Tag Archives: Chinese American

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

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

Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review for Love Made of Heart by Teresa LeYung Ryan

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Note: I read this book as part of the #DiversityDecBingo reading challenge. You can find my list of books that I read and the links to the reviews for those books here.

My Summary: After Ruby Lin witnesses mother being hospitalized for a severe emotional breakdown, she is forced to confront her painful past and family history and come to terms with her own mental illness and trauma.

Review:

Trigger/Content Warnings: mentions/descriptions/discussions of depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, abuse/domestic violence, suicide, hospitalization, disordered eating

To be honest, it was really hard for me to read this book. Not because it’s badly written, but because I related very strongly to the story in various ways. I guess you could say it was triggering for me at certain points. However, that didn’t make me want to stop reading; it made me want to keep reading because this is the first time I’ve really seen a narrative that comes close to reflecting my experiences with mental illness as an Asian American, and as we all keep saying, representation is important.

There are a lot of ways in which this story diverges from my experiences: my mother’s illness was leukemia, not bipolar disorder and paranoia/schizophrenia; my family wasn’t an abusive/toxic environment (Kind of spoiler alert, highlight to read: Ruby’s father beat her mother and younger brother; Ruby herself is a survivor of intimate partner violence). The story takes place about 30 years ago, in the 80s. Despite these differences, I related to both Ruby and her mother’s experiences with mental illness in many ways.

One of the things I related to a lot was the taboo and silence around mental illness within the family. Although my parents aren’t the “doesn’t believe in mental illness/counseling” type of Asian parents, they never discussed mental illness in my extended family until very, very recently, after my own experiences with it brought it into the open. For a long time, whenever mental health practitioners asked me whether I had a history of mental illness in my family, I could only shrug and say “not that I know of” because if I did,¬†nobody talked about it. In the past year, however, my dad has told me about at least three different people on my dad’s side of the family having depression at some point, and he strongly suspects my maternal grandmother has anxiety, which would not be surprising to me at all.

The book starts out with Ruby’s mother being taken away by police. This definitely reminded me of my own experience being hospitalized. In my case, it was voluntary; I decided to commit myself to the psych ward because I was suicidal and not coping well at all; Ruby’s mother is involuntarily committed. But like her mother, I was handcuffed as a precautionary measure in case I had the urge to hurt myself (or other people). Ruby’s mother reacts to this with extreme distress, and that’s completely understandable. Even going into it voluntarily, I had this overwhelming feeling of wanting to escape and take it back because I knew I wouldn’t have any freedom for an indefinitely amount of time.

Another thing that was relatable to me was Mrs. Lin’s use of food to express defeat and anger. For her, it’s dumping out food in large quantities out of spite, for me, it was starving myself for periods of time as a “punishment.” I have a messy relationship with food. I either eat too much or eat too little as a response to my depression, so I’ve gone through periods of sharp increases in weight as well as sharp decreases in weight.

Soon after her mother’s hospitalization, Ruby starts seeing a therapist to deal with her own mental illness and trauma, and a lot of her frustrations mirror mine: I went in expecting that I’d be “fixed/cured” within a certain amount of time. I was a former straight-A student and thought that I could treat therapy like an academic class and study/work my way toward “graduating” out of my mental illness, and that I was a failure if I didn’t. (Spoiler alert: That didn’t work, and I’m still struggling with not hating myself for not getting over my depression the way some people can/have.)

One of the major¬†themes of this book is that loving someone doesn’t always mean you should live with them. It emphasizes that having distance and setting boundaries is healthy for relationships. This was very validating to me because I always felt guilty for wanting to get away from my family and live on my own. They aren’t horrible people or abusive, but I need my space and feel stifled living at home being treated more like a teenager than an adult.

I appreciated that the author included Ruby’s experiences with racist microaggressions throughout the story. Although the narrative never makes the explicit statement or connection, and the author may not have intended for anyone to see it that way, racism can very much trigger¬†or exacerbate mental illness. Dealing with racism that further dehumanizes you when you’re already feeling like garbage is a part of the intersectional experience of being nonwhite and mentally ill. I almost never feel safe because my awareness of systemic racism means that I know I could have racism thrown my way at any time, even by people who are close to me. Cue a ton of anxiety. On top of that, not feeling comfortable calling people out and feeling like I can’t change people’s prejudices/biases has made me feel helpless and even more depressed at times. (This is why I am livid when people attribute racism to mental illness or when white people try to deflect responsibility for their racism by claiming it’s their mental illness at fault.)

Although the title “Love Made of Heart” might lead people to assume the book is a romance book, the story focuses far more on familial love and relationships than romantic love, and I’m glad that the romantic subplot didn’t hijack the story (nor was it a “cure” for Ruby’s mental illness). In the end, the most important issue was Ruby’s growth and healing as a person, not whether she ended up with anyone.

The book isn’t perfect; it was cissexist in certain places, heteronormative in others, and it also played into the stigma against Chinese-accented English by spelling words of dialogue with L’s instead of R’s for this one character, among other things. But even so, this book meant a lot to me as an Asian American struggling with mental illness. I wish there were more books in YA/NA featuring mentally ill Asian characters, especially given that Asian American girls/women ages 15-24 have the 2nd highest suicide rate after Native American women among all ethnicities within that age group. Asian Americans are also less likely to report or seek treatment for mental illness than white Americans. A book like this one could literally save someone’s life. I’m kind of disappointed that this book was published in 2002 and I’ve really yet to see anything else like it in my search for Asian American mental illness rep.

Recommendation: If you’re interested in reading it, all the warnings I’ve given at the top and in my final paragraph apply. (It may also be difficult to get a copy as it’s old and out of print.)

Review for Dove Arising by Karen Bao

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Note: I read this book as part of the Dumbledore’s Army Readathon challenge. You can find out more about it here.

My Summary: Phaet Theta spends her time cultivating plants in Greenhouse 22 on the lunar colony she’s grown up in. All she wants is to become a bioengineer. Unfortunately, she is forced to set aside that dream and join the Militia to earn enough money to keep her family afloat. Just when she thinks she’s reaching her goal, her mother is arrested, and nothing can be the same for her ever again.

Review:

Well, I’m glad I picked this book off my extremely long backlist to read. I walked into it with some reserve because of the 3.5 star average reviews on Amazon and came out the other end wondering why it’s underrated (in my opinion).

If I were to describe this book succinctly by referencing a familiar work, I’d call it scifi Hunger Games, minus the fights to the death on live TV, and with POC. But that’s not really doing it justice, which is what the rest of this review is for.

There are familiar tropes in this story: a corrupt government, a love triangle (sort of), and a high-stakes mission for the protagonist. What makes it stand out to me is the worldbuilding and characterization.

The author has a background in science, an ecology degree to be specific, and that definitely shows in the book. The integration of scientific facts into the story lends it a sense of realism that keeps the speculative elements grounded. It’s hard for me not to read scifi with a critical eye due to my background in aerospace engineering.

Though it’s not mentioned in the jacket blurb, Phaet is of Chinese descent.¬†The major characters include four other POC. One is Umbriel, Phaet’s best friend, whose ancestry is never explicitly named but who is described as having dark hair and eyes and thick eyebrows (I might be misreading the text but it seemed to imply he was also Chinese?). Two of Phaet’s fellow Militia trainees are WOC: Vinasa, who is Indian and Irish; and Nashira, who is half Saudi, a quarter Nigerian, and a quarter Jamaican. The last is Yinha, the person who’s in charge of training the Militia recruits; like Phaet, she’s Chinese.

While race and ethnicity don’t have the same level importance in Phaet’s time as they do in our present-day world, the society she lives in isn’t entirely race-blind either. Someone makes a racist joke about Yinha’s eyes at one point. Also, Phaet, Vinasa, and Nashira have a brief conversation about their respective hair textures while they are getting to know one another, which was refreshingly real to read. Nash’s hair is difficult to keep in the style required by the Militia, which echoes the ways in which natural hair is stigmatized in the U.S. military.

Nor have people completely lost connection to their Earthbound roots. Bits and pieces of Chinese culture are referenced throughout the story, making Phaet’s Chineseness more than just a superficial thing. She knows the story of her great-grandmother’s migration from China to the United States, and then to the Moon, so in her own way she’s part of Chinese diaspora, with an extra migration and nationality (Lunar) added.

Phaet’s character is built around her competitive spirit and her loyalty to and love for her family. Her motivations are strongly tied to the desire for her family’s well-being, making her a sympathetic character. Though she does compete for the top rank among the recruits, a lot of that is driven by necessity–the salary will be enough to get her family financially stable–rather than personal, individual ambition. The centrality of her relationships with her mother, younger brother, and younger sister made the story compelling to me as someone with close bonds with my own family.

I mentioned a love triangle, and there are hints of one, but it’s far from being the primary plotline of the story, so if you’re sick of/averse to love triangles, don’t worry, this is not Twilight or The Hunter Games. Romance isn’t that important in general, which is a relief. (Though I’m disappointed that there are no queer characters to be found, except for one that maybe could be read as queer, but what’s new, sigh.)

Phaet’s ascent in the ranks of the recruits is not a given or an effortless task. She has some muscle from the manual labor of working in a greenhouse, but it’s not enough to make her an excellent athlete and trainee from the get-go. She has to work hard and do extra exercises and training in order to progress. There are no shortcuts.

The book doesn’t shy away from exploring the psychological effects of her Militia training. She becomes more desensitized to violence and even power-hungry, which creates conflict between her and her family and Umbriel, who are uneasy with the changes they see.

Speaking of conflict, the conflicts that drive the plot are multiple: interpersonal conflict between Phaet and other Militia recruits as well as between Phaet and the people she loves, and then also the broader conflict between Phaet and the oppressive society and government she lives in, and even within herself in the form of conflicting values and priorities.

From the beginning, the pace of the story is set at a brisk clip. Although Phaet spends half the book training, it’s not without incident, marked by fights with people who are out to sabotage her and dangerous, even deadly evaluation exercises. Then, the political intrigue kicks in, as well as the conflicts with her family caused by the changes she’s undergone, and at the end, we have a cliffhanger that sets you up for the second book.

And I’m ordering that second book (Dove Exiled) right now.¬†The third book (Dove Alight) is due later this year, so I guess I picked the best time to read this book, as reading it earlier would have meant a longer wait. Woo.

Recommendation:¬†Based on the Amazon ratings, I’m guessing it might be hit or miss depending on the person, but I say give it a try! It’s a solid debut novel and first installment to a science fiction series. (The author is my age and already published, I’m envious.)

Review for Noteworthy by Riley Redgate

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Note: My review is based on the eARC of the book that I received via NetGalley. The final version will be published on May 2nd, 2017.

My Summary: Jordan Sun is a scholarship student at the elite fine arts school, Kensington, and she’s desperate to get a role that will prove that she’s good enough to her parents. When her audition for the fall musical flops because her vocal range and texture aren’t “feminine” enough, she resorts to desperate measures: cross-dress as a guy and audition for the elite all-male a cappella group, the Sharpshooters, for a shot at the prestigious tour that will elevate her from nobody to the cream of the crop. It’s only for three months, so it can’t go wrong, can it?

Review:

Okay, so Seven Ways We Lie was good, but Noteworthy is amazing. I’ll be up front in saying that this is in large part due to the main character of Noteworthy being a bisexual Asian American, which is lot more relatable to me than the mostly-white cast of SWWL, no offense to them.

Noteworthy has all the same things that made Seven Ways We Lie good: well-done characterization all across the board, relatable protagonist, beautiful prose, interesting premise, excellent plotting. What puts Noteworthy on a different level from Seven Ways We Lie is the way it manages to tackle just about every social issue imaginable throughout the story. Race, gender, sexuality, class, disability, religion, and body image–plus the intersections of many of these–are all addressed at some point in the narrative, usually very explicitly.

Although Kensington is pretty white overall, Jordan’s world isn’t as white. Jordan herself represents a lot of things at once: She’s not only Chinese American, she’s bi (late at figuring it out, to boot), poor (her parents are working-class and her family receives government assistance), tall (5’10”!!!) and thick-framed (not to mention tan/brown), and has a lower voice. She also has impostor syndrome that has nothing to do with her cross-dressing and everything to do with anxiety. She’s basically me, except I’m Taiwanese American, genderqueer, not quite as tall (5’7″), and can’t sing (sadly).

The other members of the Sharpshooters are a diverse bunch in ways that extend beyond race, including (warning: a few spoilers): Isaac Nakahara the Japanese American hottie, Theodore who is fat and never fat-shamed by anyone except horrible people, Trav Atwood who is Black and the musical director of the group, Jon Cox who has a learning disability, and Nihal Sehrawat who is Sikh and gay. It is through these characters that the aforementioned issues are explored.

One of the things I appreciated about the execution of the cross-dressing premise was that unlike many books with a similar premise, the author actually discusses the implications of cross-dressing-as-disguise for trans people. For Jordan, it’s a tool and a lie, for trans people, passing is a matter of trying to live their lives and be seen as their authentic selves. The situations are vastly different, which makes cross-dressing-as-disguise a kind of appropriation.

The narrative also calls into question the constant and automatic gendering of certain traits and behaviors as masculine or feminine. It points out the flaws in gender essentialism that views things as inherently male or female as well as the sexism that is tied up in it. It also undermines cisheteronormativity* by normalizing the existence of queer people, not assuming that attraction is only between boys and girls, and, of course, having a bisexual main character who expresses her attraction to two genders.

The primary reason I love this book so much is the characterizations of and dynamics between the members of the Sharpshooters. They’re so realistically portrayed and given depth and complexity. They all care about one another, but as is inevitable when you throw together eight people into a high-pressure situation, tempers explode and conflicts erupt. My favorite relationship was the friendship between Jordan and Nihal, who bond over various shared experiences.

Last, but not least, I’d like to throw garlands at the writing style of this book. Riley Redgate is a master of poetic turns of phrase, and I’m envious of how gracefully she manages to describe every little thing. Plus, there’s nothing like reading a story about singing from someone who knows what they’re talking about and can capture the impressions of sound in the written word. While I was reading, I couldn’t help but pause over certain descriptions and think, “Wow, this is breathtaking…”

*There was one instance where the author slipped up and said “boys and girls” while excluding non-binary people. However, I contacted her about the mistake, and she promptly responded and promised to fix it ASAP, before the final printing if possible, and if not, in future printings of the book. This is a good model for how authors should respond to problematic language¬†being pointed out.

Recommendation: *throws confetti everywhere* READ THIS BOOK!

Giveaway+Author Spotlight: Stacey Lee

So, I counted and found that I’ve posted 30 reviews, and that was the arbitrary milestone I picked for doing a giveaway. I’m using this giveaway to promote one of my favorite authors, Stacey Lee!

Stacey Lee published her first book, Under a Painted Sky, in 2015, and her second book, Outrun the Moon, this year. Both of these are historical fiction YA novels featuring a Chinese American protagonist, a diverse cast of characters, themes of friendship and solidarity, and a touch of romance! I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to see Asian Americans included in the narrative timeline of U.S. history, both factual and fictional, and Stacey Lee is totally winning at it on the fiction side.

She also has a third book, a contemporary novel, The Secret of a Heart Note, coming out on December 27th, in less than two weeks! It tells the story of a teenage aromateur who mixes perfumes that help people fall in love. If you pre-order the book, you can get a personalized perfume recipe from the author (see details here).

You can find Stacey Lee on: Twitter | Facebook | Her Website | Goodreads

Now, for the giveaway! I’m giving away a signed, paperback copy of Under a Painted Sky! I happened to stumble upon it while browsing at the SFO airport bookstore and immediately snatched it up. Since I already have a copy of the book, I’m parting with this one for the greater good.

The rules? Just enter the Rafflecopter! Open to international folks. Ends at 00:00 (12:00 AM) on December 21st, US Central Time. The only requirement to be entered is to Tweet about the giveaway. You can also earn extra entries by commenting on various blog posts of mine. Detailed instructions are on the Rafflecopter page. Good luck!

Review for Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge by Paul Krueger

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Note: I read this book as part of the #DiversityDecBingo reading challenge. You can find out more about it here.

My Summary: Bailey Chen has just graduated from college and is struggling to find a job despite her Ivy league degree. Her problems transform from mundane to magical when she finds out her old friend (and new crush) Zane is part of a secret society of bartenders who fight demons by night. Different cocktails give the drinker different powers, but these powers may not be enough to save Chicago from the threat that looms on the horizon.

Review:

When I found out about this book, my first reaction was “hey, that sounds cool.” It stayed in my TBR¬†pile for a while until I finally bumped it up for the reading challenge, and I’m glad I did because it was even better than what I expected.

To start off, I think it’s worth noting that I’m someone who basically never drinks. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve voluntarily consumed alcohol, not counting a few sips of red wine with dinner during my study abroad trip in Spain. That means that this book managed to take something I had no interest in (alcohol, drinking) and make it interesting.

The concept of cocktails that double as magical potions is pretty cool. The author develops this concept well, giving it depth and background and its own structure, theory, and limitations.

Interspersed throughout the book are “excerpts” from The Devil’s Water Dictionary, which is a guide/recipe book for different mixed drinks and the¬†powers they grant. Along with the list of ingredients and¬†preparation instructions, there are notes about the history of each drink and its ingredients, as well as the history of the¬†people and events related to the drink. Other people might find it distracting or a waste of space/time, but I love reading history and trivia (so¬†many hours spent reading Wikipedia articles), so having that touch enhanced the reading experience for me.

The¬†protagonist, Bailey Chen, is very relatable to me. I’m also fresh out of college, unemployed, and living at home feeling pressure from family to become independent. Like her, I have to correct ignorant people about my ethnicity and deal with insufferable weeaboos/Asian fetishizers.

Which brings me to my next¬†point: this book calls out a bunch of stuff in blatant and subtle ways. Racism, sexism, classism, and ableism are highlighted in various scenes. Bailey carries implicit biases herself, but she also makes an effort to question and unlearn them. I think this¬†process should be written about more (in a way that doesn’t reduce characters from marginalized groups to “lessons” for the¬†privileged, of course).

Diversity is included organically in the book. We have women of color kicking ass, a trans guy as a major supporting character, interracial couples, gay characters (in fact, a gay bar is¬†part of the setting; one of Bailey’s female acquaintances has a crush on her), and a character with a disability (Bailey’s mentor, who also happens to be gay).

One of the nice things about the way the gay and trans characters are handled is that the story isn’t about them coming out/transitioning and struggling and whatnot. At one point, Bailey’s mentor casually mentions that he has a boyfriend, and it’s not a big deal, just a fact in his life story. The trans guy, Bucket, tells Bailey he’s trans, and Bailey tells him congratulations on transitioning and then goes on to ask him about the tremens (the demons) that he mentioned (in the same breath that he said he was trans), which is the more salient issue during that scene.

Recommendation: Highly recommended to everyone.

Review for The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig

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Note: I read this book as part of the #DiversityDecBingo reading challenge. You can find out more about it here.

My Summary: Nix has spent her entire life aboard The Temptation, a ship that can travel through time and space, to real and fictional locations like, as long as there is a map for it. Her father captains this ship, and he is obsessed with finding a map for 1868 Honolulu, so he can reunite with Nix’s mother before she died. This quest takes them through danger and adventure, and if it is successful, it could¬†potentially erase Nix from existence.

Review:

Honestly, I can’t believe this book didn’t appear on my radar earlier than it did. A biracial Chinese¬†protagonist, a MOC for the love interest, historical¬†Hawaii,¬†pirates, and time travel? It’s a book to throw my money at.

To start off, I really loved the worldbuilding. While Nix travels to several places in her journey, the bulk of the action takes place in 1884 in Honolulu. The author makes Honolulu come to life with her keen eye for details. I could imagine myself on the streets of Honolulu as Nix makes her way around.

As befitting a girl who grew up on a ship, Nix is an excellent navigator. She’s also smart, curious, well-read, and possesses the wanderlust and adventurous spirit that drives her father in his endless quests across space and time. Although she loves her father dearly, she also yearns for independence and freedom and actively seeks a way to attain them. It’s something I can definitely relate to as a recent college grad who’s stuck living at home with my dad for the time being.

The supporting characters are a diverse bunch. The crew of The Temptation includes Nix’s love interest, Kashmir, who is Persian; Bee, a North African woman (of the Na’ath¬†people in Sudan) who was once married to a woman; and Rotgut, who’s Chinese. They make up a family of sorts, coming together despite their vastly different backgrounds.

Kashmir’s character won me over very quickly. I think I have a thing for thieves (see: George Cooper from Tamora Pierce’s Tortall books, Han Alister from the Seven Realms series by Cinda Williams Chima, and Eugenides from Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief series). He’s clever, charming, multilingual, quick on his feet and with his hands, and¬†playful with words. He cares for Nix and respects her boundaries. He keeps her grounded with his optimism and carpe diem¬†outlook. In short, he’s a cinnamon roll.

When it comes to plot, the book keeps you on your toes. You never know where and when the crew might travel to next; each new place/time has¬†its own excitement and danger(s). There are twists and revelations aplenty. And the mind-bending implications of time travel are explored, not sidestepped. Aside from¬†adding adventure and uncertainty, the time-traveling element also raises ethical questions, such as: if we can travel backward in time, should we change history with the intention of making a¬†positive outcome? Nix grapples with this conundrum throughout her time in Honolulu, for she knows that the Kingdom of Hawai’i will fall to American imperialism, and her father’s quest may just influence that outcome.

Overall, I enjoyed this book a lot. I sped through it faster than I expected. However, there was one thing that bothered me, and it was the use of Chinese as it relates to historical accuracy. Nix speaking Mandarin isn’t a big deal to me; her father was born in the 20th century, and she’s visited the¬†present day and more recent history. However, Auntie Joss’s (a secondary character) use of Mandarin was anachronistic.

First of all, given that her character was originally from the Qin dynasty, she would not have spoken modern-day Chinese. The Chinese spoken during that era is a distant predecessor to standard Mandarin and differs greatly in several ways. One is that standard Mandarin has¬†palatalized consonants (j/q/x in pinyin) that didn’t exist in older variants of Chinese. Another is the loss of most syllable-final consonants (p, t, m, k, etc.), which are¬†preserved in languages belonging to other Chinese language branches (including Hokkien, which is a language that I speak in addition to Mandarin).

Secondly, the Chinese immigrants to Hawai’i during the 1800s were mostly from Guangdong, so the Chinese community there wouldn’t have spoken Mandarin, which is based on the Beijing dialect and didn’t become standardized and instituted as the national language of China until the 20th Century. They would have spoken Cantonese, or for a smaller minority, Hakka. Joss wouldn’t have been able to understand the Chinese community in Honolulu, or vice-versa, upon her arrival, any more than someone who spoke Old English would be able to understand English-speakers in the¬†present day.

When Auntie Joss talks to Nix about her name, she tells her that Nix backwards is “xin,” which means happiness (I’m assuming she’s referring to this character: ś¨£). However, “xin” is a spelling based on the Hanyu Pinyin Romanization system, which didn’t exist¬†prior to the 1950s. Older systems of Romanization usually used “sh” (or in the case of the Wade-Giles system, “hs”) to indicate the consonant sound denoted by “x” in the Pinyin system (the fancy linguistics name for it is the voiceless alveolo-palatal sibilant fricative).

Last, but not least, the number homophone¬†part on page 126 had an error as well. The word for five is “wu” (third tone) and [one of the] word[s] for “not/no” is “wu” (second tone), but the word for “I/me” in Mandarin is “wo” (third tone) not “wu.” Different vowel sound.

These details are¬†probably not a big deal to your typical reader, but they stood out to me as a Chinese-speaker and linguistics nerd. I’m not anti-rec’ing the book based on that, and I’m definitely looking forward to the sequel¬†The Ship Beyond Time.¬†I merely wanted to address the issues I noticed.

Recommendation: Read it! Just keep in mind it’s not completely historically accurate in its use of Chinese.

P.S. I liked the part where Nix calls Rudyard Kipling a racist because that is the Truth.

Review for Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee

not-your-sidekick

Note: I read this book as part of the #DiversityDecBingo reading challenge. You can find out more about it here.

My Summary: Jessica Tran was born into a family of larger-than-life¬†people: her¬†parents are Andover’s local superheroes, her older sister is also a superhero, and her younger brother is a science prodigy. Having lost hope for any¬†powers of her own to manifest, she applies for a paid internship, thinking it will be drudge work. Except it turns out her employers are the town’s supervillains, and her crush Abby also works there. Her internship soon brings more surprises, including a discovery that will change her understanding of everything she knows about her world.

Review:

The moment I found out about this book, I knew I had to get it. The title grabbed my attention because it reminded me of the #NotYourSidekick hashtag on Twitter a while back, which drew attention to the absence of Asians in U.S. media as anything other than side characters. Finding a mainstream American film or show featuring Asians as the central characters is like looking for a needle in a haystack. This¬†past year has shown some improvement, given the airing of Fresh Off the Boat and Dr. Ken, but Hollywood’s erasure and exclusion of Asians is still a barrier to overcome.

Anyway, the concept of this book was everything I needed: Asian American superheroes, bisexual main character, F/F romance, and so on. And C.B. Lee delivers.

The fact that Jess ends up working for a villain was already enough of a twist on its own (not a surprise one since it was advertised clearly in the description, but still), but this book threw in several more twists that I was not at all prepared for. Between the superhero-supervillain arc and the good-god-will-they-just-date/kiss-already romance arc, the suspense kept the story moving.

Exciting plot aside, this book features a cast of well-developed, diverse characters.

Jess is second generation Vietnamese and Chinese. Her¬†parents were refugees from a conflict in Asia after World War III who gained employment from the North American Collective’s government as C-class superheroes in the (NAC=U.S., Canada, Mexico). Although the story takes¬†place in the Twenty-Second Century, Jess’s experience as a second generation Asian are familiar to me: cursing in Vietnamese, going to Chinese school on the weekends, internalizing and perpetuating xenophobic values and then realizing how hurtful the whole “fob” thing is, feeling like you don’t know nearly enough of your heritage languages, etc. Speaking of languages, the Vietnamese and Chinese bits that appeared in the book had the tone/diacritical markings on them (except for one¬†place, not sure if that was an error or not), so I was happy about that.

The racial diversity of this novel extends beyond Jess’s family. There is an established Asian community within Andover, there are other Asian students at her school that she was once friends with, and one of her teachers is Asian. Jess’s two best friends are not Asian, but they are POC. Their races/ethnicities are never explicitly stated, but I was able to infer that Emma is Latina (most likely of Mexican heritage), and Bells is a Louisiana Creole of Color. Their race informs their characters but doesn’t constrain them.

Now, let me talk about the LGBTQ representation in this book. Aside from our bisexual protagonist and her female love interest, we also have a trans boy (Bells)¬†and a minor character, Darryl, who is the¬†president of the Rainbow Allies, the LGBTQ student organization at Jess’s school. In a publishing industry where LGBTQ characters are often the single token non-cishet¬†person in a sea of cishet characters, this book is a welcome change.

One of the awesome things about the way the LGBTQ characters are handled is that the story isn’t focused on their coming out journey. Jess’s [accidental] coming out is referenced for one¬†paragraph, having happened before the events of the book began. Bells began his transition before the events of the book as well. Moreover, his transness isn’t a spectacle used for shock value; it’s casually referenced and revealed when Jess asks him if he’s worn his binder for too long.

Aside from this, there’s also dialogue surrounding¬†pronouns. Jess meets the mysterious M, who is dressed in a mecha-suit, and asks what M’s¬†pronouns are. She also corrects Abby when she uses they pronouns instead of he pronouns for Bells. (If y’all want to be good allies to trans folks, normalize the act of stating your¬†pronouns and asking¬†people for theirs when you are introduced.)

Another nice touch was the way the Rainbow Alliance was described as a clique of gay guys who were friends with each other and socialized more than anything else. Those of us who have experience in LGBTQ circles and communities know that many spaces that are designated LGBTQ are actually mostly about the G while leaving everyone else on the margins. I remember reading about an author panel at a conference that happened recently (last year or this year) that featured only gay [white] men. The depiction of the Rainbow Allies was super relatable for this reason.

Moreover, I understood Jess’s frustration with how depoliticized the organization was. My university has a bunch of Asian American student organizations, and they’re mostly there for socializing; the ones that do service work rarely do targeted service for Asian American communities or causes, just general service work.

The book manages to make commentary on a number of other issues in an organic fashion. For example, it points out the rampant sexism of in our 20th and 21st Century media. At one¬†point, it’s mentioned that Jess has test anxiety, in a¬†passage that acts as a subtle critique of standardized tests and curriculum.

Between all of these things, big and small, Not Your Sidekick is an amazing book, and I can’t wait for the sequel, which is scheduled for release in 2017! (It’s called Not Your Villain and focuses on Bells!)

Recommendation: Read this book and share it with your friends!

P.S. I love the cover art and chapter heading illustrations. They capture the essence of the story so well.

Review for Bitter Melon by Cara Chow

bitter-melon

Trigger/Content Warning: mentions and descriptions of abuse

My Summary: Due to a schedule error, Frances Ching ends up in a speech class instead of the calculus class she was supposed to take. Despite knowing that her mother will disapprove, she ends up joining the competitive speech team, ditching her Princeton Review course to¬†participate. All of a sudden, she is sneaking around behind her mother’s back to do the things she’s not allowed to do. However, she can’t keep everything a secret forever, so her mother finds out. Eventually, she must make a decision between being the obedient daughter and becoming independent.

Review:

Though at first glance this book may seem like a book about rebelling against the stereotypical Chinese “tiger mom,” it’s actually about a girl struggling under the tyranny of an abusive mother. Frances isn’t just¬†placed under strict rules, she is constantly belittled, manipulated, isolated, starved, and, in one case,¬†physically beaten. Her life is ruled by fear of her mother’s backlash.

For a long time, Frances does not see the abuse for what it is because her mother has told her that she owes everything to her mother, her mother has sacrificed so much for her, and everything her mother does is supposedly for her own good, even when it hurts Frances and tears her down. When Frances accomplishes something, her mother offers no praise, only criticism of her faults.When other people compliment Frances, her mother accuses them of lying or being too generous. She lies, hides things, and destroys or takes away means of escape to keep Frances under her thumb. She treats Frances as an extension of herself and a tool for her own reputation and benefit.

It’s¬†particularly difficult for Frances to escape the abuse or get help¬†because the book takes place in 1989, before technology like the Internet and smartphones made remote communication and access to information convenient. All she has is a single landline¬†phone through which her mother can and does intercept calls for her.

Through her interactions with her speech class teacher and a friend/crush from her Princeton Review class, Frances begins to build herself back up from years of being beaten down. She starts to question the worldview that her mother has manipulated her into adopting and look for a way out of her cage. Through her speech competitions, she comes to understand the power of words, and how her mother has wielded words against her.

This book is not an easy read, emotionally speaking. You are made to feel every ounce of Frances’s fear, guilt, shame, and despair. Thankfully, there are¬†positive things to balance it out:¬†pride, joy, relief, and triumph. The story is dark, but it isn’t a tragedy. The ultimate message it¬†projects is one of hope.

I feel like this book is very important because a lot of abuse in Asian American families flies under the radar, written off as “cultural differences.” Frances’s relationship with her mother is contrasted with that of her fellow Chinese American friend, Theresa, whose mother is not abusive. When Frances brings up the abusive behaviors to other Chinese¬†people in her community, they are shocked and horrified. Though cultural norms may enable abuse and violence (think about how American cultural norms tend to encourage the victim-blaming of assault survivors, for example), there are no cultures where every single¬†person/parent is abusive, and the idea that a culture is inherently oppressive is a biased judgment relying on essentialism that homogenizes people of a culture and strips of them of their individuality and agency.

Recommendation: This book was an engaging and emotionally evocative read with a message of empowerment, so I’d recommend it to anyone.

Review for Little Miss Evil by Bryce Leung and Kristy Shen

little-miss-evil

My Summary: Fiona is the daughter of infamous super-villain Manson Ng, but all she wants to do is live a normal life. However, on her thirteenth birthday, her father is kidnapped by an enemy. The ransom demanded is the NOVA, an extremely lethal nuclear weapon that could wipe out an entire city. All of a sudden, Fiona is in charge of her father’s henchmen and must launch a rescue mission. Good thing her father gave her a flamethrower to strap to her arm for her birthday¬†present.

Review:

Asians have been typecast as villains in the U.S. for over a hundred years. The racist stereotype of the “yellow¬†peril” has a long history. For those who don’t know, the yellow¬†peril is the idea that Asians are cunning, ruthless, barbaric hordes who will take over and destroy white civilization. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and other anti-Asian legislation in the U.S. were fueled by this xenophobic stereotype. Outside of the legal realm, the stereotype has been perpetuated in books, films, TV shows, etc. American pop culture has seen its share of yellow peril villains: Fu Manchu, Ming the Merciless–the list goes on.

The refreshing thing about Little Miss Evil is that even though Manson Ng is an Asian villain, his villainy is not attributed to or associated with his Asianness. He’s just your typical bad guy who wants to build weapons, steal things, and cackle evilly. Also, he happens to love his daughter a lot and is unintentionally funny with his idiosyncrasies.

And Fiona, despite being the daughter of a villain, is the protagonist and hero of the story. Through her narration, we see her view of Manson Ng: the melodramatic but ultimately caring father. We also see both the perks and downsides to being related to a super-villain.

The¬†plot of this book never strays from the rescue mission. It’s a fast-paced narrative featuring lots of action, suspense, and twists. Even so, it manages to squeeze in a little humor, family bonding moments, and super-villain backstory.

The bonus cherry on top is the way this story smashes certain Asian American tropes in unconventional and hilarious ways. For example, during a conversation with her father about her future, this exchange happens:

“I. Don’t Want. To. Be. A. Super. Villain! I want to have a normal career. I want to go to college and become a doctor and go to Africa to help starving children*!”

Dad turns beet-red. “A doctor? Africa?” He spits each word onto the floor, as if they are chunks of bitter melon dripped in disappointment sauce. “Why don’t you just stab a knife into my heart?”

Usually, the kid is being forced by the parent(s) to become a doctor, and they rebel against that, thus disappointing the parent(s). Here, the kid wants to become a doctor to rebel against the parent. Because the alternative is going into the family business and becoming a super-villain.

There’s also a scene where Fiona gets a 100 on a math test, but not because she’s an Asian math genius. She actually made mistakes on the test. However, her teacher didn’t mark them wrong because the super-villain¬†parents of one of her classmates (she goes to school with two other kids with super-villains as parents) threatened the teacher into giving their daughter a good grade. The teacher gave Fiona a 100 to avoid the risk of backlash¬†from her father. Ha.

So, there are two problematic¬†things I noticed, relatively small but still worth addressing. The first is the asterisk from the bit I quoted above. When Fiona talks about becoming a doctor to help save starving children in Africa, it does the following: 1) homogenizes a huge and diverse continent into a monolith, 2)¬†portrays Africa through the lens of a racist stereotype of¬†poverty-stricken¬†people, 3)¬†perpetuates the Western savior narrative that leads to well-intentioned but ill-advised “voluntourism” that centers the ego of the “savior” and not the needs and agency of the people being helped.

The other thing was the¬†portrayal of a secondary character named Ruby, who has albinism. Although she isn’t a completely one-dimensional character, the way her¬†physical appearance is described (particularly the “blood-red eyes”) perpetuates the othering of people with albinism. Her overall meanness is also falls into the stereotype of¬†people with albinism as “villainous, deviant, supernatural or sadistic” (quoted from albinism.org).

Recommendation: Not for romance fans, as there is zero romance (it’s a middle grade novel, anyway). Great for¬†people who enjoy action, adventure, and kickass heroines!