Tag Archives: Chinese American

Author Interview: Sarah Kuhn

Today’s special guest for my Asian author interview series is Sarah Kuhn! Last year, her debut novel, Heroine Complex, released and was one of my top reads of 2016. Come July 4th, the sequel, Heroine Worship, will be out. I’ve invited her to talk a little about the series and Heroine Worship.

Heroine Worship

Honestly, this cover is everything. It’s so dynamic and kickass. Thanks to Jason Chan for saving Asian SFF with his amazing cover illustrations. (In addition to the covers for this series, he also illustrated Cindy Pon’s Want.)

To keep things mostly spoiler-free for book 1, I’ll just link to the synopsis on Goodreads.

As always, my comments/questions are in bold and labeled “SW.” Here we go!

SW: Well, I am super excited that Heroine Worship is about to be released. Can you offer us any teasers beyond the synopsis?

Sarah: Thank you—I’m excited too! Heroine Worship is really about Annie Chang/Aveda Jupiter figuring out who she is now that everything she’s ever known has changed. We see a lot of her internal landscape, learn a lot about what she’s been feeling. There are so many superhero feelings in this book, y’all. There are also tons of supernatural wedding shenanigans, gorgeous vintage outfits, and at least one scene with sexy cake-eating. And it gives folks something that was only teased in Heroine Complex: Evie and Aveda fighting side by side as legit co-heroines.

SW: Annie’s character is interesting to me because she’s such a drama queen but also tough at the same time. Did she spring from your head, fully-formed, like Athena, or did it take some work to bring her to life? What has your character design process been like for this series?

Sarah: She’s actually the character that’s changed the most since I came up with the idea for Book 1! Evie and Aveda weren’t originally childhood friends and she was much more of a cartoonish diva boss character I plugged in to service this bigger idea of the superhero’s personal assistant story. Once I made them longtime friends, I had to think about her in a lot more depth, think about what drives her and what makes her and Evie’s bond so deep and complicated. I kept coming back to this intense drive she has to be The Absolute Best at whatever she’s doing and how that sometimes blocks out everything else—that’s certainly something I can relate to. She’s one of my favorite characters to write because she’s so bold and loud and has a tendency to charge into situations without thinking about the consequences. I love how she 100 percent refuses to be ignored.

As far as developing characters in general for this series, one of the things I enjoy the most is putting them all in a scene together and seeing how they interact, how they bounce off of each other. For instance, Nate (Evie’s scientist boyfriend) mentoring Bea (Evie’s science-intrigued little sister) came out of that.

SW: Complex characters are more compelling! In the Heroine Complex series, we have three Asian American girl protagonists, Evie, Annie, and Bea. Which of the three are you most like, if any? What traits do you share in common with each of them?

Sarah: I think of myself as being the most like whichever character I’m writing at the time because I’m so intensely in their headspace. I connect a lot with Evie’s snarkiness and using humor as a defense mechanism and her initial insistence on seeing herself only as a sidekick—that’s how I saw myself for a long time. And I relate to Aveda’s need to be the best and fear of failure and vulnerability—as well as her extreme love of fashion. I suppose like Aveda, I now also refuse to see myself as anything less than the protagonist. Bea, I’m still getting to know—stay tuned.

SW: I can’t wait to get into Aveda/Annie’s head because I’ve been wondering what goes on there since Book 1. And I also can’t wait to see more of Bea’s perspective since she’s younger than both Aveda and Evie and therefore will have a different perspective.

If you could cast any actors for the major characters in Heroine Worship, who would you choose, and why?

Sarah: That’s impossible to answer because there are so many awesome Asian American actresses doing great work right now! My mind overloads with the possibilities. I always love seeing people post their fancasts, though!

SW: I feel like I need to go looking for good fancasts now. *makes notes to search later*

I know for your journalism, you talk a lot about Asian Americans in media. What kinds of stories are at the top of your wish list?

Sarah: I’ve said this a ton, but I always love and want to see more stories about Asian Girls Having Fun. Those stories could take so many different forms—Asian Girls Falling in Love, Asian Girls Kicking Demon Butt, Asian Girls Going Shopping and Seeing Star Wars and Gossiping Afterwards While Looking at Pictures of Cute Dogs. Just as much Asian Girls Getting to Do Cool-Ass Shit as possible.

SW: I’m on board with that. It’s great to see that more of these stories are starting to appear in YA and beyond.

Looking at what’s already out there, what are your favorite Asian American creative works (e.g. movies, tv shows, books, comics, etc.)?

Sarah: We’ll be here all day unless I restrict myself somehow—there are so many awesome Asian American creative people doing awesome shit in all mediums right now! So I’ll keep it to recommending a few books either in my genre or adjacent to it:

Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge by Paul Krueger is a fantastic, funny, wonderfully earnest urban fantasy about bartenders who fight monsters with alcohol magic. Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee is a clever, trope-deconstructing YA superhero book in a fun near future setting featuring cute robots and even cuter romance. And Trade Me by Courtney Milan is a swoony, sexy, witty contemporary romance about two seemingly opposite people who decide to switch lives for a month—this books makes me feel so many things and I adore the main couple so much. And all three of these books have awesome Asian American girl protagonists.

SW: Okay, I am seconding the hell out of Last Call and Not Your Sidekick, which were also among my top reads of 2016. (I’ve linked my reviews above for everyone who’s interested.) Trade Me I’ve heard of but haven’t read, but I’ll add it to my TBR. Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions, and I wish you a wonderful launch for Heroine Worship!


Sarah Kuhn Credit CapozKnows PhotographySarah Kuhn is the author of Heroine Complex—the first in a series of novels starring Asian American superheroines—for DAW Books. Heroine Complex is a Locus bestseller, an RT Reviewers’ Choice Award nominee for Best Urban Fantasy, and one of the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi/Fantasy Blog’s best books of 2016. The sequel, Heroine Worship, is out summer 2017. She also wrote “The Ruby Equation” for the Eisner-nominated comics anthology Fresh Romance and the geek girl rom-com novella One Con Glory, which earned praise from USA Today and io9 and is in development as a feature film. Current writing projects include a series of Barbie comics and a comic book continuation of the cult classic movie Clueless. Her articles and essays have appeared in The Toast, The Mary Sue, Uncanny Magazine, AngryAsianMan.com, IGN.comStarTrek.com, The Hollywood Reporter, and the Hugo-nominated anthology Chicks Dig Comics. (Photo Credit: CapozKnows Photography)

You can find Sarah on the Web:

Author Interview: F.C. Yee

This month is packed with interviews because of #AsianLitBingo, and there are four more to go before the end of the month, not counting this one, so I hope you are ready for the flood. Today’s special guest is F.C. Yee, whose debut YA novel The Epic Crush of Genie Lo is releasing August 8th!

I have to take a moment to appreciate this cover because it’s so eye catching.  (In an earlier version of the cover, Genie was much smaller compared to the title, and the difference in the visual impact is pretty dramatic.) I especially love the tagline because it’s a hyperbolic rendition of a typical Chinese parent line and sets the tone for the story.

Before we begin with the interview, here’s the Goodreads synopsis:

The struggle to get into a top-tier college consumes sixteen-year-old Genie Lo’s every waking thought. But when her sleepy Bay Area town comes under siege from hell-spawn straight out of Chinese folklore, her priorities are suddenly and forcefully rearranged.

Her only guide to the demonic chaos breaking out around her is Quentin Sun, a beguiling, maddening new transfer student from overseas. Quentin assures Genie she is strong enough to fight these monsters, for she unknowingly harbors an inner power that can level the very gates of Heaven.

Genie will have to dig deep within herself to summon the otherworldly strength that Quentin keeps talking about. But as she does, she finds the secret of her true nature is entwined with his, in a way she could never have imagined…

As always, my comments and questions are in bold and labeled with “SW.” F.C. Yee’s answers will be labeled “Christian” (because that’s what the C stands for and I’ve been using given names for all these interviews).

SW: Please introduce yourself!

fcyeeChristian: Hi! I’m F.C. Yee, author of The Epic Crush of Genie Lo. It’s my first work of fiction to be published. Prior to that, most of the writing I did was in college for a humor magazine. I live in San Francisco and enjoy varied pursuits like staying in, staying in and watching TV, and staying in and playing games.

 

SW: Beyond what’s the in the Goodreads synopsis, tell us a little about The Epic Crush of Genie Lo.

Christian: This book, if I did it right, is about knowing exactly what you want and being kept from it by forces that claim they’re beyond your control. It’s about discovering your inner power, testing the validity of those claims, and finding out that they were BS all along.

If I did not do it right, then it’s solely about make-believe punching.

It is not the first book I ever wrote; in fact the first words I put to paper for The Epic Crush of Genie Lo were during a writer’s conference where I was supposed to be talking about a different book entirely. I solidified some ideas on hotel stationary during a pitch session and read the pitch to the group before the rest of the story existed. They didn’t hate it, so here we are.

SW:  Since your book incorporates some Chinese lore, what is your favorite Chinese myth/folktale/legend?

Christian: My favorite story would be how the goddess Nuwa created humans. According to some versions, she started by sculpting individual people out of clay. But at some point she got impatient and started flinging the clay around, creating people wherever drops of it landed.

The legend isn’t very funny when used to justify social hierarchies like it apparently was in the past, but it is pretty amusing to imagine a creator goddess going “Eh, whatever. It’ll work out.” I like to think we’re all of us the product of hasty assembly, without exception.

SW: That sounds less flattering than what the Greeks came up with, but hey, we can’t all be artists and masters of crafting, right? Speaking of craft, did you do any research for the story? If so, what kind?

Christian: I read multiple versions of Journey to the West, including an abridged one that has maybe three demons tops, and an unabridged version that was so long I doubt I remember every part of it. Prior to that I had read or watched media about Sun Wukong in passing, but it wasn’t with the intent of doing research. Also, it would be impossible to claim that I wasn’t influenced by American Born Chinese, which I’d read before the idea of doing fiction ever crossed my mind.

SW: My background with Journey to the West is fairly similar. My dad read me these illustrated storybooks about the Monkey King and I watched a cartoon movie about him, but I’ve never actually read Journey to the West in either English or Chinese. I’ve been meaning to though.

But even with only bits and pieces the human mind can create so much. You start out with a seed of an idea but end up with a fully fledged story. How has your story grown and changed from its earlier iterations?

Christian: The major plot beats and characterizations were pretty much the same since early drafts, but a lot of the smaller details kept evolving to fit the story and tone. I ended up removing some unnecessary complications that would have caused the narrative to come to a screeching halt or thrown the reader out of the flow of the story. There was also a steady shift over time towards increased focus on Genie’s relationships with her best friend, and especially her divine mentor/boss/older sister figure.

SW: I loved that character, so I’m glad you decided to give her more page time. It was cool to see a very modernized depiction of her. Coincidentally, she’s sort of important to one of the stories I’m writing, so I’m just going to pretend our stories happen in the same universe about a thousand years apart 😉

What was your greatest challenge with writing the book?

Christian: I struggled for a while with how to relay the origins of Sun Wukong to anyone who wasn’t familiar with the original story. Going back to the above question, another draft of the book had interludes that tried to summarize relevant chunks of Journey to the West, and that didn’t work as well as what I eventually landed on.

To my surprise I also got stumped on some small key plot mechanics that I needed to keep the story moving forward. Certain elements that should have been obvious in retrospect took me weeks of banging my head against the wall to figure out.

SW: I think I’ve been through something similar in the past. On the flip side, what was your favorite part of writing the book?

Christian: I enjoyed creating the reversals that occur during fight scenes and giving off that manga-esque “You think you have me beat but this isn’t even my true power!” feeling. I may or may not have imagined most of those moments before writing the book and used them as motivation to finish the rest. *cough*

SW: “Write the shiny, explosive parts first, sweat the small stuff later” is probably a lot of writers’ modus operandi, to be honest, ha. 😂

This next question is something that came up while I was reading the ARC of your book. (Spoiler free zone, don’t worry) What’s your beef with bubble tea? Okay, I’m being facetious, but Genie seemed to be very adamantly against bubble tea. Speaking seriously, was there any reason besides familiarity that motivated you to set the book in the Bay Area in particular?

Christian: I personally love bubble tea! I just thought it would be funny if Genie hated something that most everyone in the Bay Area loves. The thought of her silently grousing as all her friends keep wanting to meet up for bubble tea was a very Genie-like image in my head.

As far as for why the book takes place in the Bay Area, I’m afraid it was just proximity coupled with an Asian American population that lent the setting elements that I wanted. I’m sure there’s an alternate universe where I lived elsewhere and wrote the book to be in Flushing, NY, or maybe Vancouver.

SW: I guess that means Genie and I would not hit it off​ that well. I love bubble tea and wished I lived somewhere that has plenty of bubble tea shops nearby. 😅

Now, for the last question…

Although the book feels like it can stand alone, I also think there’s room for more stories about Genie. Are there are any sequel ideas/plans? If not, any hints at what’s next/what you’re working on?

Christian: There will definitely be at least one more book about Genie (hooray for contractual obligations!) After that, I might try my hand at YA Fantasy, or even a Middle Grade book. I would love to do a book that has a Korean influence as I’m of Korean descent as well as Chinese, and I have to be fair to both sides of the family ☺

SW: Yesss! I’m so down for another book about Genie and Quentin. I’m also excited about the possibility of a Korean-influenced book because we need more Korean rep in YA, especially SFF.👀

Thanks a bunch for this interview! I’m looking forward to receiving my copy of The Epic Crush of Genie Lo on release day!


You can find F.C. Yee on the web:

And don’t forget to add The Epic Crush of Genie Lo on Goodreads!

Review for The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F.C. Yee

Note: This review is based on the ARC I received from NetGalley. The book will be published on August 8th.

My Summary: Genie Lo already has her hands full trying to do everything necessary to get into a top college. But then she witnesses a demon attack the attractive new transfer student Quentin Sun and discovers she has the power to smash open the Gates of Heaven with her fists, and all of a sudden her priorities get scrambled in favor of saving the world from impending doom.

Review:

This is one of my favorite YA reads of this year. I pretty much read it in one sitting while live-tweeting my reactions. It’s a jam-packed mix of action, comedy, romance, and character growth. I laughed my way through most of it and yelled at the characters because I was engaged with the story.

Genie is a character that I was eager to root for because I related to her feelings a lot. She is uncertain and angry and she’s not shy about expressing her anger. Anger is an emotion that gets policed a lot, especially in POC and especially for Asians because of the stereotype of us as passive and non-threatening. It was refreshing to read about a character who embraces her inner angry Asian.

Another thing I loved about her is that she’s tall because I’m tall (though not quite as tall) and having some variety in Asian physiques is always nice. We’re not all tiny and dainty, mind you.

Genie’s anger and brawn become purposeful when demons start attacking the Bay Area. Of course, the attractive transfer student is involved, and she gets embroiled in a conflicting much greater than herself.

Although people tend to discount worldbuilding in contemporary, it’s no less important than in a secondary world fantasy. Genie lives in the Silicon Valley, and the author really captures the atmosphere and landscape well, down to the bubble tea shops that have taken over in recent decades.

On the fantasy side, we have demons and immortals from Chinese folklore putting in appearances, including some big shots that many diaspora Chinese readers will find familiar. Knowing Mandarin and having a background in the Chinese folklore integrated into the story was a bonus; my prior knowledge didn’t make the story feel reused or trite, it enriched the experience. For those who aren’t familiar, the narrative provides sufficient background and humorous cliffnotes versions of the relevant myths, so it won’t go over your heads.

Outside of the action, we get character development. Genie’s demon fighting problems bleed over into her normal life and affect her relationships with friends and family as well as her academics. She vents to and receives advice from a college application coach in a way creates humor because she is being literal about demon-fighting while her coach takes her complaints as figurative/hyperbole. Throughout the story, Genie’s priorities, sense of self, and agency are explored parallel to the action of kicking demon butt.

The romantic relationship between Genie and Quentin is rife with tension as despite her visceral attraction to him, Genie refuses to be less than equal to him or disrespected (which is a good thing of course). The development and changes between them that happen between start and end are dramatic but justified. For those who are into the hate-to-love trope or tall girl/short boy dynamic, this one’s for you. 😉

One of my favorite things about this story is how over the top it is. There’s definitely a sense that the story isn’t taking itself too seriously, and it almost feels like an Asian drama or anime/manga. It’s difficult to explain but leaves a distinct impression.

Recommendation: Highly recommended!

P.S. If you haven’t read my interview with F.C. Yee, check it out here!

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

cilla-lee-jenkins-future-author-extraordinaire

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

Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review for Love Made of Heart by Teresa LeYung Ryan

love-made-of-heart

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

dove-arising-hardcover

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: 欣). 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.