Tag Archives: Contemporary

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. 🙂

Review for Star-Crossed by Barbara Dee

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Note: My review is based on the ARC I received.

My Summary: The 8th grade is putting on Romeo and Juliet this year. Although Mattie has no prior experience with theater, she discovers that she enjoys acting. On top of practicing for this play, Mattie has to juggle a complicated web of middle school secrets and relationships, including her own budding crush on classmate Gemma, who is starring as Juliet. As obstacles pop up, Mattie is pushed to take the lead in the play and her life.

Review:

Star-Crossed really transports me back to my tween years, when things were awkward and complicated and your peers’ opinions meant everything in the world. Mattie is thrust into many an uncomfortable situation by life, and we as readers get to experience the rollercoaster of emotions she goes through as she navigates her relationships with her classmates and friends. Whether it’s figuring out how her crushes feel, keeping secrets from her best friends, being the only person not invited to a social event, or worrying about how others will react to knowing she has a crush on a girl, Mattie has to make a lot of tough decisions.

With both humor and heart, the author brings Mattie’s middle school experiences to life. The 8th grade production of Romeo and Juliet is not only a plot device but a way of enriching Mattie’s character development. As she works to understand the feelings of the characters in the play, she also makes connections to her own situation and works through her own feelings. She learns to empathize with and see a different side to a classmate she wouldn’t have otherwise gotten close to.

Though I didn’t figure out I was bi until later in my life, I could still relate a lot to Mattie’s experiences. The newness of being attracted to someone of a different gender than before, the uncertainty as to how people around me will react to finding out about you being bi, the guilt of keeping secrets from people that you want to trust, these were all familiar feelings for me.

I guess one of the most relatable aspects of Mattie’s experiences is her anxiety when interacting with her crush. I can never be completely at ease when I interact with my crushes, even when we’re good friends. The awkwardness Mattie feels is so real to me.

If there was one thing I didn’t like about the book, it was a few passages that came off as really white-centric. There were two different passages describing Mattie and Gemma and their respective levels of attractiveness that felt like they were centering white beauty standards. There was also another minor scene where Mattie wants to play the part of an immigrant in a class activity and she described immigrants in an othering way. Other than these bits, I enjoyed the book a lot.

Recommendation: Recommended for the cute and fun story and charming characters.

Review for Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan

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Note: This review is based on the eARC I received from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

My Summary: Things are changing around Amina. Her best friend Soojin is getting friendly with one of the “cool” girls and preparing to change her name to something “American”-sounding. Her uncle is coming from Pakistan to visit, and she has to be the perfect daughter or risk making her parents look bad. Then there’s the Quran recitation competition she has to participate in against her wishes and the Winter Choral Concert she wants to sing in but can’t find the courage to sign up for. While Amina struggles to be true to herself, tragedy strikes and shakes her community to the core.

Review:

While this book is primarily a “window” book for me since I’m not familiar with Pakistani culture, in some ways it was also a “mirror” book because I saw pieces of myself and my experiences in not only Soojin, Amina’s Korean American friend (there are a lot of commonalities in how East Asian Americans navigate white-dominated spaces), but also Amina herself because she is a second generation child of immigrant parents.

Both Amina and Soojin experience a variety of racist microaggressions from their white peers, from food-related taunts to language-related stigmas. Prominent among these is the butchering of their names, something that I’m intimately familiar with. Soojin, who moved to the U.S. as a toddler and is about to become a citizen, plans to change her name to something that white Americans can easily pronounce. I had a period where I considered changing my name, so I empathized with her situation, though hindsight makes me glad I didn’t go through with such a change. Amina feels off about this decision because she thinks Soojin’s name is fine as it is, so she does what she can to communicate this validation to Soojin. This was very heartening to read, knowing how strong the pressure to assimilate into the white mainstream can be and how vulnerable kids like Soojin are to these pressures.

In general, the friendship between Amina and Soojin was a highlight of the story. Two Asian Americans sticking by each other is realistic and an important kind of solidarity to represent. On top of that, the story explores how friendships change over time as new people enter your friend circles. In this case, the “interloper” is a white girl named Emily, who Amina doesn’t fully trust because of her history of perpetrating of some of the microaggressions I mentioned before. The distrust is mixed with feelings of jealousy and abandonment, and those feelings are addressed in a constructive way as the story progresses.

Another positive aspect of the story is Amina’s relationships with her various family members. Her older brother has his own character arc and development as he joins the basketball team at his high school and deals with both parental pressure and peer pressure. Amina may not fully understand her brother, but she is supportive of him and stands up for him to their parents when they are being hard on him over his grades (which is something I will never get tired of seeing portrayed in fiction because seriously, grades aren’t everything).

Amina’s relationship with her parents is also a loving and supportive one. They may be somewhat strict, but they are not unfair or uncaring. To the contrary, her parents encourage her, guide her through her problems, and keep her connected to her culture, heritage, and religion.

Her relationship with her uncle who’s visiting from Pakistan is a bit more complicated but dynamic. Her uncle is more traditional and conservative than her parents, so she has doubts about him liking her since she is Americanized in many ways. He becomes her tutor for reciting and learning Arabic from the Quran, and although she feels inadequate and self-conscious at first, she eventually begins to treat him more like a genuine mentor, developing a bond with him that also brings her closer to her faith.

One of my favorite things about this book was the depictions of everyday life at Sunday school and the Islamic Center. It’s such a lovely space that’s community-oriented and celebrates Islamic history and cultures with its displays and decorations. Everyone knows everyone else, and there are annual traditions and festivals that bring people together. You can tell that Amina feels very at home there. As I was reading about it, I couldn’t help but think of the Taiwanese Community Center that my family frequents on the weekends because of the similarities in layout and the feeling of comfort and familiarity it evokes for me. Since the story builds up this atmosphere of home around the mosque and the Center, the subsequent vandalism left a deep impact on me. The trauma of loss weighed on me as if it were real, as if I were Amina witnessing the events. Thankfully, the aftermath of this dark event lifts you back up with hopeful messages.

The title of this book, Amina’s Voice, has both literal and figurative meanings. The more literal interpretation is linked to Amina’s love of music and singing. She is talented but has stage fright and struggles to sing or otherwise perform in front of an audience. The more figurative meaning is about her coming to terms with herself and her identity and being comfortable with who she is. These two themes and struggles are intertwined and resolved over the course of the story in an empowering way. The ending was perfect (in my opinion).

Recommendation: Highly recommended! A heartfelt story about friendship, family, and community.

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 (éș»ć©†è±†è…) 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!

Review for The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

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

Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asian Reads: Asian Boy Love Interest in YA Edition

So this post was inspired by a Twitter thread I made about Noteworthy and the general lack of Asian boy love interests in contemporary YA. Thus, I’m doing a roundup of YA books with Asian boy love interests that I know of. I’m not including any books that have racist or fetishizing elements (so Eleanor & Park is out, not even sorry). I’m also excluding books that take place in Asia as it’s more or less a given that the love interest will be Asian. My primary focus is Asian boys in diaspora where the environment is majority white and Asian boys are not seen as attractive.

If you have any books to add, leave the title and author in the comments and I will add them to the list. My list is all U.S. books, so if you have any U.K., Canada, Australia, etc. books, submit them please! I couldn’t find any with Southeast Asian boys either, so if you know of one, drop a comment.

Note: Books are listed in alphabetical order by author’s last name. Links are to my reviews of the books. The ethnicity of the Asian boy love interest is indicated next to the title and author.

tiny-pretty-thingsTiny Pretty Things and Shiny Broken Pieces by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton – Korean American

Gigi, Bette, and June are three girls at a competitive ballet academy in Manhattan. Gigi dances despite a health problem that could ruin her. Bette struggles to live up to and surpass her legacy older sister. June hides an eating disorder and vows to take the lead spot to prove herself to her mother. With the stakes so high, the girls are willing to do anything to get to the top.

north-of-beautifulNorth of Beautiful by Justina Chen – Chinese American adoptee

Tess was born with a port-wine stain on her face that draws stares and looks of pity from people. She’s desperate to get out of her small town, away from her controlling father. A chance encounter brings cute goth boy Jacob into her life, and suddenly she’s on a different path than expected.

adaptationAdaptation and Inheritance by Malinda Lo – Chinese American

Reese and her debate team partner David wake up from a car accident, miraculously healed. All across the country, birds are falling from the sky, and people in hazmat suits are collecting them for some unknown purpose. Then, she meets the mysterious Amber Gray and discovers a shocking truth.

the-girl-from-everywhereThe Girl from Everywhere and The Ship Beyond Time by Heidi Heilig – Persian

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. (I realize this is sort-of-not-really contemporary but they do travel to 2016 so I’m counting it.)

born-confusedBorn Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier – Indian American

From Goodreads: Dimple Lala doesn’t know what to think. Her parents are from India, and she’s spent her whole life resisting their traditions. Then suddenly she gets to high school and everything Indian is trendy. To make matters worse, her parents arrange for her to meet a “suitable boy.” Of course it doesn’t go well — until Dimple goes to a club and finds him spinning a magical web . Suddenly the suitable boy is suitable because of his sheer unsuitability. Complications ensue.

enter_title_final_revealEnter Title Here by Rahul Kanakia – Indian American

Reshma Kapoor, top ranked student of Alexander Graham Bell High School, will to get into Stanford. Not “wants to,” but “will.” Because she is willing to do anything to make it happen, even if it means bending or breaking the rules, and then some. For her “hook” to make herself stand out among the competition, she decides to write a young adult novel about a fictional version of herself. But the real Reshma Kapoor is a study nerd, without the appeal to the mainstream YA market. To make herself into the perfect YA protagonist, Reshma sets out to do “normal” teenage things and create a plot and character arc for herself. Unfortunately for her, things don’t always go as planned.

when-the-moon-was-oursWhen the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore – Pakistani American trans boy

From Goodreads: To everyone who knows them, best friends Miel and Sam are as strange as they are inseparable. But as odd as everyone considers Miel and Sam, even they stay away from the Bonner girls, four beautiful sisters rumored to be witches. Now they want the roses that grow from Miel’s skin, convinced that their scent can make anyone fall in love. And they’re willing to use every secret Miel has fought to protect to make sure she gives them up.

when-dimple-met-rishiWhen Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon (coming May 30th) – Indian American

From Goodreads: Dimple Shah has it all figured out. With graduation behind her, she’s more than ready for a break from her family, from Mamma’s inexplicable obsession with her finding the “Ideal Indian Husband.” Rishi Patel is a hopeless romantic. So when his parents tell him that his future wife will be attending the same summer program as him—wherein he’ll have to woo her—he’s totally on board. The Shahs and Patels didn’t mean to start turning the wheels on this “suggested arrangement” so early in their children’s lives, but when they noticed them both gravitate toward the same summer program, they figured, Why not?

the-foldThe Fold by An Na – Korean American

When Joyce falls for school hottie John Ford Kang, she becomes obsessed with her appearance. She’s constantly compared to her older sister Helen, who is beautiful without trying. Then, her aunt offers her a gift: plastic surgery to get the coveted “double eye fold” that East Asians consider prettier. Joyce must decide whether this change is what she truly wants, or whether she can define her beauty on her own terms.

noteworthyNoteworthy by Riley Redgate (coming May 2nd) – Japanese American

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?

written-in-the-starsWritten in the Stars by Aisha Saeed – Pakistani American

Naila tries to please her parents, who give her considerable freedom in many ways. However, she breaks one of their strict rules about dating and boys by falling for Saif. When her parents find out that she has been dating him in secret, they decide to take her to Pakistan to “reconnect” with their roots. Unfortunately, their plans for Naila also involve forcing her to marry a man she doesn’t know. Alone and desperate, Naila must find a way to escape this nightmare.

My So-Called Bollywood Life by Nisha Sharma (coming in 2017) – Indian American

From Goodreads: Metha, Bollywood film groupie, has a dilemma: her boyfriend breaks up with her one week before senior year and instead of running the Princeton, NJ student film festival with him, she has to compete against him for the spot. What’s worse is he realized hooking up with Jenny Dickens was a mistake and he wants Winnie back. Dev Khanna, indie film savant, could be her solution. He helps her focus on what’s important and makes her feel amazing in that terrifying, not-in-control way. At first, the plan to get her festival chair spot back and spend time with Dev seems to be working
until Winnie falls in love with the one guy who just may be the perfect hero she’s been waiting for. In a story where high school has more drama than the Indian film industry, one Bolly-junkie finds herself in a classic love triangle gone wrong. With a little bit of help from fate, her drunk grandmother, and dream sequences featuring Shah Rukh Khan himself, Winnie learn that embracing Bollywood romance IRL may be the key to a happily ever after.

The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon – Korean American

Daniel is a dreamer on his way to a Yale interview that he doesn’t actually care about to please his Korean parents. Natasha is a science geek who is about to be deported to a Jamaica she barely remembers. The lives of these two teens who appear to have nothing in common collide, and both are changed in ways they never would have imagined during the course of a single day.

Review for The Turtle of Oman by Naomi Shihab Nye

the-turtle-of-oman

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

Review:

This book wasn’t quite what I expected, but it surprised me in a good way. I think I sort of misread the blurb and thought it would chronicle the events that happened after Aref’s move, but in fact, the whole story takes place in Oman, while he’s preparing for the move to Michigan.

For the most part, this is a quiet story. There are adventures and high points, but a lot of the narrative is devoted to reflection and immersion in the rhythms of Aref’s environment. He spends some time resisting the idea of moving, but with Sidi’s guidance, he moves toward acceptance.

The relationship between Aref and his grandfather drives a lot of the story, and it’s very heartfelt. The two have a deep bond and shared interests that makes me envious because I was never close to any of my grandparents due to a combination of generational, cultural, and language gaps.

Although Aref is a third-grader, the narration doesn’t patronize him; it’s evident that he’s very bright and also curious. His love for learning and exploring is encouraged by his parents, who taught him a game called “Discover Something New Every Day,” which is their so-called family motto. Everyone in his family keeps lists of interesting discoveries, even his grandfather, though Sidi doesn’t write them down in journals. We the readers get to see some of these lists, which introduce us to everything from basic geographical facts about Oman, to the biology of turtles, to a short biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Through these lists, we get a sense of Aref’s world and perspective, the details he notices and the topics that catch his eye.

I think the beauty of this book is the theme of looking at things more closely and from different perspectives and thus learning more. For Aref and his grandfather, nothing is too insignificant to be studied or too small to be a treasure. There’s a sense that you are opening yourself up to the wonder in the world as you follow Aref’s adventures. It helps take you away from the hectic flows of modern life to appreciate everything that’s around you. More importantly, the story teaches us to be more empathetic. Although at first Aref thinks only of himself and his situation, he eventually realizes that other people, people he knows, have experienced a similar move, and that he failed to consider their feelings in the past.

I liked the symbolism of the turtle, which is familiar to most and accessible to kids. It places change and moving in a broader context and timeline while paying tribute to the value of returning to one’s roots and homeland.

I can relate to Aref’s experience because I moved twice at a young age, once after third grade and again after fourth, both times from one state in the U.S. to another, the second time it was about 1500 miles (~2400 km) between the two houses. It was hard leaving behind everything that was familiar because I had taken so much of it for granted and couldn’t imagine adapting to a new environment. Reading this book transported me back to my own moving experiences.

Recommendation: Recommended for those in search of a heartwarming tale about saying goodbye to all that is familiar.

Review for The Grand Plan to Fix Everything by Uma Krishnaswami

the-grand-plan-to-fix-everything

My Summary: Dini and her best friend Maddie are major Bollywood fans. Unfortunately, Dini’s plans to attend a Bollywood dance camp with Maddie during the summer are shattered when her parents announce that their family is moving to India–and not even to Bombay, the hub of Bollywood, but a small town named Swapnagiri. Just when Dini has given up hope of seeing her favorite Bollywood star, Dolly Singh, life takes a turn for the unexpected…

Review:

This book was super fun to read. Dini (short for “Nandini”) was an engaging character. Her passion and determination brought a sense of liveliness to the story. Moving such a huge distance to another country is a stressful situation for anyone, but she tries to make the best of it, long-distance communication with a massive time zone difference and all. Her enthusiasm in scheming and executing her plans gets her into a bit of trouble, but ultimately her well-intentioned meddling produces positive results.

Not only does the book tell the story of Dini, it also tells the tale of multiple supporting characters. From the mailman to the baker to the school principal to the van driver, everyone has their own story to be told, their own problems to deal with. Through the perspectives of these different side characters, the book paints a picture of daily life in small town India and shows the mysterious and serendipitous ways in which seemingly separate lives intersect.

The book is part mystery, part adventure, and part Bollywood-esque drama. All of the different threads of the characters and subplots eventually converge and get resolved in a heartfelt happy ending. It’s definitely a feel-good, fairy tale-esque book, but heaven knows we need more of these kinds of books to offset the negativity of the political climate and give us hope for a brighter future.

Interspersed throughout the narrative are letters to and from characters (rendered in different fonts for different characters), excerpts from Dini’s favorite magazine that supplies the latest buzz on Bollywood and her favorite [fictional] star Dolly Singh, and charming illustrations by illustrator Abigail Halpin. These touches add texture to the story and variety to the reading experience.

As it turns out, there’s a sequel to this book, The Problem with Being Slightly Heroic, so I’m looking forward to reading that soon.

Recommendation: Recommended for young readers and adult readers wishing to indulge their inner child.

Review for Stir It Up! by Ramin Ganeshram

stir-it-up

My Summary: Anjali loves cooking and dreams of having her own cooking reality TV show. However, her parents want “better” things for her, like getting into the elite Stuyvesant High School and working at a job that’s nothing like their humble family restaurant. When she’s accepted to a contest on the Food Network, she knows her father won’t approve, but she has plans of her own.

Review:

I love food, so the premise of this book drew my attention. A biracial, Afro-Indian Trinidadian girl from Richmond Hill, Queens, who wants to star in a Food Network show? Great. Unfortunately, I found the execution a bit lacking.

That’s not to say it’s a bad book. It had good elements: the centering of immigrants and POC in a story about Queens, the lovable grandmother character, the best friend who’s also a POC, the racially diverse supporting characters/show contestants, the commentary on the policing of race for people whose families have immigrated more than once, the incorporation of Indo-Caribbean food culture, and the lovely recipes that are sandwiched between chapters.

What was missing for me was substance. The writing felt too spare in many places. For readers who aren’t familiar with the ingredients and dishes mentioned in the story, it’s hard to imagine what they look like. The descriptions focused on lists of ingredients and how the dishes were prepared without much elaboration on the visual spectacle of the finished product.

And for a book that’s supposed to be about food, we get surprisingly few descriptions of smell or taste: aroma, texture, flavor, etc. Anjali spends an entire chapter at a cooking class but the actual consumption of the delicious food that’s made is crammed into a single paragraph with no details provided. Kind of anticlimactic, in my opinion. In short, I was hoping for a book that engaged my senses more.

On top of that, the plot felt a little too rushed without much downtime. There were 166 pages total, and 37 of those were recipe inserts, meaning all of the actual narrative was squeezed into about 130 pages, which is short even for a middle grade book. I wanted more build-up to and more elaboration during the contest scenes. That would have increased the emotional impact and overall weight of the story. I guess to put it another way, it felt like I was eating simple sugars when what I wanted was complex carbs. Wasn’t filling enough, I was still hungry when I was done.

Recommendation: Not sure what to say except maybe I’m not the right audience for this book? I think younger readers might be more forgiving.

Review for Noteworthy by Riley Redgate

noteworthy

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!