Flash Review: The Weight of our Sky by Hanna Alkaf

By Maureen Tai, 3 October 2022

The place is Kuala Lumpur. The year is 1969. A Paul Newman movie is playing at the Rex cinema and the Beatles are big. Melati is a 16-year-old Malay schoolgirl whose recently-widowed mother, Salmah, works as a nurse in a hospital. To Melati, Paul McCartney is the best Paul in the world. Her best friend Safiyah begs to differ. These are the normal, comforting parts of the opening scenes in older teen/young adult novel, The Weight of our Sky (ages 12 and up). What is less usual is how Melati constantly taps her fingers and desperately counts in threes. What is more disquieting are the visions that persistently fill Melati’s head: graphic, gory, uninvited images of Salmah being killed in any number of violent ways. What is grippingly page-turning is the story of Melati’s separation from, and search for, her mother during the Chinese-Malay riots that plunged the newly-independent Malaysia into bloodshed and chaos on 13 May 1969.

The significance of Alkaf’s debut novel is not just the emergence of an exciting, compelling voice in traditional children’s publishing but the prominent feature – I think, for the first time – of Malaysian history, culture and language in a children’s book published by a large, Western publisher. Malay and Chinese words are not italicised. There is no glossary. Just as any book from the US or UK appears to readers in Asia without an explanation of what a snickerdoodle is or how snow angels are made, this unabashedly Malaysian story stands on its own. Without apology and without footnotes, the strong, convincing storytelling an authentic, important and welcome contribution to diversity in contemporary children’s literature. We look forward to hearing more from Alkaf in the years to come.

Flash Review: Win Lose Kill Die by Cynthia Murphy

By Anna, 1 August 2022

Upper middle-grade/young adult mystery/crime thriller, Win Lose Kill Die by Cynthia Murphy (ages 13+) opens at the beginning of a new school year at Morton Academy, a school where students are selected based on academic excellence. It’s the first day back at school, and protagonist/teen student Liz and her best friend, Taylor, are at a memorial assembly for Morgan, the head girl of the Academy. The past summer, Morgan and Liz were in a boat that flipped, resulting in Morgan’s death from drowning and Liz sustaining a bad head injury that leaves her hospitalised for most of the summer break. Morgan’s death is declared an accident, until the replacement head girl Jameela receives a chilling note threatening her life. Liz and Taylor, along with their friends, Kat, Marcus, and Cole, set out to find who is behind the terrible fates that have befallen their classmates, and how to protect other students from succumbing to the same deadly end.

The dark, creepy story is told mainly from the perspective of Liz, one of Morton’s top students. In between these chapters, the narrative switches to the perspective of the person behind the mystery; chilling disclosures from the murderer, telling readers how the killing actions were planned and committed. The descriptive writing, believable characters and unpredictable plot line make Win Lose Kill Die an absorbing page-turner that will appeal to fans of the series, Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens and A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson.

Flash Review: Ordinary Hazards by Nikki Grimes

By Maureen Tai, 17 April 2022

In Ordinary Hazards (ages 14+), Nikki Grimes’ eye-and-heart-opening verse memoir for young adults, she recounts her trauma-filled childhood and tumultuous teenage years with unflinching honesty, breathtaking courage and luminous prose. Despite being born to a mother bedevilled by mental illness and alcoholism, forcibly separated from her only sibling, seemingly abandoned by her musician father and sexually assaulted by her mother’s lover (this list of harrowing life circumstances being, by no means, exhaustive), the author not only survives but thrives, sustained primarily by her unbridled passion for reading and writing. As the words of Kahlil Gibran gave the author solace and inspiration, so do her words – never self-pitying but always strong and hopeful and resilient – give solace and inspiration to her readers. Ordinary Hazards is a powerful, anything-but-ordinary, coming-of-age story of glorious triumph over heartbreaking adversity. A note for parents: the novel deals with mature themes and includes (appropriately) strong language.

Blue² by Luna Orchid

By Maureen Tai, 12 March 2022

One of the aspirations of this blog has been to champion authentic, memorable stories set in Asia, about Asian children and young adults, and written by Asian – not Asian diaspora – writers. It is fitting that our 200th review should be of such a book. Blue² (ages 13+) by Hong Kong artist and writer, Luna Orchid,* is one of the most unique and authentic, upper middle grade/young adult, verse novels I’ve ever read. That the author also happens to be a dear friend of mine is, rest assured, not the reason for this review. It is because the honest, oft-times gut-wrenching yet compelling depiction of a teenage girl’s coming-of-age in working class Hong Kong stayed with me like a haunting memory, long after I turned the last page.

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