Tag Archives: Multiracial Protagonist

Review for Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman

Starfish

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

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

Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author Interview: Emily X.R. Pan

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

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

The Astonishing Color of After aesthetic collage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What other research  did you do for the book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Review for Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire by Susan Tan

cilla-lee-jenkins-future-author-extraordinaire

My Summary: Cilla Lee-Jenkins has ambitions to become a bestselling author, an achievement she is certain will ensure her family won’t forget about her in favor of her soon-to-be-born younger sister. Since you’re supposed to write what you know, she writes a book about herself and her life, including her experience as a biracial girl with a family divided by cultural differences.

Review:

This book is in sort-of-epistolary format, in the sense that what you’re reading is supposed to be the book that Cilla is writing. The narrative is addressed to the reader, so it doesn’t hesitate to break the fourth wall, if there even is a fourth wall to begin with, ha.

Cilla’s voice is very distinct and full of spunk, so it grabs you from the beginning. She’s precocious, but she’s still a kid in second grade, and the author does a great job of striking the balance between showing off Cilla’s wit and keeping her voice age-appropriate.

A substantial part of Cilla’s story is about being caught between cultures, which is something I could relate to as a fellow Asian American. For example, I was amused by her insightful and direct commentary on the cultural differences between white American and Chinese table manners, having pondered those disparities myself at various points in my life.

Cilla’s particular experiences are also affected by her background as a mixed race kid with a Chinese dad and a white mom. Some of Cilla’s anecdotes involve racist microagressions, not only against Asians but against mixed race people. Since the reader is experiencing the events through Cilla’s perspective, these microaggressions are treated in a different way than they might be in a story for older audiences, in which the character has a greater awareness of and vocabulary surrounding race to address what is happening. Given the younger narrator and audience, I feel like the framing was handled pretty well, showing that Cilla is aware of things being off or hurtful about these incidents, even if she doesn’t quite understand their root causes. In general, these microaggressions are either handled by any adult bystanders in the situation, or they are cleverly subverted through Cilla’s own innocent responses that effectively sidestep the original aim of the microaggressive questions/comments and interject something that was outside the realm of the perpetrator’s expectations.

Both sets of Cilla’s grandparents feature prominently in this story, and I loved reading about her relationships with them and her quest to bring the two sides together despite their years of avoiding one another. As someone who has never been close to my grandparents, physically or emotionally, I always appreciate seeing positive and intimate grandparent-grandchild relationships portrayed in fiction.

Along with family bonds, this book also explores friendship and socialization in a school/classroom setting. I adored Cilla’s bond with her best friend Colleen, who’s Black and wants to be an astronaut or something space-related when she grows up. Despite their vastly different dream jobs, they make a perfect pair who have each other’s backs and share in the other person’s excitement. One of the things I appreciated was that the story depicted and worked through a part of their friendship where they messed up and said the wrong thing and had to figure out how to apologize. There was great modeling of healthy and constructive approaches to relationships and communication, something that is always welcome in kidlit.

There’s another really cute friendship featured in the book, which is between Cilla and a boy in her class named Ben McGee. She starts out finding him annoying for various reasons, but eventually warms up to him and finds more common ground with him. I guess in general I enjoy reading about dynamic friendships in kidlit because they’re realistic and also a good learning/teaching tool for topics like change, conflict, and empathy.

Last thing I wanted to comment on is the lovely interior illustrations by Dana Wulfekotte, who is also Asian American. They were a wonderful complement to the story and helped bring Cilla’s personality and imagination to life.

Recommendation: This is going on my mental Favorites Shelf for middle grade alongside Grace Lin’s The Year of the Dog and sequels. The target age range is a bit young for some of y’all among my blog followers, so it may not be to your taste, but if you’re a parent or teacher or librarian of elementary school age kids, this is perfect for them. 🙂

Review for The Ship Beyond Time by Heidi Heilig

the-ship-beyond-time

Note: This book is the sequel to The Girl From Everywhere (review linked).

My Summary: Just when Nix thinks she has her fate in her hands, she learns of a terrible prophecy: she is destined to lose the one she loves to the sea. Desperate to save Kash, she sets off on a quest to a mythical utopia to find a man who claims he can change history and therefore the future. Except this utopia isn’t quite the perfect place it’s said to be, and changing history may create more problems than it solves…

Review:

The Ship Beyond Time has all of the charms of The Girl From Everywhere and continues to build on the relationships and themes from the first book while introducing a few new characters and conflicts.

The central relationships between Nix and Kash and Nix and Slate are deepened and complicated through their new adventures and obstacles. Plus, we get to see more of Bee and Ayen, who are married with Nix, Kash, and now Blake as their adopted children (so cute!), as well as Rotgut, who reveals that he once had a lover who became a monk instead (I am 100% down with queering up the cast even more, yes).

My favorite thing about the scene involving the latter is that the crew asks Rotgut about this unnamed former lover with, “What was their name?” One important way of challenging cisheteronormativity is by using gender neutral pronouns to refer to unknown or hypothetical people in general and when it comes to crushes, partners, spouses, etc. It’s small but significant because the language we use matters.

Although some people might call it a love triangle, I never really saw Blake as genuine competition for Nix’s affection because it’s pretty clear from the beginning of the book that Nix loves Kash and only sees Blake as a friend. What was more interesting and engaging to me was the interactions and dynamic between Kash and Blake, who share certain things in common and are in this adventure together despite their [perceived] rivalry over Nix.

One of the things I really liked about the character arcs and development was that they always connected back to a common theme of exploring the implications of Navigation. With Blake, it’s about the question of whether to change history when it involves injustice like the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. With Kash, it’s the sort of existential crisis that inevitably arises when you consider that he came from a place that was imagined and made up by a random French author. With Nix and her father Slate, it’s about whether the sacrifices are worth it when it comes to trying to save the one you love.

From the beginning, this book grabs your attention and your heart and doesn’t let go. It is fast-paced and hard-hitting with so many twists and revelations. Beyond driving the plot forward, most of these twists and revelations also pack an emotional punch and saturate you with so many intense feelings. I don’t want to spoil anything important, so I’ll just say that I spent a lot of time screaming internally while reading this book (partially because everyone in my house was asleep), and the ending was unexpected but still great. Even after you finish the book, the story and the characters will stay with you and live on. Although this book is the conclusion to the series, there is room for more adventures with Nix, and I would not object at all to more books being added.

As with the previous book, there is bonus material at the end of the book discussing the origins and histories of various characters and locales that come from real life or myth. I always love reading background information about the books I read because it adds to my enjoyment and understanding of the book.

Recommendation: Highly recommended for fantasy-lovers who want to be emotionally ruined by a book.

Review for Stir It Up! by Ramin Ganeshram

stir-it-up

My Summary: Anjali loves cooking and dreams of having her own cooking reality TV show. However, her parents want “better” things for her, like getting into the elite Stuyvesant High School and working at a job that’s nothing like their humble family restaurant. When she’s accepted to a contest on the Food Network, she knows her father won’t approve, but she has plans of her own.

Review:

I love food, so the premise of this book drew my attention. A biracial, Afro-Indian Trinidadian girl from Richmond Hill, Queens, who wants to star in a Food Network show? Great. Unfortunately, I found the execution a bit lacking.

That’s not to say it’s a bad book. It had good elements: the centering of immigrants and POC in a story about Queens, the lovable grandmother character, the best friend who’s also a POC, the racially diverse supporting characters/show contestants, the commentary on the policing of race for people whose families have immigrated more than once, the incorporation of Indo-Caribbean food culture, and the lovely recipes that are sandwiched between chapters.

What was missing for me was substance. The writing felt too spare in many places. For readers who aren’t familiar with the ingredients and dishes mentioned in the story, it’s hard to imagine what they look like. The descriptions focused on lists of ingredients and how the dishes were prepared without much elaboration on the visual spectacle of the finished product.

And for a book that’s supposed to be about food, we get surprisingly few descriptions of smell or taste: aroma, texture, flavor, etc. Anjali spends an entire chapter at a cooking class but the actual consumption of the delicious food that’s made is crammed into a single paragraph with no details provided. Kind of anticlimactic, in my opinion. In short, I was hoping for a book that engaged my senses more.

On top of that, the plot felt a little too rushed without much downtime. There were 166 pages total, and 37 of those were recipe inserts, meaning all of the actual narrative was squeezed into about 130 pages, which is short even for a middle grade book. I wanted more build-up to and more elaboration during the contest scenes. That would have increased the emotional impact and overall weight of the story. I guess to put it another way, it felt like I was eating simple sugars when what I wanted was complex carbs. Wasn’t filling enough, I was still hungry when I was done.

Recommendation: Not sure what to say except maybe I’m not the right audience for this book? I think younger readers might be more forgiving.

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 The Secret of a Heart Note by Stacey Lee

secret-of-a-heart-note

My Summary: Mimosa is one of the two remaining aromateurs on the planet and feels the weight of having to carry on her family’s business of mixing elixirs to help people fall in love. But she’s a teenager, and she wants to be able to experience some of the regular old aspects of teenage life, like joining clubs and getting a boyfriend. When she accidentally gives an elixir to the wrong person, she teams up with the school’s star soccer player to set things right. Unfortunately for Mim, falling for someone means losing her ultra-sensitive nose.

Review:

Stacey Lee broke her pattern of writing historical fiction, but it wasn’t a bad break at all. We still have our likable heroine, keen eye for detail, and inclusion of diversity.

The worldbuilding is done so well and makes the magical realism work. The author gives the aromateurs a history and their work a clear structure and logic that makes them believable. She also references scientific facts that help lend the magic credibility. I liked the “quotes” from past aromateurs included at the beginning of each chapter.

One of the most noteworthy things about this book is the way it engages your senses, especially the sense of smell. The kinds of details a character notices inform their perspective and are part of what makes well-written characters distinctive. Stacey Lee is a master at writing first-person narratives because she expresses those unique aspects of character voice very well.

Mim is talented and knowledgeable at what she does, having an almost encyclopedic knowledge of different scents and plants. However, that doesn’t mean she’s perfect. She makes mistakes, and her aromateur expertise is balanced out by her socially awkward side. Even when she has good intentions, those don’t always lead to good results, and she makes questionable decisions at times. More importantly, she faces the consequences of her decisions, and these mistakes feed into her growth as a character.

I love that diversity is integrated so naturally into the landscape of the book. Whiteness is far from being the default. Mim is multiracial because aromateurs are well-traveled in their quests to find ingredients for the elixirs, and she was conceived using a sperm donation. We also have Kali, Mim’s best friend who’s Samoan and queer, Whit Wu the cute and talented soccer player, Pascha Hassan the hijabi girl on the student council, Vicky the antagonist who’s Latina but not stereotypical or horrible because she’s Latina.

Although Mim is straight, the story does a decent job of challenging heteronormativity. When Mim talks about people who are predisposed to like her, she mentions boys and girls. When she’s checking people’s scents for whether they have a significant other, she doesn’t assume that whoever they might be with is of the “opposite” gender. Unfortunately, some of this good is offset by the exclusion of non-binary people and one or two places where she got a bit gender essentialist by labeling scents “male” or “female.”

Kali’s queerness was handled pretty well, overall. She’s not the token gay best friend who’s secretly in love with the protagonist or the tragic gay person. She’s not out to most people, and outing her against her wishes is never romanticized or condoned but is rather shown as being the horrible violation of privacy it is. In fact, Vicky, one of the main antagonists, uses the threat of outing Kali against Mim to get Mim to make an elixir for her.

What I appreciated about the way this situation was handled in the text was the aftermath of the way Mim responds to this threat. Mim, with good intentions, tries to take things into her own hands to defend and avenge Kali, but in the process she erases Kali’s agency and breaks away from the ethical principles that Kali respected her for, and Kali is justifiably upset by it. In the end, Kali gets to come out on her own terms, and she gets a happy ending.

I can’t really speak for the accuracy of representation as far as Kali’s Samoan identity is concerned. I’d like to see a Samoan reader’s thoughts, as there were certain things that I thought could have veered into being stereotypical instead of being realistic in the way they were portrayed: Kali’s lower-class background, her history with gangs, and her love for hip-hop.

One of the things I really enjoyed about the book was the different relationships that it explored. Although Mim’s romance with Court was a major part of the story, it wasn’t the only relationship that was given depth and space for development. We get to see the conflicts and growths of Mim’s relationships with her mother, her estranged aunt Bryony, and Kali. Court was cute and nice, but I was a lot more invested in those other relationships, to be honest.

Another thing I liked was how the author managed to slip in little criticisms of certain social norms like institutional racism and sexism. At one point, Court remarks that Whit Wu is a better player than he is, but he got chosen to be on the Sports Illustrated cover because he looks more “All-American,” i.e. white. The school librarian also talks about sexism in her field, which is majority women but dominated by men at the upper tiers. This is a good example of diversity done right, in which diverse characters are not only present, but the characters and narrative also challenge the norms that lead to the exclusion of marginalized people.

Recommendation: Recommended for its vivid sensory descriptions, well-developed magical realism, diverse cast of characters, and heartfelt exploration of different kinds of relationships.

Review for On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis

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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: The year is 2035. A comet is hurtling toward Earth. Only some people have been chosen to leave Earth on generation ships and colonize habitable planets far away, and the rest will be left behind in shelters to wait out the catastrophe. Denise, who is autistic, has resigned herself to being one of the disposable ones. Except a chance encounter reveals that there’s one ship still on Earth. Suddenly, Denise and her family might have a chance at escape, but she has to earn her way in. With her mother addicted to drugs and her sister missing, it will be more than just a piece of cake for Denise to overcome the trials ahead of her.

Review:

As with Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge, I’ve had this book on my radar for a while, but didn’t get around to reading it until now, motivated by the reading challenge. Also like my previous book, it surprised me by being so much more than what I was expecting.

Although there are many books that explore apocalyptic scenarios, few do it with the nuance that Corinne Duyvis does. Through her protagonist’s marginalized positionality, she unpacks the prejudices that shape society’s evaluation of people’s worth.

Denise is autistic, so ableism is a big factor in how people perceive her. But it’s more complex than that. She’s also biracial (her father is Surinamese, her mother is white) and not white-passing in the Netherlands. The intersectionality of her autism, Blackness, and girlhood means that her disability is often invisible or overlooked because the poster child for autism is a white boy. If she does anything that seems off, it’s dismissed as acting out rather than showing symptoms of a disability.

Her individual family members are also venues for social commentary. Her sister, Iris, is trans, and her mother is addicted to drugs.

Iris transitioned prior to the events of the book, and she is able to pass, so her transness isn’t a central issue. However, it is brought up when it’s relevant and appropriate. For example, when Denise talks about the antiblackness of people’s comments on her physical features, she remarks that Iris got that plus transphobic remarks because of her gender-nonconformity pre-transition. Denise also has to correct her mother when she mistakenly refers to Iris as her “brother.” I appreciate that the author does not deadname or otherwise misgender Iris, even when discussing pre-transition events, as this is a common blunder that cis authors make.

Their mother’s drug addiction and the way people treat them because of it illustrate how pervasive the dehumanization of addicts is in society. There is a lot of victim-blaming involved, and an assumption that drug users are ultimately disposable. It is hard for Denise to defend her mother sometimes because her mother is manipulative and exploits Denise’s autism to garner sympathy for herself. She violates her daughter’s boundaries and treads on her agency when it’s convenient. Although her character walks a fine line, I thought there was differentiation between the addiction and her mother’s toxic behavior. Even while she is sober/clean, she still treats Denise in horrible ways.

Aside from touching on the systemic biases people have, the book also sheds light on the way we value people based on our personal relationships with them. An important theme is the choices we must make when resources are limited: do we choose to follow “everyone for themselves and their own”? Is there room for compassion and empathy for strangers?

The plot of this book contains so many twists and turns that I was never entirely sure what the ending would look like. There was potential for it to go many different ways. But the ending I got was something beautiful. Not a neatly-wrapped, fairytale ending, but one brimming with hope for humanity, with life-affirming values.

Recommendation: Read this book!

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 Seven Ways We Lie by Riley Redgate

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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: Life at Paloma High School is much like any other high school, with petty drama, judgmental assholes, and mind-numbing schoolwork. Until it isn’t. A scandal emerges: a student and teacher had an illicit affair. At the center of the scandal are seven teenagers, each with their own secrets, whose lives are transformed as a result of this scandal.

Review:

The magic of this book for me was how I was able to relate to each of the seven characters in some way, even though they’re all so different. For Olivia, it was knowing people talk behind my back (for the opposite reason though–people found it so inconceivable that I might hook up/date a dude that they actively matchmade me with random dudes as a joke) and missing my mom (my mom passed away recently) and feeling that emptiness where she used to be. With Claire it’s the constant comparisons between myself and the people around me (I tend to surround myself with high achievers) and feeling like I’m never good enough. For Lucas, it’s being bi/pan(+non-binary) and feeling too scared to come out to most people because I don’t want to have the conversation with people about what it means, and also liking someone who doesn’t/can’t reciprocate. With Juniper, it was being perceived as perfect while hiding my pain and struggles (my mom was diagnosed with leukemia my senior year and I graduated valedictorian). For Valentine, it was the feeling of isolation and not quite believing that people see me as anything other than a freak or oddity. With Matt it’s the feeling that I’m not really as grown up or independent as I like to think so I feel uncertain. And for Kat, it was the hiding, the sleeping in, the missed meals, the anger, the addiction to something that helped me escape, i.e. the depression and how it completely destroyed my life.

There is tension, suspense, climax, etc. to make the book compelling from a plot perspective, but what really stood out to me was the characterization: how distinct and human they were and how they grew and changed throughout the course of the narrative. They came out the other end of the events with some closure and new understanding of themselves, and that was the most satisfying thing to read.

There were several other things I appreciated about the book. One is the calling out of misogynistic double standards when it comes to sexuality and the slut-shaming that women who dare to exercise their sexual agency face. Many people look down on Olivia for having one-night stands with multiple guys but some of the dudes among those same people get angry at her when she exercises her right to say no to them. It illustrates very clearly the lose-lose situation girls/women deal with when it comes to sex: if you say yes, you’re a slut; if you say no, you’re a bitch.

Another thing is the use of Spanish throughout the book. One of the main characters, Matt, is half-Mexican, and speaks Spanish with his mom. Another character, Lucas, is taking Spanish and his teacher expects him to use Spanish in the classroom and addresses him in Spanish. And all the accent marks are in the right place and the upside-down question mark is used at the beginning of a question mark and so on. But what’s truly noteworthy about the use of Spanish in this book is that there are no translations provided. That’s a big deal.

Typically, authors and editors assume that the audience for a book in the U.S. is white, monolingual English-speakers, who therefore need translations for any non-English language. Providing translations effectively centers whiteness. That said, although there are no translations, even those who don’t understand Spanish should still be able to follow what’s being said through context clues. I might be wrong though because I happen to understand Spanish myself (took six years of it and studied abroad in Spain). I was able to follow along and had to go back and check to see if there were translations because I hadn’t noticed when I first read those parts.

On a related note, one of the characters has the last name García, and his name always has the accent mark on the i. Diacritical marks are essential to languages that use them to denote stress, tone, etc., so seeing this aspect of orthography respected in publishing is nice. Especially since I’m a linguistics nerd myself.

Finally, the last thing I wanted to comment on was the definition and explanation of pansexuality and non-binary gender used in the book. While it’s awesome to have pan representation, there was problematic language. Specifically, the distinction between bi and pan is drawn at pan people being attracted to non-binary people. While there are differences between how bi- and pansexual/romantic are used and defined, it’s actually a misconception that bisexual/biromantic inherently excludes non-binary people and only refers to attraction to men and women. Although “attracted to men and women” is a common understanding/usage of bi, it’s not the only one. Bi, for a lot of people, means other things, such as a) being attracted to two or more genders (e.g. women and non-binary people but not men), b) being attracted to two types of genders in relation to one’s own gender (e.g. same gender and different gender), etc.

As for the definition of non-binary gender and gender in general, I’m referring to this passage:

“What are you talking about, other genders?”

“Well, gender’s something society made up. I don’t mean, like, biological sex–that’s a different thing.”

While this correctly points out that gender is socially constructed, the comment about biological sex reinforces biological essentialism, or the notion that sex is an objective and indisputable designation. In fact, biological sex is as much socially constructed as gender. (Recommended reading: Sexing the Body by Anne Fausto-Sterling, Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex by Alice Domurat Dreger.) This is why saying a trans person is “born as x” (instead of “assigned x at birth”) is problematic.

Wait, one last thing. One of the characters can be read as asexual (and possibly neurodiverse). He never explicitly labels himself as such, but the way he describes his experiences of [non-]attraction strongly point to him being on the ace spectrum. Which is cool because I’m bi/pan but gray-ace/demi, so I get some representation in more than one way.

Recommendation: If you’re looking for a book that explores the struggles and nuances of the adolescent/human experience, this is your book.

P.S. I really love the cover design and I’m glad I got the hardcover version instead of waiting for the paperback like I originally intended.