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: 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.