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Series Review: Caraval

Caraval by Stephanie Garber is a super hype series I’ve been curious about. I pretty much binged all three books over a weekend. Overall, I’d say I enjoyed the series. It’s as magical as it promises, twisty, and quite fun. Nothing stood out as groundbreakingly new or brilliant, but there were a few shining moments here and there!

Caraval

Three stars for me, with some extra sparkle for Scarlett’s self-changing gown. What I’d give to have that kind of dress- I don’t have to buy new clothes or change, ever! As a beginning this was solid, introducing the mysterious realms between real and unreal. A few times I thought for sure I’ve guessed the plot twist, but Stephanie Garber throws some cards of her own.

The descriptions, while some were lush and enjoyable, sometimes bogged down the story. I guess I didn’t totally LOVE it because I just didn’t feel any natural chemistry between Scarlett and Julian. It was only at the very end where I started sympathizing (a wee bit) for the couple. On the other hand, Scarlett and Donatella’s sister bond was beautiful. Sadly, due to the plot, Tella was missing for about eighty percent of the book.

Legendary

Four stars! Despite the start being rather slow, I think the book picked up quite excitingly from halfway to the end. Did it need to be this long? I don’t think so. Were the descriptions still superfluous? Yes. That aside, while Scarlett was the main character of the first book, Legendary features our bad girl Donatella. Tella’s perspective is indeed more interesting precisely because she’s a baddie. I could also feel Tella and Dante’s chemistry more (in comparison to Scarlett and Julian’s).

Stephanie Garber also introduced the Fates in Legendary, and I must say that makes everything more interesting. Gods frolicking around the mortal world always makes for good potential drama (hence why it’s so popular). The author definitely used it to her advantage.

Finale

This had me in a bit of a mix. Back to three stars, mainly because of some rather disturbing plot points. They were minor, but ugh. Clue: even the Targaryens of Game of Thrones didn’t venture this territory.

Caraval’s Finale was told from both Scarlett and Donatella’s perspective, which I think is pretty cool for the overarching structure of the trilogy. Sadly, what I think is the heart of this series: the sister bond between the Dragna girls, were cast to the side in favor of their romantic rollercoasters. Tella’s point of view had too much pining from me, at sometimes bordering glorification of toxic relationships. What tugged me along was the quick action points of the plot. I know some went nowhere and were probably not too necessary to the main plot, but at least it provided action. As in, at least it was better than Tella pining for Legend.

Sparkle points go to Scarlett’s gown (you kick ass piece of fabric, you), the Count’s dog (oh my baby), the Zoo in the Immortal Library, and a couple of Jacks’ villainy lines.

Bonus Contents

Oh, and a special mention to the bonus contents in the end of each book: there was a playlist, author annotated pages, and deleted scenes. I really liked these!

If you like semi dark young adult magical adventures with romance and happy endings, I’d also recommend Hotel Magnifique or The Folk of the Air trilogy.

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Book Review: The Jade Setter of Janloon

The Jade Setter of Janloon is a novella by Fonda Lee. It takes place before the events of Green Bone Saga, in the same jade studded world. Since Green Bone Saga is one of my favorite trilogies (and I miss Kaul Hilo too much), I had to get my hands on this short story. Good news: it didn’t disappoint!

Plot

The Jade Setter of Janloon follows Pulo, an apprentice to Isin, the most revered Jade Setter in Kekon. Even Ayt Mada, the Pillar of the Mountain Clan has her jade setted by Isin. But when someone steals Ayt Mada’s moon blade from Isin’s shop, the stakes get very steep, very fast.

Short as it is, Fonda Lee weaves well paced drama about all the characters of the jade shop. You really start to feel their anxiety as their situation worsens. One thing I always enjoy about Green Bone is how authentic the Eastern themes are, and how the characters deal with the paradigms they have grown up with versus the modern culture and world. In the trilogy there were big themes of honor, family vs individuality, upholding your culture vs managing westernism, etc.

Here it is the master-student relationship which the author grapples with. This theme wasn’t explored so much in the main trilogy, so special nod to Fonda Lee for finding yet something else that’s ancient and incorporating it into her jade world seamlessly. She also raised a very important social issue in this novella (it would be a spoiler if I say it) so kudos for that!

Appearances

Yes, Hilo (still a Fist, not yet the Horn) has a major appearance with the Maik brothers. LOVE THIS. Not just Hilo, but Lan and Ayt Mada have their moments as well. I did miss Wen and Shae terribly, though I see how the plot would be forced if they were to be incorporated into this particular storyline.

As for the main characters of the novella, I didn’t feel so much for Pulo, but his character did get major development. Malla is an interesting character – I’d love to get to know more too. I think Pulo and Malla’s romantic relationship was a bit forced, but it’s a minor complaint.

In the end, if you loved the trilogy, I think you’d have a great time with this novella!

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Book Review: Of Myths and Men

Everyone who is a gamer or involved in any way with video games will love this book! If you’re not a gamer, there might be a few “insides jokes” which you might miss out on. Not to worry, they are but very minor. I was intrigued because I’m writing for a fantasy game at the moment, plus I love reading and supporting the works of contemporary Southeast Asian female authors. So, INITIATE CHECKOUT AND PURCHASE!

Gaming Vibes

Of Myths and Men by Catherine Dellosa is fast paced and action packed, perfect for people like me who are terribly impatient. The plot follows rather like a fantasy RPG game where you would go from quest to quest, solving missions until the bigger storyline slowly reveals itself. In that way I thought it was cool because the experience was like playing a game.

Cover

I had to mention this because I was thrown off by the artwork of the cover. The impression I got was that of a middle grade adventure vibe, when it’s probably more to YA or even NA with some spicy scenes.

General Thoughts

At a risk of a MINOR SPOILER, I’ll say I’m generally a fan of love triangles and Of Myths and Men had a hot one, wink wink. Hopefully in the sequel too :D! The main character, Ava, is a sassy, smart mouthed, and sarcastic narrator, which reminds me a bit of Percy Jackson.

One thing that slightly confused me was where this whole story took place. Was it somewhere in the Philippines, in the States, or in a different country altogether in an alternate universe? Several legendary characters / mythical monsters showed up that are very international (from Japan, the Arctic, etc) so that confused the geographical compass for me even more.

All in all though, Of Myths and Men was a fresh and exciting read!

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Book Review: The Kiss Quotient

Phew! The past week has been extremely busy with work transitioning out of the pandemic, but here I am to review Helen Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient!

Steam

I got attracted to this book from @twentycharm bookstagram account in which she mentioned there was a lot of smut in The Kiss Quotient. I do love my steamy romances so that’s precisely why I wanted to get my hands on this. Having said that, since I do read straight up smut (Recommended: Katee Robert!) I actually think the scenes in The Kiss Quotient are quite mild. The amount also balances out quite well with the plot and characters, in my opinion. Which is to say I would have loved more but that probably won’t be the same for the general reader.

Plot

Helen Hoang mentions it in the Author’s Note, The Kiss Quotient is essentially a gender reverse of My Fair Lady. The gal Stella Lane is hecka rich and the guy Michael Phan is struggling with money and bills. A premise like this always makes for a fun poke into society, especially when it’s the female party that has more wealth. It takes a secure guy indeed to go into this kind of relationship and that was definitely part of Michael’s character growth, which I really liked.

Stella Lane

What really cool character! She’s got it almost all going for her: brilliant mind, high paying job, good-looking. She has flaws, mainly from her insecurity of being on the spectrum, which I imagine must be something totally relatable for readers that are autistic. Her character growth to embrace herself completely and face life with healthy attitudes is an empowering journey. Oh and of course, bonus points for her playing the piano 😀

Series

The Kiss Quotient is the first of a trilogy of romance books featuring autistic characters. The books can be read out of order since the plots are only loosely connected to each other. Coincidentally I read The Heart Principle first and it’s not as comedic and fun as The Kiss Quotient, but in my opinion it’s more romantic.

I can’t say enough about how much I appreciate authors like Helen Hoang who are spreading more awareness on matters that they really care about, and in such a lovely yet vulnerable way. The whole series is a 5 star read!

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Book Review: The Heart Principle

I am so in love. Helen Hoang!!! Scream!

Okay. The Heart Principle is book 3 in The Kiss Quotient trilogy, and since they work fine as stand alones I started with Anna Sun and Quan Diep (QUAN DIEP STAND) because Anna Sun is a classical violinist so hello! I am sure we can related. And gosh did we relate.

The Tropes

What could be better than a contemporary romance (The Heart Principle isn’t a rom COM, not at all) with these tropes: badass bike boy whose got tattoos all over his body and goody Chinese-American violinist girl trope? How about if the badass boy is a cancer survivor and goody violinist girl is autistic? Yeah. I told you it ain’t a rom COM because I don’t think it’s got comedic elements at all, despite the fun and light cover. It’s actually really sad, honest, and so, so romantic.

Anna Sun

As a classical violinist I am just in AWE of Helen Hoang’s portrayal of Anna’s struggles with her music. It’s spot on. I mean, granted, it’s on the extreme side of the representation, but Anna is kind of an extreme girl. When she’s good, she’s so good and pleasing to everyone. When she snaps…let’s say certain precious things get shattered. Permanently.

Anna’s family situation is so relatable on so many levels, that I seriously had to skip some pages because it was so triggering to read it portrayed just like that on the page. Take heed readers, I’m not kidding, it hits home and stabs our hearts especially if you’re a Chinese diaspora.

Quan Diep

Quan. This guy is FIXED my favorite fictional guy this year! Adam Carlsen from The Love Hypothesis can move aside because Quan Diep is the most sensitive, kind, caring, COOL, patient, cutest boyfriend ever. Seriously girls, you are going to fall hard for this Vietnamese biker man. His character is so three dimensional it feels like I might run into him anytime!

Autism Representation

Let’s also not forget how amazing it is to have an autistic author write characters with various representations of being on the spectrum. I seriously learned so much. What a lot of valor it takes to be unapologetically yourself, whatever state it is.

I immediately tried to get my hands on physical copies of The Kiss Quotient and The Bride Test, and am so excited to start reading them.

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Trilogy Review: Shades of Magic

This is the first time I’ve read VE Schwab, thanks to @yourstrulyjulietta! Throughout reading Shades of Magic trilogy I had a blast gossiping with Khloe from @bookies_cloudeleven, Feb at @feb_books and Heni at @heniaakbar. I think I finished the whole trilogy in about a week…

A Darker Shade of Magic

The first thing that stuck out to me was VE Schwab’s writing, which shone brightest in A Darker Shade of Magic, in my opinion. Brilliant play of words and sentences to evoke the mood of the whole thing. Next up are the characters. Kell, Rhy, Holland, the Dane twins, all fascinating. Lila Bard…well 😀 I think she’s a character you either hate or love, you can’t really be on middle ground with this one. The worldbuilding with four Londons / worlds (although we don’t see much of them besides Red) is a cool concept, although I kind of wish there was a bit more variety between the worlds, not just with the level of magic.

Shades of Magic series is branded as adult fantasy, but this first installment had kind of a young adult feel to it (not necessarily a bad thing, I love YA books), perhaps because of Kell, Lila, and Rhy’s struggles with their identities and figures of authority, which is usually a YA theme.

A Gathering of Shadows

Hmm, sadly A Gathering of Shadows gets a Middle Book Syndrome verdict from me. Not much happens for a looong time until the games (the magician’s tournament). When the tournament finally started it was great, but by then I was skimming Kell and Rhy’s POVs, especially because they got rather whiny. Lila’s POV learning how to be a pirate from Alucard on the Night Spire, although lacking in plot, is something I love because I highly romanticize pirates (and secretly want to be a pirate myself so there you have it).

I’ve seen some reviews on Goodreads really hashing it out on Lila’s character (she’s special, one of a kind, not like other girls) while some other reviews gush and love how bad-ass she is – therein in my conclusion you can’t really be ambivalent with Lila, you either hate or or love her. For me, the thing about Lila is that her character is consistent. From the beginning to the end she was selfish, up-in-your-face, too much, and very very gray. So I think if she actually started to behave (gasp) better it would be weird and almost disappointing. Like, I’m just counting on her to be a wild card and bring trouble. HOWEVER, I have noticed a disturbing pattern which carries on to the third book…

A Conjuring of Light (SPOILER)

Okay so the disturbing thing about Lila Bard is that all the women around her dies. Calla, her dressmaker, Kisimyr the magician, Ojka the assasin, the Queen, Princess Cora, and even Jasta the other lady pirate (whom I thought was a really cool female character). By now I’m rather traumatized and really hope the author lets more female characters survive (in the expansion of the series) because pretty please?

Aside from the above concern, I gulped A Conjuring of Light in A DAY (and it’s the longest of three books). It was thrilling and quite emotional! The best thing I like is the fall of the city, the chaos afterwards, and how they slowly come upon the solution. The romance between Kell + Lila and Rhy + Alucard was delightful. Me likes.

Holland’s character is…tragic. It kind of felt like the first book was about Kell, the second about Lila, and the third about Holland. His fate is tied, has been tied to his world from the beginning – gosh what a burden to carry bro.

So here is what I think is really cool about the 3 Antaris + 1 (Voldemort-ish) piece of black magic. Lila from Gray London has always wanted freedom, which she gets by moving to another world. Kell from Red London just always wanted to belong, which he also gets by staying in Red, and Holland gets the hard knock of brutal fate, but at least granted his dying wish to breathe last in White London. Osaron, the black magic from Black London just wants more more MORE, and he too gets it (if my prediction is correct about the open ending). Look, everyone gets what they want!

If you like Shades of Magic, I would highly recommend Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (my favorite author) or Broken Earth series by NK Jemisin.

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Book Review: Six Crimson Cranes

Yeay for more representation of Asian fantasy in western bookstores! Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim has a gorgeous cover which winks at me every time I walk into Periplus. Irresistible.

Expectations Check

I think the cover got me too excited though, because I started Six Crimson Cranes with too high expectations. The writing is poetic, fairy tale like, and quite enjoyable. However I couldn’t connect with the main character Princess Shiori, nor any of the other characters except maybe Raikama. She is the stepmother who fondly takes me back to memories of Pai Su Chen the White Snake! Princess Shiori, on the other hand, falls flat, although to her credit she got more interesting towards the end.

Plot (MILD SPOILERS!)

The middle section is draggy for me, and rather repetitive. The plot twist at the end is very much appreciated because if not Six Crimson Cranes would have been nothing new. Another story we’ve all heard before. Granted the tale might be new to a western reader, but as someone who grew up watching Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Indonesian dramas, well…let’s just say there’s not enough of a hook.

Arranged Marriage Trope

Maybe I just can’t find it in me to appreciate arranged marriage tropes, which is the crux of the whole book. Princess Shiori is to marry a lower lord, and she despises him (whom she’s never met). Then when she actually gets to know the said Lord Takkan, and Shiori (of course) falls in love.

I suppose it sounds romantic for someone (perhaps from a non Asian culture) who hasn’t actually ever been forced into a setup. But for someone who’s gone through that whole process: sorry, I gotta say I hate the trope. Not to mention I am of the belief that marriage itself is an institution that is outdated (it has its roots in women as property) and well I’m just gonna rail off so let’s stop here.

All in all, if you ask me what I didn’t like about this book, it has nothing to do with the writing, and more to do with the fact that I just don’t like the story because of personal taste and experiences. If I do read the sequel, it will be because I’m interested in Eastern Dragons and would really like to see how the author fleshes out the dragon court. (Yes, I wished this book was more about Seryu than Shiori.)

If you like a good female power (feminist!) Asian vibe fantasy, do try She Who Became the Sun, or Land of Sand and Song by Singaporean author Joyce Chua.

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Book Review: Jamu Lifestyle

I’ve had the great honor of knowing Metta Murdaya, the author of Jamu Lifestyle, for about 5 years now. I can tell you: she definitely lives the title of the book!

Published by afterhours, I remember the first time Metta mentioned she was writing Jamu Lifestyle (it was before the pandemic). It’s wonderful to finally see, SMELL and feel it in my hands. However, knowing Metta, I had no doubt she would make it happen, pandemic or no pandemic.

Wellness Genre

If you like books on holistic wellness philosophies with deep cultural roots such as Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Healthy Life, and Lagom: The Swedish Art of Balanced Livingle, then Jamu Lifestyle is perfect for you. Jamu Lifestyle contains historical background, the iconic tradition of women carrying jamu on their backs, all the way to modern jamu cafes and the magical potion that is Tolak Angin (perfect to dispel any unwell syndromes). The reader will get a good grasp of how jamu permeates Indonesian culture.

Historical background of Jamu

Hats off to the photographer for lovely pictures that complete the experience of reading this book. It’s really a feast for the eyes. In addition to how jamu has evolved, there are also recipes involving jamu herbs and tips on incorporating jamu into one’s daily beauty routine.

A personal favorite of mine: Beras Kencur!

Jamu Lifestyle also features articles by other professionals from various fields giving their thoughts on self-love and self-care. The carefully curated variety of the contributors gave a multidimensional approach to jamu in the lives of modern Indonesians.

Singer and Actress Dira Sugandi models for the section Jamu on the Outside

Indonesia Represent!

All in all, Jamu Lifestyle accomplishes the author’s goal: to place jamu on the international playing field of traditional wellness trends. But, as Metta herself often advocates: if jamu is a “trend”, then it is a trend that has settled into the very fabrics of Indonesian homes: from the village to the city, from hundreds of years ago until now, from the abundance of the soil to the abundance of our bodies.

Get your copy of Jamu Lifestyle here.

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Book Review: Circe (with Spoilers)

Last month I read the classic science fiction book Dune by Frank Herbert. Every amazing world and religion building aside, I still can’t reconcile myself with what the author did to the characters of Chani and Princess Irulan in the end. It left a bitter taste in my mouth. I needed to balance myself with a strong dose of feminist voice. Thank goodness Madeline Miller’s Circe came to the rescue.

Circe’s plot pretty much follows the Greek myths of a minor nymph goddess named Circe. You can check out the myth here. In this post, I want to talk about how Madeline Miller hit so many aspects of womanhood through Circe’s story. Okay, it does span centuries so that’s a hint that Circe goes through a lot. ALERT : SPOILERS!

Womanhood Through Circe

You name it, Circe has it. Daddy issues? Circe was a daddy’s girl through and through. She starts out worshipping Helios (her Titan father the Sun). She ends up asking (demanding, threatening…) Helios to disown her as a daughter to go off and do her own thing. That’s the full circle alright.

First love problems? Say hi to Glaucos whom Circe loved so much she made him a god. And voila, he became not a god but an ass (figuratively speaking). Friends with benefits? She’s tasted it too. Hey there, Hermes, what’s up. A momentary warmth of love, and as always with the Greeks, tragedy? Enter Daedalus, the father of Icarus.

Sibling rivalries are abundant with Pasiphae (the Minotaur’s mummy), Perses, and Aetes. When Circe “grows up” into a more matured goddess, she finds herself playing as Auntie to monsters and menaces. In her exile she learns to finally accept herself and her vulnerabilities. Her powers as a witch grows and thrives on the island of Aeaea.

Climax

The climax of the story is in the last third , when Odysseus (yes, from The Song of Achilles!) comes and Circe has an amorous relationship with the married man, leading to her son Telegonus. Circe’s motherhood experience is handled with such a realistic tone that I applaud the author. When time comes for Circe to let her son go out into the world, she is heartbroken like every mom, but she does not prevent him.

By the time we get to Telemachus (son of Odysseus and Penelope), I can’t say how happy I am for Circe. Telemachus is THAT guy “society” says she should avoid in her later years – I mean, she slept with his daddy yo. But love conquers social norms, as the Greeks have said it from ages past. I’ll attest to that.

And here is the author’s most driving point: that Circe chose a different life than the life she was born with. She made a different world for herself, and in that she made her own happiness.

Friends, please read Circe. You won’t regret it.

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Book Review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog

I recently did a reread of one of my favorite books ever: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. I read it in English – it’s originally written in French. The message came across well enough through the translated text, at least for me. It must be absolutely glorious in its original language though.

Plot

Madam Michel, the concierge of a wealthy apartment building, is an “old soul” hiding behind the pretense of a dull janitor. One of the tenants in the building is the Josse family, with their two daughters: Colombe and Palome. The younger, Palome, is planning her suicide. The story follows Madam Michel and Palome as they observe their separate daily lives. One day a new tenant moves in: the Japanese man Kakuro Ozu. Through Kakuro, Madam Michel and Palome befriend each other. They realize they are invariably made of the same inner material.

Philosophical

The story is purposefully slow, like a film on slow motion. It’s full of lengthy expositions on Madam Michel’s thoughts of the bourgeoisie and Palome’s thoughts of the shallow life of adults. I’ll honestly say it’s one of the slowest books I’ve come across. Yet through their perspective of the small things around them, I have learned so much. In that way, it’s really as much a philosophy book as it is fiction. Think Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The author makes plenty of references to literature, art, music, and philosophy. This connects with my liberal arts training back in the States so naturally I feel right at home.

Upon my rereading, I realized I had forgotten how much this book impacted me, to the point that every heroine I now write has a little bit of Palome’s brilliance (and anger!) looking out through their eyes.

Not for Everyone

This book probably isn’t for everyone. It’s challenging, and the ending is as tragic as tragic goes. However, if every once in a while you decide to read something that’s a great introduction to philosophy, art, and the classics, The Elegance of the Hedgehog might be a good place to start. I’ll warn you, I cried as much in the reread as I did the first time around.

By the way, imagine my delight when I found out that between my first and second read, Palome and Madam Michel has hit the big screen!