Book Notes: Dangerous Books for Girls

We romance novel readers get a lot of flack. There seems to be an assumption that if you read romance you are shallow, not interested in the deeper things of life and well, we can go on but we shall not.

I suppose the fact of the matter is this - people look down on the romance genre. But why? Especially since it’s the one that rakes in the money for publishers?

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Stranger To Myself: Diary Of A Bangladeshi In Singapore by Md Sharif Uddin

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Stranger To Myself: Diary Of A Bangladeshi In Singapore

Author: Md Sharif Uddin

Rating: B+

There’s a mamak restaurant near my old office where, rumour has it, the workers - after working 14 hours, will shutter the place, rearrange the tables and turn them into beds.

They sleep where they work, so say the rumours. Whether it was true or not, I don't know, but I have always wondered how their lives were like behind the polite smiles. They made me realise how blessed and fortunate I am because unlike them, I could snuggle in my comfortable bed at night, not narrow table in a restaurant.

Sharif is a very eloquent writer, and his voice is really needed at a time when migrant workers are nearly invisible.

In this book he shares his diary entries and poetry where he details life as a migrant worker in Singapore. I love the raw, unpolished prose even if at times he seems maudlin, almost melodramatic. bBut how can he not be when faced with a life where his employers feed his rotten food, or where he couldn’t see his  parents before they passed away or watch his son grow up? 

Sadly, it would appear that even down south in Singapore, migrant workers are treated horribly. I had mistakenly thought that they had better lives.

“The owners of the companies are like wolves in sheep’s clothing. As long as you have the ability to work, they will care. If you stop for any reason, they will throw you out.”

This is a book that needs to be read. The only thing I wish was that it was available in ebook form because physical copies of it are hard to come by and his message needs to be spread far and wide.

Book Notes: Deep Work by Cal Newport

In a recent group writing retreat, I noticed that my fellow writers would sit still, their eyes focused on their laptops, busy at work. I, on the other hand, was a ball of nervous energy, getting up every ten minutes, fighting the urge to talk, check Facebook - anything but write my novel.

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Romance novels and its readers get so much of grief!

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I am a reader of many genres. The only genre I dislike is Young Adult, and that is more of an umbrella genre so I don't think it quite counts. (Why do I dislike the genre? Read this.)

It's interesting that when I people find out that I read romance, they will inevitably say: "Don't they all have the same plots? Aren't they unrealistic? Aren't the books shallow and silly?" I rarely get that with other genres.

The reason why this gets romance readers defensive is because it's almost implied that if you read such "shallow, unrealistic and formulaic" books, that means you're shallow, silly and unimaginative too. Of course nothing can be further from the truth as the readers of romance novels are one of the most diverse around.

The criticisms commonly levied against romance novels can be hurled at books of other genres too. Crime and thriller novels are unrealistic (the killer is caught every time? Sure.), fantasy novels can be silly (dragons exist? Hah!) and many genres are written to a formula of sorts. For example, a crime novel usually starts with a crime and ends with the bad guy being nabbed. This is "genre expectations", after all. Yet these books are not as mocked or vilified as romance novels. 

It's not the whys I am concerned about (personally I think it is misogyny). What I am concerned about is all that is said about this genre will keep curious readers away so that they won't look "shallow and silly" when seen reading it.

I was like that too - turning my nose up at the genre despite many years of entertainment from it in my teen years. Then I grew up and it saved my bacon. Let's just say romance novels lifted my spirits at a sad time in my life. (Tl;dr) 

What changed my mind? Brushing aside preconceived notions and being grateful that this genre instills hope, positivity and happiness in me. This genre does it very, very well! On top of that, I find it fun to hang out with it's readers as they are mostly positive and fun. 

Approach romance novels with an open mind. Know that there's a lot of variety within the genre itself and not all will please you. But when you find it - it will be utterly awesome.

Favourite romance reads of 2016

2016 has got to be the year of the romance novel for me. I must confess sheepishly, that I was one of those people who rolled their eyes at romance novels, declaring them silly and shallow. And yet, I started out my readaholic journey with romances -Judith McNaught, Danielle Steele, Linda Lael Miller and Jude Devaraux were my starter romances. But I began to pooh pooh them after being bitten particularly hard by the literary bug, where I declared fiction that did not change the world was not worth my while.

Fortunately, I have recovered from such delusions and rediscovered the magic of romance novels this year after deciding to read one to break my fiction reading slump (from 2010, I only read non-fiction). Well, golly, it worked and I was swept away by the beautiful magic and I just couldn't stop after that! Here are my favourite romance reads of 2016:

1. CAPTIVE by Grace Burrowes
Hero was tortured for two years by the French. He comes home damaged and well, a little crazy. One day a distant relation - Gillian - comes to his estate and literally bullies him back to health. I love Gillian's strong, no-nonsense personality, and Burrowes captures the pain of PTSD really well. And the hero has got to be the most gentlemanly and kind hero I've ever met. They don't make them like this anymore.

2. NO LONGER A GENTLEMAN by Mary Jo Putney
Again, Putney never fails me! And yes, another hero that was tortured by the French. Hahaha. But the hero is kickass - she literally yanked him out of prison, and together they trudge through dangerous French territory back to England. I literally sighed at the end of the novel - it was that good and I would buy a physical copy just to hug it.

3. A MOST DEVILISH ROGUE by Ashlyn McNamara
I was attracted to this novel because of the cover. No, I'm just kidding. Mine was the super boring UK cover, so there wasn't any sexy butts. But again, strong heroine, who had to face society's condemnation for daring to get pregnant out of wedlock. The hero is a man who sees something beyond her stained reputation. Then there's that convenient cave during a storm. Hot. This is definitely a new author to watch for. 

4. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST by Eloisa James
Sometimes supermarket sushi is what I need, and I definitely love this because of the hero, who is gruff and absolutely rude and without tact. Fortunately, the heroine is as tough as he is.

5. FITZHUGH series by Sherry Thomas
I read the three books of the series in one day - that should tell you how good it is. Yes, yes, miscommunication and lack of talking abounds (like as if we real-life humans do that so well), but the relationships feel very deep and real. The three books, actually, read like one, entwined tale.

Most disappointing book:

TO HAVE AND TO HOLD by Patricia Gaffney
It started so well, Gaffney is an amazing writer, truly. Then the hero tells the heroine: "Don't make this a rape". Yes, it's one of those Old Skool romances where rape is ... I'm not even sure why it's there, really. Was it supposed to be romantic? Sexy? Hot? It was none of that for me and the hero was utterly irredeemable to me after that first rape scene.

 I am surprised that so many people would call this book a classic, and one of the best in the genre. Those who support and talk highly about the book say that the author was painting the picture of a less-than-perfect rake, that as a rake he was what he was. But then, why wouldn't the author paint a real picture of a rape victim? Would a rape victim marry her rapist with love in her eyes?

Perhaps I'm too modern for this book. Perhaps I'm too enlightened, having watching two documentaries of women fighting hard to punish those who raped them, and having society disappointing them again and again because society didn't believe them. Some even thought they deserved it.

After watching these documentaries, there was no way in good conscience can I call this book amazing, enlightening, complex or whatever claptrap description its supporters have foisted on it. This book is perpetuating a dangerous idea in women's heads: That there can be romance after a man rapes you.

Review: Happy City

Finally, after a string of blah reads, I score something truly amazing. I have always loved books about sustainable living, minimalism, and this book combines both of my loves.

Montgomery tells us that happiness is not an accidental thing - sometimes it can be caused by design. Urban living has torn apart village living, tossing people into isolated McMansions, taking away their freedom of mobility without dependence on fossil fuels and thus causing a ripple effect of unhappiness throughout society. But as inspiring as this book is, it's also frustrating because - there are so many things that the powers that be are doing wrong! If only Montgomery was in charge of urban planning. Ha!

But the good thing is the author doesn't leave us stewing in frustration, wishing that we lived in Vancouver or Amsterdam. 

He acknowledges that a lot of work has to be done before the urban sprawl can be repaired and village life be restored, but there are still ways to bend the city to your needs, or to change your life to get that village life you've always craved.

That's why I identify most with Conrad Schmidt, a man Montgomery interviewed, who changed his life bit by bit by instinct. Like him, I felt strangely unhappy in the urban sprawl that was the Adelaide suburb of Colonel Light Gardens. After visiting New York City in the 90s, I've always dreamed of living in the heart of a city; it doesn't matter what city, I just wanted to live where the action was, and where everything is within walking distance.

When I returned to Malaysia, by happy chance I got the opportunity to live in the heart of a small satellite city, something I've been dreaming about for a while. My apartment is a few blocks away from malls, a light rail transit station, a park, a great gym, a community book exchange and wonderful cafes. I made friends with the cafe owners, I walked daily to get my groceries and took trains to the city - I only drove my car to work, and even then my work enabled me to escape the insane KL traffic as I worked odd hours, so work is only a quick 15-20 minutes drive away. 

I've also downsized, got rid of much of my possessions, lived in a much tinier space. All this has a ripple effect in my life. I'm exercising more, spending less, and more content with my neighbourhood. I've never been happier in my life. And now I understood why!
Instinctively, like Conrad, I've re-engineered my life to make myself happier. 

This book also made me realise that maybe Malaysia is heading the right direction - at least in Selangor. The popularity of mixed developments, where residential places are above commercial areas, and light rail transits which snake through these neighborhoods makes me glad. Perhaps one day, one of our cities will be one of the most livable in the world too.

Verdict: This book could help you build a happier life for yourself!

Review: Tiger Babies Strike Back

Surprisingly, Tiger Babies Strike Back was rated lowly by some folks on Goodreads, and I think it's unfair.

I suspect that some readers have imposed their expectations on this book. And this book is not a rebuttal to Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. There won't be long treatises on why HER version of parenting would be better than Chua's. 

Instead, this is a book that de-glamourises the Tiger Mom form of parenting. Think that you should be a drill sergeant mum in order to ensure that your kid becomes a success? Read this book before flicking out that whip. You may not like what you see here. Also, this book speaks best to Tiger Babies - people who were children of Tiger parents. They will be affirmed and validated by this book.

Tiger Babies Strike Back is best read as a memoir of a woman's experience of being parented by a Tiger Mum and how that form of parenting has affected her. In many ways I am amazed at how the author's experiences echoed mine - down to the ritual fat shaming by the relatives during the holidays! 

For one, Kim's book has helped me deconstruct and understand so many things - Chinese family dynamics that had frustrated me for ages (and that I now realise is shared by many in the Chinese community) and best of all - the root of my Drive.

It's the Drive that makes so many Chinese kids star students. By many standards I was a star student. I had a scholarship to study in university, was a straight-A student in college, became a freelance writer for the No.1 newspaper in Malaysia when I was 18. Yet, the Tiger parenting that enabled me to be a 'success' warped me in ways that surprise me till this day.

Being a Tiger baby is both good and bad. Good if you happen to thrive on competition. Bad if you happen not to. Good if you revel in the pedestal the family puts you onto if you happen to be No.1. Bad if you're can't meet the sky-high Expectations.

What resonated most with me is Kim's discussion about stoicism, and how many Chinese people valued that characteristic and try to pummel a kid so that they have this "quality". Again, good if you happen to be naturally stoic. VERY BAD if you are a passionate and sensitive person. 

Basically, traditional Chinese parenting only favours a certain type of personality. But even that personality may buckle under the stress. The author writes poignantly about the suicide of super-successful-by-anyone's-standards Iris Chang, and how she suspects that the constant Drive to be No.1 played a part in her undoing.

Because, after a while, you get really, really, really exhausted trying to run that up never-ending mountain, and you just want to QUIT. Unfortunately, in a culture where it's all about "face" and external success, quitting isn't desirable.

Back to the memoir - she does ramble in the last 1/4 of the book, and I found myself skimming the pages. But she comes back with a blast with the epilogue, where she tells Tiger Babies how to "turn to the light" like she did. That epilogue alone is worth the price of the book.

Final verdict: 4 stars. An amazing book that has been unfairly judged by folks who wanted it to be something else.

#TBR Challenge 2016: Paranormal romance

I'm currently trying to shave the 99 books in my TBR into an acceptable 20 or so, especially after the wild buying spree in August and September thanks to a series of RM5 book sales. It's time to get serious about reading my own damn books!

Super Librarian's TBR Challenge 2016 was perfect, but October is "Paranormal romance or romantic Suspense" month, two genres that, try as I might, I can't seem to get into.

I read almost anything but these two genres are my most DNFed besides YA.

Perhaps I just couldn't get on with the idea that shapeshifters and vampires are sexy. (I once spotted a Gargoyle-themed romance, and I thought: Hmm. Making love to a demon statue. Sexay. Not.)

Still, this month, I valiantly tried reading two paranormal romances and a romantic suspense romance in my TBR.  

The Reunited by Shiloh Walker had a promising premise: Two lovers, separated by death, are reincarnated and meet again. Joss is an FBI agent, determined to bring down an illegal human trafficking ring while Dru is deep undercover working to bring said ring down. They meet, but Josh is suspicious of her as she's literally the kingpin's fiance.

The dash of suspense makes it even more yummy, but I couldn't get into the novel on account of the numerous disruptive flashbacks. And since I have a strict policy where I'd DNF a book if I couldn't get into it after 50 pages, I have put it into the "to sell/donate" pile - after reading 100 pages and having my eyes glaze over.

Nalini Singh is a great writer, but I find my interest straying each time when the shapeshifters and psychics come in despite how hard I try. 

This is a tad odd for me as I love paranormal-themed books. I'm a huge Preston & Child fan, and their books skirt the edge of paranormal, sci-fi and thriller. These romance books should do it for me.

I'm also a huge lover of Thriller novels, so Captive by Brighton Walsh should also be a good fit, but I found it not ... thriller-ish enough.

I'm sure it's not because I hate these genres.

After all, I adored the Acro series by Sydney Croft (an X-Men-ish outfit that has the randiest operatives ever). Though Three the Hard Way (Book 7) was a marked step down in quality for me, and I DNFed it to my chagrin. I used to race through all the Acro books. That's how much I loved them.

Or ... have I fallen out of love with paranormal romance? (GASP)

But I'm hanging on to hope that perhaps I've not found a writer that sings to my soul. Especially with Romantic Suspense. Because JD Robb's "In Death" series sounds terribly delicious. Maybe she'll be it.

 

August book haul - massive, just massive!

After being a good girl in July and where I mostly #readmyowndamnbooks, I went a little nuts buying books in August.

Just a little.

See, Aeon Big had a RM5 bargain bin thing going on this month - how could I resist? Malaysia is a big marketplace for remainder books by the way - sales filled with these books seem to pop up every other month these days.

Now, there's a lot of politics behind buying remainder books (which I will blog about one day), but in Malaysia, it gives us a chance to read books at an affordable price. (Books here are very expensive, thanks to the weak ringgit. Imagine paying US$50 for a book. That's how it is like for us.)

Anyway, when I saw Tom Cox's The Good, the Bad, and the Furry, I knew I had to have it. I discovered Cox during one of my regular library visits to my library while I was living in Adelaide and just adore how he talks about his cat. He never fails to make me laugh. His blog is fantastic too - you should check him out.

Lincoln Child is an author I've always been meaning to try out; Deep Storm was a good read and I may get more of his books in the future. 

Extremes by Kevin Fong. what can I say? I like to read about devastating things that can happen to the body. I'm morbid that way.

And Ray Bradbury's classic Fahrenheit 451 in graphic novel form? Sign me up! 

But the bargain bin isn't the only place I raided this month. There's Bookalicious, a neighbourhood bookstore that has a great reputation for having a fantastic collection of books and having very (dangerously) knowledgeable shopkeepers. They can entice book buyers to buy when they don't want to! (Case in point: Me.)

I mentioned how Neil Shusterman's Unwind series is probably the only YA series I enjoyed so I was glad to find it at Bookalicious. Acheron by Sheryilynn Kenyon I'm not terribly sure. Romances are very hit and miss for me, but the price was right.

And Spark Joy - what can I say? I love Marie Kondo! I've been experimenting with her methods and can I say that I'm in love with her clothes folding technique?

Speaking of Kondo, I'm currently on a minimalism bent and could not resist Walden, which was free on Amazon, and The Cozy Life, which talked about why the Danes are so happy. It's all down to one word: hygge.

What did you buy in August?