Review: She Who Became the Sun

Review: She Who Became the Sun

Rating: 5 out of 5.

*I received a copy via the publisher via NetGalley in return for an honest review. This in no way affected my opinion of the book.*

In 1345, China was under Mongol rule. For the starving Zhu family where only three members remain, their eight-born son, Zhu Chongba, is destined for greatness, a feat only capable by the few. But nothing is said for their daughter. When a bandit attack results in Zhu Chongba’s death, his sister takes on her brother’s identity to enter a monastery. There, in this alternate-history, she takes her opportunity to achieve what her brother failed to do: survive, and take control of a fate that would see her be nothing. 

Judging from other early reviews, my expectations were through the roof. Pitched as Mulan meets The Song of Achilles and while that is a fair comparison, I just feel like there must be some other way to describe this. I’m quite literally speechless. I don’t think one book has ever shot up my all-time favourites list so quickly. Usually, I let a book marinate on my mind before casting a final judgment, but She Who Became the Sun didn’t need to wait. It was that good. 

This book stands out because its character, each crafted and built to perfection, while not being entirely perfect. Zhu’s determination to survive is intense. Her peers at the monastery are confused by her actions, but what they don’t know is that she also has the ability to see ghosts, which loom over her in silent judgement. There is a cost to pay in her decisions, and she takes them head-on regardless of the reaction she knows she’ll inevitably receive because in the end, she knows what she wants and that is to rule. She might have been fated to be nothing, but she determined to let nothing stop her from achieving the goal her brother should have done. She is this perfect balance of driven and powerful while also being rather cheeky and very sweet.  Zhu’s storyline introduces us to Xu Da, a fellow monk, who Zhu comes to see as her own family. Later, you’ll meet Ma, a young woman whose fierce compassion takes a toll within the backdrop of war and power-plays.

The story chronicles Zhu’s journey from monk to the leader of the rebellion against China’s Mongol rulers. But we also see the opposition in the form of eunuch Ouyang, a feared general who tore Zhu’s future apart and set him on a path that makes them intertwined. I was enthralled by his character the most. But the relationship between Ouyang and Esen, the prince of Henan, is so complex, considering the history behind them. Esen is much more optimistic than Ouyang, and can never seem to understand why his friend would keep his distance. The tension between them is just perfect. 

The writing is so atmospheric, you could feel the impact of the landscape resonate with each character. Especially with Zhu as you witness her climb from a nameless child close to death to a well-rounded leader with men of her own. A child with no hope to a monk that can rally the people of this war torn land to her words. Also, I loved the nuanced exploration of gender identity, and how Parker-Chan does not shy away from anything. For anyone wondering, this is from the author: [Zhu] is assigned female at birth (but doesn’t identify as female), and [Ouyang] is assigned male at birth and identifies as male (with a gender nonconforming appearance). [Goodreads] I used she/her pronouns for Zhu as reflected in the novel. 

Overall, She Who Became the Sun is one story you must watch out for. It’s bold, imaginative and highly thrilling. A fantastic reimagining of the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty.


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Review: Counting Down with You

Review: Counting Down with You

Rating: 4 out of 5.

*I received a copy via the publisher and Edelweiss in return for an honest review. This in no way affected my opinion of the book.*

Karina Ahmed’s plan for success means keeping her head down and getting to medical school. So when her parents go abroad to Bangladesh, she is finally rewarded a month of peace, away from their watchful eyes. That is until her agreement to tutor Ace Clyde turns awry, and now she’s spending her twenty-eight days in a fake-relationship with him. As she counts down her days, Ace Clyde gives her all the reasons to stay and maybe this facade could have a happy ending. 

Karina is a high school junior, attending alongside her high-achieving younger brother whose interest in robotics has her parents singing praise while she’s barely keeping afloat. And when her English teacher asks her to tutor ever absent classmate Ace Clyde, she immediately assumes the worst. Aft. They start, and a missed lesson, Ace finally shows up, and he knows exactly how to push Karina’s buttons, tip-toeing over the lines she has made herself. Knowing exactly how her parents would react, she keeps Ace at an arm’s distance until she realises Ace has secrets of his own which is why she agrees to his plans. Keep up this act for three more weeks, and they part ways as unlikely friends. (and for Karina, a handful of books, courtesy of the Bank of Ace Clyde.) As the return of her parents looms overhead, Karina realises that these past days are the happiest she has ever been, and with the support of her grandmother, her best friends, and Ace, maybe she can gather the courage to face her family once and for all.

Counting Down with You is a refreshing and hilarious read. I’m not big on contemporary novels, but I found Bhuiyan’s voice to be outstanding. If anything, I am blown away at how much I could relate to Karina Ahmed. Like Karina, my family had also left Bangladesh in search of a different life. Her traditional parents’ ideals and expectations are all too familiar; their harsh words and criticism almost mirrored my own family, almost word-for-word. Karina’s humour to her anxiety felt all too surreal to read this book and realise the main character is an almost exact copy of yourself at sixteen.

The cast of Counting Down with You are some of the biggest sweethearts you’ll ever meet. Ace Clyde is one of the school’s notorious students, rumours upon rumours piles upon him. His character reminds me of Aiden Thomas’s Julian Diaz (Cemetery Boys). Very understanding and wholesome once you get to know him. Karina’s best friends, Cora and Nandini, are as thick as thieves and supportive as hell. They might not understand her refusal to stand up to her parents, but they’re there for her, no questions asked. It was quite refreshing to see them talk and act like teens; their text conversations were hilarious and realistic. While her parents are away, Karina’s grandmother takes care of her and her younger brother. Her grandmother is pretty much amazing and supportive. Her brother is the best example of a desi little brother who doesn’t realise how easy he has it compared to his sister. Whenever he said something wasn’t deep, I wanted to flick him like he was my own brother. Bhuiyan encapsulates the experience of growing up with traditional parents perfectly. Her parents’ aren’t physically present in most of the novel, but their presence is there in most of Karina’s thoughts, dragging her down both mentally and physically.

Counting Down with You was extremely sweet and immensely relatable. I’m not the type to throw around the phrase  “I wish this book existed when I was teen”, but I feel like if this book had existed when I was a teenager and struggling, I would have felt a lot better about myself at sixteen.


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Game Review: Hades (2020)

Game Review: Hades (2020)

Defy Hades, the god of the Underworld, as you hack and slash your way out of his domain in order to reach the surface. Aided by the Gods on Olympus and other denizens of the underworld, Zagreus is hellbent on making it out of his father’s domain. 

Listen carefully, says the narrator, as the player, young Zagreus, gracefully lands outside the House of Hades, sending his last goodbye to his father. With only a sword, you venture into the depth of Tartarus, the first biome. There you must defeat a variety of enemies: wretched thugs swing their clubs, the witches cast a damaging projectile and brimstone’s energy beam can stack up damage fast. Each completion of a chamber rewards you a variety of goods and, more importantly, access to the aid of multiple Greek gods, Zagreus’s uncles and cousins. They root for you as make your escape. Each failed attempt sends you straight back home via the Styx.

Oh, how a random fanart that ended up on my timeline led to me discovering one of my favourite games ever. Here I was thinking nothing could top the sheer joy I felt playing Breath of the Wild, but Hades comes quite close. Hades is one of the best games I’ve ever had the pleasure to play. From music to gameplay, Hades is a visual and audio treat. 

“Beyond the present chamber lies the outermost perimeter of Tartarus, promising terrifying dangers far beyond the Underworld Prince’s reckoning.”

The Narrator

As Zagreus, I play it simple, my trusty Stygius is my weapon of choice for the first ten or so runs. That is until I received enough keys to unlock the rest of Zagreus’s armoury, which range from a bow, shield, spear and my favourite, the Twin Fist of Malphon, a pair of armoured gloves that have carried me through over ten successfully attempts in the underworld. Hades is made with replay value in mind. Each run is almost unique and dependent on the player’s choice. Completing a run was never really on my mind as the journey making it there brings just as much joy. Unique chambers on each biome reveal a shade to befriend and a cause to help, further along, you receive the aid of an old friend who isn’t all too happy to see you leave. (Thanatos, I would die for you.)

There are no difficulty settings in Hades, which had me, an easy mode player, sweating a bit. But God mode was extremely helpful to combatting any problems I had. You are not invulnerable, but it does reduce the damage you take from enemies, each death will increase your resistance by 2%. The music of Hades is amazing. I found myself way too focused on my runs to really appreciate it until I made it to Asphodel, the second biome of the Underworld, where you have the chance to meet Eurydice who gifts you treats that can boost the Boons you have acquired. When you enter the chamber, it is silent and then comes the gorgeous voice of Ashley Barrett. A song dedicated to her carefree life in the afterlife, now unbothered by her worries of mortal life. There I was compelled to listen to the soundtrack on its own and genuinely felt its effect. 

The art style truly had me scrolling through Twitter to find any and all fan art I could find. I had initially seen pictures from the game in development where most of the major characters were given placeholder images. In its official release, you see the gods, Chthonic and Olympian, in all their glory. Hades towers over you in his seat as he scoffs at your return. Nyx, the personification of Night, is your adopted mother who guides you in your journey, offering wisdom and advice. One of her sons, Hypnos, watches over you and greets you in your return. His hilarious quips and unhelpful advice (“Maybe try killing [the enemies] beforehand, I don’t know!”) makes each failure almost worth it. You also meet Zagreus’s mentor, famed Achilles, who taught him everything he knows, who stands strong within the halls of the house of Hades, far away from the man he once knew.

Image: Supergiant Games. From left to right: Zagreus, Meg, Hypnos (in red), Thanatos, Achilles and Zeus

Hades is ridiculously addicting. A completed run would take me around thirty minutes at most, I’ve slowly shaved off time in each run, but it appears to be my average time. Loss is nothing in this game because each failure brings a new path. The heart of the game resides in Zagerus and his interaction with the various mythic figures. Each reinterpretation stole my heart and broke it at the same time. By the time the final credits roll, the game is not done, new storylines and challenges appear that will have you returning to the House of Hades in no time. As the game eerily proclaims with each death, there is no escape.


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Review: Act Your Age, Eve Brown

Review: Act Your Age, Eve Brown

Rating: 5 out of 5.

*I received a copy via the publisher via NetGalley in return for an honest review. This in no way affected my opinion of the book.*

No matter what Eve Brown does, it always ends up a mess. So, she gives up. But her parents won’t let her go down that easy. Eve has to grow up, even if she doesn’t know how. Jacob Wayne expects nothing but perfection so when Eve turns up out of the blue, his answer is a hard no. And she’s out of sight, out of mind, until she accidentally hits him with his car. With a broken arm and no chef, Eve is now making a home in his B&B, and Jacob should hate it. But her sunny disposition is infectious, and she’s breaking down walls he’s spent so long to keep up. 

I’ll admit, I had high hopes for the finale in the Brown sister’s hectic lives, but Eve was the sister I wasn’t too sure on, even two books later. I feel like in the previous novels, Eve was the sister I could never quite understand. But Act Your Age, Eve Brown was so much better than I ever I could’ve ever expected. I think it might be my favourite of the trilogy. (Sorry, Zaf.) She’s hilarious and her quips were charming, but she really makes her own here. I was surprised to find myself relating to Eve more than her sisters. Her feelings of feeling lost and helpless despite trying her best to only fail again resonated with me the most. 

You could describe Eve and Jacob as Sunshine meets Grumpy, which is a pairing I would die for. Jacob is also autistic, I can’t speak for the representation, but Talia writes him well. These two compliment each other so well. Eve is chaotic, a human whirlwind that has Jacob frustrated. But he soon realises her work ethic is exactly what he needs. And her cooking skills for the upcoming Pemberton Food Festival. Their transition from enemies to friends to lovers is very wholesome. Jacob and Eve don’t realise it, but they fall for each other and suddenly every quirk becomes endearing. It was quite cute reading the moments before they themselves realise it. Also, if you’re into steamy scenes, Hibbert most likely won’t disappoint any old or new fans. Personally, I’m not into reading them, but that doesn’t change the fact that Hibbert is a tremendous writer. 

All in all, this was a fantastic end to the Brown sisters and their hilarious romantic and personal journeys. What a delightful end! I am truly now, through and through, a Talia Hibbert fan.


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Review: A Place for Us

Review: A Place for Us

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Thinking of his future sometimes felt like looking down a long tunnel, and even if he squinted he could hardly picture what his life would be like when he stepped out at the other end.

A Place for Us follows the lives of an Indian-American Muslim family, gathered in celebration of their eldest daughter, Hadia’s, wedding. Amar, the youngest of the family, reunites with his family for the first time in three years. And his parent’s, Rafiq and Layla, must face the choices they all made all those years ago. A Place for Us spans decades through the eyes of a different family member, marking pivotal moments in the past that broke the bonds and pulled them apart. 

It isn’t often a book that manages to enchant me as such as this book did. I had closed the final page at 2 am and truly felt what it mean to have a heavy heart. A Place for Us hit me harder than I would have ever expected. I wasn’t even planning on reviewing this book, because I feel like anything I write could never truly explain how much this book resonated with me. 

Being character-driven, Mirza blew me away at how well each character come through. Amar is the youngest of the family, his departure from the family was years in the making. He feels trapped within the demands of his family, culture and internal turmoil. I felt extremely attached to him especially in the deep moments where he feels like as though anything he does is never good enough.  Hadia was almost like looking in the mirror. Her constant need to please her family and community, her entire self-worth is built upon approval. The enormous pressure to succeed as the eldest silences some of her best thought. However, Huda, the middle child, was almost non-existent. She appears as a messenger between Amar and Hadia, but other than that, her presence was almost forgettable, whether it was intentional or not is unclear. Rafiq and Layla are of an older generation who struggle to raise their kids within their cultural values which, in turn, affect the way their children balance themselves between two different cultures. I found myself quite angry at their actions, their adamant behaviour quite literally pushed their children away and they don’t realise it until it’s too late. 

Overall, A Place for Us is overflowing with little moments that resonated with me deeply. It emphasises the importance of family, love, and most importantly, forgiveness. The structure of A Place for Us is unconventional: the novel switches from points of view, jumping from the past to the present. I know that other readers can find it confusing, but I found that Mirza pulled it off well. Her writing is naturalistic and easy to understand. What isn’t said is often more affecting and resonating, and Mirza is a natural at tugging at the heartstrings in the quietest of moments.


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Review: Take a Hint, Dani Brown

Review: Take a Hint, Dani Brown

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Dani Brown is a workaholic, on the road to her PhD and nothing can stop her. Even romance is on the backburner, a great distraction from her greater cause. But when she wishes for a friends-with-benefits arrangement, she doesn’t expect it to come in the form of grumpy Zafir Ansari. Seven years prior, Zafir gave up on his rugby career after the death of his brother and father. Now, he works security while building his non-profit organisation to help destigmatize mental illness to young athletes. After a social media mishap which makes the duo go viral, he enlists the help of Dani to maintain a fake-relationship to gain exposure for his work. 

After reading Chloe’s story with Red, I definitely had high expectations for Dani because she was my favourite sibling. And Take a Hint absolutely smashed them! I definitely enjoyed Danika’s story more than Chloes. No hate to Chloe, I just saw myself more into Dani’s characters, and plus – Zafir is the dream man. (Sorry, Red.)

Like Hibbert’s previous novel, Take a Hint is fun and outrageous. Dani and Zafir are pretty hilarious before they even get together and in their fake relationship, they are chaotic and bring the best out of each other. Zafir has already fallen for Dani, but he’s trying his best not to fall too deep for their inevitable break-up. Dani isn’t sure of what she wants, but she tries to not think too deeply into their plan. Throughout this story, I couldn’t stop laughing at their banter. Fake-dating (like enemies to lovers in Get A Life) is another trope I always never knew where I stood with. But Hibbert does it again, convincing me that this is a trope I can get behind.  The awkwardness of them finding their footing, the angst, the romance. 

My favourite character had to be Zafir. He was so sweet and charming. And his arc really hit the hardest. He suffers from anxiety and depression after losing his brother and father to a car accident. And when the video of them goes viral, his biggest fear is someone bringing up the past and isn’t ready for that attention. Hibbert does a phenomenal job of addressing his feelings and emotions with grace. 

Overall, I really enjoyed Take a Hint, Dani Brown! I’m super excited to read the finale of the Brown sister where we get to see Eve’s story. What Hibbert does best is her cast of characters. We see old favourites like Chloe and Red, but we are also introduced to some pretty great new people. I loved Zafir’s family and Dani’s best friend. Hibbert knows how to get you to feel for even the smallest of characters. Talia Hibbert is slowly creeping into my auto-buy authors, and this is only the second book of hers I’ve read! 


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