Book Reviews: Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

Around the World for a Good Book selection for Malaysia

Author: Zen Cho
Title: Black Water Sister
Narrator: Catherine Ho
Publication Info: [Prince Frederick] : Recorded Books Incorporated, 2021.

Jessamyn Teoh, a recent college graduate who grew up in the United States after her family emigrated there from Malaysia during her early childhood, faces an uncertain future.  She is moving back to Malaysia with her parents where she has to adjust to an unfamiliar culture, find work, and maintain a long-distance relationship with her girlfriend while hiding that she’s lesbian from her parents.  Things grow more complicated when Jess begins hearing the voice of her deceased grandmother Ah Ma.  Soon Jess finds herself plunged into an adventure featuring a powerful real estate developer, gangsters, and gods.  To put things right, and to find justice for Ah Ma, Jess must become a medium for a vengeful goddess known as Black Water Sister.

Black Water Sister is a unique novel that blends elements of fantasy, mystery, and fish out of water story to tell a story of contemporary Malaysia.  Facets of Malaysian culture such as tradition, religion, and family are woven into the narrative.  Unfortunately for Jess (and others like her), homophobia is also a part of the Malaysian culture.  It’s an interesting and well-written story that I enjoyed.
Recommended books:

Rating: ****

50 Years, 50 Movies (2015): Carol

I will turn 50 in November of this year, so my project for 2023 will be to watch and review one movie from each year of my life.  The only qualification is that it has to be a movie I’ve not reviewed previously.  If you have any suggestions for movies from the past 50 years, please drop them in the comments!


Top Grossing Movies in 2015:

Best Picture Oscar Nominees and Winners in 2015:

Other Movies I’ve Reviewed from 2015:

World of Tomorrow

Title: Carol
Release Date: November 20, 2015
Director: Todd Haynes
Production Company: Number 9 Films | Film4 Productions | Killer Films

Therese (Rooney Mara) is working as a clerk at New York City department store during the holiday season of 1952 who is drawn to a glamorous customer, Carol (Cate Blanchett), who is shopping for a gift for her daughter. They make a connection which eventually leads to a romantic relationship.  Carol is divorcing her husband Herge (Kyle Chandler) and they are fighting for custody of their daughter.  Herge uses Carol’s earlier lesbian relationship with her friend Abby (Sarah Paulson) and her relationship with Therese to invoke a “morality cause” to gain full custody.

The movie features strong, nuanced performances by Blanchett and Mara.  It’s also gorgeously filmed with some memorable shots.  It kind of feels like Edward Hopper paintings come to life.  The movie also owes a debt to David Lean’s Brief Encounter.  The Christmas theme is tied into the film’s color palette and surely the name Carol is kind of a pun?   The examination of homosexuality in the repressive 1950s is well done, and I found it fascinating that the movie is a faithful adaptation of a book published in 1952, The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith.

Rating: ****

90 Movies in 90 Days: Liz and the Blue Bird (2018)

I’m kicking off 2023 by trying to watch and review one movie every day for the first 90 days, all of which will be 90 minutes or less.

Title: Liz and the Blue Bird
Release Date:April 21, 2018
Director: Naoko Yamada
Production Company:Kyoto Animation | Bandai Namco Arts | Pony Canyon |
Rakuonsha | Animation DO

Mizore (Atsumi Tanezaki) is a shy and introverted girl who is a talented oboist in her high school’s concert band.  Her only friend is Nozomi (Nao Tōyama), a much more popular and outgoing girl who plays flute in the same band, but with less interest in perfecting her art.  Mizore has a deep attachment to Nozomi, and while not explicitly stated, a romantic interest as well.

The film focuses primarily on their rehearsals in their senior year for a piece called Liz and the Blue Bird based on fictional German fairy tale. The story involves a girl named Liz (played on the oboe) who befriends a mysterious girl who is actually a blue bird magically transformed (played on the flute).  The musical piece and the fairy tale serve as the central metaphor for Mizore and Nozomi’s story as they need to learn to let go of one another to succeed in their lives after high school.

This is a sad and sweet coming of age film with beautiful animation that resembles water colors and great incorporation of music into the story.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Girl Picture (2022)

Title: Girl Picture
Release Date: 14 April 2022
Director: Alli Haapasalo
Production Company: Citizen Jane Productions

This coming-of-age drama/comedy/romance is known in its original Finnish title as Tytöt tytöt tytöt or Girls Girls Girls. That title makes it sound raunchier than it is, but make no mistake there is a level of horniness in this movie appropriate to its teenage protagonists.  The movie focuses on the lives of three teenage girls over three consecutive Fridays.

Mimmi (Aamu Milonoff) has a rebellious streak, the point of obnoxious (and violence!), as a result of feeling abandoned by her mother who remarried and has a younger child.  Her best friend Rönkkö (Eleonoora Kauhanen) is disappointed that she cannot find pleasure in her sexual encounters with boys.  Emma (Linnea Leino), a girl who goes to their school, is a competitive figure skater who is dealing with a sudden inability to perform her key move, the triple Lutz. Over the course of the film, Mimmi and Emma form a romance, although Mimmi struggles with commitment.  Emma, meanwhile, questions whether she wants to continue to have her life consumed by figure skating.  And Rönkkö finally meets a nice boy although that story may not go the way you’re expecting.

The strange thing about this movie is that while we sometimes see the girls’ parents they also appear to have a startling amount of independence to the point where it looks like they don’t live with their parents.  Like many movies, the teenagers are played by actors in their 20s making them seem more mature than they should be.  Nevertheless, their stories seem to be grounded more in reality than your typical movie where the dreams and concerns of teenage girls are often overlooked.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey

Author: Sarah Gailey
Title: Upright Women Wanted
Narrator: Romy Nordlinger
Publication Info: Tantor Audio (2020)

This novella has a western vibe while actually set in a dystopian future in which the United States has crumbled under autocratic rule that discriminates against LGBTQ people (ok, maybe not so far in the future?).  Esther hides in a wagon belonging to The Librarians after the execution of her lover Beatriz.  The Librarians officially travel the southwest distributing “approved” reading material but in fact are gun-slinging lesbian women and enby people with ties to pockets of resistance. It seems like a very short story for all of its ambition, but has some great moments, and can be disarmingly sweet and hopeful.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Rafiki (2018)

Title: Rafiki
Release Date: 23 September 2018
Director: Wanuri Kahiu
Production Company: Big World Cinema | MPM Film | Schortcut Films

Kena (Samantha Mugatsia), a young woman in Nairobi, helps out at her father’s store, hangs out with her male friends, and hopes to get good enough grades to pursue nursing studies. When she meets Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), there’s an immediate attraction, and the two women soon begin dating. Not only do they run a risk of prejudice and legal repercussions (homosexuality is illegal in Kenya) but their fathers are opponents in an upcoming election.

The romance in this film is very sweet and gentle.  The cinematography captures lots of bright colors that seem to reflect the joy of young love.  But most of the shots are also really close-up in a way that emphasizes how confining life is for Kena and Ziki.  I don’t want to spoil anything, but it should not be a surprise that love does not conquer all, and Kena and Ziki suffer from the prejudices of their community.  But this movie is not without hope.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Around the World for a Good Book selection for Vietnam

Author: Ocean Vuong
Title: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
Narrator: Ocean Vuong
Publication Info: [New York, NY] : Penguin Audio, 2019

In this poetic, nonlinear narrative, the narrator – nicknamed Little Dog – writes a letter explaining his life to his mother, Hong.  The story is based on Vuong’s own life, who like Little Dog is the grandchild of a Vietnamese woman and a white American soldier, emigrated to Hartford, Connecticut as a refugee, and is raised by a single mother.  The center of the narrative is Little Dog’s teenage experience of coming out gay and his first relationship with a boy named Trevor.  The language in this book is beautifully deployed in describing ugly things, from Little Dog’s grandmother Lan’s experiences in the Vietnam War to Trevor’s narcotics addiction. From the pain, Vuong is able to extract a novel of beauty.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Orlando (1993)

Release Date: 12 March 1993
Director: Sally Potter
Production Company: Sony Pictures Classics

Adapted from a novel by Virginia Woolf, Orlando is a fantastical period drama directed by Sally Potter starring Tilda Swinton as a British noble named Orlando.  There are a couple of things you need to know about title character: 1. Orlando is seemingly immortal, living from at least the late 16th-century to the present day, and 2. About 2/3’s through this movie, Orlando goes through a magical physical transformation from a man’s body to a woman’s body.  The film explores ideas of feminism, sexuality, gender, and British history and does so with cinematic flair and fantastic costuming.  Singer Jimmy Somerville sings on the soundtrack and appears in the film, his countertenor voice appropriate to Orlando’s androgyny.

When I saw this movie back in the mid-90s, it was the first time I’d seen Tilda Swinton and I can’t imagine any actor being more perfect for this role. I love the way she looks to the camera and breaks the fourth wall.  I read the book around the same time I first saw the movie, but I can’t remember which came first.  I knew next to nothing about transgenderism at the time, but this story is obviously also a metaphor for the transgender experience.  “Same person. No difference at all… just a different sex.”

I’m glad I revisited this movie as it feels to have gained new layers of meaning in the 2020s, much as Sally Potter added layers of meaning appropriate to the 1990s to Virginia Woolf’s observations on the 1920s.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place by Neema Avashia

AuthorNeema Avashia
Title: Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place
Publication Info: Morgantown : West Virginia University Press, 2022.

Neema Avashia is a Boston teacher who I know through her activism and her Twitter account.  In this short collection of essay-length memoirs she reflects on growing up in West Virginia and her present day life in India.  Her family emigrated to India as part of a small but significant group of Indian ex-pats who worked in West Virginia’s chemical industry.  Avashia describes the warm memories of white West Virginians and how the Appalachian and Indian cultural traditions became commingled in her childhood.  This is contrasted with how those same white West Virginians who helped her family on arrival support the MAGA ideology that discriminates against immigrants and LGBTQ people.  Nevertheless, Avashia fully embraces her West Virginia identity and heritage and makes the case that even if people like her are only a small portion of West Virginia’s population that they are nevertheless fully West Virginian.

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Black Tides of Heaven by Neon Yang

Around the World for a Good Book selection for Singapore
AuthorNeon Yang
Title:The Black Tides of Heaven
Narrator: Nancy Wu
Publication Info: ©2017 Neon Yang (P)2019 HighBridge, a division of Recorded Books

Akeha and Mokoya are the twin youngest children of the cruel and dictatorial Protector.  In The Protector’s empire, people called Tensors are able to control elemental forces using a magical skill known as slackcraft.The Protector’s control of the Tensors enables her absolute rule.  Children in the Tensorate are raised without gender with physical differences suppressed by slackcraft. When they come of age they can confirm their gender.

The twins are initially raised at a monastery until The Protector learns that Mokoya has developed a gift of prophecy and forces them to return to the empire.  Akeha flees to aid a nascent revolutionary moment while Mokoya tries to avoid having their mother abuse their gift.  All of this builds to a final confrontation with the lingering question, can Akeha and Moyoka defeat their mother without succumbing to her dependence on violence.

This book falls into a genre called silkpunk, fantasy fiction that draws on aspects of Asian antiquity with more modern technological elements.  I can’t say that I quite “get” it but it is a unique and interesting novella.

Rating: ***