This year has been a strange reading year for me. I have either been finding excellent books one right after another or ending up on the receiving end of a streak of one-star disappointments. Most of this can be accredited to stress and discomfort with processing through the constant flow of uncertainty that 2020 has been igniting and reigniting time and time again. The rest can be blamed on my rather finicky reading moods that seem to change with the quick shift of the wind.
If there is anything particularly positive about my reading habits for 2020 thus far, it would have to be how consistently I have been engaging with diverse own-voices books, as well as how wonderfully I have been staying loyal to my goal of reading more nonfiction titles this year.
Since the midway point has come and almost gone, I wanted to share my favourite books from the year with you. Each one of these has either brought me a great sense of joy or insight or was just a marvellous feat of creativity and I wanted to bring more attention and adoration their way. Normally, I like to do a humongous wrap-up of the best books across twelve months during the final week of December, however, this year I wanted to break them into two segments so that the lists are a bit less daunting and exhaustive. It also works as an experiment to see which way jams better with my overall comfort zone.
For each listed book, I have included the genre, links to their GoodReads pages via the title, and any relative reviews that I may have written for it. Please note that if there is a review, some of them may be on my sibling blog, BiblioNyan.
When You Ask Me Where I’m Going by Jasmin Kaur: An own-voices Canadian-Punjabi poetry collection with wonderful prose and poems that discuss the diasporic experience, battling sexism and racism within own cultural communities, being fetishized and sexualised by White people and how that impacts self-identity, and so much more. The collection really resonated with me as a brown-skinned South Asian who has (and continues to) deal with all these things to one degree or another in my life. The portions that hit the closest to my heart were the writings that explored what being Othered by one’s own cultural community feels like because one does not fit the mould of how they perceive that individual should be as a South Asian gender-specific person. I highly recommend this to readers who enjoy poetry, specifically intersectional-focused work.
Difficult Women by Roxane Gay: This collection of short stories written by the superbly brilliant Roxane Gay is indescribably powerfully. Originally read in celebration of Black History Month, the anthology is filled with stories about womxn who take back their own narrative, oft times by partaking in difficult living situations in order to survive, while also knocking back their oppressors and abusers (both figuratively and literally) to stand tall and proud, with a sprinkle of various experiences in between the two extremes. It exemplifies the diversity of womxn, indicating that womxn’s experiences do not equate to a monolithic gender identity. Recommended for readers of short stories and nonfiction intersectional feminist essays.
Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuire: An adult portal fantasy novel that is the fifth instalment in the Wayward Children series. It is by far my favourite volume thus far as it has incredible representation of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), which is a condition that I have. My personal experience with OCD pertains to the need to stay extremely clean and hygienic at all times. If I am unable to do so, then I quite literally feel like I shall lose my ability to function normally. An example of how I cope is how I wear gloves whenever I leave my house, similarly to the main character of this specific title. The novel portrays the difficulties of living with extreme OCD in an accurate manner without being hurtful or disrespectful, which I wholeheartedly respected and appreciated. For some, this level of OCD may appear to be unrealistic, however, as an individual who lives quite comparably to the character in the novel, I can assure you that it is very real and authentic. Additionally, the story deals with abusive relationships and how validating abusers is the only way to survive in some situations, which was also written with sincerity. I recommend this to readers of fantasy, especially portal fantasies, who appreciate accurate mental health/illness representations.
The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty: An own-voices Islamic epic fantasy book, and the first instalment in The Daevabad Trilogy, this title is an exceptional example of methodically crafted, cultural-rich, politically charged fantasy storytelling at its absolute finest. The depiction of morally grey characters and how vast the shades of faith can be, even within a particular creed, were remarkably written. The world-building and all-encompassing atmospheric exhibition of the setting of Daevabad is breathtaking in both scope and execution. One of the finest first instalments in a series that I have ever read. I highly recommend this to readers of adult fantasy who have a keen interest in political intrigue, amazing action, and multi-dimensional characters. My full spoiler-free review.
The Kingdom of Copper by S.A. Chakraborty: The sequel to the above title, this novel takes everything that The City of Brass did swellingly and contributes to the storyline and character plights by focusing on specialised character development and growth, tightening the suspense as it relates to the political machinations, and elaborating on complex themes of individuality, subjugation, abuse, and much more. By far the best sequel novel in a series that I have ever read. My full spoiler-free review.
Japanese Fashion Cultures: Dress & Gender in Contemporary Japan by MasafumiMonden: This is an own-voices Japanese nonfiction book that examines fashion trends in Japan as it specifically relates to mxn’s fashion. Some of the topics of interest include, but are not limited to, fashion as a form of gender identity and surpassing the binary, the evolution of mxn’s interest in fashion styles in Japan, and the projected future of the fashion industry as it relates to masculine identities. It is marvellously written, with in-depth research and a plenitude of information, as well as additional resources for further reading. The book manages to avoid being intensely dense, which was a welcome reprieve considering the subject matter. Highly recommended for readers who have an interest in multi-cultural fashion industries and surveys of gender identity in Japan.
Kawaii: Japan’s Culture of Cute by Manami Okazaki and Geoff Johnson: Another own-voices Japanese nonfiction novel, this one is a brightly coloured, glossy-paged reference guide to Kawaii culture in Japan. The book offers in-depth yet accessibly succinct chunks of the origins of kawaii culture, its historical influences and evolution, a list of the major artistic creators and influencers of the concept of cute within Japanese society, and how it became a world-wide phenomenon. There are interviews with manga creators as well as specialists and historians within the field that make this book highly informative and vastly fascinating. The beautiful design and presentation along with the layman’s vernacular make the title a must read for all Japanophiles, especially for ones interested in modern kawaii culture (i.e.: anime, Lolita fashion, maid cafés, etc.).
The Map of Salt and Stars by Zeyn Joukhadar: An own-voices Islamic, own-voices Syrian American story about a girl named Nour who moves back to Syria with her mum and sisters shortly after her father’s passing. Before she has the time to fully acclimate to her new surroundings, her town is bombed, forcing her family to flee across numerous borders in order to fight for their very existence. It is magnificently compelling and emotionally riveting. The story is not an easy one to digest as it portrays the harsh reality of loss in multiple layers and dynamics, with the loss of home, loss of loved ones, loss of individuality, and even loss of faith, but that is also what makes it one of the most important books out there. My full spoiler-free review.
Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto: An own-voices Japanese fiction novel that is considered to be a revolutionary work in modern Japanese literature, it follows a young woman who moves in with her grandmother’s friend upon the grandmother’s passing. Whilst living there, the young womxn harnesses the healing powers of cooking and friendship to grieve and find a way to move forward amid life’s unpredictability. Even though the novel has its sad moments, it is ultimately a story of inspiration and hope, making it perfect for anyone that needs a little of both in their lives. Highly recommended for folx that like to read contemporary literary fiction or are interested in Japanese literature but are not quite sure where to begin.
Hurricane Child by Kacen Callender: An own-voices Caribbean, own-voices Queer story for middle-grade readers about a young girl that is faced with feelings of abandonment, and the people who lie to protect her. Callender’s prose and exploration of complex feelings with regard to the uncertainty that follows the loss of a parent, even at such a young age, is powerfully insightful and stunningly evocative. It showcases how children are not the only ones that have to grow up and oft times it is because of their sincere perspective on life that so many adults finally figure it out for themselves. Recommended to readers that like middle-grade books, books with Queer romances, and books that explore the more hurtful aspects and complexities of cultural-specific communities. A full review for this title shall be on the blog shortly.
Marriage of a Thousand Lies by SJ Sindu: An own-voices Sri Lankan and Tamil, own-voices Queer adult literature novel about a womxn named Lucky. She is a lesbian that married her gay friend from college so they could maintain their personal Queer dating excursions safely hidden from the judgemental gazes of their conservative Tamil parents. However, when Lucky is invited home to attend her childhood friend’s wedding, emotions start to run high as she questions what she wants from her life and future. This was such an excellent novel with raw, unfiltered emotion about being in an abusive relationship with a closeted individual, and how the fears and insecurities of such a person can create an extremely toxic relationship. It also examines the challenges of coming to terms with one’s identity amid strict, traditional familial environments and oppressively rigid gender-enforced rituals. It is not an easy book to read, but it is phenomenal, nonetheless. Highly recommended for readers searching for an authentic Queer literary novel centring on Sri Lankan experiences and representation. A full review for this title shall be up on the blog shortly.
This Book is Anti-Racist by Tiffany Jewell: This own-voices Black nonfiction book takes a look at systemic racism and oppression of BIPOC and POC through the pages of history so that we may understand what those two constructs entail, which better equips us to break them down. My favourite part of this collection is how it tackles each element with grace, centring on positive discourse. There are also activities at the end of each main section so that we can truly examine White supremacy and privilege around us in our daily interactions and environments, which further emphasises prejudice and discrimination against all BIPOC and POC individuals. I recommend this to folx interested in learning about and understanding the roots of systemic racism and those who truly wish to unravel the very pillars that maintain the status quo of oppression of marginalised peoples.
Love from A to Z by S.K. Ali: This own-voices Islamic young adult contemporary romance book is the best book I have read in all of 2020 so far. It follows two teenagers who meet by happenstance and formulate a friendship during some of the most difficult tribulations of their life thus far. It is an immensely beautiful book about the joys of faith and the comforts of learning to be oneself, unapologetically so. It is feminist, romantic, fierce, and so wonderfully full of wisdom. Highly recommended to readers that enjoy sincere, wholesome romances, intersectional feminism, and young adult narratives. A full review for this book shall be up shortly.
That does it for my bi-annual round-up of the best reading experiences that I have had in 2020. I am eager and excited for what the next six months shall bring my way. Until next time, happy reading to you!
With the sudden arrival of quarantine, I have become reunited with my Kindle app on my iPad so that I may read e-books. With libraries and bookstores being shut down, the safest and oft times cheapest means of acquiring diverse titles has been via daily deals for digital novels. Between that and Amazon’s free trial of Kindle Unlimited (a subscriber can read an unlimited amount of e-books for $9.99 per month, with ten checkouts at a time and no expiration date), my appreciation for cybernated reading has deepened tenfold.
May and June (thus far) have proved to be quite invaluable with regard to diverse books authored by writers of colour. With titles being offered for lightning-timed prices of zero dollars to approximately a couple bucks here and there, so many brilliant novels from my TBR (to-be-read) list, across subgenres of young adult to adult and historical fiction to fantasy, have fallen conveniently into my Kindle library. As such, I now have a decent collection of things to read and review on The Djinn Reader for the remainder of 2020.
Please check out my latest digital haul down below. Respective links to GoodReads pages shall be linked after the synopses of each title, along with the sale price that I acquired the books for.
The Rise of Kiyoshi by F.C. Yee: A young adult fantasy novel that is the first instalment in a prequel series to Avatar: The Last Airbender. The story delves into the story of Kyoshi, the Earth Kingdom–born Avatar. The longest-living Avatar in this beloved world’s history, Kyoshi established the brave and respected Kyoshi Warriors, but also founded the secretive Dai Li, which led to the corruption, decline, and fall of her own nation. GoodReads. $2.99
The Golden Hairpin by Qinghan Cece: This #OwnVoices historical mystery is about an investigative prodigy named Huang Zixia. At thirteen, she proves herself worthy as an investigator by aiding her father in solving confounding crimes. When she turns seventeen, she ends up going on the run after being accused of murdering her family to escape an arranged marriage. Driven by a single pursuit, she uses her skills to unmask the real killer so she may clear her name once and for all. However, in order to make that happen, Huang shall have to make a deal with the Prince of Kui while bargaining her freedom and life in order to save them both. GoodReads. $0.99
The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo: An #OwnVoices Korean Contemporary novel about a teenager named Clara Shin who lives for pranks. However, when she takes a joke too far, her dad sentences her to a summer working on his food truck with her uptight classmate, Rose Carver. What Clara expects to be an utter disaster turns into a summer of self-discovery with new friendships and a fresh romance. GoodReads. $2.99
The Lost Vintage: A Novel by Ann Mah: A fiction literature story about a woman named Kate who returns to her family’s ancestral vineyard in Burgundy, where she discovers a lost diary and an unknown relative that shall unveil a family secret held closely since the Second World War. As she learns more about her family, the line between Resistance and Collaboration blurs, driving Kate to find the answers to two crucial questions: Who, exactly, did her family aid during the difficult years of the war? GoodReads. $3.99
The Perfect Nanny: A Novel by Leila Slimani: This is an #OwnVoices Franco-Moroccan book about a woman named Myriam. When she decides to return to work as a lawyer after having children, her and her husband look for the perfect nanny. They find Louise, who seems to be an utter dream come true. She is quiet, polite, and devoted. She sings to the children, cleans the family’s chic Paris apartment, and stays late without complaints. But as the nanny and the couple become more co-dependent on one another, jealousy, resentment, and suspicion start stirring, threatening to shatter the idyllic tableau crafted. GoodReads. $2.99
Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak: An #OwnVoices Turkish-Islamic adult fiction story set over an evening in contemporary Istanbul, following Peri, a married and wealthy Turkish woman. On her way to a seaside mansion, a beggar snatches her handbag. While she wrestles to retrieve it, a photograph falls to the ground—an old polaroid of three young women and their university professor. A relic from the past and a love of Peri’s that she had tried desperately to forget. GoodReads. $1.99
Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim: An #OwnVoices Chinese young adult fantasy story that is a sweeping tale about a young girl who poses as a boy to compete for the role of imperial tailor. To do so, she shall have to embark on an epic journey to sew three magic dresses from the sun, the moon, and the stars. Backstabbing and lies run rampant as the tailors compete in challenges to prove their artistry and skill. Maia’s task is further complicated when she draws the attention of the court magician, Edan, whose piercing eyes seem to see straight through her disguise. GoodReads. $2.99
Opium and Absinthe by Lydia Kang: This historical occult fiction book takes place in New York City in 1899 and follows Tillie Pembrooke. She’s a ravenous reader and a researcher that is determined to unravel the mystery of her sister’s death. Will Tillie be able to look past the haze of her opium addiction and the hysteria caused by the murder in order to catch the culprit behind her sister’s demise? GoodReads. $1.99
A People’s History of Heaven by Mathangi Subramanian: An #OwnVoices South Asian novel that revolves around a tight-knit community known as Heaven—a ramshackle slum hidden between luxury high-rises in Bangalore, India—five girls on the cusp of womanhood forge an unbreakable bond. Muslim, Christian, and Hindu; Queer and straight; they are full of life, and they love and accept one another unconditionally. Whatever they have, they share. These marginalised women are determined to transcend their surroundings. When the local government threatens to demolish their homes in order to build a shopping mall, the girls and their mothers refuse to be erased. Together they wage war on the bulldozers sent to bury their homes, and, ultimately, on the city that wishes that families like them would remain hidden forever. GoodReads. $1.99
No More Heroes by Michelle Kan: This urban fantasy title. The peaceful nights are kept under the clandestine and watchful eye of young, gifted Vigilantes around the world. But a sudden rash of Vigilante deaths foreshadows the arrival of a new and unfamiliar enemy—one whose motive is as unclear as their identity. Someone or something seems determined to disturb the peace, and they are going straight for the watchmen to do it. In a city where those who are gifted make up their own rules, who will step forward when the threat of a swift end is real and there stands so little to gain? GoodReads. $3.50
The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai: An #OwnVoices Vietnamese historical fiction title that has received sweeping acclaim across the globe, it is a multigenerational tale about the Trần family, set against the Việt Nam War. Trần Diệu Lan, born in the 1920s, is forced to flee with her six children during a period of severe land reform. Years later, her granddaughter comes of age as her family is headed down to Hồ Chí Minh Trail to fight in a conflict that tore her country and family apart. GoodReads. $1.99
Isle of Blood and Stone by Makiia Lucier: This is an #OwnVoices Pacific Islander (Guam), young adult historical fantasy novel. Eighteen years ago two princes of the island kingdom of St. John del Mar were kidnapped and murdered in a deadly plot by the rival kingdom of Mondrago. Everyone knows the story. Yet for Elias, Mercedes, and Ulises the aftermath of that terrible day is deeply personal. Elias grew up without his father, who was killed trying to protect the princes. Mercedes is half-Mondragan, leaving her to grow up in the shadow of del Mar’s hate. And Ulises, as the youngest and only remaining prince, inherited the throne meant for his older brothers. Now, the three friends just want to move on with their lives. But when two maps surface—each with the same hidden riddle—troubling questions arise. What really happened to the young princes? And why do the maps look like they were drawn by Elias’s father, whose body was never found? To discover what really happened that fateful day, Elias, Mercedes, and Ulises must follow the clues hidden in the maps, uncovering long-held secrets and unimaginable betrayals along the way. GoodReads. $1.99
The Wrath and the Dawn by Renée Ahdieh: This historical fantasy young adult story is loosely inspired by Arabian Nights. Every dawn brings horror to a different family in a land ruled by a killer. Khalid, the eighteen-year-old Caliph of Khorasan, takes a new bride each night only to have her executed at sunrise. So it is a suspicious surprise when sixteen-year-old Shahrzad volunteers to marry Khalid. But she does so with a clever plan to stay alive and exact revenge on the Caliph for the murder of her best friend and countless other girls. GoodReads. $1.99
Dark and Deepest Red by Anna-Marie McLemore: This is a young adult historical fantasy novel. 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. GoodReads. $1.99
Don’t Read the Comments by Eric Smith: A young adult contemporary following Divya and Aaron. For them, it is all about the world of online gaming. While Divya trades her rising status for sponsorships to help her struggling single mom pay rent, Aaron plays as a way to fuel his own dreams of becoming a game developer. After a chance online meeting, the pair decides to team up, but soon find themselves as targets for a group of internet trolls that begin launching a real-world doxxing campaign, threatening Aaron’s dream and Divya’s actual life. They think can drive her out of the game, but Divya’s whole world is on the line and she shall not go down without a fight. GoodReads. $1.99
Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera: An #OwnVoices Puerto Rican young adult contemporary title about Juliet Milagros Palante, who is a self-proclaimed closeted Puerto Rican baby dyke from the Bronx. Then Juliet comes out to her family the night before flying out to Portland, Oregon for an internship with her favourite feminist writer. When her coming out completely crashes, she is not sure her mother shall ever speak to her again. Hoping her internship shall give her the answers, Juliet realises that it will be much harder as Harlowe is White, not from the Bronx, and does not have the answers Juliet seeks. GoodReads. $1.99
Kingdom of Souls by Rena Barron: A young adult fantasy about Arrah, who is the heir to two lines of powerful witchdoctors. She yearns for magic of her own yet fails at bone magic and calling upon her ancestors, as well as living up to her familial legacy. Under her mother’s disapproving eye, Arrah is afraid that she shall never be good enough. However, when the Kingdom’s children begin to disappear, Arrah becomes desperate enough to turn to a forbidden and dangerous ritual. If she does not have her own magic, then her last resort is to buy it but trading away years of her own life. GoodReads. $1.99
Black Girl Unlimited by Echo Brown: This book is a young adult novel that is heavily autobiographical novel and infused with magical realism about a girl named Echo Brown, who is a wizard from the East Side, where apartments are small, and parents suffer addictions to the white rocks. Yet there is magic everywhere. New portals begin to open when Echo transfers to the rich school on the West Side, and an insightful teacher becomes a pivotal mentor. Each day, Echo travels between two worlds, leaving her brothers, her friends, and a piece of herself behind on the East Side. There are dangers to leaving behind the place that made you. Echo soon realises there is pain flowing through everyone around her, and a black veil of depression threatens to undo everything she has worked for. GoodReads. $2.99
Asian Tor.com Original Short Stories (GR Links in Titles)
Beyond the Dragon’s Gate by Yoon Ha Lee: This #OwnVoices Korean science-fiction short story is about former Academician, Anna Kim. Kim’s research into artificial intelligence cost her everything. Now, years later, the military has need of her expertise in order to prevent the destruction of their AI-powered fleet. $0.99
Waiting on a Bright Moon by JY Neon Yang: An OwnVoices Singaporean science-fiction short story about Xin, who is an ansible that uses her song magic to connect the originworld of the Imperial authority and its far-flung colonies—a role that is forced upon magically-gifted women “of a certain closeness.” When a dead body comes through her portal at a time of growing rebellion, Xin is drawn deep into a station-wide conspiracy along with Ouyang Suqing, one of the station’s mysterious, high-ranking starmages. $0.99
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.
Japanese literature is one of my favourite genres to read, so much so that I have been engaging with it (including the in-depth study of) for the better part of a decade. It is what I tend to gravitate towards the most, especially since it has taught me an incalculable wealth of information on how to critically analyse various literatures, the stories that they tell about the psychology of people including cultures, histories, and social and economic upheavals, and how to write magnificently crafted narratives in general. There has not been a single genre of Japanese literature that has not left me feeling more enlightened and passionate about reading and writing.
Since I receive a lot of questions from people about Japanese literature and how best to begin reading from it, I thought it would be neat to share recommendations that are perfect for an array of readers, whether the preference is for mysteries to contemporaries and even magical realism and fantasy. All of these books are translated fiction that is authored by women, who are some of my favourite writers from the modern age.
If you find a novel that catches your fancy, click on the titles to visit their respective GoodReads pages. Any pertinent reviews shall also be linked after the snippet, where available, just in case if one desires more in-depth information. Please note that all books shared are adult fiction titles, even though a few of them have kids or teenagers as protagonists.
The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yōko Ogawa: This fiction literature book is perfect for readers that are searching for wholesome narratives about families, including single motherhood and discovering a familial bond in kindred spirits rather than blood relatives. It also has excellent representation of a degenerative illness. The novel itself is short and has a straightforward yet evocative prose to it that captivates from the first page.
Revenge by Yōko Ogawa: An anthology of short stories that are loosely interconnected, Revenge is for readers who appreciate Gothic ambiance amid the macabre with a terse yet grimly seductive writing style. The details of each story is what helps to create an all-encompassing and deeply contemplative collection of tales that explore the darker parts of loneliness, grief, jealousy, and desire. For a more in-depth psychological exploration of indulging in grief and loneliness, please check out her other book, Hotel Iris.
Brave Story by Miyuki Miyabe: A fairly large and chunky novel that is part-magical realism and part-fantasy about a young boy who has many struggles at home. Feeling overwhelmed, he ends up embarking on a journey into a magical realm with the hopes of being able to resolve the things that plague him. This is an excellently crafted and superbly imaginative examination of a troubled childhood with themes of abandonment, abuse, and mental health illnesses, to name a few. It can be a difficult book to read at times, but it tells such a powerful and awe-inspiring story that I cannot recommend it enough. Miyabe is also known for writing grossly invigorating mystery thrillers that critique the toxicity of dysfunctional relationships, such as Shadow Family and The Devils’ Whisper. Other fantasy works she has written include The Book of Heroes and its companion novel The Gate of Sorrows, both of which can be read by young adult readers.
Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami: Kawakami’s brilliant novel is one of the truest creations of feminist fiction that I have read coming out of Japan. The novel explores contemporary womanhood via the intimate journeys of three women as they face their oppressive mores and uncertainties while trying to navigate a future to call their own. Kawakami’s stunning use of multiple prose styles, sardonic humour, and intensely mesmerizing emotional depth makes Breasts and Eggs one of the finest pieces of contemporary literary fiction. For a smaller taste of her work, I recommend Ms Ice Sandwich, which is a novella about the woes of unrequited first loves of adolescence.
Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami: This is one of my favourite Japanese novels of all-time. A fiction contemporary (also known as The Briefcase) that is told with a seemingly simple and quiet prose, it follows a woman in her thirties who reconnects with an old high school teacher happenstance. The bulk of the story is a marvellously intricate and multi-layered examination of what it means to get older. From the eyes of the thirty-year-old woman, there is the fear of growing old and dying alone, whereas the lens of the elder gentleman shows us the fear of leaving nothing behind, no legacy for remembrance. The dualities intertwine in bittersweetly fascinating ways as the story progresses. When coupled with the author’s careful yet unfiltered prose, the psychologically thought-provoking aesthetic can leave one breathless. For a book that uses her embracing writing style to discover the sensuous, comedy of human desire, I recommend The Ten Loves of Nishino. [Review]
Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto: One of the most famous translated novels to come out of Japan, Kitchen is a short fiction story about a woman who must learn to process the grief of losing her grandmother so she can move forward and live for herself. While most Japanese literature novels are about the debilitating constricts that grief can have on a person, Yoshimoto’s small tale is the opposite. It beautifully portrays the motivational power that can stem from losing loved ones while building precious bonds with others. The novel also has positive Trans representation, which was a bit uncommon in the 1980s, when the story was first published. This is a superb feel-good story. For a more serious and magical realism take on grief and the uncertainty that follows, the author’s novel Moshi Moshi would be a great title to visit.
Out by Natsuo Kirino: A feminist noir about working women who go to the extremes to help a victim of domestic abuse. Kirino’s sharp and biting prose with critical portrayal of how co-dependent and toxic female relationships can be, particularly where male dominance is concerned, is absolutely jaw-dropping. Unveiling the darker parts of female relationships as well as the unbalanced gender roles of Japanese society and the impact it has on the female psyche is essential reading for anyone interested in diving into Japanese literature. Where Out focuses on older women in their twenties to early forties, Grotesque offers the same sort of provocatively piercing insight into teenage relationships with keen focus on nurture versus nature.
Confessions by Kanae Minato: Psychological thrillers that penetrate so deeply beneath the skin as to send chills through the whole body many hours after reading are my ultimate indulgence and they do not get any better or terrifying as Minato’s Confessions. A tale that shows us the inherent lack of limitations that a loving mother has when it comes to avenging the death of her daughter, while being a fierce scrutiny on Japan’s bullying atmosphere. The story is nonlinear and strips away layer after layer of the elements that influence a child’s chances of being a bully or being bullied. Another of Minato’s works takes the same principles of revenge and applies them to adult relationships in Penance. [Review]
The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu (Translated by Royall Tyler): Credited with being the first full-length novel to have ever been written, anyone with an interest in Japanese literature should most definitely read this engrossing original, that from which most modern literature as we know it today stems. Royall Tyler’s translation is positively stunning and captures the lyrical style of the classic text while still making it accessible for present-day readers. The epic is about insecurities and validation through interpersonal relationships as much as it is about seduction and politics. An extraordinarily timeless piece of writing that can be overwhelming by its size yet shall prove to be a valuable resource for all other Japanese literature to various degrees.
All the novels stated herein are wonderful places to begin one’s Japanese literature journey. As I mentioned earlier, it is my favourite genre. With a personal library of over 400 English-translated Japanese titles, I have plenty of recommendations to go around for various genres. If there is a specific genre that you are interested in, please let me know in the comments and I shall pass on more specialised reading suggestions.
“The men watched with fascination as she opened a book and bowed her head in it. It looked like she was avoiding the crowd, and she appeared to want to blend in. It was impossible though since she’d already caught the attention of her audience by simply standing out in her red dress.”
The Name of Red by Beena Khan is an #OwnVoices South Asian contemporary romance about a woman known only as Red who frequents a local bar every evening where she drinks vodka and reads books. One evening an admirer begins leaving specific titles for her upon her favoured reading spot with notes tucked into the pages. Feeling intrigued by the gesture, she reciprocates the gift-giving with responses to said notes, thus starting a curious friendship. The novel is a debut release.
There were many attributes to The Name of Red that kept me steadfastly invested in the story between Red and her mystery admirer, such as the incredible descriptive writing and the slow-burn interaction between the two individuals, however the novel’s downfall was how unpolished and repetitive the prose became.
The strongest trait of the novel is the captivating way that the author is able to create atmosphere. It was marvellously easy to picture Red getting situated at the bar and trying to focus on her book, but then becoming wholly uncomfortable when men would gawk at her inappropriately. Another scene was when she receives her first book from the admirer and the caution that she felt along with a twist of curiosity and excitement was delightful and charming. These fantastic descriptives extend to character interactions and dialogue sequences, where details of facial expressions and emotional reactions were shared, providing the reader with a superb recognition of how everyone was reacting to one another. This tends to be a characteristic that is quite commonly overlooked in contemporaries during verbal exchanges and its presence here was immensely appreciated. Additionally, it further cements the heat of the slow-burn development of feelings between Red and her eventual love-interest, Kabir.
The second facet that makes The Name of Red so fiercely engaging is the aforementioned romance. The rapport is built on two individuals who get to know each other gradually through shared (and separate) interests and a natural inquisitiveness about one another’s past encounters and relationships. It helps create a foundation of trust and mutual respect that is splendidly genuine and empathetic. The establishment of familiarity when building a romantic relationship or even a platonic kinship is a great portrayal of how healthy bonds are forged and something that is vastly needed more of in adult romances.
The only true downfall of The Name of Red is the unpolished nature of the overall writing style. In the first half of the book, there are tons of repetitive words and phrases that make it feel tedious and overtly accentuated, mainly when describing Red’s beauty and the impact that it has on people around her. Rather than being allowed to gauge the reactions and formulate an opinion independently, it occasionally felt like the reader was supposed to respond with or think specific things, and that can become highly grating as one gets backed into a very precise corner. This is further reinforced if one is doing a single reading session for the book.
In later chapters, the quality of the writing takes a significant downturn as well. Rather than the carefully crafted sentences that is found in the first one-third of the narrative, the prose becomes riddled with many grammatical errors and inconsistent sentence structures that detracts from a smooth reading experience. I found myself stopping every so often to re-visit certain passages and paragraphs so that I could understand them fully, which further exasperated the repetitive element of the novel, but in a completely different manner. Suffice to say that the book needed a serious hand at editing as it reads like a second draft rather than a final product.
Writing titbits aside, there was one narrative element I also did not particularly care for and that was the amount of trauma that is introduced later on. Much of the trauma felt like contrived plot devices for shock value and it places a great amount of distance between the reader and the initial investment that hooks one into the plot and character plights. The suspension of disbelief utterly evaporates in the last one-third to one-fourth of the narrative, which then impacts the storytelling quality as a whole. However, I do feel the need to admit that I am not typically a reader of romance, so regulars of the genre may find these elements far more palatable than I did.
Overall, The Name of Red was a great debut. The author has immense potential to be a superb contributor to the genre. Having such a skill for crafting immersive settings and characters that are easy to root for, I am positive that she shall only get better with each new book she releases. I look forward to seeing what her next story shall entail. I recommendThe Name of Red for people who fancy diverse slow-burn romances.
“With every item she tossed into the washer’s gaping mouth, she dissected every sentence she could recall saying to Neela, analysing the implications of her words and how they might have been interpreted.”
The Subtweet by Vivek Shraya is an #OwnVoices South Asian-Canadian contemporary novel about two uniquely separate musicians that formulate a friendship after one of them performs a cover of the other’s song and it goes viral. Their quick-formulated bond becomes a contrast of insecurities and miscommunication as the fame compounds into toxic envy. Then one moment of weakness and a startling subtweet later, careers are devastated, and friendships become utterly shattered.
The Subtweet was a novel that had a vastly unique premise and sounded unlike anything that I have ever read before, which is why I felt drawn to it. While it was extremely fast-paced and easy to consume in one sitting, by its finale I felt that the novel’s listed premise was inherently far-removed from its painfully one-dimensional execution.
Social media is the ultimate platform for networking in the modern day, however, it is also one of the swiftest ways to create havoc and chaos, particularly those built upon the recesses of miscommunication and missing facts. While I understood that this element would play a part in the conflict of The Subtweet’s story, as it does concentrate on virtually crafted camaraderie, what I did not foresee was it becoming the underlying foundation for every single ounce of harmfulness taking place in the book. Ultimately, this is one of my least favourite tropes of all-time, and I felt it became a tenuous excuse for uncertain narrative direction, more so when coupled with the thin level of critique on the subject matter and a severe lack of atmosphere.
Rukmini and Neela, the two protagonists of The Subtweet, are both incredibly unlikeable people, and one of the main reasons for this is that they are women in their thirties who behave like they are sixteen with their petty drama and consistent mistrust of one another’s loyalty to their outrageously fast-formed friendship. A handful of virtual messages and some poorly constructed face-to-face interactions later, they were best of friends, seemingly out of thin air. Not only did this feel entirely unrealistic, it also reeked of doubtful plot subtexts. If we look at them as separate individuals, then there is no development here either to assist in making them endearing, or to garner the reader’s empathy, or even sympathy, in the midst of the chaos that occurs when the hurtful subtweet goes live; a feat that astounded me given the heavy load of dialogue that takes place in the novel. They both provide monologues about the various aspects that make them feel invalidated and insecure in the friendship yet do absolutely nothing to remedy their concerns or allay their fears. This creates a stonewall of storytelling stagnation that sticks around from start to finish.
When the conflict occurs, as I mentioned earlier, it is based entirely on miscommunication. Rather than have an adult conversation to sort out the motives or anger that ultimately led to Neela’s string of hurtful words, Rukmini completely disappears from the picture, never to be heard of again. This was a terrible way to engage with a topic that is supposed to be under a critical lens and create the basis for a thought-provoking examination on the noxiousness that comes with having an online presence.
The Subtweet had a grocery list of themes that it wanted to explore. Some of these include the implications of diversity when a person of colour caters to White audiences’ fetishized perception of cultural content, or when White masses seek to wash away the nuances that separate diverse content as unique creative cultural installations; the vindictive dynamics that are prominent in female-centric friendships; critiques on how privilege plays a part in fame accumulation, especially when it steals credit away from original creators; and lastly, the harmful ways that social media can be manipulated to build overnight stardom, whether that was the desired effect or not. With so many various subjects to shine a decisive lens on, and then some, the book never touches any of it with more than a handful of lines referencing these things. Writing out a single statement admonishing a person for appeasing the White masses in lieu of cultural authenticity is not the same thing as having a crucial examination on the topic! If anything, all it does is admit a desire to do so but illustrate a complete lack of initiative to follow through.
The Subtweet was a book that was ambitious in scope, yet floundered into obscurity with the delivery, leaving behind an immensely frustrating and one-dimensional 200-pages of storytelling torpidity. One of the most fascinating novels of 2020 quickly turned into the most disappointing reading experience I have had in years. As such, I cannotrecommendThe Subtweet with good faith.
Can sadness be too heavy for God? Maybe God can bear it all, but I don’t know if I can. The world is a stone in me, heavy with Baba’s voice and the old clock tower and the man selling tea in the street. I want to believe things are supposed to be better, but I don’t have the words to say how.”
The Map of Salt and Stars by Zeyn Joukhadar is an #OwnVoices Syrian-American fiction story about a girl named Nour and her family after they move back to Syria in the wake of her father’s passing. As they struggle to build a new life together in midst of unbearable grief, their town is bombed, significantly changing the course of their life as they know it.
There were so many elements to The Map of Salt and Stars that made it a phenomenally beautiful reading experience, such as the lyrical prose, the duality of stories being told, the nuances of past and present grief, and the heart-breaking nature of a refugee’s fight for survival.
The main character is a little girl named Nour. She has a condition called synaesthesia, which is neurological condition where multiple senses that are not typically connected become joined together. For example, it allows for people to hear colours or to be able to see sounds. Because of that, the prose is stunningly eloquent with lush descriptives that utilises numerous shades of bright colours to express feelings of sadness, grief, longing, guilt, joy and more. Nour sees the pain and suffering around her as people are dying or starving in shades of reds, yellows, and blues, for example. Because her entire existence is so heavily focused on the reliance of colours, the way she communicates her thoughts and fears to her mother seem almost constantly metaphorical. Eventually, their colour communication shall help them with an impossible situation that arises during their journey.
Now, there are two stories that take place side-by-side in The Map of Salt and Stars. The first is Nour’s story, during the present time, as her and her family become Syrian refugees. The second one is a fictional tale that her father used to share with her, and it occurs 800 years earlier, following a girl that disguises herself as a boy so she can become an apprentice to a renowned mapmaker. They travel the lands and fill in the blank places on the map. What makes both of these narratives so fascinating is how much of an echo they are of one another. Rawiya, the girl from the fictional story, goes on a long journey that allows for her to truly understand what family means to her, as well as what culture and history can mean for a person’s identity. Through Rawiya the reader also gets to experience Syria back when it was thriving and filled with tons of splendour, highlighting huge aspects of West Asian culture.
With Nour’s voyage, the reader gets to watch as Nour comes to understand how precious her family is to her. The memories of her father become her most cherished treasure, thoughts of her Syrian home and how it lay in pieces show her of a home she lost before she was able to grasp what it meant to her, and how the complex sibling rivalries she held with her sisters are meaningless and a waste of life when that same life can end in a single moment. Nour’s journey is one that is brimming with sorrow and terror and uncertainty as her family travels across lands where the ground is blanketed with brass casings, broken rocks, and ill-intentions.
“He said, ‘People don’t get lost on the outside. They get lost on the inside. Why are there no maps of that?’ ”
The only time that these two separate stories felt disjointed to me was when we shifted from one to the other. Because there is such a vast reliance on what sometimes amount to purple prose aesthetics with Nour’s point-of-view, it sometimes made it challenging for me to focus on sections with Rawiya, which felt rather simplistic and lacklustre in comparison. My brain could not adapt quickly or comfortably from a straightforward and artless tone to the more sophisticated and impeccably ornate descriptives of Nour’s world.
Beyond that, The Map of Salt and Stars is an exceptionally heart-wrenching story to read. One of the biggest themes of the book is how quickly life can change. Nour and her family are uprooted as their home is destroyed. They gather everything that they can carry with them, find a few loved ones, and take off on foot in search of a place they can call home where death and dust do not plague them like shadows. This is the brutal reality of what it means to be a refugee, and a traumatising experience that many all around the world have undergone or are still experiencing to this day. The devastating experiences and overwhelming sense of hopelessness that threatens to dismantle Nour and her family is never sugar-coated or diminished, which I appreciated immensely because in spite of everything going on, they never lost that bit of hope, and this is such a profound message, particularly in tales that centre on a loss of identity to various extents.
The Map of Salt and Stars is one of the most consummate books that I have read in years, especially as it pertains to the refugee experience. It is magnificently compelling and emotionally riveting. The story is not an easy one to digest as it portrays the harsh reality of loss in multiple layers and dynamics, with the loss of home, loss of loved ones, loss of individuality, and even loss of faith, but that is also what makes it one of the most important books that you shall read.
In truth, we were similar. Like two sides of a fan, we were at odds with each other, we competed with each other, but our fates similarly rested in the hands of the Emperor–the holder, the commander, the manipulator of our destinies.
The Moon in the Palace by Weina Dai Randel is an #OwnVoices Chinese historical fiction novel that is the first in a duology chronicling the life of Empress Wu as she rose from a simple concubine to become one of the most powerful rulers in Chinese history. The story begins with a little girl named Mei who is picked to become a potential paramour for the Emperor. In the wake of her father’s demise, she is whisked away to the palace, never to see her family again. When a rare opportunity arises for her to capture the Emperor’s attention, she crafts a gift that he will never forget, setting into motion an array of events that shall ultimately steal Mei’s childhood innocence to morph her into a calculatingly intelligent and resourceful woman of the court.
This is a difficult book to review because there are so many captivating elements about it, yet it was also quite challenging for me to stay invested in Mei’s journey from beginning to end due to its extremely basic prose.
The best parts of The Moon in the Palace are with the moments of intrigue and suspense that comes with palace politics, particularly where oppressed female roles are involved. Mei learns that not everything is as she fantasised about when she was younger, and that the privilege of visiting with the Emperor is exactly that: an honour awarded to only a handful of women who have proven themselves to be memorable to him. Friendships are superficial and a means to climbing the ladder of prestige and any hint of compassions is usually tied to a thread of devastating deception. The author has a talent for building tension slowly that makes the reader want to root for Mei while protecting her from the doom that is inevitable.
I knew now: love and destiny were two wild horses that could not be curbed. They galloped in different directions and ran down different paths where streams of desire and hope would not converge. To follow one was to betray the other. To make one happy was to break the other’s heart. Yet I supposed that was part of life, a lesson we had to learn. To grow up was also to give up, and to build the future was to dissolve the past. The only thing we could do was hope for the best, to believe that the horse we chose would find us a safe destination.
Since there are so many levels to the depths that people go to for power and authority, the story becomes dark and tragic very quickly. It is also powerfully vicious and emotionally tight; all necessary ingredients for an extraordinary exposition on the internal workings of Chinese state-ship at the time. The only thing that really diminishes the quality of the narrative as a whole is the overly simplistic prose.
The tone did not fit the time period at all and came off as rather contemporary in nature. If I did not already have prior knowledge of the book’s particular era, I would be inclined to believe that this was a modern-day telling of Empress Wu’s beginnings, just without the use of technology. There was also a lack of emotion in many dialogue exchanges and interactions that Mei had with other women of the court. There were only two women who evoked any sort of emotional response or association while reading, and they were ones that had impactful roles as well, which greatly alleviated the monotonous feel of the people of the court.
Lastly, the story is incredibly drawn-out. I understand the need for meticulous use of details, and I often appreciate the tediousness that comes with the historical fiction genre. However, with The Moon in the Palace, it would have been better to use some well-placed time jumps to cover more of the lacking portions. The pacing does pick up significantly within the final one-third to one-fourth or the novel, and that was where I finally began to feel more invested with the plot and Mei’s journey. I merely wish the first 70% was not such a slog to get through. By the time I arrived at the climax, I had utterly disconnected with the all the characters and storyline.
Even so, I recommend this book to fans of Chinese historical fiction. Some readers may appreciate the graduality of the novel more than I did, and as I mentioned, there are some rather marvellous aspects to The Moon in the Palace that can be overlooked by the slower development. At the very least, the beginnings of Empress Wu’s life in this fictional telling is still quite provocative and culturally fascinating; definitely worth experiencing, especially if one is an enthusiast of cultural histories.
Ramadan is my favourite month in the year. Ever since I was a child, it has been a source of immense comfort and hope. Throughout the month as I join my family and fellow Muslims in fasting, I am able to reflect on a myriad of things that help me find significant gratitude within my life, even if things feel quite hopeless and bleak. Through reflection, selflessness, and compassion, I am able to keep my mental and emotional health grounded, along with my faith in the belief that life shall not always be this dark and frightful.
A few years ago, a brilliant Muslim book blogger named Nadia, created an absolutely lovely readathon event to accompany this marvellous holiday season. It quickly became my favourite readathon and it is one that I always anticipate with great glee! Because the world is in a state of intense uncertainty, astonishing political strife, and massive fear, Ramadan and the Ramadan Readathon could not have arrived at a more pressing time; during a period where we all could use some hope and kindness, as well as a reminder that we are far stronger within ourselves than we may feel in the moment.
For people who might not be familiar with this Islamic holiday, Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar. During this holy month, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, and focus on self-reflection and self-control, selflessness, charity, compassion, and togetherness. along with participating in our daily salat, or daily prayers. Ramadan is then superseded by the holiday of Eid al-Fitr, which is a celebration marking the end of this month. It is typically celebrated for three days in most Muslim countries, however, growing up in the United States only allowed us to celebrate for one day. So, the celebratory aspect is something that usually varies from country-to-country.
The Ramadan Readathon, originally created in 2017 by Nadia from Headscarves and Hardbacks, is a month-long celebration of Muslim authors during this holiest time of year that is held in conjunction with Ramadan. If you would like to show your support of fellow Muslims, please join us in the readathon, or spread the word so others can learn more about this event and the brilliant Muslim authors that we want to uplift and commemorate. Visit the links down below for more information and recommendations on books by Muslim writers.
Every year, I tend to gather a decent stack of books authored by fellow Muslims and Muslimas and read from that pile. However, this year when I collected all of my Muslim books together, I discovered that I finally had enough for a whole bookshelf. In fact, I had to order a second bookshelf a few days ago due to the sheer size of this collection. My heart felt incredibly warm and comforted by this. When I was a child, I never dreamt that this kind of representation of my faith and cultures would exist. To see it not only exist, but to thrive so beautifully is like a dream come true.
Now, since there is such a vast array of titles to choose from, I had the most difficult time picking out a mere handful. So, this year for the Ramadan Readathon, I created a TBR goblet (courtesy of Darth Vader). I tossed in tiny strips of yellow paper with titles of all the Muslim literature that I own. Whenever I finish a book, I shall randomly pluck out my next read from this goblet, and thus conduct my reading theatrics as such. I think this is a fun, creative way to do Ramadan Readathon this year. What say you? If this works out well, I may incorporate it for most, if not all, of my future bibliophilic high jinks.
Once again, if you are interested in learning more about the Ramadan Readathon, please visit the links above, or check out Nadia’s blog here. This year it shall run from April 23rd to May 23rd. Throughout these four weeks, I shall be sharing plenty of content on Islamic books, including a tour of my own collection, so keep an eye out for those as well!
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).