Flash Review: Lizard’s Tale by Weng Wai Chan

By Maureen Tai, 28 October 2022

The titular Lizard in this middle grade, historical thriller and riveting page-turner is a poor, green-eyed boy of mixed parentage. Abandoned by his Chinese mother and subsequently by his beloved British uncle, Lizard survives on petty crime and odd jobs in 1940s Singapore. His life is turned upside down when a job – to steal a teak box from a hotel room in the swish Raffles Hotel – goes horribly and unexpectedly wrong. The next thing he knows, Lizard is on the run. But why? From whom? What are the secret contents of the teak box? Suddenly, everything Lizard knows is not what they seem to be. Even his best friend Lili, his neighbour and a lover of curry puffs. Could she be more than just the daughter of a Chinese tailor living in Chinatown? Lizard’s Tale (ages 8+) will have you at the edge of your seat as you follow Lizard on his perilous quest to unravel the mystery surrounding his contraband. What is just as exciting for an older, Asian reader like me, is to see authentic details of pre-war Singapore both big – like the Raffles Hotel – and small – like the Brylcreem used by a local thug to slick down his hair – in a traditionally published, middle grade novel. Unputdownable.

Inkling by Kenneth Oppel & illustrated by Sydney Smith

By Ben, 10 October 2022

Ben and I recently read Inkling (ages 8+), an imaginative and emotionally satisfying middle-grade novel by the author of the dark, gripping and suspenseful The Nest. We had a chat about it after breakfast.

M: So, can you tell me, in a nutshell, what Inkling is about?
B: It’s about a boy called Ethan and an ink splotch that comes to life called Inkling that draws things.
M: It’s like a fantasy story?
B: Kinda fantasy, kinda fiction? It’s suspenseful. Also well-written and funny in parts.
M: What sort of kid is Ethan? Is he like anyone you know?
B: [Thinking] No, he isn’t. He’s very protective of Inking though, so he’s a nice kid …
M: … and he’s also protective of his younger sister too, right?
B: Yeah, he’s really good at looking after his younger sister Sarah, he’s very kind to her and plays games with her and stuff. But then Sarah’s not annoying like my sister [knowing look] …
M: Ummm, let’s not bring your sister into this [rolling eyes]. Let’s get back to the story. So, this Inkling draws things …
B: Yeah, when Inkling goes onto pages in a book, all the words and pictures get sucked up into him, like he’s an eraser but more effective, and then he starts talking like the books he eats. So if he reads an old book, he’ll start speaking in old English like an old person.
M: Hmmm. Inking doesn’t have a mouth or eyes, does he? How does he talk?
B: He speaks by writing the words on paper or on any surface, but his one weakness is glass. He slips on glass so he can’t climb up the wall of a glass or a tank which is where he gets trapped by the bad girl …
M: No, no spoilers!
B: Oh, ok.
M: But there are bad people in this story?
B: Yeah, the main bad characters are Vika and her father. Vika is Ethan’s rival at school. She’s mean and sneaky but she’s also really good at drawing …
M: But Ethan’s not that good?
B: At the start of the story he isn’t, but then he gets good at it by the end.
M: If you had Inkling, what would you get him to do for you?
B: [No hesitation] If I had Inkling, I’d get him to do my homework and school for me.
M: Well, it’s a good thing you don’t have him then!

Flash Review: Varjak Paw by S. F. Said

By Maureen Tai, 26 September 2022

In S.F. Said’s imaginative, engrossing and dark-ish middle-grade novel, Varjak Paw (ages 8+), the titular cat is no ordinary feline but a Mesopotamian Blue. This exotic, ancient breed is descended from Jalal, legendary adventurer and hunter. The stories about Jalal, legends in their own right, are recounted by Varjak’s grandfather, and they intoxicate the young kitten, so much so that the venerated ancestor starts appearing to Varjak in his dreams. When a strange, malevolent Gentleman and his two murderous black cats suddenly appear on the scene, ending Varjak’s life as he knows it, our hero realises that he will need to master the long-forgotten Seven Skills in the Way of Jalal in order to save himself, his family and his newfound friends. A compelling story about loyalty, courage, finding (and believing) in yourself. And obviously, a perfect read for cat lovers.

Flash Review: Astrid the Unstoppable by Maria Parr, translated by Guy Puzey

By Maureen Tai, 19 September 2022

Nine-year old Astrid Glimmerdal has lion’s mane hair, a farmer dad, a marine scientist mother, a pet seagull and a curmudgeonly, ex-troll best friend/godfather. She is also the only child in her small, remote and fictional village of Glimmerdal (her namesake). Nestled at the foot of snow-capped mountains, the village is also home to the irritable Klaus Hagen and his adults-only Wellness Retreat, lovelorn digger-owner Peter, window-peeper-and-people-snooper Sally, and dog-owning-hair-stylist Theo. With this delightful setting and such an intriguing cast of characters, it is inevitable that a charmingly written, funny and touching story flows, as surely as the babbling waters of the River Glimmerdal, from the pages of Astrid the Unstoppable. In this middle grade novel, translated from the original Norwegian, Astrid – the self-proclaimed thunderbolt of Glimmerdal – uncovers secrets about her nearest and dearest while making new friends and leaving a trail of havoc in her wake. Irrepressible, spirited and adventurous souls aged 8 and up will adore this engaging read (I certainly did!).