Tag Archives: Science Fiction

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 The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie

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

Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Review for The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Ambelin Kwaymullina

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Note: I read this book as part of the #DiversityDecBingo reading challenge. You can find my list of books that I read and the links to the reviews for those books here.

Note 2: Parts of this review were originally published as a part of my Favorite Books of 2016 post or showed up in the #DSFFBookClub discussion during December 2016.

My Summary: In a post-apocalyptic world in which tectonic shifts have merged all land masses into one continent, Ashala Wolf is a leader of a Tribe of young Illegals, children who manifest supernatural powers that are seen as a threat to the sacred Balance of the world. A mission gone awry results in Ashala’s capture, and she must resist the government’s attempt to forcibly take her memories from her to use against the Tribe and escape the clutches of people who see her as an abomination.

Review:

This was one of the last books I read in 2016 but also among my favorites. I’ll admit that one of the gaps in the scope of my reading is indigenous authors (Native American or otherwise), so I was glad to find this gem by an indigenous Australian (Pylaku) author in my favorite genre (SFF).

One of the things I really liked about this book was the worldbuilding. People with supernatural abilities are mostly seen as a threat and are classified as “Illegal,” but it’s a little bit more complicated and nuanced than that. There are some whose powers are mild and/or useful enough for them to be granted exceptions by the government and thus exploited. And there are others that can “pass” as normal and therefore slide under the radar. I can’t help but think about the parallels that can be drawn between this system and systems of oppression in the real world, whether it’s assimilation into the dominant group, attempts to “pass” as a member of the dominant group, or striving to become more “acceptable” to the dominant group in some way.

Ashala’s character is descended from the indigenous people of former Australia (“former” because in the story, all of the continents collided and reshaped to form a supercontinent). Although the story is supposed to take place in a “post-racial” world, it isn’t completely divorced from real world notions of difference in terms of culture/ethnicity/race. Ashala in particular is able to communicate with a powerful divine entity, the Grandfather Serpent, who is among the creators of her ancestral people and the Firstwood, where she and her Tribe take shelter. Her conversation and relationship with the Grandfather Serpent and the Firstwood anchor the story in a deeply spiritual place. That was an aspect of the story I really enjoyed.

The structure of the story is nonlinear since it takes you backward in time multiple times as more of her memories are revealed. Moreover, there’s unreliable narration. The misdirection is written so skillfully that you don’t realize just how much you’ve been tricked until the reveal comes along and yanks the carpet out from under you. It’s layered in such a way that each new memory shifts your perspective and what you understand to be true.

Although there are many books that tackle the question of human progress vs. nature, this one stood out to me in the execution. The idea of balance is normalized into an ideology that structure the society and politics of the dystopia. Moreover, the narrative calls into question whether the dichotomy of humanity vs. nature is really valid, and whether what we view as “unnatural” is necessarily bad.

As far as problematic content goes, most of it was minor. There was one place where a character’s eyes were described as “almond-shaped,” which is a stereotypical shorthand for East Asian features that I wish would die in a fire. In another, the narrative used “his or her,” thereby excluding non-binary people. The more repetitive issue was ableism. One of the villains was described as mad and necessarily mad in order to do the morally depraved things she did. That was the one damper on this otherwise great book.

Issues aside, I’m eager to read the sequel, The Disappearance of Ember Crow. The third book, The Foretelling of Georgie Spider, is coming out on May 9th in the U.S.

Recommendation: A good book for people looking for diverse SFF in YA.

Review for Dove Arising by Karen Bao

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

My Summary: Phaet Theta spends her time cultivating plants in Greenhouse 22 on the lunar colony she’s grown up in. All she wants is to become a bioengineer. Unfortunately, she is forced to set aside that dream and join the Militia to earn enough money to keep her family afloat. Just when she thinks she’s reaching her goal, her mother is arrested, and nothing can be the same for her ever again.

Review:

Well, I’m glad I picked this book off my extremely long backlist to read. I walked into it with some reserve because of the 3.5 star average reviews on Amazon and came out the other end wondering why it’s underrated (in my opinion).

If I were to describe this book succinctly by referencing a familiar work, I’d call it scifi Hunger Games, minus the fights to the death on live TV, and with POC. But that’s not really doing it justice, which is what the rest of this review is for.

There are familiar tropes in this story: a corrupt government, a love triangle (sort of), and a high-stakes mission for the protagonist. What makes it stand out to me is the worldbuilding and characterization.

The author has a background in science, an ecology degree to be specific, and that definitely shows in the book. The integration of scientific facts into the story lends it a sense of realism that keeps the speculative elements grounded. It’s hard for me not to read scifi with a critical eye due to my background in aerospace engineering.

Though it’s not mentioned in the jacket blurb, Phaet is of Chinese descent. The major characters include four other POC. One is Umbriel, Phaet’s best friend, whose ancestry is never explicitly named but who is described as having dark hair and eyes and thick eyebrows (I might be misreading the text but it seemed to imply he was also Chinese?). Two of Phaet’s fellow Militia trainees are WOC: Vinasa, who is Indian and Irish; and Nashira, who is half Saudi, a quarter Nigerian, and a quarter Jamaican. The last is Yinha, the person who’s in charge of training the Militia recruits; like Phaet, she’s Chinese.

While race and ethnicity don’t have the same level importance in Phaet’s time as they do in our present-day world, the society she lives in isn’t entirely race-blind either. Someone makes a racist joke about Yinha’s eyes at one point. Also, Phaet, Vinasa, and Nashira have a brief conversation about their respective hair textures while they are getting to know one another, which was refreshingly real to read. Nash’s hair is difficult to keep in the style required by the Militia, which echoes the ways in which natural hair is stigmatized in the U.S. military.

Nor have people completely lost connection to their Earthbound roots. Bits and pieces of Chinese culture are referenced throughout the story, making Phaet’s Chineseness more than just a superficial thing. She knows the story of her great-grandmother’s migration from China to the United States, and then to the Moon, so in her own way she’s part of Chinese diaspora, with an extra migration and nationality (Lunar) added.

Phaet’s character is built around her competitive spirit and her loyalty to and love for her family. Her motivations are strongly tied to the desire for her family’s well-being, making her a sympathetic character. Though she does compete for the top rank among the recruits, a lot of that is driven by necessity–the salary will be enough to get her family financially stable–rather than personal, individual ambition. The centrality of her relationships with her mother, younger brother, and younger sister made the story compelling to me as someone with close bonds with my own family.

I mentioned a love triangle, and there are hints of one, but it’s far from being the primary plotline of the story, so if you’re sick of/averse to love triangles, don’t worry, this is not Twilight or The Hunter Games. Romance isn’t that important in general, which is a relief. (Though I’m disappointed that there are no queer characters to be found, except for one that maybe could be read as queer, but what’s new, sigh.)

Phaet’s ascent in the ranks of the recruits is not a given or an effortless task. She has some muscle from the manual labor of working in a greenhouse, but it’s not enough to make her an excellent athlete and trainee from the get-go. She has to work hard and do extra exercises and training in order to progress. There are no shortcuts.

The book doesn’t shy away from exploring the psychological effects of her Militia training. She becomes more desensitized to violence and even power-hungry, which creates conflict between her and her family and Umbriel, who are uneasy with the changes they see.

Speaking of conflict, the conflicts that drive the plot are multiple: interpersonal conflict between Phaet and other Militia recruits as well as between Phaet and the people she loves, and then also the broader conflict between Phaet and the oppressive society and government she lives in, and even within herself in the form of conflicting values and priorities.

From the beginning, the pace of the story is set at a brisk clip. Although Phaet spends half the book training, it’s not without incident, marked by fights with people who are out to sabotage her and dangerous, even deadly evaluation exercises. Then, the political intrigue kicks in, as well as the conflicts with her family caused by the changes she’s undergone, and at the end, we have a cliffhanger that sets you up for the second book.

And I’m ordering that second book (Dove Exiled) right now. The third book (Dove Alight) is due later this year, so I guess I picked the best time to read this book, as reading it earlier would have meant a longer wait. Woo.

Recommendation: Based on the Amazon ratings, I’m guessing it might be hit or miss depending on the person, but I say give it a try! It’s a solid debut novel and first installment to a science fiction series. (The author is my age and already published, I’m envious.)

Review for Exo by Fonda Lee

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

Note 2: My review is based on the text in the ARC that I received in exchange for an honest review. The book will be go on sale on January 31st, 2017 and is published by Scholastic Press.

My Summary: It’s been over a century since the alien zhree colonized Earth. Donovan Reyes is the son of the Prime Liaison, the one of the highest positions that a human can hold in the colonial government. He has the benefits of erze status that sets him apart from most humans and has been through bioenhancement that equips him with an exocel, which acts as armor and weapon alike. However, his stable life and bright future as a government security officer is thrown into chaos when he is kidnapped by an anti-zhree revolutionary organization, Sapience. All of a sudden he is a bargaining chip in a political crisis and must find away to escape with his life.

Review:

I have mixed feelings about this book.

The worldbuilding is great, with the right amount of detail to breathe life into the political system, social stratification, and scientific advancements that shape life on this future Earth. People of color actually exist (it’s sad that this is a remarkable thing because POC are so often erased in scifi) and they aren’t “othered,” they’re just there, being people.

In terms of plot, this book is filled with twists and turns, action and suspense, climax and denouement. The stakes are high on both a personal and big picture level for Donovan, so I was invested in everything that happens.

The action and suspense are balanced by character growth, relationship developments, and thought-provoking themes. Donovan’s worldview is challenged by the things he learns from Sapience. The book explores his complicated relationships with each of his parents, who stand on opposite sides of an ideological conflict. Multiple times, he’s forced to make tough calls on who to defend, who to side with, and the bigger question of whether “peace” among humans is worth the cost of their freedom.

Despite the gray areas presented, however, I found it difficult to sympathize with Donovan for various reasons. One of the biggest ones is that he’s part of a privileged class that reaps the bulk of the benefits of the alien colonizers’ regime, so of course he’s more inclined to think of the zhree as good for humanity.

Also, I also can’t help but make connections to real life political situations, in which colonizing powers rationalize their subjugation of indigenous peoples through the “we brought them technological advancement; they’re less civilized” argument. There was nothing stopping them from introducing technology through equal cultural exchange except greed and ruthless, self-serving ambition. The idea that any culture is inferior to another is based on racist (in this case, speciesist) standards of evaluation and serves as a convenient rationalization of subjugation.

I don’t believe the so-called benefits of colonization can erase the violence that it perpetrates. Superficial peace isn’t justice. Branding anti-colonial movements as terrorism is a dangerous twisting of reality that ignores the violence of colonization itself. Although Donovan comes to understand Sapience and its members and ideology better, and he does genuinely care about the future of humanity, it still feels like he clings to his internalized zhree colonial mindset.

The  other major issue was the cis/heteronormativity. You’d think a futuristic book would feature more queerness and all, given all the gains we’ve made in recent years toward visibility and acceptance, but there is a glaring absence of any non-cishet characters. I’ve gotten to a point where any speculative fiction set in the future that doesn’t have LGBTQ+ characters reads like a dystopia to me because it implies either we’re all dead/locked away out of sight/mind or we’re all deeply closeted out of fear–or both. Given that we’re at a flashpoint in history regarding LGBTQ+ rights, this erasure, however unintentional it may be, is honestly upsetting to me.

There was also this low-key sexism toward Donovan’s love interest, Anya, who was initially described as “too young and pretty” to be a terrorist…like, what? What does your age or physical appearance have anything to do with your political ideology…? I also didn’t really buy the romance that happened; it felt rushed and forced. I could sort of see why Donovan liked Anya because she’s loyal, brave, passionate, and caring, but I didn’t really get what Anya saw in him given how arrogant/disdainful, self-righteous, and privileged he acted around the Sapience members at the beginning. Thankfully the romance wasn’t the focus of the story.

The last thing I didn’t really like was the ending. I can appreciate open endings if they’re executed well, but the ending here left me unsatisfied. There were too many questions left dangling. As far as I know, this is a standalone novel, but it feels like there should be a sequel to resolve those loose ends. But maybe that’s just me.

ETA: I just found out that there’s a sequel coming, so I guess I’ll actually get some closure. I am planning to read it when it is released.

Recommendation: It was an entertaining story, just not quite the diverse/inclusive scifi that I was looking for.

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 Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee

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

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

Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review for Little Miss Evil by Bryce Leung and Kristy Shen

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My Summary: Fiona is the daughter of infamous super-villain Manson Ng, but all she wants to do is live a normal life. However, on her thirteenth birthday, her father is kidnapped by an enemy. The ransom demanded is the NOVA, an extremely lethal nuclear weapon that could wipe out an entire city. All of a sudden, Fiona is in charge of her father’s henchmen and must launch a rescue mission. Good thing her father gave her a flamethrower to strap to her arm for her birthday present.

Review:

Asians have been typecast as villains in the U.S. for over a hundred years. The racist stereotype of the “yellow peril” has a long history. For those who don’t know, the yellow peril is the idea that Asians are cunning, ruthless, barbaric hordes who will take over and destroy white civilization. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and other anti-Asian legislation in the U.S. were fueled by this xenophobic stereotype. Outside of the legal realm, the stereotype has been perpetuated in books, films, TV shows, etc. American pop culture has seen its share of yellow peril villains: Fu Manchu, Ming the Merciless–the list goes on.

The refreshing thing about Little Miss Evil is that even though Manson Ng is an Asian villain, his villainy is not attributed to or associated with his Asianness. He’s just your typical bad guy who wants to build weapons, steal things, and cackle evilly. Also, he happens to love his daughter a lot and is unintentionally funny with his idiosyncrasies.

And Fiona, despite being the daughter of a villain, is the protagonist and hero of the story. Through her narration, we see her view of Manson Ng: the melodramatic but ultimately caring father. We also see both the perks and downsides to being related to a super-villain.

The plot of this book never strays from the rescue mission. It’s a fast-paced narrative featuring lots of action, suspense, and twists. Even so, it manages to squeeze in a little humor, family bonding moments, and super-villain backstory.

The bonus cherry on top is the way this story smashes certain Asian American tropes in unconventional and hilarious ways. For example, during a conversation with her father about her future, this exchange happens:

“I. Don’t Want. To. Be. A. Super. Villain! I want to have a normal career. I want to go to college and become a doctor and go to Africa to help starving children*!”

Dad turns beet-red. “A doctor? Africa?” He spits each word onto the floor, as if they are chunks of bitter melon dripped in disappointment sauce. “Why don’t you just stab a knife into my heart?”

Usually, the kid is being forced by the parent(s) to become a doctor, and they rebel against that, thus disappointing the parent(s). Here, the kid wants to become a doctor to rebel against the parent. Because the alternative is going into the family business and becoming a super-villain.

There’s also a scene where Fiona gets a 100 on a math test, but not because she’s an Asian math genius. She actually made mistakes on the test. However, her teacher didn’t mark them wrong because the super-villain parents of one of her classmates (she goes to school with two other kids with super-villains as parents) threatened the teacher into giving their daughter a good grade. The teacher gave Fiona a 100 to avoid the risk of backlash from her father. Ha.

So, there are two problematic things I noticed, relatively small but still worth addressing. The first is the asterisk from the bit I quoted above. When Fiona talks about becoming a doctor to help save starving children in Africa, it does the following: 1) homogenizes a huge and diverse continent into a monolith, 2) portrays Africa through the lens of a racist stereotype of poverty-stricken people, 3) perpetuates the Western savior narrative that leads to well-intentioned but ill-advised “voluntourism” that centers the ego of the “savior” and not the needs and agency of the people being helped.

The other thing was the portrayal of a secondary character named Ruby, who has albinism. Although she isn’t a completely one-dimensional character, the way her physical appearance is described (particularly the “blood-red eyes”) perpetuates the othering of people with albinism. Her overall meanness is also falls into the stereotype of people with albinism as “villainous, deviant, supernatural or sadistic” (quoted from albinism.org).

Recommendation: Not for romance fans, as there is zero romance (it’s a middle grade novel, anyway). Great for people who enjoy action, adventure, and kickass heroines!

Review for Unidentified Suburban Object by Mike Jung

unidentified-suburban-object

My Summary: Chloe Cho is tired of being treated like an alien for her Asianness. When Chloe’s English teacher who is new to town turns out to be Korean American, she’s excited to finally meet someone who shares her heritage. However, when she investigates her family history for a school project, she unearths a mind-blowing truth about her parents.

Review:

Honestly, I will probably never get tired of books that focus on an Asian American character’s ethnicity, even though it’s important to have plenty of books featuring Asian/Asian American characters that aren’t about their ethnicity, because they are cathartic. Mike Jung adds to the growing canon of Asian American kid lid with a book that portrays the experience of being “othered” perfectly while throwing in an extra twist (or two).

I related to Chloe’s experience quite well, especially as a fellow East Asian American. Getting mistaken for Japanese, Chinese, Korean, etc. (I’m Taiwanese) was a regular part of my childhood, and when I was in middle school, some seventh grader I didn’t even know went out of his way to say “konnichi wa” to me multiple times in passing. Also, the part where she questioned whether her friendship with Shelley was rooted in Shelley’s fetishization of her culture was very real. Because of the popularity of Japanese and, more recently, Korean pop culture abroad, there are white people (as well as POC, unfortunately) who fetishize Japanese, Korean, and East Asian people in general. It’s extremely uncomfortable to have to wonder whether someone’s motivations for being interested in you, platonically or romantically or otherwise, are based on these ridiculous idealizations of your culture and people that homogenize you and treat you as interchangeable.

Chloe is a great protagonist because she’s so unapologetically sassy. The book is written in first-person, and her voice jumps off the page. You can feel her frustration, her excitement, her shock, her rage, and so on very acutely. Moreover, she’s not afraid to voice her opinions or express her emotions. She may get good grades and be good at the violin, but she is 3000% not here to be your model minority. Take this glorious passage (some parts omitted for brevity):

“He told Jeremy that you always win first chair because Asians all have a violin-playing gene, and how’s he supposed to beat that?”

I could almost feel the surface of my eyeballs giving off steam as Shelley’s words sank into my brain.

“Oh, that weasel-faced little preppypants,” I said, not bothering to whisper. “I don’t care how expensive his violin is, he’s going DOWN.”

YOU GO, CHLOE CHO!

(For the record, I told that seventh grader who said “konnichi wa” to “f**k off.”)

While a lot of books that explore ethnic identity have the parents teaching their child about their heritage while the kid resists because they’ve internalized the stigma of being Asian in a white-dominated society, this book is the opposite. Chloe is extremely interested in learning about and exploring her heritage, and her parents are the one who refuse to have anything to do with it.

And it turns out there’s a very good reason for it. That’s where the big twist comes in and takes the feeling of being “othered” to a new level and makes this book a creative spin on a familiar story. Then, just when you think you know what’s up and things seem to be settling down, the ending features another twist that makes the book end with a bang.

On top of the other stuff I already mentioned, Mike Jung finds ways to throw in scenes and conversations that encourage you to think critically about cultural elements that are often viewed superficially. Or initiate important dialogues about representation, such as this one (also edited for brevity):

“I’m reading this book. It’s about aliens who come to Earth, they introduce an alien virus into the water supply, and you know what, the heroes in these movies, the people who save the world, they’re all white people, ALL OF THEM and when there are human-looking aliens, they’re also all white people! Why don’t any of the aliens who look like white people get killed? Where are the Korean people? Why is it always a white person who saves the world? Why are the aliens always the bad guys??”

If I ever encounter someone who treats kid lit like a throwaway genre that doesn’t require/entail depth or thoughtfulness, I will shove this book at them.

Recommendation: I love this book and even if you’re not someone who usually reads middle grade fiction, I’d highly recommend it!