Tag Archives: Contemporary

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.
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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.

the-education-of-margot-sanchez

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.

american-street

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

the-epic-fail-of-arturo-zamora

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.

lucky-broken-girl

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

 

Mini Reviews: 5 Muslim Reads

Life update and mini review series introduction: I have a full-time job right now, so writing 600+ word reviews for every book I read has become unsustainable. However, since I still want to share my thoughts on all the books I read, I’m compromising by doing mini reviews for most books and full reviews for a smaller fraction. This first set of mini reviews will focus on five books with Muslim characters that I’ve read recently. 🙂

the-gauntlet

The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi – Middle Grade, Fantasy, Adventure, Bangladeshi American MC, #ownvoices

In The Gauntlet, Farah Mirza is forced to play a larger-than-life board game in order to save her younger brother from being taken by the game’s Architect. It is such a fun book that really engages the senses, especially sight, smell, and taste. Loaded with loving and vivid references to Bengali, desi, and Middle Eastern cultures, it’s an adventure that you can’t miss. As someone who loves games and puzzles, it was a treat to read about Farah’s three game trials, especially the one involving Mancala, which I played with my sisters when we were young. There were colorful characters and interesting twists and a setting that literally shifts and changes to keep me engaged and delighted throughout.

The Lines We Cross

The Lines We Cross by Randa Abdel-Fattah (originally published as When Michael Met Mina in Australia) – Young Adult, Contemporary, Afghan-Australian MC

The Lines We Cross is a powerful story about racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia. The main character, Mina, moves from a racially diverse, working-class part of the city to a wealthier, white-dominated area. There, she meets and goes to school with Michael, who is white and the son of a local conservative political organizer who is the head of an organization pushing a xenophobic and Islamophobic agenda. Despite their differences, the two are drawn to each other and find common ground, and Michael is forced to confront his own privilege and question his internalized biases. The reason this learning and redemption arc works is because Mina’s perspective is there to complement Michael’s, it’s not just centering Michael. Moreover, Mina actively calls out Michael’s ignorance and biases and refuses to perform the labor of educating him, so her purpose in the story is not to serve his character development.

Saints and Misfits

Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali – Young Adult, Contemporary, Egyptian/Arab-Indian American MC, #ownvoices

Trigger Warnings: Sexual assault

Saints and Misfits is a gem of a story about a Muslim hijabi teen, Janna, who’s trying to navigate the confusing feelings of adolescence and deal with her traumatic experience of sexual assault by a supposedly upstanding member of her community. Her voice is refreshingly honest, snarky, and down-to-earth. I loved the different relationships explored in the story, from her family drama, to her friendships with people at school and at the Islamic Center, to her crush on Jeremy, to her mentor-mentee relationship with her imam. The supporting characters really rounded out the story, giving it depth and breadth. The topic of sexual assault was explored with sensitivity and grace, and I found it to be an empowering story for survivors and an honest commentary on how a community may fail its members.

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Love, Hate, and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed – Young Adult, Contemporary, Indian American MC, #ownvoices

Trigger Warnings: Islamophobia, physical assault

Love, Hate, and Other Filters is a powerful novel about intergenerational conflict and Islamophobia, how it feels to be caught in between others’ expectations and your own aspirations. Maya’s parents have a plan for her, and it doesn’t involve going to NYU to study film or dating someone who’s not her parents choice of pious Muslim boy, especially not a white boy like Phil. Because of these suffocating expectations, Maya lives a double life, applying to NYU and meeting Phil in secret, and it will break your heart to see her struggle. Parallel to the day-to-day events of Maya’s life, a terrorist plots to wreak havoc. When the attack occurs, the prime suspect shares Maya’s last name, so she gets targeted with vitriol and violence. This book is such an emotional rollercoaster, and the author doesn’t pull any punches. Maya’s fear and hope are tangible, and you feel the weight of her choices. I loved the juxtaposition of Maya’s first-person narrative with third-person snippets of people whose lives are affected by the terrorist attack. It heightened the tension of the story and connected the dots between seemingly unrelated people.

That Thing We Call a Heart

That Thing We Call a Heart by Sheba Karim – Young Adult, Contemporary, Pakistani American MC, #ownvoices

That Thing We Call a Heart happens over the course of a summer, the summer before Shabnam goes off to college. She’s been estranged from her best friend Farah, so she finds companionship in a cute boy named Jamie, who lands her a job at his aunt’s pie shack. It’s hinted at in the synopsis, but Jamie is not that great of a guy, and he sort of fetishizes Shabnam, and through this experience Shabnam comes to learn what a bad relationship looks like and how infatuation can cloud your judgment. My favorite part of the story was her interactions with her parents, her best friend Farah, and her great-uncle who survived Partition. Her dad teaches her about Urdu poetry, which gives her a connection to her heritage and artistic inspiration. Her best friend Farah was by far my favorite character, defying stereotypes of hijabi girls by dyeing her hair and listening to punk music and not taking shit from anyone. Shabnam’s alienation from Farah is very much her own fault, and in the story, she has to work through the issues and make amends. The dynamic nature of their friendship felt realistic, and it resonated with me a lot as someone who’s gone through similar stages with my own best friend. Lastly, her relationship with her great-uncle felt really relatable to me as someone who doesn’t have very close relationships with people of my grandparents’ generation, who lived through two periods of colonization. Her uncle lived through a very horrifying and bloody chapter of history, and it’s hard to communicate and connect when you feel like there is so much you don’t know about someone and their history. Shabnam’s curiosity and weighty feelings and desire to learn more about that history mirrored my own with respect to 20th Century Taiwanese history.

Mid-Year Book Freak Out Tag

Uh, I have no idea who created this tag and it’s been around for a while and nobody tagged me, as far as I know, but oh well, I AM DOING IT!

1. BEST BOOKS YOU’VE READ SO FAR IN 2017?

As y’all may already know, I’m a huge SFF fan, and this year Asian SFF YA has been absolutely spectacular! I’ve reviewed Want, A Crown of Wishes, The Epic Crush of Genie Lo already, but I still need to write and post reviews for Forest of a Thousand Lanterns and Warcross. I’ll be honest and say Want and Warcross are my favorite books by Cindy Pon and Marie Lu, respectively. They are so immersive and intense and exhilarating. All of these were five-star reads for me, and I’m so excited for other people to read and hopefully fall in love with them! 🙂

2. BEST SEQUEL OF 2017 SO FAR

It’s a tie! Rise of the Jumbies is the sequel to The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste, and Shadowhouse Fall is the sequel to Shadowshaper. I have yet to review any of these, but I really need to. I read these two sequels for Caribbean American Heritage Month, which was this past month. Rise of the Jumbies is set in Trinidad and also Ghana (with an epic cross-Atlantic journey in between), and Sierra, the heroine of Shadowhouse Fall, is Puerto Rican. Both series incorporate Caribbean lore, and they are filled with suspense, family bonds, friendship, and journeys of self-discovery. I adore these covers so much.

3. NEW RELEASE YOU HAVEN’T READ YET, BUT YOU WANT TO

I’m not sure what counts as new, but among the books released in the past two months, there are quite a few I’m eager to read:

One Shadow on the Wall tells the story of a boy in Senegal who has lost his father and must support himself and his family. Crossing Ebenezer Creek is based on a historical event during the Civil War era of U.S. history and features a recently-freed Black girl trying to forge a new life and future for herself. I Believe in a Thing Called Love is a contemporary romantic comedy in which a studious Korean American girl attempts to use Korean drama tropes to win the heart of her crush.

4. MOST ANTICIPATED RELEASE OF THE SECOND HALF OF 2017?

HAHA as if I could pick just one or even three. I need to section these off:

YA Sequels

  • The Speaker by Traci Chee (The Sea of Ink and Gold #2, September 12th)
  • Not Your Villain by C.B. Lee (Sidekick Squad #2, October 5th)
  • Chainbreaker by Tara Sim (Timekeeper Trilogy #2, November 7th)

If you haven’t read my rave reviews for the prequels to these books, you can go find out why I love them so much. The short version: The Reader (my review) is one of the most creative fantasy novels I’ve read in a long time, interweaving four different storylines and featuring a fascinating magic system in which the act of reading is a literal kind of magic. Not Your Sidekick (my review) is a fresh take on superheroes in a futuristic American West combined with a cute f/f romance. Timekeeper (my review) is set in an alternate England where clocks literally control the flow of time; in this world, our hero investigates a series of clock malfunctions with a sinister source while falling in love with an adorable and mysterious clock spirit.

YA SFF

I wasn’t joking when I said I love SFF! Beasts Made of Night is a Nigerian-inspired fantasy story that centers on a young man who is a magic user responsible for vanquishing the sin-beasts that form from people’s guilt as he navigates a deadly political conspiracy. Rebel Seoul takes place in near future Korea and stars a boy turned soldier who is recruited for a special project involving giant killing machines and forced to decide where his loyalty lies. The Library of Fates is based on the historical invasion of India by Alexander the Great and features a princess and servant on the run, in search of the Library of All Things, which may have the key to changing one’s fate.

YA Contemporary

Starfish is about a biracial Japanese American girl who deals with social anxiety while away from home and finds the courage to pursue the career of her dreams as an artist. You Bring the Distant Near tells the stories of three generations women in an Indian/Bengali immigrant family as they grow into their American identity. A Line in the Dark features a queer Chinese American girl who gets sucked into an elite social circle that is filled with secrets and danger.

MG Fantasy

More fantasy! Spirit Hunters stars a biracial Korean American girl who discovers her new house is haunted and has to save her brother from malevolent spirits. Akata Warrior is the sequel to Akata Witch (my review), a fantasy story starring four Nigerian American/Nigerian teens exploring their magic and working together to face down powerful foes. Whichwood is a companion to Furthermore and is a Persian-inspired story about a girl who washes the bodies of the dead and whose hair and hands are turning silver.

5. BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Okay so as far as 2017 book covers go, a few have disappointed me:

All of these were in my most anticipated cover reveals post but fell short of my expectations based on their synopses. Specifically, I was hoping that they would feature POC prominently, and they all failed to do that.

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns was probably the biggest letdown out of all of them. The symbolism of the apple blossom isn’t apparent because most people have no idea what an apple blossom looks like and wouldn’t be able to identify it on sight, the font is really tacky, the repeating yin-yang symbols is also kitschy and the only real indicator that the book is based on East Asian cultures, and in general I just wish it had more detail and texture to it. My mental aesthetic for Xifeng and FOTL was Fan Bingbing starring in the Chinese historical drama, The Empress of China, and I was totally hoping for something similar to the images below.

What disappointed me about the Warcross cover was the color scheme: it wasn’t dark enough for the feel of the story, in my opinion. And, to state the painfully obvious, it’s literally just the title in a slightly upgraded version of 2007 MS Word Art. Verdict: should have hired Jason Chan, who did the cover art for Want and Heroine Complex and Heroine Worship.

As for Beasts Made of Night…I was hoping for a Black boy to be on the cover looking fierce and magical, but instead we got animal silhouettes. It’s not terrible, but I wanted something with more texture that really takes up space.

The conclusion: PenguinTeen needs to invest in better cover art. They are horribly underselling their best SFF titles by POC with mediocre covers.

A Line in the Dark gives you the dark and creepy vibes from the synopsis but is once again very vague, and I’m willing to bet the hand model they used for that photo wasn’t even Asian. Like why is it so hard to just put a queer Chinese American girl on the cover?

Okay, I’ll stop ranting about cover art now and talk about actual stories that disappointed me. There were only two, actually.

One was the middle grade book Stir It Up!, which I reviewed earlier this year. As I mentioned in my review, it didn’t have the level of detail and substance I was hoping for in a book centered on Indo-Caribbean cuisine that had so much potential. The other book was The Takedown by Corrie Wang. The premise sounded very interesting, and I was cautiously optimistic despite the fact that it was written by a white author (the main character is biracial Chinese American), but when I actually got to scoping it out at the bookstore, I found the main character really annoying, plus it was lowkey racist and sexist, among other things. Good thing I didn’t buy it.

6. BIGGEST SURPRISE

girl-on-the-verge

Girl on the Verge by Pintip Dunn

I was looking forward to reading this book because it features a Thai American protagonist, the 2nd one in contemporary YA that I know of and the first in years. There was some hype going for me. Then I actually read it, and I was completely blown away. My Goodreads review says it all:

“I didn’t intend for my review to be a haiku but the universe had the syllable count planted in my subconscious somehow so here you go:
holy fucking shit
what the hell did I just read
I need to lie down”

Also, my Twitter mini-thread:

7. FAVORITE NEW AUTHOR (DEBUT OR AUTHOR TO YOU)

F.C. Yee and Julie C. Dao tie! I was lucky enough to get ARCs of their books and loved their debuts so much and am dying for the sequels to FOTL and Genie Lo. *cries*

8. NEWEST FICTIONAL CRUSH

WANT_postcard01a

Well, I don’t really crush on YA characters much because of the age gap, but if he were my age, Jason Zhou from Want?

9. NEWEST FAVORITE CHARACTER

Genie Lo! The tall angry kickass Asian girl that I’ve always wanted in YA.

10. BOOK THAT MADE YOU CRY

its-not-like-its-a-secret

It’s Not Like It’s a Secret by Misa Sugiura

Okay, it’s fairly rare for a book to actually, literally make me cry, but this book actually did that. It was over a very emotional mother-daughter moment that really struck a chord with me, and I guess the biggest factors that contributed to that was a) the protagonist is [East] Asian American like me, and b) I lost my own mom last year so I’m still really sensitive to stuff relating to moms. If you want to read my thoughts about the Latinx rep (the love interest is Mexican American), I wrote a brief review about it on GR, but as I’m not Latinx, I don’t feel comfortable actually recommending this book to people since it was called out a few months back by a sensitivity reader for bad rep, and I don’t know to what extent that stuff was fixed/edited for the final version.

11. A BOOK THAT MADE YOU HAPPY

cilla-lee-jenkins-future-author-extraordinaire

Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire by Susan Tan

Okay, this was one of my favorite middle grade books of the year because it was really cute and fun but also creative about turning certain racist microaggressions against biracial Asian people on their head. You can read my full review here.

12. FAVORITE BOOK TO MOVIE ADAPTATION YOU’VE SEEN THIS YEAR

…I don’t think I’ve seen any? Oops.

13. FAVORITE REVIEW YOU’VE WRITTEN THIS YEAR?

Probably my review for Want since it’s such a personally satisfying read because of the Taiwanese rep.

14. MOST BEAUTIFUL BOOK YOU’VE BOUGHT OR RECEIVED THIS YEAR?

crystal-ribbon

The Crystal Ribbon by Celeste Lim

It has such gorgeous cover art! It extends onto the back as well, and there’s a Chinese character on the cover under the jacket; it’s the word for the main character’s name, Jing. You can see it in my bookstagram post:

I also really loved the story, which I reviewed here.

15. WHAT BOOKS DO YOU NEED TO READ BY THE END OF THE YEAR?

There are only a million and one, but here are some diverse releases from the first half of this year that I haven’t gotten around to reading yet:

Midnight Without a Moon is based on true historical events relating to the murder of Emmett Till in the mid-20th Century, told through the perspective of a young black girl. Stef Soto, Taco Queen tells the story of a girl who wants to escape the shadow of her family-run taco truck until that very livelihood is threatened, and she become it’s greatest champion. The Harlem Charade follows three kids of color in Harlem as they investigate one of them’s missing grandfather and stumble upon an insidious plot to gentrify their neighborhood. Piecing Me Together tackles the intersections of race, gender, and class for a Black teen girl who attends a mostly-white private school, where she’s identified as “at-risk.” Wintersong is an atmospheric retelling of the story of Labyrinth, in which a girl who loves to compose music becomes the bride of the Goblin King, her creative muse, in order to save her sister. Empress of a Thousand Skies is an epic space opera in which a princess and a former refugee have to join together to help reclaim the throne and save the galaxy. History Is All You Left Me tells the story of a teen struggling with the death of his ex and his own debilitating OCD, and his ex’s boyfriend is the only one who understands his pain. The Foretelling of Georgie Spider is the third and final book in The Tribe series by Indigenous author Ambelin Kwamullina; the series takes place in a dystopian future where people who manifest powers are Illegal and must survive in secret on the fringes of society or be detained by the state. I read the first book last year (my review) and loved it, so books 2 and 3 are waiting for me.


HEY, you made it to the end, yay you! I tag everyone who wants to do this tag. ^o^

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:

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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!