and then demand for you to pay an arm and a leg to get it back. Inej the Suli assassin who has all the knives and the skills (yet hesitate before taking a life!) is actually my favorite character in this whole series. What a gal. I mean, the moment when she stitches the wound on her own stomach because Kaz and Jesper were too queasy to do it? That’s girl power for you.

Plot

There seems to be 3 separate storylines happening, which can get confusing and is a lot of information to throw onto the watcher. That said, it motivated me to read the original trilogy. I’m still digesting my thoughts, and the book reviews will be up soon, but I think the Netflix version is making the plot much more interesting by combining the storylines.

With only 8 episodes, I finished Shadow and Bone in 2 days. I even re-watched the whole season LOL. Definitely a recommended series for lovers of fantasy. Oh, and the eerie soundtrack by composer Joseph Trapanese is a really nice touch.

If you like series like this, you might also enjoy His Dark Materials (HBO).

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Book Review: Cinder (The Lunar Chronicles)

My oh my, I hear the screws of my head getting hooked on Marissa Meyer from now on! I completely blame my Mad Tea Book Club Co-Founders Krisandryka and Sherry H. Gosh where do I even begin. Let’s start by saying that I am biased towards fairy tale retellings. I love retellings with a fresh perspective and stronger female characters. The first Marissa Meyer book I read was Heartless, which was a retelling of Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland. I gave that 3 stars because the heroine was just plain annoying at times. Cinder gets 5 stars though!

Synopsis

Cinder is the first book in The Lunar Chronicles. Taking place in New Beijing under the Eastern Commonwealth of Earth, Linh Cinder is a cyborg with a talent for fixing broken things. She has a reputation as the best mechanic in town. This brought Prince Kai (soon to be Emperor Kai) knocking on her booth asking if she could fix his android Nainsi. This first momentous meeting unfolds into a swooping inter-species romance! It’s complete with evil witch Queens, spaceships, and a metal foot in place of the traditional glass shoe.

If you can’t already guess, this is based on the classic Cinderella story crossed with the popular manga Sailor Moon. With that in mind, yes, everything is rather predictable. But the author spins a heck of a fun story anyway, especially if you are a fan of Usagi and her sailor armies. To be honest, this was one of the biggest pulls for me: the fact that it had oriental elements mixed into the narrative. So many fantasies are based on a western point of view, but Cinder had a good mix of eastern and western cultures.

Cinder and Kai

I think this is one of my favorite relationships in young adult fantasy! The two are on par with each other and they treat each other as best as they know how to. Their relationship develops naturally even though there was obvious attraction from the first moment. Cinder kept her level head around the hot young prince, while Kai did not show off his power or status. The young Prince is actually showing himself to be a promising leader with a very responsible mindset.

Supporting characters like Iko the android, Evil Queen Levana of Lunar (who is set out to marry Kai to get control of Earth), and the infamous stepmother Linh Adri were all well proportioned throughout. One of Marissa Meyer’s strongest traits is in creating protagonists that you actually want to hang out and be friends with. Keep your eyes open for the rest of reviews, plus a fanfiction that I decided to write!

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Movie Review: Wolfwalkers

Oh oh oh. I’m sure you have all had this experience, where you see something interesting and decide to try it with no expectations at all. That was my case with Wolfwalkers (2020). It is an animation based on Irish folklore, directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart. The story revolves around two girls. The first is a young girl hunter named Robyn Goodfellow, whose mother has died and is now living only with her father. The second is a wolfwalker named Mebh, who is a girl during the day and a little she-wolf cub at night.

Wolfwalkers pleasantly surprised me and won me over with the gorgeous artwork, anti colonization theme, women empowerment message, and friendship amongst different creatures. It reminded me of Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon, although with completely different artwork concept.

“I don’t want them to put you in a cage,” the hunter Bill said to his daughter.

“Can’t you see? I’m already in a cage!” shouted Robyn.

Synopsis

The Lord Protector whom Bill works for insists that the hunters kill the wolf pack that lives in the forest. Their death will show that the Lord Protector can control the forest, and as such is a brutal show of his power. Of course, his voice represents the voice of God, so everyone must listen. Everyone, but the rebellious Robyn and her mysterious friend Mebh.

Robyn met Mebh in the forest, where the cub accidentally bit Robyn to help save her from a trap. This bite turns Robyn into a wolfwalker like Mebh, and so Mebh shows Robyn the secret place which is the sanctuary of the pack. In this magical cave lies the sleeping body of Mebh’s mother, who has been in that state ever since her wolf body went missing months ago. Mebh is determined to find her mother, and Robyn promises to help her.

However, Robyn’s rebellious behavior attracts attention from the Lord Protector. Thus he instructs Bill to keep a reign on his daughter, or “reigns will be put on her.” As a result, Bill forces Robyn to work in the scullery (kitchen) under the watching eyes of other maids.

Will Robyn be able to fight back against her fearful father? Is her and Mebh’s friendship strong enough to overcome the many differences that lie in between? Will Mebh be reunited with her mother and protect their pack, or will they all be annihilated by the Lord Protector?

Please find out for yourself and watch Wolfwalkers. It was nominated for Best Animated Feature Film at the Academy AwardsGolden Globe Awards and BAFTA Awards. You won’t be disappointed at all!

A special perk of this beautiful movie is the song Running with the Wolves by Aurora.

Go row the boat to safer grounds
But don’t you know we’re stronger now
My heart still beats and my skin still feels
My lungs still breathe, my mind still fears

But we’re running out of time
Oh, all the echoes in my mind cry
There’s blood on your lies
The sky’s open wide
There is nowhere for you to hide
The hunter’s moon is shining

I’m running with the wolves tonight.

Have you come across this movie? What did you think?

PS: If you like wolf and magic put together, the book A Wolf for A Spell by Karah Sutton is a great fun read.

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Book Review: Iron Hearted Violet

15/60 books in my Goodreads challenge! 25% of the way, yay to myself. Kelly Barnhill‘s Iron Hearted Violet is exactly my type of reading: young adult fantasy with a strong female heroine. I lapped it up in a couple of hours. The Who Girl Who Drank the Moon also by this author blew me away, so I decided to try this earlier book. Before proceeding: Spoiler Alerts!!!

It’s interesting that you can really note how an author advances in his / her writing, as the prose in Iron Hearted Violet is not as smooth as The Girl Who Drank The Moon. Some changes happened rather quickly without solid reasoning or explanation, and sometimes characters were introduced and re-introduced (the Captain Marda) without a certain reason as to why the special treatment if they were only minor characters.

A Fantasy to Challenge Beauty Ideals

Princess Violet was born ugly, unlike her beautiful Queen mother. But what she lacked in looks she overflowed in wits, energy, and vitality. The country loved her until an old creature called the Nybbas saw an opportunity to use Violet’s looks against herself and everyone else. The schemes of the Nybbas sowed insecurities inside the Princess, and soon our heroine starts to self-destruct. Something worth mentioning is that in the illustrations, Violet looked just fine-she didn’t look ugly at all.

I liked that the ideal of beauty was challenged, but I did not agree with the choice of the challenge. In Iron Hearted Violet, real princesses had to have long beautiful hair. Of course Violet then asked this from the Nybbas, and later found out how annoying it was to have long beautiful hair. I personally don’t have anything against it. In fact, in some Native American and shamanistic cultures, hair was recognized as part of the person’s very soul and energy. That’s why shamans grow out their hair.

A Plethora of Supporting Creatures

The stable boy Demetrius proves a great supporting character, while the Nybbas is truly a villain. There was no gray in-betweens in Iron Hearted Violet. The antagonist was a dirty lying creature to its core. Any sympathy you show the creature will be used against a you-just look at what happened to the Mad King of the Lowlands. His body basically was eaten from within by golden fire breathing lizards that were armies of the Nybbas.

There is an old wise, fairy/leprechaun lady called Auntie who continuously calls another younger fairy/leprechaun “idiot.” This kind of language doesn’t sit right with me, even if I know the context is love. Maybe the word “silly” will do?

The star of the book was, of course, the dragon. The last dragon left in Violet’s mirrored world was ancient, old, broken, and frankly in a deep depression. Violet manages to befriend the dragon and operate a procedure that returns its youth and power. Together, they defeat the Nybbas.

Having just watched Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon, I realized how very different are portrayals of dragons in western fantasy literature in comparison to eastern fantasy literature. This fascinating topic deserves a blog post to itself, but suffice it to say for now that anything with girls, dragons, calm reliable supporters, and magic is a recipe I like.

The execution though could have been more polished. My rating is 3/5.

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Book Review: Omoiyari

Omoiyari by Erin Niimi Longhurst is the 12th book I read this year. The 11th book was The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin, which I reviewed on my TikTok account.

I usually buy and read books on my super antique Kindle (I got it way back in 2008!). So I go to bookstores and later buy the Kindle version because it’s often cheaper. This one, however, had such a beautiful cover that I could not resist. My husband Cung was familiar with Ryo Takemasa as an illustrator, so I thought if I’m going to buy a hardcopy, might as well buy a beautifully colored one.

Lovely Illustrations

The photography and illustrations did not disappoint. They were very well chosen with the philosophies of Japanese culture that the author brought up. A delightful book for my eyes.

I always enjoy learning more about different cultures (well this whole book is about another culture) so I was satisfied with learning about concepts such as omoiyari, kintsugi, and senzaburu (a thousand paper cranes) from the author.

The Reader’s Historical Background

Photo from teamtouring.net

Looking deeper into myself however, I realized that this book triggered some things inside. Being Indonesian, I am exposed through our history to all the horrors of the Japanese invasion from 1942-1945. There was a lot of horror during those years. When the author talked about forest-bathing as Japanese culture, I think of Taman Hutan Raya Djuanda, the forest in Bandung that I regularly walk at. In this forest, there are caves and tunnels called Dutch Caves and Japanese Caves where Japanese soldiers hid their ammunition.

It also evokes a book I read last year titled The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See about the haenyo (female divers) of Jeju Island. In 1910, Japan annexed Korea, including Jeju. Oh goodness, some of the stories were too painful to read. 

So for me, as much as I enjoyed learning about the compassionate side of Japanese culture, I also remember that there are two sides to everything. Even the most beautiful cultures have committed dark atrocities.

I suppose that is just the reality of this world.

Have you read Omoiyari? What did you think?