ARC Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

32920226 Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Pub. date: September 5th, 2017
Publisher: Scribner
Format: E-galley
ISBN: 9781501126062
Source: Netgalley

Thanks so much to Netgalley and Scribner for providing me this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

 

Trigger Warnings: Dead sibling, addiction, cancer, dying family member, drugs

Plot: Jojo and his little sister Kayla live with their grandparents in rural Mississippi, and only occasionally see their mother Leonie. The grandmother is dying of cancer. the grandfather is trying to run the household and teach Jojo life lessons, and Leonie sees visions of her dead brother when she gets high. Then, when Jojo and Kayla’s white father Michael is released from prison, Leonie packs the kids and a friend in a car, and travels across the state to the Mississippi State Penitentiary. a journey that’s full of danger and promise.

It is of no surprise that Jesmyn Ward won the National Book Award for this novel. She is just such a fantastic writer, and has the ability to make readers of her work empathize with the most flawed characters. Characters who in theory should be the villains of the story, but you end up feeling for them. She makes you ache for them. All of her characters have experienced, or are experiencing an immense amount of pain, and this is reflected in their worldviews, the choices they make, and the lives they live.

The story mainly comes from the perspectives of Jojo and Leonie, who are both people of few words, always on guard, but their internal voices convey everything that they would not say out loud to the reader, and basically set up the entire book. Jojo is coming of age and holds so much resentment towards his mother, who is an absentee parent, while absorbing crucial life lessons from Pop, his grandfather, as he is trying to figure out how to be a man. Leonie on the other hand is the character that put me through the wringer emotionally. She is so deeply flawed, and everything she does or that Jojo says she does or does not do makes you want to hate her, but reading her perspective and what she’s thinking makes you not only empathize, but just ache for her. A drug addict, she’s haunted by visions of her dead brother whenever she’s high, and it’s a punch in the gut to read about it. 

Jesmyn’s skill comes through in how she uses her characters- a lot of them are symbolic to further the story. Her writing makes you feel such pain with a story where terrible things just keep happening and there seems no reprieve, but still leaves you feeling hopeful at the end of it. There is no particularly happy ending, nothing is neatly tied up or resolved. Therein lies its beauty. I honestly could not find a single flaw in this book.

This was my first time reading her full-length novels (I’d previously read her memoir, Men We Reaped, and The Fire This Time), and she has become one of my favorite authors. I’m a total sucker for books that make me feel pain and that just sucker- punch me with all the emotions, and Sing, Unburied, Sing did just that. Devastatingly beautiful prose and an absolutely engrossing story, it is undoubtedly one of my favorites of 2017, and one that I urge you to read if you haven’t already. 

-J

 

 

Mini Reviews: Books With Aro and/or Ace Characters

Wishing you a Happy New Year full of love, light and laughter!

Thanks to making more friends in the ace and aro communities on Twitter, I’ve gotten the chance to read books representing these identities. They’re usually ownvoices and SFF and indie/self-published, which has also been a great way to diversify my reading from just traditional publishing. It’s so cool that there’s authors out there not waiting around for traditional publishing to catch up, otherwise we’ll be waiting a lot longer for representation. I thought I’d do quick reviews of three books I read and loved recently.

34337959 No More Heroes by Michelle Kan: There are Vigilantes with special Abilities all over the world who patrol the streets at night to keep the peace. However, a series of Vigilante deaths ensue- the identity and the motive of the person responsible for these deaths are unknown. Three young Vigilantes have no idea what they’re getting into when they get involved, and team up with a bunch of older Vigilantes to solve the mystery.

This is a fast-paced urban fantasy that features a diverse cast of characters and high stakes adventure time. I thoroughly enjoyed the pacing, the mystery, the action sequences and the Abilities were really cool. I could almost visualize it all. I loved that the author focused on friendships and fostering teamwork among these characters, a lot of whom were essentially just introduced and getting to know one another. It also features Fang, a genderfluid aroace character, which is a huge bonus. The only thing I’d have liked more was character development. There were a lot of characters and we really didn’t get any background on anyone but Fang. However, the author has been mentioning a sequel, and the book seems to be set up that way, so I’m hoping we get to know them more then. 

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The Trouble by Daria Defore: Danny Kim, lead of a Seattle indie rock band called The Trouble, embarrasses himself by rudely hitting on a cute guy Jiyoon, who attends one of his band’s shows, only to find out that the guy is the TA of his Accounting class. However, events occur and soon a friendship is formed between Danny and Jiyoon. 

I always lean towards realistic fiction over fantasy, and was delighted to find a contemporary fiction book featuring an aro character. The author did a really good job establishing and developing Danny and Jiyoon’s relationship, and how Danny navigates it as an allosexual aromantic person. This is not a “romance is a cure” storyline at all. Danny is firmly aro-spec, and there’s great scenes discussing what that means, both their expectations from their relationship, and establishing boundaries. I also loved that Danny is extremely close to his bandmates, and that relationship status doesn’t change regardless of whatever is happening with Jiyoon, which I especially appreciated. If you’re looking for aromantic rep in contemporary fiction, you should definitely pick up this one.

34031351The Traitor’s Tunnel by C. M. Spivey: This novella features a brother-sister duo in the city of Arido who are estranged- Bridget is a robber, and Theodore is the apprentice of a well-renowned city engineer, on his way to his dream job as the Lord Engineer of Arido. The two of them cross paths accidentally, and must reunite to stop a traitor and save their city and the empire.

I received an advance copy of this novella in exchange for an honest review.

Although the events in this book occur several years before the ones in FROM UNDER THE MOUNTAIN (which I haven’t read), it works great as a standalone. I had no issues following the plot or the worldbuilding. Two specific things I loved about this were: 1. the main characters are siblings, not romantic partners (or to-be romantic partners), playing to a great family dynamic, as well as alternating POVs. 2. Theodore is an established panromantic asexual character. His relationship with Leander is explored and fleshed out not only from his perspective, but from Bridget’s as well. Bridget’s own relationship with Keaton isn’t super defined, which fits in naturally with her personality. The world-building is solid and I had no trouble following it at all, it’s such a well-structured plot. All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I’m definitely picking up From Under The Mountain soon. 

P. S. If you don’t already follow Claudie Arseneault on twitter, you really should. She’s created a great database for SFF books featuring ace and/or aro characters, and is always happy to chat about them on twitter as well. 

-J

ARC Review: The Queen of Dauphine Street (NOLA Nights #2) by Thea de Salle

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The Queen of Dauphine Street (NOLA Nights #2)

Pub. date: May 15th, 2017
Publisher: Pocket Star
Format: E-galley
ISBN: 9781501156090
Source: Netgalley

Thanks so much to Netgalley and Pocket Star for providing me this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

 

Plot: Madeline Roussoux screams extravagance: she’s got money, houses, a private jet, a cruise ship, and a pet tiger; not to mention she’s gorgeous and hella sexy. Everyone in the social scene knows who she is. None of this takes away from the fact that she’s got some demons to deal with- growing up a lonely child in a noveau riche family, watching her father commit suicide and her mother subsequently having breakdowns, drugs, rehabs, failed marriages- and is wrecked on the inside. Darren Sanders is a stunning looking man, oozing Texan charm and a giant heart. While trying to get away from his stalker ex-girlfriend, he meets Maddy in New Orleans through a mutual friend, who offers to take him on her boat when there’s an attempt made on his life. 

Trigger warnings: Stalking, attempted murder, PTSD

Thea de Salle has given us another hella entertaining and hella sexy book, balanced with a story centering trauma survivors. The PTSD content is not in a savior complex way, in that nobody is getting cured of their traumatic experiences by virtue of being in a romantic relationship. Instead, Maddy is able to harness her experiences and coping mechanisms to help Darren out when he is struggling. I love that the author took the time to detail what Darren’s panic attack looks like and include a conversation about it after. Of course, it’s never the same for everybody, but the book doesn’t shy away from the fact that the characters are trauma survivors. The story isn’t morbid, and offers hope to readers in the end. 

Maddy and Darren are just so wonderfully fleshed out in this book.We were introduced to Maddy in the first book in the series, and she’s such a vivacious, flirty, fun, and kind person. She’s well-versed in kink as a Dom, and absolutely owns her sexiness and sexuality. I love a woman who knows what she likes and how she likes it and has no qualms about owning it. She’s also super aware of her privilege and how people perceive her, but that doesn’t stop her from living her life. She has a friggin’ tiger for a pet, for crying out loud. It’s hard not to love her. And then there’s Darren. Oh my god, Darren with the dad jokes. I AM DEAD. Ugh I’m such a sucker for dad jokes you guys, and even though I didn’t ship these two in the beginning of the book the dad jokes pushed me over the edge. They’re hard to resist. Oof. He’s just…such a dork. I love it.

It was also great to see some of my favorite characters from book one make an appearance in this one. Sol and Rain (my loves), Vaughn, Alex, Cylan (still mercilessly teased by Sol all day everyday), and Tempy (she’s just so badass I want her book  so much). Sol and Rain are still so in love, and I also love that Darren and Maddy are so appreciative of that couple in their own way. 

This book is a great mix of adorable and goofy and sexy, and such a great sequel to the first. I love all of these characters from this series so much and I would love for each of them to have their book. The next book in the series is going to be Alex DuMont’s, and he’s such a curmudgeonly bastard it’s going to be such a delight to see pages and pages of that, it is going to be a testament to my patience.

-J

 

 

ARC Review: When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon

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When Dimple Met Rishi

Pub. date: May 30th, 2017
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Format: E-galley
ISBN: 9781481478687 
Source: Author

Thanks so much to Simon Pulse and Sandhya Menon for providing me this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

 

 

Summary: 18-year old Dimple Shah is more than ready to start university, to catch a break from her mother talking ad nauseum about the importance of finding an “Ideal Indian Husband.” So it’s almost a miracle that her parents are letting her attend a summer program for web developers. Rishi Patel is your Bollywood romantic, and eager as all hell to find his future wife, preferably set up by his parents. The Shahs and the Patels want to use this summer program that their kids are attending to nudge them towards each other, and Rishi is more than happy to be on board with this arrangement. The only problem- Dimple has no idea that all this is happening. So what happens when the two eventually meet? 

So, in case it wasn’t clear, this book is a Bollywood romcom in a nutshell. I am not kidding. I grew up watching this story. Several movies of this story. This book is the YA version- but sex positive, not misogynistic, no gaslighting, and none of that patriarchal bullshit. I will be totally honest- I know how important this story was going to be for desi kids outside of the subcontinent- they never get to see themselves or their culture represented positively, front and center. But I was also worried- the synopsis screamed Bollywood to me, and Bollywood is a buttload of misogynist garbage fire even on its good days. That apprehension was the reason it took me so long to actually pick up the book (a book I was so excited about that Sandhya was kind enough to send to me). I read it in one setting. Long story short, it’s fucking amazing. It’s funny, heartfelt, wonderful characters, and I SHIP THEM. I SHIP THESE DORKS. Dishi, Rimple, whatever the fuck the kids are gonna name them. I’m rooting for these kids to have a good time. 

Now that’s out of the way, let’s start with how desi this book is. Ultimate desi. The mum who is constantly haranguing Dimple to dress like a girl, and put on that damn kajal (I spent the first 17 years of my life not touching kajal on regular days and then college happened and I realized what a lifesaver it actually is to make me look less hungover), the dad who is the voice of reason when Dimple and her mum get into it, all the fussing in the name of love that can be suffocating but you miss when you’re away from home for a bit, the nosy aunty who simultaneously made me go “ARGH AUNTY WHY” and “Holy shit yes good lord these aunties that’s exactly how they are!”, and the desi family dynamics. They rang true and were hilarious and heartwarming all at the same time.  

And then there’s Rishi. Rishi (who will be a young Rishi Kapoor in my head, fight me) is a diehard, Bollywood romantic. He’s 17 and ready to find his life partner. He arrives at SFSU with every intention of getting to know Dimple so that they can fall in love and get married and live happily ever after and endgame. This is a boy who is sure of himself, who s grounded in his identity and his culture, and has no qualms about it. None of these traits are lost through the story, at the same time it was wonderful to watch his character grow and his ideas about his life be moulded based on the events in the story. He instantly falls for Dimple, and she challenges him every step of the way. All of the swoons. 

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Can we also talk about how adorable the book jacket is? Actually, we don’t have to talk about it because it’s downright adorable. Just look at it.  

Another thing I really appreciated about the book- while the romance is the main plotline, that characters aren’t presented only in that one dimension. Dimple isn’t just all ambition and competitiveness, she’s a person with multiple facets, thoughts, ideas, values, notions. Rishi isn’t just a die-hard romantic- he has passions, aspirations, and let’s be honest, they’re both so dorky in their own ways it is only natural they find a safe space in each other’s company. The book takes the time and several different scenes to explore these two as individuals and together- it’s the mark of a very very good writer. 

Here’s a place where the book scores again- sex positivity! Some teens may engage in sexual behavior (if they so choose)- surprise, surprise. Also, spoiler alert, but some brown teens may engage in sexual behavior (there seems to be this assumption that sex is a big no no for desi kids because strict parents or whatever, and again, if they so choose). So, extra points to Menon for including conversations about sex, consent-seeking, and sex positivity!

Needless to say, I’m thrilled this book exists. I’m thrilled desi teens will get to read it, to see themselves on the page, to laugh out loud at the melodramatic and occasionally clichéd desi romance moments (including a very Bollywood climax) that they will appreciate and nod at because familiarity. If you enjoy contemporary romcoms, I highly recommend you pick this one up, it’s a goddamn delight.

P. S. I read this in April so I can’t count it, but this book qualifies for #AsianLitBingo, if you’re looking for a title for the South Asian MC/Contemporary Asian MC/ Romance with POC squares. 

ARC Review: Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan

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Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan

Pub. date: March 14th, 2017
Publisher: Salaam Reads
Format: E-galley
ISBN: 9781481492065 
Source: Netgalley

Thanks so much to Salaam Reads and Netgalley for providing me this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

 

Summary: Now that Amina is in middle school, it feels like everything around her is changing. Her best friend Soojin has started hanging out with another girl and is considering changing her name to something more “American”, her dad’s brother is visiting them from Pakistan for the first time so she needs to be on her best behavior 24/7, she’s forced to participate in a Quran recitation competition at her local community center, and she desperately wants to participate in the Winter Choral Concert but is too shy to sign up for it. Meanwhile, tragedy strikes as their mosque is vandalized, leaving Amina and her community utterly devastated. 

I haven’t read a lot of middle-grade fiction since well before middle grade ( I was the annoying kid that thought it was only cool to read ‘above’ her reading level and no adult told me otherwise), and it’s such a delight to pick them up and read them as an adult. Hena Khan has woven such a vibrant story with these babies at the heart of it, filled with warmth and leaving you with hope.

The first thing that struck me while reading this was how early in their lives non-white kids in the US and other white-majority countries begin to experience microaggressions and racial stigma. Their environment is made up of people that view them as “other”, including the white kids in their schools. Soojin’s story arc of wanting to change her name to one that would be easier for white Americans to pronounce particularly stayed with me. I didn’t even have to grow up in that kind of environment and three years of people in the States mispronouncing my name drove me batty, but to be a small kid whose environment moulds her into thinking the solution to the conundrum is assimilation (because of systemic white supremacy) is both rage-inducing and heart-breaking. I know a lot of people (in India) who make fun of desis in the States for shortening or changing their names, but they never ever take into consideration the extent of this name-fuckery that POC experience which lead to that decision. 

There are a lot of relationships fleshed out and explored in the story- particularly the family ties. There is a familiar ring to the conversations among members of Amina’s family. I loved that Amina and her brother are very supportive of each other. Amina is still at the cusp of adolescence and by nature quieter, but her brother is thrust into the chaos of self-discovery with basketball and peers on the one side and his parents and their expectations n0t to abandon his culture on the other side. This was extremely relatable, especially in the context of Asian families, and I don’t think that dissonance between these cultural values and what my parents called “modern thinking” ever goes away. At the same time, the parents are not portrayed unfairly- they’re loving, caring, and a little strict, but have their kids’ best interests at heart. The arrival of Amina’s uncle throws some complications in their first-gen family, and their khaatirdhari (hospitality) is so familiar. Guests are considered an equivalent to god, so even with family members hosts will go out of their way to make sure their guests are respected and always comfortable. 

Another thing that I was really glad to see was that Amina and her brother do not abhor or reject their culture. Often times second/third gen Asians are portrayed as rejecting, mocking or hating their cultures (said cultures are also portrayed as old-fashioned, whacky, or straight up weird), and this portrayal either seems like pandering to white people or just written from this white gaze. While Amina is probably a little too young and the typical rebellion we see against religion and culture is seen with older kids, it feels good to read about South Asians without the “backward” shadow. Culture and religion are complicated, and they’re a part and parcel of the Asian culture, so in reality it is almost impossible to disassociate from that without a thought. When crisis strikes with the mosque being vandalized, it is hard not experience horror at the event, especially with the story being built around Amina’s family and the extent to which their lives are tied to that community. However, it was encouraging to watch the community come together in the face of blatant Islamophobia, with the help of supportive allies, not to let the violent act tear them and whatever they’ve built down, leaving readers with hope at the end of it all.

The theme of identity and self-discovery are maintained throughout the book, and explored with the storylines of multiple characters. None of the characters were one-dimensional, and even with the multiple storylines, were written wholly human. This is a very empowering story, and exposing kids to stories like this one is very crucial if we’re to fortify them with the tools to be aware of diversity in experiences, backgrounds, and cultures and dismantle systemic bigotry. 

-J

 

ARC Review: The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

30358505-_sy180_The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen 

Pub. date: February 7th, 2017
Publisher: Grove Press
Format: E-galley
ISBN: 9780802125392 
Source: Edelweiss

Thanks so much to Grove Press and Edelweiss for providing me this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

 

I have two confessions: I haven’t finished reading The Sympathiser yet (not because I didn’t like it, I set it down months ago because of life and more urgent reads in my TBR and haven’t picked it up since), and my knowledge of the Vietnam war is pretty insignificant. I requested this book anyway because I figured there would less pressure to love it than its Pulitzer-winning predecessor. Turns out I didn’t need to be that cautious because I’m officially now a member of the Viet Thanh Nguyen fan club. 

As the title indicates, this collection of previously-published pieces revolves around the experiences of refugees from the Vietnam War. In just eight stories, set in America as well as Vietnam, Nguyen manages to capture and share a plethora of viewpoints and characters. He starts off strong with ” Black Eyed Women”, where we meet a ghostwriter, a Vietnamese-American refugee who is the middle of working on a very traumatic memoir when she’s visited by the ghost of her brother who died when they were fleeing Communist Vietnam. Nguyen conveys a powerful message with simple sentences. For example, when the narrator asks him why he’s wearing the same clothes as the day he died: 

“The dead move on,” he had said, coiled in his armchair, hands between his thighs. “But the living, we just stay here.”

This sentiment is echoed in “The War Years”, where the narrator recalls an incident from his childhood about a woman who approaches his mother seeking donations for an anti-Communist guerillas back in Vietnam, yet cannot come to terms with the disappearance (potential death) of her husband and son who were both guerilla soldiers. 

“While some people are haunted by the dead, others are haunted by the living.”

The stories also represent so much internal conflict that can be seen among several characters. Whether it is the young refugee who is deeply attracted to one of his hosts, or the wife of a professor who is struggling with her husband’s deteriorating memory and saving face in front of her own children, the man who let’s his dad take revenge on his own ex-wife merely out of spite, regardless of his complicated relationship with the man, or two sisters, one American and one Vietnamese, and their complex relationship. 

My favorite story of the collection is “The Americans”, in which Nguyen tells the story of a man who was an American pilot during the war, and is visiting his daughter in Vietnam who works there as a teacher in a rural part of the country. The father is haunted by memories of the war, which are further aggravated by his daughter’s insistence that her move to Vietnam is permanent. When her mother attempts to diffuse an argument on the subject with her father, the daughter says:

“I am home, Mom. It sounds strange. I don’t know how to put it, but I feel like this is where I’m supposed to be. I have a Vietnamese soul.”

I’m a sucker for stories that revolves around tensions between parents and their children, especially in the Asian community where such conflicts are further complicated by a culture that has always emphasised children respecting their parents wishes no matter age or life choice. Yes, they make me feel validated, because this is something I struggle with a lot, and I can relate to this particular story especially as the child of expatriates. For parents and children, coexisting without severing ties despite having polar opposite views on nearly everything is increasingly common among the present generation. 

It’s pretty hard to pinpoint any weak links in this collection. Even though they’ve been published separately before, and despite the variety of experiences, they all echo fear, love, loss, and internal struggles. The fear that refugees and immigrants experience as depicted in these stories feel very authentic; that inclination to be contained, subservient, and to assimilate, such that any contrasting behavior, especially from the younger generations, feels like a shock to the system. The stories themselves don’t come with surprises, extreme plot twists, or sensationalized details. Rather, the simple writing conveys raw feelings of displacement that are in tandem with these experiences. This is a very timely book with unforgettable characters, so I urge you to pick this up soon. 

-J

 

 

ARC Review: Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

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Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

Pub. date: January 3rd, 2017
Publisher: Grove Press
Format: E-galley
ISBN: 9780802125392 
Source: Netgalley

Thanks so much to Grove Press and Netgalley for providing me this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

I think we can all agree that Roxane Gay is a badass, even if you base it just on how she deals with Twitter trolls. I fell in love with her voice in her first essay collection, Bad Feminist. Even though the writing wasn’t perfect, the message was powerful, and I learned so much about feminism from that book. I started following her work since then, and have yet to be disappointed. So when I saw that the ARC of this book was available on Netgalley, I didn’t hesitate to request it and was once again, blown away by this powerhouse of a writer. 

Difficult Women is a collection of twenty stories are held together by a common theme- pain. Pain, mostly from the men in their lives. This is not a collection for the faint-hearted. The women she has written in this book face so many obstacles in their quest to be independent. They strive to keep themselves together and survive as they experience abuse, like the two sisters in “I Will Follow You”, being fetishized and objectified, like Sarah does in “La Negra Blanca”, racism and microaggression, like the woman in “North Country”, counting the number of times she’s been asked “Are you from Detroit?” (which is roughly the number of times I’m asked when I’m getting married when I attend Indian weddings), the loss and the need to experience pain, like the woman in “Break All The Way Down”, after her son’s death. Some of the stories like “Requiem for a Glass Heart” and “The Sacrifice of Darkness” were speculative fiction, but the overarching theme stayed the same. Her talent for satire shines through in the title story, where she writes about women that are “loose”, “crazy”, “frigid”- her sarcasm bleeding through the page. It’s amazing. 

And the men, oh god the men. The men demonstrate that Roxane has no fucks left to give. In a refreshing change, it is the men that are one-dimensional- the misogynists, the douchebags, the assholes, the entitled pricks. Some may feel that the men are being vilified, but I didn’t feel that way. 

This book completely wreck me and validated my feelings, all at the same time. I can’t think of a woman that won’t relate to some of the garbage situations that the women in these book have to deal with, regardless of class, race, or sexual orientation. Her writing is visceral, always in extremes, and despite dealing with extremely difficult and uncomfortable subjects she doesn’t hold back. The speculative ones didn’t quite work for me, but this did not detract from my overall experience reading this book. Roxane Gay is a force to reckon with, and I can’t wait to read her memoir Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body when it comes out later this year. Meanwhile, you should definitely pick this book up. 

-J

P.S. If you’re stuck on a very long Holds list at your library or can’t buy this book, the ebook is available on Hoopla!