Category Archives: Review

[Blog Tour] Review for Court of Lions by Somaiya Daud + Giveaway

It’s here! My first review in a while! Rejoice! I’m pleased to be a part of the #CourtOfLionsTour hosted by Shealea @ Caffeine Book Tours. My leg of the tour features a review and a curated list of SFF duologies by authors of color, which will come in a separate post. Note: Court of Lions is the second book in a duology, so if you haven’t read the first book, Mirage, beware of potential spoilers for the first book.

Court of Lions

Title: Court of Lions
Author: Somaiya Daud
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: 06 August 2020
Genres: Young Adult, Science Fiction

Synopsis:

Two identical girls, one a princess, the other a rebel. Who will rule the empire?

After being swept up into the brutal Vathek court, Amani, the ordinary girl forced to serve as the half-Vathek princess’s body double, has been forced into complete isolation. The cruel but complex princess, Maram, with whom Amani had cultivated a tenuous friendship, discovered Amani’s connection to the rebellion and has forced her into silence, and if Amani crosses Maram once more, her identity – and her betrayal – will be revealed to everyone in the court.

Amani is desperate to continue helping the rebellion, to fight for her people’s freedom. But she must make a devastating decision: will she step aside, and watch her people suffer, or continue to aid them, and put herself and her family in mortal danger? And whatever she chooses, can she bear to remain separated, forever, from Maram’s fiancé, Idris?

Review:

The first words that come to mind after reading Court of Lions are “what a book!” I really enjoyed Mirage, but this sequel was even better, in my opinion.

To start off, I’d just like to praise the writing. It was so lush and poetic and really brought the world of Andala and its characters to life. It wasn’t hard for me to picture the characters and setting at all. Though the book is technically science fiction, it read more like epic fantasy to me because of the atmosphere. For those who may not particularly care for “hard” science fiction that emphasizes flashy technology, I’d recommend giving this series a try.

I really loved the worldbuilding and the intricate politics of this book. The richly realized cultures of Andala and the incisive commentary on colonialism gave the story the thematic resonance of the best science fiction. Amani has her work cut out for her trying to bring together a bunch of people to oppose the Vathek empire, maneuvering a bunch of moving parts to create a working machine, but she does so quite skillfully.

This story is extremely character-driven, and the story balances the characters’ conflicting, complex motivations quite well. Amani, Maram, and Idris all exhibit immense character growth over the course of the story. The tension between their personal desires and their duties and the external pressures they faced was palpable throughout the story. Maram’s arc in particular was quite compelling and satisfying as she starts to shake off the colonized mindset from her Vathek upbringing, embrace her Andalaan/Ziyadi heritage, and assert her agency as an individual and a royal heir.

Last but not least, there were two major romantic arcs in this book, and they were just *chef’s kiss*. Both Amani and Maram are caught up in forbidden relationships, and the intensity of their yearning for what they desperately crave but cannot freely indulge had my heart aching for them. Maram falls for a woman, and I had so many moments during her passages where I was screaming in gay. This book is a gift to the queer readers who love mutual pining.


About the Author:

Author photo (Somaiya Daud)Somaiya Daud is the author of Mirage and holds a PhD from the University of Washington in English literature. A former bookseller in the children’s department at Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C., now she writes and teaches full time.

Author links:

Author website — https://www.somaiyabooks.com/
Facebook — https://www.facebook.com/somaiyadaudauthor
Goodreads — https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/15179415.Somaiya_Daud
Instagram — http://instagram.com/somaiiiya
Twitter — http://twitter.com/somaiyadaud

Make sure to check out the other stops on the tour:

Tour Schedule (Court of Lions)

US Folks: Enter the giveaway for a copy of Mirage or Court of Lions!

Prize: Five (5) paperback edition of Mirage and five (5) hardcover edition of Court of Lions by Somaiya Daud

  • Open to United States (US)
  • Ends on 11 August 2020 (Philippine time)

Rafflecopter link: http://www.rafflecopter.com/rafl/display/950d261638/

Review for Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender

I’ve been looking forward to reading Felix Ever After for a long time, and I’m super excited to be reviewing it!

Felix Ever After

Synopsis:

Felix Love has never been in love—and, yes, he’s painfully aware of the irony. He desperately wants to know what it’s like and why it seems so easy for everyone but him to find someone. What’s worse is that, even though he is proud of his identity, Felix also secretly fears that he’s one marginalization too many—Black, queer, and transgender—to ever get his own happily-ever-after.

When an anonymous student begins sending him transphobic messages—after publicly posting Felix’s deadname alongside images of him before he transitioned—Felix comes up with a plan for revenge. What he didn’t count on: his catfish scenario landing him in a quasi–love triangle….

But as he navigates his complicated feelings, Felix begins a journey of questioning and self-discovery that helps redefine his most important relationship: how he feels about himself.

Felix Ever After is an honest and layered story about identity, falling in love, and recognizing the love you deserve.

My Review:

I’m so emotional right now that it’s hard to articulate my feelings about this book, which is my official favorite of 2020. If it weren’t my duty to write a review with words, I’d just be dumping memes of Kermit emitting hearts everywhere.

I have to say that it’s the first book I’ve read where I’ve felt so seen and represented as a queer, trans, and nonbinary POC. I’ve talked about this before on Twitter, but there’s a huge disconnect for me when I read about white queer characters because race and racism are inextricably intertwined with my experiences of queerness.

In this book, Felix grapples with the feeling that he is “too many” marginalizations because he is Black and trans and queer. He doesn’t feel like he is deserving of love because of the way society has taught us to value cis-ness and whiteness. This struggle is so profoundly relatable to me as a queer Asian person. Even before I realized I was trans, I already had an intuitive understanding that I was less desirable because I was Asian and gender-nonconforming, and after figuring out my nonbinary gender and coming out, I still have insecurities surrounding this.

As a whole, Felix Ever After is full of so many important and salient conversations about race and queerness. I don’t highlight/underline/write in my physical books, but I definitely felt the urge to do so multiple times when I landed upon passages that resonated or spoke truth to power regarding an issue. One such passage lays bare the ways cis gay white men weaponize their privilege against other queer people with less power. Another passage takes on the question of whether labels are necessary or restrictive and whether gender abolition is the end goal of trans liberation. Another issue addressed in the book is how cis women harm trans people, especially trans men and trans masculine people, by accusing us of betraying women and being misogynists in “choosing” a gender that’s not our birth-assigned gender. These are real things that happen, and seeing them explored and interrogated on the page was so validating.

Felix as a character is so lovable, and it was impossible not to see myself in him. His fear of displaying vulnerability and taking risks for love spoke to me on the deepest level. He’s flawed and real. He makes unfair judgments and assumptions, lashes out in anger, and says things that hurt others to protect himself. He also yearns to connect with others, expresses himself through art, and takes responsibility for his actions and growth. His desire to prove himself as an artist and to colleges kind of felt like a personal attack because it held up a mirror to my inner psyche.

This book does an incredible job of balancing the real pain and difficulties of being a queer and trans Black person with hope and empowerment. Watching Felix grow into himself as a demiboy, discover love and intimacy, and receive validation from the people he cares about was immensely cathartic. As the title promises, he gets his happy ever after.

Content Warnings: racism, queer antagonism (deadnaming, misgendering, outing), drugs/alcohol


Links:

Review for The Boba Book by The Boba Guys with Richard Parks III

Welcome to Day 7 (and post #6) of Taiwanese American Heritage Week! As promised, I am posting the first of my two reviews of books by Taiwanese authors.

If you know me, you know I love bubble tea like no other. When I found out there was a book about bubble tea from a mainstream publisher, I was pretty excited because it’s about time this icon of Taiwanese culture got the spotlight.

However, my excitement was immediately tempered by the fact that the book is by The Boba Guys. If you live in San Francisco, LA, or New York, where they have locations, you may have had bubble tea from The Boba Guys before. Personally, I’ve only heard of them through the Internet, and my impression of them was not the greatest, considering that the founders expressed support for former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang. If you are fortunate enough to not know who Andrew Yang is, let’s just say he’s a clown, the type of assimilationist Asian who makes cheap, tired, awful Asian jokes to curry favor with white people and Asian people who have internalized racism to unpack. Not the kind of “””#representation””” I want or need, to say the least (Yang is, unfortunately, Taiwanese American like me).

Knowing this, I went into the book (which I managed to get for free by redeeming a coupon) with reservations, and after reading it, I have a lot of thoughts. Even though this is a cookbook, I’m not going to be reviewing the recipes themselves. (I don’t know if I have the patience to make my own tea, lol.) Instead, I’ll be offering some critical commentary and personal reflection on the way race and culture are presented in the book with the hope of contributing to the dialogue on the politics of food.

As a disclaimer: I’m not a culinary expert or a tea connoisseur; I’m approaching this review from the perspective of a layperson who loves bubble tea, a Taiwanese American diaspora kid, and someone with a degree in Asian American studies.

The Boba Book

Synopsis:

A beautifully photographed and designed cookbook and guide to the cultural phenomenon that is boba, or bubble tea–featuring recipes and reflections from The Boba Guys tea shops.

Andrew Chau and Bin Chen realized in 2011 that boba–the milk teas and fruit juices laced with chewy tapioca balls from Taiwan that were exploding in popularity in the States–was still made from powders and mixes. No one in the U.S. was making boba with the careful attention it deserved, or using responsible, high-quality ingredients and global, artisanal inspiration. So they founded The Boba Guys: a chic, modern boba tea shop that has now grown to include fourteen locations across the country, bringing bubble tea to the forefront of modern drinks and bridging cultures along the way.

Now, with The Boba Book, the Boba Guys will show fans and novices alike how they can make their (new) favorite drink at home through clear step-by-step guides. Here are the recipes that people line up for–from the classics like Hong Kong Milk Tea, to signatures like the Strawberry Matcha Latte and the coffee-laced Dirty Horchata. For the Boba Guys, boba is Taiwanese, it’s Japanese, it’s Mexican, it’s all that and more–which means it’s all-American.

Review:

(Warning: This is long and vaguely rant-y at turns.)

Before I get into dragging the authors the more critical part, I’m going to be gracious and talk about the parts that I enjoyed and found relatable or informative.

First of all, I’ll concede that true to its description, the book is very beautifully designed and aesthetically pleasing to look at. The photos, illustrations, and diagrams were a feast for the eyes. Perhaps driven by pandemic-induced restlessness, I’ve frequently found myself picking the book up to thumb through the pages just for the visual (and tactile, if you’re considering the texture of the cover/pages) stimulation. The cover is embossed and laminated with transparent circles the size of tapioca pearls, which I found charming.

Additionally, I think the book lays out the basic facts of tea, its history, and taxonomy in an accessible manner. I definitely learned a few things from reading the book. For example, although I can name different categories of tea (black, oolong, green, etc.), I did not know that the classifications are based on how oxidized the tea leaves are. (The more you know~)

I also appreciate that the authors did their research and traveled to Taiwan to dig into the origins of bubble tea and interview one of the shops that claim to have invented it, the famous Chun Shui Tang in Taichung (I’ve been there myself…their tea was okay, but to my layperson’s tongue it didn’t seem all that special, to be honest). They also made an effort to use and explain various relevant terms and concepts from Chinese and Taiwanese language/culture, such as QQ (arguably the king of food textures in Taiwan), guanxi (關系), and chiku (吃苦).

The book also offers a number of personal anecdotes and cultural details that resonated with my experiences. On the inside cover, there is a nostalgic depiction of bubble tea shops from Bin Chen’s perspective that reads: “It’s tucked away in a strip mall on Bellaire, in Houston, where we take Sunday afternoon Mandarin classes, next to that arcade where kids smoke cigarettes and make out.” Bin is older than me by maybe 10 years, so the description is a bit dated compared to my own memories, but I’ve lived in the Houston area since I was 10 and frequented the Bellaire area on the weekends for the same reasons. That imagery tapped into a very specific wellspring of emotions for me.

Similarly, there’s a comment illustrating a cultural tendency toward delayed gratification that notes how Taiwanese people often back into parking spaces so they can drive out facing forward. Having just come back from living in Taiwan for the last year, I thought, “ha, too real.”

That’s pretty much where the good stuff ends. Now, on to the critique.

My first critique of the book is the way it overwhelmingly caters to the white gaze. This is quite apparent based on the person The Boba Guys chose to collaborate with for this project. There’s a section of the book called “Bridging Cultural Operating Systems” that talks about the co-writer in detail.

In this section, Andrew and Bin say they “searched far and wide for the white right voice to pair with [their] Asian-ness.” (In case it isn’t clear, the crossed out part is their wording and emphasis, not mine.) They “needed someone who could help [them] broaden [their] perspective.” Notably, they didn’t want to pick another Asian writer because they didn’t want people assuming the book was “For Asians, By Asians;” they clarify that the book is “for everyone.”

So who did they pick? Richard Parks III, a white man they describe as “old-school American,” whose family has been in the U.S. since before the Revolutionary War. (You know who else has been here longer than that? Black and Indigenous people.)

The implications are pretty clear: By liberty of his whiteness, Richard is positioned as the quintessential American, the universal every-man who represents the idealized assumed audience for the book.

The Boba Guys further justify their selection with the following factoids:

“[Richard] was already a self-proclaimed ‘xiao long bao snob.'” I don’t know about other people, but I personally do not care for more white people policing the “authenticity” of Asian food.

“We saw him use the only three Mandarin words he knew to get a hat down to half price in Taipei.” Did they ever consider that his whiteness was what gave him an advantage in the transaction, not his actual bargaining skills? (I also question the use of one’s haggling ability as a metric for determining a co-writer for a book about bubble tea, but you know what…never mind.)

I don’t know for sure how much of the book is written by Richard. Some parts have a byline while others do not. Some of the content is clearly presented from one of the two main writers’ perspectives, given the way it references their particular background and life experiences, while other places use an ambiguous “we.”

However, there are color-coded text bubbles in the margins containing meta-commentary from Andrew, Bin, and Richard (blue for Andrew and Bin, green for Richard, based on the fact that the former use iPhones while the latter uses an Android, as explained in-text). A fraction of the remarks from Richard are random and harmless (albeit somewhat pointless), but many are simply Richard being oblivious about the topic being discussed, thus giving Andrew and Bin the opportunity to explain things for the benefit of the audience. It’s probably supposed to come off as cute and quirky, but I was not amused. There is an exchange where Richard ends with “Namaste.” I mean, seriously?

There’s definitely a level of irony to this situation considering how much time they spend in the introduction waxing poetic about diversity, referencing nonwhite cultures as they relate to bubble tea, and appealing to the notion of the multicultural melting pot as the “American Future” (their words). In the end, they still center whiteness. The apparent contradiction is easily resolved by examining the ways in which the above are used to reinforce whiteness-as-default and white supremacy. But that’s beyond the scope of this review, so I suggest Googling for critiques of the concepts and discourses of “diversity” and the “melting pot” if you’re not familiar with them already.

My second critique is leveled specifically at the section titled “How Every Boba Tea Contains Thousands of Years of History,” which consists of a brief timeline of bubble tea history. I stated earlier that the facts of the book were presented in an accessible fashion, but I’d like to qualify that statement: I took issue with the relative attention to detail, commentary, and framing of this section.

As far as the details are concerned, the primary problem lies in the naming of geographies. In introducing and discussing the cassava root (the plant tapioca is made from), the book says it “has been a staple food in South America for 10,000 years.” South America is an entire continent and not a monolith. This vagueness stands in stark contrast to the mentions of specific countries such as China, India, Japan, the United Kingdom, and Portugal in the rest of the section. Later, it does note that cassava is “an ancient staple of native peoples in what is now Brazil,” which is a slight improvement, but it neglects to mention any specific tribe. This may reflect broader societal biases and erasure in the way Indigenous people are written about, but a relatively brief Google search on my part turned up the name Tupinamba[1][2], so there is a level of laziness or oversight at play.

Next is the commentary and framing. Although the authors make use of headings like “The West ‘Discovers’ (Eye Roll) Tea,” they also play into and reinforce Eurocentric narratives and the whitewashing of history. For example, while explaining the introduction of cassava to Taiwan, they state that “the Spanish and Portuguese made their presence felt on the Ilha Formosa (‘beautiful island’).” First of all, that is a very roundabout way to say “colonized.” (Interestingly, there is no mention of tea being central to Taiwanese culture due to Chinese settler colonialism in Taiwan.)

Secondly, Ilha Formosa is the Portuguese nickname for Taiwan. I’ll admit that when I first learned of it when I was younger, I thought it was cool, but I’ve since grown weary of this “fun fact” because it ultimately privileges white people’s view of the island. Even as the authors roll their eyes at Westerners “discovering” tea, they also choose to emphasize the name given to Taiwan by Westerners upon “discovering” it. The hypocrisy is awkward, to put it lightly.

As we proceed further down the timeline, it gets worse: “Our eye rolling aside, the truth is: Without British imperialism in Asia, there’d be no boba, because the U.K. is where tea was first mixed with milk and sugar. Lactose intolerance is rare in Northern Europe, but in parts of Asia, we’re genetically wired for it. We’d never have thought to put milk in tea. So…thanks? For your conquest? U.K.?”

They might be joking, but I really did not find this part funny at all. The violence of British imperialism continues to have detrimental effects all over the world, but you’re “thanking” the U.K. because you now have a bubble tea business to run and money to earn? History cannot be changed, the facts are what they are, but I think it’s an incredible failure of the imagination to frame this cultural diffusion as the inevitable result of imperialism. It is possible for people to exchange cultural artifacts and traditions through peaceful methods, on equal grounds, without the violence imposed by colonization. The British chose to take over the world for the profit; it was not a natural event, as much as many people want to argue that this is “human nature” in order to justify the current world order.

In a similar vein, they explain that “It’s important to mention that without tea, there probably would be no United States of America. [Rundown of Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution] …because of the British fixation with tea, Americans turned away from it from the start. This part of history is actually important to us, because it sets up the way boba is perceived as a novelty in America. You couldn’t bridge cultures with boba if we’d always drunk tea here.” Again, I dislike the romanticizing of violent histories for the sake of a small favorable outcome. Moreover, here it becomes even more obvious that their primary concern is selling boba, literally and figuratively, to those who find it to be a novelty.

My third critique focuses on a conversation between Andrew, Bin, and Richard about being a “third culture” kid and the Boba Guys’ “obsession with remixing,” as Richard puts it. I’ll be quoting a long passage below, so bear with me.

“ANDREW: Right, in food, fashion, music–basically anything cultural–we tend to see everything as binaries. People like to ask us, ‘Can a non-Asian wear a Chinese qipao?’ or ‘Can white people run a boba shop?’ But we don’t think of everything in terms of is it ‘cultural appropriation’ or ‘cultural appreciation’? There’s another way we think about it. It’s how we run our company and train our team…

BIN: People shouldn’t just show up, cherry pick their favorite things about a culture and start thinking they can rep it, leaving the people who actually grew up with it behind. Culture is inherently contextual. You take parts of it out of context, it doesn’t carry the same meaning and significance.

RICHARD: So it’s always better to appreciate?

ANDREW: Yes, but what or who defines ‘appreciation’? The world is always changing the more cultures come into contact with each other, the closer they can become. It’s exhausting to sit there and be constantly judging: ‘Hey you, ramen burger guy, you’re doing it right. You honor the ramen code. But foie gras pho guy, you’re doing it wrong!’ Who’s the culture police?

RICHARD: The first time somebody put boba pearls into sweetened milk tea….that was a cultural remix. Was it appreciation? Was it appropriation?

ANDREW: Or before that, the first time somebody put milk into tea.

RICHARD: Tea came from the East, but then it went to the West, where milk and sugar were added, and then it came back to the East, where tapioca pearls got dropped in.

BIN: It’s like music producers passing around their samples, adding layers to it each time.

ANDREW: That’s why we think it isn’t about appropriation versus appreciation. It’s about attribution.”

I concede that two good points were made here. One is the importance of attribution. The other is Bin’s commentary on not cherry picking and so forth. However, the rest of the conversation contradicts Bin’s initial points. You can’t harp on the importance of context when it comes to culture and then completely fail to contextualize conversations about cultural appropriation. Andrew’s characterization of people who call out appropriation as “the culture police” is reductive and adopting the rhetoric of people who deny the harm of appropriation and use such a framing to paint themselves as supposed victims of aggression from militant POC/Indigenous folks.

While it’s true that there are flaws in the way cultural appropriation is discussed, it’s important to understand that these conversations and critiques are fundamentally about unequal power dynamics in cultural production, consumption, and representation. It’s about avoiding and critiquing material exploitation of marginalized people. Richard’s East-to-West, West-to-East summary of how bubble tea came to be flattens the geopolitical landscape and strips the history of its context. Go figure that Andrew and Bin spent several pages talking about imperialism in bubble tea history in the most lukewarm way, only for the white guy to come along and subtract it from the equation completely.

There’s an added layer to the irony and hypocrisy when you realize that Andrew and Bin appropriate AAVE (African American Vernacular English) throughout their book. At the end of the introduction, they describe themselves as “culturally wildin’.” When they react to Chun Shui Tang admitting they don’t care about proving they were the first to make bubble tea, they quip, “As the kids say, we were shook.” They attribute “shook” to “the kids” without realizing that it actually comes from AAVE and was subsequently appropriated into mainstream slang. In fact, a lot of popular slang comes from not just Black culture but specifically Black queer culture, so there are layers to the appropriation.

My fourth and final critique (I could probably say more, but this review is too long as it is) concerns the final section, “Reflections from Asia.” Bin shares a story about his Agong (his paternal grandfather) in Taiwan while Andrew talks about his Uncle Michael in Shanghai, reflecting on their family histories and the connection between their relatives’ darker pasts and their own brighter present as successful entrepreneurs. The basic gist of their stories is “look at how much our elders suffered, but now we the younger generation are living the American Dream.” It’s both implicit in the way the stories are narrated and explicit in the heading of the section that immediately follows the stories: “Our (New) American (Boba) Dream.”

Aside from being incredibly trite, this narrative reinforces the myth of American meritocracy and exceptionalism. It’s the model minority myth all over again, packaged in platitudes about “making progress as a society” through cultural remixes. It ignores history and context and big picture thinking about race and class in favor of personal anecdotes of success. I’m tired of it.

In conclusion, this book was disappointing. I had an idea of what to expect based on my first impressions of The Boba Guys, but they somehow managed to fail even the low bar I had set up. Some of my critiques may seem a bit nitpicky, but I honestly don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect people who are positioning themselves as experts on “boba culture” to be more self-aware about how they’re presenting that culture. Food is political, as is culture. By refusing to engage with that reality, they’re doing themselves and their readers a disservice.

If you want to buy the book for the bubble tea recipes, I suggest looking for reviews that address that aspect. If you want thoughtful and nuanced information and commentary on bubble tea culture and history, look elsewhere.

ETA: I just found out from Twitter that the Boba Guys are very blatantly antiblack and have participated in gentrifying the neighborhoods they open up locations in, so do not give your money to them.


If you made it to the end, congratulations and thanks for reading.

I normally don’t do this, but since this review actually took a considerable amount of labor, I’m linking my PayPal for anyone who wants to tip me: paypal.me/theshenners.

[Blog Tour] Review for Anna K by Jenny Lee

I’m late by 3 days, but I’m posting for the blog tour for Anna K by Jenny Lee.

Anna K

Synopsis:

Meet Anna K. At seventeen, she is at the top of Manhattan and Greenwich society (even if she prefers the company of her horses and dogs); she has the perfect (if perfectly boring) boyfriend; and she has always made her Korean-American father proud (even if he can be a bit controlling). Meanwhile, Anna’s brother, Steven, and his girlfriend, Lolly, are trying to weather a sexting scandal; Lolly’s little sister, Kimmie, is recalibrating after an injury derails her ice dancing career; and Steven’s best friend, Dustin, is madly (and one-sidedly) in love with Kimmie.

As her friends struggle with the pitfalls of teenage life, Anna always seems to sail gracefully above it all. That is, until the night she meets Alexi “Count” Vronsky. A notorious playboy, Alexi is everything Anna is not. But he has never been in love until he meets Anna, and maybe she hasn’t either. As Alexi and Anna are pulled irresistibly together, she has to decide how much of her life she is willing to let go to be with him. And when a shocking revelation threatens to shatter their relationship, she is forced to ask if she has ever known herself at all.

Dazzlingly opulent and emotionally riveting, Anna K is a brilliant reimagining of Leo Tolstoy’s timeless love story, Anna Karenina—but above all, it is a novel about the dizzying, glorious, heart-stopping experience of first love and first heartbreak.

My Review:

I have very mixed feelings about Anna K. It was hard for me to get into at first because of how removed the characters’ lives were from mine, with the vast majority of them being part of the literal 1%. I grew up comfortably middle class, but faced with this level of wealth, I felt like I was observing an alien culture. There is wild shit in a lot of contemporary YAs, but add in extreme wealth and you get next level wild shit. The high class setting also comes with an even more rigid set of social expectations and pressures than your average teen might be subject to.

It was also hard for me to get into the story toward the beginning because the characters felt a lot more shallow, and everything happening to them simply felt like petty drama. What the characters were calling love felt more like infatuation. And yeah, I get that this is a common experience for teens, confounding the two, but I wasn’t understanding even the source of the infatuation except the stereotypical teen hormones and encounters between people who conform to hegemonic beauty standards. Even as the story progressed, I still wasn’t convinced that the two main characters were really in love because I felt like the narrative placed so much emphasis on their physical/sexual attraction to each other over more substantial emotional bonding. I wasn’t invested in the main romance at all.

On the plus side, I got to experience the train wreck of this story with no expectations or prior knowledge since I have never read Anna Karenina, the original story this is a retelling of. So I was just popping my figurative popcorn watching shit hit the fan more times than should be possible in a single novel. Whether there was True Love or not between the leads, there was definitely a lot of teens making Truly Terrible Life Choices and facing the consequences, and that was a source of entertainment for me, somewhat.

The final third of book was probably where the story hit the hardest and I started to feel the story pull its own weight. And despite some of the petty drama aspects I alluded to, the book did also explore (to varying degrees) serious topics such as drug addiction, depression, grief, misogyny/slut-shaming, and there was even a bit of commentary race and class (though far less of it than I wished there had been, but maybe that’s just my ethnic studies background speaking).

My disappointment in the main couple aside, the supporting characters’ story arcs and relationship dynamics were comparatively more engaging and interesting to me, especially those of Dustin and Kimmie. Another point in this book’s favor: Anna, a teen girl, unapologetically owns her sexuality, is shown taking initiative in sex, and sex isn’t treated with kid gloves. I’m actually fairly surprised by how explicit some of the scenes were; it was not your usual figurative language-laden, fade to black kind of fare.

I guess if I had one more comment/critique to add, it’s that this book was overwhelmingly heteronormative (and completely cisnormative; there was no mention of trans people even existing). There were four named queer characters, but only one had a more important role in the story, two of them made zero actual appearances in the story, and one was just there to be a “gay BFF” (direct quote from the book) to a straight girl. There were a few unnamed queer characters mentioned once in passing, and they were literally referred to as “gays,” which, coming from an author who is as far as I know, straight, was rather off-putting to read. Moreover, the overarching framing of the narrative was completely focused on the m/f relationships and gender dynamics, so the commentary on patriarchy and misogyny lacked nuance.

In conclusion: I didn’t completely hate the story, but I ultimately didn’t love it either, though I wanted to because I had high hopes for it going in. It might just be a taste thing.

CWs/TWs: drugs (use/addiction/overdose), alcohol, depression, death (human and animal), infidelity, explicit sex, mentions of self-harm, suicidal ideation, misogyny (some challenged in-text, some not), racist microaggressions against Asian and mixed race people

About the Author:

Jenny Lee is a television writer and producer who has worked on BET’s Boomerang, IFC’s Brockmire, Freeform’s Young & Hungry, and the Disney Channel’s number-one-rated kids’ show, Shake It Up. Jenny is the author of four humor essay collections and two middle grade novels. Anna K: A Love Story is her debut YA novel. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and 135-pound Newfoundland, Gemma (and yes, it’s a toss-up on who’s walking who every day). Instagram: @jennyleewrites

[Blog Tour] Review for Mindy Kim and the Yummy Seaweed Business by Lyla Lee

Today I’m excited to be part of the blog tour for Mindy Kim and Yummy Seaweed Business by Lyla Lee (with illustrations by Dung Ho), the first in a new chapter book series focusing on a Korean American girl. The book and its sequel, Mindy Kim and the Lunar New Year Parade, will be released on January 14th by Aladdin Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster).

Synopsis:

Fresh Off the Boat meets Junie B. Jones in this first novel in an adorable new chapter book series about Mindy Kim, a young Asian American girl who is starting a snack business!

Mindy Kim just wants three things:
1. A puppy!
2. To fit in at her new school
3. For her dad to be happy again

But, getting all three of the things on her list is a lot trickier than she thought it would be. On her first day of school, Mindy’s school snack of dried seaweed isn’t exactly popular at the lunch table. Luckily, her new friend, Sally, makes the snacks seem totally delicious to Mindy’s new classmates, so they decide to start the Yummy Seaweed Business to try and raise money for that puppy!

When another student decides to try and sabotage their business, Mindy loses more than she bargained for—and wonders if she’ll ever fit in. Will Mindy be able to overcome her uncertainty and find the courage to be herself?

I loved this book. It’s super adorable and I found various aspects of it very relatable. One thing I shared with Mindy was being the new kid who moved from one state to another (I moved twice when I was a kid) and the struggles of navigating and adapting in a new social environment. Another was being the lone or minority Asian kid. Unlike Mindy, I was fortunate not to have the “ew, what’s that” lunch experience (I bought lunch from school for most of my school years), but thankfully the microaggression gets subverted and things makes a turn for the better in the story.

The second aspect was Mindy’s family situation. Her mother recently passed away from illness, and she and her dad have to adjust to the loss and the change. I lost my mom to leukemia in 2016, so I empathized with Mindy and her family’s grief. Although her mom is no longer around, Mindy still has her dad, and I loved how close and loving their relationship is. They communicate openly with each other and support each other through their rough patches, and it reminded me of my own bond with my dad.

Another theme in the book is friendship. Mindy manages to make a friend named Sally, and things look bright until a messy incident comes between them. When I was a kid, I had a friendship that went sour and never recovered, and sometimes I still find myself regretting it, so I think it’s important to teach kids conflict resolution, which the story does. It emphasizes the importance of making amends and the power of a sincere apology, which was nice.

The story wraps up with a happy and somewhat open ending that leaves room for more to come. I can’t wait to read the next books in the series.

About the Author:

Lyla Lee Credit CJ Lee

LYLA LEE is a writer of many things. After working various jobs in Hollywood and studying psychology and cinematic arts at USC, she now lives in Dallas, Texas. When she is not writing, she is teaching, watching Korean dramas and other TV shows, and eating all kinds of good food. Visit her online at lylaleebooks.com and on Twitter and Instagram at @literarylyla.

 

About the Illustrator:
DUNG HO was born and raised in Hue, Vietnam, where she studied graphic design at the Hue University College of Arts. After graduating, she worked in the design and advertising industries before discovering a great passion for illustration and picture books and becoming a freelance illustrator. Currently, she lives and works in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam. Ho draws inspiration from nature and the interaction between people and nature and especially loves to draw children. When not drawing, she enjoys cooking and watching movies. Visit her online at dungho.me and on Instagram @dunghanhho.

Don’t miss the rest of the tour:

MINDY KIM AND THE YUMMY SEAWEED BUSINESS BLOG TOUR

Monday, 1/6: YA Book Nerd

Tuesday, 1/7: MG Book Village

Wednesday, 1/8: The Subversive Table

Thursday, 1/9: Jean’s Little Library

Friday, 1/10: READING (AS)(I)AN (AM)ERICA

Monday 1/13: Daddy Mojo

Tuesday, 1/14: Books, Movies, Reviews. Oh my

Wednesday, 1/15: Cracking the Cover

Thursday, 1/16: YA Books Central

Friday, 1/17: Bicultural Mama

Review for More to the Story by Hena Khan

I really enjoyed Hena Khan’s middle grade debut Amina’s Voice (review here), so I’m happy that Simon & Schuster offered me a copy of More to the Story to read and review.

More to the Story

Synopsis:

From the critically acclaimed author of Amina’s Voice comes a new story inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s beloved classic, Little Women, featuring four sisters from a modern American Muslim family living in Georgia.

When Jameela Mirza is picked to be feature editor of her middle school newspaper, she’s one step closer to being an award-winning journalist like her late grandfather. The problem is her editor-in-chief keeps shooting down her article ideas. Jameela’s assigned to write about the new boy in school, who has a cool British accent but doesn’t share much, and wonders how she’ll make his story gripping enough to enter into a national media contest.

Jameela, along with her three sisters, is devastated when their father needs to take a job overseas, away from their cozy Georgia home for six months. Missing him makes Jameela determined to write an epic article—one to make her dad extra proud. But when her younger sister gets seriously ill, Jameela’s world turns upside down. And as her hunger for fame looks like it might cost her a blossoming friendship, Jameela questions what matters most, and whether she’s cut out to be a journalist at all…

My Review:

More to the Story is an endearing story about a Muslim Pakistani American girl, Jameela, who’s struggling to deal with several stressful changes and situations in her life. It touches on multiple themes and manages to balance a number of subplots well and resolve them with a pitch-perfect ending.

First among the issues touched on in the story is Jameela’s father leaving the family to work a job far away. Life as a middle schooler can be tough enough as it is without one of your parents being across the globe. Although modern technology allows long-distance communication, it’s definitely not the same as having your parent by your side on a day-to-day basis. I found this particular struggle of Jameela’s relatable because when I was a teen, my dad had to take a job that forced him to relocate over a thousand miles away, and I missed him terribly. Like Jameela, I have a close relationship with my dad, so I found their dynamic touching.

Another central theme in the story was sibling dynamics. Jameela is a middle child, with an older sister and two younger sisters. I’m also a middle child, with one older sister, and one younger sister. Her relationships with her siblings don’t look anything like mine, but it was still interesting to see how they played out. This story emphasized how, even if you envy them or find them annoying at times, your siblings are your family, and you can’t help but love and care about them.

The third theme I want to talk about is friendship. In the story, Jameela meets and befriends the nephew of a family friend, a British Pakistani boy named Ali who has just moved to the U.S. I liked the way their friendship was developed, with Ali gradually opening up to Jameela, who has a genuine desire to understand him better and help him with the troubles he’s dealing with on his own. I also appreciated the exploration of consent and boundaries and ethical journalism when Ali and his experiences became a tentative topic/subject for Jameela’s school newspaper article.

Next is the subplot on Bisma, Jameela’s younger sister, who develops a tumor. Cancer is terrifying. I know this firsthand from when my mom got leukemia. Despite the fear and uncertainty, Jameela is able to cope with support from her family and takes it upon herself to be as supportive of an older sister as possible. I was several years older than Jameela when my mom was diagnosed, but I found myself admiring and envying her bravery and resilience in the face of everything, and I really wanted to give her a hug to let her know she’s not alone in experiencing such a scary situation.

Another topic that came up in the story was anger management. Jameela is a passionate person who feels things intensely, and sometimes that manifests as anger, which can have destructive consequences. The story is explicit about addressing this issue, which made me appreciate it even more. I feel like if I’d had a book like this when I was younger, I wouldn’t have struggled so much with anger as a teen, something that definitely negatively impacted my relationships with my peers.

Last, but not least, I loved that this book showed a teen pursuing a creative passion and having it taken seriously. A lot of times people downplay kids’ hobbies and interests as things that are fleeting or pointless, so it was heartening to read a story where a young teen character does what she loves and is supported in that endeavor by her parents and other adults. It’s my hope that young readers of this book will feel encouraged follow their dreams, be it journalism or art or science, and carry their passion into the future with them.

All in all, this was a heartwarming read that’s perfect for anyone who loves stories about family, sisterhood, and love in all its manifestations.

[Blog Tour] Review for Song of the Crimson Flower by Julie C. Dao

Hi everyone, I’m back for another blog tour, this time for Song of the Crimson Flower by Julie C. Dao. The tour is hosted by Rafael (The Royal Polar Bear Reads) and Erika (The Nocturnal Fey). I was excited for this release and tour since I really enjoyed both of Julie’s previous books, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns and Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix. I reviewed FOTL back in 2017, so if you want to check out that review, here’s the link.

Song of the Crimson Flower

Synopsis:

From the acclaimed author of Forest of a Thousand Lanterns comes a fantastical new tale of darkness and love, in which magical bonds are stronger than blood.

Will love break the spell? After cruelly rejecting Bao, the poor physician’s apprentice who loves her, Lan, a wealthy nobleman’s daughter, regrets her actions. So when she finds Bao’s prized flute floating in his boat near her house, she takes it into her care, not knowing that his soul has been trapped inside it by an evil witch, who cursed Bao, telling him that only love will set him free. Though Bao now despises her, Lan vows to make amends and help break the spell.

Together, the two travel across the continent, finding themselves in the presence of greatness in the forms of the Great Forest’s Empress Jade and Commander Wei. They journey with Wei, getting tangled in the webs of war, blood magic, and romance along the way. Will Lan and Bao begin to break the spell that’s been placed upon them? Or will they be doomed to live out their lives with black magic running through their veins?

This story was different in tone from the first two Rise of the Empress books, but it had its own appeal. It’s a lot quieter, in my opinion, but not in a bad way. It’s a beautiful story about the power of love, both familial and romantic.

One of the major themes of the book is the discrepancy between expectations and reality when you’re infatuated with someone. Both of the main characters, Bao and Lan, deal with a painful awakening when the person they admired turns out not to be the person they imagined in their head. In the aftermath of this pain, the two begin to learn what love with substance looks like.

The relationship between Lan and Bao goes through a lot of change throughout the story. It starts out as a one-sided infatuation on Bao’s part, and there is a rift between Lan and Bao because Bao helped Lan’s crush deceive her. There’s a very tangible awkwardness between the two as they begin their journey, but gradually, the two are brought closer together not only by their shared quest to break the curse on Bao but a openness to giving the other person a chance. It’s a very subtle and tender relationship that touches the heart.

I really liked Bao’s character. If you’re looking for soft boys, Bao is a perfect example. His defining feature is his kindness and compassion for others, which shows in his work as a physician’s apprentice. He’s also a romantic who loves music and poetry and expresses himself through these things. One of his greatest desires is a family and a place to belong, making him a very sympathetic character.

By contrast, Lan comes off as a bit spoiled and naive at first, but she becomes more likable as the story progresses. Though she may not have any extraordinary magic or fighting skill, she does have a good heart and is willing to do what she must to help Bao.

Besides the romance, another of the engaging aspects of the story is the exploration of family ties. Bao starts off not knowing any of his blood relations but later learns his mother is still alive and waiting for him to reunite with her. However, his desire to connect with her and be loved by her conflicts with his own sense of morals after learning her history and her current activities (I won’t spoil what exactly she’s doing, but it’s not pretty). He has to make some tough choices about his family’s legacy.

While Song of the Crimson Flower is a companion novel to two other books, it does work as a standalone. I personally think reading the Rise of the Empress duology first will make for a deeper appreciation of the book because it includes some supporting characters whose backgrounds are explored in the original duology. Plus, if you read this book first, there will be some spoilers since it takes place after the events of the original duology.

About the Author:

Julie C Dao author photoJulie C. Dao (www.juliedao.com) is a proud Vietnamese-American who was born in upstate New York. She studied medicine in college, but came to realize blood and needles were her Kryptonite. By day, she worked in science news and research; by night, she wrote books about heroines unafraid to fight for their dreams, which inspired her to follow her passion of becoming a published author. Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is her debut novel. Julie lives in New England. Follow her on Twitter @jules_writes.

 

Author links:

Website – http://www.juliedao.com/
Goodreads – https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/15215228.Julie_C_Dao
Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/juliecdao

Book links:

Goodreads – https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/32605126-song-of-the-crimson-flowerAmazonhttps://www.amazon.com/Song-Crimson-Flower-Julie-Dao/dp/1524738352
Barnes & Noble – https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/song-of-the-crimson-flower-julie-c-dao/1130550411
Book Depository – https://www.bookdepository.com/Song-Crimson-Flower-Julie-C-Dao/9781524738358
IndieBound – https://www.indiebound.org/book/9781524738358

 

[Blog Tour] Review for The Never Tilting World by Rin Chupeco

Hi everyone, it’s been a while since my last post, but I’m back again to participate in the blog tour for The Never Tilting World, hosted by Caffeine Book Tours, which is run by Shealea.

The Never Tilting World

BOOK INFORMATION

Title: The Never Tilting World
Author: Rin Chupeco
Publisher: Harper Collins
Publication date: 15 October 2019
Genres: Young Adult, Fantasy

Synopsis:

Frozen meets Mad Max in this epic teen fantasy duology bursting with star-crossed romance, immortal heroines, and elemental magic, perfect for fans of Furyborn.

Generations of twin goddesses have long ruled Aeon. But seventeen years ago, one sister’s betrayal defied an ancient prophecy and split their world in two. The planet ceased to spin, and a Great Abyss now divides two realms: one cloaked in perpetual night, the other scorched by an unrelenting sun.

While one sister rules Aranth—a frozen city surrounded by a storm-wracked sea —her twin inhabits the sand-locked Golden City. Each goddess has raised a daughter, and each keeps her own secrets about her sister’s betrayal.

But when shadowy forces begin to call their daughters, Odessa and Haidee, back to the site of the Breaking, the two young goddesses —along with a powerful healer from Aranth, and a mouthy desert scavenger —set out on separate journeys across treacherous wastelands, desperate to heal their broken world. No matter the sacrifice it demands.

Review:

The synopsis set up a lot of expectations, and by and large, I think the book delivered what was promised. The story was a rollicking ride from start to finish. I read the ARC in ebook format, so I was surprised when I saw that the page count was around 500 pages because it didn’t feel like it because of the swift pacing.

It’s not mentioned in the synopsis, but the story is told in four different points of view, one for each of the characters mentioned in the final paragraph, all of them in first-person. I think the author did a good job of using the alternating POVs to enhance the storytelling, especially in terms of revealing/withholding key information that created dramatic irony and narrative tension. The POVs were like pieces of a puzzle; assembling them allowed for a clearer and deeper understanding of the world, the web of characters, and the histories/mythologies that were scattered and lost or hidden in the process of the Aeon’s Breaking.

To talk a little more about the characters: Odessa and Haidee were interesting to me because even though they are literal goddesses with superpowers beyond what everyone else can do, they’re still fallible, and their agency is limited by their respective environments. They are not all-knowing or all-powerful, they’re just teens trying to figure shit out and do the best they can with what resources they have. Their immense power is balanced out by an immense personal responsibility for literally saving the world. Because the bigger picture stakes of the story are so intimately bound up in the characters’ personal stakes, the stress on them is enormous, which makes for great character development arcs.

As for the other two characters, I was pleasantly surprised to find two disabled characters being front and center in the story. I definitely connected with Tianlan, Odessa’s bodyguard and the de facto leader of Aranth’s mission to the Great Abyss. Her past experience on a similar journey traumatized her, leaving her with PTSD. Her psychological struggles were relatable to me as someone who has mental illness as well. I appreciate that the story treated her and her illness with care and compassion and that the worldbuilding acknowledged the existence and impact of mental illness alongside other physical or even magical ailments.

Then we have Arjun, orphan, amputee, and snark-master extraordinaire. He’s practical and cynical, a survivor down to the bone, more invested in the here and now than any abstract future. At first he’s ready to take revenge for the climate disaster on the goddess Haidee, but slowly, reluctantly, he finds himself choosing hope and believing that they can fix the world. He’s the kind of underdog that you can’t help but root for.

Another strength of the book is the worldbuilding. Aeon is a world of extreme contrasts, a world of beautiful chaos, and the details and description in the story provide breathtaking visuals for both the physical setting (the two cities as well the surrounding wastelands and the frightening and fascinating creatures that inhabit them) and the elemental magic system. The author wasn’t afraid to push the envelope and go wild with the aesthetics, so I think this story would be perfect for an animated movie adaptation.

For those who love a good romance, there are not one but two romantic pairings and subplots in The Never Tilting World, one f/f, the other m/f. The f/f romance features the guard/princess dynamic, while the m/f has two bickering strangers-turned-allies forced to cohabitate in a small space together. I personally found the f/f romance more compelling, probably because it has more emotional baggage and angst attached to it stemming from trust issues and conflicts of interest. However, both relationships had their tensions and buildup.

And for those who aren’t really as interested in romance, there is plenty of non-romantic plot and character development, including some interesting twists. I hope you get the same emotional journey out of this book that I did.

Content/Trigger Warnings: PTSD, ableist language, references to sexual assault, sex (non-graphic)

About the Author:

Rin Chupeco author photoRin Chupeco has written obscure manuals for complicated computer programs, talked people out of their money at event shows, and done many other terrible things. She now writes about ghosts and fantastic worlds but is still sometimes mistaken for a revenant. She is the author of The Girl from the Well, its sequel, The Suffering, and the Bone Witch trilogy.

Despite an unsettling resemblance to Japanese revenants, Rin always maintains her sense of hummus. Born and raised in Manila, Philippines, she keeps four pets: a dog, two birds, and a husband. Dances like the neighbors are watching.

Author links:

Author website —https://www.rinchupeco.com/
Goodreads — https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/7055613.Rin_Chupeco
Instagram — https://www.instagram.com/rinchupeco
Pinterest — https://www.pinterest.com/rinchupeco/
Twitter —https://www.twitter.com/rinchupeco 

Book links:

Amazon — https://amzn.to/2kMphSI
Book Depository — https://www.bookdepository.com/The-Never-Tilting-World/9780062821799
Goodreads — https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/36321739-the-never-tilting-world

Don’t miss out on the other stops on the blog tour:

Tour Schedule (The Never Tilting World)

Also, if you have the time, join us for the end-of-tour Twitter chat about The Never Tilting World:

Twitter Chat Info (The Never Tilting World)

 

[Blog Tour] Review for Jade War by Fonda Lee

Hello! Today’s post is for the Jade War blog tour hosted by Shealea at Caffeine Book Tours. I’m excited to be a part of this tour since I’ve read and enjoyed all of Fonda Lee’s previous works. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to review Jade City before this, but rest assured that I savored it immensely. (I did previously interview Fonda Lee about Jade City and her YA scifi book Exo here if you want to read that.) If you haven’t read Jade City yet, you might want to wait to read it first before reading this review because there are some inevitable spoilers for book 1. That said, this review is spoiler-free as far as Jade War itself is concerned.

Before we get to the review, here’s the basic info about the book:

Jade War

Title: Jade War
Author: Fonda Lee
Publisher: Orbit Books
Publication date: 23 July 2019
Genres: Adult, Fantasy

Synopsis:

In Jade War, the sequel to the World Fantasy Award-winning novel Jade City, the Kaul siblings battle rival clans for honor and control over an Asia-inspired fantasy metropolis. 

On the island of Kekon, the Kaul family is locked in a violent feud for control of the capital city and the supply of magical jade that endows trained Green Bone warriors with supernatural powers they alone have possessed for hundreds of years. 

Beyond Kekon’s borders, war is brewing. Powerful foreign governments and mercenary criminal kingpins alike turn their eyes on the island nation. Jade, Kekon’s most prized resource, could make them rich – or give them the edge they’d need to topple their rivals. 

Faced with threats on all sides, the Kaul family is forced to form new and dangerous alliances, confront enemies in the darkest streets and the tallest office towers, and put honor aside in order to do whatever it takes to ensure their own survival – and that of all the Green Bones of Kekon. 

Jade War is the second book of the Green Bone Saga, an epic trilogy about family, honor, and those who live and die by the ancient laws of blood and jade.

Review:

I read this shortly after finishing Jade City, so everything from book 1 was fresh in my mind and I was super hyped. Sequels, especially the second in a trilogy, are hard to nail because they need to live up to–if not exceed–the first book while also building toward the next/final book. Jade War definitely exceeded my expectations.

As you probably know, Jade City was a character-driven book, so character development was crucial to the success of Jade War. Jade War absolutely delivered on that front. It was amazing to see how Hilo and Shae grew into their roles as Pillar and Weatherman, respectively, as well as how Anden found a place for himself outside of the traditional Green Bone mold. I was also happy to follow Wen’s arc since it had been foreshadowed that she would play a bigger part in the No Peak Clan’s activities for a while. All of the characters were tested in how they dealt with increasingly difficult situations and decisions. That leads me to my next topic.

The geographical scope of Jade War is bigger than that of Jade City, and the worldbuilding is expanded upon. The Green Bones have to deal with more than just inter-clan conflict, they also have to handle threats and opportunities from outside forces on multiple fronts. I was especially thrilled to see a diasporic Kekonese community portrayed in Jade War, and I think the intricacies of those diasporic experiences were done well. We mostly view them through the eyes of Anden, who is studying abroad in Espenia and hosted by a Keko-Espenian family. Although he feels it is not the same as Kekon, he comes to respect and immerse himself in this community.

Jade War is an extremely complex story with many different characters with varied agendas, but Lee juggles these aspects so well. From geopolitical machinations to international trade to black market dealings to interpersonal conflicts, all of these pieces inform one another and fit together so well that I’m impressed and frankly, envious.

Last but not least, I have to say that this book contains some of the best action scenes that I’ve ever read. I was on the edge of my seat for so many of them because I was internally freaking out over what might happen next. I have rarely been so stressed out by a fictional scene, but these were so well-written my stomach was churning with anxiety and I could physically feel my body warming up from the emotional impact. If you’re reading Jade War, you’re in for a rollercoaster ride beyond compare.

So much happens in Jade War and yet there is foreshadowing for still more to come. I think I might die waiting for the final installment of this trilogy.

Content/Trigger Warnings: violence, dismemberment, drug use, murder, homophobia

About the Author:

Author photo (Fonda Lee)Fonda Lee writes science fiction and fantasy for adults and teens. She is the author of the Green Bone Saga, beginning with Jade City (Orbit), which won the 2018 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, was nominated for the Nebula Award and the Locus Award, and was named a Best Book of 2017 by NPR, Barnes & Noble, Syfy Wire, and others. The second book in the Green Bone Saga, Jade War, releases in the summer of 2019. Fonda’s young adult science fiction novels Zeroboxer (Flux), Exo and Cross Fire (Scholastic), have garnered numerous accolades including being named Junior Library Guild Selection, Andre Norton Award finalist, Oregon Book Award finalist, Oregon Spirit Book Award winner, and YALSA Top Ten Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers. In 2018, Fonda gained the distinction of winning the Aurora Award, Canada’s national science fiction and fantasy award, twice in the same year for Best Novel and Best Young Adult Novel.

Fonda wrote her first novel, about a dragon on a quest for a magic pendant, in fifth grade during the long bus ride to and from school each day. Many years later, she cast her high school classmates as characters in her second novel, a pulpy superhero saga co-written with a friend by passing a graphing calculator back and forth during biology class. Fortunately, both of these experiments are lost to the world forever.

Fonda is a former corporate strategist who has worked for or advised a number of Fortune 500 companies. She holds black belts in karate and kung fu, goes mad for smart action movies (think The Matrix, Inception, and Minority Report) and is an Eggs Benedict enthusiast. Born and raised in Calgary, Canada, she currently resides in Portland, Oregon.

Author links:

Author website — https://fondalee.com/about-fonda-lee/
Goodreads — http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/7705004.Fonda_Lee
Facebook — https://www.facebook.com/fonda.lee.94
Twitter — http://www.twitter.com/FondaJLee
Tumblr — http://fondalee.tumblr.com/ 

Book links:

Amazon — https://amzn.to/2LIhqRg
Book Depository — https://www.bookdepository.com/Jade-War/9780356510538
Goodreads — https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/41716919-jade-war

Don’t miss out on the other stops on the blog tour:

Tour Schedule (Jade War)

 

 

 

Review for Caster by Elsie Chapman

Caster

Disclaimer: I received an advance reader copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. My review is based on an uncorrected proof, which may be different from the finalized version that releases on September 3rd, 2019.

Synopsis:

If the magic doesn’t kill her, the truth just might.

Aza Wu knows that real magic is dangerous and illegal. After all, casting killed her sister, Shire. As with all magic, everything comes at a price. For Aza, it feels like everything in her life has some kind of cost attached to it. Her sister had been casting for money to pay off Saint Willow, the gang leader that oversees her sector of Lotusland. If you want to operate a business there, you have to pay your tribute. And now with Shire dead, Aza must step in to save the legacy of Wu Teas, the teahouse that has been in her family for centuries.

When Aza comes across a secret invitation, she decides she doesn’t have much else to lose. She quickly realizes that she’s entered herself into an underground casting tournament, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. Real magic, real consequences. As she competes, Aza fights for her life against some very strong and devious competitors.

When the facts about Shire’s death don’t add up, the police start to investigate. When the tributes to Saint Willow aren’t paid, the gang comes to collect. When Aza is caught sneaking around with fresh casting wounds, her parents are alarmed. As Aza’s dangerous web of lies continues to grow, she is caught between trying to find a way out and trapping herself permanently.

My Review:

I’m writing this review barely an hour after finishing, and my first thoughts after finishing were, “I need to go lie down.” I mean that in the best sense, by the way.

Honestly, whoever said urban fantasy is dead needs to take a seat and maybe read one by an author of color, which, in this case, means Caster. I read the entire book in a single sitting because the story grabbed me from the beginning and didn’t let go. It was incredibly fast paced and suspenseful, and I couldn’t put it down. There were many twists and developments that surprised me, and that ending really had me speechless as well as clamoring for more.

Although I was worried at the very beginning because I was dumped straight into an unfamiliar world with a lot of information hitting me, I quickly found my bearings and didn’t feel weighed down by the worldbuilding. According to the author, the story is set in a city based on Vancouver, and I was able to pick up on some of the clues to that in the way geographical elements were named as well as the presence of a substantial ethnically Chinese population. The way the author characterized the city was atmospheric and haunting, like the looming shadow of a very possible future brought about by climate change.

The magic system in this book was very distinctive and easy to follow. As the synopsis states, there’s a price to magic, both on an individual level as well as an environmental level. Using and overusing magic can take an incredible permanent–and even fatal–physical toll on the user as well as the earth itself, giving the magic-using characters’ actions a tangible sense of weight and consequence. The way magic and its aftereffects were described engaged of the senses, so I didn’t have any trouble imagining it in my head.

If I had to pitch this book using comp titles, I’d call it Warcross meets The Hunger Games. The heroine, Aza Wu, enters a high-stakes competition out of desperation to help her family and ends up in over her head. I was on the edge of my seat dreading the obstacles that would be thrown at her next and wondering how the hell she was going to survive them. Like both of the comp titles, Caster features special arenas for the competitions, but generated by magic rather than being real (Hunger Games style) or virtual reality (Warcross). It would be super cool if this book were made into a movie (*stares at entertainment companies*).

Aza, the protagonist, made for a fascinating character because of her willingness to take immense risks. I sometimes think maybe I’m a bit too impulsive for my own good, but watching Aza try to bluff and lie and gamble every step of the way, I wanted to scream because all of my danger alerts were going off. However, she isn’t just bold, she’s also smart and resourceful and mentally tough, so I never once considered giving up on her as a character.

Although the book isn’t primarily about Aza’s Chineseness, her cultural background still played a part in her story and her characterization in various ways. Her family owns a once-prestigious traditional tea shop that’s been passed down through generations and across continents, and her pride in this legacy is a contributing factor to the stakes of the book because she wants to keep alive the languishing business. In addition, while Aza isn’t perfectly obedient to her parents, she’s still very loyal to and considerate of them and how her actions might affect them and does everything she can to protect them, even if it’s to her own detriment. And among the main antagonists in the story is a Chinese gang with a deeply intertwined, albeit parasitic, relationship with the Chinese community of the city. Although the setting is fictional, it definitely draws on real histories and present realities where coethnics in diaspora both help and prey on one another.

Among the main themes of the book are revenge and power and whether they’re worth the cost. The experiences and decisions of different characters and the lasting effects engage with this question from different angles and made me think about what I’d do if I were in their position. So aside from being entertaining, this book is also a thought-provoking read regarding ethics on an individual and societal level.

In conclusion, if you’re looking for a dark, thrilling read with a strong heroine and vivid setting, Caster is a book to check out.

Content/trigger warnings: blood, violence, death/murder