Best Books of October & November (2020)

Welcome to the Best Books of the last couple of months! In lieu of a traditional wrap-up, I opted to write one that centres specifically on the titles that brought me a lot of joy and engagement. This is my way of keeping things positive and uplifting here on The Djinn Reader.

October and November were really fantastic reading months for me. Not only did I read from a variety of genres and cultures, but I was also able to meet my monthly reading goals for both months, which gave me a wonderful sense of accomplishment in light of the reading rut that has plagued me.

There are thirteen titles total on this list and almost all of them have respective reviews linked up, along with their GoodReads pages (via the title), and a small snippet on what I loved about them. Aside from that, they are organised in the order of which I completed them, starting with October’s books and then moving along to November’s reads.

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata: An own-voices Japanese fiction novel by acclaimed author of Convenience Store Woman about a young girl who was sexually exploited and neglected as a child, and the long-lasting effect it had on her in adulthood.. 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. [Full Review]

Goldy Luck and the Three Pandas by Natasha Yim & Grace Zong: An own-voices Chinese picture book about a young girl who learns the magic of responsibility. 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. [Full Review]

The Boy and the Bindi by Vivek Shraya & Rajni Perera: An own-voices Queer Indian picture book about a boy who watches his mother put on a bindi, and in the process learns about the multidimensional aspects of gender identity. 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. [Full Review]

Mango Moon by Diane de Anda & Sue Cornelison: An own-voices Mexican picture book about a young girl and her family as they deal with losing their father after he has been arrested for deportation. 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. [Full Review]

Mooncakes by Loretta Seto & Renné Benoit: An own-voices Chinese picture book about a girl who is celebrating the Moon Festival with her family. 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. [Full Review]

Hana Hashimoto, Sixth Violin by Chieri Uegaki & Qin Leng: An own-voices Japanese picture book about a young girl who is learning to play the violin via the memories she has of her grandfather who was a world renown violinist. Out of all the picture 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. [Full Review]

The Weight on Skin by Beena Khan: An own-voices South Indian contemporary romance novel that takes place in the same universe as The Name of Red, this sequel follows Kabir as he deals with terrible heart-break. The Weight on Skin is highly recommended for 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. [Full Review]

The Deep by Alma Katsu: A historical fiction supernatural mystery about a young woman who survived the terrible events on the Titanic and finds herself aboard its sister ship years later, the Britannic, where she relives the tragedy via flashbacks and a sense of being haunted. 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. [Full Review]

Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee: An own-voices Queer Korean science-fiction story about a young artist who is hired by the government to help control a secret automaton dragon via magical paints. 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. 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 tense Korean socio-cultural backdrop.

Our Wayward Fate by Gloria Chao: An own-voices Taiwanese-American young adult contemporary novel about a young girl who has a complicated relationship with her family that is further exasperated by secrets and their experiences living in the predominantly white Midwest. There are many things to love about this novel, such as the complexities of trying to maintain face that is typical of Asian cultures, how secrets can decay the warmth of family values, and taking responsibilities for our own mistakes and choices is the only way to make peace with life in order to move forward. My full review for this shall be up later in the week. Recommended for adults and adolescents alike who are fond of stories centring on culturally-rich, dysfunctional family dynamics.

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia: An own-voices Mexican Gothic horror novel about a young girl named Noemí who travels to the Mexican countryside to check on her cousin after receiving a frantic letter in the mail. Mexican Gothic was a remarkably chilling, eerie, and  devious novel that I am so happy I picked up. Noemí is a tenacious, feisty, intelligent, and strongminded woman whose determination and love of family makes it impossible not to root for her, particularly when the forces of nature seem just as driven to smother that spirit out of her. Between her, the outstanding ambiance and environment of High Place, the commentary on the gradual cultural murder that comes with colonialism, and that bombshell of a plot twist, Mexican Gothic should not be missed by fans of horror fiction and people who enjoy a circumspect creepy mystery. [Full Review]

Murder in Old Bombay by Nev March: An own-voices Indian (Parsee) historical fiction crime mystery novel about a recuperating soldier that decides to help a local family in discovering the truth behind the deaths of two young women. It is a superbly written debut that shows the author’s natural talent at writing for the historical fiction genre. The suspense and air of mystery held fast, and the characters did not fall flat or fall to one-dimensional blunders. I highly recommend this to readers of the historical fiction genre, as well as to individuals who find pleasure in mysteries akin to the works of Agatha Christie and Sir Conan Arthur Doyle, but far more diverse! [Full Review]

These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong: An own-voices Chinese young adult historical fiction novel that is a re-telling of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. This is one of the best books released in 2020, which is evident by the lush and imaginative experimental writing of Ms Gong, combined with complex characters, a tight-knit tense political atmosphere, and some of the finest written brutality of blood feuds I have read in years. My full review shall be up later this week. Highly recommended for fans of Shakespeare’s original tale, readers of Chinese fiction, and those that adore fiercely strong-willed women.

Out of all these books, if I had to choose my top three, then they would be Phoenix Extravagant, Mexican Gothic, and These Violent Delights. Each of these titles has something incredibly imaginative to offer bibliophiles and bring out the essence of what their respective genres stand-for. If you are looking for any specific novels from this list, those three would be the ones I recommend above all else.

Burning Roses by S.L. Huang

“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