Welcome to our Ten Book Challenge where our favorite authors share their “Book-It List”—a book bucket list with 10 of their most beloved and memorable reads—from the books with their favorite covers and best opening lines, to the reads they gift and the bookstores they frequent. This is a peek into your favorite authors’ perfect bowl of literary comfort food. We hope you discover something delicious!
This May, fantasy fans have a great new TBR pick with the release of Zen Cho’s Black Water Sister. Typically known for her Regency-inspired fantasy novels, Sorcerer to the Crown and The True Queen—praised by NPR and Washington Post—Black Water Sister pivots to contemporary fantasy, with a compelling story inspired by Asian folklore that Publishers Weekly calls “a must-read fantasy.”
Black Water Sister follows Jessamyn Teoh, closeted, broke, and moving back to Malaysia—a country she left when she was very young—to live with her parents. When she arrives, Jessamyn realizes the voice in her head she thought was related to stress, is really her estranged grandmother, Ah Ma, an avatar for a mysterious deity known as the Black Water Sister that’s seeking revenge on a business magnate that offended the god. Drawn into a world of gods, ghosts, and family secrets, Jess finds that making deals with capricious spirits is a dangerous business, but dealing with her grandmother is just as complicated. Especially when Ah Ma tries to spy on her personal life, threatens to spill her secrets to her family and uses her body to commit felonies. As Jess fights for retribution for Ah Ma, she’ll also need to regain control of her body and destiny—or the Black Water Sister may finish her off for good.
Sharp, humorous, bittersweet, full of heart, and a touch of suspense, Black Water Sister presents a blend of culture clashes, gods, family secrets and bonds, the ghosts of past and future, and the constant struggle that is finding one’s personal identity.
Read on to hear about the books that are closest to her heart and on her #TBR list right now—and don’t forget to read our exclusive interview with Zen Cho on the release of Black Water Sister.
The book ….
I last bought/am currently reading: Craft In The Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping by Matthew Salesses. I usually only read writing books when I’m in the middle of a tricky project and am convinced I’ve forgotten how to write, but this is an invigorating reassessment of creative writing advice that has become cliched. It’s giving me new ways of thinking about story.
I recommend to everyone: Redemption in Indigo by Barbadian author Karen Lord. A delightful compact fantasy novel inspired by a Senegalese folk tale, infused with the rhythms of oral storytelling. Redemption in Indigo reminds me of Terry Pratchett’s popular Discworld series – it has Pratchett’s humour, intelligence and subversion, but with an insight and freshness and rich setting all its own.
That was my favorite to read last year, and why: The Morning Gift by Eva Ibbotson, about a young secular Jewish woman who enters into a morganatic marriage with an English aristocrat so she can escape WW2 Austria. My time and focus for reading were hit hard by the pandemic, so I retreated to comfort rereads. Ibbotson’s adult romances are some of my favourite – warm-hearted, funny and swoonily romantic. I love The Morning Gift for its charming depiction of the Austrian refugee community in London.
Whose author I would love to have lunch with: The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin. This novella about a peaceful alien planet invaded by humans at our most destructive is flawed but fascinating. Le Guin spoke about drawing inspiration for her peaceful aliens from real-world indigenous cultures – I’d criticise how she dealt with that, but at the same time her depiction of the best and worst that live in ourselves has immense power. I’d love to have had a chance to listen to her speak.
That made me realize language had power: Lloyd Fernando’s Green is the Colour, a novel set in the aftermath of the May 1969 race riots in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, made me realise how powerful it is when your own voice is represented in fiction. It’s one of the few novels I’ve read featuring Malaysian English, a dialect borrowing freely from Malay, Chinese and Tamil, and proves what I’ve always believed, that language does more than anything else to convey a whole world in a book.
I’d like to see adapted to the screen: Fonda Lee’s Green Bone Saga, a thrilling epic family saga with the brutal intensity of a crime drama and the style of a ’90s Hong Kong gangster flick. It’s in development so I’m hoping it will happen!
That made me laugh out loud—or cry—while reading it: My Giant Geek Boyfriend by Fishball. A hilarious autobiographical slice of life comic by Malaysian artist Fishball following the adventures of her (short) self, her extremely tall boyfriend and their puffball dog. The book was published by a Malaysian indie press, so it’s probably easier for international readers to follow the comic online at Webtoon, where it is published under the title My Giant Nerd Boyfriend.
That has the most gorgeous cover: A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge. I feel Americans are missing out on Hardinge’s gorgeously written weird fantasy. Her books are literary and strange, about prickly girls in worlds eerily like and unlike our own. A Skinful of Shadows is set during the English Civil War in the 1600s, following Makepeace Felmotte, a girl subject to possessions and hauntings.
With the best opening line: “Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians.” Not everyone loves Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, but for me, it was the best fantasy novel of its decade and still hard to beat. The voice is set so clearly and masterfully from the very first line; it leads you with assurance through a mind-expanding world of magicians, fairies and long-lost kings.
Bookstore that I frequent/is my favorite: I have fond associations with Forbidden Planet in London, a geek haven harbouring riches of science fiction and fantasy, comics and manga in the basement.
bonus: Your favourite obscure read nobody’s heard of: I’m obsessed with Stella Benson’s Living Alone, set in an alternate WW1 London, about a woman, adrift in her own life, who moves into a witch’s house. It represents to me a tradition of fantasy – intelligent, literary, authored mostly by women about women – that seems often to be forgotten in favour of the “men with swords” or “dragons and kings” varieties, greatly to the genre’s loss.