Caturday Reads: Indian Crime Mystery & Chinese Urban Fantasy

Good morning, bibliophiles! This past week has been rather uneventful for me aside from falling into a deep reading rut. Luckily, I was able to read small titbits at a time throughout the week, but I do miss being able to sit down and binge page after page after page. After dealing with this lack of reading frustration for approximately six to seven days, I finally went ahead and meditated to clear my mind of everything that was bogging me down. Alhamdulillah, that seemed to have done the trick (at least based off this morning’s reading session, which lasted a full forty minutes!).

Not wanting to waste a single second of these newfound reading energies, I decided to pick up a few books to check out over the next couple days and possibly into the upcoming week. One of them is an ARC (Advanced Reader’s Copy) of one of my most-anticipated historical crime mysteries of 2020, while the other one is a Chinese urban fantasy novel that has been on my to-be-read list for the better part of two and a half years! One of my favourite BookTubers is running a group readalong for the title, so I figured it is an excellent excuse to finally stick my nose into it. Lastly, I shall be hoping to finish a young adult Chinese historical novel that I began on Wednesday and thus far, I have been adoring every single bit of it. My heart and soul belong to the main character completely and I cannot wait to see where this incredible story shall take her.

Check out all of these titles below in more detail. Respective GoodReads pages shall be linked via the titles, so if you see something interesting, please visit the page and consider adding the books to your own TBR lists. 😊

These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong: This is an own-voices Chinese historical novel set in Shanghai and is a beautifully imaginative re-telling of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Some of you may recognise this from last week’s Caturday Reads, where I talked about this being my most-anticipated read for the second half of 2020 due it being inspired by one of my favourite Shakespearean titles. I’m approximately fifty or so pages into this, and I love it with my whole heart. Juliette is such a fierce and phenomenal character whom I am crushing on with every ounce of energy I have. I suppose that means that I am most-definitely a part of the Scarlet Gang (so far). I look forward to finishing it up this weekend.

Murder in Old Bombay by Nev March: An own-voices Parsee historical fiction crime novel that takes place in Bombay during the British occupation of India in 1892, it follows a man named Jim Agnihotri who has recently returned from the Afghan War. While recuperating, he reads about a terrible tragedy involving two women in the local papers, convinced that not all is as it may seem. He visits the grieving family and offers his services of helping them to uncover the truth of what happened to these ladies, spurred on by the readings of his favourite sleuth, Sherlock Holmes.

An Indian Sherlockian mystery sounded positively magnificent, so when this title finally became available on NetGalley, I jumped at the chance to request it. I am approximately fifteen percent of the way through this novel, and so far, it is excellently written. The prose style, interchanges between the characters, and the descriptions of the settings have transported me back into time, which is an element of well-done historical fiction that I love the most. The author seems to be quite a natural at writing for this genre, which is really impressive considering this is a debut novel!

Jade City by Fonda Lee: This own-voices Chinese urban fantasy book is the first in a series and involves intergenerational blood feuds, intensely savage politics, magic, and kung-fu. Beyond the basics, I have tried to avoid reading any and all synopses for the most part as I believe it shall make the experience of reading it all the more rewarding and exciting. I have heard it being described as a Chinese Godfather-esque type narrative, which just makes it sound even more enthralling.

Honourable mentions: Along with those novels, I shall be reading through a couple of manga serials. The first is Naruto by Masashi Kishimoto. This is a shōnen, martial arts, action-adventure series that is outrageously popular. Since I am watching the anime series Naruto Shippūden, I thought it would be neat to read the manga alongside watching the show. The last volume I read was Volume 40 and my goal is to read Volumes 41 and 42. The second manga series I shall be reading through is Horimiya by HERO, which is another shōnen title. It’s a slice-of-life romantic comedy series about two unlikely individuals who formulate a friendship that evolves into something more as they get to know each other better. I have read the first volume of this and it is one of the most adorable RomCom manga I have read in years. I look forward to reading the next two volumes and watching the slow-burn progression of the main characters’ rapport.

Since there shall be a lot of people out and about due to Black Friday shopping, I plan on spending all of my time safely tucked away in the coarse pages of these books as well as the fluffy, warm blankets of my bed where I shall be safe from the spread of the pandemic. The only thing that could make the weekend even better is a cup of steamy potato chowder and the cuddling company of my feline masters. Speaking of which, I shall wrap-up today’s Caturday’s Reads with a hilariously meme-tastic portrait of my old man, Azizi, yawning a hello.

When the enemies-to-lovers idiots finally kiss after fighting nonstop for the first two books.

Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee

“…if wishes were wings, all the world would fly.”

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

Caturday Reads: Chinese Historical Fiction & Taiwanese-American YA Contemporary Romance

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!

I present, a boat!

The Deep by Alma Katsu

“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

The Weight on Skin by Beena Khan

“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

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

The Trouble with TBRs & Finding Balance: A Small Discussion + November’s Planned Reads

One of the bookish goals that I have for 2021 is to create miniature monthly To-Be-Read (TBR) lists in order to give myself some discipline with reading books that I have owned for an extended period of time.  Like many fellow bibliophiles, I have a strong tendency to purchase stacks of books when I am feeling extremely stressed out or when I desperately need to indulge in a bit of self-care, usually when nothing else has worked. While it is a fantastic way to build up a gargantuan library, it can leave a person feeling wholeheartedly guilty when they go unread, catching layers upon layers of dust on those blood-red bookshelves.

In the past, I have tried to create TBRs, to no avail. I am someone who reads based on my mood in that moment. My cravings for thrillers and fantasy and literary works, to name a few, can shift from day-to-day, or even from hour-to-hour if my ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) is restless. The last time that I attempted sticking to a full-sized TBR (approximately six to seven books) was at the beginning of 2020. In the end, I became intimidated by own list and abandoned the stack entirely.

As someone who lives with at-times severe OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), not being able to stick to a list such as this made very little sense to me and worked to further exasperate my frustrations. Especially with having ADHD, creating and abiding by lists for daily activities and work tasks helps my brain to feel less untidy and prone to anxiety. When I mentioned this to my therapist, they suggested that maybe my lists are too ambitious. Their suggestion was trying to find a balance that could accommodate my impulsive reading moods while also providing me with a small semblance of the discipline that I craved.

Honestly speaking, I felt a bit sceptical about the idea. Maybe that is due to my poor experiences with TBRs in general, or it can be chocked up to the somewhat apathetic pessimist that resides deep within my heart. Either way, after giving it much more thought, I realised by trying out their suggestion, I was not really losing anything. There would be no damage, at least not more than the normal feelings of disappointment that comes with not finishing a task. If it did work out, then not only would I be pleasantly surprised, but I would have found a solution to a very large bookish annoyance.

So, for November, I have crafted a miniature TBR pile to experiment with my therapist’s suggestion and see how it fares. There are only three titles in this stack since the end-of-year holidays tend to be the months where my reading moods are the most fidgety. If this ends up turning into a success, I can experiment with increasing the number of books slowly in future months.

I stuck to one overarching genre—fantasy—in order to keep things simple. The only real variety are the reading levels (middle-grade and adult) and the cultural backgrounds with which these tales were crafted. Check out the list below. Clicking their titles shall transport you to their respective GoodReads pages.

The Serpent’s Secret by Sayantani DasGupta: An own-voices Indian middle-grade fantasy novel that revolves around a young girl named Kiranmala. On the morning of her twelfth birthday, her parents mysteriously vanish and a rakkhosh demon slams into her kitchen, determined to eat her alive. She realises that her parents may have been telling the truth when they told her she was an Indian princess from a different dimension. When two princes arrive to rescue her, Kiran finds herself swept into a magical interdimensional adventure, where she must solve riddles and battle demons in order to rescue her parents and save the world. This is the first book in a series called Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond.

This book has been on my overall TBR for a long time and after reading through The Daevabad Trilogy, I am craving more fantasy that is near-and-dear to my cultural roots, no matter what audiences they are for. The Serpent’s Secret seemed like a fabulous place to begin!

The Dragon Warrior by Katie Zhao: An own-voices Chinese middle-grade fantasy adventure about twelve-year-old Faryn Liu, who is the member of the Jade Society. Faryn dreams of honouring her family and the gods by becoming a warrior, but the Society has shunned Faryn and her brother Alex, forcing them to train in secret. One day while running an errand, Faryn tumbles into a battle with a demon—and defeats it. If she can prove her worth and find an island with immortals before the Lunar New Year, Faryn may have a chance at becoming the powerful warrior she’s always dreamt of being. This is the first book in a series called The Dragon Warrior.

I really like stories about people who are shunned or exiled and must find a way back to whatever community(ies) that exiled them, only to discover how fantastic they are without the blessing of said community(ies). That is one of the biggest appeals about The Dragon Warrior for me. Plus, I think it’s awesome that the story takes place in San Francisco, which is fairly close to where I live! Lastly, the author is such a cool human and I really want to support her work.

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang: An own-voices Chinese adult epic historical fantasy title that everyone on every social media platform that I engage with cannot seem to stop loving. The hype surrounding this is one of the main reasons that I have hesitated in picking it up. However, given how much I have been craving incredible fantasy narratives as of late, I decided to add it to my November stack. I know the third instalment in the series is releasing either later this month or in December, so if I end up loving it, I shan’t have to wait long to wrap it up (I also own the second novel, The Dragon Republic).

I did not include a synopsis here as I prefer to go into this book with as little information as possible. But if you would like to check it out, please click its title to visit the GoodReads page.

I shall keep my fingers crossed that this works out well! How about you? Do you find sticking to planned reading lists to be challenging? Do you have any tricks or tips that help you stay dedicated?

Until next time, happy reading.

5 Mini Book Reviews for Must-Read #OwnVoices Picture Books!

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.

Goldy Luck and the Three Pandas by Natasha Yim and Grace Zong (illustrator): An own-voices Chinese re-telling of the Goldilocks story about a little girl named Goldy Luck who has a tendency to get into trouble when she least expects to, and how she learns and grows from those moments of mischief.

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!

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

“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

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.