Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee is an own-voices Korean, own-voices LGBTQIA+ adult science-fiction novel following a person named Gyen Jebi who has a passion for painting. When they find themselves jobless and desperate, they are recruited by the Ministry of Armour to paint mystical symbols that animate the occupying government’s soldiers. But when Jebi learns of the government’s horrifying crimes, they know that they can no longer stay out of the politics. Instead, they become determined to steal Arazi, the ministry’s mighty dragon automaton in order to stand up and fight.
Phoenix Extravagant is an exceptional piece of science-fiction that is beautifully complex yet approachable and fascinatingly original. It is one of the best novels released within the genre in all of 2020.
As a fellow nonbinary person, the representation provided via Gyen Jebi was absolutely amazing, along with the representations of other Queer identities and relationships. It is such a natural part of the social structure and environment that it evoked a strong sense of emotional reactions from me, mostly of deep gratitude and respect. Being able to read about characters with the same gender identity as myself partaking in such a fierce element of social justice was positively breath-taking.
The setting is a fantasy-steeped Korea, known as Hwaguk, which is under the strict occupation of what can be construed as the Japanese Empire, or Razanei. The descriptions of being oppressed and forced to forsake one’s entire cultural identity for that of the same people who violently usurped one’s homeland is vicious and incredibly multi-layered. This is further enhanced by the rift between those individuals who seek to make peace with their new realities and the people who continue to fight for their freedom. The depiction of the political situation being a literal manner of survival is brilliantly depicted via the diverging populaces and the political ramifications that impact them.
I found the commentary and tension of the world-building to be especially relevant to today’s socio-political upheaval, making it feel far more personal and intimate than I could have imagined. Combined with the fantastically sophisticated and inventive writing style, the reader is pulled into an immersive and suspense-fuelled ride of dexterous characters and the highly daedal perspectives of war and how it is not as black and white as it appears to be on the surface.
My favourite creative elements in Phoenix Extravagant were the dragon and the magic system. It was such a beautifully unique experience to see how independent the automaton dragon was. It was entertaining yet enlightening and even a bit cerebral. Combining that with painting being used as a grammar for the magic system, Phoenix Extravagant brilliantly implements fantasy-laced, steampunk-style aesthetics into the atmosphere that one cannot help but be astounded by.
If there is anything that I could complain about, it is only that I wish it were slightly longer in terms of historical context. The political foundation for the narrative is so thought-provoking and interesting to me that I would adore a secondary book that goes into more details. I would consume it ravenously.
All in all, Phoenix Extravagant is a superb work of genre fiction that I highly recommend to readers that enjoy a combination of steampunk sci-fi and inventive fantasy elements set against a Korean socio-cultural backdrop. Bibliophiles that like intelligently written adult fiction shall also find a lot to adore here.
Please note that I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review, courtesy of Solaris.
Publication Date: 20-October-2020 Publisher: Solaris Genre: Korean Literature, Science-Fiction Page Count: 416 pages Content Warning(s): Interrogation torture (on page). Attempted violence against a cat. Mass Death. Bombing. Intense representation of oppression and forced assimilation. GoodReads: Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee
“He is buoyant—of another dimension, one that does not experience the friction of the world in the same way she does. His fingers dart around the edges of a cigarette he twirls in his hand, and all she can think is ease. She has never felt that. She is more like the cigarette itself, passed from hand to mouth to earth, sucked dry and then forgotten.”
The Deep by Alma Katsu is a historical supernatural mystery novel about a young woman named Annie who survived the sinking of the Titanic, only to find herself working aboard another ship, the Britannica, years later. While working on the second ship, she is reminded of her time on the infamous maiden voyage of the Britannica’s predecessor; memories that are further heightened when she bumps into a familiar face.
Historical fiction stories that alternate between two time periods are my favourites due to the amount of depth that they add to the story. Being able to decipher connections from both eras is engrossingly fascinating. Couple that with my passionate infatuation with the Titanic as well as ghosts, then the compulsion to read said story becomes practically irresistible, more so when they are as excellently written as The Deep.
The best part of the novel is how fastidiously the tale is crafted with an adroit storytelling style that combines the nostalgia of historical fiction with an enigmatically eerie atmosphere of a ghostly mystery. The author utilises strange touches of spiritualism and superstition to create an environment that is marvellously creepy and claustrophobic.
The glorious writing is further accentuated by the extensively researched material that is used to share a tale based off a real-life tragedy. The artful examination of the varying class systems on the Titanic and how those systems dictated the “worth” of those who survived versus those who perished goes to show us that in terms of caste hierarchies not much has changed over the last century. This subtle exposé was a minute detail in the overarching narrative that I appreciated.
A couple of elements that may be a bit off-putting to fellow readers include the hefty cast of characters who mostly have seemingly miniscule roles in the grand scheme. Even so, each character does contribute to the plot as a whole, like pieces of a mosaic that are pieced together to finish a much larger puzzle.
Another aspect that shall be hit-or-miss with some folx include the gradual progression of events. A big chunk of The Deep is built upon dialogue exchanges and inner monologues to stimulate the different senses in order to immerse the reader completely into the pages. The slower pace works to increase the tension in a soft and unexpected manner. However, it also makes it challenging at times to stay completely focused on what is unfolding. I enjoyed the apprehension and anxiety that cultivates towards the climax as it felt more impactful due to the nature of the gentler tempo, which can be the key to a great mystery experience.
Overall, The Deep was a wonderful historical fiction novel with an interesting spectral twist I did not expect. The settings are impeccably dreary with writing that is tight and meticulous. I highly recommend this to fans who enjoy the nostalgia of the historical fiction genre, as well as readers that delight in soft ghost stories.
Publication Date: 10-March-2020 Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Genre: Historical Fiction, Supernatural Fiction, Mystery Page Count: 420 pages Content Warning(s): Psychological institutionalism. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (near drowning). Drowning (on page). Wartime injuries (moderate descriptions, on page). Suicide ideation. Suicide attempt. Death of a child (on page). Consensual sex (on page). GoodReads: The Deep by Alma Katsu
“How much of his life, all their lives and their histories, unravelled the more it was examined? The stories he’d grown up on were just that—stories, with more complicated roots and vastly different interpretations than he could possibly have imagined. It was unsettling, the world and truth he knew getting constantly shaken up.”
Please note:There may be spoilers in this review for The Empire of Gold. Please read at your own discretion. Thank you.
The Empire of Gold by S.A. Chakraborty is the third and final instalment in the author’s epic adult own-voices Islamic fantasy series. The highly-anticipated conclusion follows Nahri, Alizayd al-Qahtani, and Darayavahoush e-Afshin as they must confront the consequences of their choices across the span of the first two volumes, all leading to a highly action-packed finale.
The Empire of Gold left behind a plethora of emotions, most of which can be attributed to the various shades of turmoil that is expected when a highly-anticipated novel becomes the biggest disappointment of the year. The hopes and expectations that I harboured going into the pages of this epic finale were built upon an incredible foundation of passion and awe. One half of me is overwhelmed with affection for the characters, specifically my two favourite individuals, and everything they underwent across the trilogy. Yet, the other half witnessed the potential for an exquisitely crafted finale fall so unfortunately short that I had to question whether it was even authored by the same person.
There are two main aspects to The Empire of Gold that were utterly brilliant. Firstly, there is the multi-layered character development of an anti-hero war criminal seeking redemption who epitomises the struggle between wanting to do what is right and wanting to do what is necessary for a populace, and the weaknesses that those two desires generate. Secondly, the writing continues to be jaw-droppingly meticulous and methodical in its creation of a world teeming with magic along with the consequences and devastating impacts that having such power (and losing it) can have on an entire world. Then there are the laundry list of shortcomings that cause The Empire of Gold to feel like an entirely separate project that is wholly removed from the Daevabad series, the key elements of which include a unbearably forced romance, the addition of fresh lore and more world-building that completely clashed with the pre-established universe, tightly knit political tension that unravelled horridly due to poor planning, and unnecessary character perspectives.
The most riveting parts of The Empire of Gold were comprised of Darayavahoush’s chapters. They consisted of some of the best writing that I have seen across all three volumes of the series. He feels the results of the choices that he made—along with the choices that were agonisingly thrust upon him—in such an evocatively heart-breaking manner that it is impossible not to ache with him. His thoughts, his reactions, his desire to stand up against his oppressors and partake in seeking justice and peace on behalf of the people—even if that meant aligning with individuals of whom he detested—was mesmerising. These chapters are the ones that I devoured hungrily and swiftly.
‘From a country that’s been fought over by foreigners for centuries. We die, and we bleed, and it’s a debt the powerful never repay.’
Another bit that I felt was a fascinating element to the third instalment was the journey that Nahri takes with Alizayd. Due to the events that wrapped up The Kingdom of Copper, the duo find themselves on the run, in a manner of speaking. The dualities of her trek with Ali versus the one she took with Dara worked to truly emphasise the differences in her relationships with both men, including the variations of chemistry. Nahri’s chemistry with Darayavahoush is fierce and passionate. It is blazingly romantic yet toe-curlingly deep. Her love for him is breath-takingly natural and complex. Her relationship with Ali is the complete opposite. She has a deep-rooted affection for him that is steeped in a sense of respect and admiration that she has never really felt for another person before. Their connection is caring and well developed on the intricacies of consistent and constant exchanges of intimate information, and it is wholesomely platonic.
This brings me to my first shortcoming: there is no passion between her and Ali, particularly from her side; not even an ounce of romantic adoration. The two different quests she takes with these men further cement this fact into existence. When the undercurrents of their relationship start to shift later on in the book, I felt my heart sink with dread and frustration. I never expected her to end up with Dara, especially given the nature of the political upheaval that Daevabad is drenched in, keeping their individual paths apart. However, I also never expected her to end up with anyone. Nahri is a strong and independent character that had so much going for her and for her to be thrust into a forced romantic affiliation made my whole heart tighten with outrage. I also did not understand the choice to have her become involved with all three male characters in the series. Given her intensely independent and cautious nature, it did not sit well with me or make sense within the confines of her character build.
Another character who was dastardly out-of-place was Alizayd himself. He annoyed me to no avail in the first book due to his self-righteous beliefs and closemindedness. Nevertheless, I also respected him for having such a profound sense of self and the spark of curiosity that he showed when he recognised that maybe everything he had been taught was not the truth from the mouth of God, but rather a political ploy to keep him in check. It led to brilliant development and emotional growth in The Kingdom of Copper, to the point where my admiration for him and his desire to help people via listening rather than violence skyrocketed. Yet, all of that hard work and individualistic progress was lit on fire and burned to the ground in The Empire of Gold as Ali’s entire personality revolved around his grief for losing a family member with whom he did not have a profound bond with and a woman he knows he should not pursue. His morals and obstinate belief in his faith would have prevented him for engaging with Nahri in the ways that he did. Whatever inner conflicts that he had regarding these actions were also outrageously flippant and extremely out-of-character. Almost every chapter that Ali had was a formulaic monologue of grief and lust, or some variation therein. Replacing Ali’s chapters with more perspectives from either Muntadhir or Jameshid would have given the novel a completer and more fleshed out flow. It also would have added layers of dimension that the book desperately needed.
The last bit of disappointment—yet by far not the least— in The Empire of Gold came in the form of developing the marid connections that were briefly touched upon in the first two books. The entire chunk of lore was ridiculously convoluted. While I can envision the thought processes of how this brick of a section helped move the story along, particularly with regard to its contribution to the final battle, it once again creates a humongous chasm between all the groundwork laid out for the climax in the first two books and this one, tossing that compelling intrigue completely out the door. Ultimately, these were the scenes that built a gigantic wall of discord between me and the world of Daevabad, instilling a sense of reading an entirely separate story from an entirely isolated series.
Overall, The Empire of Gold was the most disheartening book that I have read all year. I fell in love with The City of Brass and The Kingdom of Copper, and as such, I had been anticipating this book like a little kid waiting for Eid mithai. Nonetheless, all I received in the end was a gargantuan pile of conflicting character builds, an overabundance of disconnected world-building, a jaw-droppingly weak and essentially pointless villain, and a supremely anti-climactic series climax. Even though I am immensely heart-broken by this third instalment, I still highly recommend the first two novels in the series because they truly are some of the best fantasy books to come out of the genre in years.
“There’s only so many times a heart can break. One day, it will be okay, but it’ll heal all wrong. It’ll heal with you outside of it.”
The Weight on Skin by Beena Khan is an adult own-voices South Asian contemporary romance novel about a man named Kabir who is struggling to move on with his life after a devastating heartbreak. Feeling empty, lonely, and sombre, Kabir tries to fill the void within his heart through the company of other women, only to be left hollow in their wake. When ghosts from Kabir’s past resurface, he shall be forced to confront the darkest parts of himself.
If there is anything that the author does fantastically, it is slow-burn romances. It was the best aspect of her previous novel—and sibling novel to The Weight on Skin—called The Name of Red and it is the quintessential star of the show here as well. Couple that with the excellent representation of the complexities of coping through an emotionally destructive heartbreak and positively beautiful writing, then one has themselves a romance contemporary that is ripe for the binge-reading.
Kabir is a character that I adored in The Name of Red. There is an innocence and a compassion about him that makes it difficult not to form some sort of emotional attachment to him. To witness his utter psychological destruction was a gut-wrenching experience. However, the growth that occurs in the aftermath of all that agonising grief is exceptional and a wonderfully picturesque allegory for hope.
“Hope, Kabir. Hope gives you the courage to move on.”
Losing a loved one—no matter the circumstance or method—leaves behind a surfeit of complicated emotions, such as grief, guilt, anger, longing, loneliness, and a profound sense of hopelessness. Kabir exhibits all of these different feelings, which later lays down a vital foundation for him to then grow upon. Every heartbreak leads to a special form of self-growth and maturity. Oft times people do not realise they not only have the fortitude within them to pick up and move forward, but also to shape and mould who they are into the best versions of themselves. By the time the book’s finale appears before the reader’s eyes, Kabir would have grown into a stunningly remarkable person, the pinnacle of hope.
Another character that steps into the spotlight in the pages of The Weight on Skin is Nadia, who was Kabir’s best friend. She intrigued me in the previous novel, however, due to her limited presence in the story, I never associated much of a connection to her. Here she is a game-changer. Nadia is a marvellous contrast to Red, which really helps to define the dualities within Kabir’s character and highlight his inner turmoil, making them both impeccably multi-faceted individuals.
Mrs Khan’s writing is the magical cohesive that brings all of the different parts of the story together in a highly-engaging and heart-fluttering manner. It is carefully crafted with charming details that truly immerse the reader into the world and budding relationship that takes place between both characters, evoking a spectrum of responses that illustrate exactly what it means to be human.
The structure of the evocative atmosphere truly enhance the slow-burn romance in magnificent ways. If there is anything that I detest in romances, it is insta-love. I much prefer a coupling to build their connection on meaningful exchanges—whether it is sweet and soft, or vicious and witty—because it accentuates the development of a deep-rooted longing in the relationship. It is gratifying and sensuous and irresistibly delightful. Kabir and Nadia’s exchanges are exactly like this; never rushed or brusque for the sake of forcing the story along. Rather than being superficial and one-dimensional, it is built upon the value of formulating bonds that connect the past to the present, misery to joy.
Overall, I cannot recommend The Weight on Skin enough to romance readers, especially folx who prefer a gradual building of emotions and compassion between two people; individuals searching for a genuine depiction of heartbreak that is not ostensibly imagined. Great writing. Superb characters. Lovely messages on the power of hope and the heart-warming promises on the other side of rejection.
Publication Date: 15-July-2020 Publisher: Beena Khan (self-published) Genre: Adult Contemporary Romance, South Asian Literature Page Count: 320 GoodReads: The Weight on Skin by Beena Khan
“Her bigotry had destroyed everything good in her life, and still she couldn’t twist free of it.”
Burning Roses by S.L. Huang is an adult own-voices Queer Chinese fantasy novella about Rose (a.k.a. Red Riding Hood) and an archer named Hou Yi. Together they join forces to stop deadly sunbirds from ravaging the countryside. Their journey shall take them into a reckoning of terrible sacrifices, a mourning of mistakes, of choices, and also of family amid a quest for immortality.
Burning Roses is a story that beguiled me from beginning to end. The richness of the culture, the complexities of intertwining a multitude of fairy tales to share an overarching narrative, the flawed yet highly engaging characters that readers begin to root for, and the themes of nostalgia-ridden soul-searching—all of these facets had me captivated from its very first page, making it one of the best novellas that I have read in all of 2020.
The most intimidating aspect of this book is that it retells a large handful of familiar, mostly Western fairy tales, such as Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Beauty and the Beast, and Hou Yi (a Chinese fairy tale). They are all effortlessly interwoven to depict a perfectly paced and intricate narrative about what it means to get older and to try to find some semblance of peace within oneself. Older readers especially will feel a deeply intimate relation to these specific topics, more so if one has ever felt that life spiralled past them too quickly or was too full of regrets. Because of this the essence of the tale that unfolds is decidedly dark. It was so unexpected that when I became enveloped by its presence I was left feeling immensely surprised and wholeheartedly delighted by its progression.
When we think about fairy tales usually we are left with images of gallant heroes saving their significant others, or embarking on grand adventures full of splendour. While there is plenty of splendour and magic to go around within the universe of Burning Roses, the heroes are not what they seem to be. Envisioning good characters turning into morally grey or even villainous ones was some of the most creatively seductive elements of the reading experience.
Even with these glorious attributes, the bulk of Burning Roses’ beauty lies in its main characters. Hou Yi—a gender-bent depiction—and Rose were mesmerising in their struggles with their inner turmoil and their sapphic romance. The more acclimated we become with the introspective ghosts that haunt them and the purpose of their journey, the easier it becomes to wish for their happy ending. I felt a kinship with both individuals on a personal level as they reminded me so much of my parents, a point I am sure was intentional. The cerebral thematic elements of Burning Roses orbits the notion of parents living vicariously via their children, a notion that many Asian kids and kids of conservative communities will be able to correlate to, I am sure.
My only critique of the novella is in regard to the world-building. It is such an imaginative universe that sometimes feels rather underdeveloped. This may be due to the short length (approximately one-hundred-sixty pages) or it can be attributed to the concentration on character growth. Either way, I adored what was shared and craved for more concrete dimension to the settings and atmosphere of this fantastic realm.
Overall, I highly recommend Burning Roses to readers of multicultural fantasies and to fans of beautifully re-imagined fairy tale retellings alike.
Please note that I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review, courtesy of Tordotcom.
Publication Date: 29-September-2020 Publisher: Tordotcom Genre: Adult Fantasy, Chinese Literature, LGBTQIA+ Literature Page Count: 160 GoodReads: Burning Roses S.L. Huang
Recently, while combatting a terrible reading slump, I felt a sudden urge to read picture books. My mind wanted to indulge in something short yet wholesome and heart-warming. After scrounging through my library’s digital offerings, I uncovered five diverse, own-voices titles that sounded perfect for the mood that I unexpectedly found myself in. Each of them were a marvellously yet oft times bittersweet experience and I wanted to share some brief reviews for these reads with you today.
Mango Moon by Diane De Anda and Sue Cornelison (illustrator): An own-voices Latinx story about a family who must grieve and come to terms with an uncertain future after their father and husband is taken away, pending deportation. As they adapt to finding a new home, his absence at sports games and birthday celebrations, they seek to fill their newfound emptiness with precious memories of the man they miss dearly.
This book was breathtakingly heart-breaking. The harsh reality that many families in the United States are currently faced with is brought into a vivid and straightforward fore in this stunning tale. We watch as this family’s life is turned completely upside down, leaving them with feelings of loneliness, loss, and even abandonment. The memories they have of their father is the only way that they know how to cope with him being gone.
The tale is expressed through gorgeous artwork. The colours are bright yet soft with details that capture the expressions of the pain and longing that these kids are feeling in a manner that shall be very accessible to any and all kids who will pick this book up. It’s perfect for adults because it highlights the truth of today’s cruel political chaos, while also being vital for children by depicting the importance of family and the small memories that families create together. Highly recommended.
This is my favourite rendition of the Goldilocks story yet! It is delightfully heart-warming and fun, with a reimagining that is gloriously and unapologetically Chinese. The cultural inclusion that is expressed via the panda bears, the turnip cakes, and the atmosphere of celebrating the Chinese New Year truly make this book a splendid addition to any library!
It was cute to read about Goldy Luck and how she tends to mess up the tasks she is charged with. However, it was even more endearing to read how she goes about in resolving the errors of her ways. It portrays the togetherness and importance of giving that is a huge part of the Chinese New Year, so adorably with charming, simple illustrations that utilise glorious, saturated colours of red, yellow, and greens that surround the reader in a sense of happiness. The book also includes a recipe for turnip cakes at the end, along with an author’s note that briefly describes the Chinese New Year. Highly recommended for all kids to check out as it opens up the beauty of diverse cultures in such a lovely manner.
The Boy and the Bindi by Vivek Shraya and Rajni Perera (illustrator): An own-voices Indian, own-voices LGBTQIA+ story about a young child who becomes fascinated with his Ammi’s bindi—the red dot commonly adorned by Hindu women to indicate the point of creation’s beginning—and wishes that he had one of his very own! Rather than scolding her son, she happily agrees to it and uses the opportunity to enlighten him about its cultural significance.
Nothing makes me happier than seeing acceptance of Queer kids in highly conservative communities, such as the South Asian community. Reading a story about a mum who treats her son’s curiosity and interest in understanding something outside of his expected gender role with respect and encouragement filled my own Trans heart with an indescribable amount of comfort and joy. This one act of kindness and regard helps her son to understand a bit more about himself, and as such, come to realise his own identity.
The artwork consists of focused drawings of the mother and bindi upon plain, white backgrounds that make the essence of the tale pop off the pages magnificently, signifying that this is a story about a boy who finds himself in the beauty of his culture.
I love that the characters are stunning, unapologetically brown individuals being joyous amid familial camaraderie. I feel this is something that we don’t get to witness nearly enough in literature, especially children’s works. Highly recommended to all readers, especially South Asian kids and families; witness the serenity of encouraging a child’s discovery of themselves and the elation that blossoms because of it.
Mooncakes by Loretta Seto and Renné Benoit (illustrator): An own-voices Chinese book about a young girl who is preparing to celebrate the Moon Festival with her parents. As they make mooncakes and sit outside waiting for the moon to rise, she listens to the stories about certain individuals that found their way to the moon.
My favourite part about this story is how centred it is on being humble and kind, while promoting a sense of family togetherness that is so beautifully soothing. The little girl’s curiosity along with the love that her parents have for her, depicted in the smaller details, is powerful and uplifting. My second favourite thing is the artwork, which uses muted shades of browns, yellows, and blues with soft details and cute characters. This would make an excellent bedtime story.
The themes of being humble and honest are depicted via the three stories that her parents share with her about individuals—who via the grace of the Jade Emperor and their own efforts—that ended up taking residence on the moon and significantly contribute to the beauty of the world in one form or another. The messages seem simple, yet they are deep and rather meaningful and perfect for youngsters to better understand compassion in the world around them. Highly recommend for readers of all ages, especially those interested in Chinese folktales.
Hana Hashimoto, Sixth Violin by Chieri Uegaki and Qin Leng (illustrator): An own-voices Japanese tale about a young violinist named Hana who decides to enter a competition. While her brothers give her a bad time about her playing, Hana reminisces about her Ojiichan (her grandfather) and the many memories she has of him surrounding her childhood with beautiful memories.
Out of all five of these books, this is the one that brought me to tears. It is my favourite story from the bunch and concentrates on the outstanding worth of sentimentalism in pursuing our passions, while also celebrating different ways that memories can help us heal and move forward when faced with loss. Lastly, it also shines a bright light on always believing in yourself even when others try to surround you in doubt.
Hana is precocious child with a lively imagination that is filled to the brim with sweet memories of her Ojiichan playing the violin for her and her family, all of which end up formulating the essence of her performance at the competition. It is an homage to a man that filled her heart with so much love and joy. This was indescribably personal for me because it reminded me of my Bhaiya (brother) who did the very same thing for me but with a pianoforte rather than a violin. It was so touching and inspiring that I was wholeheartedly moved to tears.
The illustrations are all so wonderful too, with details that brought every ounce of Hana’s memories and creativity to life in an upbeat and almost cinematic manner. The passion that Hana has for the violin, as well as the respect for its association to her beloved grandfather, pours off the pages and embraces the reader in a blanket of amenity that makes you want to immediately re-read the story again after finishing it. Highly recommended to any readers that are searching for a bit of motivation and uplifting spirit, as well as an impeccable sense of familial companionship.
Picture books are fabulous and should not be restricted to children’s reading pleasures. There are so many awe-inspiring narratives out there within the medium that is just as vital to adults (more so in many ways) as they are to growing brains and hearts, and I highly recommend that fellow bibliophiles take a chance at indulging in them, particularly diverse, own-voices ones!
“Normality was contagious, and exposure to the infection was necessary to keep up with it”.
Earthlings by Sayaka Murata is an #OwnVoices Japanese fiction novel by acclaimed author of Convenience Store Woman. The story follows a young lady named Natsuki who as a child was an outcast in the eyes of her parents and sister, and whose only friend was a plush toy hedgehog named Piyyut. Piyyut explained to her that he was a visitor from a far away planet named Popinpobopia on a very special quest to help Natsuki save Earth. Shortly afterwards, Natsuki begins to ponder as to whether she could be an alien as well and thus does not belong with the family that she cannot find common ground with, musings that become a bit more clearer (and stranger) once Natsuki matures into a grown woman.
What makes Earthlings such a fascinating feat of fiction is how absolutely absurd it is whilst dissecting some vital constructs of the modern era, particularly where the concept of being “normal” is concerned, along with the various ways that the human brain copes with trauma stemming from abuse and exploitation. Couple that with a surrealistically straightforward and terse prose, readers can expect some of the most innovatively bemusing literature to hit shelves yet.
Natsuki is a kid who is faced with an intensely lonely and alienating childhood that is laced with both verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. When she makes any attempt at seeking help for what is happening to her, she is met with disbelief and more ostracization. Her method of coping involves disconnecting from everything that is happening, causing her to become further disenfranchised from “fitting in” with people around her; an aspect that follows her well into adulthood.
The first half of the novel is a slow-burn build-up of the events that will work to formulate the mind-blowing climax to arrive in the second-half, and it is done in a marvellously meticulous yet chilling manner. The compiling sense of tension that begins to envelope the reader with each new atrocious encounter or experience that Natsuki undergoes creates an almost skin-crawling sensation. It is penetratively disturbing yet phenomenally cerebral, so much so that when everything implodes later on, the reader is left feeling utterly stunned.
My favourite element of the novel, aside from the insidiously psychological examination of how the psyche develops to protect against trauma, is the precise probe into the outrageous notion of normalcy. Individuals who reside within a perfect cookie-cutter existence are rarely able to view the many fallacies of the world, particularly if they are constantly unaffected by them. However, the outsiders and the oddballs who reside on the outskirts of this perception of perfectness—usually individuals that are neurodivergent or disabled—are the ones who truly comprehend just how awful a place the world can be; an infection to mental and emotional stability. When the grave catastrophes created by constructs such as capitalism or exploitation go unquestioned or uncontested, then the worst of consequences can occur, as depicted by the last one-third to one-fourth of the novel.
Earthlings is not for the feint-of-heart. There are some severe scenes of violence, brusque self-deprecating dialogue, on-the-page sexual molestation and rape, sexual exploitation of a child, many scenes of familial psychological and physical abuse, intense representations of anxiety and depression, social and sex-related awkwardness, and suicidal ideation, and the grotesque ways that normal able-minded and able-bodied folx perceive neurodivergent and disabled individuals. So, if you do find yourself intrigued by Earthlings, I recommend that you proceed cautiously. Even with the heavy subject matter and content, Earthlings is one brilliant novel, cementing Sayaka Murata as an up-and-rising author who has so much to offer the literary world.
Please note that I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review, courtesy of Grove Atlantic.
Seven by Farzana Doctor is an #OwnVoices Indian fiction literature novel about a woman named Sharifa who travels to India with her husband with the hopes of learning more about her great-great-grandfather who was an immensely successful businessman and a philanthropist. During her research, however, instead of discovering a tale of rags-to-riches, Sharifa learns that her grandfather had four wives, all of whom had been omitted from the family’s lore. As she becomes more and more engrossed in the enigma surrounding these women, Sharifa also becomes entangled in a powerful familial debate regarding khatna—an age-old ritual of female genital cutting, one that shall force her to face her own reality and choose a side.
One of the most intriguing characteristics about Seven is the subject matter of female genital cutting (FGC) as it is one that I have never seen discussed in literature before. My own personal knowledge of this ritual is extremely limited and for all intents and purposes, it has always been a topic that has existed within my own cultural circles, but one that is never openly discussed. While I was curious to learn more about FGC, I was wary of the sensitivity with which it would be broached in the book. Ms Doctor not only discusses this vital issue with accessibility and evocativeness, she also does so with great care and consideration, which is what truly makes Seven such an incredible title.
The writing style is simple and rather straight-forward, making it easy to get utterly consumed within the pages, more so when the emotions surrounding the subject matter are portrayed with authenticity and thoughtfulness. Each side of the debate is given attention and respect, and provides an insightful, educative, and captivating reading experience. The tone while discussing the roots of these rituals and why some family members still believe in the practise is never spiteful or accusatory, which is an incredibly challenging feat given the nature of this matter. Her exposition is careful and considerate from beginning to end, even when it leans a bit more towards one side versus the other.
The superb use of emotions to illustrate the tensions within Sharifa’s family as they discuss this practise draws the reader further into the complexities of olden traditional Indian culture that most would consider to be highly outdated. There are layers of complexities that go beyond simple right and wrong that create a plethora of reactions and responses as the story unfolds, making the book practically impossible to put down.
The focus on FGC plays parallel to some of the other issues that Sharifa is battling in Seven and that helps to formulate an even more elaborate narrative filled with multi-dimensional themes on gender roles (particularly where sex is concerned), self-acceptance, the intricacies of cultural identity, marriage, female relationships, and much more. Sharifa’s husband, Murtuza, was a pleasant surprise whilst reading. He was a compassionate and understanding man who always valued his wife’s thoughts and feelings, highlighting an equity in their marriage that is rarely depicted in books showcasing more culturally inflexible gender-centric functions in South Asian communities, especially with respect to her inner turmoil regarding her sexuality and mental fortitude.
While Seven is not an easy book to read, it is vastly important, and I highly recommend it to readers that are searching for a unique story with fallibly relatable characters. With writing that is supported via excellent research, a respectful approach to an intensely delicate subject matter, a sensitive exhibition of sex and romance amid rigid Indian traditions and gender roles, and beautifully sincere use of emotions, there is very little within these pages that shall disappoint.
Please note that I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review, courtesy of Dundurn Press.
“The men watched with fascination as she opened a book and bowed her head in it. It looked like she was avoiding the crowd, and she appeared to want to blend in. It was impossible though since she’d already caught the attention of her audience by simply standing out in her red dress.”
The Name of Red by Beena Khan is an #OwnVoices South Asian contemporary romance about a woman known only as Red who frequents a local bar every evening where she drinks vodka and reads books. One evening an admirer begins leaving specific titles for her upon her favoured reading spot with notes tucked into the pages. Feeling intrigued by the gesture, she reciprocates the gift-giving with responses to said notes, thus starting a curious friendship. The novel is a debut release.
There were many attributes to The Name of Red that kept me steadfastly invested in the story between Red and her mystery admirer, such as the incredible descriptive writing and the slow-burn interaction between the two individuals, however the novel’s downfall was how unpolished and repetitive the prose became.
The strongest trait of the novel is the captivating way that the author is able to create atmosphere. It was marvellously easy to picture Red getting situated at the bar and trying to focus on her book, but then becoming wholly uncomfortable when men would gawk at her inappropriately. Another scene was when she receives her first book from the admirer and the caution that she felt along with a twist of curiosity and excitement was delightful and charming. These fantastic descriptives extend to character interactions and dialogue sequences, where details of facial expressions and emotional reactions were shared, providing the reader with a superb recognition of how everyone was reacting to one another. This tends to be a characteristic that is quite commonly overlooked in contemporaries during verbal exchanges and its presence here was immensely appreciated. Additionally, it further cements the heat of the slow-burn development of feelings between Red and her eventual love-interest, Kabir.
The second facet that makes The Name of Red so fiercely engaging is the aforementioned romance. The rapport is built on two individuals who get to know each other gradually through shared (and separate) interests and a natural inquisitiveness about one another’s past encounters and relationships. It helps create a foundation of trust and mutual respect that is splendidly genuine and empathetic. The establishment of familiarity when building a romantic relationship or even a platonic kinship is a great portrayal of how healthy bonds are forged and something that is vastly needed more of in adult romances.
The only true downfall of The Name of Red is the unpolished nature of the overall writing style. In the first half of the book, there are tons of repetitive words and phrases that make it feel tedious and overtly accentuated, mainly when describing Red’s beauty and the impact that it has on people around her. Rather than being allowed to gauge the reactions and formulate an opinion independently, it occasionally felt like the reader was supposed to respond with or think specific things, and that can become highly grating as one gets backed into a very precise corner. This is further reinforced if one is doing a single reading session for the book.
In later chapters, the quality of the writing takes a significant downturn as well. Rather than the carefully crafted sentences that is found in the first one-third of the narrative, the prose becomes riddled with many grammatical errors and inconsistent sentence structures that detracts from a smooth reading experience. I found myself stopping every so often to re-visit certain passages and paragraphs so that I could understand them fully, which further exasperated the repetitive element of the novel, but in a completely different manner. Suffice to say that the book needed a serious hand at editing as it reads like a second draft rather than a final product.
Writing titbits aside, there was one narrative element I also did not particularly care for and that was the amount of trauma that is introduced later on. Much of the trauma felt like contrived plot devices for shock value and it places a great amount of distance between the reader and the initial investment that hooks one into the plot and character plights. The suspension of disbelief utterly evaporates in the last one-third to one-fourth of the narrative, which then impacts the storytelling quality as a whole. However, I do feel the need to admit that I am not typically a reader of romance, so regulars of the genre may find these elements far more palatable than I did.
Overall, The Name of Red was a great debut. The author has immense potential to be a superb contributor to the genre. Having such a skill for crafting immersive settings and characters that are easy to root for, I am positive that she shall only get better with each new book she releases. I look forward to seeing what her next story shall entail. I recommendThe Name of Red for people who fancy diverse slow-burn romances.
“With every item she tossed into the washer’s gaping mouth, she dissected every sentence she could recall saying to Neela, analysing the implications of her words and how they might have been interpreted.”
The Subtweet by Vivek Shraya is an #OwnVoices South Asian-Canadian contemporary novel about two uniquely separate musicians that formulate a friendship after one of them performs a cover of the other’s song and it goes viral. Their quick-formulated bond becomes a contrast of insecurities and miscommunication as the fame compounds into toxic envy. Then one moment of weakness and a startling subtweet later, careers are devastated, and friendships become utterly shattered.
The Subtweet was a novel that had a vastly unique premise and sounded unlike anything that I have ever read before, which is why I felt drawn to it. While it was extremely fast-paced and easy to consume in one sitting, by its finale I felt that the novel’s listed premise was inherently far-removed from its painfully one-dimensional execution.
Social media is the ultimate platform for networking in the modern day, however, it is also one of the swiftest ways to create havoc and chaos, particularly those built upon the recesses of miscommunication and missing facts. While I understood that this element would play a part in the conflict of The Subtweet’s story, as it does concentrate on virtually crafted camaraderie, what I did not foresee was it becoming the underlying foundation for every single ounce of harmfulness taking place in the book. Ultimately, this is one of my least favourite tropes of all-time, and I felt it became a tenuous excuse for uncertain narrative direction, more so when coupled with the thin level of critique on the subject matter and a severe lack of atmosphere.
Rukmini and Neela, the two protagonists of The Subtweet, are both incredibly unlikeable people, and one of the main reasons for this is that they are women in their thirties who behave like they are sixteen with their petty drama and consistent mistrust of one another’s loyalty to their outrageously fast-formed friendship. A handful of virtual messages and some poorly constructed face-to-face interactions later, they were best of friends, seemingly out of thin air. Not only did this feel entirely unrealistic, it also reeked of doubtful plot subtexts. If we look at them as separate individuals, then there is no development here either to assist in making them endearing, or to garner the reader’s empathy, or even sympathy, in the midst of the chaos that occurs when the hurtful subtweet goes live; a feat that astounded me given the heavy load of dialogue that takes place in the novel. They both provide monologues about the various aspects that make them feel invalidated and insecure in the friendship yet do absolutely nothing to remedy their concerns or allay their fears. This creates a stonewall of storytelling stagnation that sticks around from start to finish.
When the conflict occurs, as I mentioned earlier, it is based entirely on miscommunication. Rather than have an adult conversation to sort out the motives or anger that ultimately led to Neela’s string of hurtful words, Rukmini completely disappears from the picture, never to be heard of again. This was a terrible way to engage with a topic that is supposed to be under a critical lens and create the basis for a thought-provoking examination on the noxiousness that comes with having an online presence.
The Subtweet had a grocery list of themes that it wanted to explore. Some of these include the implications of diversity when a person of colour caters to White audiences’ fetishized perception of cultural content, or when White masses seek to wash away the nuances that separate diverse content as unique creative cultural installations; the vindictive dynamics that are prominent in female-centric friendships; critiques on how privilege plays a part in fame accumulation, especially when it steals credit away from original creators; and lastly, the harmful ways that social media can be manipulated to build overnight stardom, whether that was the desired effect or not. With so many various subjects to shine a decisive lens on, and then some, the book never touches any of it with more than a handful of lines referencing these things. Writing out a single statement admonishing a person for appeasing the White masses in lieu of cultural authenticity is not the same thing as having a crucial examination on the topic! If anything, all it does is admit a desire to do so but illustrate a complete lack of initiative to follow through.
The Subtweet was a book that was ambitious in scope, yet floundered into obscurity with the delivery, leaving behind an immensely frustrating and one-dimensional 200-pages of storytelling torpidity. One of the most fascinating novels of 2020 quickly turned into the most disappointing reading experience I have had in years. As such, I cannotrecommendThe Subtweet with good faith.