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.

Review for The Ship Beyond Time by Heidi Heilig

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Note: This book is the sequel to The Girl From Everywhere (review linked).

My Summary: Just when Nix thinks she has her fate in her hands, she learns of a terrible prophecy: she is destined to lose the one she loves to the sea. Desperate to save Kash, she sets off on a quest to a mythical utopia to find a man who claims he can change history and therefore the future. Except this utopia isn’t quite the perfect place it’s said to be, and changing history may create more problems than it solves…

Review:

The Ship Beyond Time has all of the charms of The Girl From Everywhere and continues to build on the relationships and themes from the first book while introducing a few new characters and conflicts.

The central relationships between Nix and Kash and Nix and Slate are deepened and complicated through their new adventures and obstacles. Plus, we get to see more of Bee and Ayen, who are married with Nix, Kash, and now Blake as their adopted children (so cute!), as well as Rotgut, who reveals that he once had a lover who became a monk instead (I am 100% down with queering up the cast even more, yes).

My favorite thing about the scene involving the latter is that the crew asks Rotgut about this unnamed former lover with, “What was their name?” One important way of challenging cisheteronormativity is by using gender neutral pronouns to refer to unknown or hypothetical people in general and when it comes to crushes, partners, spouses, etc. It’s small but significant because the language we use matters.

Although some people might call it a love triangle, I never really saw Blake as genuine competition for Nix’s affection because it’s pretty clear from the beginning of the book that Nix loves Kash and only sees Blake as a friend. What was more interesting and engaging to me was the interactions and dynamic between Kash and Blake, who share certain things in common and are in this adventure together despite their [perceived] rivalry over Nix.

One of the things I really liked about the character arcs and development was that they always connected back to a common theme of exploring the implications of Navigation. With Blake, it’s about the question of whether to change history when it involves injustice like the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. With Kash, it’s the sort of existential crisis that inevitably arises when you consider that he came from a place that was imagined and made up by a random French author. With Nix and her father Slate, it’s about whether the sacrifices are worth it when it comes to trying to save the one you love.

From the beginning, this book grabs your attention and your heart and doesn’t let go. It is fast-paced and hard-hitting with so many twists and revelations. Beyond driving the plot forward, most of these twists and revelations also pack an emotional punch and saturate you with so many intense feelings. I don’t want to spoil anything important, so I’ll just say that I spent a lot of time screaming internally while reading this book (partially because everyone in my house was asleep), and the ending was unexpected but still great. Even after you finish the book, the story and the characters will stay with you and live on. Although this book is the conclusion to the series, there is room for more adventures with Nix, and I would not object at all to more books being added.

As with the previous book, there is bonus material at the end of the book discussing the origins and histories of various characters and locales that come from real life or myth. I always love reading background information about the books I read because it adds to my enjoyment and understanding of the book.

Recommendation: Highly recommended for fantasy-lovers who want to be emotionally ruined by a book.

January and February Recaps, Blogger Life Updates, and More!

I can’t believe it’s already March. The year is more than 1/6 over. A lot has happened on my blog and in my offline life.

January Recap

In January, I started/attempted 5 different reading challenges, 3 year-long ones and 2 short-term ones.

The year-long ones included:

  • Diversity Bingo 2017 – This one is pinned at the top of my blog, so y’all probably know about it. The goal is to get a blackout on the bingo board, and since I know I’ll be reading more one book for each square/category, I started adding extra bingo boards to accommodate the repeats. So far every book I’ve read this year has counted for a square, something I’m very happy about and proud of. Here are my boards as of today:

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  • Read Diverse 2017 hosted by Naz – I forgot to announce this one, but I’ve been doing it since the beginning of the year. This challenge doesn’t have specific prompts like the above, but rather categories of books and posts that count toward the challenge, and you link up reviews, discussion posts, listicles, etc. to earn points. Once you pass certain point milestones, you get a pretty badge. The person with the highest score at the end of each three-month period and at the end of the year gets a special prize. My badges are on display in the footer of my blog in a slideshow, but here they are side-by-side. 🙂
  • Goodreads 2017 Reading Challenge – Last year I read a total of 180 books, with 120 being first-time reads and the other 60 being rereads. This year I set a goal of 200 books. Because of life stuff and a reading slump, I’m currently on book #18 and 17 book behind, r.i.p. However, since The Hate U Give pulled me out of my slump, I may be able to catch up within the next month or two.

The short-term reading challenges were:

  • Dumbledore’s Army Readathon – There were 7 prompts based on Harry Potter spells. I finished 4 out of the 7 books and reviewed 3 of them. The review of the 4th is still pending. The remaining 3 books are still on my TBR. You can find the reviews linked in the reading challenge announcement post above.
  • DiverseAThon – This was a week-long challenge. I picked out 7 books, half of them middle grade, and then only ended up reading 4 out of the 7 during the actual reading challenge period and finished 1 out of the remaining 3 in February. I’ve reviewed 2 out of the books I’ve read (linked in the reading challenge post), the reviews for the other 3 are pending. (Yes, I’m behind on reviewing, sigh.)

In January, I also hosted my first author interview with debut indie author Ishara Deen.

February Recap

My February TBR was themed around Black History Month and includes around 50 titles by Black authors. Because I was still catching up on January reads and went through a book slump, I only read 2 books by Black authors during the month of February. However, I have a bunch of books by Black authors on my shelves waiting to be read still, and uplifting Black voices is a year-round, ongoing commitment, so even though Black History Month is behind us, I’m still reading Black authors throughout the rest of the year, of course. 🙂

Other significant February posts include:

Blogger Life Updates and Some Self-Promo

I got a temp job in late January that was supposed to last a few days, but it got extended multiple times because my employer kept finding new tasks for me to do. I just finished my most recent assignment, so things are quiet and I don’t know if I’ll get anything else from them. I interviewed for a full-time job, but it’s up in the air whether I’ll get the job and if I do, it probably won’t be for a long time because of internal bureaucracy stuff in the company (my older sister works for them). So in the meantime, I’m basically unemployed and financially dependent on my dad, who also just got laid off recently. Although my family’s finances are stable right now, for me personally as an individual, I’m kind of floating out at sea and trying to do more to become financially independent and self-sustaining. If you like my content and have the means, there are a variety of ways you can support my work as a blogger and writer:

Totally optional and I’m definitely still blogging regardless, but since I put so much labor into this blog, it would be nice to get some money out of it. 🙂

I am now offering sensitivity services, with the details on this page. If you could share my link or refer me to anyone looking for a sensitivity reader with my particular area(s) of expertise, that would be awesome!

Some non-monetary ways of supporting me and my blog:

  • Sharing my reviews and posts.
  • Recommending my blog to other people.
  • Commenting on my posts with thoughts and reactions. I love hearing feedback from blog followers. 🙂
  • Connecting me with diverse indie/self-pubbed authors who need a boost for their upcoming book and/or are looking for someone to do an ARC review.

Social Media

In case you missed my pic spam on Twitter, I recently started Bookstagramming. You can find me here.

If you want to follow what I’m reading as I read it, with live updates and flailing and all, you can add me on Goodreads. (Just note that I’m a very generous person with ratings, so if you want a clearer picture of what a book is like you are definitely better off reading my reviews here than looking at my ratings on Goodreads, which are very one-dimensional ways of evaluating a book.)

Sneak Peeks at What’s Ahead

  • Aside from the stuff I’m already doing, I have more new projects planned.As I mentioned on Twitter a while ago, I have some educational posts about social justice in the works. I’ll post an announcement with details once I figure out how I want to schedule and approach this series.
  • I’m planning to host my own reading challenge in May for Asian American Heritage Month to showcase the diversity and intersectional experiences within Asian lit. For the purpose of this challenge…
    • I’m looking for co-hosts, and the only qualifications are that you be 1) Asian (includes all of Asia, not just East Asia, of course, and you can be living in Asia or part of diaspora, either one is fine) and 2) active in the book community. Your role as a co-host will involve brainstorming the categories for the challenge and generating a list of books that correspond to those categories, promoting the challenge on your blog/book promo platforms (including social media such as Twitter and Instagram), and helping host one or more Twitter hashtag events/discussions during the month of May.
    • I’m also looking for a graphics designer to do the bingo board associated with the challenge. This is open to anyone. Said designer will be compensated for their labor with their choice of a 2017 English-language release that is by an Asian author. It can be from any genre (e.g. lit fic, fantasy, contemporary) and target age (MG, YA, NA, adult, etc.) you want. It doesn’t have to be #ownvoices, so for example, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie Dao counts, and so does Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones.
    • If you are interested in co-hosting or doing the graphics for this challenge, you can drop me a message via my Contact form.
    • Even if you can’t help in the development stages of this reading challenge, it would be great if you could participate and spread the word about it when the time comes. There are prizes involved! 😉

Review for The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

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My Summary: The personal becomes intensely political for Starr Carter when she witnesses her friend Khalil’s murder at the hands of a police officer. What starts as her personal trauma becomes the center of national news and fuel for anti-racist activism. Suddenly, her decision to stay silent or speak up is no longer just about herself but rather the bigger fight for justice in the face of systemic oppression.

Review:

Wow. I was stuck in a bit of a reading slump during February, but this book yanked me out of that slump. My brain is bursting with thoughts and feelings and…literary energy? I really hope I can do this book justice (pun not intended) in discussing my reactions.

It’s already very clear from the description that this book is about social justice, and it doesn’t disappoint in the execution. I don’t know how else to describe it except “art.” There was so much thought and insight funneled into weaving together all of the elements of this story. Each character and scene had its place and its purpose. There was nothing extraneous. The beautiful thing is that the story still feels organic rather than contrived.

I’ll start with the characters. There are quite a few of them in this story: Starr, her various friends and classmates at Williamson and from Garden Heights, her family, her community members, and so on. I never got any of them confused because each of them has distinct personalities and lives of their own. Moreover, Angie does a fabulous job of balancing the complex web of relationships between them all.

Among my favorites were Starr’s parents. They aren’t the perfect couple in the sense that they never fight, but they were perfect in the sense that they are real with each other, stick with each other through thick and thin, and have this obvious chemistry and bond that shows through in their banter. On top of that, they are great parents to Starr, Seven, and Sekani and do what they can to protect and support them through the tough situations they face and provide a safe and nurturing environment for them.

The importance of Starr’s parents cannot be understated given that our society devalues Black fatherhood and Black motherhood. Systemic and state-sanctioned violence against Black communities includes the tearing apart of Black families, starting in the days of slavery when Black children were taken from their parents and sold to different masters and continuing into the present with the mass incarceration of Black men and disproportionate intervention from Child Protective Services in Black families. With this history and current reality in mind, having present and positive parental figures in a story about Black teens and kids is a huge deal.

Another character dynamic I really enjoyed was Starr’s relationships with people at Williamson, her mostly-white private school. This includes her white boyfriend, Chris, white friend Hailey, and Chinese American friend Maya. Her relationship with each of these characters exemplifies a particular kind of interpersonal racial dynamic.

I’ll start with Chris. I generally don’t fuck with white boys, but Chris is an example of a fairly decent white boy. For one, he does not fetishize Starr and likes her as an individual. Their relationship is built upon various common interests, and Chris clearly shows that he cares about Starr by being considerate of her feelings and respecting her boundaries.

Aside from being the cute boyfriend, Chris’s character is one of the ways that this book critiques and interrogates whiteness. In some places, this is very literal, as Starr, Seven, and her Black friends ask Chris pointed questions about his whiteness and break down the assumption of whiteness as default and thus teach him some perspective. While he is not perfectly aware of all racial issues, he is willing to step back, listen, be self-critical of his privilege and ignorance, and learn.

Hailey’s character has a similar function in critiquing whiteness and serves as something of a foil to Chris. Rather than listen to Starr’s grievances, she plays victim, gaslights Starr and Maya, and epitomizes white fragility. She uses every trick in the white playbook to deflect and derail critiques of her racism. What I enjoyed was how Angie handled the conflict and the progression from Starr following Hailey uncritically out of habit to actively questioning and reevaluating her friendship with her with help from her mother and Maya.

Maya was one of my favorite characters in the book. As I mentioned above, she’s Chinese American, so I could relate to her a lot as a Taiwanese American. I was excited to learn that she plays basketball because heaven knows we don’t have enough fictional Jeremy Lins to rep the sporty Asian Americans out there. Aside from challenging stereotypes, Maya’s character is notable because she challenges Hailey’s racism, both Sinophobia and antiblackness. She and Starr form what they call a “minority alliance” in calling out Hailey, and that moment stood out to me because it’s an explicit representation and celebration of Black and Asian solidarity. Toward the beginning of the book, I was holding my breath wondering if Maya would turn out to be one of the all-too-familiar Problematic Asians who engage in antiblackness to curry favor with white supremacy. I was extremely relieved and elated to see her go in the opposite direction. Having this “minority alliance” on page absolutely sends the right message to young Asian Americans about the importance of standing in solidarity with other people of color.

One of the greatest things about this book is how unapologetically Black it is. It is loaded with references to Black Power movements, particularly the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam. Understandably, Starr uses Standard American English at her private school and certain contexts because she doesn’t want to be stereotyped and looked down upon, but in other contexts, she uses African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and is true to her roots. This is known as code-switching and is common not only for Black people but also other POC. Later in the book, Starr progresses toward unpacking the respectability politics and classism that shape her experience at Williamson and the way she views and juxtaposes her school and her neighborhood.

Angie’s choice of settings for this book really brings to the fore issues of race and class. Garden Heights is urban, poor, and Black; Williamson and its associated locale is suburban, rich, and white. Starr’s status as an outsider in the latter is painfully apparent, and she very much aware and critical of how she and the handful of other Black students are tokenized. She is “cool” by liberty of being Black in a majority white space, but that status is far from being a privilege because, as she points out, “It’s dope to be black until it’s hard to be black.” This statement speaks to the way white people commodify, accessorize, and appropriate blackness as it is convenient and beneficial to them without experiencing the the stigma and oppression of being Black in a white supremacist society.

Whereas at Williamson, Starr feels hypervisible, in Garden Heights, she feels invisible (until her status as a witness in Khalil’s murder changes things, anyway). Garden Heights is where the author really explores the complexity of Blackness. There’s an interesting blend of familiarity and danger: familiarity that stems from knowing intimately the rhythms and the [gang] rules that govern the neighborhood as well as the faces and lives that inhabit the space and make it home, danger from the violence that is part and parcel of gang-dominated areas, the poverty due to systemic denial of economic opportunities and development to Black people and communities, and the threat of state-sanctioned violence from police and the judicial system.

The author’s portrayal of these nuances and dynamics calls into question the illusion of “choice” and the possibility of “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps” that white people employ to justify Black poverty and second-class status. Individual choices are never free from context or constraints, and this book is very explicit about naming and describing the systems that are rigged against Black people, largely through the character of Maverick, Starr’s father, who is an ex-con, but also through Khalil and DeVante, who get caught up in the gang and drug-dealing scene in order to provide for and protect their families in the absence of other opportunities.

Garden Heights also offers an insider’s perspective on the internalized racism in Black communities. Mr. Lewis is a follower of Dr. King’s words and is less receptive toward more radical figures like Huey Newton and Malcolm X, who symbolize not racial harmony but Black power. (Although Dr. King wasn’t really a moderate and was in fact critical of white people, he has been co-opted by the mainstream as a “safe” and palatable figure to white people and is weaponized to silence Black resistance.) There are characters like Uncle Carlos who engage in the same kind of victim-blaming as white people to rationalize Khalil’s extrajudicial execution, invoking fallacies like “black-on-black crime.”

Another nuanced situation this book tackles is fighting police brutality versus hating individual police officers. Starr’s maternal uncle Carlos is a cop and a colleague of the officer who shot and killed Khalil. He’s also the man who helped raised her while her father was in jail for three years when she was a toddler. There’s a lot of internal struggle within Starr in juggling her feelings toward a corrupt institution that aids and abets violence against Black people and her personal feelings of affection toward Carlos, who happens to be an officer. It’s not always as simple as us versus them, but it’s important to recognize that the systemic nature of police brutality means complicity despite any good intentions on the part of individual cops. Between Carlos and a Latina officer, you see that complicity in racist systems can include people of color who have internalized ideologies that criminalize blackness.

This book is based on the Black Lives Matter movement, and it is very true to real life in its depiction of the events following a case of police murdering a Black person. The protests, the looting, the police crackdown and militarization, and the media coverage of and subsequent social media responses to these events coincided very closely with what I remember reading and watching while following the BLM movement on social media, as well as my first-hand experience participating in a small-scale BLM protest at my alma mater last year.

One particular thing I have to applaud in the depiction of events is the references to social media, which are critical to the worldbuilding in this story. Although I’ve seen some writers say that they don’t like to reference social media and technology in their work for fear of dating it for readers in the future, I’d argue that excluding those references renders their work nearly illegible because technology shapes the social fabric of our lives and is critical to establishing the context and constraints of a story.

Technological advances result in the compression of space and time and also affect social power dynamics. Social media in particular has undermined the dominance of mainstream media and given platforms to the oppressed, increasing the accessibility of information and transforming the ways in which activism plays out. It has been absolutely critical in building up and disseminating information for Black Lives Matter and other social justice movements. It is an important means of talking back against the dominant narratives that dehumanize Black people and other people of color. Angie’s mentions of Black Twitter and Black Tumblr not only reflect our current reality, they also pay tribute to the voices and communities that have sustained BLM.

And without explicitly naming BLM, Angie gave several shoutouts to the movement in various ways: “I can’t breathe.” “[Khalil’s] life mattered.” “It’s also about Oscar. Aiyana. Trayvon. Rekia. Michael. Eric. Tamir. John. Ezell. Sandra. Freddie. Alton. Philando.” These references allow this fictional story to resonate and create dialogue with reality.

At the heart of this story is the theme of the consequences of silence and the power of speaking up. Starr struggles to speak up about what happened with Khalil because she is afraid of the backlash it will bring, from her community and from the people in power. Much of her growth in this story is tied to overcoming her fears and doing what is right rather than what is easy. As someone who has gone through (and still goes through) that same struggle, Starr’s journey to be confident in speaking truth to power was very relatable and very heartening.

Although this story focuses on a very serious issue, it also contains moments of humor and lightness. There is a delicate balance required to make this work and not cheapen or trivialize the serious aspects, and Angie definitely nails it. The humor is laugh-out-loud funny and the brighter moments offer some much-needed respite from the darkness that weighs on the oppressed. While talking about racism is important, it’s also important to make space for Black teens and kids to live normal lives and have some fun.

All in all, this book truly takes you through so many feelings, very intense ones at that, because you are so immersed in Starr’s life and world that you empathize deeply with her situation. It is one of the most vividly rendered contemporary YA novels I have read.

Before I close, I’ll talk about three small things that bothered me while reading this book. They weren’t deal-breakers, but they definitely left enough of an impression that I feel the need to comment on them.

The first was the overuse of the word “crazy.” If it had been just once or twice, I probably would have let it go, but it was thrown around a lot casually, and as someone who has multiple mental illnesses, it was a bit uncomfortable to read, especially when it was used in a negative way.

The second was the repeated slut-shaming of Seven’s mother, Iesha. While it is evident that she is bad parent to Seven and his sisters, Kenya and Lyric, that has nothing to do with how much skin she shows and everything to do with the poor decisions she’s made regarding her children. I wish there hadn’t been such an emphasis on how she dressed.

The third and final thing was the issue of Maya’s ethnicity. At the beginning of the book, Maya mentions visiting her great-grandparents in Taipei. Based on that statement, I assumed she was Taiwanese because Taipei is the capital of Taiwan. However, later on, Maya explicitly states she’s Chinese, and that left me with several questions: Were her great-grandparents just visiting Taipei, or do they live there? If they live there, were they born and raised in Taiwan, or did they immigrate to Taiwan from China post-1949, after the Chinese Civil War? If her family is from Taiwan, why does she identify as Chinese?

A very common microaggression for Taiwanese people like me is people conflating Taiwan and China and saying Taiwanese people are “really just Chinese.” There are some people from/in Taiwan who identify as Chinese, or as both Taiwanese and Chinese, but the number of people who exclusively identify as Taiwanese has increased over the years and is at an all-time high right now. The decision to identify as Taiwanese versus Chinese is very much a politically motivated one. Given that Taiwan is not formally recognized as a sovereign nation by the UN and does not have official diplomatic relations with most of the nations in the world (including the United States) due to pressure from China, the erasure of Taiwanese identity, even in fiction, is a big deal. The book is still amazing and I do love it, but what might be one small detail to most readers was deeply personal and painful for me as a Taiwanese American. I hope that any writers who are reading this will be mindful of these issues of identity and the politics behind them while crafting their characters from marginalized backgrounds.

Recommendation: Read this book, live this book, love this book. It deserves every one of the eight starred reviews it received and more.

The 228 Massacre: A Brief History and Book List

It’s been 70 years since February 28th, 1947, a day that marked the beginning of a very dark and bloody era of Taiwanese history. For those who don’t know, Taiwan has a very complicated history involving multiple waves of colonization. Taiwan was home to indigenous peoples for thousands of years. (The indigenous Taiwanese are Austronesian and have linguistic and genetic relations with the indigenous people Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Madagascar and Oceania.) In the 17th century, the Spanish and Dutch established bases on Taiwan for a time, followed by Ming Dynasty loyalists under Koxinga after the fall of the Ming Empire. The earliest waves of colonists came from southeastern China, mostly the Hokkien-speaking Hoklo people from the Fujian province and some Hakka people, who eventually became the majority due to many indigenous people’s intermarriage and/or assimilation into Han communities and society. The Qing Dynasty claimed Taiwan despite never fully controlling the island and after the second Sino-Japanese War, ceded Taiwan to Japan. From 1895 until 1945, Japan governed Taiwan and touted it as their model colony.

Following Japan’s surrender in World War II, Taiwan was ceded to “back” to China. At the time, China was still under the rule of the Chinese Nationalist Party (a.k.a. the KMT, from “Kuomintang”) and was referred to as the Republic of China (present-day China is known as the People’s Republic of China, controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP). The KMT installed a government in Taiwan that soon drew resentment from Taiwanese people due to its rampant corruption. On February 27th, 1947, a scuffle between a woman selling contraband cigarettes and a KMT soldier resulted in the soldier hitting the woman on the head with his pistol. In the ensuing chaos, another official fired a shot into the crowd, killing a bystander.

This event sparked protests and riots starting on February 28th that resulted in violent crackdowns from the KMT. Starting in 1949, the KMT instituted martial law on the island that lasted 38 years (until 1987), which is the second longest period of martial law after Syria’s (1963-2011). During the period from 1947 to 1987, otherwise known as the White Terror, anyone suspected of being against the KMT in words, ideologies, or actions was persecuted, tortured, murdered, or spirited away, never to be seen again. The persecution even crossed the Pacific Ocean to the United States, including the murder of Henry Liu. The total estimate for people who died ranges from 10,000 to 30,000 and remains a topic of debate.

Until the lifting of martial law, nobody spoke of what happened. The truth was dangerous, and it was heavy. In recent decades, a formal apology was issued by former President Lee Teng-hui, and a museum and memorial park were created and dedicated to memorialize 228 and the White Terror. However, some of the people involved in perpetrating the killing and persecution (e.g. government officials and soldiers) are still alive and have never been held accountable for their crimes. Until today, documents related to 228 were classified, thus impeding transitional justice. Without justice, there cannot be peace for the dead and the wronged. That is why it’s important to keep telling this story over and over and remembering the injustices that were committed.

That’s why I’ve created this book list for people who want to learn more about Taiwanese history, politics, and 228/The White Terror. The list includes four nonfiction titles and four fiction titles. The hyperlinks in the above paragraphs are for various Internet articles and sites.

Nonfiction

wealth-ribbonWealth Ribbon: Taiwan Bound, America Bound by brenda Lin

This autobiographical essay collection explores the author’s transnational identity as a Taiwanese American whose life has been split between countries. It tells the stories of three generations of her family, from her grandparents’ generation to her own.

my-fight-for-a-new-taiwanMy Fight for a New Taiwan: One Woman’s Journey from Prison to Power by Annette Hsiu-Lien Lu

This is the autobiography of Taiwan’s former Vice President from 2001 to 2008. She came from humble origins but eventually became an activist and leader of feminist and pro-democracy movements in Taiwan during the late 20th century.

maritime-taiwanMaritime Taiwan: Historical Encounters with the East and the West by Shih-Shan Henry Tsai

This book maps out the complex history of Taiwan and the various powers that claimed and influenced it throughout the past few centuries.

taiwans-struggleTaiwan’s Struggle: Voices of the Taiwanese edited by Shyu-tu Lee and Jack F. Williams

In this essay anthology, “leading Taiwanese figures consider the country’s history, politics, society, economy, identity, and future prospects. The volume provides a forum for a diversity of local voices, who are rarely heard in the power struggle between China and the United States over Taiwan’s future. Reflecting the deep ethnic and political differences that are essential to understanding Taiwan today, this work provides a nuanced introduction to its role in international politics.”

Fiction

miahMiah by Julia Lin

This collection of interrelated short stories traces the lives of generations of a Taiwanese Canadian family, from the time of Japanese occupation of Taiwan, to the White Terror under the Kuomintang government, to modern Taiwan and Canada.

the-228-legacyThe 228 Legacy by Jennifer J. Chow*

In this historical fiction novel set in the 1980s, three generations of an all-female, working-class Taiwanese American family struggle with their own secrets: grandmother Silk has breast cancer, daughter and single mother Lisa has lost her job, and granddaughter Abbey deals with bullying at school. When Grandma Silk’s connection to a shocking historical event in Taiwan comes to light, the family is forced to reconnect and support one another through their struggles.

the-third-sonThe Third Son by Julie Wu

Growing up in Japanese-occupied Taiwan, Saburo is the ill-favored third son of a Taiwanese politician. By chance, an air strike brings him into contact with Yoshiko, whose kindness and loving family bring hope and light to Saburo’s world. Years later, Yoshiko reappears in his live but at the side of his arrogant and boorish older brother. In order to make something of himself and win Yoshiko’s respect, Saburo pushes the boundaries of what is possible and winds up on the frontier of America’s space program.

green-islandGreen Island by Shawna Yang Ryan (review at hyperlink)

Told through the perspective of an unnamed first generation Taiwanese American woman, Green Island chronicles the life of the main character from her birth on March 1st, 1947, the day after the infamous 228 Massacre, to the year 2003, marked by the SARS outbreak, intertwining her personal, family history with the political history of Taiwan.

*Jennifer J. Chow is a Chinese American author married to a Taiwanese American. I’ve read the book and as far as I can remember, the facts checked out with the exception of a minor anachronism (regarding the year bubble tea was invented, ha).

Asian Reads: Grandparents Edition

While white American culture focuses a lot on the nuclear family, in many Asian households, it’s not uncommon for three or more generations to live together. Because of this, I decided to put together this list of books that at some level explore relationships between the main characters and one or more of their grandparents. These are all middle grade titles. If you know of any YA titles, feel free to drop a comment. I’ve linked my reviews where applicable.

millicent-min-girl-geniusMillicent Min, Girl Genius by Lisa Yee – Chinese American MC

Millicent Min is a genius who is taking college classes at age twelve, and while that has its advantages, the downside is the struggle to make friends. In an effort to get her to lead a more normal life for a girl of her age, her parents sign her up for a volley ball class. Through this class, she meets and befriends Emily, but fearing that her nerdiness will be a turn-off, Millie decides to hide her genius status from Emily. In the meantime, she’s tutoring Stanford Wong, and between the two of them, they have their work cut out for them keeping secrets from Emily.

the-garden-of-my-imaanThe Garden of My Imaan by Farhana Zia – Muslim Indian American MC

Aliya has a lot of problems typical for a fifth grader: she wants to fit in, she worries about being popular enough for student council, she has a crush on a cute boy who will probably never notice her, and she’s loaded with homework assignments that she’s not too excited about completing. Unfortunately, on top of that, she faces Islamophobia from people around her, even though she’s not even very strict about observing certain Islamic traditions and has never really emphasized that aspect of her identity. Then, a new girl, Marwa, arrives. She’s Muslim and Moroccan and wears the hijab, which makes her a prime target for bullying. Aliya can choose to avoid association with her, or maybe Marwa has something to teach her about being true to oneself.

ticket-to-indiaTicket to India by N.H. Senzai – Muslim Indian and Pakistani American MC

Maya flies from the U.S. to Pakistan to attend the funeral for her grandfather. There, she finds out that her family has roots in India through her grandmother, who moved to Pakistan after Partition. In order to complete her grandfather’s final rites, her grandmother wishes to seek out an old family heirloom that was left behind in India. Maya sets off for India with her grandmother and older sister to hunt for this family treasure in a race against time, but unexpected complications result in her tackling the search completely on her own.

the-turtle-of-omanThe Turtle of Oman by Naomi Shihab Nye – Muslim Omani MC

Aref’s home is Oman, where his house and cat and friends are, where his beloved grandfather, Sidi, lives. He loves it there, and he does not want to leave it behind to move to Michigan, a place so foreign and far away for him. With Sidi’s help, however, he begins to see his upcoming journey in a new light.

clara-lee-and-the-apple-pie-dreamClara Lee and the Apple Pie Dream by Jenny Han – Korean American MC

Meet Clara Lee.
Likes: her best friends, her grandpa, her little sister (when she’s not being annoying, which is almost always), candy necklaces, and the Apple Blossom Festival.

Dislikes: her little sister (when she’s being annoying, which is almost always), her mom’s yucky fish soup, and bad dreams (even though Grandpa says they mean good luck).

After a bad dream, Clara Lee has a whole day of good luck. But when her luck changes, she upsets her friends and family. Will Clara Lee have good luck again in time to try out for the Little Miss Apple Pie pageant? (from Goodreads)

 

On Carve the Mark: Asians Overstepping and the Misuse of “POC” as a Label

Note: This is a call-out and a call-in post. The point is to discuss issues and trends and critique people’s words and actions with the intention of holding people accountable for the harm they cause and pushing for people to do right by others, not to attack people’s personhood/character. If you can’t draw the distinction between the two and start feeling defensive of yourself or people you associate with or admire who are mentioned in this post, take a step back and ask yourself why you’re conflating criticism with an attack. Then come back and try again.

Hi, everyone. If you don’t know me already, my name is Shenwei (they/them pronouns), and I’m Taiwanese American. I consider myself a diversity advocate, and for this reason, I believe it is essential that I initiate and participate in discussions on issues that pertain to my communities, especially when someone who is part of my community has caused harm to people of marginalized groups.

For those who are not aware, there has been a lot of heated debate in the book community over the recent YA release, Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth (a white author known for her dystopian YA series, Divergent). Specifically, this book has been called out/criticized for being antiblack and anti-indigenous for its use of the trope of dark-skinned, kinky-haired people as “savages.”

Here are some reviews and posts that discuss the racism in Carve the Mark and/or the history of the harmful trope of the “savage” in depth:

Carve the Mark has also been called out for ableism in its portrayal of chronic pain and use of chronic pain as a fantasy trope (note: Veronica Roth has said she lives with chronic pain, but having chronic pain doesn’t equal immunity to ableism, internalized ableism is possible and happens), but here I’m going to focus on the racial representation because that’s central to the issues I’m discussing in this post.

When these criticisms began circulating widely, I was completely unsurprised that white readers came to Roth’s defense. That’s a standard reaction as far as discussions of racism in books goes. POC/Indigenous readers call a white author out for harmful representation of their race/ethnicity, the white people go on the defensive and cry “witch hunt” and “bullying” and “career sabotage” (despite the evidence to the contrary showing that such callouts have ZERO effect on white authors’ popularity and success), and the people who dare to criticize people’s problematic faves get harassed on social media by anons and egg accounts who dedicate their time to targeting POC, especially WOC. Rinse and repeat every week.

What was far more concerning to me about the responses was the number of Asian authors (mostly Asian American authors, mind you) who showed support for Carve the Mark on its release date and/or came out in defense of the book in response to messages from their followers and other book community members regarding the racist content in the book.

This is far from being a comprehensive/exhaustive list, but here are the authors I saw Tweeting support for Carve the Mark, talking about how they did not find the book racist, or supporting (by reblogging/retweeting/boosting) authors who said they didn’t find it racist:

My point here isn’t to attack these authors (I have no personal vendetta against any of them, most of them are authors whose books I’ve read and enjoyed), but rather to point out the trend of my fellow Asians, especially Asian Americans stepping out of their lane and speaking when they shouldn’t. Since Sabaa’s post got the most attention, I’d like to critically examine her response, particularly the second part.

Before I do, I’ll just say that the anon who sent her the message was out of line in asking if she knew what racism was. There is no doubt that she has experienced racism, and she shouldn’t have to talk about her painful experiences in detail to prove anything.

However, after that, she made a very big misstep.

In giving her opinion on Carve the Mark, she said, “I read Carve the Mark critically and did not find the book to be racist.” Although reading something critically typically means you are more likely to notice certain things than if you were to read it uncritically, it is not a guarantee that you will find any and all problematic content.

Which brings me to my next issue. In her elaboration, Sabaa mentions that POC are not a monolith and will have differing opinions on the same text. However, the way she frames this statement, there’s an implication that all opinions from POC on a text are therefore equally valid. It should be the opposite. Because POC are not a monolith, we must be careful about whose opinions we are centering in a discussion about racism in a text. Although POC all experience racism, we don’t all experience racism in the same ways. Our experiences differ depending on our specific race(s) and ethnicities, among other things. As a result, the issues and harmful language and tropes that we are most familiar with and sensitive to are those that impact us most directly, that target our race/ethnicity specifically.

In the case of Carve the Mark, the story was criticized for being antiblack and anti-indigenous. Those of us who are nonblack, non-indigenous POC should not be prioritizing the opinions of people who are not Black or Indigenous in a discussion about antiblack and anti-indigenous racism. We’re not the ones targeted, so it’s not surprising that we wouldn’t find the book harmful.

Then, there’s the claim of silencing. While it’s true that WOC are often silenced in conversations about race, here we need to consider the particular power dynamic of the situation. Non-black, non-indigenous POC have privilege over Black and Indigenous people. White supremacy thrives on antiblackness and encourages nonblack POC, especially Asian Americans, to engage in antiblackness as a tactic to thwart solidarity between POC groups and maintain the subjugation of Black people. This is not just an individual issue, it is a trend with a history dating back to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. And like other non-indigenous POC, Asians in the U.S. and Australia and New Zealand are settler colonists, living on land stolen from Indigenous peoples, thereby benefiting (unwittingly or not) from Indigenous erasure, displacement, and genocide.

For these reasons, Asians, specifically Asian Americans, need to be conscientious about when they’re speaking up and whose voices they are boosting in conversations about racial representation, so as not to continue these trends. When Asians give their opinions saying something doesn’t constitute antiblack and anti-indigenous racism, even though Black and Indigenous folks are saying otherwise, and someone tells us to take a seat, that’s not silencing. That’s a request for us to check ourselves before we wreck ourselves.

POC is a term with great power for non-indigenous (though some Indigenous people do identify as POC; many do not because of the settler colonialism issue), nonwhite people. We rally around it in acknowledging our common fight against white supremacy. However, it can also be misused in ways that harm the cause of anti-racism. If you are speaking in the hypothetical, using POC is usually okay, but if you are talking about a specific issue, it’s important to name who exactly is impacted. Police brutality does not affect all POC equally. It disproportionately impacts Black folks. Surveillance for suspected terrorism doesn’t affect all POC. It is a result/manifestation of Islamophobia and prejudice against anyone who “looks” Muslim (basically people from West and South Asia). And so on. If you are not a part of the specific subgroup of POC who are affected by an issue, don’t go around co-opting it through the misuse of POC as an umbrella term or talking over the people who are targeted. That is erasure. That is silencing.

To be fair, there were a few Asian authors who spoke up in defense of and trusted the word of the Black and Indigenous critics. Here are the few I know of:

  • C.T. Callahan

  • Heidi Heilig

  • Elsie Chapman

And to be fair, Sabaa Tahir did make a follow-up post addressing her mistake in response to an anon who brought up their hurt. I’m assuming someone talked her through the issue somewhere behind the scenes. Here’s the post.

However, apology or none, the damage was done. The moment an extremely popular author of color stepped forward to say, “I didn’t find this book racist,” a huge mob of people seized upon those words as a pass to dismiss the concerns of those who criticized Carve the Mark. Though nobody can control the way other people respond to their words, it’s still important to be aware of the probable consequences of potential words and actions. Despite the attempts to frame the debate as “every POC’s opinion is equally valid,” the numbers tell a different story about people’s preferences and priorities .

I checked the notes on Sabaa’s original post several days ago.

When I first started writing this post, this was the status of Sabaa’s posts:

Notes on Post 1: 1924

Notes on Post 2: 47

The math: 41 times the number of notes. More than 4000% the stats.

As of February 11th, this is the new count:

Notes on Post 1: 1991

Notes on Post 2: 54

The math: 37 times the number of notes.

Think about that. That difference speaks volumes on what kinds of opinions from POC people are interested in listening to and boosting.

One of the most disappointing things about what went down is that so many of the authors who overstepped are authors who are on the front-lines of the diversity movement. Just last year, several of them featured in a video from We Need Diverse Books with a message of “We Write For You.” However, the way things played out over Carve the Mark, I have to wonder, do they really write for all of us marginalized folks, especially teens? Because if they excuse or overlook antiblack and anti-indigenous racism in others’ writing, what’s to stop them from perpetuating that same harm in their own books? Moreover, their words and actions outside of their published writing matter as well. Marginalized kids and teens are following them on social media and looking up to them as role models. Imagine how much it must hurt to see your favorite authors, the one who said they write for you, ignore and minimize your pain. That’s what is at stake. That’s why uplifting the voices of those who are harmed by a book is so essential.

To me, what happened with Carve the Mark is a sign that authors who consider themselves diversity advocates, especially my fellow non-black, non-indigenous POC, need to be more proactive in listening to and participating in discussions about effective allyship because even as they are marginalized, they are also privileged in other ways, and ignorance about that privilege can cause harm to groups outside of their own, to teens who are among their readership.

I’m guessing for some of y’all who are readers and bloggers, the realization that certain authors have caused harm may change how you feel about reading and supporting their work. There are a variety of ways to deal with such a situation, and while I’m not going to police how people respond or tell people they can’t read books by certain authors, I do encourage everyone to engage critically with their favorites, make informed decisions about who and what you’re supporting, and use their problematic words, actions, or writing as an opportunity to promote constructive discourse about how best to ensure that marginalized folks, especially teens, aren’t harmed.

Now, for some practical tips on options for what to do when your favorite author does/says something problematic:

The most extreme action is straight up boycott, i.e. not reading their book(s). However, I understand that some of these authors do have important #ownvoices books coming out that people are really hoping to read, so here are some other things you can do to decrease your support.

  • Don’t buy their book and borrow it from the library or from a friend or read it at the bookstore.
  • Buy their book, but buy it secondhand so they don’t make money from your purchase.
  • Don’t review their book and just keep it to yourself.
  • Review their book, but mention in your review somewhere how they fucked up so that other people can make a decision regarding whether they want to support the author in light of their actions.

If you’re looking for resources on how to deal with a book that is problematic, I highly recommend reading Jen (BookAvid)’s posts:

Review for The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie

the-abyss-surrounds-us

My Summary: Cassandra Leung has been part of the family business to train Reckoners, sea monsters that protect ships from pirates while crossing the Neo-Pacific, for her entire life. Her first mission with the Nereid is supposed to be a walk in the park. But everything goes wrong, and she is captured by pirates and forced by pirate queen Santa Elena to train a newborn Reckoner pup to protect the Minnow. If she succeeds, it will disrupt the delicate balance of power in the Neo-Pacific. If she fails, she’s dead meat.

Review:

I have mixed feelings about this book. I did enjoy the story for what it was. The premise, the plotting, and the worldbuilding were solid. I was definitely hooked by the story and enjoyed watching the progression of the Reckoner pup’s training and Cas’s inner struggle with the gray areas of her moral landscape. The story combined high-stakes suspense with thought-provoking questions and themes.

But under the surface, several things felt off to me about the racial representation. Cas herself is supposed to be Chinese, but aside from a few small touches, there are virtually no references to her Chineseness. It felt really superficial. And then my inner Chinese-speaker went “umm…” when Cas brought up a possible variant for the Reckoner pup’s name. His name is Bao (包), the Chinese word for “bun,” as in steamed bun, pork bun, etc. The pronunciation of 包 is basically the same in both Mandarin and Cantonese, with a high flat tone.

When Santa Elena asks Cas about her naming him after steamed buns, the narration follows with “‘If you’d like, you can call him Bao Bao instead,’ I tell her, shifting the vowels slightly as I speak.”

Bao Bao does indeed mean “precious baby,” as the story points out a few sentences down, but there are two things that are off about this sentence.

One is that Bao Bao is the Mandarin pronunciation of the Chinese word/phrase, 寶寶. The Cantonese equivalent is Bou2Bou2 (using Jyutping for the romanization), with a different vowel sound than Bao. Mandarin and Cantonese are related but distinct languages that are not mutually intelligible (Cantonese and other regional Chinese languages that aren’t mutually intelligible with Mandarin are referred to as dialects for political reasons), and while it’s possible Cas knows both, the narrative doesn’t ever indicate that she understands anything besides Canto. Her last name is Cantonese, she hears some Cantonese while she’s on the docks somewhere, and that’s it.

Even ignoring the Mandarin vs. Cantonese part, the  bit about “shifting the vowels slightly” is an inaccurate way of describing the difference between the pronunciation of Bao and Bao Bao. In Mandarin, Bao for bun involves the first tone, Bao Bao has the third tone for both syllables (usually pronounced as second tone-third tone though). The vowel sound is the same for both Bao and Bao Bao, it’s the pitch that’s different.

Although a majority of the supporting cast were POC, their characterizations were likewise superficially diverse. Santa Elena’s race/ethnicity isn’t explicitly mentioned as far as I can remember; I read her as being Filipina because of her physical features, her name (Spain colonized the Philippines, so Spanish names are a thing), and the fact that the Philippines is in the Pacific, but she could be Latina.

Two different characters are described as being Islanders. In this future world, the Pacific Islands have been flooded into nonexistence due to rising sea levels, and there is a group of artificially created islands known as Artificial Hawaii, where I can only assume the Islanders, who are descendants of original Pacific Islanders, live. This generalization of these characters as Islanders with no reference to their specific heritage/ethnicity strikes me as problematic because it homogenizes Pacific Islanders, who despite their linguistic and cultural similarities and ancestral relations, are still a very diverse group of peoples.

The narrative doesn’t give us any details as to the history of the Pacific Islanders following the flooding of the Pacific Islands due to Global Warming. Did they all move to the islands of Artificial Hawaii or some of them flee elsewhere? How many of the nations survived? Did they retain their distinct cultures or intermix and blend their cultures? These are important questions because in the present day real world, Pacific Islander cultures have been and continue to be threatened by the effects of colonization and globalization. Given this reality, the loss of these cultures in an imagined future would be a big deal.

One of these two Islander characters is Chuck, who’s described as a “princess,” specifically the daughter of “the man who owns Art-Hawaii 5.” That’s all we get about her background. To me, this reads as a thing that was thrown in for the hell of it to “spice up” her character, as there is no deeper sense of where Chuck comes from, i.e. her roots, which is an important part of Pacific Islander cultures from what limited knowledge I have.

The other Islander is Hina, the cook aboard the Winnow, who aside from being described as brown and “giant,” is completely in the background and does not contribute to the plot in any meaningful way. Where is she is from and her exact ethnicity is a complete mystery.

There was a third reference to Islanders, when Swift tells another character to “dream of an Islander prince who’s going to take you away from this wretched life,” which to me reads as “fantasy of an ~exotic~ brown man sweeping the white woman off her feet to take her to his exotic utopian island kingdom.” That line did not sit well with me, and I’m wondering why it was even necessary.

One other more significant supporting character who’s a POC besides Chuck is Varma, who’s Indian and Hindu. My quick Internet search told me that Varma is a surname. It’s never mentioned whether Varma is supposed to be his given or family name, it’s simply what everyone calls him. If that was supposed to be his given name, that’s poor research on the author’s part. If not, then the narrative should have been more clear about that. The only other reference to him being Indian and Hindu is one line where he says a prayer in Hindi.

The last POC is Lemon, who I remember being described skinny without any other memorable physical details. Going back to skim the book, apparently she’s Aleut and can “speak the ocean’s language.” There’s something a little “mystical POC guide” about that description, but maybe it’s just me.

I think the author tried to go against the “white-as-default” trend, but it didn’t quite work for me. Although one character, Code, was explicitly labeled as white when Cas first laid eyes on him, Swift’s character was not similarly described in racial terms. I can’t remember either of Code or Swift having their skin color described the way Santa Elena, Chuck, etc. were described as brown. The only physical characteristic I can remember about Swift is her blonde hair, which isn’t exclusive to white people, whether naturally or dyed, but generally gets coded as white.

Throughout the story, the only [human] characters that get much development are Cas and Swift. Cas could have been white and not much would have been different. I started off excited about the POC but walked away feeling a bit cheated.

I’m still going to read the sequel, The Edge of the Abyss to see what happens (I have the eARC from NetGalley). I’m hoping maybe some of the POC will get more development.

Recommendation: If you want a quick and action-packed sci-fi read, go for it. If you’re looking for good POC rep, this isn’t the book for that.

 

 

Review for God Smites and Other Muslim Girl Problems by Ishara Deen

god-smites-and-other-muslim-girl-problems

Note: I received a review copy of the book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Note 2: I interviewed the author a few weeks ago, so I highly recommend reading the interview. 😀

My Summary: Against her parents’ desires, Asiya Haque goes for a walk alone in the woods with her crush, Michael, but what could have been a romantic getaway turns into something else completely when they come across a dead body. Asiya flees the scene at Michael’s behest, and then Michael goes missing himself and is accused of being the murderer. Asiya finds herself digging up clues to a murder mystery, a search that is not at all helped by a overly smug police officer who needs serious sensitivity training or her overly protective parents.

Review:

I went in with high expectations for this book, and by and large, it did not disappoint.

The decision to make this a first-person narrative was absolutely perfect. Asiya has a very distinctive character voice that made her so real to me. Her internal world is rich and complex and compelling. On top of that, she is downright hilarious. I lost count of the number of times that I busted out laughing because of something she said aloud or in her head. And though she’s not perfect, she does have a sense of justice and tries to do the best thing.

Asiya’s narration also brought to the fore an insider’s perspective on Islam. There are the congregations at her masjid, where you get to follow along with the communal prayers and witness the true foundations and tenets of the religion: peace, generosity, empathy, etc. There are also the interactions between Asiya and individual Muslims in her life. And of course, the internal dialogue she has with God as she faces her troubles.

From these passages, it’s clear that Asiya has an intimate relationship with her faith and God, but it’s complicated by other people’s cultural and individual biases that favor certain interpretations of God’s word. Through Asiya, her family, and her fellow Muslim community members, the author shows how Muslims are not a monolith. Even Asiya’s parents interpret certain lines from the Quran differently from one another and from their imam.*

Speaking of the parents, I really liked the way Asiya’s relationships with her parents was developed. Although they don’t see eye-to-eye on everything, they do care for one another and stand up for one another when it counts. Her parents were flawed but sympathetic characters, giving the scenes of family tension emotional weight because they’re more complicated than one side being right and the other wrong. I really loved her relationship with her father, who clearly has a soft spot for her. I have a similar relationship with my dad, and I wish there were more representations of such relationships when it comes to Asian dads in diaspora, who tend to be stereotyped as distant or controlling.

Asiya’s relationship with her younger brother was also a surprising positive. Although he definitely has his annoying brother moments, he still respects her, and Asiya in turn stands up for him when their parents disparage him over his academic performance. She’s the one to validate him and what he brings to the table in terms of talents and skills. This is so important in an Asian diaspora narrative because I think second generation kids internalize so many toxic beliefs about the value of grades, where we’re not just being encouraged to succeed in our education but are punished for every mistake made, to the point where we feel like we’re never good enough because of some numbers and letters.

There were a lot of little moments like this, little critiques of the harmful norms and practices around Asiya, including Islamophobia, body-shaming, and even the theft of indigenous children by the government. It was like an Easter Egg hunt for little nuggets of Keeping It Real.

The mystery elements didn’t take a backseat to all of this, of course. Between the different competing murder suspects and the obstacles to Asiya’s attempts at investigating, there was plenty of suspense to go around. The clues were laid out very cleverly to spring one on the reader when the dots are connected to reveal the whole picture. Maybe I’m not that great at piecing things together, but I definitely did not expect the answer to the whodunnit question.

And then at the end of the book, I got a cliffhanger that just ruined me. I’m eagerly anticipating the second book, Mutaweenies and Other Muslim Girl Problems!

For problematic content, I did notice issues with how Nate was portrayed with respect to his supposed OCD, which I wasn’t sure was intended to be clinical OCD/OCPD or just a personality thing that was described hyperbolically as OCD. However, I saw from Glaiza’s review that this part was edited out of the final edition, so that shouldn’t be an issue for most of you.

That issue aside, there were four other things. First was a place where Asiya’s remarks about Michael were heteronormative and exclusionary toward asexual people regarding his assumed sexual history. Second was the use of “opposite sex,” which excludes non-binary people. The third issue I picked up on was when Asiya said she heard a “male voice,” even though you can’t and shouldn’t assume someone’s gender based on how they sound. Better wording would have been to describe the pitch and texture of the voice without automatically gendering it as male or female. The last was the labeling of the culprit as “crazy,” which I found to be disappointing because there are ways to express that someone is terrible without stigmatizing mental illness.

*If you’d like to read some #ownvoices reviews from Muslim readers, here are a few:

Saadia Faruqi | Ayah Assem | Ruzaika Deen

Recommendation: Recommended for those looking for a good mystery that’s equal parts funny, heartfelt, and suspenseful.