[Blog Tour] Review for Things We Couldn’t Say by Jay Coles

Hope everyone is having a nice fall (or spring depending on which hemisphere you’re in). The Mid-Autumn Festival and Chuseok are this week on Tuesday! Also coming on Tuesday is a wonderful queer Black YA novel, Things We Couldn’t Say by Jay Coles. I’m happy to be featuring this book as part of the blog tour hosted by Colored Pages.

Book Information 

Title: Things We Couldn’t Say 
Author: Jay Coles 
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Publication Date: September 21st, 2021
Genres: Young Adult Contemporary

Synopsis:

From one of the brightest and most acclaimed new lights in YA fiction, a fantastic new novel about a bi Black boy finding first love . . . and facing the return of the mother who abandoned his preacher family when he was nine.

There’s always been a hole in Gio’s life. Not because he’s into both guys and girls. Not because his father has some drinking issues. Not because his friends are always bringing him their drama. No, the hole in Gio’s life takes the shape of his birth mom, who left Gio, his brother, and his father when Gio was nine years old. For eight years, he never heard a word from her . . . and now, just as he’s started to get his life together, she’s back.

It’s hard for Gio to know what to do. Can he forgive her like she wants to be forgiven? Or should he tell her she lost her chance to be in his life? Complicating things further, Gio’s started to hang out with David, a new guy on the basketball team. Are they friends? More than friends? At first, Gio’s not sure . . . especially because he’s not sure what he wants from anyone right now.

There are no easy answers to love — whether it’s family love or friend love or romantic love. In Things We Couldn’t Say, Jay Coles, acclaimed author of Tyler Johnson Was Here, shows us a guy trying to navigate love in all its ambiguity — hoping at the other end he’ll be able to figure out who is and who he should be.

Review:

This is a book that really made me go “oof.” Our protagonist, Gio, has to process a lot of complicated and heavy emotions through the story. His anxiety, depression, and PTSD are incredibly raw and so viscerally presented that I found myself hurting alongside him. I can’t speak to the experience of being abandoned by a parent, but I did see myself in many aspects of his struggles with mental illness and trauma. In particular, I empathized with his feelings of guilt and worthlessness, the sense that he did not deserve care and love because he was too broken to do anything but hurt others as a result of his trauma.

Running parallel to the storyline about Gio’s mother and providing some uplifting relief is his budding relationship with the new neighbor who’s also on his basketball team, David. David awakens something in him that he’s never felt before. Although Gio figured out that he’s bi before the events of the story, David is the first boy that he’s truly fallen for, the first person in general who seems to really get his experiences because David has lost someone dear to him, too. The tenderness, earnestness, and vulnerability between the two boys will make your heart ache.

Filling out the cast of characters in the book are Gio’s family and friends: his distant preacher father, his nurturing stepmom Karina, his precocious younger brother Theo, his two BFFs Ayesha and Olly, as well as a host of people in his predominantly Black neighborhood and community that are part of the landscape of his daily life. Each character is given their own depth and humanity, adding texture and nuance to Gio’s story.

There are also a few racist white characters, from Gio’s ignorant Nice White Lady English teacher to an explicitly, aggressively antiblack store manager. These characters will likely be familiar to any readers of color, especially Black readers, who have encountered similar figures in their own lives at various points. Although racism isn’t the central conflict of the story, it still informs Gio’s character and the setting and sustains the realism.

Aside from the plotlines about his mother and David, there’s also one about Gio’s future as it relates to what his father expects. His father is pretty insistent on having him take over the church, but Gio dreams of playing basketball and therefore constantly clashes with his father over what is “really important.” Watching Gio stand up for himself and articulate his desires felt so gratifying. This conflict plays out in so many YA stories, but it never feels old because life is so often a struggle between external pressures and internal desires.

I’m not really one who cries over books super often, but Things We Couldn’t Say made me tear up multiple times. Something about Jay Coles’ writing really just digs under your skin and burrows into your heart. If you’re in the mood for an angsty, cathartic read, this is one to pick up.

And stay tuned for a collection of some favorite quotes from Things We Couldn’t Say. 🙂

Content/Trigger Warnings: alcoholic parent, queermisia, parental abandonment, anxiety (including panic attacks), depression, PTSD, racism/antiblackness

Book Links:  

About the Author

JAY COLES is the author of critically acclaimed TYLER JOHNSON WAS HERE, a composer with ASCAP, and a professional musician residing in Muncie, Indiana. He is a graduate of Vincennes University and Ball State University and holds degrees in English and Liberal Arts. When he’s not writing diverse books, he’s advocating for them, serving with The Revolution church, and composing music for various music publishers. Jay’s forthcoming novel THINGS WE COULDN’T SAY is set to be released 9.21.21 with Scholastic! His novels can be purchased at Barnes and Noble or at Amazon.

Author Links:

[Blog Tour] Book Playlist for Bounce Back by Misako Rocks!

Hello again! If you missed my review for Bounce Back, please refer back to that post for more information about the book. This post is for the playlist I curated.

For this book playlist, I decided to lean into the 90s-00s shoujo nostalgia I mentioned in my review. All five of the songs I picked are from anime, and four out of five are in Japanese (the other being from an English dub of an anime). Of those five, three come from magical girl anime from that time period, specifically Sailor Moon (the original, not Sailor Moon Crystal!) and Cardcaptor Sakura (not the more recent Clear Card), which were formative pieces of media for me. The central themes of this playlist are the uncertainty and growing pains of adolescence as it relates to self-confidence and friendship.

Full YouTube Playlist

1. Platinum – 坂本真綾/Maaya Sakamoto (Cardcaptor Sakura Season 3 Opening Theme)

Selected Lyrics (translation source uncertain, but possibly by the uploader of the video linked):

A world yet unseen…
No matter what awaits me there,
Even if it’s not the ideal
I won’t be afraid
The birds travel on the wind
On a journey from today to tomorrow

I want to convey it, I want to shout it
I am but one entity in this world
But like a prayer, like a star
Even with a small light, someday
I want to become stronger and stronger

2. “らしく”いきましょ/“Rashiku” Ikimasho (I’ll Go As “Myself”) – Meu (Sailor Moon SuperS Second Ending Theme)

Selected Lyrics (translation taken from Anime Lyrics.com, credited to Alex Glover <kurozuki@nwlink.com> ):

Lalala
Never give up, keep on trying
I’m betting it all on this game
My heart is pounding with joy
In the age of adolescence
It’s okay to rewrite
What is in your loving profile

3. Chase the Core – 佐久間貴生/Takao Sakuma (Skate Leading Stars Opening Theme)

Selected Lyrics (translation taken from Anime Song Lyrics and refined by me):

Chase the core
Seek out your yet unseen potential
Feel your heart
Seize your freedom now
You’ve learned enjoyment, right?
You can’t lie to yourself
Be proud of your best moment
Let’s do this
Chase the core
The frozen time, start moving
Come on, let’s go!

4. Tell Me – Queen of Hearts (Cardcaptor Sakura: The Movie Insert Song)

This song is dedicated to Lilico and Nala.

Selected Lyrics:

Now there’s clouds on the horizon
And it’s starting to feel like rain
Now I hope you’re realizin’
I want you back again

So tell me
Are we gonna talk about it?
Are we gonna still be friends?
(Tell me)
You don’t ever have to doubt it
This doesn’t have to be the end

5. しょっぱい涙/Shoppai Namida (Salty Tears) – 阪本奨悟/Shougo Sakamoto (The Royal Tutor Opening Theme)

This song is for Nicco the guardian spirit.

Selected Lyrics (translation taken from Anime Song Lyrics, edited by me):

Tens of times, tens of times
You gave my back a push
I no longer want to cry these salty, such salty tears

Promises and bonds
Do they really mean anything?

“I want you to understand me.”
“I want someone to help me.”
My heart is screaming that
But I’m not being honest with myself

Tens of times, tens of times,
I kept lying
But why, tell me why
Were you the only one to remain here for me

That’s why I’m not running away
From myself nor from you anymore


Thanks for listening! (And I promise I haven’t forgotten about the Jade Fire Gold playlist that I was supposed to post for my last blog tour. Unfortunately, I got hit by a massive schoolwork/depression combo at the time and wasn’t able to do it on schedule. It’s coming later this week.)

[Blog Tour] Review for Bounce Back by Misako Rocks!

So…it’s winter already, and there are only 6 more weeks left of 2021…Sounds fake but isn’t. I’ve been drowning in schoolwork since it’s the last one-third of the semester, but I managed to carve out some time for the blog tour hosted by Colored Pages for a new middle grade graphic novel release, Bounce Back by Misako Rocks!. You can find the tour information on the Colored Pages site.

Book Information

Title: Bounce Back
Author: Misako Rocks!
Publisher: Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan
Publication Date: November 16th, 2021
Age Range/Genre: Middle Grade Contemporary

Synopsis

Friendship, a new school, and a bit of magic converge in this full-color graphic novel.

Lilico’s life in Japan is going well. She has great friends and is the captain of the school’s basketball team. She’s happy!

Then comes her parents’ news: they’re moving to America! Before she knows it, Lilico finds herself in Brooklyn, New York, forced to start all over. And that won’t be easy with her closest friends thousands of miles away or a school bully who immediately dislikes her.

Luckily, anime-loving Nala and Henry eventually befriend Lilico and with help from them—along with her guardian spirit who looks a lot like her cat, Nico—Lilico just might figure out where she fits in.

Review

Before I move on to the substantial aspect, I just want to note that the first thing that struck me when I looked at the cover for Bounce Back was a wave of nostalgia. The art style is highly reminiscent of some popular shoujo manga from the late 90s and early 2000s that I grew up with. In particular, I was reminded of the artwork of Natsumi Matsumoto (St. Dragon Girl, Yumeiro Patissiere) and Arina Tanemura (Full Moon wo Sagashite, The Legend of Princess Sakura, Idol Dreams), but there are others from the same era whose works that I’m not familiar with feature that cutesy, huge-eyed look (Mihona Fujii, Natsumi Ando).

The talking cat on the cover calls back to Luna and Artemis from Sailor Moon, and the story even mentions that resemblance on-page.

It’s always interesting to see how trends emerge and then go out, and when I saw Bounce Back, I felt like I was having a retro moment (not in a bad way though). I definitely feel like this book pays homage to those older shoujo manga.

Blending a shoujo manga-like style with a full-color left-to-right Western graphic novel format, Bounce Back delivers a charming and heartfelt middle grade story about a Japanese girl adapting to her new life in New York City.

Since this is a novel rather than a serialized comic spanning multiple volumes, it definitely feels denser than the typical shoujo manga. There are multiple interwoven plotlines introduced and resolved within the 250-odd pages: Lilico’s adjustment to a new culture; her friendship with the two resident otaku of her school, Henry and Nala; her ascendance to basketball stardom; a blossoming romance with Noah, a popular boy who’s the star of the boys’ basketball team; and the ever-present tension with a basketball teammate Emma who is Nala’s ex-BFF and also the catty Mean Girl of their school.

Throughout all of these events, Lilico’s guardian spirit, borrowing the body of her cat Nicco, acts as her mentor, confidante, and conscience. Though Nicco doesn’t give her a transformation pen to become a superpowered warrior, he does help Lilico tackle the difficulties of social relationships, acting as messenger and liaison in critical moments. He is the embodiment of unconditional love and friendship and a source of comfort that Lilico can depend on. Honestly, I wish I had my own Nicco to snuggle.

At first I was a bit apprehensive about Nala and Henry since interest in Japanese culture can easily slide into fetishizing Japanese people as a whole. Thankfully, their weebiness tones down a bit after the beginning and they establish bonds where they can talk to Lilico about things like fashion and interpersonal relationships rather than Japanese things. The two of them act as valuable guides to Lilico at school.

Though Noah plays a role in helping Lilico come into herself as the star of the girls basketball team and makes a sweet love interest, the primary focus of the story is friendship dynamics and the growing pains that come with them. The bigger question seems to be: How far will Lilico go to gain acceptance in her new school, and can she still be friends with Nala while trying to placate Emma and the rest of the girls on the basketball team?

One of the nice things about the art is that the full-color format allows for darker-skinned characters to shine. Shoujo manga from Japan has a colorism problem where everyone is pale by default despite the range of skin tones in the real life Japanese population, and darker-skinned characters are typically either absent or subject to negative stereotypes. In Bounce Back, brown-skinned Nala is an avid cosplayer and clothing designer who gets to be artsy and versatile while rocking colorful Harajuku-inspired fashion.

In a more general view, the ink wash texture and color patches that don’t quite touch and completely fill the outlines in the backgrounds create a softness that is easy on the eyes and brings out the earnest feelings of the tween characters. The creator’s use of exaggeratedly large eyes along with closeups of the face also helps convey a range of emotions ranging from comedic to sober while underscoring the youthfulness of the characters.

Overall, Bounce Back is a story that brings comfort in the face of big life changes, delivered in a cute and colorful package.

In my next post I’ll be sharing my little playlist I put together for this book.

AmazonBarnes & Noble | Books-A-Million | Bookshop.org | GoodreadsIndieBound | Indigo | Kinokuniya USA

About the Author

MISAKO ROCKS! is the creator of Biker Girl and Rock and Roll Love. A self-taught artist from a family of law-enforcement officials, Misako moved to the United States from Japan as a teenager. She now lives in Brooklyn, New York.

[Blog Tour] Review for Jade Fire Gold by June CL Tan

2021 is already more than 3/4 over, which sounds like fake news even though it isn’t. I’m trying my best to juggle my various responsibilities, and even though I was wary of overloading myself, I simply had to sign up for the blog tour for Jade Fire Gold. This tour is hosted by Caffeine Book Tours, and you can find more details about it on the CBT website.

Book Information

Title: Jade Fire Gold
Author: June CL Tan
US Cover
: GUWEIZ
UK Cover
:  Aaron Munday
Publisher
: HarperTeen
Publication date
: 12 October 2021
Age group:
Young Adult
Genres
: Fantasy

Synopsis

Girls of Paper and Fire meets The Tiger at Midnight in June CL Tan’s stunning debut, inspired by Chinese mythology, with rich magic and an epic slow-burn romance.

In an empire on the brink of war . . .

Ahn is no one, with no past and no family.

Altan is a lost heir, his future stolen away as a child.

When they meet, Altan sees in Ahn a path to reclaiming the throne. Ahn sees a way to finally unlock her past and understand her arcane magical abilities.

But they may have to pay a far deadlier price than either could have imagined.

Ferocious action, shadowy intrigue, and a captivating romance collide in June CL Tan’s debut, a stunning homage to the Xianxia novel with a tender, beating heart, perfect for fans of The Bone Witch and We Hunt the Flame.

On-page Representation

  • POC (Chinese-coded characters)
  • LGBTQ+ (Sapphic, gay)

Trigger and Content Warnings

  • self-harm (gouging, eye horror; non-graphic)
  • child abuse (physical, verbal, emotional manipulation/gaslighting)
  • parent death (implied, off-page)
  • character deaths
  • mentions and descriptions of fantasy/magical violence (blood, war, political violence)
  • mentions and descriptions of physical symptoms that might be triggering to those with emetophobia
  • alcohol consumption

Review

Note: I received a review copy of Jade Fire Gold as part of my participation in this tour in exchange for an honest review.

Jade Fire Gold was one of my most anticipated releases of 2021 and I’m happy to say that I had a great time with this xianxia inspired fantasy. I haven’t read a fantasy novel that’s this many pages in a long time, but I never got bored. There were many things to love about it.

First, I love that this story plays with familiar tropes from Western fantasy and Chinese xianxia. The Chinese-inspired setting was easy for me to immerse myself in as someone who grew up on a steady diet of period cdramas. It was fun to see how June tweaked and repurposed cultural elements that resonated with my experiences. For those who aren’t acquainted with them, she provides ample scaffolding to bring this world to life with poetically drawn descriptions.

Epic fantasy vibes aside, what really kept me invested in the story was the characters. The two main leads, Ahn and Altan, each have their own traumas and desires, and a cruel twist of fate brings them together for a life-or-death mission. I found myself questioning what choices and sacrifices they would make to reach their goals, and whether they’d succumb to their inner darkness.

At first, the romance between Ahn and Altan felt a little too insta-attraction-y for my tastes, but it gradually developed enough that I started genuinely rooting for them and dreading the star-crossed lovers trajectory of their relationship. Slow-burn enemies-to-lovers fans: this one’s for you.

I also really loved many of the supporting characters, particularly the four of who are explicitly queer (including a f/f pairing). The story really built up their personalities and backgrounds as their lives converged with Ahn’s and Altan’s, with some interesting twists thrown in. I was distraught any time it seemed like one of them was going to get hurt, or actually did get hurt. I would totally be down to read companion stories about any of them.

Although the conflict in this book gets resolved enough that it could stand alone, the epilogue of the story creates a clear jumping off point for a sequel. I’m guessing the publisher hasn’t committed to one yet until Jade Fire Gold succeeds, but I hope it happens since I am 👀👀👀 at the revelation in the epilogue. Fingers crossed and please check this book out to help make that book 2 a reality.

Also, as usual, stay tuned for my blog tour bonus content in a separate post. 🙂


Book links (note: you are free to use your own affiliate links or to other booksellers):

About the Author

June CL Tan grew up in Singapore where she was raised on a diet of classic books and wuxia movies, caffeine and congee. She holds various degrees in communication studies, education, and film. After teaching for a few years, she took a detour into the finance industry. To no one’s surprise, she soon realized her mistake and made her escape. Now, she resides in New York City, talking to imaginary people and creating fantastical worlds under the watchful eye of her crafty cat. She enjoys telling stories that draw on both the traditional and modern to create something fresh to the eye, but familiar to the heart. Jade Fire Gold is her debut novel. 

Author links:

[Blog Tour] Favorite Quotes from Things We Couldn’t Say by Jay Coles

Hello again! This is the follow-up to my review for Things We Couldn’t Say and the second installment of my stop for the blog tour hosted by Colored Pages. Please see my review for the full details about the book.

Notes: Quotes are taken from the digital review copy I received, so I don’t have page numbers. The quotes may differ from the final published version. All quotes are from Gio’s narration unless otherwise stated/attributed.

Quote #1

“MatchUp is for hookups, Ayesha.” I sound like an overprotective brother. I would know because I went through this phase last year where I met up with some random girls every now and then for a quick hookup and even some guys, too, as an experiment to see if I was really into guys the way I started to think I was. Somehow making out with a random guy helped me figure things out, like icing on the cake.

Quote #2

Sometimes I wonder if things would be different if she were still here with us. I wonder if pops would drink like he does. I wonder if Theo would still need me to walk him to school every morning. I wonder a lot of things and I might not ever know the answers. And I tell myself that it’s…okay.

Quote #3

Dr. McCullough, she said counting or naming the states in alphabetical order and even reverse alphabetical order helps you clear your head, helps push through anxiety and panic attacks.

I count.

And count.

And count.

In my thoughts.

But I can’t shake this grief.

Quote #4

Suddenly I wonder if the darkness that I feel in my chest is there because I’m holding on to it rather than emptying it out. Something inside me is stirring and stirring and it feels wrong. I can’t focus on anything.

Quote #5

I’m so hurt and beat up about the fact that this whole time I could’ve had some sort of relationship with her, some sort of contact. Maybe I wouldn’t have needed to go through counseling with Dr. McCullough back when I was a freshman and sophomore. At least, not as often as I did. Or maybe at least her absence wouldn’t have felt as heavy. Maybe I would have the answers to all the questions written on my heart that I don’t even know to ask. Maybe the grief I experience in waves and seasons wouldn’t be as heavy as a tsunami tiding over me, completely consuming every inch of my body until I, too, am something to be grieved.

Quote #6

“Loss fucks you up, but it doesn’t change who you are. I have to believe that. It forces you to be brave and strong so you can hold your life together, and the lives of the people you love together—the ones who are still here.”

-David

Quote #7

This boy is such a mystery, but I can’t help but feel like I’m on top of the world when I’m near him. I can’t help but feel every butterfly in a fifty-mile radius flutter in my stomach. I don’t take my eyes off him—I can’t.

Quote #8

“The biggest lie the world tells you is that you have to have everything figured out. You don’t. That’s part of the journey of life—figuring out the different layers of you. And when you’re ready to share those layers, you deserve to be able to do that. But you don’t have to do it till that time comes.”

-Jackie, Gio’s mother

Quote #9

On top of everything else, I’m terrified David will see right through the different layers of me. He won’t see this soft, nice, somewhat shy boy, but instead and ugly fucking disaster.

Quote #10

That’s the thing about grief: it’s a sneaky little devil that creeps up on you and catches you off guard. It pops up when you’re not prepared and takes shapes that you least expect.

[Blog Tour] Favorite Quotes from A Clash of Steel by C.B. Lee

Part 2 of my stop for the blog tour featuring A Clash of Steel, hosted by Colored Pages. For the full info about the book, refer back to the previous post.

I’ve selected some quotes that represent the story or stood out to me in some way. All quotes without quotation marks are narration from Xiang’s perspective. Dialogue is attributed to a character where applicable.

Note: These are spoiler-free, so don’t worry. Also, the quotes are taken from the final published version.

Quote #1

I close my book, whispering the words of the poem I’ve committed to memory, each verse filled with a longing I’ve never truly understood: “Once you’ve experienced ocean, nothing else is considered water.”

page 12

Quote #2

I gasp as the horizon comes into view, and beyond the mouth of the river, the glittering ocean approaches. Hundreds of flickering lights gleam from streets unseen, softly glowing against stone, and distantly I can make out the cheerful red of lanterns and banners streaming from buildings. There’s the border of a massive stone wall, ambling as it tracks through the forest, and clusters of buildings rising up on the hills leading to the ocean. I can see the shadows of ships’ masts and the outline of docks, just barely.

Canton.

page 56

Quote #3

I love it.

I love the motley crowd, the unruliness of the patrons, how there are just…so many people who have seen so many things. I want to see what they’ve seen, hear their stories. I want to know where those sailors in the far corner have been, what enemies that would with the sword has slain, what lost romances the singer on the dais is yearning for as she pours it all into her song.

page 82

Quote #4

“Emperors and kings and officials…they all want the same thing from their people: constant tribute, money or grain or people for their endless wars. On the water, we aren’t a part of any empire. Our home is the sea, our port wherever we choose to travel.”

Anh, page 101

Quote #5

My cheeks burn, and I tell myself it is the wine, but that feeling again raises its head, making itself known, that deep unbidden yearning in my heart I have never voiced. The simple touch seems at once too much, the warmth of her, and I both want to move away from the intensity of it and to also linger here in this moment forever.

page 105

Quote #6

I reach out my hand, and I feel I can almost touch the sun as the ship speeds toward the new day—the swift wind, the great expanse of water ahead, and the great unknown rushing up to meet us.

page 177

Quote #7

I know now what I knew then but was too afraid to admit: I had wanted her, the way the poets would write about. I wanted her steady companionship, her bright laughter as we raced through the fields together. I wanted her like a lover, to hold her face and sweep her hair out of her eyes and draw her in for a soft kiss.

page 236

Quote #8

“Who is more the thief: the government that preys on its own people, or those who must become thieves in order to survive?”

Xiang, page 241

Quote #9

“You all are here for a reason—whether it be your blood cast you out, your emperor did not do as he promised, or your king found you lacking—well, I did not! The sea cares not of your status, of whom you love! On this ship we work hard, and no emperor, no king, no navy lapdog could tell us what to do!”

Captain Hoa, page 268

Quote #10

I have felt untethered all my life, drifting endlessly, and here, finally, is a safe place to land, a quiet harbor to protect me from the turbulence of the sea.

page 304

[Blog Tour] Review for A Clash of Steel by C.B. Lee

Hello, I can’t believe it’s fall already. I spent this summer taking a course on children’s literature, preparing to move residences and then settling in after my move in August, and even giving my first professional presentation on sensitivity reading. I’ve been in a reading slump, but signing up for the blog tour for A Clash of Steel, hosted by Colored Pages Book Tours, helped me get back into reading again. I’ve been eagerly anticipating the release of this book for a while, and I’m excited to share my thoughts.

Book Information

Title: A Clash of Steel
Author: C.B. Lee
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Publication Date: September 7th, 2021
Genres: Young Adult, Historical Fiction

Synopsis:

Two intrepid girls hunt for a legendary treasure on the deadly high seas in this YA remix of the classic adventure novel Treasure Island.The sun is setting on the golden age of piracy, and the legendary

1826. The sun is setting on the golden age of piracy, and the legendary Dragon Fleet, the scourge of the South China Sea, is no more. Its ruthless leader, a woman known only as the Head of the Dragon, is now only a story, like the ones Xiang has grown up with all her life. She desperately wants to prove her worth, especially to her mother, a shrewd businesswoman who never seems to have enough time for Xiang. Her father is also only a story, dead at sea before Xiang was born. Her single memento of him is a pendant she always wears, a simple but plain piece of gold jewelry.

But the pendant’s true nature is revealed when a mysterious girl named Anh steals it, only to return it to Xiang in exchange for her help in decoding the tiny map scroll hidden inside. The revelation that Xiang’s father sailed with the Dragon Fleet and tucked away this secret changes everything. Rumor has it that the legendary Head of the Dragon had one last treasure—the plunder of a thousand ports—that for decades has only been a myth, a fool’s journey.

Xiang is convinced this map could lead to the fabled treasure. Captivated with the thrill of adventure, she joins Anh and her motley crew off in pursuit of the island. But the girls soon find that the sea—and especially those who sail it—are far more dangerous than the legends led them to believe.

Review:

Because my attention span is almost nonexistent a lot of the time these days, getting into a book can take a while. With A Clash of Steel, I didn’t struggle nearly as much as usual, however. Even without a deadline setting a fire under me, I was still sucked into the story from early on.

At the core, A Clash of Steel is a story about yearning, in various senses of the word. Xiang yearns for many things: her mother’s approval, a more exciting life and future outside of the bounds her mother has set for, and control over her own destiny. When she meets Anh, the yearning for a special someone to be by her side forever blooms as well.

A Clash of Steel is very much a classic quest narrative, with a treasure trove waiting at the end and many obstacles, including a cryptic poem, standing in the way. Thematically, the story’s external conflicts reflect Xiang’s internal conflicts as she is forced to make decisions about what she values most. Moving from a sheltered life inland to braving the boundless ocean, worlds of possibility open up before her. Watching Xiang take her first steps into becoming herself free of her mother was satisfying, and thanks to the gorgeous and detailed prose, I found myself also immersed in the rhythms of life in a busy port city and on a ship weathering wind and rain.

Central to Xiang’s growth is Anh, who takes a chance on her, teaches her new things, and provides a different perspective as someone who has lived the unstable life of a seafaring laborer. The sapphic romance between Xiang and Anh made my heart ache. For a while, Xiang tries her best to suppress her feelings for Anh, believing that there is no place in the world for two women to love and find happiness together. There’s so much tension built up over the book that when Xiang finally acts on her feelings, it feels like a deluge.

One of the refreshing aspects of A Clash of Steel is the unapologetic diversity. The South China Sea was historically (and still is) a host to people from all different places. When Xiang joins the crew of the boat captained by Anh’s mother, Huyền Vũ, she becomes a part of a found family from various backgrounds—Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, and Nepali. Furthermore, since the seafaring folk don’t adhere strictly to the laws of the landbound political institutions, there is greater freedom for queer people to be themselves. Two of the men on board the boat, Châu and Arthrit, are married and everyone is fine with it. It shouldn’t be a surprise, given that same-gender relationships are a part the real history of maritime life, but unfortunately this history is often erased in fiction, along with the racial and ethnic diversity of pirates and sailors.

A Clash of Steel was a very special read to me because it has shown me I can write a historical fiction story with Asian pirates and there will be an audience for it. My family is from Taiwan, which has been a critical player in maritime trade for centuries, and I have plans to write a story connected to that history.

Anyway, if you’re looking for a high-stakes adventure, aching romance, and heartfelt coming-of-age story, read A Clash of Steel! And don’t forget to check out my follow-up post with some of my favorite quotes from the book.

Book Links:

About the Author:

CB Lee is a Lambda Literary Award nominated writer of young adult science fiction and fantasy. Her works include the Sidekick Squad series (Duet Books), Ben 10 (Boom!), and All Out Now (HarperTeen). CB loves to write about queer teens, magic, superheroes, and the power of friendship.
Lee’s work has been featured in Teen Vogue, Wired Magazine, and Hypable. Lee’s first novel in the Sidekick Squad series, Not Your Sidekick was a 2017 Lambda Literary Awards Finalist in YA/Children’s Fiction and a 2017 Bisexual Book Awards Finalist in Speculative Fiction. Seven Tears at High Tide was the recipient of a Rainbow Award for Best Bisexual Fantasy Romance and also a finalist for the 2016 Bisexual Book Awards in the YA and Speculative Fiction categories.

Author Links:

Review for Made in Korea by Sarah Suk

Summer is here for me, and the heat and humidity combo is the Worst, but thankfully I’m mostly indoors reading books. Today’s review is for a recent release, Made in Korea, that exceeded my expectations.

Synopsis:

Frankly in Love meets Shark Tank in this feel-good romantic comedy about two entrepreneurial Korean American teens who butt heads—and maybe fall in love—while running competing Korean beauty businesses at their high school.

There’s nothing Valerie Kwon loves more than making a good sale. Together with her cousin Charlie, they run V&C K-BEAUTY, their school’s most successful student-run enterprise. With each sale, Valerie gets closer to taking her beloved and adventurous halmeoni to her dream city, Paris.

Enter the new kid in class, Wes Jung, who is determined to pursue music after graduation despite his parents’ major disapproval. When his classmates clamor to buy the K-pop branded beauty products his mom gave him to “make new friends,” he sees an opportunity—one that may be the key to help him pay for the music school tuition he knows his parents won’t cover…

What he doesn’t realize, though, is that he is now V&C K-BEAUTY’s biggest competitor.

Stakes are high as Valerie and Wes try to outsell each other, make the most money, and take the throne for the best business in school—all while trying to resist the undeniable spark that’s crackling between them. From hiring spies to all-or-nothing bets, the competition is much more than either of them bargained for.

But one thing is clear: only one Korean business can come out on top.

Review:

Note: I received a review copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Made in Korea is billed as a romcom, and it delivers with its funny and dynamic he-said/she-said dual narrative centering two Korean American teens. Valerie is an ambitious and resourceful girl with an acute business sense while Wes is much less assertive and socially awkward, but still astute in his own way, and sensitive in a way that makes you want to protect him.

The plot of Made in Korea is over-the-top in a K-drama worthy fashion, with twists and turns and increasingly high stakes driving the suspense as the story unfolds. The rivals/enemies-to-lovers trope is wielded with grace and humor as Valerie and Wes navigate that weird gray area where you’re supposed to want the other person to fail but can’t help but respect and even like them.

What really made the book for me is that the lighter romcom elements are grounded by a more serious and earnest theme of wanting to be Seen. While on the surface they may seem radically different, Valerie and Wes both desperately crave the approval and support of their parents. Valerie’s mom constantly compares her to her perfect-on-paper older sister and finds her wanting, dismissing her K-beauty business as child’s play. Wes’s dad requires him to seek out a stable and lucrative field above all else, including his dreams of becoming a musician. These conflicts provide depth to the protagonists’ motivations in their competing businesses and create common ground between them for their blossoming friendship and eventual romantic entanglement.

While their parents may not give them the support they need, Valerie and Wes each has their own support system: Valerie has her Halmeoni, who loves her unconditionally and serves as her rock, and Wes reaches out to his paternal uncle, who understands his experiences as someone who is himself a musician by trade and similarly subjected to the disdain and disappointment of Wes’s father. These relationships add a layer of nuance to their family dynamics and offer hope and solace to the two main characters.

Three other major supporting characters also won my heart: Charlie, who is Valerie’s cousin and business partner; Pauline, a biracial Korean American who ends up partnering with Wes for his business as a way to connect with her heritage; and Taemin, an irreverent Korean American teen who’s trying his best to turn over a new leaf. Pauline is geeky in a way that I understand all too well while Charlie is the charming and loyal sidekick who deserves better because Valerie is too caught up in her own issues to notice that she’s mistreating him. Charlie and Pauline once had a biology partner meet-cute, but a certain incident set them adrift and estranged from each other, so they spend the book trying to find their way back to each other. Taemin is adorable in his bad-boy-with-a-heart-of-gold way who becomes a surprising hero/villain of sorts when he is dragged into Valerie and Wes’s shenanigans. I would 100% be down to read sequels or companion books about how these characters develop beyond/after the events of Made in Korea.

Conclusion: While reading Made in Korea, I laughed out loud multiple times, and toward the end, I found myself crying as well because it’s so heartfelt. It was a wonderful rollercoaster ride of emotions, and I hope it can bring other readers the same experience.


Book Links:

Goodreads | Barnes & Noble | Bookshop | Books-A-Million | IndieBound

About the Author:

Sarah Suk (pronounced like soup with a K) lives in Vancouver, Canada where she writes stories and admires mountains. When she’s not writing, you can find her hanging out by the water, taking film photos, or eating a bowl of bingsu.

Author Links:

[Blog Tour] Favorite Quotes from Sister of the Bollywood Bride by Nandini Bajpai

If you haven’t seen my review of the book, please go read that for more information about the book.

Note: These quotes are spoiler-free.

Quote #1

What would mom think of a simple civil ceremony with twenty guests? The answer to that was staring me in the face. She wouldn’t have saved and scraped for such fancy jewelry if she hadn’t wanted a proper Punjabi wedding. That’s what she would have liked. Lots of family, food, flowers, music. Vinnie in a gorgeous lehenga. Her groom in a red turban on a white horse, like in one of those Bollywood movies.

Quote #2

“Your mom is not taking care of it?” she asked.

Was there a way to avoid telling her? I wondered, dreading the usual awkwardness that followed when I mentioned what had happened to Mom. If it’d been anyone but Preet, I’d have found a way to avoid answering directly.

“She…” I squared my shoulders. “She passed away. Years ago.”

Suddenly all the chatter around me hushed. Crap. What a dumb idea this was. Great way to identify myself as the clueless, motherless freak show. I wanted their help, not their pity.

Quote #3

“Didn’t want to break up the cozy chat you were having,” Shayla said. “God knows you don’t talk to many guys.”

“I talk to Peter, and David, and Isaac….”

“AP study group is not talking!”

“He found my keys,” I said. “That’s all. He wasn’t, like, chatting me up, or anything.”

“Sure he wasn’t,” Shayla said.

Quote #4

Vir left the console and came over to where I was standing.

He held out a hand. “Would you like to dance?”

“Sure,” I said. I was glad the lights were low because I’m pretty sure I looked horribly self-conscious—is it actually possible to have a whole-body blush? Then both his hands were around my waits, and both mine were on his shoulders. Breathe, Mini, I told myself.

Quote #5

In a bid to shake off the blues (no pun intended), I packed my watercolors, bottle of water, and brushes into my French easel and headed to Fellsway with the dog. Painting en plein air always helped me slay whatever was bothering me. Besides, I had to add to the portfolio that I’d been neglecting for weeks. Now that I wasn’t retaking the SAT and Vinnie’s wedding planning was off to a good start, it was time to focus on college app stuff. My portfolio was exactly where it had been when junior year wound down and I finished submitting everything for AP Studio Art. It would be good to paint something that wasn’t going to be graded and evaluated!

Quote #6

“It’s cooler here,” I said, and held up my hands to frame the scene I was trying to capture. “And the perfect vantage point.”

“Yes, it is,” he said, and pulled off his shirt to reveal an impressively firm and muscled torso—and caused my heart rate to go from highly escalated to practically flatline.

What was he doing?

Quote #7

Mum always said when you can’t buy something because it is very, very expensive, go treat yourself to something happy, and fun, and beautiful that is very, very cheap—a pretty pair of earrings, a bright scarf, or a small cup of Haagen-Dazs ice cream.

Quote #8

“How does it look?” she asked.

“Brilliant!” I said. It was very vintage—like something Madhuri Dixit would have worn—but Vinnie’s fresh young face updated it immediately. There was a lump in my throat. It wasn’t that she looked like Mom exactly, but there were flashes of Mom in the way she moved and smiled and sounded, even. And with that lehenga on, there was no mistaking it.

Quote #9

If I were the praying type, I would have been praying, but what was the use? Miracles had stopped working for the likes of us a long time ago.

All we could do was wait. We’d know by Friday, definitely. Until then, there was nothing to be done except wring our hands, write place cards, and go on as if nothing the size of Texas was barreling down on us at 120 miles an hour.

Quote #10

It was going to be legendary—or a disaster. Either way, no one would ever forget it. Game. On.

[Blog Tour] Review for Sister of the Bollywood Bride by Nandini Bajpai

Pleased to announce that I’m done with school for the spring!!! And I’m happy to be a part of the blog tour for Sister of the Bollywood Bride hosted by Lonely Pages Tours. This is the second book by Nandini Bajpai I’ve read, the first being Starcursed, a historical YA story that I reviewed back in 2017. (It was published in India years ago, so it might be hard to get, but I highly recommend it!)

Book Information

Title: Sister of the Bollywood Bride
Author: Nandini Bajpai
Pub date: May 25th, 2021
Publisher: Poppy (Hachette)
Genres: Contemporary, Young Adult, Romance

Synopsis

For fans of Morgan Matson’s Save the Date comes a charming novel about one teen’s summer tackling disasters including, but not limited to, family, romance, and weather — as she plans her sister’s Bollywood-style Indian wedding.

Mini’s big sister, Vinnie, is getting married. Their mom passed away seven years ago and between Dad’s new start-up and Vinnie’s medical residency, there’s no one but Mini to plan the wedding. Dad raised her to know more about computers, calculus, and cars than desi weddings but from the moment Mini held the jewelry Mom left them, she wanted her sister to have the wedding Mom would’ve planned.

Now Mini has only two months to get it done and she’s not going to let anything distract her, not even the persistent, mysterious, and smoking-hot Vir Mirchandani. Flower garlands, decorations, music, even a white wedding horse — everything is in place.

That is, until a monster hurricane heads for Boston that could ruin everything. Will Mini come through as sister of the bride and save the day?

Review

(Note: I received an advance copy of the book as part of my participation in the tour. This did not affect my evaluation of the story.)

I feel like this was the perfect book to read after a very stressful school semester. It’s a mostly light-hearted contemporary where the stakes aren’t super earth-shattering/life-or-death but still important to the main character. I cannot imagine planning a wedding in real life, but following along Mini for the ride as she tries to coordinate a wedding on a somewhat low budget was highly entertaining.

Indian weddings are notorious for being for over-the-top, and the book delivers on that front with vivid descriptions of everything, especially the clothes. Mini has a talent for clothing design and creates amazing pieces. I feel like I would have appreciated it more if I had a background in fashion and textiles, but it was a feast for the mind’s eye regardless.

As the synopsis promised, there is a romance plotline to the story, but it’s not the main focus, so if you’re looking for a romance-centric book, this is probably not the book for that. Mini has a very classic meet-cute of the awkward variety with Vir, who is mysterious, charming, and almost ridiculously multitalented. There is a twist or two to their relationship, but nothing so dramatic as to completely derail the fun atmosphere of the book.

One of the more serious topics that this book does touch on is grief and losing one’s mother to cancer at a young age. Although I lost my own mother at an older age than Mini (who lost hers at age 10), I still related a lot to her experience, especially with the awkwardness of disclosing to people that your mother has passed away when they assume she’s still alive. Mini tries to downplay her complex regarding her mother’s death, but it’s clearly a thing that still affects her and how she relates to the various people in her family, especially her sister and her maternal aunt, who she felt abandoned by in the aftermath of her mother’s passing.

My primary critique of the story was that there were aspects to Mini’s relationships that felt underdeveloped. I saw hints here and there of deeper things to be explored between her and her sister, who is 8 years older and was just on the cusp of adulthood when their mother passed, but they were not given the space that I hoped for. There was also the thread of Mini excelling at art while being pushed toward STEM by her father that kind of just got glossed over and left hanging, even though various other people were affirming her artistic talent throughout the book and pushing her to consider majoring in art/design. Maybe the author felt like that shouldn’t be the focus since the book is about the wedding planning shenanigans, but personally I felt it would have been better if it had been touched on more.

Conclusion: If you want a fun-filled summer read, read Sister of the Bollywood Bride!

Book Links

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Bookshop | IndieBound

Nandini Bajpai is also running a preorder campaign for the book: http://www.nandinibajpai.com/preorder-campaign.html

About the Author

Nandini Bajpai grew up in New Delhi, India, one of four sisters and many cousins, in a family that liked to read.

She lived and worked in India, Australia, and the US, before settling in the Boston area with her husband, kids, and a fluctuating number and variety of pets. Although she dabbled in corporate finance, business analysis, and fostering shelter animals, her first love is writing.

Author Links:

Website – http://www.nandinibajpai.com
Twitter – https://twitter.com/nandinibajpai
Book Site – https://www.thenovl.com/sisterofthebollywoodbride

Tour Schedule

Check out the other stops on the tour!