rediscovering joy in solitude + current reads

I feel like the world entered 2021 with cautious (if a little beleaguered) hope. With more vaccines being developed and distributed around the world, a certain orange man on his way out, and businesses starting to rehire again, it seemed like things might be starting to pick up.

Then the 7 Jan Capitol Hill insurgence happened (seriously, what the actual fuck – the audacity and lawlessness and injustice is unbelievable) and we’re seeing a couple of Covid-19 cases in the local community again (after months of zero community cases) and it feels like 2021 is just 2020 part two. I had to take a break from the news for a bit and find my inner peace again.

And really, that’s the goal these days. Just inner peace. Trying not to let external things, events and people upset the balance. Keeping the optimism alive.

On a personal note, it’s been a good first week of the year for me. Projects lined up that I’m genuinely excited about, daily progress being made, new plans and collaborations with people, spending time with friends and family. I feel like I’m coming home to myself again, slowly but surely sliding back into equilibrium. Silence doesn’t feel daunting or empty; it just feels peaceful now, and my head is no longer preoccupied with anxious thoughts. There’s a quiet power that comes with being comfortable and happy in your own company, when you don’t feel like you’re lacking anything and you’ve got everything you need to keep you fulfilled, busy, and happy. I’m learning to enjoy that again.

Most notably, I’ve been getting a lot more reading and writing done. I’m currently working on four books (three novels and one book of poetry and prose. I know some of you want me to disclose more about my current works-in-progress, but I generally prefer not to divulge too much or make it public before I’m at least done with the first draft. I like my projects to belong completely to me until I at least have a semblance of a thing to show. So this is all I’ll share for now), and I’m reading three books concurrently (more on that in a bit), on top of juggling assignments, painting, working out, and dreaming up new scenes for my novels and new tales to tell.

So when people ask me what I’ve been up to and I say “keeping busy”, that’s the long answer.

Currently Reading:

  1. Magic for Liars, by Sarah Gailey
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There’s murder, a school for teenage mages (think Hogwarts as an American high school), and a private investigator struggling to take on a task too big for her to handle. I do enjoy the voice and the premise, but I also wish the pace would pick up a bit. There’s a lot to uncover here, and so far (133 pages in), the protagonist has just been wrestling with her insecurity issues, rekindling her relationship with her estranged sister, and wandering around the school observing people. I’ll keep going, though, just to see if things build up.

2. By All the Saints and Stars, by my incredible friend and critique partner Meredith Crosbie

Image by: Meredith Crosbie

When Meredith first told Nicole (another fantastic writer and fellow Tolkien lover) and I that she was writing a book set in ancient Venice, I was immediately stoked. And it did not disappoint. I practically flew through the first four chapters in one sitting, and am consistently impressed by the world-building and characterisation. You guys, this book will definitely be on the shelves one day, and I’m so honoured to be one of the first few people to read it.

3. Strange the Dreamer, by Laini Taylor

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I knowww. I started reading this book in 2019 and I’m still not done with it. Similarly, I took more than a year to finish King of Scars by Leigh Bardugo, so the fact that I take ages to finish a book is in no way a testament to the quality of the book. Laini and Leigh are stellar writers – I just have terrible a attention span these days (again, I blame social media). But Strange the Dreamer is a hefty book, and there’s a lot of world-building involved so it takes a while to fully immerse in the book.

4. I’ve also been seeking out more poetry.

It’s funny – I never used to be into poetry very much, but maybe that was because I’d never really found poems that resonated with me. My last (cringe-inducing) attempt at poetry was when I was 17: I went everywhere with a black notebook and pen, and sat in dark corners scribbling away in it. I don’t dare to promise that the poems I’m attempting to write now are cringe-free, but I like to think they’re marginally less awful than the ones I wrote as a teenager.

Anyway, here are some much, much better poems others have written that I absolutely adore:

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I met Marla back in 2016, when we sat on the same panel at a writers conference, and discovered what an amazing poet she is. Been trying to get my hands on her poetry anthologies but they seem to be out of stock everywhere 😦

Hope you’re having a good start to 2021 (and if not, that you hold faith that things WILL get better)!

So much new Asian-lit in my TBR, I’m loving it

I am SO behind on my reading list.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m the most easily distracted gnat you can find. Gone are the days when I could write 3k words a day without fail (seriously, how did I do that?). These days, I pat myself on the back just for reading an entire chapter without going on Instagram or Tumblr.

Still, that doesn’t mean I have to stop adding books to my To-Be-Read pile. It currently stands at 567 books, but you know, I’ll get through them all … some day. (I can read from my grave, right?)

And seeing so many new Asian literature – particularly in YA – makes me very happy indeed. (Book recs below!)

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Confession: When I was a teenage writer still trying to find my voice, I tried to mimic the way Western – mostly American – authors wrote. I adopted their voice, their narrative style and characters’ mannerisms and speech.

But those didn’t sit right. The stories I wrote weren’t rooted in my reality, my country or my neighbourhood. They didn’t feature the people I interacted with daily. They were textbook characters created in the likeness of those from my favourite authors’ books. They even had Western last names. They went to high school (not secondary school, as we call it here), and they talked like the American teenagers I saw in movies.

Why?

Because I thought that if I wrote a story from my perspective, no one would be able to relate to it, much less want to read it. I thought that if I created a world based on my reality, my narrow slice of life in this little corner of the world, I would isolate readers from the rest of the world. I thought the Western reality was the only relevant one. 

Obviously, I no longer subscribe to that notion. It’s kind of sad and embarrassing, in fact, to admit this. To admit that I thought my culture was not relevant or significant enough to be written about in books. That I had to alter my reality to fit what I saw in mainstream culture, be it in movies or books.

And this is exactly why we need more diverse representation in literature, and why I’m excited about the increase in diverse lit in recent years. It shows young, impressionable readers (like myself back then) that there can be more than one culture other than the one typically seen in Hollywood movies or books. That other cultures are not in any way lesser than the one seen in mainstream media and pop culture. That everyone can have a voice, and those voices deserve to be heard. That all cultures and communities have a place in pop culture, and we don’t have to all subscribe to one “correct” or “common” culture.

I also used to think that fantasy could only feature boys, or Caucasian characters because the sort of fantasy books I could find involved Medieval settings, swords and stallions, taverns and corsets. But the surge of diverse YA fantasy in recent years (shoutout to Sabaa Tahir, Renee Ahdieh, Marie Lu, Julie C. Dao, Tomi Adeyemi, Roshani Chokshi, Alwyn Hamilton and more!) has made me see that diversity is – and should be – celebrated now more than ever before. And rightly so. Be it African, Middle Eastern, Russian, Indian, Japanese, Korean or Chinese, literature becomes much richer when many more cultures join the party, bringing to the table different stories, perspectives, values, folklore, beliefs.

Leigh Bardugo says it best here (timestamp 6:00 – 7:40):

(I recommend watching ALL her interviews, by the way. She is so eloquent and is never shy about putting things into stark perspective, calling out the bullshit in the system – misrepresentation, whitewashing, misogyny, etc., yet she’s always humble and jovial and relatable. If you read her books, you’ll also find that her characters are a diverse mix – in terms of race and sexual orientation – and she takes great pains to ensure they all properly represent the marginalised communities. She’s just THE BEST OKAY I LOVE HER.)

Anyway, Asian-lit reading list:

Descendant of the Crane

Descendant of the Crane, by Joan He: a Chinese-inspired fantasy involving magic, a brave princess, vengeance and deception. DROOL. Also, that cover. DOUBLE DROOL.

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Spin the Dawn, (The Blood of Stars #1), by Elizabeth Lim: Billed as Project Runway meets Mulan, it’s about a girl who poses as a boy to compete for the role of imperial tailor and embarks on a journey to sew three magic dresses. Yup, I’m on board.

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I Love You So Mochi, by Sarah Kuhn: Coming-of-age story about an art student rediscovering her roots in Kyoto. Reminds me of The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan.

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Wicked Fox, (Gumiho #1), by Kat Cho: a fantasy-romance set in modern-day Seoul about a girl who’s a gumiho (the legendary nine-tailed fox from Korean folklore) who falls for a human boy. IT FEELS LIKE A KOREAN DRAMA. BUT IN BOOK FORM. I’ve always wondered what Korean dramas would read like as novels, and now I shall find out.

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Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune, by Roselle Lim: a contemporary tale of a girl who goes home and reconnects with her estranged family after her mother’s death. Love me some family drama and low-key sobriety. Also, how cute is this cover? It’s giving me Love Fortunes and Other Disasters vibe, and it has a similar small-town charm.

tl;dr Yay for #ownvoices and diverse books!

If you’re a reader or writer of colour, what has your experience been like seeking diversity in fiction? How has that influenced your worldview or you as a writer? What are your thoughts on the rise of diverse literature? I’d love to hear from you!

#ReadingList for October!

To read:

 

1. Two Years Eight Months and Twenty Eight Nights, by Salman Rushdie

Is this magical realism from Salman Rushdie? FINALLY.

2. Six of Crows, by Leigh Bardugo

If you haven’t read the Grisha trilogy by this amazing author, do yourself a favour and pick it up from the bookstore today. Aside from Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy, it was one of the most richly imagined, vividly narrated YA fantasy stories I have ever read.

Needless to say, as soon as I heard of this spinoff set in the Grishaverse, I wasted no time in adding it to my to-read list. High-stakes heist? Sign me on! Plus, I read the sneak preview chapters of the book the Leigh shared, and it was everything I expected AND MORE. It’s just mind-blowing, how she manages to come up with such intricate plots supported by stellar writing.

3. The Demon in the Wood, by Leigh Bardugo

Speaking of the Grisha trilogy, here’s another story set in the Grishaverse. This prequel reveals the Darkling’s past – back when Grishas were reviled and persecuted – that shaped him into the misunderstood villain he later became.

I can’t say I have a soft spot for the Darkling, unlike a lot of other fans of the series (the cocky but charming Nikolai is more my cup of tea, along with sweet romantic Mal). But the Darkling isn’t evil for the sake of being evil. He believed in his cause, and for that his backstory is worth reading. Besides, more from the Grishaverse – what’s not to like?
4. Glass Sword, by Victoria Aveyard

HAVE YOU READ RED QUEEN. Go read it. Now.

While I wouldn’t say I was completely, incorrigibly and incoherently smitten with it like I was with the Grisha trilogy of the DOSAB one (Laini Taylor is indomitable), this series by Victoria Aveyard is definitely a masterfully written piece of work. I’m not a fan of dystopian fiction by any stretch (which is why I’m not on the Hunger Games or Divergent bandwagon, sorry!), but this one drew me in with its high-stakes plot and unusual premise. All those twists! Be prepared to have the rug pulled from under you at any time.

So yes, sign me up for the sequel.

Currently reading: 

Magonia, by Maria Dahvana Headley

I’ve always been entranced by stories set in the sky, among the clouds. It’s why I love Studio Ghibli’s Castle in the Sky and Howl’s Moving Castle (the latter a movie adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones’s book) so much. And how dreamy does Magonia seem! Can I sail away to that kingdom in the sky already?

And speaking of books in general, here’s the loot from the National Library book sale today!

I know, I know. As an author myself, I should be supporting other writers by buying their book first-hand and not at these secondhand book sales because none of the proceeds go to the writers for all their efforts. But in my defence, some of these, like Silksinger by Laini Taylor, are already out of print (trust me, I’ve looked everywhere for it).

And, you know, as long as people are reading and getting to know new authors, this is not an entirely bad thing. Right??

So Round Two tomorrow! Hope your weekend is a bountiful one too! :0)

Were you at the NLB book sale today? What titles did you get? Share your loot here – I’d love to hear from you!

June reads, pink hair, and manuscripts that just. won’t. end.

I couldn’t blog last week because work was relentless (ZALORA’s digital magazine community is going live soon!) and I was nursing a fever, sore throat, headache, and runny nose last week (doesn’t rain, but it sure pours).

Buuuut I’m back – with bolder, brighter, and pinker hair! :0)

I was going to go with just the darker copper this time, but it felt a little too dull. So I went and doubled the pink streak! Here were some hairstyles and colours I considered:

Totally leapt up when I saw this – SOOOOOO GORGEOUS!!!!! *__*
I’d love to go this red, but I’m not as fair as pretty Ms Han Ji Min
So I settled for this slightly browner tone like Tiffany’s
Not gonna lie – I wish I had the guts and freedom to go as nuts as Laini Taylor because look how fabulous that shade of pink is! But my dad will probably flip. Maybe someday, if I ever make it onto the NYT bestseller list, I’ll do this to celebrate!

My dad shook his head at the expanding pink strip as soon as he saw it, but oh well I love it. EMBRACE THE PINK! :0)

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And as if my May reading list isn’t long enough, here comes another one for June. But with more swoon-worthy tales of literary apothecaries, OCD romance, mysterious guardians, kidnappings, and magical guardians, the reading list just won’t quit! I mean, just look at these drool-worthy tales:

1. Every Last Word, by Tamara Ireland Stone 

A girl with purely-obsessional OCD finds her place amongst a bunch of misfits, and falls in love with a guy who plays guitar and writes poetry. Sorry, but I’m a sucker for stories like this.

2. Emmy & Oliver, by Robin Benway

Touted as a book to satisfy Sarah Dessen fans (that’s me!), a girl meets her childhood friend whose father kidnapped him years ago. Ever since The Snow Queen, I’ve loved the idea of childhood friends who become lovers. Plus, this one has got all the drama and tears, so I don’t care if the plot seems cheesy. It’s not cheesy if it’s well written. And based on the reviews on Goodreads, it sounds like it might be!

3. The Library at Mount Char, by Scott Hawkins 

Father could do strange things. He could call light from darkness. Sometimes he raised the dead. And when he was disobeyed, the consequences were terrible.” Don’t you want to read it already? I know I do!

4. The Little Paris Bookshop, by Nina George

Books to heal a myriad of ailments and undiagnosable woes, a literary apothecary – sounds like a delightfully magically realistic poignant read already!

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And finally, an update on the WIP that is No Room in Neverland.

It feels like I am NEVER going to finish this story. The word count currently hovers close to 79K. 79K! This is the longest I’ve ever written. Granted, it has two stories in one (Neverland Chronicles, and current day), but come on, 339 pages for a YA contemporary, really Joyce??

I’m trying to convince myself that it’s better to write too much than too little. But that just means you might end up cutting out a lot of scenes that drag down the story. And that’s just as hard as trying to thicken the plot! Conclusions are just as hard as beginnings, if not possibly harder. You have too much to lose by the end of the story to mess it up, so the pressure is ON to tie up the story nicely without making everything too convenient or cheesy or draggy or rushed.

My problem with the first draft of Neverland was that it didn’t have enough of a plot. But this third draft feels like it has TOO MUCH of a plot, and there are so many loose ends I haven’t finished tying up. And I don’t want it to seem like I’m trying to end everything neatly because that’s just lame. A story doesn’t end just because a book does … Am I making sense?

One more scene. Two more chapters. And I’ll be done. And then I can go back and hack out all the extraneous parts. Come on, Joyce. You HAVE to see this through. You’ve spent way too much time and effort on this to stop now.

Writer friends, how do know when to end your story?

To-Read List for May!

It’s a magical realism feast this month, in both contemporary and historical fiction. I’m liking this trend VERY MUCH.

Roald Dahl

Magical realism is such an unexplored genre (as compared to, say, crime and mystery) and I really love how it brings the fantastical into real life and stretches your imagination to accept the strange and the wondrous things that happen every day. That’s probably why I wrote Until Morning – and now No Room in Neverland – because I wanted so badly to read something set in the real world that contained romance and magic.

Speaking of Until Morning, I’ve decided to go the crowd-source route and post it up on Swoon Reads (which published a lovely contemporary romance novel A Little Something Different by Sandy Hall). You can read it (and rate and share if you enjoyed it!) here. And if you need an idea of what it’s about, here’s a teaser:

Lexi Keen has found her soul-mate, although she has never met Night, the elusive street artist who leaves his paintings around the city.

Still, that doesn’t stop her from penning letters to him – until she finds herself living in his paintings after a car accident lands her in a coma. In her mind she is wandering through Night’s paintings. Her only companion: a boy who doesn’t understand why he is trapped there with her and wants to leave.

Sam Young is trying to make sense of the dreams he has been having of late, dreams in which he meets the irreverent, free-spirited Lexi. When his father’s latest development project involves taking over the inn that Lexi’s father owns, Sam has to choose between his loyalties to his father and staying with Lexi in the dream, safe from reality.

So anyway, I’m really looking forward to this month’s haul. Yay for magical realism and contemporary fiction! That’s not to say fantasy is a dying genre, but I think readers as a whole are now looking to take a break from all that supernatural good-versus-evil stuff for a while and go back to something closer to the heart. Even agents I’ve queried have told me they’re not representing fantasy because the market’s too saturated and people are veering away from the genre at the moment.

To Read:

1. Magonia, by Maria Dahvana Headley

2. Girl At Midnight, by Melissa Grey

3. Above Us Only Sky, by Michele Young-Stone

4. Bone Gap, by Laura Ruby

5. The Cost of All Things, by Maggie Lehrman

6. Love Letters to the Dead, by Ava Dellaira

7. Love Fortunes and Other Disasters, by Kimberly Karalius

I can’t stop fangirling over these books. I mean, HAVE YOU READ THEIR BLURBS? ARE YOU NOT PROPERLY EXCITED ABOUT THEM ALREADY? Ships in the sky, memory erasure (coincidentally, I’ve been working on a short story about memory erasure too), Lithuanian bird-women, pickpockets in black markets and missing people. This is while I love reading and creating stories. There are so many exhilarating possibilities that set your mind on fire, so many stories that fill you with ideas and life.

And of course, there’s LANGUAGE itself. Prose. The stringing of words to form beautiful, heart-breaking sentences with rhythm and music.

From Magonia:

“I’m dark matter. The universe inside of me is full of something, and science can’t even shine a light on it. I feel like I’m mostly made of mysteries.”

“I know everyone has dreams of flying, but this isn’t a dream of flying. It’s a dream of floating, and the ocean is not water but wind.
I call it a dream, but it feels realer than my life.”

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Breathe, Joyce, breathe.

Currently Reading:

1. Red Queen, by Victoria Aveyard

SO GOOD. The execution, the plot (and plot twists), the prose – all skillfully done. If I HAD to nitpick, I’d say that my connection with the characters isn’t as strong as the one with Alina and Mal from the Grisha trilogy by Leigh Bardugo. Those two (plus Nikolai Lantsov) got me swooning and dancing and grinning and spazzing. Red Queen, while nicely done, doesn’t send me reeling. But this is probably subjective and different for every reader. This book is still HIGHLY recommended!

2. Before My Eyes, by Caroline Bock

Two words: mental illness. I’m a sucker for any story that deals with issues like this, especially anything creepy or disturbing or psychologically messed up and sheds some light on people dealing with the demons in their heads. Plus, it’s told in alternative POV and it reminds me a lot of Charm and Strange by Stephanie Kuehn and *ahem* Lambs for Dinner by me.

Queued:

1. Saint Anything, by Sarah Dessen

2. Friday Brown, by Vikki Wakefield

What’s on YOUR reading list this month? Recommendations always welcome! :0)

this week’s reading list

Currently reading:

1. On the Jellicoe Road, by Melina Marchetta

I read her other books, Saving Francesca and Looking for Alibrandi when I was 14, and I fell completely in love. Marchetta’s writing was the contact I had with first Australian YA fiction, and it opened up the way I saw how contemporary fiction could be written. Full of heart and characters so real you wish they were your friends because you feel like you understand them and that they would understand you too.

I tried reading Jellicoe Road a few years back, but got thrown off by the complicated territory wars that didn’t seem to relate to the main plot. Plus, the story was, like The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee (another terrific Australian YA author), told in a non-linear narrative. So it was kind of confusing, especially with the host of characters.

But I’m appreciating it more now during my second attempt. The poignant moments are never overdone, and I’m beginning to think it’s an Australian thing. The story SEEMS light-hearted and funny, but the words worm their way right into your heart.

2. Ruin and Rising, by Leigh Bardugo

I don’t want this story to end! The final installment in the Grisha trilogy is just as dramatic and all-encompassing and swoon-worthy and all around awesome I can’t even! From the changing dynamics between Alina and Mal, Alina’s gradual self-actualisation, the return of the fantabulous Nikolai Lantsov (someday, I aspire to have his level of confidence, wit, resourcefulness, and charm), the seductive power of the Darkling, and Bardugo’s skill in world-building, book #3 is the most complex and enthralling in the trilogy, as it should be.

3. Encyclopedia of the Exquisite: An Anecdotal History of Elegant Delights, by Jessica Kerwin Jenkins

This compendium is so delectable I could eat it up. It’s like a little cabinet of wonders, a treasure trove of bite-sized info on, well, exquisite things like the evolution of the Japanese kimono, unicorns, alchemy, tea, alfresco dining, fireworks, and masquerades. And okay, some of the entries weren’t as scintillating (I don’t think we need so much info on strings or tassels), but most of the entries, which are subjects in varied fields, set my mind alight with ideas and sometimes that’s all you ask for in a book.

While searching for quotes from Jellicoe Road, I found this passage that made me spazz out from the GORGEOUS, lyrical imagery:

Google tells me it’s from The Last Unicorn, a 1968 fantasy novel by Peter S. Beagle. Wikipedia tells me it’s a story centered on a unicorn who, believing she’s the last of her kind in the world, embarks on a journey to find out what happened to the others. She meets a host of diverse characters along the way, each of them bringing her closer to her goal. 

If that passage isn’t reason enough to read it, the slew of five-star reviews on Goodreads definitely is. Now, off to get my hands on the book. 

Happy mid-week! :0)