Black Water Sister by Zen ChoBlack Water Sister by Zen Cho is an urban fantasy/paranormal, coming of age story set predominantly in Malaysia. With the perfect balance of suspense and humour, it explores themes of identity, family, religion, culture and the consumption of history in the name of enterprise.

Stressed out barely begins to describe how Jessamyn Teoh feels. Even though she has recently graduated from Harvard, she has yet to find a job and still lives with her parents who have no idea that she is a lesbian. To make matters worse, her family is moving back to Malaysia to try and rebuild their lives after her father’s illness drains their finances. It’s no wonder she starts hearing voices.

Except it turns out that while the voice is in her head, it isn’t imaginary. It seems Jess is returning to a country she barely remembers while being haunted by the ornery ghost of her maternal grandmother. Ah Ma needs Jess’s help in her quest for revenge against a powerful businessman who has offended the god she served as a medium for in life. She cannot rest until she avenges the Black Water Sister and unfortunately for Jess, she will not take no for an answer.

Jess must navigate a country and a culture she has been far removed from while trying to deal with her family, her now long distance girlfriend, and the ghost of her demanding and conniving grandmother. Ah Ma’s quest for vengeance thrusts Jess into a dangerous world of gangs and gods where everyone has an agenda and she can only trust herself if she wants to survive.

Pros And My Favourite Parts

Michelle: Where to begin?! The cover of the book is a thing of beauty and immediately drew me to this book. And once I started it, the twisty plot, amazing characters and magnificent dialogue kept me buried in its pages. The setting is so vividly depicted, I feel as though I have been to Penang. Cho’s incredible ability to immerse the reader is augmented a hundredfold by Catherine Ho’s perfect narration. Each voice is distinct, clear, and authentic. She really brings the characters to life, particularly Ah Ma.

Sheena: The audiobook has great narration, Catherine Ho brought to life the family expectations and pressure felt by Jessamyn as well as the otherworldly visitors. The different characters were clear and the pacing was perfect. I would highly recommend the audiobook version.

Cons And Heads Up

Michelle: I know romance isn’t supposed to play a large role in the story, but I would have liked to have seen just a little more of it (especially for Sharanya’s sake), but the action and plot were more than enough to keep my interest peaked.

Content warnings for violence, attempted rape, and other non-consensual events such as drugging, and the possession of unwilling bodies by spirits.

Sheena: Totally agree with Michelle, there were elements of the story that felt like they could have expanded into a romantic sub story. Having said that, I am also totally okay with the author not going there.

The Conclusion

Michelle's Favourite BooksMichelle: I love a great ghost story, but throw in gangs, quirky family dynamics and vengeful gods… well that’s me sold! This is a compelling and insightful story with characters and a city that I won’t soon forget. Dark at times, humorous at others, it is full of unexpected twists and is perfectly narrated. I highly recommend the audiobook for the full experience.

Sheena: If you love stories that reflect on past generations, family expectations and the pressure of being a young person in a culture so steeped in history and tradition that it can feel smothering then this is a great book for you.

I loved the writing style and appreciated that this is the kind of story that you need to pay full attention to. The details and delicate phrasing reminds me of an artwork. The supernatural, mystical elements enhanced the generational relationships and coming into one’s own side of the story.

Excerpt from Black Water Sister by Zen Cho


The first thing the ghost said to Jess was:

Does your mother know you’re a pengkid?

The ghost said it to shock. Unfortunately it had failed to consider the possibility that Jess might not understand it. Jess understood most of the Hokkien spoken to her, but because it was only ever her parents doing the speaking, there were certain gaps in her vocabulary.

Jess didn’t take much notice of the ghost. She might have been more worried if she was less busy, but in a sense, she’d been hearing disapproving voices in her head all her life. Usually it was her mom’s imagined voice lecturing her in Hokkien, but the ghost didn’t sound that different.

Even so, the ghost’s voice stuck with her. The line was still repeating itself in her head the next day, with the persistence of a half-heard advertising jingle.

She was waiting with her mom for the guy from the moving company. Mom was going through the bags of junk Jess had marked for throwing away, examining each object and setting some aside to keep. Jess had spent hours bagging up her stuff; this second go-over was totally unnecessary.

But it was a stressful time for Mom, she reminded herself. It was a huge deal to be moving countries at her age, even if she and Dad called it going home. Back to Malaysia, they said, as though the past nineteen years had been a temporary aberration, instead of Jess’s entire life.

“We said we were going to cut down on our possessions,” Jess said.

“I know,” said Mom. “But this hair band is so nice!” She waved a sparkly pink hair band at Jess. “You don’t want to wear, Min?”

“Dad gave me that when I was ten,” said Jess. “My head’s too big for it now.” Mom laid the hair band down, grimacing, but she couldn’t quite bring herself to put it back in the garbage bag. Her innate hoarding tendencies had been aggravated by their financial instability. It seemed almost to give her a physical pain to throw things away.

“Maybe your cousin Ching Yee can wear,” she murmured.

“Ching Yee is older than me,” said Jess. She could feel her voice getting sharp. Patience didn’t come naturally to her. She needed to redirect the conversation.

The line came back to her. Does your mother know you’re a—what?

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Bits and Bobs

ISBN number: 9780425283431

Publisher: Ace, Macmillan

Audiobook Publisher: Recorded Books Inc

Narrator: Catherine Ho

Zen Cho Online 

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