Category Archives: Review

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 (çČŸ) 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.

Review for Queens of Geek by Jen Wilde

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Note: This review is based on the ARC I received. The book will be released on March 14th.

My Summary: Charlie and Taylor are stoked about being at SupaCon. Charlie’s promoting her first movie and ready to prove that she’s over her breakup with heartthrob Reese Ryan, no matter how much the shippers may cry. Then her crush, the Internet famous Alyssa Huntington, shows up and things get complicated. Taylor is hoping to survive the sensory overload of a huge convention and meet her favorite author. Then her relationship with her best friend and long-time crush Jamie takes a turn, and suddenly she’s hit with more change than she can handle.

Review:

Queens of Geek is such a fun book. It’s a quick read in a good way because it keeps you smiling, squealing, and swooning your way through the story.

To start off, the setting and premise are everything a fandom geek could want. This book is clearly written from a place of someone who is intimately familiar with geek culture. It shows in the details: the references to shows, movies, books, games, etc.; the Internet fan culture lingo/jargon, the emotional experience of geeking out with other people over the things you love, and so on. Even though some of the works referenced were made up by the author or things I’m not a fan of or knowledgeable about, the general geekiness was still recognizable and relatable for me.

The story is definitely character-driven, and the choice of first-person narration was perfect, in my opinion. Charlie and Taylor have distinct voices, and their personalities, quirks, and interests/fandoms shine through. I found myself relating a lot more to Taylor because she’s a bookworm and doesn’t like the spotlight. I’m not on the autism spectrum but the portrayal of panic attacks and sensory overload in crowded spaces was super familiar and resonated with my experiences as someone with general anxiety, social anxiety, and moderate agoraphobia. Her use of Tumblr to vent and document her experiences was also relatable because I’m so much better at expressing myself through text than orally.

The wonderful thing about Queens of Geek is that it is very feminist and empowering in its execution. There’s talk about healthy relationships and how boundaries, expectations, etc. play into them. The words “intersectional feminism” actually appear early on in the story. There are moments when sexism, slut-shaming, fat-shaming, biphobia, etc. are explicitly addressed and called out on the page. Most memorable to me are a) the moment when Charlie and Alyssa bond over being prominent WOC in Internet and social media spaces and b) the moment when Taylor finds common ground with a fellow autistic geek, moments that validate them and their feelings of being othered by mainstream culture.

Also notable is Jamie’s character. He’s a geek of color (he’s Latino, but I cannot remember whether his exact ethnicity was mentioned) and best friend to Taylor, and he actually stands up to and calls out toxic masculinity and defends the girls from sexism from garbage people like Reese, who is a foil to Jamie of sorts. Whereas Jamie is supportive and caring and lovable, Reese is someone you will love to hate and want to launch into the sun.

The two couples/romances in this book were super well-developed and just adorable and swoon-worthy. You will get cavities from how sweet they are. And the kisses! So many good kissing scenes. I’m not big on romance in general, but geeky romances are my weakness, and this is absolutely the book for that.

As far as flaws and criticism go, I had some reservations about Charlie’s character, who is Chinese Australian (the author is white). There were appropriate mentions and descriptions of microaggressions in various places, and the one instance of pinyin checked out*, but I guess I was expecting more in how her worldview as a woman of color and East Asian girl came across. Although Charlie is an outgoing and confident person, when you’re a highly visible woman of color who is versed in intersectional feminism, it’s almost impossible not to navigate spaces, especially public ones, without a heightened awareness of race and racial dynamics.

With this in mind, there were certain scenes that felt too race-neutral to me. One of these was an early scene when she is meeting and greeting a line of fans, and there is no mention of the racial makeup of this line. It felt like a glaring omission given that there is a place where she mentions that she is the first Chinese Australian actor to work on a show. Being the first person of your ethnicity to be in something that’s historically white-dominated carries a lot of emotional weight as far as representation is concerned because you’re held up as a role model. I expected that she would mention meeting her own role models in the past or be on the lookout for fellow Chinese people and East Asians among her fans who see themselves in her work.

For me, another important omission was consideration of safety. Geek fandom culture includes anime and manga, which means [East] Asian fetishists (many are self-described as having “yellow fever”). I have a Taiwanese friend who has done voice acting for anime dubs, and she had literal stalkers. As an East Asian person who is read as female, I am scared of attending cons because I know there will be gross weeaboos among the crowd there. I was expecting Charlie to mention creeps among her fans at some point, but it never came up.

My third and final example is a scene from Taylor’s perspective when Charlie is applying makeup and mentions wanting to do more makeup tutorials. Makeup and cosmetics as an industry are far from being race-neutral. Makeup in white-majority countries is overwhelmingly designed with white people as the default consumer base. Finding foundation that fits your skin tone is an issue for POC, especially if you’re darker-skinned. And with East Asians in particular, eye makeup is its own issue. The moment eyeliner was mentioned, my thought was, um, does she have monolids (the epicanthic fold)? Because that makes a huge difference in how you apply makeup. I don’t even wear makeup (never have, maybe never will, for various reasons), but I know this because it’s a big part of being femme and East Asian. Your eyes play a huge part in beauty standards; having monolids and smaller eyes like mine is stigmatized as being uglier. If Charlie had monolids, her doing makeup tutorial videos would be a Big Fucking Deal because most makeup tutorials are not geared toward people like me.

I would talk about the intersections of being bisexual and Chinese, but I don’t think Queens of Geek was necessarily the story where exploring that complexity would fit in since the focus was on geek culture. Regardless, that intersection wasn’t addressed in the story, but it is something I want to see for queer Asian characters like Charlie.

*During a Q&A video with Alyssa, Charlie mentions one of her favorite foods is mapo doufu (éș»ć©†è±†è…) because her mom makes it. This was kind of iffy to me because the book says her family is from Beijing, and mapo doufu is a distinctly Sichuanese dish. Not to say that nobody besides Sichuanese people makes it, but Chinese cuisine is heavily region-based, so I was expecting something more representative of Beijing (one of my Chinese American friends who’s 1.5 generation from Beijing raves about the lamb/mutton, for example).

Final comment before I wrap up: there was a line that was heteronormative in describing Reese’s smile as ones that “makes girls all over the world weak in the knees.” Probably just a slip-up, but it was awkward coming from a character who is herself bi.

Recommendation: Though it didn’t have quite the level of nuance I wanted in representation, I still loved the book and would recommend it to the fandom geeks out there!

Review for Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor

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Note: This book was published with the author’s name as Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu.

My Summary: Zahrah is an outcast for being born with dadalocks, which according to rumor, mark her as having special powers. The only person who doesn’t shun her is her best friend Dari. Then, when the two are the process of exploring her newfound power, Dari is hurt. Zahrah is the only one who can save him. She must venture into the Forbidden Greeny Jungle to face her fears alone in order to find the cure.

Review:

Like Akata Witch, Zahrah the Windseeker is packed with creativity unlike anything I’ve seen in fantasy. The wondrous, the strange, and the terrifying collide in this coming-of-age adventure.

Through lush details and immersive storytelling, we are introduced to Zahrah’s world, one where Earth is but a myth that people tell stories about. Zahrah lives in the Ooni Kingdom, which is home to a diverse array of peoples but isn’t free from prejudice. Those who are born dada, with the telltale dadalocks that contain vines, are feared for the rumored powers. Through Zahrah’s character and the Forbidden Greeny Jungle, the story explores the nature of prejudice and the role of fear and ignorance in motivating discrimination and isolation.

The worldbuilding for this story blends fantasy and science fiction elements, with magic and technology coexisting or fusing together. Like in Akata Witch, there’s an emphasis on knowledge and learning, which I absolutely adore. Zahrah and Dari visit a library to obtain more information on the mysterious Greeny Jungle that everyone is warned away from stepping into. They find a guide by a group of people known as the Great Explorers of Knowledge and Adventure Organization, who are dedicated to exploring and documenting the depths of the Greeny Jungle for posterity and fighting against the fear that surrounds it.

With this field guide in hand, Zahrah sets off to find the cure that will save Dari from dying from the poison that infects him during their first visit to the Jungle. The guide isn’t complete, so Zahrah has to fill in some of those gaps for herself through first-hand experience. Lots of it. The wonderful thing about this adventure of hers is that you never what will get thrown at her next. Just when you think it can’t get worse, it gets worse. More importantly, Zahrah is absolutely terrified throughout the whole ordeal. You are there with her as she is running, screaming, hiding, flailing, etc.

I think sometimes people get caught up in the idea that not feeling or expressing fear is the ideal way to be a kickass girl, but that’s a reductive and unrealistic way of understanding fear and bravery. It’s perfectly natural to feel afraid of things that are going to come and attack you out of nowhere. And unless you’re some kind of trained martial arts expert, you’re not going to know exactly how to handle something jumping at you from the bushes. You act on your untrained reflexes and it’s a mess.

The author isn’t hesitant to show Zahrah’s awkwardness and screw-ups. The important thing is that she slowly but surely learns from her mistakes as she faces these tough situations and gets smarter and more experienced at preparing for what’s ahead. And she persists in spite of the overwhelming fear because the risk is worth the reward: saving her friend Dari. It’s vital to teach girls not to see fear as weakness, and to demonstrate that they can cope with fear in order to do the things that matter.

In my opinion, Zahrah is a perfect balance of a flawed but admirable heroine. Although she has special powers, she isn’t all-knowing or all-powerful, and much of her strength comes from her emotional resilience rather than anything outwardly apparent or flashy. This is what makes her real and compelling protagonist. Beyond the speculative elements, her character development is what carries the story.

There were three problematic lines I noted. One was the association of menstruation with womanhood, which is trans-exclusionary. The second was a place where “men and women” was used to the exclusion of non-binary people. The last was some ableist language where Zahrah calls Dari a “lunatic.” Other than that, there wasn’t anything majorly problematic that I noticed.

Recommendation: Highly recommended to fantasy-lovers. Although it’s categorized as YA, since the main character is fourteen and there isn’t any sexual content, it would be appropriate for upper middle grade readers as well.

Review for A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi

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Note: This book is the sequel to The Star-Touched Queen, which I reviewed here. The book can stand alone, but I still recommend reading The Star-Touched Queen first.

My Summary: Gauri has been exiled from Bharata and thrown into the hands of her rival and enemy kingdom, Ujijain, by her own brother. Vikram is the heir to the Ujijain throne and seeks legitimacy and validation from people who scorn his common background. For the sake of claiming their respective thrones, they set aside their enmity and enter the Tournament of Wishes together. Danger looms on all sides as they go through grueling trials to win the prize of a wish, but the real danger may be the prize itself because as they say, you should be careful what you wish for.

Review:

Trigger/content warnings: mentions/discussion of transphobia

My word for The Star-Touched Queen was “gorgeous,” and the word for this sequel is “swoon-worthy.” Roshani Chokshi further builds upon her world with more breathtaking descriptions and whirlwind adventures in a previously unexplored realm, Alaka. Alaka is a kingdom in the Otherworld and the home of Kubera, the Lord of Treasures and guardian of the North.

As with the first book, we have plenty of riddles, puzzles, and things that are not quite what they appear to be in A Crown of Wishes. Add capricious immortals to the picture, and you never quite know what to expect. The whole story is a mystery gift waiting to be unwrapped and unboxed, brimming with magic and beauty.

A Crown of Wishes is more action-packed than its predecessor, but the narrative doesn’t lose sight of the heart of the story, which lies in the emotional and psychological worlds of its main characters, Gauri and Vikram. Beneath the veneer of ambition and confidence lie regrets, doubts, deeply human vulnerabilities.

And of course, we have the romance of the first book but with a different dynamic. Gauri and Vikram make a very entertaining duo. Gauri is very much “fight first, ask questions later” while Vikram is much more of an academic and subtle type who will scope things out and plot accordingly. Gauri is cynical and heavily guarded whereas Vikram is a person of starry-eyed idealism and faith, making them very much an “opposites attract” couple.

If you want slow-burn, this is slow-burn but with endless bickering to fill the space. Their barbed exchanges are full of humor and wit and are in some cases laugh-out-loud hilarious. Of course, it’s not all jokes and banter; they have more serious moments of reciprocal disclosure and deeper bonding to give their dynamic substance. But the bickering is definitely a highlight. The alternating narrative viewpoints (first-person for Gauri, third-person for Vikram) help bring the two and their dynamic to life.

This book brings back familiar faces (my favorite included!) and introduces some new characters as well. Chief among these new characters is the curious and earnest Aasha, who is a secondary viewpoint character in addition to Gauri and Vikram. She is the youngest of a group of sister courtesans who feed on desire and whose touch is poison (what a concept). All she wants is to experience being human, something that was denied her when she was turned into a vishakanya from a mortal at a young age. She is the definition of a precious cinnamon roll, and you can’t help but love her and wish the best for her. On the plus side, she’s most likely bisexual based on a statement she made. I have been starved for bisexual representation in historical fantasy, so Aasha is a welcome addition to the small circle of bi girls in fantasy.

Between all of the things I’ve mentioned, A Crown of Wishes was a jewel of a read. However, there was one thing that bothered me in the story. In one scene, Vikram recalls a time when he was fifteen and tried to sneak into the harem of his father’s court by dressing as a courtesan. He managed to pass as a woman and was accosted by a womanizing palace guard as a result, forcing him to reveal his disguise. Although I’m down for guys looking great in drag, I didn’t like the way it was played off for humor. The context of his crossdressing is very reminiscent, however unintentionally, of the transphobic rhetoric directed against trans women about them supposedly being “predatory men who dress as women to gain access to women’s spaces.” There was also a line later on where Vikram says, “I considered wearing your (Gauri’s) outfit, but chest hair lacks certain feminine charms.” Rather than affirming gender nonconformity, these bits reinforced the stigma against it, and the book would have been better off without them.

Recommendation: Recommended with warnings for incidental transphobia.

Review for Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger

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My Summary: Sam (short for Samar) doesn’t think much about her Punjabi Sikh identity because her mother raised her in a secular environment away from her extended family. However, when her long-estranged uncle appears on their doorstep in the aftermath of 9/11, she begins to explore her heritage and culture.

Review:

This book was published in 2009, but it remains relevant as Islamophobic sentiment remains pervasive in the U.S. and other places. Muslims aren’t the only group targeted, anyone who is perceived as Muslim is also implicated. Sikhs fall into this category.

Sam’s uncle Sandeep wears a turban, so racists target him for hate speech and hate crimes. Sam is in the car with him when some boys from her school throw and yell things at him. As a result, she is forced to confront the bigotry of people around her.

It’s during this same time that Sam starts researching and reconnecting with her Punjabi and Sikh culture and heritage and tries to find her place as a South Asian/Indian in U.S. disapora. It’s a very polarizing experience, to put it lightly. On the one hand, white kids have always made fun of her for being brown. On the other, a fellow Indian American calls her a “coconut,” meaning brown on the outside, white on the inside. This type of labeling is familiar to me, as East Asians have our own variant, “banana”/”Twinkie,” for yellow on the outside, white on the inside. The in-group disdain for being too assimilated into white American culture is so real.

Thankfully, Sam has positive experiences to balance out the negative ones. Her uncle is supportive of her journey, and together they visit a gurdwara, a Sikh temple. There, Sam has a very spiritual moment and finds the joy of connecting with tradition and her roots. At school, she gets recommendations for resources from a Sikh classmate and finds online forums where there are people in her same situation.

These changes in her understanding of herself and her world also affect her other relationships with her mother, her white boyfriend Mike, and her white best friend Molly in various ways. Sam’s desire to connect with her extended family creates tension with her mother, who has bad memories involving her parents, Sam’s grandparents, and rejected their religion and culture as a result. Mike turns out to be garbage who laughs at racist jokes and victim-blames Sam for experiencing a hate crime, and most satisfyingly, the narrative drags him for his crap. Molly doesn’t get it at first and throws around the term “reverse racist” (oh, lord), but she reevaluates her position after witnessing the attacks on Uncle Sandeep in person.

One of the great things about this book is that it pulls in so many relevant and important issues. It touches on Japanese American incarceration during World War II as it relates to present-day Islamophobia (though it uses the word “internment,” which is problematic), criticizes stereotypical media representation like Apu from The Simpsons, and explicitly addresses colorism in Indian and South Asian communities. Notably, it points out that distinguishing between Sikhs and Muslims shouldn’t be done as an attempt to “opt out” of the Islamophobic violence while leaving Muslims to take all the hits.

Although this book has its darker moments and tackles serious issues, it ends on a bright and hopeful note. Most of the major conflicts are resolved, and Sam is moving forward with a sense of empowerment and perspective that she lacked in the beginning. The ending echoes the beginning in a way that brings everything full circle, which is my favorite kind of ending.

A few minor things I was not a fan of: One was use of the words “deranged,” “lunatic,” “crazy,” etc. to describe violent and threatening people. The second was a line where a character claims that having sex is what makes girls women since that’s not only sexist but throws asexual people under the bus. There was also use of the word “slutty” a few times. The last was a dialogue where Molly is spouting a bunch of Orientalist stuff about Indian culture, and the narrative doesn’t really directly call it out for what it is.

Recommendation: Recommended for its heartfelt and honest portrayal of the struggles of being in diaspora and fighting racism.

Review for The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi

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My Summary: Maya’s horoscope promises death and destruction with her marriage. Her father marries her off for political convenience, and through a strange twist of events, she is wed to Amar, king of Akaran. This marriage brings both passion and secrets, and unraveling those secrets becomes vital to Maya’s survival and the fate of all the realms.

Review:

If I were to pick one word to describe this book, I’d have to say “gorgeous.” The descriptions are so vivid and textured that they practically leap off the page at you. I wish I had this level of command over language.

Some people might find the story to be a bit slow, but personally, I liked that I got to immerse myself in the details and rhythms and tucked-away corners of Maya’s world. I hate seeing wasted potential when it comes to worldbuilding in fantasy, and The Star-Touched Queen delivers the amount of substance I want. And here, the worldbuilding isn’t just a superficial info dump to dazzle for a moment; it is interwoven with Maya and Amar’s evolving relationship, it creates suspense and tension through the mysteries and secrets that emerge, and it plays a part in Maya’s character development as she explores not only physical spaces but also her inner psychological landscape.

I think the thing that really captivated me about this story was that beyond the “saving the realms” arc, the heart of the narrative is actually about self-discovery and the struggle to find agency when your environment is restrictive. Interpretation and perspective are key elements in Maya’s growth as she is pushing the boundaries of what she can be. Even though there are some external constraints placed upon us, a lot of our limits are also self-imposed, and this story definitely tackles that theme.

Another thing that stood out to me is Maya’s ambition. In a society where girls are taught to not reach too high or too far, it’s important to have stories that challenge that, that say, be ambitious, dare to aim high, channel the power you have. Watching Maya make decisions explicitly based on ambition was satisfying and encouraging to me as someone who has held myself back out of self-doubt or internalized beliefs that I shouldn’t take up too much space or want too much.

If you’re tired of YA where girls are constantly being saved by guys, then this is your book. Maya is truly the heroine of her own story. Even when confronted by obstacles, she refuses to back down and accept defeat. Her power and her growth shine through in the last one-third of the story in particular, building up to one hell of an ending.

The supporting characters don’t steal the spotlight at the expense of the main character, but they’re still memorable and lovable in their own ways. Gupta is a nerd in the classic sense–well-read, prone to gushing about random subjects that capture his interest, not that great with social niceties–and I love that about him because it’s like seeing a fictional version of myself. That said, my absolute favorite supporting character is Kamala, who is a talking, flesh-eating horse. Yes, you read that correctly. Read the book and you’ll understand why she is so great.

Personally, one of the things I loved about this book was the incorporation of reincarnation into the story. I grew up with a lot of stories where reincarnation is involved since it’s part of Taiwanese and Chinese religious and spiritual beliefs, so it was nice to see a story make use of that familiar concept. I’ll admit I’m a sucker for romances that involve reincarnation because it opens up so many more possibilities.

Knowing that A Crown of Wishes follows as a sequel and companion, I feel like The Star-Touched Queen did a great job of laying the foundation for the second book. The pieces I got were just enough to tease and pique my interest in what will happen to Gauri and Vikram. Thankfully, I have the ARC of A Crown of Wishes in hand ready to be devoured, otherwise I’d be with the rest of the world crying for March 28th!

Nothing stood out to me as majorly problematic, but there was one place where Maya said that maybe her body was too straight and boyish to be attractive to Amar, which can be read as internalized misogyny but is also cisnormative since it reinforces the idea that certain body types/shapes should correspond to certain genders. Even as YA is pushing the boundaries of gender roles, it would be nice to see more critical takes on the gendering of bodies and beauty standards.

Recommendation: Lovingly recommended to fantasy lovers who want to be swept away.