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
Weekends are typically for self-care and moments of relaxation. It is about kicking your feet up and finding a way to unwind from the busy week. However, some folx do not have the luxury or privilege of being able to partake in resting shenanigans. Rather, their Saturdays and Sundays are jam-packed with projects and hours of grinding for the moolah. This is usually my standard method of activity during the weekend, so I can empathise wholeheartedly.
Since I shall be very neck-deep in writing projects, as well as some other beta reading plans, I thought it would be fun to start a small segment here on The Djinn Reader where I share some cute—and oft times very silly—pictures of my beloved feline family members, while listing off my weekend reading plans. The goal is to spread a few smiles and offer a space where friends can come and take a small break from whatever their busy weekends entail. I have come to appreciate the positive impacts of stopping in my tracks for five minutes just to take a breath and look at things that make me smile. It tends to help me tackle the remainder of my day with determination and a sprinkle of comfort.
With that being said, welcome to Caturday Reads!
Aside from work-related ventures, my hope is to start reading one of my most-anticipated books for the second half of 2020, as well as another book that has been on my TBR radar since its release in October 2019! Both of them sound like a wonderful balance of intense and dark, along with light-hearted and romantic; elements that shall keep me greatly entertained during my break-times!
These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong: An #OwnVoices Chinese historical fiction retelling of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, this breath-taking debut novel takes place in 1920s Shanghai where a blood feud between the Scarlet Gang and the White Flowers runs the streets, leaving the city in the grips of chaos. At the heart of it all is eighteen-year-old Juliette Cai, a former flapper that has assumed the role of proud heir to the Scarlet Gang, and Roma Montagov, who happens to be the White Flowers heir apparent, as well as Juliette’s first love… and first betrayal.
I have been hearing the most incredible things about These Violent Delights, which has simultaneously made me nervous about picking it up, as well as gleefully enthused. It also helps that the novel is an East Asian retelling of one of my Shakespearean favourites. I suppose once all is said and done, the biggest question to answer is which side shall I choose? The Scarlet Gang or the White Flowers?
Our Wayward Fate by Gloria Chao: An #OwnVoices Taiwanese-American young adult contemporary novel about an outcast teenager who gets swept away in a romantic whirlwind while concurrently falling down a deep hole of dark family secrets after another Taiwanese family moves into her small, pre-dominantly White midwestern town. The story is loosely inspired by the 19th century Chinese folktale, The Butterfly Lovers.
Ms Chao’s debut novel, American Panda, was such an exceptional book. When I first read it, I was completely awed by how much it made me laugh as well as cry. It was one of the very first novels that represented a lot of the same challenges that I faced living in a conservative Asian household where my dreams conflicted with that of my family’s desires, even though I am not Taiwanese (Indian-Fijian). The similarities were both shocking yet comforting to me. For the first time, I saw my childhood as being a shared experience and that helped me to make peace with many parts of it. (My full review of American Panda can be found on my sibling blog, BiblioNyan.)
Given those experiences, Ms Chao’s second novel would of course become a must-read necessity for me. The only reason that it has taken me so long to pick it up is because I wanted to ensure that I was in a proper mood for the contemporary genre so as not to form any unfair negative associations to it. It took a long time, but I am marvellously ready to dive right in with very high hopes!
Those two shall be my bookish companions for the weekend. Whatever I do not finish, I shall continue onwards with into the upcoming week. Please let me know what books you plan on reading over the next few days! Do you have any favourite titles that you have finished recently? I would love to hear from you.
With that, I shall leave you to your Saturdays with this super comfy looking kitty named Kheb! He is the light of my heart and the ultimate source of joy in my life, even if he does snore like an old lorry. Until next weekend, happy Caturday!
“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.
This year has been incredibly eventful with a vast majority of the occurrences being tragedies or mass failings by our government, bringing about intense uncertainty. However, the one takeaway from 2020 that can bring relative comfort are all of the fantastic books that have been hitting shelves. Books for me have always been a source of escapism as well as a means of understanding political strife from as many perspectives, beliefs, understandings, social standings (and more) as possible. They have also been a refuge for me with regard to gender and sexual identities and trying to navigate the frightening lanes of dysphoria, more so within the confines of cultural and religious capacities.
As such, this Pride month I wanted to celebrate and bring attention to all of the Queer books that have been published thus far and that shall be releasing in the coming months by POC and BIPOC authors. These novels share stories of hope and faith, as well as of tragedy and heartbreak, with everything in between. From fictional and fantasy narratives to memoirs and candid revelations, the novels listed herein have something to offer just about every sort of reader out there and I highly encourage you to pick some of these up, whether via personal acquisition or non-profit sources like local libraries. If ever there were a time where understanding, acknowledging, and respecting Queer identities—especially of POC and BIPOC—was of great importance, it is now during one of the largest humanitarian, and human and civil rights movements in existence.
Dark and Deepest Red by Anna-Marie McLemore: Summer, 1518. A strange sickness sweeps through Strasbourg: women dance in the streets, some until they fall down dead. As rumours of witchcraft spread, suspicion turns toward Lavinia and her family, and Lavinia may have to do the unimaginable to save herself and everyone she loves. Five centuries later, a pair of red shoes seal to Rosella Oliva’s feet, making her dance uncontrollably. They draw her toward a boy who knows the dancing fever’s history better than anyone: Emil, whose family was blamed for the fever five hundred years ago. But there is more to what happened in 1518 than even Emil knows, and discovering the truth may decide whether Rosella survives the red shoes. Released.
Scavenge the Stars by Tara Sim: When Amaya rescues a mysterious stranger from drowning, she fears her rash actions have earned her a longer sentence on the debtor ship where she has been held captive for years. Instead, the man she saved offers her unimaginable riches and a new identity, setting Amaya on a perilous course through the coastal city-state of Moray, where old-world opulence and desperate gamblers collide. Amaya wants one thing: revenge against the man who ruined her family and stole the life she once had. But the more entangled she becomes in this game of deception-and as her path intertwines with the son of the man she is plotting to bring down-the more she uncovers about the truth of her past. And the more she realises she must trust no one. Released.
Real Life: A Novel by Brandon Taylor: Almost everything about Wallace is at odds with the Midwestern University town where he is working uneasily toward a biochemistry degree. An introverted young man from Alabama, Black and Queer, he has left behind his family without escaping the long shadows of his childhood. For reasons of self-preservation, Wallace has enforced a wary distance even within his own circle of friends—some dating each other, some dating women, some feigning straightness. But over the course of a late-summer weekend, a series of confrontations with colleagues, and an unexpected encounter with an ostensibly straight, white classmate, conspire to fracture his defences while exposing long-hidden currents of hostility and desire within their community. Released.
dayliGht: Poems by Roya Marsh: Growing up, Roya Marsh was considered “tomboy passing.” With an affinity for baggy clothes, cornrows, and bandanas, she came of age in an era when the wide spectrum of gender and sexuality was rarely acknowledged or discussed. She knew she was “different,” her family knew she was “different,” but anything outside of the heteronormativity was either disregarded or disparaged. In her stunning debut, written in protest to an absence of representation, Marsh recalls her early life and the attendant torments of a butch Black woman coming of age in America. Released.
Fiebre Tropical by Juli Delgado Lopera: Uprooted from her comfortable life in Bogotá, Colombia, into an ant-infested Miami townhouse, fifteen-year-old Francisca is miserable and friendless in her strange new city. Her alienation grows when her mother is swept up into an evangelical church, replete with Christian salsa, abstinent young dancers, and baptisms for the dead. But there, Francisca also meets the magnetic Carmen: opinionated and charismatic, head of the youth group, and the pastor’s daughter. As her mother’s mental health deteriorates and her grandmother descends into alcoholism, Francisca falls more and more intensely in love with Carmen. To get closer to her, Francisca turns to Jesus to be saved, even as their relationship hurtles toward a shattering conclusion. Released.
The Gospel of Breaking by Julian Christmas: Befitting someone who “speaks things into being,” Christmas extracts from family history, queer lineage, and the political landscape of a racialised life to create a rich, softly defiant collection of poems. Christmas draws a circle around the things she calls “holy”: the family line that cannot find its root but survived to fill the skies with radiant flesh; the body, broken and unbroken and broken and new again; the lover lost, the friend lost, and the loss itself; and the hands that hold them all with brilliant, tender care. Released.
All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson: In a series of personal essays, prominent journalist and LGBTQIA+ activist George M. Johnson explores his childhood, adolescence, and college years in New Jersey and Virginia. From the memories of getting his teeth kicked out by bullies at age five, to flea marketing with his loving grandmother, to his first sexual relationships, this young-adult memoir weaves together the trials and triumphs faced by Black queer boys. Released.
All My Mother’s Lovers: A Novel by Ilana Mosad: Intimacy has always eluded twenty-seven-year-old Maggie Krause—despite being brought up by married parents, models of domestic bliss—until, that is, Lucia came into her life. But when Maggie’s mom, Iris, dies in a car crash, Maggie returns home only to discover a withdrawn dad, an angry brother, and, along with Iris’s will, five sealed envelopes, each addressed to a mysterious man she has never heard of. In an effort to run from her own grief and discover the truth about Iris—who made no secret of her discomfort with her daughter’s sexuality—Maggie embarks on a road trip, determined to hand-deliver the letters and find out what these men meant to her mother. Maggie quickly discovers Iris’s second, hidden life, which shatters everything Maggie thought she knew about her parents’ perfect relationship. What is she supposed to tell her father and brother? And how can she deal with her own relationship when her whole world is in freefall? Released.
The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta: Michael is a mixed-race gay teen growing up in London. All his life, he has navigated what it means to be Greek-Cypriot and Jamaican—but never quite feeling Greek or Black enough. As he gets older, Michael’s coming out is only the start of learning who he is and where he fits in. When he discovers the Drag Society, he finally finds where he belongs—and the Black Flamingo is born. Released.
Fairest: A Memoir by Merideth Talusan:A memoir about a precocious boy with Albinism, a “sun child” from a rural Philippine village, who would grow up to become a woman in America. Coping with the strain of parental neglect and the elusive promise of U.S. citizenship, Talusan found childhood comfort from her devoted grandmother, a grounding force as she was treated by others with special preference or public curiosity. As an immigrant to the United States, Talusan came to be perceived as White. An academic scholarship to Harvard provided access to elite circles of privilege but required Talusan to navigate through the complex spheres of race, class, sexuality, and her place within the gay community. She emerged as an artist and an activist questioning the boundaries of gender. Talusan realised she did not want to be confined to a prescribed role as a man, and transitioned to become a woman, despite the risk of losing a man she deeply loved. Released.
Felix Ever After by Kacen Callendar: Felix Love has never been in love—and, yes, he is painfully aware of the irony. He desperately wants to know what it is like and why it seems so easy for everyone but him to find someone. What is worse is that, even though he is proud of his identity, Felix also secretly fears that he is one marginalisation too many—Black, queer, and transgender—to ever get his own happily-ever-after. When an anonymous student begins sending him transphobic messages—after publicly posting Felix’s deadname alongside images of him before he transitioned—Felix comes up with a plan for revenge. What he did not count on: his catfish scenario landing him in a quasi–love triangle. But as he navigates his complicated feelings, Felix begins a journey of questioning and self-discovery that helps redefine his most important relationship: how he feels about himself. Released.
The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar: Nishat doesn’t want to lose her family, but she also doesn’t want to hide who she is, and it only gets harder once a childhood friend walks back into her life. Flávia is beautiful and charismatic, and Nishat falls for her instantly. But when a school competition invites students to create their own businesses, both Flávia and Nishat decide to showcase their talent as henna artists. In a fight to prove who is the best, their lives become more tangled―but Nishat can’t quite get rid of her crush, especially since Flávia seems to like her back. As the competition heats up, Nishat has a decision to make: stay in the closet for her family or put aside her differences with Flávia and give their relationship a chance. Released.
Belladonna by Anbara Salam: Isabella is beautiful, inscrutable, and popular. Her best friend, Bridget, keeps quietly to the fringes of their Connecticut Catholic school, watching everything and everyone, but most especially Isabella. In 1957, when the girls graduate, they land coveted spots at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Pentila in northern Italy, a prestigious art history school on the grounds of a silent convent. There, free of her claustrophobic home and the town that will always see her and her Egyptian mother as outsiders, Bridget discovers she can reinvent herself as anyone she desires, perhaps even someone Isabella could desire in return. But as that glittering year goes on, Bridget begins to suspect Isabella is keeping a secret from her, one that will change the course of their lives forever. Releases June 9th
Neotenica by Joon Oluchi Lee: A novel of encounters: casual sex, arranged-marriage dates, cops, rowdy teenagers, lawyers, a Sapphic flirtation, a rival, a child, and two important dogs. At the centre of it are Young Ae, a Korean-born ballet dancer turned Ph.D. student, and her husband, a Korean-American male who inhabits an interior femininity, neither transgender nor homosexual, but a strong, visceral femininity, nonetheless. Releases June 23rd
On the Enemy’s Side: Forbidden Love in an Iranian Prison by Hamour Baika: In 1980, as the world is captivated by the Iranian hostage crisis, aspiring doctor Hesam drops out of medical school in Rome and returns to Iran to serve his country. A member of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, he becomes a prison guard in Ahwaz, assigned to investigate and interrogate political prisoners. The more he learns about ethnic and religious tensions, however, the more he finds the concept of revolutionary justice questionable. Hesam finds solace in speaking with a defiant young prisoner with whom he develops a passionate bond. But when Hesam discovers damning evidence about the detainee, he has to choose between his political ideals and his conscience in a country where same-sex love is violently condemned. Releases June 16th
You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat:On a hot day in Bethlehem, a 12-year-old Palestinian-American girl is yelled at by a group of men outside the Church of the Nativity. She has exposed her legs in a biblical city, an act they deem forbidden, and their judgement will echo on through her adolescence. When our narrator finally admits to her mother that she is queer, her mother’s response only intensifies a sense of shame: “You exist too much,” she tells her daughter. Told in vignettes that flash between the U.S. and the Middle East―from New York to Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine―Zaina Arafat’s debut novel traces her protagonist’s progress from blushing teen to sought-after DJ and aspiring writer. In Brooklyn, she moves into an apartment with her first serious girlfriend and tries to content herself with their comfortable relationship. But soon her longings, so closely hidden during her teenage years, explode out into reckless romantic encounters and obsessions with other people. Her desire to thwart her own destructive impulses will eventually lead her to The Ledge, an unconventional treatment centre that identifies her affliction as “love addiction.” In this strange, enclosed society she will start to consider the unnerving similarities between her own internal traumas and divisions and those of the places that have formed her. Releases June 9th
You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson: Liz Lighty has always believed she is too Black, too poor, too awkward to shine in her small, rich, prom-obsessed midwestern town. But it is okay—Liz has a plan that will get her out of Campbell, Indiana, forever: attend the uber-elite Pennington College, play in their world-famous orchestra, and become a doctor. But when the financial aid she was counting on unexpectedly falls through, Liz’s plans come crashing down, until she is reminded of her school’s scholarship for prom king and queen. There is nothing Liz wants to do less than endure a gauntlet of social media trolls, catty competitors, and humiliating public events, but despite her devastating fear of the spotlight she is willing to do whatever it takes to get to Pennington. The only thing that makes it halfway bearable is the new girl in school, Mack. She is smart, funny, and just as much of an outsider as Liz. But Mack is also in the running for queen. Will falling for the competition keep Liz from her dreams, or make them come true? Released.
Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron: It is 200 years after Cinderella found her prince, but the fairy tale is over. Teen girls are now required to appear at the Annual Ball, where the men of the kingdom select wives based on a girl’s display of finery. If a suitable match is not found, the girls not chosen are never heard from again. Sixteen-year-old Sophia would much rather marry Erin, her childhood best friend, than parade in front of suitors. At the ball, Sophia makes the desperate decision to flee, and finds herself hiding in Cinderella’s mausoleum. There, she meets Constance, the last known descendant of Cinderella and her step-sisters. Together they vow to bring down the king once and for all—and in the process, they learn that there is more to Cinderella’s story than they ever knew. Releases July 7th
Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust: There was and there was not, as all stories begin, a princess cursed to be poisonous to the touch. But for Soraya, who has lived her life hidden away, apart from her family, safe only in her gardens, it is not just a story. As the day of her twin brother’s wedding approaches, Soraya must decide if she is willing to step outside of the shadows for the first time. Below in the dungeon is a demon who holds knowledge that she craves, the answer to her freedom. And above is a young man who isn’t afraid of her, whose eyes linger not with fear, but with an understanding of who she is beneath the poison. Soraya thought she knew her place in the world, but when her choices lead to consequences she never imagined, she begins to question who she is and who she is becoming—human or demon. Princess or monster. Releases July 7th
My Favourite Girlfriend was a French Bulldog by Legna Rodriguez Iglesias: A novel told in fifteen stories, linked by the same protagonist, our narrator, who—in her own voice and channelling the voices of others—creates an unsparing, multigenerational portrait of her native Cuba. Though she feels suffocated by the island and decides to leave, hers is not just a political novel—nor just a queer novel, an immigrant novel, a feminist novel—but a deeply existential one, in which mortality, corporeality, bureaucracy, emotional and physical violence, and the American Dream define the long journey of our narrator and her beloved pet dog, who gives the book both its title and its unforgettable ending. Releases July 14th
Love After Love: A Novel by Ingrid Persaud: After Betty Ramdin’s husband dies, she invites a colleague, Mr. Chetan, to move in with her and her son, Solo. Over time, the three become a family, loving each other deeply and depending upon one another. Then, one fateful night, Solo overhears Betty confiding in Mr. Chetan and learns a secret that plunges him into torment. Solo flees Trinidad for New York to carve out a lonely existence as an undocumented immigrant, and Mr. Chetan remains the singular thread holding mother and son together. But soon, Mr. Chetan’s own burdensome secret is revealed, with heart-breaking consequences. Releases August 4th
Slum Virgin by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara: When the Virgin Mary appears to Cleopatra, she renounces sex work and takes charge of the shantytown she lives in, transforming it into a tiny utopia. Ambitious journalist, Quity, knows she has found the story of the year when she hears about it, but her life is changed forever once she finds herself irrevocably seduced by the captivating subject of her article. Releases August 25th
Thrown in the Throat (National Poetry Series) by Benjamin Garcia: In a sex-positive incantation that re-textures what it is to write a queer life amidst troubled times, Garcia writes boldly of citizenship, family, and Adam Rippon’s butt. Detailing a childhood spent undocumented, one speaker recalls nights when “because we cannot sleep / we dream with open eyes.” Garcia delves with both English and Spanish into how one survives a country’s long love affair with anti-immigrant cruelty. Rendering a family working to the very end to hold each other, he writes the kind of family you both survive and survive with. Releases August 11th
Broken Jade by Paul Chan:One family, two very different worlds. When same-sex marriage is approved in Australia, Sydney’s lawyer, Justin Wong, calls home and turns his mother Madeline’s world upside down. Madeline is a respected society matron and a church elder in her hometown, Tenangan. Born into poverty, she is a Malaysian success story. Meanwhile, Justin has fought his own battles as a gay Asian man, who rose to the top of his profession and finally found love. When Madeline sets off on an urgent mission to save her son’s soul and her family’s reputation, Justin must stand up to the mother whom he had grown up idolising. Releases September 1st
Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas: When his traditional Latinx family has problems accepting his true gender, Yadriel becomes determined to prove himself a real brujo. With the help of his cousin and best friend Maritza, he performs the ritual himself, and then sets out to find the ghost of his murdered cousin and set it free. However, the ghost he summons is actually Julian Diaz, the school’s resident bad boy, and Julian is not about to go quietly into death. He is determined to find out what happened and tie off some loose ends before he leaves. Left with no choice, Yadriel agrees to help Julian, so that they can both get what they want. But the longer Yadriel spends with Julian, the less he wants to let him leave. Releases September 1st
Everyone Was Falling by Js Lee: On the weekend of July Fourth, shots are fired at a twentieth high school reunion in a small US town, killing fifty-six. Three survive. Lucy—a queer, Asian adoptee whose past trauma hypervigilance leads them to safety—is dubbed the hero. White, blond town treasure, Christy, is the star—using YouTube to garner fame. Donna—the only former Black student of Bixby—becomes the suspect, despite what her wealthy father has done for the town. The three women navigate PTSD and the differences that long ago drove them apart. They are targeted by racists, opportunists, and violent exes. As the police department fumbles, it’s up to the survivors to lead them to justice. Releases September 1st
How it All Blew Up by Arvin Ahmadi: Eighteen-year-old Amir Azadi always knew coming out to his Muslim family would be messy—he just didn’t think it would end in an airport interrogation room. But when faced with a failed relationship, bullies, and blackmail, running away to Rome is his only option. Right? Soon, late nights with new friends and dates in the Sistine Chapel start to feel like second nature, until his old life comes knocking on his door. Now, Amir has to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth to a US Customs officer, or risk losing his hard-won freedom. Releases September 22nd
Polar Vortex by Shani Motoo: A novel about a lesbian couple who left the big city, where they had both lived for many years, to relocate to a bucolic countryside community where they knew no one and no one knew them. It seemed like a good idea to both Priya and Alex to cement their newish, later-in-life relationship by leaving the past behind to create a new life together. But there is leaving the past behind—and then there is running away from awkward histories. Priya seems totally committed to her relationship with Alex, but she has a secret—a long-standing on-again, off-again relationship with a man, Prakash. In Priya’s mind Prakash is little more than an old friend, but in reality it is a bit more complicated. And, she has never told Alex about him. Prakash has tracked Priya down in her new life, and before she realizes what she is doing, she invites him to visit. Alex is not pleased, and soon the existing cracks in their relationship widen, not least because Alex has her own secrets. Releases September 15th
This is All Your Fault by Aminah Mae Safi: Rinn Olivera is finally going to tell her long-time crush AJ that she is in love with him. Daniella Korres writes poetry for her own account, but nobody knows it is her. Imogen Azar is just trying to make it through the day. When Rinn, Daniella, and Imogen clock into work at Wild Nights Bookstore on the first day of summer, they are expecting the hours to drift by the way they always do. Instead, they have to deal with the news that the bookstore is closing. Before the day is out, there shall be shaved heads, a diva author, and a very large shipment of Air Jordans to contend with. And it will take all three of them working together if they have any chance to save Wild Nights Bookstore. Releases October 13th
Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi: Spanning three continents, the book tells the interconnected stories of three Nigerian women: Kambirinachi and her twin daughters, Kehinde and Taiye. Kambirinachi believes that she is an Ogbanje, or an Abiku, a non-human spirit that plagues a family with misfortune by being born and then dying in childhood to cause a human mother misery. She has made the unnatural choice of staying alive to love her human family but lives in fear of the consequences of her decision. Kambirinachi and her two daughters become estranged from one another because of a trauma that Kehinde experiences in childhood, which leads her to move away and cut off all contact. She ultimately finds her path as an artist and seeks to raise a family of her own, despite her fear that she will no’t be a good mother. Meanwhile, Taiye is plagued by guilt for what her sister suffered and also runs away, attempting to fill the void of that lost relationship with casual flings with women. She eventually discovers a way out of her stifling loneliness through a passion for food and cooking. But now, after more than a decade of living apart, Taiye and Kehinde have returned home to Lagos. It is here that the three women must face each other and address the wounds of the past if they are to reconcile and move forward. Releases November 3rd
The Thirty Names of Night by Zeyn Joukhadar: Five years after a suspicious fire killed his ornithologist mother, a closeted Syrian American trans boy sheds his birth name and searches for a new one. He has been unable to paint since his mother’s ghost has begun to visit him each evening. As his grandmother’s sole caretaker, he spends his days cooped up in their apartment, avoiding his neighbourhood masjid, his estranged sister, and even his best friend (who also happens to be his long-time crush). The only time he feels truly free is when he slips out at night to paint murals on buildings in the once-thriving Manhattan neighbourhood known as Little Syria. One night, he enters the abandoned community house and finds the tattered journal of a Syrian American artist named Laila Z, who dedicated her career to painting the birds of North America. She famously and mysteriously disappeared more than sixty years before, but her journal contains proof that both his mother and Laila Z encountered the same rare bird before their deaths. In fact, Laila Z’s past is intimately tied to his mother’s—and his grandmother’s—in ways he never could have expected. Even more surprising, Laila Z’s story reveals the histories of queer and transgender people within his own community that he never knew. Releases November 3rd
When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi Vo: The cleric Chih finds themself and their companions at the mercy of a band of fierce tigers who ache with hunger. To stay alive until the mammoths can save them, Chih must unwind the intricate, layered story of the tiger and her scholar lover―a woman of courage, intelligence, and beauty―and discover how truth can survive becoming history. Releases December 8th
If there are any #OwnVoices Queer books by POC and BIPOC that I have missed on this list, please let me know in the comments and I shall add them so long as they were (or are) released in 2020. Once again, I highly encourage you to visit some of these reads upon their release and support diverse Queer books whenever you can! Thank you.
“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.
Asalam-a-laikum and bula, friends! Welcome to The Djinn Reader!
My name is Shafiya Mū, although I’m also known as Yon Nyan over on my original blog, BiblioNyan. I’m an Indian-Fijian, Muslim-Buddhist, Queer, Trans Nonbinary, neurodivergent human that absolutely adores books of all sorts, especially #OwnVoices Asian literature. Even though I currently run a semi-successful space for bookish and otaku content, there were two main reasons that eventually led to my choice of beginning anew with The Djinn Reader. I’d like to share them with you today, along with my plans for this book blog moving forward.
Firstly, I am extremely passionate about diversity in literature and I felt that the message of what diversity means to me as an individual of various marginalised backgrounds was starting to become buried underneath the vehemence of pop culture offered at BiblioNyan. I don’t regret what BiblioNyan has become because it has helped me to evolve my pursuits while also embracing my many interests without apology. It’s also helped me to come out of my introverted shell to make new friends, while teaching me how to be a constructively critical thinker with an open mind. Nonetheless, I felt that it was time to start fresh and try something a bit closer to what I would like to accomplish one day professionally.
This brings me to my second reason; I needed to build a semi-professional portfolio of my writings for submission to any and all M.A. and M.F.A. programmes that I shall be applying to within the upcoming year or so. Since blogging has become somewhat of a forte of mine, using a blog platform seemed like the best way to create this portfolio. Since I am obtaining a Bachelor’s of Arts degree in English Literature with a minor in Asian Studies and my current aspiration is to get my graduate degree in Literature or Creative Writing, having a dedicated platform for Diverse literatures became the most appealing option.
With regard to why I shall only be focusing the content offered on The Djinn Reader to #OwnVoices diverse books, including Queer literature only, well, it’s simple really: as a Queer, Asian person, having authentic representation in literature of my culture, beliefs, heritage, and more is indescribably validating and incredibly important, and makes me understand how extremely vital such representation in literature is for all sorts of individuals. It is something that I would like to celebrate and continue to promote as much as possible in publishing. While the number of diverse books are growing year by year, the offered titles are still significantly low when compared to other groups, or they all fit specific expectations from non-diverse readers. For example, Asian individuality doesn’t abide via a single monolith of identity. There are many different sorts of people who identify as Asian with innumerable experiences, including the experiences of Asian diaspora and Queer Asians. Raising awareness for our existence and advocating for Queer and Asian equity in literature is a life-long passion of mine. It’s why I’m studying the subjects that I do in the pursuits of the degrees mentioned. The same exact thing can be said for Black, Polynesian, Indigenous identities as well, just to name a few.
I also hope to become a published author of #OwnVoices Queer and Asian narratives myself, as well as an educator of Asian cultures and literature. Being able to think and speak critically about these books and being able to have healthy discourse about it in the classroom with students and fellow educators is a critical step towards that dream of obtaining equal representation within the publishing and academic worlds, as well as within local communities within these marginalised groups.
I hope that you will join me on my journey of travelling on magical and enlightening narrative adventures via diversity in fiction. As I’ve mentioned, this is a professional portfolio for my Master’s applications, but it is also very much a project that is near-and-dear to my heart and everything that I am as a Queer, Asian-Polynesian person. Let’s read together and celebrate the differences that make us all so unique and vibrantly beautiful.
There was originally going to be a blog schedule for The Djinn Reader, however, with current University obligations and being overwhelmed with professional projects, there is currently no set schedule for this blog. My ultimate goal is to create a consistent posting timeline in the upcoming Summer to Autumn seasons. Thanks for being patient with me while I finalise this element.
All thoughts and discussions shared here shall be my own, unless otherwise stated or noted. Since I am a Muslim-Buddhist and being both of these things are very important to me, I may occasionally have discussions about my faith on this space, especially if they relate to books that I have been reading (an example would be musings on Islam after completing The Daevabad Trilogy by S.A. Chakraborty, or feelings on Buddhism after reading The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa, to name a couple). This also extends to discussions on mental health as I am a neurodivergent human (I’m on the Autism spectrum and I have mental health conditions; I’m relatively open-minded about these things, so if you’d like to chat about mental health, whether for advice or comfort, please don’t hesitate in contacting me at the e-mail address listed below), and raising awareness for mental health is something I am also quite passionate about.
If you have questions or concerns, and don’t want to drop them in the comments below, please feel free to e-mail me: email@example.com (thedjinnreader at gmail dot com).