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!).

Flash Review: We Belong by Cookie Hiponia

By Maureen Tai, 29 August 2022

We Belong (ages 10+) is a middle grade novel that could just as easily pass – in my opinion, more so – for an adult memoir. Elsie, the mother of two energetic girls, is the novel’s main narrator. It is bedtime and the sisters are clamouring for attention, so Elsie tells them stories, weaving two tales with lyrical, sparse verse: one is an old Filipino myth about Bathala Maykapal, the Creator God, and his half-human children, and the other is Elsie’s real childhood story about her family’s immigration from the Philippines to America in the 1980s. The playful mother-daughter dialogue, the shifting points of view, and the pretty, monochromatic line illustrations balance out some of the darker themes that are lightly explored in Elsie’s stories: the violent maiming of one heavenly sibling by another, the abusive relationship between Elsie and her own mother, and the turbulent times leading up to, and after, the 1983 assassination of Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. in the Philippines. As a mother of similar vintage as the author and having personally experienced the immigrant life (albeit in my adolescence), We Belong was an emotional and resonant read. More importantly, the book was a springboard for sharing my life stories with my own children, making it a perfect bedtime tale to snuggle up with and experience together.

Flash Review: Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga

By Maureen Tai, 22 August 2022

Other Words for Home (ages 10+) is a lyrical, thoughtful and ultimately hopeful middle grade, verse novel about the flight of a young Syrian girl and her mother from their conflict-torn homeland. Jude is like any other teenage girl: she has a best friend with whom she does everything, she loves snacking on her favourite teatime treats (to the detriment of dinner), and she adores movies, fancying herself a doppelgänger for a glamorous American movie star. Only now, Jude is miles away from her old life and from her old home: parted from half of her immediate family, her best friend, her favourite cafe, even Arabic, her mother tongue. Anxious and bereft, the young girl must be strong for her mother and learn to adjust to her new life in America. Jude replays her older brother’s parting whisper of “Be brave“, over and over again like a mantra as she faces the uncertainties of life as a refugee in a country that slowly, but sure, becomes another place she can call home. The honest and beautiful storytelling explores difficult topics – racism, war, death – with a reverent but light touch, making this novel suitable even for younger readers who might find such topics emotionally challenging. As an adult reader, I was particularly taken with the clever and subtle way in which the author weaves in references to the protagonist’s Syrian/Muslim culture, for example the Arabic proverb: She cannot give what she does not have. I feel that I too now, like Jude, better understand what it means, and am all the better for it.