Tag Archives: Contemporary

Review for Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender

I’ve been looking forward to reading Felix Ever After for a long time, and I’m super excited to be reviewing it!

Felix Ever After

Synopsis:

Felix Love has never been in love—and, yes, he’s painfully aware of the irony. He desperately wants to know what it’s like and why it seems so easy for everyone but him to find someone. What’s worse is that, even though he is proud of his identity, Felix also secretly fears that he’s one marginalization too many—Black, queer, and transgender—to ever get his own happily-ever-after.

When an anonymous student begins sending him transphobic messages—after publicly posting Felix’s deadname alongside images of him before he transitioned—Felix comes up with a plan for revenge. What he didn’t count on: his catfish scenario landing him in a quasi–love triangle….

But as he navigates his complicated feelings, Felix begins a journey of questioning and self-discovery that helps redefine his most important relationship: how he feels about himself.

Felix Ever After is an honest and layered story about identity, falling in love, and recognizing the love you deserve.

My Review:

I’m so emotional right now that it’s hard to articulate my feelings about this book, which is my official favorite of 2020. If it weren’t my duty to write a review with words, I’d just be dumping memes of Kermit emitting hearts everywhere.

I have to say that it’s the first book I’ve read where I’ve felt so seen and represented as a queer, trans, and nonbinary POC. I’ve talked about this before on Twitter, but there’s a huge disconnect for me when I read about white queer characters because race and racism are inextricably intertwined with my experiences of queerness.

In this book, Felix grapples with the feeling that he is “too many” marginalizations because he is Black and trans and queer. He doesn’t feel like he is deserving of love because of the way society has taught us to value cis-ness and whiteness. This struggle is so profoundly relatable to me as a queer Asian person. Even before I realized I was trans, I already had an intuitive understanding that I was less desirable because I was Asian and gender-nonconforming, and after figuring out my nonbinary gender and coming out, I still have insecurities surrounding this.

As a whole, Felix Ever After is full of so many important and salient conversations about race and queerness. I don’t highlight/underline/write in my physical books, but I definitely felt the urge to do so multiple times when I landed upon passages that resonated or spoke truth to power regarding an issue. One such passage lays bare the ways cis gay white men weaponize their privilege against other queer people with less power. Another passage takes on the question of whether labels are necessary or restrictive and whether gender abolition is the end goal of trans liberation. Another issue addressed in the book is how cis women harm trans people, especially trans men and trans masculine people, by accusing us of betraying women and being misogynists in “choosing” a gender that’s not our birth-assigned gender. These are real things that happen, and seeing them explored and interrogated on the page was so validating.

Felix as a character is so lovable, and it was impossible not to see myself in him. His fear of displaying vulnerability and taking risks for love spoke to me on the deepest level. He’s flawed and real. He makes unfair judgments and assumptions, lashes out in anger, and says things that hurt others to protect himself. He also yearns to connect with others, expresses himself through art, and takes responsibility for his actions and growth. His desire to prove himself as an artist and to colleges kind of felt like a personal attack because it held up a mirror to my inner psyche.

This book does an incredible job of balancing the real pain and difficulties of being a queer and trans Black person with hope and empowerment. Watching Felix grow into himself as a demiboy, discover love and intimacy, and receive validation from the people he cares about was immensely cathartic. As the title promises, he gets his happy ever after.

Content Warnings: racism, queer antagonism (deadnaming, misgendering, outing), drugs/alcohol


Links:

Author Interview: Gloria Chao

For Day 5 of Taiwanese American Heritage Week, I interviewed Gloria Chao, whose third YA novel, Rent a Boyfriend, releases November 10th, 2020! This is her second time being interviewed on my blog. If you’d like to read the old interview about her debut novel, American Panda, click here.

Rent a Boyfriend

Synopsis:

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before meets The Farewell in this incisive romantic comedy about a college student who hires a fake boyfriend to appease her traditional Taiwanese parents, to disastrous results, from the acclaimed author of American Panda.

Chloe Wang is nervous to introduce her parents to her boyfriend, because the truth is, she hasn’t met him yet either. She hired him from Rent for Your ’Rents, a company specializing in providing fake boyfriends trained to impress even the most traditional Asian parents.

Drew Chan’s passion is art, but after his parents cut him off for dropping out of college to pursue his dreams, he became a Rent for Your ’Rents employee to keep a roof over his head. Luckily, learning protocols like “Type C parents prefer quiet, kind, zero-PDA gestures” comes naturally to him.

When Chloe rents Drew, the mission is simple: convince her parents fake Drew is worthy of their approval so they’ll stop pressuring her to accept a proposal from Hongbo, the wealthiest (and slimiest) young bachelor in their tight-knit Asian American community.

But when Chloe starts to fall for the real Drew—who, unlike his fake persona, is definitely not ’rent-worthy—her carefully curated life begins to unravel. Can she figure out what she wants before she loses everything?

Interview:

Q: How does it feel to have your second novel published? What lessons have you learned since your debut?

It’s such an honor to have two books out in the world. When I started this journey, I barely allowed myself to dream of having one book published, let alone two, and I’m thankful every day that I get to do this job. Thank you to all my readers for helping to make this happen!

Since my debut, I’ve learned to (and am still learning to) focus on the writing. A lot of the publishing journey is out of the author’s control, but the one thing I can control is the work I produce and how I feel about it.

Q: Now that you’re on your way to publishing your third novel, has your writing process changed at all since you were writing your first? If so, how?

My writing process has changed a lot over the years. While my debut required years of rewriting and restructuring, I drafted my third book in two months and the final stayed fairly close to the original. Part of it was because I had to—deadlines—but experience and working with my editor on multiple books also helped me be able to see my story better before I begin writing. Plus, I’ve learned (and again, am still learning) to trust my process more. Before, I used to feel like I had to put words on the page every day, but I actually work best when I spend a lot of time planning, then writing in big spurts. One thing that hasn’t changed is that when I start a new project, I still have that moment of, What’s a book? How have I done this before? And sometimes that can last weeks!

Q: Our Wayward Fate balances the humorous with the serious very well. How did you achieve that balance? Did you have to cut any scenes that felt wrong for the mood you needed?

Thank you so much! With American Panda, I had to do a lot more editing to balance the humorous and serious, and much of my rewriting was figuring out what to cut and what to rework. After putting a lot of time in during the first book, it came easier for Our Wayward Fate. I didn’t end up cutting scenes because of mood, but line edits did consist of amping up certain emotions and tamping down others.

Q: Our Wayward Fate contains quite a bit of funny dialogue and banter. Do you have tips for writing dialogue?

Thank you! I absolutely loved writing the banter between Ali and Chase in Our Wayward Fate. My tip for writing dialogue is to try to imagine the conversation being spoken aloud. I tend to draft dialogue without any tags so that the flow feels a little more natural, and then I go back later and add in who’s talking and what they’re doing. Another tip: even if an idea seems too wacky, write it down anyway and try to find a way to make it work. Sometimes it won’t work and you’ll end up cutting it, but other times it’ll lead to an unexpected and funny joke!

Q: Rent a Boyfriend features fake dating, which is one of many beloved romance tropes. What’s your favorite romance trope?

I love fake dating as well! That’s my favorite trope, and why I was so excited to write Rent a Boyfriend! I am also a fan of forbidden love, which has been an aspect in all three of my books (and, spoiler alert: I like for it to work out in the end!). And I am a huge fan of slow-burn romances. With lots of banter!

Also, I’m thrilled to be a part of an upcoming anthology, FOOLS IN LOVE, which will offer fresh takes on classic romance tropes. It’s edited by the fabulous Ashley Herring Blake and Rebecca Podos, and I’ll be writing the oblivious-to-lovers trope. I can’t wait to share that story with you all in 2021!

Q: If Chloe from Rent a Boyfriend had an Instagram account, what would her handle be and what kinds of photos/videos would she post?

Chloe’s Instagram handle would be @SnowyChloe. Even though she’s from Palo Alto (and a large chunk of the book takes place there), she’s a sophomore at the University of Chicago, and Chicago is where she feels most like herself.

She would post photos of herself around the gorgeous UChicago campus: studying at the stunning Mansueto Library (which was the Erudite headquarters in the Divergent movie!); getting boba tea and Kimchi nachos; walking through the Quad full of Gothic architecture resembling Hogwarts; and of course, taking classes at the economics building (Saieh Hall) that resembles a church, which, according to Chloe’s, is “fitting” because of how everyone in the department worships Becker and Friedman.

Q: According to your previous interview with me, like Chloe, you’ve had some experience with being set up with boys by your parents. Do you have any funny/memorable/awkward stories from those experiences to share?

In Rent a Boyfriend, Chloe’s parents want to set her up with their Asian community’s flagship bachelor, and, well, let’s just say I didn’t have to reach far for that storyline. The reasons weren’t exactly the same as in the book, but there is (unfortunately) a lot of truth to what’s written! In real life, my mother hadn’t met the guy she was trying to set me up with, but she knew his parents, and “since they were good, he must be good, too.” I had no interest because I was already dating my now-husband, but even if I wasn’t dating him, I have to say that her endorsement was not the most convincing. 😉

About the Author:

G.Chao--Author PhotoGloria Chao is the critically acclaimed author of American PandaOur Wayward Fate, and Rent a Boyfriend.

Her wayward journey to fiction included studying business at MIT, then becoming a dentist. Gloria was once a black belt in kung-fu and an avid dancer, but nowadays you can find her teaming up with her husband on the curling ice.

AMERICAN PANDA received four starred trade reviews, is a Junior Library Guild Selection and Indie’s Next Pick, and is a Seventeen MagazineBustlePopSugar, Chicago Public Library, and Paste Magazine Best YA Book of 2018.

Author Links:

Website – https://gloriachao.wordpress.com/

Twitter – https://twitter.com/gloriacchao

[Blog Tour] Review for Anna K by Jenny Lee

I’m late by 3 days, but I’m posting for the blog tour for Anna K by Jenny Lee.

Anna K

Synopsis:

Meet Anna K. At seventeen, she is at the top of Manhattan and Greenwich society (even if she prefers the company of her horses and dogs); she has the perfect (if perfectly boring) boyfriend; and she has always made her Korean-American father proud (even if he can be a bit controlling). Meanwhile, Anna’s brother, Steven, and his girlfriend, Lolly, are trying to weather a sexting scandal; Lolly’s little sister, Kimmie, is recalibrating after an injury derails her ice dancing career; and Steven’s best friend, Dustin, is madly (and one-sidedly) in love with Kimmie.

As her friends struggle with the pitfalls of teenage life, Anna always seems to sail gracefully above it all. That is, until the night she meets Alexi “Count” Vronsky. A notorious playboy, Alexi is everything Anna is not. But he has never been in love until he meets Anna, and maybe she hasn’t either. As Alexi and Anna are pulled irresistibly together, she has to decide how much of her life she is willing to let go to be with him. And when a shocking revelation threatens to shatter their relationship, she is forced to ask if she has ever known herself at all.

Dazzlingly opulent and emotionally riveting, Anna K is a brilliant reimagining of Leo Tolstoy’s timeless love story, Anna Karenina—but above all, it is a novel about the dizzying, glorious, heart-stopping experience of first love and first heartbreak.

My Review:

I have very mixed feelings about Anna K. It was hard for me to get into at first because of how removed the characters’ lives were from mine, with the vast majority of them being part of the literal 1%. I grew up comfortably middle class, but faced with this level of wealth, I felt like I was observing an alien culture. There is wild shit in a lot of contemporary YAs, but add in extreme wealth and you get next level wild shit. The high class setting also comes with an even more rigid set of social expectations and pressures than your average teen might be subject to.

It was also hard for me to get into the story toward the beginning because the characters felt a lot more shallow, and everything happening to them simply felt like petty drama. What the characters were calling love felt more like infatuation. And yeah, I get that this is a common experience for teens, confounding the two, but I wasn’t understanding even the source of the infatuation except the stereotypical teen hormones and encounters between people who conform to hegemonic beauty standards. Even as the story progressed, I still wasn’t convinced that the two main characters were really in love because I felt like the narrative placed so much emphasis on their physical/sexual attraction to each other over more substantial emotional bonding. I wasn’t invested in the main romance at all.

On the plus side, I got to experience the train wreck of this story with no expectations or prior knowledge since I have never read Anna Karenina, the original story this is a retelling of. So I was just popping my figurative popcorn watching shit hit the fan more times than should be possible in a single novel. Whether there was True Love or not between the leads, there was definitely a lot of teens making Truly Terrible Life Choices and facing the consequences, and that was a source of entertainment for me, somewhat.

The final third of book was probably where the story hit the hardest and I started to feel the story pull its own weight. And despite some of the petty drama aspects I alluded to, the book did also explore (to varying degrees) serious topics such as drug addiction, depression, grief, misogyny/slut-shaming, and there was even a bit of commentary race and class (though far less of it than I wished there had been, but maybe that’s just my ethnic studies background speaking).

My disappointment in the main couple aside, the supporting characters’ story arcs and relationship dynamics were comparatively more engaging and interesting to me, especially those of Dustin and Kimmie. Another point in this book’s favor: Anna, a teen girl, unapologetically owns her sexuality, is shown taking initiative in sex, and sex isn’t treated with kid gloves. I’m actually fairly surprised by how explicit some of the scenes were; it was not your usual figurative language-laden, fade to black kind of fare.

I guess if I had one more comment/critique to add, it’s that this book was overwhelmingly heteronormative (and completely cisnormative; there was no mention of trans people even existing). There were four named queer characters, but only one had a more important role in the story, two of them made zero actual appearances in the story, and one was just there to be a “gay BFF” (direct quote from the book) to a straight girl. There were a few unnamed queer characters mentioned once in passing, and they were literally referred to as “gays,” which, coming from an author who is as far as I know, straight, was rather off-putting to read. Moreover, the overarching framing of the narrative was completely focused on the m/f relationships and gender dynamics, so the commentary on patriarchy and misogyny lacked nuance.

In conclusion: I didn’t completely hate the story, but I ultimately didn’t love it either, though I wanted to because I had high hopes for it going in. It might just be a taste thing.

CWs/TWs: drugs (use/addiction/overdose), alcohol, depression, death (human and animal), infidelity, explicit sex, mentions of self-harm, suicidal ideation, misogyny (some challenged in-text, some not), racist microaggressions against Asian and mixed race people

About the Author:

Jenny Lee is a television writer and producer who has worked on BET’s Boomerang, IFC’s Brockmire, Freeform’s Young & Hungry, and the Disney Channel’s number-one-rated kids’ show, Shake It Up. Jenny is the author of four humor essay collections and two middle grade novels. Anna K: A Love Story is her debut YA novel. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and 135-pound Newfoundland, Gemma (and yes, it’s a toss-up on who’s walking who every day). Instagram: @jennyleewrites

[Blog Tour] Review for Mindy Kim and the Yummy Seaweed Business by Lyla Lee

Today I’m excited to be part of the blog tour for Mindy Kim and Yummy Seaweed Business by Lyla Lee (with illustrations by Dung Ho), the first in a new chapter book series focusing on a Korean American girl. The book and its sequel, Mindy Kim and the Lunar New Year Parade, will be released on January 14th by Aladdin Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster).

Synopsis:

Fresh Off the Boat meets Junie B. Jones in this first novel in an adorable new chapter book series about Mindy Kim, a young Asian American girl who is starting a snack business!

Mindy Kim just wants three things:
1. A puppy!
2. To fit in at her new school
3. For her dad to be happy again

But, getting all three of the things on her list is a lot trickier than she thought it would be. On her first day of school, Mindy’s school snack of dried seaweed isn’t exactly popular at the lunch table. Luckily, her new friend, Sally, makes the snacks seem totally delicious to Mindy’s new classmates, so they decide to start the Yummy Seaweed Business to try and raise money for that puppy!

When another student decides to try and sabotage their business, Mindy loses more than she bargained for—and wonders if she’ll ever fit in. Will Mindy be able to overcome her uncertainty and find the courage to be herself?

I loved this book. It’s super adorable and I found various aspects of it very relatable. One thing I shared with Mindy was being the new kid who moved from one state to another (I moved twice when I was a kid) and the struggles of navigating and adapting in a new social environment. Another was being the lone or minority Asian kid. Unlike Mindy, I was fortunate not to have the “ew, what’s that” lunch experience (I bought lunch from school for most of my school years), but thankfully the microaggression gets subverted and things makes a turn for the better in the story.

The second aspect was Mindy’s family situation. Her mother recently passed away from illness, and she and her dad have to adjust to the loss and the change. I lost my mom to leukemia in 2016, so I empathized with Mindy and her family’s grief. Although her mom is no longer around, Mindy still has her dad, and I loved how close and loving their relationship is. They communicate openly with each other and support each other through their rough patches, and it reminded me of my own bond with my dad.

Another theme in the book is friendship. Mindy manages to make a friend named Sally, and things look bright until a messy incident comes between them. When I was a kid, I had a friendship that went sour and never recovered, and sometimes I still find myself regretting it, so I think it’s important to teach kids conflict resolution, which the story does. It emphasizes the importance of making amends and the power of a sincere apology, which was nice.

The story wraps up with a happy and somewhat open ending that leaves room for more to come. I can’t wait to read the next books in the series.

About the Author:

Lyla Lee Credit CJ Lee

LYLA LEE is a writer of many things. After working various jobs in Hollywood and studying psychology and cinematic arts at USC, she now lives in Dallas, Texas. When she is not writing, she is teaching, watching Korean dramas and other TV shows, and eating all kinds of good food. Visit her online at lylaleebooks.com and on Twitter and Instagram at @literarylyla.

 

About the Illustrator:
DUNG HO was born and raised in Hue, Vietnam, where she studied graphic design at the Hue University College of Arts. After graduating, she worked in the design and advertising industries before discovering a great passion for illustration and picture books and becoming a freelance illustrator. Currently, she lives and works in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam. Ho draws inspiration from nature and the interaction between people and nature and especially loves to draw children. When not drawing, she enjoys cooking and watching movies. Visit her online at dungho.me and on Instagram @dunghanhho.

Don’t miss the rest of the tour:

MINDY KIM AND THE YUMMY SEAWEED BUSINESS BLOG TOUR

Monday, 1/6: YA Book Nerd

Tuesday, 1/7: MG Book Village

Wednesday, 1/8: The Subversive Table

Thursday, 1/9: Jean’s Little Library

Friday, 1/10: READING (AS)(I)AN (AM)ERICA

Monday 1/13: Daddy Mojo

Tuesday, 1/14: Books, Movies, Reviews. Oh my

Wednesday, 1/15: Cracking the Cover

Thursday, 1/16: YA Books Central

Friday, 1/17: Bicultural Mama

Review for More to the Story by Hena Khan

I really enjoyed Hena Khan’s middle grade debut Amina’s Voice (review here), so I’m happy that Simon & Schuster offered me a copy of More to the Story to read and review.

More to the Story

Synopsis:

From the critically acclaimed author of Amina’s Voice comes a new story inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s beloved classic, Little Women, featuring four sisters from a modern American Muslim family living in Georgia.

When Jameela Mirza is picked to be feature editor of her middle school newspaper, she’s one step closer to being an award-winning journalist like her late grandfather. The problem is her editor-in-chief keeps shooting down her article ideas. Jameela’s assigned to write about the new boy in school, who has a cool British accent but doesn’t share much, and wonders how she’ll make his story gripping enough to enter into a national media contest.

Jameela, along with her three sisters, is devastated when their father needs to take a job overseas, away from their cozy Georgia home for six months. Missing him makes Jameela determined to write an epic article—one to make her dad extra proud. But when her younger sister gets seriously ill, Jameela’s world turns upside down. And as her hunger for fame looks like it might cost her a blossoming friendship, Jameela questions what matters most, and whether she’s cut out to be a journalist at all…

My Review:

More to the Story is an endearing story about a Muslim Pakistani American girl, Jameela, who’s struggling to deal with several stressful changes and situations in her life. It touches on multiple themes and manages to balance a number of subplots well and resolve them with a pitch-perfect ending.

First among the issues touched on in the story is Jameela’s father leaving the family to work a job far away. Life as a middle schooler can be tough enough as it is without one of your parents being across the globe. Although modern technology allows long-distance communication, it’s definitely not the same as having your parent by your side on a day-to-day basis. I found this particular struggle of Jameela’s relatable because when I was a teen, my dad had to take a job that forced him to relocate over a thousand miles away, and I missed him terribly. Like Jameela, I have a close relationship with my dad, so I found their dynamic touching.

Another central theme in the story was sibling dynamics. Jameela is a middle child, with an older sister and two younger sisters. I’m also a middle child, with one older sister, and one younger sister. Her relationships with her siblings don’t look anything like mine, but it was still interesting to see how they played out. This story emphasized how, even if you envy them or find them annoying at times, your siblings are your family, and you can’t help but love and care about them.

The third theme I want to talk about is friendship. In the story, Jameela meets and befriends the nephew of a family friend, a British Pakistani boy named Ali who has just moved to the U.S. I liked the way their friendship was developed, with Ali gradually opening up to Jameela, who has a genuine desire to understand him better and help him with the troubles he’s dealing with on his own. I also appreciated the exploration of consent and boundaries and ethical journalism when Ali and his experiences became a tentative topic/subject for Jameela’s school newspaper article.

Next is the subplot on Bisma, Jameela’s younger sister, who develops a tumor. Cancer is terrifying. I know this firsthand from when my mom got leukemia. Despite the fear and uncertainty, Jameela is able to cope with support from her family and takes it upon herself to be as supportive of an older sister as possible. I was several years older than Jameela when my mom was diagnosed, but I found myself admiring and envying her bravery and resilience in the face of everything, and I really wanted to give her a hug to let her know she’s not alone in experiencing such a scary situation.

Another topic that came up in the story was anger management. Jameela is a passionate person who feels things intensely, and sometimes that manifests as anger, which can have destructive consequences. The story is explicit about addressing this issue, which made me appreciate it even more. I feel like if I’d had a book like this when I was younger, I wouldn’t have struggled so much with anger as a teen, something that definitely negatively impacted my relationships with my peers.

Last, but not least, I loved that this book showed a teen pursuing a creative passion and having it taken seriously. A lot of times people downplay kids’ hobbies and interests as things that are fleeting or pointless, so it was heartening to read a story where a young teen character does what she loves and is supported in that endeavor by her parents and other adults. It’s my hope that young readers of this book will feel encouraged follow their dreams, be it journalism or art or science, and carry their passion into the future with them.

All in all, this was a heartwarming read that’s perfect for anyone who loves stories about family, sisterhood, and love in all its manifestations.

[Blog Tour] Review for Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram

Hi, everyone, I’m pleased to be posting again as part of the blog tour for Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at the ALA annual conference in New Orleans earlier this year. I hope you take some time to check out his book and read my review. 🙂

Cover of Darius the Great is Not Okay: two boys, one with short hair and one with longer curls, sit side by side with their backs to the viewer, overlooking the city of Yazd, Iran. A mosque with twin minarets looms in the distance, cast in a shaft of turquoise (the shaped of the letters of the title) that contrasts with the pale orange color of the buildings and the red sky. The title is rendered in bold white letters.

BOOK DESCRIPTION:

Darius doesn’t think he’ll ever be enough, in America or in Iran. Hilarious and heartbreaking, this unforgettable debut introduces a brilliant new voice in contemporary YA.

Darius Kellner speaks better Klingon than Farsi, and he knows more about Hobbit social cues than Persian ones. He’s a Fractional Persian–half, his mom’s side–and his first-ever trip to Iran is about to change his life.
Darius has never really fit in at home, and he’s sure things are going to be the same in Iran. His clinical depression doesn’t exactly help matters, and trying to explain his medication to his grandparents only makes things harder. Then Darius meets Sohrab, the boy next door, and everything changes. Soon, they’re spending their days together, playing soccer, eating faludeh, and talking for hours on a secret rooftop overlooking the city’s skyline. Sohrab calls him Darioush–the original Persian version of his name–and Darius has never felt more like himself than he does now that he’s Darioush to Sohrab.

Adib Khorram’s brilliant debut is for anyone who’s ever felt not good enough–then met a friend who makes them feel so much better than okay.

My Review:

I’m not sure how best to describe this book except to compare it to a weighted blanket. It settles onto you in a loving embrace and makes you feel at home.

Darius expresses his doubt and his hope so candidly that it makes you want to give him a hug. His use of SFF pop culture references gives him a distinctiveness and nerdy sense of humor that grounds his character.

Darius is someone I can relate to strongly for multiple reasons: being part of diaspora, dealing with depression, and feeling socially estranged from peers. He struggles with feeling adequate and comfortable in his own skin, an experience that has defined pretty much all of my life, so it was hard not to see myself in him.

The depiction of depression in this story resonated with me in a lot of the details, from the neveremding quest for the right meds, to the self consciousness about taking meds and the unhelpful comments from ignorant people and the difficulty talking about it to family because of language and cultural barriers.

The beauty of this book is that it is so incredibly validating of people like me and Darius. Disappointment, insecurity and despair are tempered by warmth, solidarity, and love.

I love the way Darius’s various relationships are portrayed in this book because they feel so nuanced and real in the way he navigates the line separating distance from intimacy. It’s hard to let yourself be vulnerable when you feel under attack from all sides: from your family, from your peers, from your country’s mainstream culture, from your heritage culture. But Darius is given the chance to do that and he gains so much from it. His friendship with Sohrab is so pure and wholesome, and his interactions with his extended family are bittersweet as they try to bridge the gap between them.

Although I’m not Persian/Iranian, there were aspects of the culture that were relatable for me, such as the centrality of food in all occasions, the range and specificity of familial terms, and the concept of taarof, whose Taiwanese equivalent I just tweeted about the day before reading the book.😂

On a different note, this is one of the few books I’ve read where boys are allowed to be sensitive, to cry, to feel the emotional spectrum fully without the narrative shaming them, and I really appreciate that given the prevalence of toxic masculinity in fictional boys.

Overall, I have to say this is one of my favorite contemporary reads of the year, and i confess it made me tear up near the end in a key scene, so I’m recommending it wholeheartedly.

Content/Trigger Warnings: bullying, homo-antagonism, Islamophobia, fat/body/food-shaming, ableism

AUTHOR BIO:

Adib Khorram is an author, a graphic designer, and a tea enthusiast. If he’s not writing (or at his day job), you can probably find him trying to get his 100 yard Freestyle (SCY) under a minute, or learning to do a Lutz Jump. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri. This is his first novel.

Most Anticipated MG/YA Releases of September and October

So September and October are a gift because there are so many great kidlit titles coming out from authors of color. Here’s a [far from exhaustive] list of ones I’ve had on my radar! I’ve had the privilege of reading many of these already (16 out of 24, which is 2/3), and I can tell you that they are amazing. 🙂

They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera (Sep. 5th) – Young Adult, SFF, Gay Puerto Rican (#ownvoices) and Bisexual Cuban American MCs, M/M romance

  • 2 boys who are going to die meet and bond over the course of about 24 hours

You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins (Sep. 12th) – Young Adult, Historical Fiction, Indian/Bengali American MCs (#ownvoices), Biracial Black/Bengali MC

  • 5 women spanning 3 generations of a Bengali family in the U.S. negotiate their multicultural identities

Shadowhouse Fall (Shadowshaper #2) by Daniel Jose Older – Young Adult, Urban Fantasy, Afro-Latina Puerto Rican MC

  • Supernatural and real world forces of evil threaten the lives and community of Sierra Santiago, who will do anything to protect her own

Warcross by Marie Lu (Sep. 12th) – Young Adult, Science Fiction, Chinese American MC, #ownvoices

  • A gamer girl/bounty hunter hacks her way into the world’s biggest virtual reality game tournament and is hired to track down a suspicious figure lurking in the game

Rebel Seoul by Axie Oh (Sep. 15th) – Young Adult, Science Fiction/Dystopian, Korean MC, #ownvoices

  • A boy who has risen in the military of a future Korea is drafted into a special weapons project that turns girls into war machines and starts to fall for his charge

Rise of the Jumbies (The Jumbies #2) by Tracey Baptiste (Sep. 19th)- Middle Grade, Fantasy, Black Trinidadian MC, #ownvoices

  • Corinne La Mer makes a dangerous journey across the Atlantic to find a way to save the missing children of her island home

One Dark Throne (Three Dark Crowns #2) by Kendare Blake (Sept. 19th) – Young Adult, Fantasy

  • The deadly race for the throne has begun, the last sister standing wins.

The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore (Sep. 19th) – Middle Grade, Contemporary, #ownvoices Black MC, secondary Black Autistic character

  • Following his brother’s gang-related Death, a boy struggles to cope and avoid the gang life and finds solace in building Lego creations at the community center.

The Way to Bea by Kat Yeh (Sep. 19th) – Middle Grade, Contemporary, #ownvoices Taiwanese American MC, secondary Autistic character

  • One summer away has upended Bea’s life and friendships, forcing her to make new ones and develop confidence in being herself.

Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman (Sep. 26th) – Young Adult, Contemporary, Biracial white/Japanese American MC, Social Anxiety rep, #ownvoices

  • An anxious aspiring artist flees her abusive home with an old friend-turned-crush and embarks on a journey that will transform her.

Ahimsa by Supriya Kelkar (Oct. 2nd) – Middle Grade, Historical Fiction, Indian MC, #ownvoices

  • A girl is swept up in the freedom movement of India through her mother’s participation and becomes involved herself in radical change.

Akata Warrior (Akata Witch #2) by Nnedi Okorafor (Oct. 3rd) – Middle Grade/Young Adult, Fantasy, Nigerian American MC, #ownvoices

  • A girl and her friends develop their powers as Leopard people to face down and vanquish a threat to humanity.

Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore (Oct. 3rd) – Young Adult, Magical Realism, Bisexual Latina/Mexican American MC, #ownvoices

  • The Nomeolvides sisters are blessed and cursed. Flowers flow from their hands, but their love makes those they love disappear. A mysterious boy who emerges from their garden estate may be the key to unlocking the secrets of the past and even breaking the curse.

Seize Today (Forget Tomorrow #3) by Pintip Dunn (Oct. 3rd) – Young Adult, Science Fiction/Dystopian

  • The conclusion to a series about a girl who foresees her own future in which she kills her sister and must work to stop herself.

Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani (Oct 3rd) – Young Adult, Contemporary/Fantasy, Graphic Novel, Indian American MC, #ownvoices

  • An Indian American girl connects with her heritage through a magical pashmina that transports her to India.

Not Your Villain (Sidekick Squad #2) by C.B. Lee (Oct. 5th) – Young Adult, SFF, Black trans boy MC

  • Bells becomes a fugitive due to a coverup by the Heroes’ League and has to take down a corrupt government while applying to college and working up the courage to confess his feelings to his best friend.

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao (Oct. 10th) – Young Adult, Fantasy/Retelling, Chinese MC

  • Xifeng has a great destiny awaiting her, but her path to becoming Empress of Feng Lu requires her to embrace the darkness within her.

Dear Martin by Nic Stone (Oct. 17th) – Young Adult, Contemporary, Black MC, #ownvoices

  • A Black teen processes his feelings about antiblack racism through a journal dialogue with Martin Luther King Jr. and becomes the center of a media storm when he and his friend become victims of police brutality.

A Line in the Dark by Malinda Lo (Oct. 17th) – Young Adult, Contemporary, Thriller, Queer Chinese American MC, #ownvoices

  • Jess harbors a crush on her best friend Angie and through Angie, is drawn into a wealthy but seedy social circle with dangers they cannot escape unscathed.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez (Oct. 17th) – Young Adult, Contemporary, Mexican American MC, #ownvoices

  • After her sister’s death, a girl feels alone and pressured to take her sister’s place, only to discover that her sister may not have been as perfect as she seemed.

Like Water by Rebecca Podos (Oct. 17th) – Young Adult, Contemporary, Besexual Latina MC, Secondary qenderqueer character

  • A small-town girl falls for someone who brings to the surface secrets she’s been trying to suppress.

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds (Oct. 24th) – Young Adult, Contemporary/Thriller, Novel-in-Verse, Black MC, #ownvoices

  • His brother is dead, and he’ll make the killer pay, but as he goes down the elevator, someone new appears who is connected to his brother, and he may not make it to the bottom.

Calling My Name by Liara Tamani (Oct. 24th) – Young Adult, Contemporary, Black Christian MC, #ownvoices

  • A girl navigates her budding sexuality in an ultra-religious environment that treats sex as forbidden and dirty.

Beasts Made of Night by Tochi Onyebuchi (Oct. 31st) – Young Adult, Nigerian-inspired Fantasy, Black MC, #ownvoices

  • Sin-eaters practice magic to rid people of their guilty feelings but pay the price in a being permanently marked and a short life-span. Taj is called to eat the sin of a royal and is forced to fight against an evil that threatens his entire home.

Review for Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman

Starfish

Note: This review is based on an ARC that I received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The finished book will be released on September 26th, 2017.

My Summary: Kiko Himura wants nothing more to escape the suffocating environment of her home and her very white hometown in Nebraska, and acceptance into Prism, her top choice of art school, is her ticket to freedom. Much to her dismay, rejection from Prism ruins her plan, but a new unforeseen opportunity takes its place: she will go on a trip to California with her former best friend, Jamie and visit art schools on the West Coast. Desperation and the nightmare of being forced to live in under the same roof as her predatory uncle are enough to outweigh her intense anxiety, so she goes. More than just a vacation, this is a trip to find herself, reconnect with Jamie, and forge a new future.

Review:

Trigger/content warnings: anxiety, emotional abuse, childhood sexual abuse, suicide ableism

I have a lot of feelings about this book because I related to Kiko so much. Growing up in a very white environment as an Asian person messes with your self-esteem and self-image, and like Kiko, I definitely felt that I would never really be seen as attractive by people because I was Asian. I literally had a white friend tell me he generally wasn’t attracted to Asian people (he is no longer my friend, in case you’re wondering). The various microaggressions she experiences are all too familiar to me.

In addition to sharing Kiko’s experience of being Asian American, I also have generalized and social anxiety, and the descriptions of Kiko’s anxiety in Starfish resonated strongly with me. There’s a scene at a classmate’s party that was especially relatable and brought back some painful memories of parties I went to in college. Another aspect of Kiko I saw myself in was her anxiety over having romantic relationships as someone with mental illness(es). The fear of falling into toxic and codependent relationships is so real. In general, the portrayal of anxiety was just so incredibly on point for me, to the point that it actually triggered my own anxiety at times because I was empathizing with Kiko’s experience on a visceral level.

Besides being really relatable, Starfish was simply gorgeously written. Kiko is an artist, and the author expresses her artist’s point of view through poetic language. Each chapter ends with a brief description of Kiko’s latest work of art, which is thematically related to the chapter in question and serves as a visual representation of Kiko’s inner emotional landscape and how she relates to the world and the people around her. These added details create a distinctive voice for Kiko’s character.

If it wasn’t obvious from the trigger/content warnings, this story deals with some heavy topics. Kiko’s home environment is incredibly toxic. Her parents are divorced, and she lives with her two brothers and her white mother. Her mother is emotionally abusive toward her. This abuse has a racialized dimension, as she uses her embodiment of white beauty ideals to belittle Kiko, whose features are more typically East Asian. Kiko craves her mother’s love and approval even while knowing that her mother does not really care about her except as it benefits or is convenient for her. It really hurt to follow Kiko through her interactions with her mother, the pain was so raw.

To make matters worse, during the events of the story, Kiko’s maternal uncle moves into the house with her family, which amplifies her anxiety. It is first strongly implied and then explicitly revealed that he sexually abused Kiko when she was younger, and she has lingering trauma from those events. Although Kiko told her mother what happened, her mother never believed her and sided with the uncle instead.

Despite the serious topics, the book isn’t all doom and gloom and angst, nor is it a tragic story. Kiko’s physical journey doubles as a psychological journey as well, allowing her to process everything she has lived through, refute the victim-blaming messages she’s gotten from her mother, and see that there are people and things outside of the cage of her toxic home. Her relationship with Jamie is very sweet and wholesome, and she also finds a role model who is Japanese American who sees her talent and gives her the push she needs to really chase her artistic dreams.

These parts of the story bring hope and light and an empowering message that were so lovely and satisfying to read. Perhaps others readers might think the ending/resolution is too much of a fairy tale happy ending, but personally, I loved it and think it’s necessary and important for readers who see themselves in Kiko. Her mental illness is not magically cured by the end of the story (which would be a very terrible message to readers), but she has greater self-awareness, a robust support system, and a means of channeling her creative energy and expressing herself honestly, all of which are critical to coping.

My one criticism of this book was the pattern of ableist language. Disabilities, including mental illnesses, span a huge spectrum, and while the rep for one disability may be great, other disabilities may not get the same treatment. In this case, the anxiety was portrayed wonderfully, but there was still ableist language that was insensitive toward other illnesses/conditions, including bipolar disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and psychosis. Specifically, these illnesses were effectively used as a scapegoat/explanation for Kiko’s mother’s abusive behavior. (Unfortunately, it’s common even for mentally ill people to use words like “psychopath” to label people who behave in violent otherwise horrible ways.) The author did mention on Twitter that she removed the words “crazy” and “insane” from the final version of the book, but I don’t know whether these other references to mental illness were taken out or rewritten. If you’re planning to read the book, just be warned that there may be several instances of stigmatizing language.

Recommendation: Overall, I highly recommend this book because it did so much for me and covered a lot of ground and was just breathtaking to read and experience. If you have anxiety or other related mental illnesses or are an abuse survivor, I’d recommend taking it slow and taking breaks because it definitely has the potential to be triggering.

Mini Reviews: 5 Latinx and Caribbean Reads

 

The Jumbies and Rise of the Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste – MG, Fantasy, Afro-Caribbean/Trinidadian MC, #ownvoices

The Jumbies is an atmospheric tale of secrets and dangers that draws you in and gives you the heebie jeebies. Corinne, our gutsy heroine, will do anything to protect her father from the beautiful but deadly Severine. With the help of her friends, the local witch, and her own latent powers, she sets out to save the island from being taken over by a powerful force. When you are done you will look to the trees and wonder what strange creatures lurk within and whether they might appear to make mischief.

Book 2 tops Book 1 and takes you on an incredible journey across the ocean, with more magic and new friends and foes as Corinne comes into herself and her power. It captures the agony of a painful, half-forgotten past and the fragile hope for a future and brings home the tensions of family and loss.

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The Education of Margot Sanchez by Lilliam Rivera – YA, Contemporary, Puerto Rican MC, #ownvoices

The Education of Margot Sanchez follows the story of a Puerto Rican girl who’s trying to fit in at her prestigious prep school at all costs. Her desperation drives her to questionable actions, and eventually her misdeeds catch up to her. While she’s serving out her punishment at her family’s grocery store, she meets a handsome young man who’s campaigning against the gentrification of their neighborhood, and through various events, comes to appreciate her community and confront her own mistakes.

This novel covers a lot of ground, including dynamic friendships, peer pressure, budding romance, class struggles, challenging machismo, family drama, and personal growth. Margot is an incredibly flawed person but also a sympathetic protagonist, and watching her character learn and grow was intensely satisfying. In other words, the book really lives up to its name.

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American Street by Ibi Zoboi – YA, Contemporary, Magical Realism, Black/Haitian American Immigrant MC, #ownvoices

I had few expectations going into this book and when I came out the other end, I was shaken to the core. This is not an light read. From the beginning it’s wracked with tension and conflict. Fabiola has just moved to Detroit from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and she’s thrust into this new environment without her mother, who has been detained. The American paradise she envisioned turns out to be much grittier than she realized. In Detroit, she relies on her strong-willed and influential aunt and cousins to support her and finds an unexpected romance.

Unfortunately, these relationships are overshadowed by various kinds of violence: intimate partner violence between one of her cousins and her boyfriend, violence from systemic racism and classism, and the violence of livelihoods built upon huge risks and illegal activities. In her quest to free her mother from detainment, Fabiola gets drawn into a complicated and fragile web of secrets and lies that threatens to destroy the foundations of her new life.

What was especially poignant and powerful to me in this book was the juxtaposition of Fabiola’s and her cousins’ respective backgrounds and the way they projected their own hopes and dreams onto one another. Although Fabiola is the primary viewpoint character, there are a few interludes and departures from the main narrative that provide insight into the supporting characters, their histories, their motivations, and so on that add another layer of depth to the story. The magical realism elements were critical to establishing setting and foreshadowing and illuminating the themes of the story.

Trigger Warnings for American Street: abuse, violence, death

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The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora by Pablo Cartaya – MG, Contemporary, Cuban MC, #ownvoices

Like Margot Sanchez, The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora tackles the theme of gentrification but with a lighter tone. Arturo is an adorkable thirteen-year-old whose extended family lives together in an apartment building and runs a restaurant established by his grandparents. He has a few ambitions: tell his crush he likes her, save the family restaurant and local community from a seedy land developer, and make his grandmother proud of him. Along the way, he discovers the beauty of poetry and the legacy of Cuban revolutionary José Martí and connects with his late grandfather, who left behind letters and verses for him.

This heartfelt story shows us that not all heroes wear capes, and even the thirteen-year-old boy who gets tongue-tied around his crush has a shot at saving the day. My favorite parts were the family dynamics, the delicious food descriptions, and the incorporation of poetry into the narrative as an inspiration for Arturo and a medium for his growth and self-expression.

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Lucky Broken Girl by Ruth Behar – MG, Historical Fiction, Cuban Jewish American Immigrant MC, #ownvoices

Lucky Broken Girl is semi-autobiographical and tells the story of a young Cuban Jewish girl who has just immigrated to the U.S. and winds up confined to her bed for almost a year after a car crash that puts her in a full-body cast. While she is cut off from the world outside, she finds solace and companionship in her neighbors and classmates, who bring joy and beauty into her life with their kindness and generosity. Throughout this experience, she struggles with ableism from her parents, who are her caretakers, and her own inner voices, which are exacerbated by her isolation.

Perhaps most poignant and memorable is her period of rehabilitation after she is free of the cast. The anxiety and sense of inadequacy and frustration with slow progress were palpable to me, and intensely relatable as someone who experienced hospitalization for mental illness, albeit not for months.

If there was one thing I really felt was lacking in the story, it was more interaction with people who shared her experiences of disability. They were mentioned but weren’t given much page time, and I feel like including those kinds of interactions would have enriched the narrative. That, and I feel like there could have been space for acknowledging that not everyone is temporarily disabled the way Ruthie was; some have lifelong disabilities (hi, that’s me), and their worth isn’t defined by their disabilities or whether they can recover from/overcome them.

Most Anticipated Books for July-August

These are mostly MG/YA with a few non-kidlit titles mixed in!

July

Heroine Worship by Sarah Kuhn (July 4th) – NA, Fantasy, Contemporary

  • kickass Chinese American superheroine
  • demon-fighting
  • friendship
  • romance

Jasmine Toguchi, Mochi Queen by Debbi Michiko Florence (July 11th) – MG/Early reader, Contemporary

  • Japanese American MC
  • food and family traditions

Because You Love to Hate Me: 13 Tales of Villainy edited by Ameriie (July 11th) – YA, Fantasy, Anthology

  • collaboration between Booktubers and authors
  • really, really want to read Cindy Pon’s “Beautiful Venom,” a Medusa retelling in a Chinese-inspired world

Monstress Vol. 2 by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda – Fantasy, Steampunk/Alternate History, Graphic Novel

  • gorgeous art
  • alternate Asia

The Library of Fates by Aditi Khorana (July 18th) – YA, Fantasy

  • Based on Alexander the Great’s invasion of India
  • a princess turned refugee
  • female friendships
  • a magical library

Spirit Hunters by Ellen Oh (July 25th) – MG, Fantasy

  • biracial Korean American MC
  • a haunted house
  • sibling bonds

August

Solo by Kwame Alexander (August 1st) – YA, Contemporary

  • Black MC
  • Music and jazz
  • Father-son relationship
  • A trip to Ghana

Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert (August 8th) – YA, Contemporary

  • Black Jewish and bisexual MC
  • F/F couple
  • sibling relationship and mental illness rep (MC’s brother is bipolar)

The Authentics (August 8th) – YA, Contemporary

  • Iranian Muslim American MC
  • Cliques and rivalry
  • Sweet Sixteen party
  • Discovering family history

The Epic Crush of Genie Lo (August 8th) – YA, Fantasy

  • Super kickass Chinese American MC
  • Tall girl/short boy dynamic, I ship it
  • Contemporary take on The Monkey King
  • Juggling demon-fighting and academics (how)

The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Perez (August 22nd) – MG, Contemporary

  • Mexican American MC
  • The new girl experience
  • A band of misfits
  • Zine inserts (I have the ARC and they’re Legit scans of zine pages created by the author)
  • “Always Be Yourself”

Starswept by Mary Fan – YA, Science Fiction

  • Chinese violist MC
  • telepathic aliens
  • music school
  • romance and political intrigue