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

 

Review: Chameleon Moon by RoAnna Sylver

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Chameleon Moon by RoAnna Sylver

Pub. date: October 11th, 2016
Publisher: Amazon Digital Services (2nd edition)
Format: Digital
ASIN: B01LW0O7KJ
Source: FYeahAsexual 

 

 

 

The city of Parole has been quarantined from the mainland, because it’s burning. Literally, people have been cut off and left to die on a land with an open flame directly under it.There’s a police force called Eye In The Sky that ensures that nobody leaves. Meanwhile, the city is also populated with a bunch of superhumans who have fantastic abilities and are keeping the city from completely wiping out. One of them, Regan (with snake eyes and a lizard tail), suffers from years of anxiety and PTSD, and needs to escape. He can’t, because Hans (a little shit of a ghost), knows how to help him, in exchange for Regan committing a murder.

Regan fails, loses his memory, and ends up running into Evelyn (singer by night, superhero by day). Regan joins her in hopes to piece his story together and escape from Parole. Here we meet the rest of the cast of characters: Danae, who can bring machines to life, Rose, who has healing thorns and vines growing out of her body, Zilch, who is made up of other dead people, and Finn, a lovable taxi driver who causes explosions when he’s feeling anything but happy. Together, they work to uncover the secret behind why Parole is burning, while trying to survive imminent annihilation.       

I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy at the end of a dystopian fantasy novel. No, really. This book comes with a lot of hope, and it’s really hard not to love any of the characters (well, maybe not Hans. In case you couldn’t tell, I really don’t like Hans, the conniving little piece of- you get my drift). I loved reading the story from multiple POVs, because the entire premise of Regan losing his memory allowed for the story to unravel and give us context, as he was piecing his life together. This plot point also made it super easy to follow the other characters’ POV. There is a romance ARC, and a fully fleshed out secondary romance narrative as well, which is quite lovely. Not gushy, not out of place, it just flows naturally with the rest of the story (while casually tugging at your heart). 

I can’t talk about this book without talking about it’s inclusiveness. Oh man, I want to shake my fists and shove this book in the faces of people who are all “ugh it’s not always about a diverse cast, can’t we just love the book” and other bullshit because HOLY COW this book is as diverse as it is good. I’m talking trans rep, ace rep, polyamorous rep, mental illness rep, etc. If you’re white/cis-straight/able and are eye-rolling, I challenge you not to fall in love with these characters. Not only is it inclusive, but my most favorite part of the book is all the conversations surrounding these representations. Not in a “let’s center this aspect of your character and make you one-dimensional” kind of way, but in a way that completely fit into the scene. These conversations are so important, so vital, and even when we see diverse representations we don’t often see such nuanced conversations. Those scenes validated me and my experiences. That these characters were still struggling with some parts of their identity and hadn’t quite worked it out, without reducing the plot to their flawed identity situations; I didn’t realize how much I wanted to see that on the page till I actually saw it on the page. 

The book is basically made up of several tiny pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that’s fun to piece together, while being enveloped in inclusion and validation. I absolutely loved it (in case that wasn’t already clear). I’m so glad I chose to participate in #AceBookClub because there was no other way this book would ever have made it into my radar, and I’m really looking forward to the sequel. Please, please read this book. 

-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

 

 

Review: Thorn by Intisar Khanani

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Thorn by Intisar Khanani

Pub. date: January 2014
Publisher: Intisar Khanani
Format: Ebook
Author’s website: http://booksbyintisar.com/

 

 

Princess Alyrra does not see the appeal of being royalty. Deprived of the luxury of making choices, with no power to stand up against her cruel brother, calculating mother, and a contemptuous court, she has spent her life avoiding the spotlight. THen she is forced to marry someone she doesn’t even know (for political reasons), and is being shipped off to a foreign land with very little hope that things are going to get better for her. On her journey there though, her party is attacked, and a magical spell switches her identity with another woman. Once she reaches her destination, she is assigned the lowly station of a goose girl, and for the first time in her life, has the freedom to make her own choices: either fight for her rightful identity and subsequent future with this prince she’s never met, or start off fresh in this new life, as Thorn. However, she becomes increasingly aware that there are some dark forces in play in this new kingdom, and becomes acquainted with the prince, and the choice she needs to make is tied to some serious consequences. 

Here’s the first reason I loved this book, it’s a retelling of The Goose Girl by the Grimm’s Brothers. I love retellings, particularly fairy tale retellings. There’s so much beauty in playing around with them, especially since a lot of them are written by white dudes, and let’s face it, could use some color. 

The second reason I loved this book, and why I also love retellings, is that it is an opportunity to flesh the characters out and give them more dimension. Which is exactly what Intisar does. Alyrra doesn’t just carry out her duties as the goose girl, but she becomes involved in the lives of the other servants she has to live with. Intisar does a phenomenal job describing the political and social unrest, using many scenes to depict issues of classism, how people who didn’t grow up in palaces had so many other odds to contend with. There is a scene where one of her new friends is assaulted, and despite her friendship with the prince and seeking his help, Alyrra is unable to get help from them. Meanwhile, the locals dealt with the attackers by implementing their own form of justice, because they had no expectations that the law would care for those that were underprivileged. The power dynamics and imbalance between Alyrra/Thorn and the prince are also explored in multiple scenes and interactions between them.

Another relationship that gave me both joy and crushed me was Thorn’s relationship with Falada, a strong-willed talking horse (though nobody other than Thorn knows about the talking part). Another character that was just a caricature in the original, Initisar portrays Falada as a loyal companion and dispenser of sagely advice, and the bond between the two of them is strong.

As for the writing itself, the prose is beautiful, even though world building is slow and took me a little while to comprehend. It all flows together. The magical and sorcery aspect isn’t something that leaps out of the page as bizarre, because it is woven into the world and belongs there. Alyrra’s character is a beautiful example of nature vs. nurture, of a victim that ultimately saves herself, as a result of her very best qualities which are the ones that were developed and not inherited.

Here’s my third and probably most favorite thing, the relationship between Alyrra/Thorn and Prince Kestrin. You can watch it develop through their interactions. It’s pretty obvious that he knows she’s the princess, even though he hasn’t quite worked out how her identity was switched. Given all that has happened, it is only natural that Alyrra/Thorn is extremely wary of the prince and basically everyone in the court, which is why she is extremely reluctant to accept help from him, and he doesn’t push her. There’s various points in the story where we get to see Kestrin’s POV, where instead of trying to save her, he tries to guide her to save herself. This relationship between two strangers isn’t one of immediate romance, but one that is a combination of mutual understanding and slowly developing trust. Even in the end, it’s not all neatly tied up, as evidenced by these lines:

“I take a step forward, so that I am barely a handspan away from him, and rest my other hand on his chest, feeling the rise and fall of each breath. “I have no doubt of it,” I say, because I cannot yet tell him I love him, because we need more time without games and deceit between us to find such love.”

This book left my heart singing, so I’m immensely grateful to both Jenny and Memory for recommending it to me. Thank you, friends. I’m of course now an absolute fan of Intisar Khanani and will of course be devouring everything she’s ever written in the near future.