Tag Archives: Own Voices

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

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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. ūüôā

Review for The Crystal Ribbon by Celeste Lim

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My Summary: Li Jing lives in a village that is protected by the Great Golden Huli Jing. Her name promises a great destiny but also invites mockery from other children. Because her family is poor, at the age of eleven, she is sold to be the bride and caretaker of a three-year-old boy. Her new home brings her suffering and more danger, until she decides to run away. With the help of some friends, she sets off on a quest to go back home and find herself.

Review:

After reading Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon series, I was craving more [#ownvoices] middle grade Chinese fantasy, and The Crystal Ribbon was exactly what I needed. Set in the Song Dynasty and drawing on Chinese folklore, this book brings to life a wonderful tale of resilience, family, and friendship.

The Crystal Ribbon has some Cinderella-esque elements to it. Instead of an evil stepmother and two stepsisters, she has a mother-in-law and two sisters-in-law who are nasty to her and treat her like a servant because they can. Thankfully, she’s not alone. There is a kind cook who looks after her well-being, and she meets a spider and a nightingale who help her along the way, among others. She also has a letter from her younger brother and memories of her family to hold onto.

Far from being helpless, Jing fights against the people and forces that try to beat her down. She plots and acts to escape her horrible situations and doesn’t give up despite the odds being stacked against her. Her story is one of hope and light in dark times, something I needed for my current low in life.

One of the magical things about reading this book was the familiar cultural references woven into the story. From the history, to the literary allusions, to the holiday celebrations, to the superstitions and religious/spiritual practices, I felt at home. Even some of the language used was taken directly from common Chinese sayings/idioms.

Though it’s not a horror story, there were definitely some creepy elements and scenes to this book. Jing is forced to be out at night during the Ghost Festival and witnesses the supernatural come to life. Also, a prominent part of the story are the jing (Á≤ĺ) that Jing’s name is a homophone for. I’d loosely translate jing as fae. They are supernatural beings that can take different forms, and you never know whether they are friend or foe, for the sinister jing feed on the chi of humans. The good and powerful ones serve as protectors of villages.

I have two minor criticisms of the book. One is that the romanization wasn’t consistent throughout. In some places, ch was used instead of q. A notable example was chi, though that might simply be because chi is familiar to English-speakers. Another thing that didn’t follow consistent rules was the spacing in disyllabic names. Some had spaces between syllables and others didn’t.

My other criticism was that the prose read awkwardly in some places because it sounded like the narration (first-person from Jing’s perspective) was directed to someone who’s a cultural outsider. As a result, it came off as overly explain-y and heavy-handed with the info-dumping.

For example, the dizi, which is a transverse flute, was described as being a “Chinese transverse flute.” However, you would call it a Chinese flute and not just a flute when the default “flute” is assumed to be the Western flute. In a story where Chinese culture is the norm, there wouldn’t be a need to refer to dizi as a Chinese flute.

Another example is the references to the “lunar calendar” and “Lunar New Year.” To someone who was immersed in Chinese culture during the Song Dynasty, the calendar they used wouldn’t be referred to as a “lunar calendar,” nor would the New Year be called the Lunar New Year since the lunar calendar was the default calendar. When someone in the West says “lunar calendar,” the lunar descriptor is marking it as in opposition to the solar/Gregorian calendar, which is used as the standard calendar.

Other than those small nitpicky things though, I absolutely adored the story.

Recommendation: Lovingly recommended. Trigger warnings for extreme physical punishments/abuse.

Review for Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan

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Note: This review is based on the eARC I received from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

My Summary: Things are changing around Amina. Her best friend Soojin is getting friendly with one of the “cool” girls and preparing to change her name to something “American”-sounding. Her uncle is coming from Pakistan to visit, and she has to be the perfect daughter or risk making her parents look bad. Then there’s the Quran recitation competition she has to participate in against her wishes and the Winter Choral Concert she wants to sing in but can’t find the courage to sign up for. While Amina struggles to be true to herself, tragedy strikes and shakes her community to the core.

Review:

While this book is primarily a “window” book for me since I’m not familiar with Pakistani culture, in some ways it was also a “mirror” book because I saw pieces of myself and my experiences in not only Soojin, Amina’s Korean American friend (there are a lot of commonalities in how East Asian Americans navigate white-dominated spaces), but also Amina herself because she is a second generation child of immigrant parents.

Both Amina and Soojin experience a variety of racist microaggressions from their white peers, from food-related taunts to language-related stigmas. Prominent among these is the butchering of their names, something that I’m intimately familiar with. Soojin, who moved to the U.S. as a toddler and is about to become a citizen, plans to change her name to something that white Americans can easily pronounce. I had a period where I considered changing my name, so I empathized with her situation, though hindsight makes me glad I didn’t go through with such a change. Amina feels off about this decision because she thinks Soojin’s name is fine as it is, so she does what she can to communicate this validation to Soojin. This was very heartening to read, knowing how strong the pressure to assimilate into the white mainstream can be and how vulnerable kids like Soojin are to these pressures.

In general, the friendship between Amina and Soojin was a highlight of the story. Two Asian Americans sticking by each other is realistic and an important kind of solidarity to represent. On top of that, the story explores how friendships change over time as new people enter your friend circles. In this case, the “interloper” is a white girl named Emily, who Amina doesn’t fully trust because of her history of perpetrating of some of the microaggressions I mentioned before. The distrust is mixed with feelings of jealousy and abandonment, and those feelings are addressed in a constructive way as the story progresses.

Another positive aspect of the story is Amina’s relationships with her various family members. Her older brother has his own character arc and development as he joins the basketball team at his high school and deals with both parental pressure and peer pressure. Amina may not fully understand her brother, but she is supportive of him and stands up for him to their parents when they are being hard on him over his grades (which is something I will never get tired of seeing portrayed in fiction because seriously, grades aren’t everything).

Amina’s relationship with her parents is also a loving and supportive one. They may be somewhat strict, but they are not unfair or uncaring. To the contrary, her parents encourage her, guide her through her problems, and keep her connected to her culture, heritage, and religion.

Her relationship with her uncle who’s visiting from Pakistan is a bit more complicated but dynamic. Her uncle is more traditional and conservative than her parents, so she has doubts about him liking her since she is Americanized in many ways. He becomes her tutor for reciting and learning Arabic from the Quran, and although she feels inadequate and self-conscious at first, she eventually begins to treat him more like a genuine mentor, developing a bond with him that also brings her closer to her faith.

One of my favorite things about this book was the depictions of everyday life at Sunday school and the Islamic Center. It’s such a lovely space that’s community-oriented and celebrates Islamic history and cultures with its displays and decorations. Everyone knows everyone else, and there are annual traditions and festivals that bring people together. You can tell that Amina feels very at home there. As I was reading about it, I couldn’t help but think of the Taiwanese Community Center that my family frequents on the weekends because of the similarities in layout and the feeling of comfort and familiarity it evokes for me. Since the story builds up this atmosphere of home around the mosque and the Center, the subsequent vandalism left¬†a deep impact on me. The trauma of loss weighed on me as if it were real, as if I were Amina witnessing the events. Thankfully, the aftermath of this dark event lifts you back up with hopeful messages.

The title of this book, Amina’s Voice, has both literal and figurative meanings. The more literal interpretation is linked to Amina’s love of music and singing. She is talented but has stage fright and struggles to sing or otherwise perform in front of an audience. The more figurative meaning is about her coming to terms with herself and her identity and being comfortable with who she is. These two themes and struggles are intertwined and resolved over the course of the story in an empowering way. The ending was perfect (in my opinion).

Recommendation: Highly recommended! A heartfelt story about friendship, family, and community.

Review for In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner

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My Summary: Raami’s privileged life as a Cambodian princess is destroyed when the civil war hits Phnom Penh. Displaced from home and separated from her father, she and her family must endure pain both physical and psychological in order to survive. The only thing left of her past life that she can hold onto is the stories and poems her father told her.

Review:

Trigger/content warnings: ableism, fatphobia

This book is semi-autobiographical, being loosely based on the author’s own experience surviving the Cambodian genocide. The story that you get is truly a work of art.

The story is told in first-person from the perspective of a seven-year-old girl, and this choice of narrative format brings the reader deep into Raami’s emotional core. Children are more observant and more resilient than people sometimes give them credit for, and that is the case with Raami. Her youthful honesty and vulnerability provide clarity and insight. Her tragic loss of innocence blossoms into a determination to rise above her circumstances, find light in her surroundings, and paint shining stories onto the dark canvas of the world.

The author’s use of language is precise and evocative, prose that reads like poetry in many places. I don’t know that I can do it justice by describing it. It’s something that you have to experience for yourself to understand the sheer gorgeousness of it all. ¬†It transports you across space and time and immerses you in Raami’s world, with all its beauty and ugliness and complexity. It pays tribute to the power of words and storytelling, which are thematically embedded in the narrative.

Family lies at the center of the story, specifically parent-child relationships. This focus is important because the Khmer Rouge sought to break down family relationships as a tactic to demoralize and inculcate loyalty to the Khmer Rouge, to the Organization that supposedly provided for all. Raami’s father is her rock in troubled times, so their separation takes an immense toll on her psyche. Her longing for him, her feelings of betrayal and abandonment, and her guilt over her role in his capture by the Khmer Rouge weigh on her throughout the years. She maintains her connection to him and keeps him alive in her mind and heart by recalling his words to her.

With her mother, Raami’s struggle is with feeling like she comes second to her younger sister, Radana, due to internalized ableism. Radana is “perfect” whereas Raami has a shorter leg and a limp from polio. Adults tell her well-intentioned but ultimately hurtful messages about her disability until later she realizes that it’s not a gift but an illness. She finds solace in the love that surrounds her and learns to cope with the microaggressions.

I had mixed feelings about the portrayal of Raami’s disability. On the one hand, it did recognize that it was an illness and not a gift, and it did discuss microaggressions associated with having a so-called physical imperfection. However, there are places where Raami’s mother uses ableist language like “broken” to refer to Raami, and it’s not really challenged, even if the overall message of her sentence is affirming of Raami’s humanity.

The other thing that I had reservations about was an antagonistic supporting character who was referred to as “the Fat One,” thereby reducing her to her size and demonizing her fatness. She was unlikable because of her cruelty and not her fatness, so the author could have chosen a better nickname for her that doesn’t play into fatphobia and body-shaming.

Recommendation: A must-read and a window into an important era of history.

Review for Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor

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Note: This book was published with the author’s name as Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu.

My Summary: Zahrah is an outcast for being born with dadalocks, which according to rumor, mark her as having special powers. The only person who doesn’t shun her is her best friend Dari. Then, when the two are the process of exploring her newfound power, Dari is hurt. Zahrah is the only one who can save him. She must venture into the Forbidden Greeny Jungle to face her fears alone in order to find the cure.

Review:

Like Akata Witch, Zahrah the Windseeker is packed with creativity unlike anything I’ve seen in fantasy. The wondrous, the strange, and the terrifying collide in this coming-of-age adventure.

Through lush details and immersive storytelling, we are introduced to Zahrah’s world, one where Earth is but a myth that people tell stories about. Zahrah lives in the Ooni Kingdom, which is home to a diverse array of peoples but isn’t free from prejudice. Those who are born dada, with the telltale dadalocks that contain vines, are feared for the rumored powers. Through Zahrah’s character and the Forbidden Greeny Jungle, the story explores the nature of prejudice and the role of fear and ignorance in motivating discrimination and isolation.

The worldbuilding for this story blends fantasy and science fiction elements, with magic and technology coexisting or fusing together. Like in Akata Witch, there’s an emphasis on knowledge and learning, which I absolutely adore. Zahrah and Dari visit a library to obtain more information on the mysterious Greeny Jungle that everyone is warned away from stepping into. They find a guide by a group of people known as the Great Explorers of Knowledge and Adventure Organization, who are dedicated to exploring and documenting the depths of the Greeny Jungle for posterity and fighting against the fear that surrounds it.

With this field guide in hand, Zahrah sets off to find the cure that will save Dari from dying from the poison that infects him during their first visit to the Jungle. The guide isn’t complete, so Zahrah has to fill in some of those gaps for herself through first-hand experience. Lots of it. The wonderful thing about this adventure of hers is that you never what will get thrown at her next. Just when you think it can’t get worse, it gets worse. More importantly, Zahrah is absolutely terrified throughout the whole ordeal. You are there with her as she is running, screaming, hiding, flailing, etc.

I think sometimes people get caught up in the idea that not feeling or expressing fear is the ideal way to be a kickass girl, but that’s a reductive and unrealistic way of understanding fear and bravery. It’s perfectly natural to feel afraid of things that are going to come and attack you out of nowhere. And unless you’re some kind of trained martial arts expert, you’re not going to know exactly how to handle something jumping at you from the bushes. You act on your untrained reflexes and it’s a mess.

The author isn’t hesitant to show Zahrah’s awkwardness and screw-ups. The important thing is that she slowly but surely learns from her mistakes as she faces these tough situations and gets smarter and more experienced at preparing for what’s ahead. And she persists in spite of the overwhelming fear because the risk is worth the reward: saving her friend Dari. It’s vital to teach girls not to see fear as weakness, and to demonstrate that they can cope with fear in order to do the things that matter.

In my opinion, Zahrah is a perfect balance of a flawed but admirable heroine. Although she has special powers, she isn’t all-knowing or all-powerful, and much of her strength comes from her emotional resilience rather than anything outwardly apparent or flashy. This¬†is what makes her real and compelling protagonist. Beyond the speculative elements, her character development is what carries the story.

There were three problematic lines I noted. One was the association of menstruation with womanhood, which is trans-exclusionary. The second was a place where “men and women” was used to the exclusion of non-binary people. The last was some ableist language where Zahrah calls Dari a “lunatic.” Other than that, there wasn’t anything majorly problematic that I noticed.

Recommendation: Highly recommended to fantasy-lovers. Although it’s categorized as YA, since the main character is fourteen and there isn’t any sexual content, it would be appropriate for upper middle grade readers as well.

Review for A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi

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Note: This book is the sequel to The Star-Touched Queen, which I reviewed here. The book can stand alone, but I still recommend reading The Star-Touched Queen first.

My Summary: Gauri has been exiled from Bharata and thrown into the hands of her rival and enemy kingdom, Ujijain, by her own brother. Vikram is the heir to the Ujijain throne and seeks legitimacy and validation from people who scorn his common background. For the sake of claiming their respective thrones, they set aside their enmity and enter the Tournament of Wishes together. Danger looms on all sides as they go through grueling trials to win the prize of a wish, but the real danger may be the prize itself because as they say, you should be careful what you wish for.

Review:

Trigger/content warnings: mentions/discussion of transphobia

My word for The Star-Touched Queen was “gorgeous,” and the word for this sequel is “swoon-worthy.” Roshani Chokshi further builds upon her world with more breathtaking descriptions and whirlwind adventures in a previously unexplored realm, Alaka. Alaka is a kingdom in the Otherworld and the home of Kubera, the Lord of Treasures and guardian of the North.

As with the first book, we have plenty of riddles, puzzles, and things that are not quite what they appear to be in A Crown of Wishes. Add capricious immortals to the picture, and you never quite know what to expect. The whole story is a mystery gift waiting to be unwrapped and unboxed, brimming with magic and beauty.

A Crown of Wishes is more action-packed than its predecessor, but the narrative doesn’t lose sight of the heart of the story, which lies in the emotional and psychological worlds of its main characters, Gauri and Vikram. Beneath the veneer of ambition and confidence lie regrets, doubts, deeply human vulnerabilities.

And of course, we have the romance of the first book but with a different dynamic. Gauri and Vikram make a very entertaining duo. Gauri is very much “fight first, ask questions later” while Vikram is much more of an academic and subtle type who will scope things out and plot accordingly. Gauri is cynical and heavily guarded whereas Vikram is a person of starry-eyed idealism and faith, making them very much an “opposites attract” couple.

If you want slow-burn, this is slow-burn but with endless bickering to fill the space. Their barbed exchanges are full of humor and wit and are in some cases laugh-out-loud hilarious. Of course, it’s not all jokes and banter; they have more serious moments of reciprocal disclosure and deeper bonding to give their dynamic substance. But the bickering is definitely a highlight. The alternating narrative viewpoints (first-person for Gauri, third-person for Vikram) help bring the two and their dynamic to life.

This book brings back familiar faces (my favorite included!) and introduces some new characters as well. Chief among these new characters is the curious and earnest Aasha, who is a secondary viewpoint character in addition to Gauri and Vikram. She is the youngest of a group of sister courtesans who feed on desire and whose touch is poison (what a concept). All she wants is to experience being human, something that was denied her when she was turned into a vishakanya from a mortal at a young age. She is the definition of a precious cinnamon roll, and you can’t help but love her and wish the best for her. On the plus side, she’s most likely bisexual based on a statement she made. I have been starved for bisexual representation in historical fantasy, so Aasha is a welcome addition to the small circle of bi girls in fantasy.

Between all of the things I’ve mentioned, A Crown of Wishes was a jewel of a read. However, there was one thing that bothered me in the story. In one scene, Vikram recalls a time when he was fifteen and tried to sneak into the harem of his father’s court by dressing as a courtesan. He managed to pass as a woman and was accosted by a womanizing palace guard as a result, forcing him to reveal his disguise. Although I’m down for guys looking great in drag, I didn’t like the way it was played off for humor. The context of his crossdressing is very reminiscent, however unintentionally, of the transphobic rhetoric directed against trans women about them supposedly being “predatory men who dress as women to gain access to women’s spaces.” There was also a line later on where Vikram says, “I considered wearing your (Gauri’s) outfit, but chest hair lacks certain feminine charms.” Rather than affirming gender nonconformity, these bits reinforced the stigma against it, and the book would have been better off without them.

Recommendation: Recommended with warnings for incidental transphobia.

Review for Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger

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My Summary: Sam (short for Samar) doesn’t think much about her Punjabi Sikh identity because her mother raised her in a secular environment away from her extended family. However, when her long-estranged uncle appears on their doorstep in the aftermath of 9/11, she begins to explore her heritage and culture.

Review:

This book was published in 2009, but it remains relevant as Islamophobic sentiment remains pervasive in the U.S. and other places. Muslims aren’t the only group targeted, anyone who is perceived as Muslim is also implicated. Sikhs fall into this category.

Sam’s uncle Sandeep wears a turban, so racists target him for hate speech and hate crimes. Sam is in the car with him when some boys from her school throw and yell things at him. As a result, she is forced to confront the bigotry of people around her.

It’s during this same time that Sam starts researching and reconnecting with her Punjabi and Sikh culture and heritage and tries to find her place as a South Asian/Indian in U.S. disapora. It’s a very polarizing experience, to put it lightly. On the one hand, white kids have always made fun of her for being brown. On the other, a fellow Indian American calls her a “coconut,” meaning brown on the outside, white on the inside. This type of labeling is familiar to me, as East Asians have our own variant, “banana”/”Twinkie,” for yellow on the outside, white on the inside. The in-group disdain for being too assimilated into white American culture is so real.

Thankfully, Sam has positive experiences to balance out the negative ones. Her uncle is supportive of her journey, and together they visit a gurdwara, a Sikh temple. There, Sam has a very spiritual moment and finds the joy of connecting with tradition and her roots. At school, she gets recommendations for resources from a Sikh classmate and finds online forums where there are people in her same situation.

These changes in her understanding of herself and her world also affect her other relationships with her mother, her white boyfriend Mike, and her white best friend Molly in various ways. Sam’s desire to connect with her extended family creates tension with her mother, who has bad memories involving her parents, Sam’s grandparents, and rejected their religion and culture as a result. Mike turns out to be garbage who laughs at racist jokes and victim-blames Sam for experiencing a hate crime, and most satisfyingly, the narrative drags him for his crap. Molly doesn’t get it at first and throws around the term “reverse racist” (oh, lord), but she reevaluates her position after witnessing the attacks on Uncle Sandeep in person.

One of the great things about this book is that it pulls in so many relevant and important issues. It touches on Japanese American incarceration during World War II as it relates to present-day Islamophobia (though it uses the word “internment,” which is problematic), criticizes stereotypical media representation like Apu from The Simpsons, and explicitly addresses colorism in Indian and South Asian communities. Notably, it points out that distinguishing between Sikhs and Muslims shouldn’t be done as an attempt to “opt out” of the Islamophobic violence while leaving Muslims to take all the hits.

Although this book has its darker moments and tackles serious issues, it ends on a bright and hopeful note. Most of the major conflicts are resolved, and Sam is moving forward with a sense of empowerment and perspective that she lacked in the beginning. The ending echoes the beginning in a way that brings everything full circle, which is my favorite kind of ending.

A few minor things I was not a fan of: One was use of the words “deranged,” “lunatic,” “crazy,” etc. to describe violent and threatening people. The second was a line where a character claims that having sex is what makes girls women since that’s not only sexist but throws asexual people under the bus. There was also use of the word “slutty” a few times. The last was a dialogue where Molly is spouting a bunch of Orientalist stuff about Indian culture, and the narrative doesn’t really directly call it out for what it is.

Recommendation: Recommended for its heartfelt and honest portrayal of the struggles of being in diaspora and fighting racism.

Review for The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi

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My Summary: Maya’s horoscope promises death and destruction with her marriage. Her father marries her off for political convenience, and through a strange twist of events, she is wed to Amar, king of Akaran. This marriage brings both passion and secrets, and unraveling those secrets becomes vital to Maya’s survival and the fate of all the realms.

Review:

If I were to pick one word to describe this book, I’d have to say “gorgeous.” The descriptions are so vivid and textured that they practically leap off the page at you. I wish I had this level of command over language.

Some people might find the story to be a bit slow, but personally, I liked that I got to immerse myself in the details and rhythms and tucked-away corners of Maya’s world. I hate seeing wasted potential when it comes to worldbuilding in fantasy, and The Star-Touched Queen delivers the amount of substance I want. And here, the worldbuilding isn’t just a superficial info dump to dazzle for a moment; it is interwoven with Maya and Amar’s evolving relationship, it creates suspense and tension through the mysteries and secrets that emerge, and it plays a part in Maya’s character development as she explores not only physical spaces but also her inner psychological landscape.

I think the thing that really captivated me about this story was that beyond the “saving the realms” arc, the heart of the narrative is actually about self-discovery and the struggle to find agency when your environment is restrictive. Interpretation and perspective are key elements in Maya’s growth as she is pushing the boundaries of what she can be. Even though there are some external constraints placed upon us, a lot of our limits are also self-imposed, and this story definitely tackles that theme.

Another thing that stood out to me is Maya’s ambition. In a society where girls are taught to not reach too high or too far, it’s important to have stories that challenge that, that say, be ambitious, dare to aim high, channel the power you have. Watching Maya make decisions explicitly based on ambition was satisfying and encouraging to me as someone who has held myself back out of self-doubt or internalized beliefs that I shouldn’t take up too much space or want too much.

If you’re tired of YA where girls are constantly being saved by guys, then this is your book. Maya is truly the heroine of her own story. Even when confronted by obstacles, she refuses to back down and accept defeat. Her power and her growth shine through in the last one-third of the story in particular, building up to one hell of an ending.

The supporting characters don’t steal the spotlight at the expense of the main character, but they’re still memorable and lovable in their own ways. Gupta is a nerd in the classic sense–well-read, prone to gushing about random subjects that capture his interest, not that great with social niceties–and I love that about him because it’s like seeing a fictional version of myself. That said, my absolute favorite supporting character is Kamala, who is a talking, flesh-eating horse. Yes, you read that correctly. Read the book and you’ll understand why she is so great.

Personally, one of the things I loved about this book was the incorporation of reincarnation into the story. I grew up with a lot of stories where reincarnation is involved since it’s part of Taiwanese and Chinese religious and spiritual beliefs, so it was nice to see a story make use of that familiar concept. I’ll admit I’m a sucker for romances that involve reincarnation because it opens up so many more possibilities.

Knowing that A Crown of Wishes follows as a sequel and companion, I feel like The Star-Touched Queen did a great job of laying the foundation for the second book. The pieces I got were just enough to tease¬†and pique my interest in what will happen to Gauri and Vikram. Thankfully, I have the ARC of A Crown of Wishes in hand ready to be devoured, otherwise I’d be with the rest of the world crying for March 28th!

Nothing stood out to me as majorly problematic, but there was one place where Maya said that maybe her body was too straight and boyish to be attractive to Amar, which can be read as internalized misogyny but is also cisnormative since it reinforces the idea that certain body types/shapes should correspond to certain genders. Even as YA is pushing the boundaries of gender roles, it would be nice to see more critical takes on the gendering of bodies and beauty standards.

Recommendation: Lovingly recommended to fantasy lovers who want to be swept away.

Review for The Ship Beyond Time by Heidi Heilig

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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 The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

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My Summary: The personal becomes intensely political for Starr Carter when she witnesses her friend Khalil’s murder at the hands of a police officer. What starts as her personal trauma becomes the center of national news and fuel for anti-racist activism. Suddenly, her decision to stay silent or speak up is no longer just about herself but rather the bigger fight for justice in the face of systemic oppression.

Review:

Wow. I was stuck in a bit of a reading slump during February, but this book yanked me out of that slump. My brain is bursting with thoughts and feelings and…literary energy? I really hope I can do this book justice (pun not intended) in discussing my reactions.

It’s already very clear from the description that this book is about social justice, and it doesn’t disappoint in the execution. I don’t know how else to describe it except “art.” There was so much thought and insight funneled into weaving together all of the elements of this story. Each character and scene had its place and its purpose. There was nothing extraneous. The beautiful thing is that the story still feels organic rather than contrived.

I’ll start with the characters. There are quite a few of them in this story: Starr, her various friends and classmates at Williamson and from Garden Heights, her family, her community members, and so on. I never got any of them confused because each of them has distinct personalities and lives of their own. Moreover, Angie does a fabulous job of balancing the complex web of relationships between them all.

Among my favorites were Starr’s parents. They aren’t the perfect couple in the sense that they never fight, but they were perfect in the sense that they are real with each other, stick with each other through thick and thin, and have this obvious chemistry and bond that shows through in their banter. On top of that, they are great parents to Starr, Seven, and Sekani and do what they can to protect and support them through the tough situations they face and provide a safe and nurturing environment for them.

The importance of Starr’s parents cannot be understated given that our society devalues Black fatherhood and Black motherhood. Systemic and state-sanctioned violence against Black communities includes the tearing apart of Black families, starting in the days of slavery when Black children were taken from their parents and sold to different masters and continuing into the present with the mass incarceration of Black men and disproportionate intervention from Child Protective Services in Black families. With this history and current reality in mind, having present and positive parental figures in a story about Black teens and kids is a huge deal.

Another character dynamic I really enjoyed was Starr’s relationships with people at Williamson, her mostly-white private school. This includes her white boyfriend, Chris, white friend Hailey, and Chinese American friend Maya. Her relationship with each of these characters exemplifies a particular kind of interpersonal racial dynamic.

I’ll start with Chris. I generally don’t fuck with white boys, but Chris is an example of a fairly decent white boy. For one, he does not fetishize Starr and likes her as an individual. Their relationship is built upon various common interests, and Chris clearly shows that he cares about Starr by being considerate of her feelings and respecting her boundaries.

Aside from being the cute boyfriend, Chris’s character is one of the ways that this book critiques and interrogates whiteness. In some places, this is very literal, as Starr, Seven, and her Black friends ask Chris pointed questions about his whiteness and break down the assumption of whiteness as default and thus teach him some perspective.¬†While he is not perfectly aware of all racial issues, he is willing to step back, listen, be self-critical of his privilege and ignorance, and learn.

Hailey’s character has a similar function in critiquing whiteness and serves as something of a foil to Chris. Rather than listen to Starr’s grievances, she plays victim, gaslights Starr and Maya, and epitomizes white fragility. She uses every trick in the white playbook to deflect and derail critiques of her racism. What I enjoyed was how Angie handled the conflict and the progression from Starr following Hailey uncritically out of habit to actively questioning and reevaluating her friendship with her with help from her mother and Maya.

Maya was one of my favorite characters in the book. As I mentioned above, she’s Chinese American, so I could relate to her a lot as a Taiwanese American. I was excited to learn that she plays basketball because heaven knows we don’t have enough fictional Jeremy Lins to rep the sporty Asian Americans out there. Aside from challenging stereotypes, Maya’s character is notable because she challenges Hailey’s racism, both Sinophobia and antiblackness. She and Starr form what they call a “minority alliance” in calling out Hailey, and that moment stood out to me because it’s an explicit representation and celebration of Black and Asian solidarity. Toward the beginning of the book, I was holding my breath wondering if Maya would turn out to be one of the all-too-familiar Problematic Asians who engage in antiblackness to curry favor with white supremacy. I was extremely relieved and elated to see her go in the opposite direction. Having this “minority alliance” on page absolutely sends the right message to young Asian Americans about the importance of standing in solidarity with other people of color.

One of the greatest things about this book is how unapologetically Black it is. It is loaded with references to Black Power movements, particularly the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam. Understandably, Starr uses Standard American English at her private school and certain contexts because she doesn’t want to be stereotyped and looked down upon, but in other contexts, she uses African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and is true to her roots. This is known as code-switching and is common not only for Black people but also other POC. Later in the book, Starr progresses toward unpacking the respectability politics and classism that shape her experience at Williamson and the way she views and juxtaposes her school and her neighborhood.

Angie’s choice of settings for this book really brings to the fore issues of race and class. Garden Heights is urban, poor, and Black; Williamson and its associated locale is suburban, rich, and white. Starr’s status as an outsider in the latter is painfully apparent, and she very much aware and critical of how she and the handful of other Black students are tokenized. She is “cool” by liberty of being Black in a majority white space, but that status is far from being a privilege because, as she points out, “It’s dope to be black until it’s hard to be black.” This statement speaks to the way white people commodify, accessorize, and appropriate blackness as it is convenient and beneficial to them without experiencing the the stigma and oppression of being Black in a white supremacist society.

Whereas at Williamson, Starr feels hypervisible, in Garden Heights, she feels invisible (until her status as a witness in Khalil’s murder changes things, anyway). Garden Heights is where the author really explores the complexity of Blackness. There’s an interesting blend of familiarity and danger: familiarity that stems from knowing intimately the rhythms and the [gang] rules that govern the neighborhood as well as the faces and lives that inhabit the space and make it home, danger from the violence that is part and parcel of gang-dominated areas, the poverty due to systemic denial of economic opportunities and development to Black people and communities, and the threat of state-sanctioned violence from police and the judicial system.

The author’s portrayal of these nuances and dynamics calls into question the illusion of “choice” and the possibility of “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps” that white people employ to justify Black poverty and second-class status. Individual choices are never free from context or constraints, and this book is very explicit about naming and describing the systems that are rigged against Black people, largely through the character of Maverick, Starr’s father, who is an ex-con, but also through Khalil and DeVante, who get caught up in the gang and drug-dealing scene in order to provide for and protect their families in the absence of other opportunities.

Garden Heights also offers an insider’s perspective on the internalized racism in Black communities. Mr. Lewis is a follower of Dr. King’s words and is less receptive toward more radical figures like Huey Newton and Malcolm X, who symbolize not racial harmony but Black power. (Although Dr. King wasn’t really a¬†moderate and was in fact critical of white people, he has been co-opted by the mainstream as a “safe” and palatable figure to white people and is weaponized to silence Black resistance.) There are characters like Uncle Carlos who engage in the same kind of victim-blaming as white people to rationalize Khalil’s extrajudicial execution, invoking fallacies like “black-on-black crime.”

Another nuanced situation this book tackles is fighting police brutality versus hating individual police officers. Starr’s maternal uncle Carlos is a cop and a colleague of the officer who shot and killed Khalil. He’s also the man who helped raised her while her father was in jail for three years when she was a toddler. There’s a lot of internal struggle within Starr in juggling her feelings toward a corrupt institution that aids and abets violence against Black people and her personal feelings of affection toward Carlos, who happens to be an officer. It’s not always as simple as us versus them, but it’s important to recognize that the systemic nature of police brutality means complicity despite any good intentions on the part of individual cops. Between Carlos and a Latina officer, you see that complicity in racist systems can include people of color who have internalized ideologies that criminalize blackness.

This book is based on the Black Lives Matter movement, and it is very true to real life in its depiction of the events following a case of police murdering a Black person. The protests, the looting, the police crackdown and militarization, and the media coverage of and subsequent social media responses to these events coincided very closely with what I remember reading and watching while following the BLM movement on social media, as well as my first-hand experience participating in a small-scale BLM protest at my alma mater last year.

One particular thing I have to applaud in the depiction of events is the references to social media, which are critical to the worldbuilding in this story. Although I’ve seen some writers say that they don’t like to reference social media and technology in their work for fear of dating it for readers in the future, I’d argue that excluding those references renders their work nearly illegible because technology shapes the social fabric of our lives and is critical to establishing the context and constraints of a story.

Technological advances result in the compression of space and time and also affect social power dynamics. Social media in particular has undermined the dominance of mainstream media and given platforms to the oppressed, increasing the accessibility of information and transforming the ways in which activism plays out. It has been absolutely critical in building up and disseminating information for Black Lives Matter and other social justice movements. It is an important means of talking back against the dominant narratives that dehumanize Black people and other people of color. Angie’s mentions of Black Twitter and Black Tumblr not only reflect our current reality, they also pay tribute to the voices and communities that have sustained BLM.

And without explicitly naming BLM, Angie gave several shoutouts to the movement in various ways: “I can’t breathe.” “[Khalil’s] life mattered.” “It’s also about Oscar. Aiyana. Trayvon. Rekia. Michael. Eric. Tamir. John. Ezell. Sandra. Freddie. Alton. Philando.” These references allow this fictional story to resonate and create dialogue with reality.

At the heart of this story is the theme of the consequences of¬†silence and the power of speaking up. Starr struggles to speak up about what happened with Khalil because she is afraid of the backlash it will bring, from her community and from the people in power. Much of her growth in this story is tied to overcoming her fears and doing what is right rather than what is easy. As someone who has gone through (and still goes through) that same struggle, Starr’s journey to be confident in speaking truth to power was very relatable and very heartening.

Although this story focuses on a very serious issue, it also contains moments of humor and lightness. There is a delicate balance required to make this work and not cheapen or trivialize the serious aspects, and Angie definitely nails it. The humor is laugh-out-loud funny and the brighter moments offer some much-needed respite from the darkness that weighs on the oppressed. While talking about racism is important, it’s also important to make space for Black teens and kids to live normal lives and have some fun.

All in all, this book truly takes you through so many feelings, very intense ones at that, because you are so immersed in Starr’s life and world that you empathize deeply with her situation. It is one of the most vividly rendered contemporary YA novels I have read.

Before I close, I’ll talk about three small things that bothered me while reading this book. They weren’t deal-breakers, but they definitely left enough of an impression that I feel the need to comment on them.

The first was the overuse of the word “crazy.” If it had been just once or twice, I probably would have let it go, but it was thrown around a lot casually, and as someone who has multiple mental illnesses, it was a bit uncomfortable to read, especially when it was used in a negative way.

The second was the repeated slut-shaming of Seven’s mother, Iesha. While it is evident that she is bad parent to Seven and his sisters, Kenya and Lyric, that has nothing to do with how much skin she shows and everything to do with the poor decisions she’s made regarding her children. I wish there hadn’t been such an emphasis on how she dressed.

The third and final thing was the issue of Maya’s ethnicity. At the beginning of the book, Maya mentions visiting her great-grandparents in Taipei. Based on that statement, I assumed she was Taiwanese because Taipei is the capital of Taiwan. However, later on, Maya explicitly states she’s Chinese, and that left me with several questions: Were her great-grandparents just visiting Taipei, or do they live there? If they live there, were they born and raised in Taiwan, or did they immigrate to Taiwan from China post-1949, after the Chinese Civil War? If her family is from Taiwan, why does she identify as Chinese?

A very common microaggression for Taiwanese people like me is people conflating Taiwan and China and saying Taiwanese people are “really just Chinese.” There are some people from/in Taiwan who identify as Chinese, or as both Taiwanese and Chinese, but the number of people who exclusively identify as Taiwanese has increased over the years and is at an all-time high right now. The decision to identify as Taiwanese versus Chinese is very much a politically motivated one. Given that Taiwan is not formally recognized as a sovereign nation by the UN and does not have official diplomatic relations with most of the nations in the world (including the United States) due to pressure from China, the erasure of Taiwanese identity, even in fiction, is a big deal. The book is still amazing and I do love it, but what might be one small detail to most readers was deeply personal and painful for me as a Taiwanese American. I hope that any writers who are reading this will be mindful of these issues of identity and the politics behind them while crafting their characters from marginalized backgrounds.

Recommendation: Read this book, live this book, love this book. It deserves every one of the eight starred reviews it received and more.