Category Archives: Review

[Blog Tour] Review for Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram

Hi, everyone, I’m pleased to be posting again as part of the blog tour for Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at the ALA annual conference in New Orleans earlier this year. I hope you take some time to check out his book and read my review. 🙂

Cover of Darius the Great is Not Okay: two boys, one with short hair and one with longer curls, sit side by side with their backs to the viewer, overlooking the city of Yazd, Iran. A mosque with twin minarets looms in the distance, cast in a shaft of turquoise (the shaped of the letters of the title) that contrasts with the pale orange color of the buildings and the red sky. The title is rendered in bold white letters.

BOOK DESCRIPTION:

Darius doesn’t think he’ll ever be enough, in America or in Iran. Hilarious and heartbreaking, this unforgettable debut introduces a brilliant new voice in contemporary YA.

Darius Kellner speaks better Klingon than Farsi, and he knows more about Hobbit social cues than Persian ones. He’s a Fractional Persian–half, his mom’s side–and his first-ever trip to Iran is about to change his life.
Darius has never really fit in at home, and he’s sure things are going to be the same in Iran. His clinical depression doesn’t exactly help matters, and trying to explain his medication to his grandparents only makes things harder. Then Darius meets Sohrab, the boy next door, and everything changes. Soon, they’re spending their days together, playing soccer, eating faludeh, and talking for hours on a secret rooftop overlooking the city’s skyline. Sohrab calls him Darioush–the original Persian version of his name–and Darius has never felt more like himself than he does now that he’s Darioush to Sohrab.

Adib Khorram’s brilliant debut is for anyone who’s ever felt not good enough–then met a friend who makes them feel so much better than okay.

My Review:

I’m not sure how best to describe this book except to compare it to a weighted blanket. It settles onto you in a loving embrace and makes you feel at home.

Darius expresses his doubt and his hope so candidly that it makes you want to give him a hug. His use of SFF pop culture references gives him a distinctiveness and nerdy sense of humor that grounds his character.

Darius is someone I can relate to strongly for multiple reasons: being part of diaspora, dealing with depression, and feeling socially estranged from peers. He struggles with feeling adequate and comfortable in his own skin, an experience that has defined pretty much all of my life, so it was hard not to see myself in him.

The depiction of depression in this story resonated with me in a lot of the details, from the neveremding quest for the right meds, to the self consciousness about taking meds and the unhelpful comments from ignorant people and the difficulty talking about it to family because of language and cultural barriers.

The beauty of this book is that it is so incredibly validating of people like me and Darius. Disappointment, insecurity and despair are tempered by warmth, solidarity, and love.

I love the way Darius’s various relationships are portrayed in this book because they feel so nuanced and real in the way he navigates the line separating distance from intimacy. It’s hard to let yourself be vulnerable when you feel under attack from all sides: from your family, from your peers, from your country’s mainstream culture, from your heritage culture. But Darius is given the chance to do that and he gains so much from it. His friendship with Sohrab is so pure and wholesome, and his interactions with his extended family are bittersweet as they try to bridge the gap between them.

Although I’m not Persian/Iranian, there were aspects of the culture that were relatable for me, such as the centrality of food in all occasions, the range and specificity of familial terms, and the concept of taarof, whose Taiwanese equivalent I just tweeted about the day before reading the book.😂

On a different note, this is one of the few books I’ve read where boys are allowed to be sensitive, to cry, to feel the emotional spectrum fully without the narrative shaming them, and I really appreciate that given the prevalence of toxic masculinity in fictional boys.

Overall, I have to say this is one of my favorite contemporary reads of the year, and i confess it made me tear up near the end in a key scene, so I’m recommending it wholeheartedly.

Content/Trigger Warnings: bullying, homo-antagonism, Islamophobia, fat/body/food-shaming, ableism

AUTHOR BIO:

Adib Khorram is an author, a graphic designer, and a tea enthusiast. If he’s not writing (or at his day job), you can probably find him trying to get his 100 yard Freestyle (SCY) under a minute, or learning to do a Lutz Jump. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri. This is his first novel.

Advertisements

[Blog Tour] Review for Star-Touched Stories by Roshani Chokshi

Title: Star-Touched Stories

Author: Roshani Chokshi

Publisher: Wednesday Books

Publication Date: August 7th, 2018

Those who have read my reviews of The Star-Touched Queen and A Crown of Wishes know that I adored them, so when I found out about Star-Touched Stories, my heart leapt with excitement. Now that I’ve read it, I can say it lived up to my expectations.

Disclaimer: This review is based on the ARC I received from the publisher as part of the blog tour in exchange for an honest review.

Warning: Spoilers ahead for The Star-Touched Queen and A Crown of Wishes, so reader discretion is advised. I strongly recommend reading The Star-Touched Queen and A Crown of Wishes before reading Star-Touched Stories.

Each of the three stories blends fantasy and romance and builds upon the world from TSTQ and ACOW.

Death and Night is the swoony tale of courtship between Maya and Amar from The Star-Touched Queen, taking the reader back to when they first met lifetimes ago. The two immortal beings Death and Night are hated and feared by many in the mortal realm and Otherworld alike for their dark natures, but in each other they find beauty, passion, and possibility.

Even knowing how things would end, I still felt the thrill of suspense and tension. I read this story already when it was first released by itself as an e-book novella, and I savored it again on the second read-through. It makes me want to reread The Star-Touched Queen with fresh eyes and attend to the dramatic irony that will appear now that I have the backstory.

Poison and Gold centers on Aasha, the curious and earnest vishakanya from A Crown of Wishes, taking her from supporting role to the forefront. As she is adjusting to her new life in the mortal realm among humans, she is offered a position as Gauri and Vikram’s Spy Mistress. However, the title and responsibility must be earned and approved by the current Spy Mistress of Bharata, Zahril, who is mysterious, proud, and nearly impossible to please. Driven by ambition and the desire to help her friends, Aasha rises to the challenge of training under Zahril, and in the process, finds herself and first love.

If you like puzzles and brain teasers, this story is riddled with them (pun intended). Poison and Gold is a coming-of-age story that gives Aasha satisfying depth and development as she evolves from rough and awkward stone to gleaming polished gem.

Last but not least is Rose and Sword, which alternates between past and present as a young princess of Bharata-Ujijain (alternatively called Bharat-Jain on the back cover, I’m assuming the inconsistency will be corrected in the final version) named Hira listens to her grandmother tell a tale about Gauri’s wedding night, when she discovers Vikram is fated to die that very night. Just as she is about to give up hope, Gauri is presented with a chance to bring Vikram back from the dead, but taking it means braving the dangers of Naraka as well as the faults of the human heart. With great love comes great risk, and Gauri must make a choice about whether the risk is worth the outcome.

Alternating between Hira and Gauri’s points of view creates both distance and immediacy, outsider perspective and embodied subjectivity, revisiting familiar characters with a fresh gaze. The balance between the two makes room for meta-commentary not only on the events of the story but also folkloric storytelling itself as an art and oral tradition. This story is at once bittersweet and hopeful and makes for the perfect goodbye to the world of the Star-Touched stories (if this is indeed the end).

Conclusion: All three stories are written with Roshani Chokshi’s signature gorgeous, evocative prose, rendering the characters’ emotions palpable. When people joke about authors whose grocery lists they would read, Roshani Chokshi is one of the authors who comes to mind for me. If you’ve read TSTQ and ACOW, don’t miss out on Star-Touched Stories.

Content/Trigger Warnings:

  • Aromisia: There are a few places where the celebration of romance veers into positioning it as universal for humans/above other kinds of love/relationships, which is probably the most notable flaw about the book.
  • Binarism: Although this collection features an f/f romance in Poison and Gold, and queerness is referenced in the stories, it’s still restricted to the context of binary genders, men and women, which was disappointing to me as a non-binary reader.
  • Transmisogyny: There’s a scene in Aasha’s story where Vikram dresses up as a harem wife to sneak in because men aren’t allowed in the women’s quarters, and it’s played for laughs like it was in A Crown of Wishes (mentioned it in my review there as well). Although Vikram does argue that dresses are more comfortable, the act of crossdressing is still framed as a humorous and deviant thing to do to scandalize other people. This framing fails to recognize the violence of gender policing/cisnormativity and the danger that trans/non-binary/gender-nonconforming folks face for defying those norms.

Review for The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

The Prince and the Dressmaker

Summary: Frances has many ideas for making fabulous dresses but no outlet to express her creativity. Through a stroke of good luck, she secures a job as a secret seamstress to Prince Sebastian. The prince wears the dresses Frances designs while going by the name of Lady Crystallia and quickly becomes a fashion icon in Paris, garnering recognition for Frances’ designs. Over time, the two become good friends and develop romantic feelings for one another. However, their happiness is threatened when they are pulled in different directions, Frances by her ambitions to work in a position where her name is known to the public, and Sebastian by their filial duty to marry as the royal heir.

Review:

When I first heard about the idea for this graphic novel and saw preliminary design sketches on Tumblr a few years ago, I was so impatient for it to be released. Now I’ve finally read it! If you saw my Goodreads review, it was basically me crying about my love for this book. Initial impressions aside, I have conflicting feelings about the book that I’ll elaborate on below.

The Good/Great:

The plot made for a great coming-of-age story, with the characters’ desires and growth at the forefront. I’ll admit I’m biased in being drawn to and loving the story because Sebastian is trans (there weren’t specific labels mentioned in the book, but genderqueer and trans femme seem to fit the best from what I gathered) and there are so few trans characters in YA. Watching Sebastian transition and become comfortable presenting as a girl was super heartwarming for me as a trans and genderqueer person. Frances’ arc in developing her creative/artistic talent was likewise relatable to me as someone who writes and draws and wants to be a published author. Jen Wang’s art style is a combination of cute and elegant and really makes the whole experience a visual treat.

The Not-So-Good:

It partially follows the template of a typical trans acceptance narrative. While Frances and Sebastian’s manservant have no problem accepting and respecting Sebastian’s gender from the beginning, the same can’t be said for other characters. Sebastian being closeted and fearful of rejection and disgust from their parents as well as the public drives the primary conflict in the story. This isn’t automatically bad, but it’s part of a broader trend of cis authors putting trans characters through some rough situations that aren’t always handled very well in execution.

TW: outing of a trans character

There is a scene where Sebastian is publicly outed by another character who pulls off their wig while they are presenting as a girl, which results in a confrontation involving the king and queen that is pretty emotionally devastating. My issue with this scene is that forcibly outing characters, especially as a humiliating spectacle, is really overused for dramatic effect by cis authors, who may not realize how hurtful the experience can be for trans readers. It happens so much that I am desperate for more stories where trans characters are able to come out on their own terms.

Conclusion: While the the characters are endearing, the art is lovely, the ending is a happy one all around, and the overall message is hopeful for trans/non-binary people, trans/non-binary readers who choose to pick this up should take care while reading in the second half since the outing/confrontation scene is potentially triggering.

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.

the-education-of-margot-sanchez

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.

american-street

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

the-epic-fail-of-arturo-zamora

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.

lucky-broken-girl

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. 🙂

the-gauntlet

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.

Love, Hate & Other Filters.jpg

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

cilla-lee-jenkins-future-author-extraordinaire

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

crystal-ribbon

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.