Tag Archives: LGBTQ

Author Interview: Tara Sim

Today’s special guest for my Asian author interview series is Tara Sim! Her debut YA novel, Timekeeper, released last November and was one of my favorite books of 2016. In the interview we’ll be discussing the sequel, Chainbreaker, which comes out November 7th.

No cover yet, so here’s the cool placeholder with the font from book 1.

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From Goodreads:

Clock mechanic Danny Hart knows he’s being watched. But by who, or what, remains a mystery. To make matters worse, clock towers have begun falling in India, though time hasn’t Stopped yet. He’d hoped after reuniting with his father and exploring his relationship with Colton, he’d have some to settle into his new life. Instead, he’s asked to investigate the attacks.

After inspecting some of the fallen Indian towers, he realizes the British occupation may be sparking more than just attacks. And as Danny and Colton unravel more secrets about their past, they find themselves on a dark and dangerous path―one from which they may never return.

Well how’s that for ominous…

(My comments/questions are in bold and labeled “SW.”)

SW: Tell us a little more about Chainbreaker beyond what’s in the Goodreads synopsis.

Tara: There’s a lot more action (and airships) in this one, plus more POVs other than Danny’s. I was excited to dig deeper into Colton’s story arc the most. You’re going to see a lot of India, and a new villain will be introduced that I can’t wait for readers to meet!

SW:  Airships! That’s definitely an upgrade. Also Colton is my son, so I will never say no to more development for his character. Excited to find out who the new villain is too.

How would you say the experience of writing book 2 differs from writing book 1? This can be in general or specific to your series.

Tara: If you ask any author about writing a book 2, chances are they’re going to cringe or groan or some combination therein. Honestly, they’re challenging—especially in a trilogy, when they have to have a story arc on their own as well as moving the series arc forward. A lot of the time a book 2 will feel more like a stepping stone, something that you have to get through in order to reach the finish line.

However, I enjoy the challenge of sequels. Writing CHAINBREAKER was a lot of fun because not only was I getting to understand these characters better, but I was exploring their world outside of England. For that matter, getting to write about India for the first time—while daunting—was also a very cool experience.

SW: I thought it was cool that you chose to set Chainbreaker in India since it’s an opportunity to explore colonialism through fantasy. Since your setting is actually an alternate timeline, I’m curious as to how the history of your fictionalized India is different from real life. Can you elaborate a bit on the background context for the events of Chainbreaker?

Tara: In regards to India’s hist itory of colonialism and oppression, I kept most things the same, since I didn’t want to erase this huge part my family’s history. I didn’t want to make light of it, or to somehow sweep it under the rug, so it’s at the very heart of the story in book 2. I think, especially during these current times, we all need a reminder of what’s been done in the past and how people have suffered as a result. I will say that there is one way I bend history a little, but *River Song voice* spoilers.

SW: Guess we’ll have to wait and see. 😱

Although Daphne wasn’t as central of a character, I loved reading about her perspective as someone who defies expectations and norms in terms of both race and gender. Will she play a larger role in books 2 and 3? How did it feel to write about a character with a similar background as a biracial Indian?

Tara: Absolutely! Daphne has more POV chapters in book 2, and what with them being in India, a lot of her arc involves identity. It was interesting to write a character with a somewhat similar background to me, since I’ve never done that before, but it was a cool way to transcribe some of what I grew up with into a character who’s different enough from me that it didn’t feel autobiographical. Daphne deals with her identity in her own way, and I loved writing it.

SW: Even when we aren’t writing about characters whose identities match ours, our background and identities inform our writing. How would you say yours have influenced Timekeeper and your other projects?

Tara: I think my background and identity inform a lot of what I write, but like I said above, not in a way that’s autobiographical. As a biracial girl, I’ve always been more inclined towards characters who are half—whether that means biracial or half fire demon or half elf, you name it. Also, as a bisexual girl, I’ve been more inclined towards LGBTQ+ stories. I think this intersection between race and sexuality guides a lot of my characterization and storytelling.

SW: Because in general people tend to envision 1800s England as populated by straight white people, it was a breath of fresh air to read about a cast that was as diverse as the one in Timekeeper and also great to see the ways in which you tweaked the social norms of your world. What are your thoughts on playing with these implicit normative rules in historical fiction, and do you have any advice on worldbuilding for alternate histories?

Tara: I think bending the rules in historical fiction is like walking on eggshells. On the one hand, you want to acknowledge what actually happened, and not erase the true and heartbreaking struggles that marginalized people faced. On the other hand, with TIMEKEEPER, I wanted to create a world where people felt safer to be themselves. We live in a scary world, and personally, I was tired of reading about secrets and fear and being discriminated against.

So, while there is still some discrimination in the books, I bent the rules a bit to allow for less of it. My two biggest focuses were homosexuality and gender equality, which are explained as being societal results of the early boom in technology.

I think, when you’re crafting an alternate timeline, you have to be mindful of those eggshells and not crack too many of them. There should be a logical reason for your changes, rather than just “I wanted it to be this way, so here it is.” Think deeply about your alternate timeline and the causes and effects. And don’t forget to acknowledge those who have struggled.

SW: It’s a tough balance for sure.

Last question! What would say was the most challenging and the most satisfying parts of writing Chainbreaker? What do you think you have learned about the writing process?

Tara: The most challenging part was writing about India. Although I’m half Indian, did a bunch of research, and went to India for a few weeks, it was still a challenge to capture everything I wanted to convey. More so because this takes place in the past, when the British Raj was at its peak. As for the most satisfying parts, I think delving deeper into everyone’s character was super satisfying.

I think this was the book that taught me the importance of double checking facts and research. Although I’ve done a lot of research for books in the past, this was the one that needed the most, and it was a long process that I hope will pay off.

SW: I can’t wait to see the fruits of your labor! Thanks for answering these questions!


Author Photo_Tara SimTara Sim is the author of Timekeeper (Sky Pony Press) and can typically be found wandering the wilds of the Bay Area, California. When she’s not chasing cats or lurking in bookstores, she writes books about magic, clocks, and explosives. Follow her on Twitter at @EachStarAWorld, and check out her website for fun extras at tarasim.com.

Review for Star-Crossed by Barbara Dee

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

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

Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review for 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 Noteworthy by Riley Redgate

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Note: My review is based on the eARC of the book that I received via NetGalley. The final version will be published on May 2nd, 2017.

My Summary: Jordan Sun is a scholarship student at the elite fine arts school, Kensington, and she’s desperate to get a role that will prove that she’s good enough to her parents. When her audition for the fall musical flops because her vocal range and texture aren’t “feminine” enough, she resorts to desperate measures: cross-dress as a guy and audition for the elite all-male a cappella group, the Sharpshooters, for a shot at the prestigious tour that will elevate her from nobody to the cream of the crop. It’s only for three months, so it can’t go wrong, can it?

Review:

Okay, so Seven Ways We Lie was good, but Noteworthy is amazing. I’ll be up front in saying that this is in large part due to the main character of Noteworthy being a bisexual Asian American, which is lot more relatable to me than the mostly-white cast of SWWL, no offense to them.

Noteworthy has all the same things that made Seven Ways We Lie good: well-done characterization all across the board, relatable protagonist, beautiful prose, interesting premise, excellent plotting. What puts Noteworthy on a different level from Seven Ways We Lie is the way it manages to tackle just about every social issue imaginable throughout the story. Race, gender, sexuality, class, disability, religion, and body image–plus the intersections of many of these–are all addressed at some point in the narrative, usually very explicitly.

Although Kensington is pretty white overall, Jordan’s world isn’t as white. Jordan herself represents a lot of things at once: She’s not only Chinese American, she’s bi (late at figuring it out, to boot), poor (her parents are working-class and her family receives government assistance), tall (5’10”!!!) and thick-framed (not to mention tan/brown), and has a lower voice. She also has impostor syndrome that has nothing to do with her cross-dressing and everything to do with anxiety. She’s basically me, except I’m Taiwanese American, genderqueer, not quite as tall (5’7″), and can’t sing (sadly).

The other members of the Sharpshooters are a diverse bunch in ways that extend beyond race, including (warning: a few spoilers): Isaac Nakahara the Japanese American hottie, Theodore who is fat and never fat-shamed by anyone except horrible people, Trav Atwood who is Black and the musical director of the group, Jon Cox who has a learning disability, and Nihal Sehrawat who is Sikh and gay. It is through these characters that the aforementioned issues are explored.

One of the things I appreciated about the execution of the cross-dressing premise was that unlike many books with a similar premise, the author actually discusses the implications of cross-dressing-as-disguise for trans people. For Jordan, it’s a tool and a lie, for trans people, passing is a matter of trying to live their lives and be seen as their authentic selves. The situations are vastly different, which makes cross-dressing-as-disguise a kind of appropriation.

The narrative also calls into question the constant and automatic gendering of certain traits and behaviors as masculine or feminine. It points out the flaws in gender essentialism that views things as inherently male or female as well as the sexism that is tied up in it. It also undermines cisheteronormativity* by normalizing the existence of queer people, not assuming that attraction is only between boys and girls, and, of course, having a bisexual main character who expresses her attraction to two genders.

The primary reason I love this book so much is the characterizations of and dynamics between the members of the Sharpshooters. They’re so realistically portrayed and given depth and complexity. They all care about one another, but as is inevitable when you throw together eight people into a high-pressure situation, tempers explode and conflicts erupt. My favorite relationship was the friendship between Jordan and Nihal, who bond over various shared experiences.

Last, but not least, I’d like to throw garlands at the writing style of this book. Riley Redgate is a master of poetic turns of phrase, and I’m envious of how gracefully she manages to describe every little thing. Plus, there’s nothing like reading a story about singing from someone who knows what they’re talking about and can capture the impressions of sound in the written word. While I was reading, I couldn’t help but pause over certain descriptions and think, “Wow, this is breathtaking…”

*There was one instance where the author slipped up and said “boys and girls” while excluding non-binary people. However, I contacted her about the mistake, and she promptly responded and promised to fix it ASAP, before the final printing if possible, and if not, in future printings of the book. This is a good model for how authors should respond to problematic language being pointed out.

Recommendation: *throws confetti everywhere* READ THIS BOOK!

Review for Flying Lessons & Other Stories edited by Ellen Oh

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As soon as I found out about the existence of this book and saw who was going to be contributing to it, I hit that “Want to Read” button on Goodreads faster than you can say “gimme”! And then I pre-ordered the book, and waited, and waited, and waited, and I finally got my hands on my copy of it, and it did not disappoint.

In order to do this anthology justice, I’m doing a mini-review for each story. At the end, I’ll give my thoughts on the anthology as a whole.

“How to Transform an Everyday, Ordinary Hoop Court into a Place of Higher Learning and You at the Podium” by Matt de la Peña

Summary: In San Diego, a young Mexican American boy from a working-class background finds his place among Black basketball players at the Municipal Gym and learns to navigate the dynamic of a team.

Review:

This story is told in the second-person, which can be pretty hit or miss for me. In this case, it worked. I felt like I was being given a pep talk that guided me through the figurative basketball court of the main character’s life. There’s a certain kind of rhythm to the writing that captures both the vivacity of urban environments and the suspense and maneuvering action of a basketball game. It sucks you in.

At its core, this story is a celebration of urban POC, and it doesn’t hesitate to address the racial tensions that structure the urban social landscape. The narrative references racial profiling and internalized racism as well as inter-POC, specifically Black-Latinx/Mexican, relations. Stereotypes are brought up and then unpacked. The author pays tribute to the artistry that pervades basketball, which is overlooked because it’s a physical exercise that’s not really associated with finesse.

On top of that, the story is also about father-son relationships, and the different ways people choose to express their love and care.

There’s something high energy yet also subtle about this story that leaves you in a good mood and ready for more and makes it a great pick for the first story in the anthology.

“The Difficult Path” by Grace Lin

Summary: Lingsi grows up not expecting much out of her mundane life and the path that is prescribed to her by her lower social status. By luck, she is given the opportunity to learn to read, and this skill, rare for a girl of her station, takes her somewhere she would never have imagined.

Review:

So while I was reading this story, something felt strangely off about it. Then I realized why: there are no illustrations, and I’m used to seeing illustrations in Grace Lin’s work. Illustrations would have made a nice added touch, but the story itself was lovely on its own.

This story had a surprising twist that I wasn’t expecting, but it was a great one. To me, it’s a celebration of words: poetry, stories, and so on. It’s also a story of girls claiming agency and finding their path, as the title suggests. I don’t want to give away anything too major, so you’ll have to read the story to find out the details.

“Sol Painting, Inc.” by Meg Medina

Summary: Merci Suarez comes a working-class Cuban American family. In exchange for waived tuition to the fancy school Seaward Pines, her family will do a paint job for the school building. Unfortunately, this job leads to an unpleasant encounter that teaches her a lesson about a harsh reality of the world.

Review:

Narrated in the first-person, this story delves into the life of a young girl who’s about to enter a new environment. There’s a sharp contrast between the world of her comfort zone and the school she will attend. The burden of the American Dream is on her generation’s shoulders, and the story hints at the conflict once she starts school. It’s a poignant tale of the sacrifices people make to get a leg up in a stratified society.

The story contains English-Spanish code-switching without translations, which was nice to see as someone who’s multilingual and code-switches when talking to my family/ethnic community. I am fairly fluent in Spanish (6 years of study in secondary school plus 6 weeks of study abroad in college), so I understood exactly what was being said, but those who aren’t hispanohablantes should be able to infer through context clues the gist of things.

“Secret Samantha” by Tim Federle

Note: I’m using they/them pronouns for the main character because the story is in first-person and doesn’t explicitly mention Sam’s pronouns and they/them seems to be the most fitting pronouns to use for Sam’s gender expression.

Summary: Sam’s class is playing Secret Santa, and they happen to pick the name of the new girl, Blade, who fascinates Sam with her clothes, black-and-white painted nails and wicked shoes, so different from what they’re used to. They want to give Blade the perfect gift, but their mother has other plans in mind.

Review:

Okay, I was not expecting this story be so cute and queer. It’s largely a light-hearted story, but it touches on the policing of gender. Sam is gender-nonconforming but is forced to present femininely and go by “Samantha” because they don’t want to deal with the prejudice that comes with it. They’ve addressed the issue of wanting to be called “Sam” with their mom but getting her to gender them properly is a work in progress.

The story is also about first crushes, and this story is so important because we rarely get to see non-hetero attraction portrayed in middle grade fiction because it’s so often automatically sexualized. Here, the attraction is emotional and age-appropriate and honestly I dare anyone who finds it “scandalous” that a twelve-year-old feminine-presenting gender-nonconforming kid might crush on a girl to fight me.

One of the little things I liked about the book was the inclusion of diverse supporting characters. They weren’t described in detail but you can tell from their names that they’re POC.

“The Beans and Rice Chronicles of Isaiah Dunn” by Kelly J. Baptist

Summary: Isaiah struggles to keep his family afloat; his single mother has an addiction problem and he’s tasked with taking care of his younger sister even though he’s still a kid himself. He finds solace in the notebooks his dad left behind, which contain stories about a fictional version of himself in larger-than-life situations. These notebooks may just be what he needs for a better future.

Review:

My heart went out to Isaiah and his family because they’re short one person, his dad, and I myself recently experienced a similar loss when my mother passed away last year. However, unlike me, Isaiah doesn’t have the same support system, and he’s still a kid, whereas I’m an adult, albeit a young and inexperienced one.

His only escape is the stories his dad wrote, which allow him to see himself empowered while connecting with the memory of his dad. It reminds me of the way I listened to a bunch of cpop and Taiwanese pop songs after my mom passed away because my memories of them were associated with her; those songs came from dramas that I watched with her as a kid.

Although Isaiah situation isn’t looking good, with the help of a caring adult, he’s able to take steps toward healing and hope.

AAVE (African American Vernacular English) is integrated into both dialogue and narration, not as a cheap accessory but to add realism to Isaiah’s character and his voice. Fiction has a tendency to play into the stigma against AAVE as a non-standard English dialect, [mis]using it as a tool to other Black characters and depict them as being uneducated or unintelligent. But in this case, the story normalizes the use of AAVE. It’s familiar and fundamental to Isaiah.

One of the small details I enjoyed about the story was a part where Isaiah mentions watching Bruce Lee movies with his dad. It reminded me of what I read in my Asian American Media Cultures class about Afro-Asian intersections. Bruce Lee was a cultural icon with special significance to Black Americans, particularly Black men, because they empathized with his position as an outsider struggling against a society that devalued and subjugated him.

“Choctaw Bigfoot, Midnight in the Mountains” by Tim Tingle

Note: The narrator’s gender and pronouns are never specified or described in this story, so I will use they/them pronouns.

Summary: At a large family gathering, the main character, nicknamed “Turtle Kid” by their Uncle Kenneth, listens to their uncle tell a story about Naloosha Chitto, Big Hairy Man, a Choctaw analogue to Bigfoot, against their mother and other relatives’ warnings. Soon, they and their cousins are gathered around Uncle Kenneth for an outrageous tale full of twists and turns.

Review:

The whole giant family gathering scenario isn’t altogether foreign to me. Though it hasn’t happened much in recent years, I can recall a time when I was younger when a large number of my paternal extended family gathered together for meals and celebrations during the summer, when I was free to visit relatives in Taiwan. I have a ton of cousins myself, so Turtle Kid’s situation felt familiar to me, though I was one of the younger ones.

Uncle Kenneth’s way of storytelling is interactive in two senses of the word. One is that he allows for audience reactions to interrupt the story, thus making it more organic in how it takes shape and the plot proceeds. The other way is that he plays with his audiences expectations, throwing red herrings before revealing what really happens, giving the impression that it’s over when there’s still more complications ahead. The result is funny and engaging. And at the end, even if the kids are scared or confused by the tale of Naloosha Chitto, they have fun, and it’s a family tradition that brings them all together.

“Main Street” by Jacqueline Woodson

Summary: Nicknamed “Treetop,” the white protagonist reflects on her experiences of loss and love. Her mother passed away a few years ago, and her best friend, who is Black, has moved away.

Review:

I was surprised that the viewpoint character was white, but as people have said, when a POC writes white characters, it’s different than a white person writing white characters because they have a different perspective on whiteness.

Treetop’s losses are intertwined. Following the loss of her mother, a Black girl named Celeste moves into her neighborhood, and the two become best friends. But eventually, Celeste moves away, leaving Treetop to cope with a new loss.

Family is central to the story. The main character feels pain because of her mother’s illness and then death, and that pain is compounded by her father’s lack of empathy toward her.

Her friendship with Celeste brings to the fore interracial interactions. They each come from very racially homogeneous areas where everyone looks like them. It’s Treetop’s first time meeting a Black girl, and she doesn’t hold much explicit bias. However, her curiosity and entitlement to satisfy it (e.g. touching her hair) cause some friction between her and Celeste. Until she learns to respect Celeste’s boundaries.

Reading this story made me feel a sense of longing for times past that can’t be changed. I have experiences with moving as a child and losing my mother, so the narrative resonated with me on a deeply personal level.

“Flying Lessons” by Soman Chainani

Summary: Santosh gets dragged on a trip to Europe by his grandmother. He goes in expecting cultural learning expeditions to increase his worldliness and is instead caught in one awkward situation after another. Eventually, his grandmother comes clean about the purpose of the trip, and he gains something completely unexpected from it.

Review:

Usually in anthologies there’s one story with someone from the LGBTQ+ umbrella, and that’s it, token diversity quota met, so I’m happy that there is a second cute and queer story in this anthology. I can’t say too much about it because I don’t want to give anything major away, but I was thoroughly entertained.

Santosh’s nerdy awkwardness is so familiar to me since I was That Kid at that age, and in some ways I still am That Kid. More bookish and academic than social, a wallflower, a person who declines social invitations because I don’t think people actually want my company, etc.

His relationship with his grandmother and his grandmother’s quirky personality make for a great deal of comedy. Aside from offering humor, she also offers him some wisdom.

This book’s ending was slightly confusing and hard to categorize, but I’m labeling it magical realism. It shocked me, but at the same time, it was bittersweet.

“Seventy-Six Dollars and Forty-Nine Cents: A Story-In-Verse” by Kwame Alexander

Summary: A seventh grader named Monk Oliver is given an assignment to write a memoir about himself. Because he finds his life boring, he decides to exercise creative license and spin a wild story about mindreading and vindication that mixes fact and fiction.

Review:

Unreliable narrators are always interesting because you’re given the task of trying to puzzle out how much of what they say is true and how much is false. The most obvious truth is that Monk is a nerdy type of kid. His detailed knowledge of various subjects pervades his verses, often in the form of figurative language or pointed asides.

When his semi-fictional memoir self acquires mind reading powers, he experiments a little and then sets out to use it to his social advantage, canceling a pop quiz, winning favor with his classmates, and getting revenge on his crush, Angel, who spurns him as a lowlife.

The verses seem to take the mood up a notch with each trial Monk faces in proving his psychic ability. It builds up and up and up in a crescendo until the grand finale, which then slides into a blissfully perfect denouement and an epilogue that leaves you wondering what Monk’s life really looks like, without the hyperbole and supernatural additions. It’s a riot to read.

“Sometimes a Dream Needs a Push” by Walter Dean Myers

Summary: Chris Blair becomes a wheelchair-user due to an accident. His dad, a former pro basketball player, thinks it’s the end of his hopes for Chris to follow in his footsteps. But Chris joins a newly formed wheelchair basketball game, and his dad may just be the key to making the team shine.

Review:

This story echoes the first with its focus on basketball and father-son relationships, thus making it a fitting closing story.

In this case, the main character is disabled, and from my limited knowledge, he seems to be portrayed fairly respectfully. The narrative doesn’t objectify him or reduce him to his wheelchair. Offensive language like “wheelchair-bound” is never used.

Refreshingly, the story does not center on the trauma of losing the use of his legs or any kind of struggle with internalized ableism. Instead, it chronicles Chris’s adaptation to a different kind of movement, a new way of playing a familiar sport. He doesn’t talk about wheelchairs as a hindrance. Instead, he admires some players’ chairs for having specialized features that make them more suitable for the game.

Here, Chris’s father is the one who has to unpack his ableism and learn to see his son’s disability through a new lens. Once he is able to do that, he becomes a more empathetic person and assistant coach for the wheelchair basketball team.

Overall Impressions and Miscellaneous Notes:

There were a few places where I noticed problematic language, but it was relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. Overall, this was an outstanding anthology, each story with its own appeal and strengths. The order of the stories was arranged well.

My only regret is that there weren’t more stories included. I think it would have benefited from a story showcasing religious diversity, one about a Muslim or Sikh or Jewish character, especially given the recent rise in Islamophobia and antisemitism. It would have rounded out the racial, ethnic, gender, attraction/orientation, and disability diversity.

I hope to see more like this from We Need Diverse Books, and I’m eagerly anticipating the YA counterpart, Lift Off, which is coming summer 2018!

Recommendation: Enthusiastically recommended!

Review for If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo

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

Note 2: I read the Kindle ebook version of the book.

My Summary: Amanda Harding has begun a new life in hopes of escaping a painful past. All she wants to do is fit in and experience a normal teenage life. At first, it seems like she may succeed: she’s made friends with popular girls and drawn the attention of a cute football player named Grant. However, the fear of being outed as trans lingers, and there’s no telling what will happen if that fact is revealed.

Review:

I have mixed feelings about this book. One the narrative level, I enjoyed it. There was good characterization, conflict, resolution, emotional arc, etc. It was a nice step toward getting trans narratives into mainstream publishing. I’ll go into detail about this first and then get to the more critical part.

While the primary narrative of the book takes place after Amanda has transitioned, interspersed throughout are chapters recounting past experiences before and during transition. The difficulty of the transitioning process isn’t glossed over. There is bullying, misunderstanding from family, the policing of gender from all sides, difficult conversations, rejection from family and community (especially religious community), depression, anxiety, despair, self-blame, internalized transphobia, etc. Because the author is a trans woman herself, she is able to depict with nuance and realism the detailed physical and emotional experience of Amanda’s transition.

On the more positive side, Amanda’s life isn’t all doom and gloom, the story of the tragic trans person. She’s not sentenced to a life of isolation and constant struggle. Though it takes time to get there, her parents come to accept and love her unconditionally. She finds friends, allies, other LGBTQ people, and even a boyfriend. She also has a mentor and role model from her trans support group, which such an important thing to show in trans narratives. She recognizes and finds beauty in other trans people who don’t share her experience.

Another thing that I liked is that the story addressed the homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny tied to toxic masculinity in mainstream American culture (especially sports culture), the attitudes that lead to violence against trans girls/women in particular. It also draws attention to the general misogyny that girls and women face in being constantly scrutinized and objectified by the patriarchal male gaze.

The narrative is also very explicit about undermining stereotypes and assumptions about gender and sexuality, such as “you don’t have to be a boy to like girls,” and a girl being masculine doesn’t necessarily mean she’s attracted to girls. It calls out shitty representation in media. Amanda has a conversation where she lays out the rules for what’s off-limits to ask trans people (the most basic ones: their genitals, when/whether they’ve had surgery and what it’s like, and their birth names).

Something else I appreciated was the ongoing commentary on the ways in which trans people’s struggles are part of a more universal human struggle. Transphobia is real, and violence specifically against trans people is very real, but the struggle to be true to oneself in the face of societal expectations of conformity to some norm is something basically everyone deals with at some point. It’s a humanizing thing to acknowledge, and builds the foundation for empathy between people with different experiences and identities.

The ending may feel incomplete to some, but for me it’s realistic. Being trans in a transphobic society means that we are constantly having to confront bias and educate people and have difficult conversations. It’s an ongoing process. Sometimes the more important thing isn’t whether others accept and love us, it’s whether we accept and love and make peace with ourselves, because heaven knows that it is something that so many trans people struggle with.

Now, for the criticism.

There was one part where a character proposes a theory that homophobes are just closeted gay people hating on other gay people out of insecurity and inability to accept their own secret gayness. While it’s true that internalized homophobia is a real phenomenon, this generalization is really harmful because it pins the blame of homophobia back onto the very people it victimizes. Ultimately, homophobia doesn’t benefit gay people. It benefits straight people by normalizing straightness and keeping them in a position of power and privilege. The majority of homophobic violence is perpetrated by people who aren’t secretly gay, and straight people have to hold themselves accountable for their complicity. The “homophobes are just closeted gay people” theory absolves straight people of any responsibility to fight homophobia.

From a big picture perspective, this book left a lot to be desired because it represents the experience of a straight, white, cis-passing, thin, conventionally attractive, middle-class, and able-bodied trans person. To her credit, the author does acknowledge this fact in her author’s note, and that she smoothed the path for Amanda in ways that don’t reflect reality. The percent of the trans population who shares Amanda’s identities and positionality is tiny. A large part of the reason this book was able to get published was because it features a trans person who is the most acceptable and privileged among trans people.

So my criticism isn’t necessarily against the author individually as it is against the industry that favors this kind of narrative for the spotlight. Trans people want so much more. We want to see stories that show the struggles of those of us who are non-binary/genderqueer/genderfluid/genderfucks, those of us who are non-cis-passing, those who don’t want to “pass,” those of us who are too poor to access hormones and surgery, those of us with health conditions that make medical transition difficult or impossible, those of us who are fine with our bodies and our gender expressions as they are but not with the way people label us with their assumptions based on them, those of us who are fat, those of us who are disabled, those of us who struggle with intersecting oppressions of racism/transphobia/homophobia/ableism/etc.

And we want to see more than just our struggles with being trans. We want to see our triumphs, our adventures, our conflicts over non-gender-related shit, our loving relationships or happy single lives, our sci-fi thrillers and space operas, our epic fantasy quests and paranormal romances, our happily-ever-afters.

Recommendation: I’ll be honest and say that this book didn’t feel super validating for me personally because there are many ways in which my experiences differ from Amanda’s. That’s not to say that other trans people won’t find it validating or that this is not a good book or an important one. I’d still recommend it to cis people as a way to get your toes wet in the vast ocean of trans experiences. And then, after that, look for other narratives that expand your view of what it means to be trans.

P.S. I’m so relieved that they used an actual trans girl for the cover model because there’s enough erasure to go around with Hollywood casting cis people to play trans characters left and right.

Review for Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

aristotle-and-dante

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

My Summary: Aristotle and Dante are as different as night and day. Aristotle envies Dante’s talents, confidence, and openness. He feels inferior. He feels lonely. He feels lost. However, when they meet, the two form a bond that changes their lives beyond imagination.

Review:

Trigger/Content Warning(s): transphobia

Well, if I’d had any idea how good this book would be, I would have read it eons ago.

Where do I even begin? It’s difficult to organize my thoughts because there are so many things I want to say about this book. Because this book is so many things at once.

The most obvious one is that it’s about a relationship between two boys, but it’s so much more. It’s also about their relationships with themselves, their families, their histories, their culture, and the society at large.

Ari is such an incredibly relatable character to me. His loneliness, his uncertainty, his repressed feelings, his anger, his pessimism and yearning hope, his self-loathing–these are all familiar to me. Though it’s never explicitly labeled as such, I recognize his depression because I’ve been there, and in many ways, I’m still there.

His reflections on racial and ethnic identity are also a point of connection for me. There are many factors that intersect with race/ethnicity: class, language, immigration history, etc. The ongoing dialogue on the contrast between Ari and Dante’s backgrounds–their skin color, their parents’ education levels and careers, their fluency in Spanish–highlight the ways in which Mexican American identity is constructed and policed. Although I’m not Mexican American, as a second generation child of immigrants, I could definitely relate to the experience of feeling “not authentic enough” to truly belong to my ethnic group.

Beyond race and ethnicity, Ari’s world is shaped by the psychological dysfunction of his family. There is the intergenerational trauma from his veteran father’s unspoken past in Vietnam. There is the silence and deliberate forgetting of his older brother, who has been in prison for over a decade for reasons that Ari does not know. There is the overwhelming feeling that nobody in his family is willing to say what needs to be said.

The effects of this silence on Ari are enormous. He doesn’t know who he is because his family have erased a significant part of their family history and therefore his roots. His capacity to connect with other people outside of his family is stunted. Even as he craves intimacy, he’s averse to letting himself be vulnerable enough to establish trust and deeper bonds with other people. Because he feels that he lacks agency in many ways, he sets up rules to protect himself, but ultimately these rules reinforce his isolation and emotional distance. He doesn’t let anyone in, and he also doesn’t let anything out, which leads to involuntary emotional outbursts down the road.

That’s where Dante comes in. Dante is a foil to Ari: he knows what he wants, he does the things he wants to do, he wears his heart on his sleeve. When Ari looks at Dante, he sees the things he wants to be but can’t achieve. Ironically, even as self-assured and amiable as he is, Dante is also lonely. Their shared loneliness brings them together. And as Ari finds out, Dante has his own inner demons relating to his family.

1987-1988 is an interesting time period for a story like this. It’s nearly 30 years before marriage equality, before LGBTQ folks had much visibility in the mainstream culture. It’s a time before the Internet and instantaneous communication. And yet, it’s still as relevant as ever. Homophobia and heteronormativity are still pervasive, and young LGBTQ people still struggle to come to terms with their identities. Dante’s worries about giving his parents grandkids struck a nerve in me because I, too, felt the pressure to continue my family’s lineage before I came out to my parents.

One of the things I really liked about the book was the disavowal of toxic masculinity. Ari feels alienated from the normative masculinity that the boys at school perform and uphold. He also disparages the boys for their objectification of women. Dante stands in contrast to that kind of masculinity in various ways: he is friendly to everyone and doesn’t play the game of shoring up masculinity through acts of dominance and violence. He expresses his emotions freely and cries when he needs to, even over the death of a bird. Ari doesn’t think Dante is weak for this; he admires him for it and accepts it because that’s who Dante is. The importance of narratives that allow boys and men to be vulnerable and express sadness cannot be stressed enough, in my opinion.

Overall, this book was amazing to me. I marked so many places where I was just like “this, this so much, this is wonderful.” However, I had one thing that really stood out to me as problematic, specifically transphobic. Since I can’t discuss it without revealing an important plot point, I’m putting that part in white text so you can highlight it to read it if you’d like. The reason Ari’s brother is in jail is because he killed a trans woman who was a sex worker. Because of the time period and terminology that was used during that time, Ari describes the sex worker as a “transvestite,”but in our present-day world we’d call her a transgender woman. The issue is that Ari says that the “transvestite” was actually a “guy,” which is what motivated his brother to murder her.

Given our current social climate, in which trans women are regularly being murdered and misgendered because of the continued narrative of “trans women are just men in drag,”the violence of this act cannot be understated. Unfortunately the book does little to counter the ideological violence that resulted in this sex worker’s murder.

Recommendation: I don’t want to dismiss the good parts of this book, so I’m recommending it with the warning that there is that transphobia present, and to read at your discretion.

Review for Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst

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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: Princess Dennaleia has spent most of her life preparing for a future as a queen to Mynaria, married off to Prince Thandilimon for the sake of a political alliance. However, the certainty of her future is unbalanced when she arrives in Mynaria. She has magical powers relating to fire in a kingdom where magic is forbidden, and those powers are breaking out of her control. Instead of falling for Prince Thandilimon, she falls for his sister, Princess Amaranthine. When an assassination brings the threat of war with a nearby kingdom, Denna must work with Mare to figure out how to prevent unnecessary bloodshed.

Review:

I’ve been waiting for my signed+personalized copy of this book to arrive for a long time, so when it finally arrived yesterday, I jumped straight to reading it.

Of Fire and Stars is fantasy mixed with romance, political intrigue, and mystery. It’s a balancing act that Audrey Coulthurst pulls off with finesse. Each subplot contributed to the suspense in a meaningful way: the slow-burn, will-they-or-won’t-they attraction and relationship between Denna and Mare; the growing threat of war against and persecution of innocent people, including Denna herself; the desperate hunt for who committed the crime of assassination.

The narrative is told from two perspectives, Denna’s and Mare’s. It’s often considered a cliche, but here it works nicely, creating dramatic irony as the two girls misinterpret each other, find out things the other doesn’t know, and so on. Their personalities and voices are distinct, and in fact this results in them initially not getting along. But eventually, as they become better acquainted with one another, they learn to see the other person’s strengths and admire her for who she is. They also collaborate and use their respective strengths to investigate the truth of the assassination while everyone else follows their preconceived biases.

Slow-burn romances are my favorite. In fact, I suspect I actually enjoy unresolved sexual/romantic tension more than actual sex/romance. It’s super frustrating but also extremely entertaining to watch people dance around the truth of their feelings and attraction to one another. Sure, the buildup makes the climax more satisfying (I don’t mean this in the sexual way, though that is technically a valid interpretation as well), but to be honest, I like the US/RT for itself, and this book is full of it.

Romance aside, the worldbuilding is solid, each kingdom possessing its own customs and history (leading to some culture shock on Denna’s part). The alternate universe has its own religion and associated mythology, which in turn inform the existence, function, and treatment of magic. I was as curious as Denna to learn more about it. As it turns out, magic isn’t just a convenient tool that you can use at your leisure, there are limits and consequences to its use.

One of the things I particularly liked about the worldbuilding was the normalization of same-gender attraction and relationships. In comments and observations, it is shown that these attractions and relationships aren’t out of the ordinary or unacceptable. Mare is bi, and Denna is a lesbian (as far as I can tell; I think the author also said this somewhere), but their relationship is forbidden because Denna is betrothed to Mare’s brother, not because they’re both girls. One of Denna’s friends has a lover who is a woman, but the thing keeping them apart isn’t their gender, it’s their social class.

In terms of issues I had with the book, there were two things. One was that it felt like Denna and Mare were somewhat held up as special for being “not like other girls,” Mare for being athletic and not caring about her appearance, and Denna for being bookish and analytical. Only one of the noblewomen attending to Denna was portrayed as having sense and depth and an interest in more than flirting and gossip and obsequious gestures. Honestly, I’m so over the idea that women can’t be interested in multiple things at once, or that women can’t be intelligent or interesting if they flirt or like fashion. The obsequiousness and frivolity could be attributed to the women’s social status (e.g. being part of the wealthy elite means you don’t have to care that much about work or practical things; being a woman in the elite in a sexist society means your worth is dependent on your ability to secure connections and access to resources for your family), but it still had a low-key whiff of classic misogyny to it.

The other thing I noticed was two cases of subtle transphobia. The first was a line where Denna comments on naughty poems “generally filled with terrifying euphemisms for parts of the male physique.” The gendering of body parts as inherently male perpetuates biological essentialism and is the reason why transmisogyny is so rampant. Because people view certain parts and organs as essentially male, the conclusion is that trans women are actually men. This is why you get a bunch of straight dudes who are afraid that they’re gay for being attracted to trans women, and call trans women liars and “traps.” This is why there are cis lesbians who accuse trans women of being men who are using femininity as a front to “invade” women’s spaces.

The other instance was a thought Mare had about marrying a woman because “‘at least then no one would be able to question the legitimacy of it based on lack of children.’ No matter how vague my life plan was, spending half of it out of the saddle to have a baby definitely wasn’t part of it.” The unspoken assumption here is  that two women cannot have children together and that a woman and man automatically can, which is, like the first example, not accounting for the existence of women with penises, or men without them.

In short, while heteronormativity was not an issue in the book, cisnormativity was.

Recommendation: I recommend it with some reservations. It’s not perfect, but it’s an enjoyable read overall.

 

Review for Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee

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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: Jessica Tran was born into a family of larger-than-life people: her parents are Andover’s local superheroes, her older sister is also a superhero, and her younger brother is a science prodigy. Having lost hope for any powers of her own to manifest, she applies for a paid internship, thinking it will be drudge work. Except it turns out her employers are the town’s supervillains, and her crush Abby also works there. Her internship soon brings more surprises, including a discovery that will change her understanding of everything she knows about her world.

Review:

The moment I found out about this book, I knew I had to get it. The title grabbed my attention because it reminded me of the #NotYourSidekick hashtag on Twitter a while back, which drew attention to the absence of Asians in U.S. media as anything other than side characters. Finding a mainstream American film or show featuring Asians as the central characters is like looking for a needle in a haystack. This past year has shown some improvement, given the airing of Fresh Off the Boat and Dr. Ken, but Hollywood’s erasure and exclusion of Asians is still a barrier to overcome.

Anyway, the concept of this book was everything I needed: Asian American superheroes, bisexual main character, F/F romance, and so on. And C.B. Lee delivers.

The fact that Jess ends up working for a villain was already enough of a twist on its own (not a surprise one since it was advertised clearly in the description, but still), but this book threw in several more twists that I was not at all prepared for. Between the superhero-supervillain arc and the good-god-will-they-just-date/kiss-already romance arc, the suspense kept the story moving.

Exciting plot aside, this book features a cast of well-developed, diverse characters.

Jess is second generation Vietnamese and Chinese. Her parents were refugees from a conflict in Asia after World War III who gained employment from the North American Collective’s government as C-class superheroes in the (NAC=U.S., Canada, Mexico). Although the story takes place in the Twenty-Second Century, Jess’s experience as a second generation Asian are familiar to me: cursing in Vietnamese, going to Chinese school on the weekends, internalizing and perpetuating xenophobic values and then realizing how hurtful the whole “fob” thing is, feeling like you don’t know nearly enough of your heritage languages, etc. Speaking of languages, the Vietnamese and Chinese bits that appeared in the book had the tone/diacritical markings on them (except for one place, not sure if that was an error or not), so I was happy about that.

The racial diversity of this novel extends beyond Jess’s family. There is an established Asian community within Andover, there are other Asian students at her school that she was once friends with, and one of her teachers is Asian. Jess’s two best friends are not Asian, but they are POC. Their races/ethnicities are never explicitly stated, but I was able to infer that Emma is Latina (most likely of Mexican heritage), and Bells is a Louisiana Creole of Color. Their race informs their characters but doesn’t constrain them.

Now, let me talk about the LGBTQ representation in this book. Aside from our bisexual protagonist and her female love interest, we also have a trans boy (Bells) and a minor character, Darryl, who is the president of the Rainbow Allies, the LGBTQ student organization at Jess’s school. In a publishing industry where LGBTQ characters are often the single token non-cishet person in a sea of cishet characters, this book is a welcome change.

One of the awesome things about the way the LGBTQ characters are handled is that the story isn’t focused on their coming out journey. Jess’s [accidental] coming out is referenced for one paragraph, having happened before the events of the book began. Bells began his transition before the events of the book as well. Moreover, his transness isn’t a spectacle used for shock value; it’s casually referenced and revealed when Jess asks him if he’s worn his binder for too long.

Aside from this, there’s also dialogue surrounding pronouns. Jess meets the mysterious M, who is dressed in a mecha-suit, and asks what M’s pronouns are. She also corrects Abby when she uses they pronouns instead of he pronouns for Bells. (If y’all want to be good allies to trans folks, normalize the act of stating your pronouns and asking people for theirs when you are introduced.)

Another nice touch was the way the Rainbow Alliance was described as a clique of gay guys who were friends with each other and socialized more than anything else. Those of us who have experience in LGBTQ circles and communities know that many spaces that are designated LGBTQ are actually mostly about the G while leaving everyone else on the margins. I remember reading about an author panel at a conference that happened recently (last year or this year) that featured only gay [white] men. The depiction of the Rainbow Allies was super relatable for this reason.

Moreover, I understood Jess’s frustration with how depoliticized the organization was. My university has a bunch of Asian American student organizations, and they’re mostly there for socializing; the ones that do service work rarely do targeted service for Asian American communities or causes, just general service work.

The book manages to make commentary on a number of other issues in an organic fashion. For example, it points out the rampant sexism of in our 20th and 21st Century media. At one point, it’s mentioned that Jess has test anxiety, in a passage that acts as a subtle critique of standardized tests and curriculum.

Between all of these things, big and small, Not Your Sidekick is an amazing book, and I can’t wait for the sequel, which is scheduled for release in 2017! (It’s called Not Your Villain and focuses on Bells!)

Recommendation: Read this book and share it with your friends!

P.S. I love the cover art and chapter heading illustrations. They capture the essence of the story so well.