Tag Archives: Interracial Romance

Author Interview: Sarah Kuhn

Today’s special guest for my Asian author interview series is Sarah Kuhn! Last year, her debut novel, Heroine Complex, released and was one of my top reads of 2016. Come July 4th, the sequel, Heroine Worship, will be out. I’ve invited her to talk a little about the series and Heroine Worship.

Heroine Worship

Honestly, this cover is everything. It’s so dynamic and kickass. Thanks to Jason Chan for saving Asian SFF with his amazing cover illustrations. (In addition to the covers for this series, he also illustrated Cindy Pon’s Want.)

To keep things mostly spoiler-free for book 1, I’ll just link to the synopsis on Goodreads.

As always, my comments/questions are in bold and labeled “SW.” Here we go!

SW: Well, I am super excited that Heroine Worship is about to be released. Can you offer us any teasers beyond the synopsis?

Sarah: Thank you—I’m excited too! Heroine Worship is really about Annie Chang/Aveda Jupiter figuring out who she is now that everything she’s ever known has changed. We see a lot of her internal landscape, learn a lot about what she’s been feeling. There are so many superhero feelings in this book, y’all. There are also tons of supernatural wedding shenanigans, gorgeous vintage outfits, and at least one scene with sexy cake-eating. And it gives folks something that was only teased in Heroine Complex: Evie and Aveda fighting side by side as legit co-heroines.

SW: Annie’s character is interesting to me because she’s such a drama queen but also tough at the same time. Did she spring from your head, fully-formed, like Athena, or did it take some work to bring her to life? What has your character design process been like for this series?

Sarah: She’s actually the character that’s changed the most since I came up with the idea for Book 1! Evie and Aveda weren’t originally childhood friends and she was much more of a cartoonish diva boss character I plugged in to service this bigger idea of the superhero’s personal assistant story. Once I made them longtime friends, I had to think about her in a lot more depth, think about what drives her and what makes her and Evie’s bond so deep and complicated. I kept coming back to this intense drive she has to be The Absolute Best at whatever she’s doing and how that sometimes blocks out everything else—that’s certainly something I can relate to. She’s one of my favorite characters to write because she’s so bold and loud and has a tendency to charge into situations without thinking about the consequences. I love how she 100 percent refuses to be ignored.

As far as developing characters in general for this series, one of the things I enjoy the most is putting them all in a scene together and seeing how they interact, how they bounce off of each other. For instance, Nate (Evie’s scientist boyfriend) mentoring Bea (Evie’s science-intrigued little sister) came out of that.

SW: Complex characters are more compelling! In the Heroine Complex series, we have three Asian American girl protagonists, Evie, Annie, and Bea. Which of the three are you most like, if any? What traits do you share in common with each of them?

Sarah: I think of myself as being the most like whichever character I’m writing at the time because I’m so intensely in their headspace. I connect a lot with Evie’s snarkiness and using humor as a defense mechanism and her initial insistence on seeing herself only as a sidekick—that’s how I saw myself for a long time. And I relate to Aveda’s need to be the best and fear of failure and vulnerability—as well as her extreme love of fashion. I suppose like Aveda, I now also refuse to see myself as anything less than the protagonist. Bea, I’m still getting to know—stay tuned.

SW: I can’t wait to get into Aveda/Annie’s head because I’ve been wondering what goes on there since Book 1. And I also can’t wait to see more of Bea’s perspective since she’s younger than both Aveda and Evie and therefore will have a different perspective.

If you could cast any actors for the major characters in Heroine Worship, who would you choose, and why?

Sarah: That’s impossible to answer because there are so many awesome Asian American actresses doing great work right now! My mind overloads with the possibilities. I always love seeing people post their fancasts, though!

SW: I feel like I need to go looking for good fancasts now. *makes notes to search later*

I know for your journalism, you talk a lot about Asian Americans in media. What kinds of stories are at the top of your wish list?

Sarah: I’ve said this a ton, but I always love and want to see more stories about Asian Girls Having Fun. Those stories could take so many different forms—Asian Girls Falling in Love, Asian Girls Kicking Demon Butt, Asian Girls Going Shopping and Seeing Star Wars and Gossiping Afterwards While Looking at Pictures of Cute Dogs. Just as much Asian Girls Getting to Do Cool-Ass Shit as possible.

SW: I’m on board with that. It’s great to see that more of these stories are starting to appear in YA and beyond.

Looking at what’s already out there, what are your favorite Asian American creative works (e.g. movies, tv shows, books, comics, etc.)?

Sarah: We’ll be here all day unless I restrict myself somehow—there are so many awesome Asian American creative people doing awesome shit in all mediums right now! So I’ll keep it to recommending a few books either in my genre or adjacent to it:

Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge by Paul Krueger is a fantastic, funny, wonderfully earnest urban fantasy about bartenders who fight monsters with alcohol magic. Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee is a clever, trope-deconstructing YA superhero book in a fun near future setting featuring cute robots and even cuter romance. And Trade Me by Courtney Milan is a swoony, sexy, witty contemporary romance about two seemingly opposite people who decide to switch lives for a month—this books makes me feel so many things and I adore the main couple so much. And all three of these books have awesome Asian American girl protagonists.

SW: Okay, I am seconding the hell out of Last Call and Not Your Sidekick, which were also among my top reads of 2016. (I’ve linked my reviews above for everyone who’s interested.) Trade Me I’ve heard of but haven’t read, but I’ll add it to my TBR. Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions, and I wish you a wonderful launch for Heroine Worship!


Sarah Kuhn Credit CapozKnows PhotographySarah Kuhn is the author of Heroine Complex—the first in a series of novels starring Asian American superheroines—for DAW Books. Heroine Complex is a Locus bestseller, an RT Reviewers’ Choice Award nominee for Best Urban Fantasy, and one of the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi/Fantasy Blog’s best books of 2016. The sequel, Heroine Worship, is out summer 2017. She also wrote “The Ruby Equation” for the Eisner-nominated comics anthology Fresh Romance and the geek girl rom-com novella One Con Glory, which earned praise from USA Today and io9 and is in development as a feature film. Current writing projects include a series of Barbie comics and a comic book continuation of the cult classic movie Clueless. Her articles and essays have appeared in The Toast, The Mary Sue, Uncanny Magazine, AngryAsianMan.com, IGN.comStarTrek.com, The Hollywood Reporter, and the Hugo-nominated anthology Chicks Dig Comics. (Photo Credit: CapozKnows Photography)

You can find Sarah on the Web:

Review for Queens of Geek by Jen Wilde

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

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

Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review for The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie

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My Summary: Cassandra Leung has been part of the family business to train Reckoners, sea monsters that protect ships from pirates while crossing the Neo-Pacific, for her entire life. Her first mission with the Nereid is supposed to be a walk in the park. But everything goes wrong, and she is captured by pirates and forced by pirate queen Santa Elena to train a newborn Reckoner pup to protect the Minnow. If she succeeds, it will disrupt the delicate balance of power in the Neo-Pacific. If she fails, she’s dead meat.

Review:

I have mixed feelings about this book. I did enjoy the story for what it was. The premise, the plotting, and the worldbuilding were solid. I was definitely hooked by the story and enjoyed watching the progression of the Reckoner pup’s training and Cas’s inner struggle with the gray areas of her moral landscape. The story combined high-stakes suspense with thought-provoking questions and themes.

But under the surface, several things felt off to me about the racial representation. Cas herself is supposed to be Chinese, but aside from a few small touches, there are virtually no references to her Chineseness. It felt really superficial. And then my inner Chinese-speaker went “umm…” when Cas brought up a possible variant for the Reckoner pup’s name. His name is Bao (包), the Chinese word for “bun,” as in steamed bun, pork bun, etc. The pronunciation of 包 is basically the same in both Mandarin and Cantonese, with a high flat tone.

When Santa Elena asks Cas about her naming him after steamed buns, the narration follows with “‘If you’d like, you can call him Bao Bao instead,’ I tell her, shifting the vowels slightly as I speak.”

Bao Bao does indeed mean “precious baby,” as the story points out a few sentences down, but there are two things that are off about this sentence.

One is that Bao Bao is the Mandarin pronunciation of the Chinese word/phrase, 寶寶. The Cantonese equivalent is Bou2Bou2 (using Jyutping for the romanization), with a different vowel sound than Bao. Mandarin and Cantonese are related but distinct languages that are not mutually intelligible (Cantonese and other regional Chinese languages that aren’t mutually intelligible with Mandarin are referred to as dialects for political reasons), and while it’s possible Cas knows both, the narrative doesn’t ever indicate that she understands anything besides Canto. Her last name is Cantonese, she hears some Cantonese while she’s on the docks somewhere, and that’s it.

Even ignoring the Mandarin vs. Cantonese part, the  bit about “shifting the vowels slightly” is an inaccurate way of describing the difference between the pronunciation of Bao and Bao Bao. In Mandarin, Bao for bun involves the first tone, Bao Bao has the third tone for both syllables (usually pronounced as second tone-third tone though). The vowel sound is the same for both Bao and Bao Bao, it’s the pitch that’s different.

Although a majority of the supporting cast were POC, their characterizations were likewise superficially diverse. Santa Elena’s race/ethnicity isn’t explicitly mentioned as far as I can remember; I read her as being Filipina because of her physical features, her name (Spain colonized the Philippines, so Spanish names are a thing), and the fact that the Philippines is in the Pacific, but she could be Latina.

Two different characters are described as being Islanders. In this future world, the Pacific Islands have been flooded into nonexistence due to rising sea levels, and there is a group of artificially created islands known as Artificial Hawaii, where I can only assume the Islanders, who are descendants of original Pacific Islanders, live. This generalization of these characters as Islanders with no reference to their specific heritage/ethnicity strikes me as problematic because it homogenizes Pacific Islanders, who despite their linguistic and cultural similarities and ancestral relations, are still a very diverse group of peoples.

The narrative doesn’t give us any details as to the history of the Pacific Islanders following the flooding of the Pacific Islands due to Global Warming. Did they all move to the islands of Artificial Hawaii or some of them flee elsewhere? How many of the nations survived? Did they retain their distinct cultures or intermix and blend their cultures? These are important questions because in the present day real world, Pacific Islander cultures have been and continue to be threatened by the effects of colonization and globalization. Given this reality, the loss of these cultures in an imagined future would be a big deal.

One of these two Islander characters is Chuck, who’s described as a “princess,” specifically the daughter of “the man who owns Art-Hawaii 5.” That’s all we get about her background. To me, this reads as a thing that was thrown in for the hell of it to “spice up” her character, as there is no deeper sense of where Chuck comes from, i.e. her roots, which is an important part of Pacific Islander cultures from what limited knowledge I have.

The other Islander is Hina, the cook aboard the Winnow, who aside from being described as brown and “giant,” is completely in the background and does not contribute to the plot in any meaningful way. Where is she is from and her exact ethnicity is a complete mystery.

There was a third reference to Islanders, when Swift tells another character to “dream of an Islander prince who’s going to take you away from this wretched life,” which to me reads as “fantasy of an ~exotic~ brown man sweeping the white woman off her feet to take her to his exotic utopian island kingdom.” That line did not sit well with me, and I’m wondering why it was even necessary.

One other more significant supporting character who’s a POC besides Chuck is Varma, who’s Indian and Hindu. My quick Internet search told me that Varma is a surname. It’s never mentioned whether Varma is supposed to be his given or family name, it’s simply what everyone calls him. If that was supposed to be his given name, that’s poor research on the author’s part. If not, then the narrative should have been more clear about that. The only other reference to him being Indian and Hindu is one line where he says a prayer in Hindi.

The last POC is Lemon, who I remember being described skinny without any other memorable physical details. Going back to skim the book, apparently she’s Aleut and can “speak the ocean’s language.” There’s something a little “mystical POC guide” about that description, but maybe it’s just me.

I think the author tried to go against the “white-as-default” trend, but it didn’t quite work for me. Although one character, Code, was explicitly labeled as white when Cas first laid eyes on him, Swift’s character was not similarly described in racial terms. I can’t remember either of Code or Swift having their skin color described the way Santa Elena, Chuck, etc. were described as brown. The only physical characteristic I can remember about Swift is her blonde hair, which isn’t exclusive to white people, whether naturally or dyed, but generally gets coded as white.

Throughout the story, the only [human] characters that get much development are Cas and Swift. Cas could have been white and not much would have been different. I started off excited about the POC but walked away feeling a bit cheated.

I’m still going to read the sequel, The Edge of the Abyss to see what happens (I have the eARC from NetGalley). I’m hoping maybe some of the POC will get more development.

Recommendation: If you want a quick and action-packed sci-fi read, go for it. If you’re looking for good POC rep, this isn’t the book for that.

 

 

Review for Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

sorcerer-to-the-crown

Note: I read this book as part of the Dumbledore’s Army Readathon challenge. You can find out more about it here.

My Summary: Zacharias Wythe has a lot on his hands: he’s the newly instated Sorcerer Royal, people are accusing him of murdering his mentor and predecessor, and the magic of England is dwindling for unknown reasons. He goes off to the border between England and Fairyland to investigate and in the process, meets Prunella Gentleman, a powerful young woman with a mysterious past. Together they will change the face of thaumaturgy and magic in England.

Review:

If I had known that both of the main characters of this book were POC, I would have read it earlier. It wasn’t readily apparent from the book blurb, so I didn’t realize it until I saw people talking about it on Twitter. Anyway, I’m glad I finally got to this book.

I’m not altogether unfamiliar with Regency fantasy. I read Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer’s Sorcery & Cecilia series years ago and enjoyed the books. Sorcerer to the Crown isn’t really YA, though, and it has a different approach to the genre. Namely, instead of the usual white British protagonists, we have a Black man and a biracial Indian woman front and center.

Sorcerer to the Crown refutes the idea that historical fantasy based on the real world has to be white. POC existed in that time, and it’s only their erasure from history that makes people think they didn’t. It also challenges the belief that historical fiction can only reproduce but not criticize the prevailing social norms of its setting.

Far from side-stepping the issue of race, Sorcerer to the Crown actively engages in critical commentary on the dominant racial attitudes of the time. The Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers consists only of white men until Zacharias is brought forth by his mentor, Sir Stephen. He publicly proves himself more than capable of advanced magic; however, that does not deter many of the bigots from questioning his competency because of his skin color.

The book addresses all the subtleties and nuances of being the only POC in a white-dominated environment. For example, Zacharias feels the fear associated with having to act as a representative of his entire race. He experiences stereotype threat at first. He has a complicated relationship with Sir Stephen, whom he respects and loves as a father figure and mentor but also resents as someone who was torn away from his birth parents and at times treated more like a curiosity or pet than a child. He faces rumors that he didn’t become the Sorcerer Royal by just means. He is blamed for the decline in ambient magic levels in England.

Prunella’s experiences are shaped by the intersection of race and gender. Not only is she a POC, she’s a woman of color. Even outside the realm of magic, she is viewed through a prejudiced lens, assumed to be a morally depraved and sexually “indecent” woman. The white men of the magical establishment barely deign to recognize the magical skills of upper class white women, who are forced to purge themselves of any magic “for their own good,” let alone a biracial brown woman. The idea that she might be trained in sorcery is absurd to the Society members.

But train her Zacharias does, to both their benefits. While everyone else is making a fuss plotting to have Zacharias removed from his position and even killed, he and Prunella are working together to fix issue of the missing magic and avoid diplomatic disasters for the Crown.

Aside from tackling race and gender, the book also calls out classism. The Society members are all gentlemen from prestigious, “well-bred” families, and they largely disdain the magical spells of the working class as inferior and unsophisticated, even though objectively speaking they’re no less artful or intricately constructed than those of the rich. Zacharias doesn’t have his head too far up his ass to realize this, so he has a mind to reform not only the gender restrictions but also the class restrictions on becoming thaumaturges.

I’ll be honest and say the beginning was slow and hard to get through, but once I adjusted to the old-fashioned writing style, it was smoother sailing. The dialogue is witty and the magical elements original. I really loved the dynamic between Zacharias and Prunella, and the supporting characters were a diverse lot with their own charms. The last half definitely picked up a lot in terms of pacing, and the ending was a blast. I’m eagerly awaiting the second book in the series. The only thing that was missing from this book was queerness and disability rep.

Recommendation: Highly recommended! If you like historical fantasy with an explicitly social justice bent, this book is perfect for you.

Review for Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge by Paul Krueger

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Note: I read this book as part of the #DiversityDecBingo reading challenge. You can find out more about it here.

My Summary: Bailey Chen has just graduated from college and is struggling to find a job despite her Ivy league degree. Her problems transform from mundane to magical when she finds out her old friend (and new crush) Zane is part of a secret society of bartenders who fight demons by night. Different cocktails give the drinker different powers, but these powers may not be enough to save Chicago from the threat that looms on the horizon.

Review:

When I found out about this book, my first reaction was “hey, that sounds cool.” It stayed in my TBR pile for a while until I finally bumped it up for the reading challenge, and I’m glad I did because it was even better than what I expected.

To start off, I think it’s worth noting that I’m someone who basically never drinks. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve voluntarily consumed alcohol, not counting a few sips of red wine with dinner during my study abroad trip in Spain. That means that this book managed to take something I had no interest in (alcohol, drinking) and make it interesting.

The concept of cocktails that double as magical potions is pretty cool. The author develops this concept well, giving it depth and background and its own structure, theory, and limitations.

Interspersed throughout the book are “excerpts” from The Devil’s Water Dictionary, which is a guide/recipe book for different mixed drinks and the powers they grant. Along with the list of ingredients and preparation instructions, there are notes about the history of each drink and its ingredients, as well as the history of the people and events related to the drink. Other people might find it distracting or a waste of space/time, but I love reading history and trivia (so many hours spent reading Wikipedia articles), so having that touch enhanced the reading experience for me.

The protagonist, Bailey Chen, is very relatable to me. I’m also fresh out of college, unemployed, and living at home feeling pressure from family to become independent. Like her, I have to correct ignorant people about my ethnicity and deal with insufferable weeaboos/Asian fetishizers.

Which brings me to my next point: this book calls out a bunch of stuff in blatant and subtle ways. Racism, sexism, classism, and ableism are highlighted in various scenes. Bailey carries implicit biases herself, but she also makes an effort to question and unlearn them. I think this process should be written about more (in a way that doesn’t reduce characters from marginalized groups to “lessons” for the privileged, of course).

Diversity is included organically in the book. We have women of color kicking ass, a trans guy as a major supporting character, interracial couples, gay characters (in fact, a gay bar is part of the setting; one of Bailey’s female acquaintances has a crush on her), and a character with a disability (Bailey’s mentor, who also happens to be gay).

One of the nice things about the way the gay and trans characters are handled is that the story isn’t about them coming out/transitioning and struggling and whatnot. At one point, Bailey’s mentor casually mentions that he has a boyfriend, and it’s not a big deal, just a fact in his life story. The trans guy, Bucket, tells Bailey he’s trans, and Bailey tells him congratulations on transitioning and then goes on to ask him about the tremens (the demons) that he mentioned (in the same breath that he said he was trans), which is the more salient issue during that scene.

Recommendation: Highly recommended to everyone.

Review for The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig

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Note: I read this book as part of the #DiversityDecBingo reading challenge. You can find out more about it here.

My Summary: Nix has spent her entire life aboard The Temptation, a ship that can travel through time and space, to real and fictional locations like, as long as there is a map for it. Her father captains this ship, and he is obsessed with finding a map for 1868 Honolulu, so he can reunite with Nix’s mother before she died. This quest takes them through danger and adventure, and if it is successful, it could potentially erase Nix from existence.

Review:

Honestly, I can’t believe this book didn’t appear on my radar earlier than it did. A biracial Chinese protagonist, a MOC for the love interest, historical Hawaii, pirates, and time travel? It’s a book to throw my money at.

To start off, I really loved the worldbuilding. While Nix travels to several places in her journey, the bulk of the action takes place in 1884 in Honolulu. The author makes Honolulu come to life with her keen eye for details. I could imagine myself on the streets of Honolulu as Nix makes her way around.

As befitting a girl who grew up on a ship, Nix is an excellent navigator. She’s also smart, curious, well-read, and possesses the wanderlust and adventurous spirit that drives her father in his endless quests across space and time. Although she loves her father dearly, she also yearns for independence and freedom and actively seeks a way to attain them. It’s something I can definitely relate to as a recent college grad who’s stuck living at home with my dad for the time being.

The supporting characters are a diverse bunch. The crew of The Temptation includes Nix’s love interest, Kashmir, who is Persian; Bee, a North African woman (of the Na’ath people in Sudan) who was once married to a woman; and Rotgut, who’s Chinese. They make up a family of sorts, coming together despite their vastly different backgrounds.

Kashmir’s character won me over very quickly. I think I have a thing for thieves (see: George Cooper from Tamora Pierce’s Tortall books, Han Alister from the Seven Realms series by Cinda Williams Chima, and Eugenides from Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief series). He’s clever, charming, multilingual, quick on his feet and with his hands, and playful with words. He cares for Nix and respects her boundaries. He keeps her grounded with his optimism and carpe diem outlook. In short, he’s a cinnamon roll.

When it comes to plot, the book keeps you on your toes. You never know where and when the crew might travel to next; each new place/time has its own excitement and danger(s). There are twists and revelations aplenty. And the mind-bending implications of time travel are explored, not sidestepped. Aside from adding adventure and uncertainty, the time-traveling element also raises ethical questions, such as: if we can travel backward in time, should we change history with the intention of making a positive outcome? Nix grapples with this conundrum throughout her time in Honolulu, for she knows that the Kingdom of Hawai’i will fall to American imperialism, and her father’s quest may just influence that outcome.

Overall, I enjoyed this book a lot. I sped through it faster than I expected. However, there was one thing that bothered me, and it was the use of Chinese as it relates to historical accuracy. Nix speaking Mandarin isn’t a big deal to me; her father was born in the 20th century, and she’s visited the present day and more recent history. However, Auntie Joss’s (a secondary character) use of Mandarin was anachronistic.

First of all, given that her character was originally from the Qin dynasty, she would not have spoken modern-day Chinese. The Chinese spoken during that era is a distant predecessor to standard Mandarin and differs greatly in several ways. One is that standard Mandarin has palatalized consonants (j/q/x in pinyin) that didn’t exist in older variants of Chinese. Another is the loss of most syllable-final consonants (p, t, m, k, etc.), which are preserved in languages belonging to other Chinese language branches (including Hokkien, which is a language that I speak in addition to Mandarin).

Secondly, the Chinese immigrants to Hawai’i during the 1800s were mostly from Guangdong, so the Chinese community there wouldn’t have spoken Mandarin, which is based on the Beijing dialect and didn’t become standardized and instituted as the national language of China until the 20th Century. They would have spoken Cantonese, or for a smaller minority, Hakka. Joss wouldn’t have been able to understand the Chinese community in Honolulu, or vice-versa, upon her arrival, any more than someone who spoke Old English would be able to understand English-speakers in the present day.

When Auntie Joss talks to Nix about her name, she tells her that Nix backwards is “xin,” which means happiness (I’m assuming she’s referring to this character: 欣). However, “xin” is a spelling based on the Hanyu Pinyin Romanization system, which didn’t exist prior to the 1950s. Older systems of Romanization usually used “sh” (or in the case of the Wade-Giles system, “hs”) to indicate the consonant sound denoted by “x” in the Pinyin system (the fancy linguistics name for it is the voiceless alveolo-palatal sibilant fricative).

Last, but not least, the number homophone part on page 126 had an error as well. The word for five is “wu” (third tone) and [one of the] word[s] for “not/no” is “wu” (second tone), but the word for “I/me” in Mandarin is “wo” (third tone) not “wu.” Different vowel sound.

These details are probably not a big deal to your typical reader, but they stood out to me as a Chinese-speaker and linguistics nerd. I’m not anti-rec’ing the book based on that, and I’m definitely looking forward to the sequel The Ship Beyond Time. I merely wanted to address the issues I noticed.

Recommendation: Read it! Just keep in mind it’s not completely historically accurate in its use of Chinese.

P.S. I liked the part where Nix calls Rudyard Kipling a racist because that is the Truth.

Review for The Sun Is Also A Star by Nicola Yoon

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

Review:

First of all, can I just talk about how groundbreaking this novel is? A YA romance novel with a Black girl and Asian boy as the main characters/pairing? This kind of pairing is as rare in real life as it is in fiction. Studies looking at data from dating sites and marriage records have found Black female/Asian male as the least common match among heterosexual couples, and this has a lot to do with the way normative ideas of sexuality are gendered and racialized in our society.

Historically, Asian men have been portrayed and viewed by white Americans as sexually inferior and even asexual. This stereotype came about as a result of early Chinese immigrant men taking on jobs that were considered women’s work. This did not happen naturally or by accident. In order to appease white laborers whose job security was threatened by the cheap labor of Chinese immigrants, the government passed laws restricting the types of work that Chinese men could legally pursue, thus relegating them to “feminized” jobs like laundry, cooking, etc.

For Black women, the stereotype goes the other way: they are hypersexual. This stereotype has its origins in the days of slavery. Under slavery, Black people’s status was a function of their “utility” as laborers. Black women were not only agricultural laborers but also responsible for the reproductive labor of producing more slaves, so they were treated as “breeders.” In general, the stereotype of Black people as hypersexual was used to dehumanize them and compare them to animals, thus justifying their oppression and exploitation by white people.

So, between these two extremely loaded stereotypes, the Asian male/Black female pairing becomes the ultimate “mismatch.”

Thankfully, The Sun Is Also A Star turns racial and gender stereotypes on their heads. Daniel is not the science person, Natasha is. He’s the one who’s idealistic to the point of being naive, and she’s the one who’s practical to a fault. Instead of him mansplaining stuff to her, she gets to be the one who educates and impresses him. And she’s a tough sell on the ideas he peddles on love. But miraculously, yet also believably, these two starkly different teens start to connect and appreciate each other over the course of the day.

So, I’m usually the type who doesn’t buy insta-love type romances (because it’s usually just insta-lust), but this book was different. Well, first of all, they didn’t go gaga for each other at first sight. Secondly, the circumstances under which they met were unusual. And more importantly, they had reasons to fall over the other person, given their respective personalities and situations.

Here’s my take on it: Natasha is usually a practical person, but she’s in a very desperate situation in which she needs hope and faith to give her strength to face the future. Daniel, the idealist, provides that, and he makes her laugh, which is therapeutic for her in her time of high stress. On Daniel’s end, he’s used to keeping his head down and going along with what his parents expect of him while hoping for a way out to pursue what he really enjoys. Along comes Natasha, who is unapologetic about who she is and is willing to do anything possible to get the thing she needs and wants the most. Her example inspires him to be more true to himself. They both learn something from each other.

So what makes this book work for me?

Characterization is a major component. Natasha and Daniel really jump off the page at me. Nicola Yoon really has characterization and narrative voice down to an art. All of the little details: the things they like, their appearance, their speech patterns, their body language, their thoughts, their quirks, their habits, their ways of responding to different situations, etc.–all of these build them into unique and believable and real characters. And they make very real teenagers. They’re smart and thoughtful but also young and inexperienced, and it really shows in their narration.

I also enjoyed the structure of the book, which isn’t the typical linear, single point-of-view narrative. Aside from the alternation between two first person perspectives, there’s also intermittent passages from other characters’ point of view and a third person omniscient narration that provides background information on subjects relevant to the story. The snippets from the minor characters’ viewpoints function to connect the dots between the lives of the characters and illustrate how much of an impact people can have on one another. Cause and effect aren’t just a straight line but rather a complex web of events that are inextricably linked, even for total strangers. The more factual passages are informative but also entertaining. What I really appreciate about these passages is that they render knowledge that seems esoteric more accessible to a general audience because of its relevance to characters that the readers are emotionally invested in.

Another thing I liked about the book was the way race was handled. Natasha and Daniel were not token, throwaway diversity props. Their race and ethnicity informed their identities in important ways but didn’t constrain them, so they felt authentic without being stereotypical. The narrative also explicitly addressed the existence of stereotypes, and how it feels to be stereotyped by someone or stereotype someone. There was unflinching recognition of antiblackness in Korean American communities, despite the history of economic interdependence between Korean Americans and Black Americans in cities like Los Angeles and New York City.

In particular, I appreciate the fact that race is historicized and contextualized through the informative factual passages. The sociopolitical history and symbolism of natural hair is explained, and the origins of Korean American domination of a market catering to Black communities is also revealed. These passages show that what is personal to these characters is also political, implicated in systems larger than themselves, with repercussions beyond individual interactions. In an era where race is increasingly viewed and taught through a superficial, decontextualized lens, thus allowing institutional racism to go unchecked, stories like this are an important educational tool for the younger generation.

My other reasons for loving The Sun Is Also A Star are more personal. Daniel is a character I can empathize with well because I’m also a second generation Asian American. That pressure to achieve the American Dream is too real for people like us. Even when your parents don’t give you direct pressure, you still feel obligated to make their sacrifices and investment worth it. Although I didn’t mention it in my About paragraph because it wasn’t really relevant to my blog, I also completed a degree in aerospace engineering and it wasn’t until about 3/4 of the way through it that I truly confronted the fact that I didn’t feel passionate about it even though I thought I should (just as Daniel feels about being a doctor). It was interesting and challenging, for sure, but it wasn’t my One True Calling. And right now, even though I completed a degree in something else that I did enjoy, I’m still struggling to reconcile my practical and idealistic sides. I’m not a poet, but I write fantasy novels, so I’m in the same boat as Daniel.

Natasha, despite having a different racial background and relationship with immigration/generational status, is also someone I can relate to a lot. The reason I decided to major in aerospace engineering was not because my parents wanted me to but because I genuinely loved science as a kid. I was that person who dressed up as an inventor for costume days at school, checked out every book the library’s children’s section had on astronomy, and devoured biographies of people like Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, and George Washington Carver. I was That Person who would undermine jokes by pointing out the technical inaccuracies in the setup. (And, to an extent, I’m still that person. I still find science fascinating and excel at technical work, I just don’t want to do it as my job is all.) On top of that, I have also known the desperation and despair of situation that’s out of my control.

The final reason I loved this book was the ending. It wasn’t a fairy tale ending, but it was satisfying all the same. It was at once realistic but hopeful, striking a perfect balance between the two. My inner idealist/romantic was crying with joy when I read the last page.

If there is one thing that I didn’t like about the book, it’s the part where Daniel followed Natasha to the store because that’s basically stalking, which shouldn’t be excused/romanticized. But barring that, The Sun Is Also A Star was amazing.

Recommendation: Read it, have your heart broken, feel the feels, go!

P.S. The cover is a Work of Art. Dominique Falla is a gift.

P.P.S. Did anyone else notice/find it cute that Natasha and Daniel’s names start with the same letters and Nicola and her husband David’s names? This can’t be a coincidence…