First Second | 9 January 2024 | 352 pgs
Source: Purchased 

Gene Luen Yang, together with LeUyen Pham, collaborated on this graphic novel about a story of family, friendship and Iove set in the atmosphere of Lunar New Year.

Valentina Tran lives with her father since young and her favourite holiday used to be Valentine's Day but has given up on love after learning that her family is cursed with love for generations. Despite this, she spent her childhood days bringing love to her classmates by leaving them handmade Valentine's cards and befriending an imaginary friend in the form of Cupid. Sadly, her efforts aren't appreciated and as the time goes her imaginary friend morph from a good-spirited cherub to a ghoulish St. Valentine, taunting her about true love and giving her a year to find it or give up her heart to him so she'll never be hurt again. Then a chance encounter leads her to a pair of lion dancers and one of them sparks something in her. Could this be true love and is she able to break the family curse forever? 

I enjoyed reading this graphic novel a lot! There's so much to love about this book, starting with the vivid illustrations and the cast of characters that drew me in. And of course I've to mention about the Lunar New Year setting since I read this during the festive holidays and the spirit and culture of lion dancing further adds a strong atmosphere of the holiday celebrations through the bold illustrations and I could imagine myself hearing the sound of the gongs and drums as I flipped through the pages. 

While this is a story about love, there are also a few memorable moments about Valentina's friendship with her bestie as well as Valentina's interactions with her grandmother. Valentina's transformation is perfectly defined as we see her transcend from a phase to another through her growing experience. Overall it was a heartwarming and a moving story which will remain in my mind for some time and I hope to see more collaboration works by Gene Luen Yang and LeUyen Pham in the near future. 
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Hodder & Stoughton | 29 August 2023 | 432 pgs
Source: Purchased 

This is a spin-off prequel of the Six Crimson Cranes duology and having read them and enjoyed Elizabeth Lim's writing, I can now say that I'm a fan of her. 

The setting of this story was different from the SCC duology but still there was a connection between a few characters. This is a story about two sisters who are polar opposite of each other yet their love for each other is boundless. Channi's world is turned upside down after the birth of her sister, who was born with a light in her chest. To save their mother's life, their father offers Channi as a sacrifice to the Demon Witch instead of Vanna, the beautiful and radiant newborn. In the midst of the chase, Channi is bitten by the Serpent King and thus her blood is poisoned. Angma, the Demon Witch then cast a curse on Channi with a serpent's face and vowed to get Vanna on her seventeenth birthday. While both girls are safe at the moment, Channi is no longer the same since she is now viewed as a monster. Despite Channi's appearance, Vanna is the only person who trust her and love her as who she is; alongside with Ukar, a snake whom Channi has become friends with (he's my favourite character among all). 

When Vanna is approaching seventeen and is to be married off in a vulgar contest, Channi sees herself as Vanna's protector but the biggest threat lies in the inner light in Vanna's chest; for this will unleash a battle not only with Angma who's been eyeing for it since Vanna's birth but also the rightful owner of that radiant light. 

I enjoyed this story and was impressed by Elizabeth Lim's writing and her storytelling once again. Her descriptive writing, her intriguing cast of characters and the plot drew me in as always. And in this book it also evoked an emotion in me as the author deftly weaves a story not only about loyalty and courage but also about sisterhood and unconditional love. Channi's narrative was engaging and I rooted for her from the beginning till the end. Her determination and her perseverance, as well as her love for Vanna never fail to amaze me and that last few chapters even had me teary-eyed. I'm sure fans of the SCC duology will appreciate this prequel and for readers who have not read any of this series, I think it'd be a good start to begin with this book. 

Finally, I want to thank Lark for going through this fantastical journey with me (read her review here). Reading is fun, but it's a lone pleasure/experience to the reader herself and that's why we've buddy reads! Here's to another great (buddy) reading year, Lark! 

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Penguin Books | 8 August 2023 | 352 pgs
Source: Library 

57-year-old Iona Iverson works as a magazine therapist and although she enjoys her job, she feels she's racing against time as well as the threat of today's social trends as her (younger) editor feels that they need to concentrate more on digital offering and pull in a younger audience. These days, she enjoys her time more on the train commute to and from work since they're reassuringly predictable and what's more, she could people-watch. 

Due to her daily commute routine from Hampton Court to Waterloo Station, Iona sees the same people and she even give some of them a nickname, such as Smart-But-Sexist-Manspreader, Impossibly-Pretty-Bookworm and Terribly-Lonely-Teenager. Likewise, those commuters who recognise Iona give her a few nicknames too, like Crazy Dog Woman (because she's often seen accompanied by her dog, Lulu) or Magic Handbag Lady and even The Woman on the Train. Then one morning, Smart-But-Sexist-Manspreader chokes on a grape and this single event leads to a chain reaction as an eclectic group of people, who sees one another everyday but knows nothing about anyone, begins to connect and gradually become friends as the days go by. 

Aside from Iona's narrative, there are four other characters who play a part in Iona's life. They are: Piers, who is Smart-But-Sexist-Manspreader. Sanjay, an Indian nurse who saved Piers and a kind-hearted man in general. Emma, who is Sanjay's secret crush and finally, Martha the Terribly-Lonely-Teenager. Iona's commute is no longer the same after she's known these group of people; she's learned more about themselves and give them advice should they need it. And through their friendship, Iona learn more about herself, too. 

This is a heartwarming story about humans connection and friendship with a few life topics thrown in for some thoughts and drama. Iona was an interesting character and I enjoyed reading her inner thoughts. This story also shows us that our first perception of others may not always be true and that understanding and communication remain the key to a better relationship in every aspect. Charming and inspiring, I'd recommend this book to anyone and the more you should read it if you commute by public transport. 
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Ballantine Books | 28 November 2023 | 304 pgs
Source: Library 

Our protagonist, Molly Gray, was first introduced in The Maid in which we see her as a diligent and a meticulous individual who's not afraid to speak up her mind when circumstances arise, although some might portray her behaviours or her speech a little odd but this might be a sign of her being a neurodivergent, though it was not clearly specified. 

In this book, Molly had promoted to Head Maid at the Regency Grand Hotel and she's living happily with her boyfriend, Juan Manuel, who's currently visiting his relatives in Mexico. Everything seems to be working well in Molly's life until J.D. Grimthorpe, the world-renowned mystery author, is found dead at the hotel's tea room prior to his big announcement during a press conference. 

Detective Stark, who's in charge of the investigation, feels a sense of déjà vu considering there was a murder case at the hotel a while back. And as it happens, Molly is at the center of the predicament (just like the previous investigation) as Grimthorpe is later found to be poisoned by a cup of tea. Molly, who's perplexed and alarmed by the allegation, is determined to find out the truth and to unveil the identity of the murderer. But who'd it be? There're a few people in Molly's mind, including the new Maid-in-Training, the author’s secretary and even the hotel’s beloved doorman, who's considered to be a dear friend of Molly. Well, Molly has some secrets of her own too that revolved around her childhood days during her presence at the Grimthorpe mansion and she has to revisit the past memories for clues pertaining to the quirky and mysterious Mr Grimthorpe. 

I enjoyed reading The Maid so I was thrilled to see Molly Gray's appearance in this latest book by Nita Prose. As much as I liked Molly as a character and reading about her working life and her past relationship with her grandmother, for some reason I couldn't find myself engaged in this book as much as compared to The Maid, although I enjoyed the backstory how she come to stay at the Grimthorpe mansion with her grandmother. I think my greatest disappointment was that the motive didn't deem strong and convincing enough; plus it seemed there wasn't enough actions surrounding the investigations and there're repetitiveness surrounding Molly's thoughts and her perceptions. That said, it was good seeing Molly Gray again and I hope a series is in order in the near future. 
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I didn't complete my Goodreads reading challenge in 2023. Only 45 out of 60 books read. Hopefully this year will be a better reading year for me. Also, I want to try to read more of the other genres (such as literary fiction, fantasy and/or romance) aside from suspense and thriller. 

Here's my top ten favourites in no particular order. While some of the books didn't get a 5-star review, they left a deep impression on me.

The One by John Marrs 
The Magistrate by Brian Klingborg 
The Patient's Secret by Loreth Anne White 
The Soulmate by Sally Hepworth 
The Couples Trip by Ulf Kvensler 
Daisy Darker by Alice Feeney 
Check & Mate by Ali Hazelwood 
The Villa by Rachel Hawkins 
I'm Not Done with You Yet by Jesse Q. Sutanto 

Honorable Mention: 
Everything’s Fine by Cecilia Rabess

So, the following question has got nothing to do with the above but simply out of curiosity. Do you mind a sad/bittersweet ending? (Especially in a romance?) Recently I watched a K-drama and while I don't usually get emotionally invested into them, this particular drama really left an impact on me (kept thinking about it for weeks; and listening to the OST didn't make it better). The plot wasn't new but it was realistic, inspiring and dealt with many topics which we often face in society and in real life (maybe that explains the realistic of that sad ending? But still...). The characters were flesh-out and relatable, too, and they were the ones that stood out the most in the story, in particularly the two leading characters. But that ending, sigh, just made me so sad just thinking about it. Dare I say the title and spoil the fun of you watching it? I suppose not. (I think anyone who watched this may have guessed it.) But it was such a good, beautiful story in my opinion (definitely a 5-star!), but I'm not sure if I want to rewatch it at some point and go through that emotional roller coaster again. 
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Here is the list of books I read in 2023. The list is sorted out in alphabetical order according to the authors' last name for easy reference.  

The Writing Retreat by Julia Bartz

The Hollows by Daniel Church
Thicker Than Water by Megan Collins 

The Last One by Will Dean

Daisy Darker by Alice Feeney 

The Bones of the Story by Carol Goodman 
Bleeding Heart Yard by Elly Griffiths 

Don't You Dare by Jessica Hamilton
The Dark by Emma Haughton 
The Villa by Rachel Hawkins 
Check & Mate by Ali Hazelwood 
The Soulmate by Sally Hepworth 
The Trap by Catherine Ryan Howard 

Now You See Us by Balli Kaur Jaswal 
Lunar Love by Lauren Kung Jessen 

The cage by Bonnie Kistler
Wild Prey by Brian Klingborg
The Magistrate by Brian Klingborg 
The Couples Trip by Ulf Kvensler 

A Magic Steeped in Poison by Judy I. Lin 
A Venom Dark and Sweet by Judy I. Lin 

The One by John Marrs 
The Passengers by John Marrs 
What Lies in the Woods by Kate Alice Marshall
The Stranger Upstairs by Lisa M. Matlin
Have You Seen Her by Catherine McKenzie 
Summer Reading by Jenn McKinlay
The Second Woman by Louise Mey
The Only Survivors by Megan Miranda

Everything’s Fine by Cecilia Rabess
When You Are Mine by Michael Robotham 

The Family Game by Catherine Steadman 
A Death at the Party by Amy Stuart 
I'm Not Done with You Yet by Jesse Q. Sutanto 
Ghost 19 by Simone St. James 
The Honeymoon Trap by Peter Swanson 
The Christmas Guest by Peter Swanson 

With Love, from Cold World by Alicia Thompson 
A Sliver of Darkness by C.  J. Tudor 

The Patient's Secret by Loreth Anne White 
How to Fail at Flirting by Denise Williams 
All the Dangerous Things by Stacy Willingham

Dead-End Memories by Banana Yoshimoto 

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