Tag Archives: Contemporary

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!

Author Interview: Emily X.R. Pan

This is the fourth in my author interview series for Taiwanese American Heritage Week. Today’s special guest is Emily X.R. Pan. Her debut novel, The Astonishing Color of After, is coming in spring 2018!

Since there’s almost nothing out in the wild (i.e. Goodreads) about the book, we’ll get an exclusive first look at what it entails through this interview. But first, an aesthetic collage to represent the story that I put together.

The Astonishing Color of After aesthetic collage

Since I haven’t read the book, this is based on what I gathered from the interview below. As usual, my comments and questions are in bold and labeled “SW.”

SW: First question is mandatory and the standard for this interview series: What’s your favorite Taiwanese food? (You are welcome to list multiple because it’s probably impossible to choose just one.)

Emily: Ooooh. I think it would have to be the breakfast dan bing. But I’ve been vegetarian for quite a long time now…if I were to go back to my non-vegetarian days it would probably be a toss-up between oyster omelettes and ba wan.

SW: Danbing is the ruler of all breakfast foods, in my humble opinion. I eat so much of it when I’m in Taiwan. Simple but satisfying.

Since the Goodreads synopsis that’s available is rather cryptic, can you tell us a little more about your upcoming book, The Astonishing Color of After?

Emily: Sure! So the Goodreads synopsis says: “A girl is convinced that her mother has transformed into a bird after committing suicide, and attempts to find her in Taiwan.” Well, the main character is named Leigh Chen Sanders, almost sixteen years old, and she’s dealing with quite a lot. She’s a dedicated visual artist, butting heads with a father who’s not exactly supportive of that pursuit. She’s navigating the complications of falling in love with her male best friend. She’s also biracial, and has never met the Asian side (her mom’s side) of her family, and has no idea why. It’s in the midst of all this that she loses her mother. So Leigh goes to Taiwan to find the bird, and there she meets her Taiwanese grandmother and Chinese grandfather for the first time, and starts to uncover all these deeply buried secrets that help her connect the dots of her broken family history.

SW: I was already sold when I first read the book deal announcement, but now I’m even more invested. I’m honestly super excited about this book because it’s set in Taiwan, where my family is from. Which part of Taiwan does it take place in, and why did you pick that particular location?

Emily: It’s all in the north. Leigh’s grandparents live in an unnamed part of Taipei that mostly feels like Shilin but in its fictionalization has elements of Beitou, and at one point Leigh also makes a trip up to Jiufen. My grandmother lives in Beitou and she was such a huge inspiration for the story that I knew I wanted to draw from her neighborhood. But also, I made a research trip to Taiwan, and when I was picking an Airbnb to be my home base I wanted somewhere that would feel just like where Leigh was staying with her grandparents. I asked friends and family to help me figure out a neighborhood that felt right, and ultimately landed with Shilin. So it was partly the places I went and saw during my research trip that dictated where the various pieces of the story happened, because I wanted to have a really solid feel for the setting.

SW: I actually visited Jiufen in 2015 and while it was pretty, I was also kind of scared because the elevation is high and everything is steep and built into the mountainside. I’ll admit I’m not super familiar with either Shilin or Beitou since the part of my family that’s in Taipei lives in Xinyi district.

What other research  did you do for the book?

Emily: In previous drafts, some of the novel was set in Shanghai (where I’d lived for a year in college) and for the sake of the book I made two research trips back to Shanghai. Later when I changed it so that all of the time in Asia was spent in Taiwan, that was when I made the aforementioned trip to Taipei to help me rework the book. (I’d been to Taiwan to visit family before, but not in a long time.) All the (non-historical) steps that my characters take, I actually walked myself in effort to really capture the atmosphere.

I’ve also done a lot of character research over the last several years; I interviewed several Asian American friends and biracial friends about their experiences both inside and outside the states. Many of those conversations happened for the sake of other projects I was working on, but what I learned from them made its way into this book all the same. And since so much of the novel is inspired by my family, I spent quite a lot of time interviewing relatives, collecting their stories. Even within just my family there’s so much variation from person to person in their customs and religious activity and level of superstition, for example—I gathered up every bit of detail I could.

Probably the most difficult and time consuming aspect was that I did a lot of sociological / cultural research through books and documentary films and various articles on the internet, for example about people’s beliefs surrounding ghosts and Ghost Month in Taiwan, and about various Buddhist and Taoist ideas and practices, both in history and currently. I wanted to get a lens on this stuff outside of any potential bias from my family, and even the material that didn’t actually make its way into the book still informed how I told the story.

SW: It sounds like you learned a lot from your research. What was your favorite part about writing the book?

Emily: My favorite part is that I got to know my family on a completely new dimension. Even with my parents—I’ve always been incredibly close to them (like we talk on the phone every single day and really struggle to keep our calls short). But in the course of writing and revising this book, I kept asking them about things we’d never talked about before, and from that I was constantly learning something new about their beliefs and values, and even their own histories.

SW: I’m glad you got to deepen your bond with your parents. On the flip side, what was the most challenging part about writing the book?

Emily: The hardest part was figuring out what the story actually wanted to be. I started writing this in 2010 as a very different novel. It was originally an adult literary / historical fiction project spanning the first forty years of this woman’s life beginning in 1927 in Taiwan—that woman being a fictionalization of my waipo (maternal grandmother), who’s lived a fascinating life. But all the historical stuff grew unwieldy and overwhelming, so I reframed it as a contemporary story with a teen narrator discovering the stories of her family. After that it still morphed several times—I’ve lost track of all the ways I tried rewriting it but the various iterations spanned the realistic and the fantastical across middle grade, young adult, and adult literary—until finally in January of 2015 I wrote a new opening, and the rest of THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER poured out from there.

SW: I can only imagine the amount of effort that went into rewriting the story. In my experience, finding the heart of a story can take a while, but once you find it, it’s usually much easier to write.

Now, the last question: What are some writers or books that have influenced your writing?

Emily: As one might guess based on the kind of book I’ve written, I love writers who explore human instincts and experiences through the lens of something weird or perhaps slightly magical. Some of the amazing authors who immediately come to mind: Nova Ren Suma, Anna-Marie McLemore, Aimee Bender, Haruki Murakami, George Saunders, Laura Ruby. I also love the writers who just tell a story so sharply I can’t get it out of my head. I’m thinking of Celeste Ng, Emily St. John Mandel, Alexander Chee, Jandy Nelson, Hanya Yanagihara. But really my writing is influenced by everything I consume, whether it’s an advertisement or a graphic novel or the libretto of an opera.

SW: Time to bookmark a few titles for my TBR. Thank you very much for participating in this interview. I can’t wait to read The Astonishing Color of After next spring!


Emily X.R. PanEmily X.R. Pan is the author of THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER, coming in spring 2018 from Little, Brown in the US and Orion in the UK. She is also a 2017 Artist-in-Residence at Djerassi. During her MFA in fiction at NYU she was a Goldwater Writing Fellow and the editor-in-chief of Washington Square Review. She is the founding editor-in-chief of Bodega Magazine and lives in New York, where she also practices and teaches yoga. Find her on Twitter and Instagram: @exrpan.

Author Interview: Gloria Chao

This is the third in my interview series for Taiwanese American Heritage Week. Today’s special guest is Gloria Chao. Her debut novel, American Panda, will be releasing in Spring 2018, which cannot arrive soon enough!

Since there’s no cover for American Panda yet, here’s the aesthetic collage she put together for her book:

American Panda Aesthetic

Not surprisingly, there is food involved. But also the Great Dome of MIT, an MIT class ring, a stethoscope, traditional Chinese dance, and terracotta warriors, not to mention DDR, and are those wedding decorations? Time to find out more.

From Goodreads:

At seventeen, Mei Lu should be in high school, but skipping fourth grade was part of her parents’ master plan. Now a freshman at MIT, she is on track to fulfill the rest of this predetermined future: become a doctor, marry a preapproved Taiwanese Ivy Leaguer, produce a litter of babies.

With everything her parents have sacrificed to make her cushy life a reality, Mei can’t bring herself to tell them the truth—that she (1) hates germs, (2) falls asleep in biology lectures, and (3) has a crush on her classmate Darren Takahashi, who is decidedly not Taiwanese.

But when she reconnects with her brother, Xing, who is estranged from the family for dating the wrong woman, Mei starts to wonder if all the secrets are truly worth it. Can she find a way to be herself, whoever that is, before her web of lies unravels?

From debut author Gloria Chao comes a hilarious, heartfelt tale of how unlike the panda, life isn’t always so black and white.

My comments and questions are marked in bold and labeled “SW.”

SW: To start off, since food is such an important part of Taiwanese culture and because your book’s aesthetic collage inspired me/made me hungry, what’s your favorite Taiwanese food? (You are more than welcome to list multiple foods as I’m sure it is impossible to choose just one.)

Gloria: I agree, it’s not possible to choose just one. But if I absolutely had to, I’d go with soup dumplings because I will never say no to one, no matter how full I am. Other favorites include shredded turnip cake (drool), pork belly buns, braised pork rice, three cup eggplant, and oyster pancake. Aiyah, I’m so hungry now!

SW: Soup dumplings are everything. Too bad there’s no Din Tai Fung anywhere near me.

I feel like I have the Goodreads synopsis for American Panda memorized by now and need more teasers. Can you tell us a little bit more about the story and the inspiration behind it beyond what’s in the synopsis?

Gloria: Ah thank you so much! American Panda is the book I wish I had as a young adult, and I started writing it because I wanted other children of immigrants to know (1) they aren’t alone, and (2) it’s okay to feel stuck between two cultures without fully belonging in either.

Also, I wanted to write a Chinese My Big Fat Greek Wedding chock-full of cultural humor. An example: in the first five pages, a family friend compliments the main character’s big nose, referencing a Chinese superstition that having a big nose means you will make a lot of money. But of course, the protagonist, Mei, only hears that she has a gigantic nose, which is not something an American teen typically wants to hear. And yes, I am speaking from personal experience—I was cursed, er, blessed with a large “lucky” nose.

American Panda is also about figuring out who you are and how to be that person. Being different makes it hard to fit in, but I didn’t feel whole until I owned it. Mei Lu may struggle with her identity, but she doesn’t hesitate to own the parts she does know—like ordering hot chocolate in front of her crush even though she thinks it’ll look juvenile, or continuing to dance even though her parents want her to focus on her studies.

SW: *checks my nose* I think mine’s fairly average sized, but hopefully hard work will make up for that, ha. American Panda sounds like a book that I would have loved as a teen. I only had one #ownvoices YA featuring a Taiwanese American protagonist when I was a teen.

Writing a book that’s considered “own voices” means you’re writing about a character whose identity or experience(s) you share in some way. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s autobiographical (which is an assumption I’ve heard several marginalized authors say they’ve dealt with). How much of American Panda would you say is based on your own life? In what ways is it different?

Gloria: While Mei’s storyline is not completely autobiographical, it is rooted in truth. The themes, struggles, and emotional arcs are based on my experiences, as are the MIT setting and medical scenes. I also drew upon the lives of friends and acquaintances who trusted me with their stories. The novel is based on experiences, but it has been fictionalized and no characters or situations are exactly as they unfolded in reality.

For example, my parents did not insist I become a doctor, but they initially were not on board with my career change from dentist to writer. While I am not as germophobic as Mei, I always carry hand sanitizer with me, and I struggled with spit, pus, and cadaver bits in dental school. While my mother was supportive of my non-Chinese husband, she did try to set me up with her Taiwanese friends’ sons on multiple occasions.

As for Mei’s personality, she’s an exaggerated version of me, especially her awkward social skills and sweaty palms. When she tries to flirt with her crush, she pops these weird hip-level waves, and yes, I did that when I met my husband.

I worked hard to keep the book based on real experiences to breathe more life into the pages. Also, it was important to me to keep the story authentic. Since there aren’t enough Taiwanese-American stories out there (and I hope there will be more soon), I wanted to do everything I could to write an accurate representation of at least a few Taiwanese-American experiences, starting with mine. In the future, I plan to continue writing Taiwanese-American characters, exploring even more personal demons along with storylines that diverge from my own.

SW: The doctor thing is so real for Taiwanese kids, and I found out from my dad that there’s a historical reason behind it. During Japanese colonial rule of Taiwan, one of the few professions that offered upward social mobility for Taiwanese people was studying medicine. My dad himself was faced with that pressure early in his life, but thankfully my grandfather let it go later on. I was lucky that my parents never pressured me to become a doctor, but it’s still a career that’s highly valued among Taiwanese parents for sure.

After thinking about it a bit, I realized the synopsis for American Panda focuses a lot on what Mei Lu doesn’t like or want. So I’m curious, what are some things that do spark her interest and passion?

Gloria: Dancing is Mei’s passion. She loves to mix styles and music in her private dance sessions—the one place she feels like herself, where she doesn’t have to choose between her two cultures or identities. Her dream is to open a dance studio where she can teach Chinese dance to hip hop music, or ballet to Chinese pop.

Mei is also a nerd, but not in the stereotypical way. She’s intellectually curious and fits in at MIT in a way she never has elsewhere.

And of course, she loves Chinese food. There are food references and dumpling metaphors throughout the book!

SW: Food references are the greatest! Dumplings aside, I think this is only the second YA story featuring an Asian American whose passion is dance that I’ve heard of (the first being Tiny Pretty Things by Sona Charaipotra an dDhonielle Clayton, which features a biracial white/Korean American ballerina as one of the three main viewpoint characters). I’m constantly yearning for more Asian American stories that focus on sports and dance and art and so on because the stereotype is that we’re only good at academics and nothing else.

This next question is just for fun: If Mei Lu had a Twitter account, what would her handle/@ be and what would her profile bio say?

Gloria: @TwirlingPanda

TIM the MIT beaver’s sidekick. DDR maniac. Dumpling expert. Dancing is dreaming with your feet! 💃

SW: TwirlingPanda brings to mind the cutest image. I went to Google and this was among the image search results:

maxresdefault

I’m greatly entertained by how appropriate it is.

It’s rare for YA to tackle college since college students are generally considered to be outside of the range of YA. Personally, I wish there were more stories about the first years of college, not only because most first/second-year students are 18/19 and still technically teens (legal status aside) but also because it’s another stage of the coming-of-age period in life. If you’re not living at home, it involves a different environment than high school because you’re not as beholden to your parents, for better or for worse. Would you say that writing about a college student influenced the way you approached the story, and if so, how?

Gloria: I knew from the beginning that I wanted Mei to be in college for the exact reasons you mentioned. I wanted her to explore the fear, freedom, and self-discovery that comes with being on your own for the first time. I needed her out of her parents’ house to realize that what she wants isn’t the same as what they want. I also needed her doctor future to be closer on the horizon, and I wanted her to be struggling with what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.

And the more fun reason I wrote a college setting: I wanted to share some of MIT’s zany, unique culture with the world. Some scenes involve sneaking onto the iconic dome, chair surfing in the underground tunnels, hacking, and being nerdy in the best way possible.

Like you, I wish there was more college YA. Unfortunately, it’s a hurdle in the publishing industry. I’m grateful every day to have landed an agent and publisher supportive of American Panda’s MIT setting!

SW: I visited MIT with my family years and years ago, in 2007, and I remember the distinctive architecture and the lore surrounding the Great Dome and senior pranks. Later, I applied to MIT and didn’t get in, but no hard feelings. I’m excited to explore MIT through Mei’s eyes.

Last question set! What was the hardest part of writing American Panda? What was your favorite part about writing it?

Gloria: The hardest part of writing American Panda was finding the line between fact and fiction. The first draft of my book was essentially a memoir; I didn’t know how to separate my life from the narrative. It took three complete rewrites for the characters and plot to blossom from their real-life counterparts into fiction.

Funnily enough, my favorite part is closely related to the hardest. American Panda forced me to ask my mother questions about her upbringing, mine, and our culture, and it eventually improved our communication and helped us understand each other better. I drew upon all this while writing, and there’s one chapter toward the end of the book that always makes me tear up because it reminds me how far my mother and I have come.

Thank you so much, Shenwei, for these thoughtful, wonderful questions, and for putting this together for Taiwanese American Heritage Week! I’m honored to be a part of it!

SW:I also have to thank you so much for answering these questions so thoroughly. I’m honored to host on you my blog! I can’t wait for more news on American Panda and for it to hit the shelves next spring. 🙂


G.Chao--Author PhotoGloria Chao is an MIT grad turned dentist turned writer. She currently lives in Chicago with her ever-supportive husband for whom she became a nine-hole golfer (sometimes seven). She is always up for Dance Dance Revolution, cooperative board games, or spontaneous dance parties. She was also once a black belt in kung-fu and a competitive dancer, but that side of her was drilled and suctioned out. American Panda is her debut novel.

Visit her tea-and-book-filled world at gloriachao.wordpress.com and find her on twitter @gloriacchao.

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 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 (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!

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.