Category Archives: Review

Review for Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman

Starfish

Note: This review is based on an ARC that I received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The finished book will be released on September 26th, 2017.

My Summary: Kiko Himura wants nothing more to escape the suffocating environment of her home and her very white hometown in Nebraska, and acceptance into Prism, her top choice of art school, is her ticket to freedom. Much to her dismay, rejection from Prism ruins her plan, but a new unforeseen opportunity takes its place: she will go on a trip to California with her former best friend, Jamie and visit art schools on the West Coast. Desperation and the nightmare of being forced to live in under the same roof as her predatory uncle are enough to outweigh her intense anxiety, so she goes. More than just a vacation, this is a trip to find herself, reconnect with Jamie, and forge a new future.

Review:

Trigger/content warnings: anxiety, emotional abuse, childhood sexual abuse, suicide ableism

I have a lot of feelings about this book because I related to Kiko so much. Growing up in a very white environment as an Asian person messes with your self-esteem and self-image, and like Kiko, I definitely felt that I would never really be seen as attractive by people because I was Asian. I literally had a white friend tell me he generally wasn’t attracted to Asian people (he is no longer my friend, in case you’re wondering). The various microaggressions she experiences are all too familiar to me.

In addition to sharing Kiko’s experience of being Asian American, I also have generalized and social anxiety, and the descriptions of Kiko’s anxiety in Starfish resonated strongly with me. There’s a scene at a classmate’s party that was especially relatable and brought back some painful memories of parties I went to in college. Another aspect of Kiko I saw myself in was her anxiety over having romantic relationships as someone with mental illness(es). The fear of falling into toxic and codependent relationships is so real. In general, the portrayal of anxiety was just so incredibly on point for me, to the point that it actually triggered my own anxiety at times because I was empathizing with Kiko’s experience on a visceral level.

Besides being really relatable, Starfish was simply gorgeously written. Kiko is an artist, and the author expresses her artist’s point of view through poetic language. Each chapter ends with a brief description of Kiko’s latest work of art, which is thematically related to the chapter in question and serves as a visual representation of Kiko’s inner emotional landscape and how she relates to the world and the people around her. These added details create a distinctive voice for Kiko’s character.

If it wasn’t obvious from the trigger/content warnings, this story deals with some heavy topics. Kiko’s home environment is incredibly toxic. Her parents are divorced, and she lives with her two brothers and her white mother. Her mother is emotionally abusive toward her. This abuse has a racialized dimension, as she uses her embodiment of white beauty ideals to belittle Kiko, whose features are more typically East Asian. Kiko craves her mother’s love and approval even while knowing that her mother does not really care about her except as it benefits or is convenient for her. It really hurt to follow Kiko through her interactions with her mother, the pain was so raw.

To make matters worse, during the events of the story, Kiko’s maternal uncle moves into the house with her family, which amplifies her anxiety. It is first strongly implied and then explicitly revealed that he sexually abused Kiko when she was younger, and she has lingering trauma from those events. Although Kiko told her mother what happened, her mother never believed her and sided with the uncle instead.

Despite the serious topics, the book isn’t all doom and gloom and angst, nor is it a tragic story. Kiko’s physical journey doubles as a psychological journey as well, allowing her to process everything she has lived through, refute the victim-blaming messages she’s gotten from her mother, and see that there are people and things outside of the cage of her toxic home. Her relationship with Jamie is very sweet and wholesome, and she also finds a role model who is Japanese American who sees her talent and gives her the push she needs to really chase her artistic dreams.

These parts of the story bring hope and light and an empowering message that were so lovely and satisfying to read. Perhaps others readers might think the ending/resolution is too much of a fairy tale happy ending, but personally, I loved it and think it’s necessary and important for readers who see themselves in Kiko. Her mental illness is not magically cured by the end of the story (which would be a very terrible message to readers), but she has greater self-awareness, a robust support system, and a means of channeling her creative energy and expressing herself honestly, all of which are critical to coping.

My one criticism of this book was the pattern of ableist language. Disabilities, including mental illnesses, span a huge spectrum, and while the rep for one disability may be great, other disabilities may not get the same treatment. In this case, the anxiety was portrayed wonderfully, but there was still ableist language that was insensitive toward other illnesses/conditions, including bipolar disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and psychosis. Specifically, these illnesses were effectively used as a scapegoat/explanation for Kiko’s mother’s abusive behavior. (Unfortunately, it’s common even for mentally ill people to use words like “psychopath” to label people who behave in violent otherwise horrible ways.) The author did mention on Twitter that she removed the words “crazy” and “insane” from the final version of the book, but I don’t know whether these other references to mental illness were taken out or rewritten. If you’re planning to read the book, just be warned that there may be several instances of stigmatizing language.

Recommendation: Overall, I highly recommend this book because it did so much for me and covered a lot of ground and was just breathtaking to read and experience. If you have anxiety or other related mental illnesses or are an abuse survivor, I’d recommend taking it slow and taking breaks because it definitely has the potential to be triggering.

Mini Reviews: 5 Latinx and Caribbean Reads

 

The Jumbies and Rise of the Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste – MG, Fantasy, Afro-Caribbean/Trinidadian MC, #ownvoices

The Jumbies is an atmospheric tale of secrets and dangers that draws you in and gives you the heebie jeebies. Corinne, our gutsy heroine, will do anything to protect her father from the beautiful but deadly Severine. With the help of her friends, the local witch, and her own latent powers, she sets out to save the island from being taken over by a powerful force. When you are done you will look to the trees and wonder what strange creatures lurk within and whether they might appear to make mischief.

Book 2 tops Book 1 and takes you on an incredible journey across the ocean, with more magic and new friends and foes as Corinne comes into herself and her power. It captures the agony of a painful, half-forgotten past and the fragile hope for a future and brings home the tensions of family and loss.

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The Education of Margot Sanchez by Lilliam Rivera – YA, Contemporary, Puerto Rican MC, #ownvoices

The Education of Margot Sanchez follows the story of a Puerto Rican girl who’s trying to fit in at her prestigious prep school at all costs. Her desperation drives her to questionable actions, and eventually her misdeeds catch up to her. While she’s serving out her punishment at her family’s grocery store, she meets a handsome young man who’s campaigning against the gentrification of their neighborhood, and through various events, comes to appreciate her community and confront her own mistakes.

This novel covers a lot of ground, including dynamic friendships, peer pressure, budding romance, class struggles, challenging machismo, family drama, and personal growth. Margot is an incredibly flawed person but also a sympathetic protagonist, and watching her character learn and grow was intensely satisfying. In other words, the book really lives up to its name.

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American Street by Ibi Zoboi – YA, Contemporary, Magical Realism, Black/Haitian American Immigrant MC, #ownvoices

I had few expectations going into this book and when I came out the other end, I was shaken to the core. This is not an light read. From the beginning it’s wracked with tension and conflict. Fabiola has just moved to Detroit from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and she’s thrust into this new environment without her mother, who has been detained. The American paradise she envisioned turns out to be much grittier than she realized. In Detroit, she relies on her strong-willed and influential aunt and cousins to support her and finds an unexpected romance.

Unfortunately, these relationships are overshadowed by various kinds of violence: intimate partner violence between one of her cousins and her boyfriend, violence from systemic racism and classism, and the violence of livelihoods built upon huge risks and illegal activities. In her quest to free her mother from detainment, Fabiola gets drawn into a complicated and fragile web of secrets and lies that threatens to destroy the foundations of her new life.

What was especially poignant and powerful to me in this book was the juxtaposition of Fabiola’s and her cousins’ respective backgrounds and the way they projected their own hopes and dreams onto one another. Although Fabiola is the primary viewpoint character, there are a few interludes and departures from the main narrative that provide insight into the supporting characters, their histories, their motivations, and so on that add another layer of depth to the story. The magical realism elements were critical to establishing setting and foreshadowing and illuminating the themes of the story.

Trigger Warnings for American Street: abuse, violence, death

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The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora by Pablo Cartaya – MG, Contemporary, Cuban MC, #ownvoices

Like Margot Sanchez, The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora tackles the theme of gentrification but with a lighter tone. Arturo is an adorkable thirteen-year-old whose extended family lives together in an apartment building and runs a restaurant established by his grandparents. He has a few ambitions: tell his crush he likes her, save the family restaurant and local community from a seedy land developer, and make his grandmother proud of him. Along the way, he discovers the beauty of poetry and the legacy of Cuban revolutionary José Martí and connects with his late grandfather, who left behind letters and verses for him.

This heartfelt story shows us that not all heroes wear capes, and even the thirteen-year-old boy who gets tongue-tied around his crush has a shot at saving the day. My favorite parts were the family dynamics, the delicious food descriptions, and the incorporation of poetry into the narrative as an inspiration for Arturo and a medium for his growth and self-expression.

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Lucky Broken Girl by Ruth Behar – MG, Historical Fiction, Cuban Jewish American Immigrant MC, #ownvoices

Lucky Broken Girl is semi-autobiographical and tells the story of a young Cuban Jewish girl who has just immigrated to the U.S. and winds up confined to her bed for almost a year after a car crash that puts her in a full-body cast. While she is cut off from the world outside, she finds solace and companionship in her neighbors and classmates, who bring joy and beauty into her life with their kindness and generosity. Throughout this experience, she struggles with ableism from her parents, who are her caretakers, and her own inner voices, which are exacerbated by her isolation.

Perhaps most poignant and memorable is her period of rehabilitation after she is free of the cast. The anxiety and sense of inadequacy and frustration with slow progress were palpable to me, and intensely relatable as someone who experienced hospitalization for mental illness, albeit not for months.

If there was one thing I really felt was lacking in the story, it was more interaction with people who shared her experiences of disability. They were mentioned but weren’t given much page time, and I feel like including those kinds of interactions would have enriched the narrative. That, and I feel like there could have been space for acknowledging that not everyone is temporarily disabled the way Ruthie was; some have lifelong disabilities (hi, that’s me), and their worth isn’t defined by their disabilities or whether they can recover from/overcome them.

Mini Reviews: 5 Muslim Reads

Life update and mini review series introduction: I have a full-time job right now, so writing 600+ word reviews for every book I read has become unsustainable. However, since I still want to share my thoughts on all the books I read, I’m compromising by doing mini reviews for most books and full reviews for a smaller fraction. This first set of mini reviews will focus on five books with Muslim characters that I’ve read recently. 🙂

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The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi – Middle Grade, Fantasy, Adventure, Bangladeshi American MC, #ownvoices

In The Gauntlet, Farah Mirza is forced to play a larger-than-life board game in order to save her younger brother from being taken by the game’s Architect. It is such a fun book that really engages the senses, especially sight, smell, and taste. Loaded with loving and vivid references to Bengali, desi, and Middle Eastern cultures, it’s an adventure that you can’t miss. As someone who loves games and puzzles, it was a treat to read about Farah’s three game trials, especially the one involving Mancala, which I played with my sisters when we were young. There were colorful characters and interesting twists and a setting that literally shifts and changes to keep me engaged and delighted throughout.

The Lines We Cross

The Lines We Cross by Randa Abdel-Fattah (originally published as When Michael Met Mina in Australia) – Young Adult, Contemporary, Afghan-Australian MC

The Lines We Cross is a powerful story about racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia. The main character, Mina, moves from a racially diverse, working-class part of the city to a wealthier, white-dominated area. There, she meets and goes to school with Michael, who is white and the son of a local conservative political organizer who is the head of an organization pushing a xenophobic and Islamophobic agenda. Despite their differences, the two are drawn to each other and find common ground, and Michael is forced to confront his own privilege and question his internalized biases. The reason this learning and redemption arc works is because Mina’s perspective is there to complement Michael’s, it’s not just centering Michael. Moreover, Mina actively calls out Michael’s ignorance and biases and refuses to perform the labor of educating him, so her purpose in the story is not to serve his character development.

Saints and Misfits

Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali – Young Adult, Contemporary, Egyptian/Arab-Indian American MC, #ownvoices

Trigger Warnings: Sexual assault

Saints and Misfits is a gem of a story about a Muslim hijabi teen, Janna, who’s trying to navigate the confusing feelings of adolescence and deal with her traumatic experience of sexual assault by a supposedly upstanding member of her community. Her voice is refreshingly honest, snarky, and down-to-earth. I loved the different relationships explored in the story, from her family drama, to her friendships with people at school and at the Islamic Center, to her crush on Jeremy, to her mentor-mentee relationship with her imam. The supporting characters really rounded out the story, giving it depth and breadth. The topic of sexual assault was explored with sensitivity and grace, and I found it to be an empowering story for survivors and an honest commentary on how a community may fail its members.

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Love, Hate, and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed – Young Adult, Contemporary, Indian American MC, #ownvoices

Trigger Warnings: Islamophobia, physical assault

Love, Hate, and Other Filters is a powerful novel about intergenerational conflict and Islamophobia, how it feels to be caught in between others’ expectations and your own aspirations. Maya’s parents have a plan for her, and it doesn’t involve going to NYU to study film or dating someone who’s not her parents choice of pious Muslim boy, especially not a white boy like Phil. Because of these suffocating expectations, Maya lives a double life, applying to NYU and meeting Phil in secret, and it will break your heart to see her struggle. Parallel to the day-to-day events of Maya’s life, a terrorist plots to wreak havoc. When the attack occurs, the prime suspect shares Maya’s last name, so she gets targeted with vitriol and violence. This book is such an emotional rollercoaster, and the author doesn’t pull any punches. Maya’s fear and hope are tangible, and you feel the weight of her choices. I loved the juxtaposition of Maya’s first-person narrative with third-person snippets of people whose lives are affected by the terrorist attack. It heightened the tension of the story and connected the dots between seemingly unrelated people.

That Thing We Call a Heart

That Thing We Call a Heart by Sheba Karim – Young Adult, Contemporary, Pakistani American MC, #ownvoices

That Thing We Call a Heart happens over the course of a summer, the summer before Shabnam goes off to college. She’s been estranged from her best friend Farah, so she finds companionship in a cute boy named Jamie, who lands her a job at his aunt’s pie shack. It’s hinted at in the synopsis, but Jamie is not that great of a guy, and he sort of fetishizes Shabnam, and through this experience Shabnam comes to learn what a bad relationship looks like and how infatuation can cloud your judgment. My favorite part of the story was her interactions with her parents, her best friend Farah, and her great-uncle who survived Partition. Her dad teaches her about Urdu poetry, which gives her a connection to her heritage and artistic inspiration. Her best friend Farah was by far my favorite character, defying stereotypes of hijabi girls by dyeing her hair and listening to punk music and not taking shit from anyone. Shabnam’s alienation from Farah is very much her own fault, and in the story, she has to work through the issues and make amends. The dynamic nature of their friendship felt realistic, and it resonated with me a lot as someone who’s gone through similar stages with my own best friend. Lastly, her relationship with her great-uncle felt really relatable to me as someone who doesn’t have very close relationships with people of my grandparents’ generation, who lived through two periods of colonization. Her uncle lived through a very horrifying and bloody chapter of history, and it’s hard to communicate and connect when you feel like there is so much you don’t know about someone and their history. Shabnam’s curiosity and weighty feelings and desire to learn more about that history mirrored my own with respect to 20th Century Taiwanese history.

Review for Want by Cindy Pon

want

Note: My review is based on the ARC I received from Simon & Schuster. The book will be released on June 13th.

My Summary: Taipei is coated in smog, and the line between the privileged you (“haves”) and second-class mei (“have-nots”) is stark. While the you wear suits that shelter them from the pollution, the mei are left to slowly die from a poisoned atmosphere. Worse, the Jin Corporation that manufactures the suits may be actively destroying the environment to reap the profits. Jason Zhou and his friends are determined to take down Jin Corporation and put an end to the corruption. To do this, Jason needs to pose as a rich boy and get close to Jin Daiyu, the spoiled daughter of Jin Corporation’s CEO. But the closer he gets to his goal, the less he is able to separate the act from reality.

Review:

There were three major reasons I was super excited about this book. The first is that I’ve read Cindy’s previous books and was interested in seeing how she would tackle a different genre than usual. The second is that I’ve read “Blue Skies,” the original short story that Want was based on, so I wanted to see how the novel version builds upon it. The third is that it takes place in Taiwan, where my family is from, and there is basically no Taiwanese representation in YA, so I was glad that my motherland was finally getting the spotlight in the fiction I love so much. There was a lot pinned on this book, and by and large, Want did not disappoint.

An alternate version of the Taipei I know and love comes to life in this story, familiar in many ways, such as its night markets, karaoke joints, 7-Elevens, and landmarks (Taipei 101 included), but also different, having evolved into a near future dystopia where high tech commodities and abject poverty brush against each other in stark juxtaposition. The sights and sounds, smells and tastes give the setting texture and presence. In particular, the descriptions of food will leave you desperate to take a trip to Taiwan to indulge multiple cravings.

Want is a great example of diversity within diversity when it comes to the cast of characters. Although our protagonist, Jason Zhou belongs to the ethnically Han majority, we also have supporting characters who reflect some the increasing ethnic diversity in Taiwan. One is the dapper Victor who works and sends money back to his family in the Philippines, and the other is the pragmatic Arun, who is Indian and comes from a family of brilliant research scientists. In addition to the ethnic diversity, we have two Asian girls in a relationship: bisexual glasses-wearing hacker girl Lingyi and silent but deadly and athletic Iris. Together, the five of them form the perfect team and supportive family to one another.

In order to accomplish their mission, Jason and friends have to break through both physical and social barriers. The latter means that Jason must pass as a rich boy to infiltrate Jin Corporation, and this is by far the toughest part of the mission. Jason comes from a poor family, and his mother died of sickness because they couldn’t afford healthcare, and he has to adopt the mannerisms and attitude of the wealthy elite for whom money has never been an issue, of the people he resents the most. His disorientation and discomfort and heightened class consciousness while navigating privileged spaces are visceral and tangible and portrayed very well.

Jason is a very relatable character for me. His love for books and use of books as escapism resonated with me and show in his references to both Western and Chinese literary classics. His struggle to trust others, especially those in the privileged class that treats him as disposable, is familiar to me as well. Also, his desperation to do something to change the toxic system he lives in is basically the story of my life. I empathized with his frustrations, doubts, disgust, and conflicting feelings.

Much of the conflict of this story centers on class tensions. In particular, it explores systemic oppression and how privilege affects someone’s worldview. This conflict is played out in Jason’s interactions with Daiyu, who is sensitive and kind but also sheltered and ignorant due to her upbringing. Her individual niceness and good intentions don’t negate her privilege or complicity, so Jason struggles with his affections toward her as an individual while he is plotting to destroy the foundation of her unearned privilege.

If you’re looking for a slow-burn, angst-filled romance, this book has that. Jason and Daiyu manage, in spite of their differences in class, to gradually find common ground and let down their barriers enough to be vulnerable around and real with each other in key moments. For those who live for it, there is an abundance of unresolved sexual tension that both frustrates and entertains.

The story balances the heist with the romance and character arcs, stringing the reader along with a mix of suspense and action. The final one-third of the book ups the stakes and packs an emotional punch several times over with twists and revelations and a heart-stopping climax. The ending ties up enough loose ends to satisfy but is realistic in its developments as systemic change doesn’t happen overnight.

My one minor critique of this book is the mixed treatment of beauty standards. Although it recognized the ever-changing nature of fashion and beauty trends, it also uncritically described certain people’s bodies as “perfect” in one or two places without addressing how factors like racism, colorism, sexism, cissexism, ableism, sizeism, etc. affect what society views as aesthetic/physical “perfection.”

Recommendation: Highly recommended for the thrills, the feelings, and the food.

P.S. If you haven’t read my interview with Cindy, go check it out here!

Review for The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F.C. Yee

Note: This review is based on the ARC I received from NetGalley. The book will be published on August 8th.

My Summary: Genie Lo already has her hands full trying to do everything necessary to get into a top college. But then she witnesses a demon attack the attractive new transfer student Quentin Sun and discovers she has the power to smash open the Gates of Heaven with her fists, and all of a sudden her priorities get scrambled in favor of saving the world from impending doom.

Review:

This is one of my favorite YA reads of this year. I pretty much read it in one sitting while live-tweeting my reactions. It’s a jam-packed mix of action, comedy, romance, and character growth. I laughed my way through most of it and yelled at the characters because I was engaged with the story.

Genie is a character that I was eager to root for because I related to her feelings a lot. She is uncertain and angry and she’s not shy about expressing her anger. Anger is an emotion that gets policed a lot, especially in POC and especially for Asians because of the stereotype of us as passive and non-threatening. It was refreshing to read about a character who embraces her inner angry Asian.

Another thing I loved about her is that she’s tall because I’m tall (though not quite as tall) and having some variety in Asian physiques is always nice. We’re not all tiny and dainty, mind you.

Genie’s anger and brawn become purposeful when demons start attacking the Bay Area. Of course, the attractive transfer student is involved, and she gets embroiled in a conflicting much greater than herself.

Although people tend to discount worldbuilding in contemporary, it’s no less important than in a secondary world fantasy. Genie lives in the Silicon Valley, and the author really captures the atmosphere and landscape well, down to the bubble tea shops that have taken over in recent decades.

On the fantasy side, we have demons and immortals from Chinese folklore putting in appearances, including some big shots that many diaspora Chinese readers will find familiar. Knowing Mandarin and having a background in the Chinese folklore integrated into the story was a bonus; my prior knowledge didn’t make the story feel reused or trite, it enriched the experience. For those who aren’t familiar, the narrative provides sufficient background and humorous cliffnotes versions of the relevant myths, so it won’t go over your heads.

Outside of the action, we get character development. Genie’s demon fighting problems bleed over into her normal life and affect her relationships with friends and family as well as her academics. She vents to and receives advice from a college application coach in a way creates humor because she is being literal about demon-fighting while her coach takes her complaints as figurative/hyperbole. Throughout the story, Genie’s priorities, sense of self, and agency are explored parallel to the action of kicking demon butt.

The romantic relationship between Genie and Quentin is rife with tension as despite her visceral attraction to him, Genie refuses to be less than equal to him or disrespected (which is a good thing of course). The development and changes between them that happen between start and end are dramatic but justified. For those who are into the hate-to-love trope or tall girl/short boy dynamic, this one’s for you. 😉

One of my favorite things about this story is how over the top it is. There’s definitely a sense that the story isn’t taking itself too seriously, and it almost feels like an Asian drama or anime/manga. It’s difficult to explain but leaves a distinct impression.

Recommendation: Highly recommended!

P.S. If you haven’t read my interview with F.C. Yee, check it out here!

Review for Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire by Susan Tan

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My Summary: Cilla Lee-Jenkins has ambitions to become a bestselling author, an achievement she is certain will ensure her family won’t forget about her in favor of her soon-to-be-born younger sister. Since you’re supposed to write what you know, she writes a book about herself and her life, including her experience as a biracial girl with a family divided by cultural differences.

Review:

This book is in sort-of-epistolary format, in the sense that what you’re reading is supposed to be the book that Cilla is writing. The narrative is addressed to the reader, so it doesn’t hesitate to break the fourth wall, if there even is a fourth wall to begin with, ha.

Cilla’s voice is very distinct and full of spunk, so it grabs you from the beginning. She’s precocious, but she’s still a kid in second grade, and the author does a great job of striking the balance between showing off Cilla’s wit and keeping her voice age-appropriate.

A substantial part of Cilla’s story is about being caught between cultures, which is something I could relate to as a fellow Asian American. For example, I was amused by her insightful and direct commentary on the cultural differences between white American and Chinese table manners, having pondered those disparities myself at various points in my life.

Cilla’s particular experiences are also affected by her background as a mixed race kid with a Chinese dad and a white mom. Some of Cilla’s anecdotes involve racist microagressions, not only against Asians but against mixed race people. Since the reader is experiencing the events through Cilla’s perspective, these microaggressions are treated in a different way than they might be in a story for older audiences, in which the character has a greater awareness of and vocabulary surrounding race to address what is happening. Given the younger narrator and audience, I feel like the framing was handled pretty well, showing that Cilla is aware of things being off or hurtful about these incidents, even if she doesn’t quite understand their root causes. In general, these microaggressions are either handled by any adult bystanders in the situation, or they are cleverly subverted through Cilla’s own innocent responses that effectively sidestep the original aim of the microaggressive questions/comments and interject something that was outside the realm of the perpetrator’s expectations.

Both sets of Cilla’s grandparents feature prominently in this story, and I loved reading about her relationships with them and her quest to bring the two sides together despite their years of avoiding one another. As someone who has never been close to my grandparents, physically or emotionally, I always appreciate seeing positive and intimate grandparent-grandchild relationships portrayed in fiction.

Along with family bonds, this book also explores friendship and socialization in a school/classroom setting. I adored Cilla’s bond with her best friend Colleen, who’s Black and wants to be an astronaut or something space-related when she grows up. Despite their vastly different dream jobs, they make a perfect pair who have each other’s backs and share in the other person’s excitement. One of the things I appreciated was that the story depicted and worked through a part of their friendship where they messed up and said the wrong thing and had to figure out how to apologize. There was great modeling of healthy and constructive approaches to relationships and communication, something that is always welcome in kidlit.

There’s another really cute friendship featured in the book, which is between Cilla and a boy in her class named Ben McGee. She starts out finding him annoying for various reasons, but eventually warms up to him and finds more common ground with him. I guess in general I enjoy reading about dynamic friendships in kidlit because they’re realistic and also a good learning/teaching tool for topics like change, conflict, and empathy.

Last thing I wanted to comment on is the lovely interior illustrations by Dana Wulfekotte, who is also Asian American. They were a wonderful complement to the story and helped bring Cilla’s personality and imagination to life.

Recommendation: This is going on my mental Favorites Shelf for middle grade alongside Grace Lin’s The Year of the Dog and sequels. The target age range is a bit young for some of y’all among my blog followers, so it may not be to your taste, but if you’re a parent or teacher or librarian of elementary school age kids, this is perfect for them. 🙂

Review for The Crystal Ribbon by Celeste Lim

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My Summary: Li Jing lives in a village that is protected by the Great Golden Huli Jing. Her name promises a great destiny but also invites mockery from other children. Because her family is poor, at the age of eleven, she is sold to be the bride and caretaker of a three-year-old boy. Her new home brings her suffering and more danger, until she decides to run away. With the help of some friends, she sets off on a quest to go back home and find herself.

Review:

After reading Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon series, I was craving more [#ownvoices] middle grade Chinese fantasy, and The Crystal Ribbon was exactly what I needed. Set in the Song Dynasty and drawing on Chinese folklore, this book brings to life a wonderful tale of resilience, family, and friendship.

The Crystal Ribbon has some Cinderella-esque elements to it. Instead of an evil stepmother and two stepsisters, she has a mother-in-law and two sisters-in-law who are nasty to her and treat her like a servant because they can. Thankfully, she’s not alone. There is a kind cook who looks after her well-being, and she meets a spider and a nightingale who help her along the way, among others. She also has a letter from her younger brother and memories of her family to hold onto.

Far from being helpless, Jing fights against the people and forces that try to beat her down. She plots and acts to escape her horrible situations and doesn’t give up despite the odds being stacked against her. Her story is one of hope and light in dark times, something I needed for my current low in life.

One of the magical things about reading this book was the familiar cultural references woven into the story. From the history, to the literary allusions, to the holiday celebrations, to the superstitions and religious/spiritual practices, I felt at home. Even some of the language used was taken directly from common Chinese sayings/idioms.

Though it’s not a horror story, there were definitely some creepy elements and scenes to this book. Jing is forced to be out at night during the Ghost Festival and witnesses the supernatural come to life. Also, a prominent part of the story are the jing (精) that Jing’s name is a homophone for. I’d loosely translate jing as fae. They are supernatural beings that can take different forms, and you never know whether they are friend or foe, for the sinister jing feed on the chi of humans. The good and powerful ones serve as protectors of villages.

I have two minor criticisms of the book. One is that the romanization wasn’t consistent throughout. In some places, ch was used instead of q. A notable example was chi, though that might simply be because chi is familiar to English-speakers. Another thing that didn’t follow consistent rules was the spacing in disyllabic names. Some had spaces between syllables and others didn’t.

My other criticism was that the prose read awkwardly in some places because it sounded like the narration (first-person from Jing’s perspective) was directed to someone who’s a cultural outsider. As a result, it came off as overly explain-y and heavy-handed with the info-dumping.

For example, the dizi, which is a transverse flute, was described as being a “Chinese transverse flute.” However, you would call it a Chinese flute and not just a flute when the default “flute” is assumed to be the Western flute. In a story where Chinese culture is the norm, there wouldn’t be a need to refer to dizi as a Chinese flute.

Another example is the references to the “lunar calendar” and “Lunar New Year.” To someone who was immersed in Chinese culture during the Song Dynasty, the calendar they used wouldn’t be referred to as a “lunar calendar,” nor would the New Year be called the Lunar New Year since the lunar calendar was the default calendar. When someone in the West says “lunar calendar,” the lunar descriptor is marking it as in opposition to the solar/Gregorian calendar, which is used as the standard calendar.

Other than those small nitpicky things though, I absolutely adored the story.

Recommendation: Lovingly recommended. Trigger warnings for extreme physical punishments/abuse.

Review for Star-Crossed by Barbara Dee

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Note: My review is based on the ARC I received.

My Summary: The 8th grade is putting on Romeo and Juliet this year. Although Mattie has no prior experience with theater, she discovers that she enjoys acting. On top of practicing for this play, Mattie has to juggle a complicated web of middle school secrets and relationships, including her own budding crush on classmate Gemma, who is starring as Juliet. As obstacles pop up, Mattie is pushed to take the lead in the play and her life.

Review:

Star-Crossed really transports me back to my tween years, when things were awkward and complicated and your peers’ opinions meant everything in the world. Mattie is thrust into many an uncomfortable situation by life, and we as readers get to experience the rollercoaster of emotions she goes through as she navigates her relationships with her classmates and friends. Whether it’s figuring out how her crushes feel, keeping secrets from her best friends, being the only person not invited to a social event, or worrying about how others will react to knowing she has a crush on a girl, Mattie has to make a lot of tough decisions.

With both humor and heart, the author brings Mattie’s middle school experiences to life. The 8th grade production of Romeo and Juliet is not only a plot device but a way of enriching Mattie’s character development. As she works to understand the feelings of the characters in the play, she also makes connections to her own situation and works through her own feelings. She learns to empathize with and see a different side to a classmate she wouldn’t have otherwise gotten close to.

Though I didn’t figure out I was bi until later in my life, I could still relate a lot to Mattie’s experiences. The newness of being attracted to someone of a different gender than before, the uncertainty as to how people around me will react to finding out about you being bi, the guilt of keeping secrets from people that you want to trust, these were all familiar feelings for me.

I guess one of the most relatable aspects of Mattie’s experiences is her anxiety when interacting with her crush. I can never be completely at ease when I interact with my crushes, even when we’re good friends. The awkwardness Mattie feels is so real to me.

If there was one thing I didn’t like about the book, it was a few passages that came off as really white-centric. There were two different passages describing Mattie and Gemma and their respective levels of attractiveness that felt like they were centering white beauty standards. There was also another minor scene where Mattie wants to play the part of an immigrant in a class activity and she described immigrants in an othering way. Other than these bits, I enjoyed the book a lot.

Recommendation: Recommended for the cute and fun story and charming characters.

Review for Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan

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Note: This review is based on the eARC I received from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

My Summary: Things are changing around Amina. Her best friend Soojin is getting friendly with one of the “cool” girls and preparing to change her name to something “American”-sounding. Her uncle is coming from Pakistan to visit, and she has to be the perfect daughter or risk making her parents look bad. Then there’s the Quran recitation competition she has to participate in against her wishes and the Winter Choral Concert she wants to sing in but can’t find the courage to sign up for. While Amina struggles to be true to herself, tragedy strikes and shakes her community to the core.

Review:

While this book is primarily a “window” book for me since I’m not familiar with Pakistani culture, in some ways it was also a “mirror” book because I saw pieces of myself and my experiences in not only Soojin, Amina’s Korean American friend (there are a lot of commonalities in how East Asian Americans navigate white-dominated spaces), but also Amina herself because she is a second generation child of immigrant parents.

Both Amina and Soojin experience a variety of racist microaggressions from their white peers, from food-related taunts to language-related stigmas. Prominent among these is the butchering of their names, something that I’m intimately familiar with. Soojin, who moved to the U.S. as a toddler and is about to become a citizen, plans to change her name to something that white Americans can easily pronounce. I had a period where I considered changing my name, so I empathized with her situation, though hindsight makes me glad I didn’t go through with such a change. Amina feels off about this decision because she thinks Soojin’s name is fine as it is, so she does what she can to communicate this validation to Soojin. This was very heartening to read, knowing how strong the pressure to assimilate into the white mainstream can be and how vulnerable kids like Soojin are to these pressures.

In general, the friendship between Amina and Soojin was a highlight of the story. Two Asian Americans sticking by each other is realistic and an important kind of solidarity to represent. On top of that, the story explores how friendships change over time as new people enter your friend circles. In this case, the “interloper” is a white girl named Emily, who Amina doesn’t fully trust because of her history of perpetrating of some of the microaggressions I mentioned before. The distrust is mixed with feelings of jealousy and abandonment, and those feelings are addressed in a constructive way as the story progresses.

Another positive aspect of the story is Amina’s relationships with her various family members. Her older brother has his own character arc and development as he joins the basketball team at his high school and deals with both parental pressure and peer pressure. Amina may not fully understand her brother, but she is supportive of him and stands up for him to their parents when they are being hard on him over his grades (which is something I will never get tired of seeing portrayed in fiction because seriously, grades aren’t everything).

Amina’s relationship with her parents is also a loving and supportive one. They may be somewhat strict, but they are not unfair or uncaring. To the contrary, her parents encourage her, guide her through her problems, and keep her connected to her culture, heritage, and religion.

Her relationship with her uncle who’s visiting from Pakistan is a bit more complicated but dynamic. Her uncle is more traditional and conservative than her parents, so she has doubts about him liking her since she is Americanized in many ways. He becomes her tutor for reciting and learning Arabic from the Quran, and although she feels inadequate and self-conscious at first, she eventually begins to treat him more like a genuine mentor, developing a bond with him that also brings her closer to her faith.

One of my favorite things about this book was the depictions of everyday life at Sunday school and the Islamic Center. It’s such a lovely space that’s community-oriented and celebrates Islamic history and cultures with its displays and decorations. Everyone knows everyone else, and there are annual traditions and festivals that bring people together. You can tell that Amina feels very at home there. As I was reading about it, I couldn’t help but think of the Taiwanese Community Center that my family frequents on the weekends because of the similarities in layout and the feeling of comfort and familiarity it evokes for me. Since the story builds up this atmosphere of home around the mosque and the Center, the subsequent vandalism left a deep impact on me. The trauma of loss weighed on me as if it were real, as if I were Amina witnessing the events. Thankfully, the aftermath of this dark event lifts you back up with hopeful messages.

The title of this book, Amina’s Voice, has both literal and figurative meanings. The more literal interpretation is linked to Amina’s love of music and singing. She is talented but has stage fright and struggles to sing or otherwise perform in front of an audience. The more figurative meaning is about her coming to terms with herself and her identity and being comfortable with who she is. These two themes and struggles are intertwined and resolved over the course of the story in an empowering way. The ending was perfect (in my opinion).

Recommendation: Highly recommended! A heartfelt story about friendship, family, and community.

Review for In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner

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My Summary: Raami’s privileged life as a Cambodian princess is destroyed when the civil war hits Phnom Penh. Displaced from home and separated from her father, she and her family must endure pain both physical and psychological in order to survive. The only thing left of her past life that she can hold onto is the stories and poems her father told her.

Review:

Trigger/content warnings: ableism, fatphobia

This book is semi-autobiographical, being loosely based on the author’s own experience surviving the Cambodian genocide. The story that you get is truly a work of art.

The story is told in first-person from the perspective of a seven-year-old girl, and this choice of narrative format brings the reader deep into Raami’s emotional core. Children are more observant and more resilient than people sometimes give them credit for, and that is the case with Raami. Her youthful honesty and vulnerability provide clarity and insight. Her tragic loss of innocence blossoms into a determination to rise above her circumstances, find light in her surroundings, and paint shining stories onto the dark canvas of the world.

The author’s use of language is precise and evocative, prose that reads like poetry in many places. I don’t know that I can do it justice by describing it. It’s something that you have to experience for yourself to understand the sheer gorgeousness of it all.  It transports you across space and time and immerses you in Raami’s world, with all its beauty and ugliness and complexity. It pays tribute to the power of words and storytelling, which are thematically embedded in the narrative.

Family lies at the center of the story, specifically parent-child relationships. This focus is important because the Khmer Rouge sought to break down family relationships as a tactic to demoralize and inculcate loyalty to the Khmer Rouge, to the Organization that supposedly provided for all. Raami’s father is her rock in troubled times, so their separation takes an immense toll on her psyche. Her longing for him, her feelings of betrayal and abandonment, and her guilt over her role in his capture by the Khmer Rouge weigh on her throughout the years. She maintains her connection to him and keeps him alive in her mind and heart by recalling his words to her.

With her mother, Raami’s struggle is with feeling like she comes second to her younger sister, Radana, due to internalized ableism. Radana is “perfect” whereas Raami has a shorter leg and a limp from polio. Adults tell her well-intentioned but ultimately hurtful messages about her disability until later she realizes that it’s not a gift but an illness. She finds solace in the love that surrounds her and learns to cope with the microaggressions.

I had mixed feelings about the portrayal of Raami’s disability. On the one hand, it did recognize that it was an illness and not a gift, and it did discuss microaggressions associated with having a so-called physical imperfection. However, there are places where Raami’s mother uses ableist language like “broken” to refer to Raami, and it’s not really challenged, even if the overall message of her sentence is affirming of Raami’s humanity.

The other thing that I had reservations about was an antagonistic supporting character who was referred to as “the Fat One,” thereby reducing her to her size and demonizing her fatness. She was unlikable because of her cruelty and not her fatness, so the author could have chosen a better nickname for her that doesn’t play into fatphobia and body-shaming.

Recommendation: A must-read and a window into an important era of history.