Tag Archives: Chinese-Australian

Review for Queens of Geek by Jen Wilde

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

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

Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review for Lucy and Linh by Alice Pung

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Note: This book was originally published under the name Laurinda in Australia back in 2014.

My Summary: Lucy Lam receives the Equal Access scholarship to the prestigious Laurinda and walks into Year 10 thinking it will be her ticket out of the impoverished neighborhood her family lives in. While she is hopeful, she is also anxious about whether she will fit in among the elite students at her school. What she finds at Laurinda is equal parts fascinating and horrifying, and she must learn to navigate the school’s social snakepit without losing sight of herself and her roots.

Review:

I was really looking forward to reading this book, so much that I actually set aside the #DiversityDecBingo book I was reading to read this instead. I can’t say I regret it.

A lot of books about diasporic Asians call out racism, but this book takes it to another level. I’d venture to say it offers one of the most incisive critiques of wealthy white people’s elitism and hypocrisy that I’ve seen in a young adult novel. I’m almost surprised that it managed to get the green light for publication without some white publishing industry professional whining about “reverse racism,”

One of the refreshing things about this book is that it centers the experience of an Asian person from a working-class background. Lucy’s parents are not the educated elite that people often associate with diasporic Asians. She and her parents are refugees from Vietnam (her family is ethnically Chinese, though; Teochew, to be specific). Her parents work long hours, her father at a carpet factory, her mother at home sewing knockoffs of brand name clothes. They live in an area called Stanley, which others might call a “ghetto.” Given her background, Lucy is perfectly positioned to see through and call out the pretentious bullshit of her classmates, their families, and her school.

At the beginning, Lucy is impressed by the glamour and glitz of Laurinda, but she quickly realizes how much of a sham it is. Although the school prides itself on its academic and extracurricular excellence, its most noteworthy trait, from Lucy’s perspective, is its expectation of conformity. Although the school administration and faculty play a part in this, the majority of this pressure is exerted by an elite group of girls called the Cabinet. The politics of the student body revolve around the whims of these three girls, and even the adults of the school are often at their mercy. One cannot cross them without the expectation that dire consequences will follow.

Although Lucy recognizes their influence and their ugliness, she eventually gets drawn into their orbit and becomes closer to them and their mothers. The proximity much more physical than it is emotional, and Lucy understands that their interest in her is anything but genuine. All the same, she puts up with their antics because she feels powerless to resist, knowing her future at Laurinda is on the line if she gets into trouble by breaking the mold. This nuance of power dynamics is important because so often POC are roped into shit where walking away or fighting back will sabotage their hard-earned positions.

Against her better judgment, Lucy begins to internalize some of the toxicity of her environment. It’s gradual, but it creeps in. Thankfully, these views don’t go unchallenged. Lucy’s internal monologues and clapbacks are there for the reader, unpacking and eviscerating the wealthy white nonsense that the people around her spew. The racist and classist microaggressions, the blithe ignorance, the arrogant entitlement, the patronizing tokenism, the objectifying voyeurism, the white savior complex–all of these offenses are dragged through the mud in Lucy’s narration.

Which brings me to my next point. The book adopts an epistolary format. The story is told through a series of letters that Lucy writes to her former friend Linh, who attended her old Catholic school, Christ Our Savior, with her. This format allows Lucy to reminisce and discuss past events while linking them to current events, highlighting the contrasts between Lucy’s old and new lives. It provides a humanizing insider’s perspective on the people and communities that are othered in Australian society and reveals the hypocrisy that the wealthy white elite consider themselves above the very people whose exploitation they depend upon for the image of superiority, the people who do the honest work while they’re busy posturing over nothing.

Lucy’s parents provide contrasting perspectives on the wealthy white elite. Her mother is the relentlessly practical one who does things as necessary without much thought for appearances and status. Her father, on the other hand, is much more interested in looking good and more or less encourages Lucy to brown-nose and network to her advantage. While she does succumb to pressure a little, she’s still resistant to the principle, noting that her father doesn’t seem to see the difference between exploitation and friendship. The Cabinet is very much about the former.

That all said, this book left some things to be desired. Although was some critique of how girls weaponize internalized misogyny against one another, the book doesn’t completely overturn misogynistic values. Lucy refers to a character as a “slutty virgin” (?) at some point, so the judgmental moralizing over women’s sexuality is an issue. Also, the book is a little bit gender essentialist in certain places, with the whole “men fight it out and get over it, women bitch and backstab and get petty revenge” thing.

As for queerness, well, let’s just say it’s only alluded to but never really given full presence/development. Although Lucy refers to certain girls at her old school “discovering their true sexuality” after watching a play in which a girl stars as the main male protagonist, these characters are not named or given any more coverage. Overall, the book is pretty heteronormative in talking about romance and flirting. One character calls another a “lezzo” and while this person is portrayed as a distasteful character without a doubt, there isn’t really any direct narrative callout of her homophobia. Nor are there any explicitly named/described girls who like girls, despite the story taking place in an all girls school (like come on, statistically speaking, somebody there is gay/bi/pan). There are also no trans characters, but (sadly) this is practically a given in most YA novels.

Recommendation: I’d recommend it for the hilariously snarky take on racism and classism but keep an eye out for the problematic stuff I mentioned.