Monthly Archives: January 2017

Review for Song of the Cuckoo Bird by Amulya Malladi


Note: I read this book as part of the Dumbledore’s Army Readathon challenge. You can find out more about it here.

My Summary: At age eleven, Kokila makes a decision to flee the marriage she was forced into and take up residence at Tella Meda, an ashram that offers refuge for people with no place left to turn to. There, she becomes a part of an ever-evolving family of women whose lives are bound together by their status as outcasts.


I have very conflicting feelings about this book. The women in it are all deeply flawed characters, which isn’t an issue, but some of their supposed flaws are only considered flaws by very sexist, colorist, ableist, etc. standards of evaluating women’s worth. Some of it is merely a reflection of the society they live in, but at times even the narrative itself endorses these kinds of judgments.

But beyond the vicious name-calling of “wh*re,” “b*tch,” and “sl*t,” you get the stories of complex women who are doing what they can to survive in a society that devalues women. Their flaws do not mean they are not sympathetic characters.

There is Kokila, who shuns the life of a wife, mother, and daughter-in-law without a full understanding of the long-term consequences.

There is Chetana, who is the cast-off daughter of a sex worker who must bear and try to overcome the social stigma of her mother’s profession.

There is Charvi, who is declared a guru by her father and thus forced to live a solitary life in accordance with the worshipful expectations of others.

There is Renuka, who is a widow and refuses to live with her sons and daughters-in-law, who judges everyone but also learns to be selfless.

And there are others, women from all walks of life, seeking shelter.

The events of the book span nearly five decades, from the 50s to 2000, so we get to see these women grow and mature and age. Told more as a series of anecdotes than a single tale, the stories explore the ironies and contradictions and hypocrisies of these women and their lives. They are all capable of both cruelty and condescension and solidarity and kindness toward one another. They protect and betray, they take and give, they help and hurt. No one is perfect, but everyone has some goodness in them.

Among the paradoxes and contradictions in the book is the ashram’s reputation. It is at once respected and disdained. Respected because it is inhabited by a woman who is supposedly touched by the gods but disdained because only the “lowest” women of society take shelter there.

Then there’s the character of Ramanandam, Charvi’s father, who is a feminist in theory but much less so in practice. And Vineetha Raghavan, an engineer who calls herself a feminist but is extremely classist and disdainful toward poor, uneducated women. Charvi is supposed to have the demeanor and temperament of a goddess detached from mundane and petty mortal concerns, ever patient and generous, and even comes to believe herself divine, but she also has a bit of a bitter, hateful current running through her, beneath the serene surface. And even as the women of Tella Meda decry the way some mothers treat their children and deny their agency and care only for “propriety” but not love, when they become mothers themselves, they unwittingly reproduce that kind of mentality.

One of the things I appreciated about the book was how honest it was. Menstruation, lust, and sex are not glossed over or hidden away in denial. Likewise, the abuse, exploitation, and objectification of women by men are addressed and not given a pass. The men who do horrible things are criticized and get their due in time.

Although the ashram is very sequestered from the rest of the world, it also evolves alongside India with its social and political changes. Technology starts to appear, the younger generations have more options for social advancement, and so on. Grounding the stories in the broader context of history makes them all the more realistic and compelling.

Recommendation: I think I’ll say read at your own risk, with content/trigger warnings for abuse, alcoholism, misogyny, whorephobia, body-shaming, colorism, and a relationship between a 20-something and 60-something-year-old.

Review for The Turtle of Oman by Naomi Shihab Nye


]My Summary: Aref’s home is Oman, where his house and cat and friends are, where his beloved grandfather, Sidi, lives. He loves it there, and he does not want to leave it behind to move to Michigan, a place so foreign and far away for him. With Sidi’s help, however, he begins to see his journey in a new light.


This book wasn’t quite what I expected, but it surprised me in a good way. I think I sort of misread the blurb and thought it would chronicle the events that happened after Aref’s move, but in fact, the whole story takes place in Oman, while he’s preparing for the move to Michigan.

For the most part, this is a quiet story. There are adventures and high points, but a lot of the narrative is devoted to reflection and immersion in the rhythms of Aref’s environment. He spends some time resisting the idea of moving, but with Sidi’s guidance, he moves toward acceptance.

The relationship between Aref and his grandfather drives a lot of the story, and it’s very heartfelt. The two have a deep bond and shared interests that makes me envious because I was never close to any of my grandparents due to a combination of generational, cultural, and language gaps.

Although Aref is a third-grader, the narration doesn’t patronize him; it’s evident that he’s very bright and also curious. His love for learning and exploring is encouraged by his parents, who taught him a game called “Discover Something New Every Day,” which is their so-called family motto. Everyone in his family keeps lists of interesting discoveries, even his grandfather, though Sidi doesn’t write them down in journals. We the readers get to see some of these lists, which introduce us to everything from basic geographical facts about Oman, to the biology of turtles, to a short biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Through these lists, we get a sense of Aref’s world and perspective, the details he notices and the topics that catch his eye.

I think the beauty of this book is the theme of looking at things more closely and from different perspectives and thus learning more. For Aref and his grandfather, nothing is too insignificant to be studied or too small to be a treasure. There’s a sense that you are opening yourself up to the wonder in the world as you follow Aref’s adventures. It helps take you away from the hectic flows of modern life to appreciate everything that’s around you. More importantly, the story teaches us to be more empathetic. Although at first Aref thinks only of himself and his situation, he eventually realizes that other people, people he knows, have experienced a similar move, and that he failed to consider their feelings in the past.

I liked the symbolism of the turtle, which is familiar to most and accessible to kids. It places change and moving in a broader context and timeline while paying tribute to the value of returning to one’s roots and homeland.

I can relate to Aref’s experience because I moved twice at a young age, once after third grade and again after fourth, both times from one state in the U.S. to another, the second time it was about 1500 miles (~2400 km) between the two houses. It was hard leaving behind everything that was familiar because I had taken so much of it for granted and couldn’t imagine adapting to a new environment. Reading this book transported me back to my own moving experiences.

Recommendation: Recommended for those in search of a heartwarming tale about saying goodbye to all that is familiar.

Review for Starcursed by Nandini Bajpai


My Summary: Leelavati has a cursed horoscope that portends death for whomever she marries. Resigned to a fate of never being wed, she spends her time teaching astronomy, having learned much of the science from her father, the renowned Bhaskara Acharya. Then, her childhood friend Rahul Nagarseth, returns, and the two fall for each other. Thus, they find out whether the stars will keep them apart, or whether they can turn the tides of fate.


So, part of the basic premise of this book sounds fairly similar to The Star-Touched Queen, with the cursed horoscope and all, but the execution is vastly different (it was published in 2013, by the way). Whereas The Star-Touched Queen is historical fantasy, Starcursed is regular historical fiction. Instead of magic, we have science. The story is set in 12th century India, with the wars led by Muhammad of Ghor as the backdrop.

Bhaskara Acharya was a real person in history, a famous mathematician and astronomer, and he named one of the four parts of his greatest work after a woman, Leelavati. It’s unknown whether she was a real person, and if so, what her relationship was with Bhaskara Acharya, but in this story, she is imagined as his daughter.

Although some may find it boring, I really enjoyed the incorporation of real historical science into the narrative. (That might be my inner space nerd speaking.) Leela is an admirable young woman, wielding her intellect the way a fantasy heroine might wield spell or sword. She stands up to the misogyny of people who assume that because she is a woman, she cannot be a gifted astronomer. She proves that one woman can outperform a group of men in a competition of calculations.

I liked that Leela’s character explicitly pointed out that there was a time before her own when women-scholars were prevalent, to illustrate that misogyny within a society is not static and unchanging but rather is contextual and dynamic. There was also some commentary on how misogyny is indoctrinated into boys, as she has no issues with her younger male students doubting her competence but runs into skepticism from older boys and men.

The romance between Leela and Rahul is sweet and strong in a quiet kind of way, compared to the typical YA fare. Their romance is built upon their friendship. The two are intellectually compatible, share common interests in astronomy, and Rahul genuinely respects Leela and does not feel threatened by her brilliance or the need to one-up her.

Unfortunately for the two of them, they come from different castes and religions (Leela is a Brahmin and Hindu, Rahul is a Vaishya and Jain). Rahul is also biracial Indian and Chinese in a society where miscegenation isn’t viewed favorably. The two have various obstacles to circumvent, not least of which is Leela’s cursed horoscope.

I recognize the author’s attempt to incorporate Rahul’s Chinese heritage into the story, but it flopped in the execution. At first I thought it would be okay because the Chinese astronomy/astrology references checked out, facts-wise, in the early portion. The other stuff was super questionable though.

One was the anachronistic use of and referral to Chinese language(s). Nobody besides linguists knows what 12th-century Chinese sounds like, so obviously I’m not expecting anyone to actually write a character speaking the language of the time. But everything else was also anachronistic:

  • The labeling of things as “Chinese” and the use of “China” makes no sense as the toponym “China” didn’t come into common usage until the 16th century or so. Historically, China was referred to by its dynastic name, in this case it would have been the Song Empire.
  • The story also refers to the Chinese language that Rahul speaks as Mandarin. Mandarin did not exist at that time and did not come into existence until late in the history of China, having undergone significant sound changes from the Middle Chinese languages.
  • Then, there was the use of “Cantonese” as a descriptor, which is also bizarre because Canton is the name for Guangdong/Guangzhou that came from muddling the Portuguese name Cantão, a name that wasn’t given until a few centuries after the events of the book.

I know this is really nitpicky but I can’t help but notice it because of who I am. It didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the story, it just bugged me whenever stuff like it popped up.

So aside from the language issues, Rahul’s character knows kung fu and yeah…that’s really stereotypical. It wasn’t his most prominent trait, but it was a Thing. Sigh.

The good part about Rahul’s characterization was that he brings a much more open-minded perspective to the cast of characters, countering the xenophobia of many Indian scholars toward Chinese people, as well as prejudice toward the Turkis people who are not involved in the invasion of India. Overall, the book had threads of criticism against classism, xenophobia, and prejudice, including religious prejudice. I appreciated having those elements in a historical fiction book.

Recommendation: I ragged on the Chinese stuff pretty hard, but I actually liked the book quite a bit for what it was, so I’d still recommend it–with the caveat that you shouldn’t take the Chinese elements as historically accurate.

Review for The Grand Plan to Fix Everything by Uma Krishnaswami


My Summary: Dini and her best friend Maddie are major Bollywood fans. Unfortunately, Dini’s plans to attend a Bollywood dance camp with Maddie during the summer are shattered when her parents announce that their family is moving to India–and not even to Bombay, the hub of Bollywood, but a small town named Swapnagiri. Just when Dini has given up hope of seeing her favorite Bollywood star, Dolly Singh, life takes a turn for the unexpected…


This book was super fun to read. Dini (short for “Nandini”) was an engaging character. Her passion and determination brought a sense of liveliness to the story. Moving such a huge distance to another country is a stressful situation for anyone, but she tries to make the best of it, long-distance communication with a massive time zone difference and all. Her enthusiasm in scheming and executing her plans gets her into a bit of trouble, but ultimately her well-intentioned meddling produces positive results.

Not only does the book tell the story of Dini, it also tells the tale of multiple supporting characters. From the mailman to the baker to the school principal to the van driver, everyone has their own story to be told, their own problems to deal with. Through the perspectives of these different side characters, the book paints a picture of daily life in small town India and shows the mysterious and serendipitous ways in which seemingly separate lives intersect.

The book is part mystery, part adventure, and part Bollywood-esque drama. All of the different threads of the characters and subplots eventually converge and get resolved in a heartfelt happy ending. It’s definitely a feel-good, fairy tale-esque book, but heaven knows we need more of these kinds of books to offset the negativity of the political climate and give us hope for a brighter future.

Interspersed throughout the narrative are letters to and from characters (rendered in different fonts for different characters), excerpts from Dini’s favorite magazine that supplies the latest buzz on Bollywood and her favorite [fictional] star Dolly Singh, and charming illustrations by illustrator Abigail Halpin. These touches add texture to the story and variety to the reading experience.

As it turns out, there’s a sequel to this book, The Problem with Being Slightly Heroic, so I’m looking forward to reading that soon.

Recommendation: Recommended for young readers and adult readers wishing to indulge their inner child.

Asian Reads: New Year Edition, Part 1

The Lunar New Year, sometimes referred to as Chinese New Year, is based on the Chinese lunisolar calendar, so its corresponding date on the Gregorian calendar varies from year-to-year. The exact date varies from culture to culture in some cases, but it typically happens in late January to mid-February. Because of cultural diffusion and imperialism, the Lunar New Year is/was also celebrated in other countries under different names with different associated traditions: Korea (Seollal/설날), Vietnam (Tết), Japan (Oshōgatsu/正月; since a little over a century ago Japan has switched over to celebrating New Year on January 1st), Mongolia (Tsagaan Sar), and Tibet (Losar/ལོ་གསར)་. It is also celebrated in places with many diasporic Chinese populations, such as Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, the United States, Australia, etc.

For the Chinese calendar, each year is associated with a zodiac animal. There are twelve zodiac animals total, and they cycle every twelve years. This is the order: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep/Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, Pig/Boar. The zodiac animals for some countries, such as Vietnam, differ from the Chinese zodiac in one or more ways. Your zodiac animal is based on the year in which you’re born. If your birthday is in January or February, you’ll have to double check to make sure you’re not actually the tail end of the previous year, as some sources only state the solar year without regard for the discrepancy between the two calendars.

This year’s Lunar New Year is January 28th, and the Chinese zodiac animal for the year is the Rooster, which is actually my zodiac animal, as I am turning 24 this year (I can’t believe I’ve lived through two zodiac cycles, dang). In celebration of this holiday, I’ve made a list of Asian books that are related to or mention Lunar New Year or the Chinese Zodiac (and its variants/derivatives) in some form or fashion.

For more details on how the holiday varies from place to place and culture to culture, you can check out NBC Asian America’s article. There’s another lunisolar calendar-based new year celebrated in many Southeast Asian and South Asian cultures, and I will have a separate post for that in early April.

The Year of the Dog and The Year of the Rat by Grace Lin – Contemporary, Middle Grade

Based loosely on the author’s own childhood, the Pacy Lin series chronicles the adventures of young Taiwanese American Pacy Lin. She struggles to fit in, makes new friends, develops her writing/illustration talents, and learns more about her Taiwanese heritage and family history through stories from her

In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Bette Bao Lord – Historical Fiction, Middle Grade

The year is 1947. Shirley Temple Wong moves to the U.S. from China. She doesn’t speak much English and faces prejudice from people around her. However, when she discovers Jackie Robinson, his success gives her hope that she will be accepted and succeed.

archers-questArcher’s Quest by Linda Sue Park – Contemporary, Middle Grade

Twelve-year-old Kevin couldn’t care less about centuries-old history or his Korean heritage. They’re boring and irrelevant to him. But then the mysterious Archer appears in his bedroom. Kevin soon learns that Archer is a legendary king from Korean history who has mistakenly traveled to 1999 from the First Century B.C. Now, Kevin must rely on his wits, his math skills, the Chinese zodiac, and some Korean history research to deliver Archer back to his time before it’s too late.

inside-out-back-againInside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai – Historical Fiction, Middle Grade, Novel-in-Verse

Hà knows only Vietnam for the first ten years of her life. Then, the war comes, and in 1975 (the Year of the Cat in the Vietnamese zodiac), her family flees Vietnam for the United States. In America, she is a foreigner, and aside from figuring out how to fit in and speak English, she must learn to heal from the trauma of war and displacement.

under-a-painted-skyUnder a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee – Historical Fiction, Young Adult

Samantha is on the run from the law for killing in self-defense. She hopes to catch up to a westward-bound caravan that her father’s friend is traveling with. Her only ally is an escaped slave, Annamae, and they are forced to dress up as boys as a disguise. During their journey they encounter friends and enemies alike, and the threat of being caught follows them. They walk a dangerous path, but with their wits and the help of friends, they may just survive. (Note: The rabbit, snake, and dragon on the cover represent different characters’ zodiac signs, which are mentioned in the book. ^^)

Review for Stir It Up! by Ramin Ganeshram


My Summary: Anjali loves cooking and dreams of having her own cooking reality TV show. However, her parents want “better” things for her, like getting into the elite Stuyvesant High School and working at a job that’s nothing like their humble family restaurant. When she’s accepted to a contest on the Food Network, she knows her father won’t approve, but she has plans of her own.


I love food, so the premise of this book drew my attention. A biracial, Afro-Indian Trinidadian girl from Richmond Hill, Queens, who wants to star in a Food Network show? Great. Unfortunately, I found the execution a bit lacking.

That’s not to say it’s a bad book. It had good elements: the centering of immigrants and POC in a story about Queens, the lovable grandmother character, the best friend who’s also a POC, the racially diverse supporting characters/show contestants, the commentary on the policing of race for people whose families have immigrated more than once, the incorporation of Indo-Caribbean food culture, and the lovely recipes that are sandwiched between chapters.

What was missing for me was substance. The writing felt too spare in many places. For readers who aren’t familiar with the ingredients and dishes mentioned in the story, it’s hard to imagine what they look like. The descriptions focused on lists of ingredients and how the dishes were prepared without much elaboration on the visual spectacle of the finished product.

And for a book that’s supposed to be about food, we get surprisingly few descriptions of smell or taste: aroma, texture, flavor, etc. Anjali spends an entire chapter at a cooking class but the actual consumption of the delicious food that’s made is crammed into a single paragraph with no details provided. Kind of anticlimactic, in my opinion. In short, I was hoping for a book that engaged my senses more.

On top of that, the plot felt a little too rushed without much downtime. There were 166 pages total, and 37 of those were recipe inserts, meaning all of the actual narrative was squeezed into about 130 pages, which is short even for a middle grade book. I wanted more build-up to and more elaboration during the contest scenes. That would have increased the emotional impact and overall weight of the story. I guess to put it another way, it felt like I was eating simple sugars when what I wanted was complex carbs. Wasn’t filling enough, I was still hungry when I was done.

Recommendation: Not sure what to say except maybe I’m not the right audience for this book? I think younger readers might be more forgiving.

Review for Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho


Note: I read this book as part of the Dumbledore’s Army Readathon challenge. You can find out more about it here.

My Summary: Zacharias Wythe has a lot on his hands: he’s the newly instated Sorcerer Royal, people are accusing him of murdering his mentor and predecessor, and the magic of England is dwindling for unknown reasons. He goes off to the border between England and Fairyland to investigate and in the process, meets Prunella Gentleman, a powerful young woman with a mysterious past. Together they will change the face of thaumaturgy and magic in England.


If I had known that both of the main characters of this book were POC, I would have read it earlier. It wasn’t readily apparent from the book blurb, so I didn’t realize it until I saw people talking about it on Twitter. Anyway, I’m glad I finally got to this book.

I’m not altogether unfamiliar with Regency fantasy. I read Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer’s Sorcery & Cecilia series years ago and enjoyed the books. Sorcerer to the Crown isn’t really YA, though, and it has a different approach to the genre. Namely, instead of the usual white British protagonists, we have a Black man and a biracial Indian woman front and center.

Sorcerer to the Crown refutes the idea that historical fantasy based on the real world has to be white. POC existed in that time, and it’s only their erasure from history that makes people think they didn’t. It also challenges the belief that historical fiction can only reproduce but not criticize the prevailing social norms of its setting.

Far from side-stepping the issue of race, Sorcerer to the Crown actively engages in critical commentary on the dominant racial attitudes of the time. The Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers consists only of white men until Zacharias is brought forth by his mentor, Sir Stephen. He publicly proves himself more than capable of advanced magic; however, that does not deter many of the bigots from questioning his competency because of his skin color.

The book addresses all the subtleties and nuances of being the only POC in a white-dominated environment. For example, Zacharias feels the fear associated with having to act as a representative of his entire race. He experiences stereotype threat at first. He has a complicated relationship with Sir Stephen, whom he respects and loves as a father figure and mentor but also resents as someone who was torn away from his birth parents and at times treated more like a curiosity or pet than a child. He faces rumors that he didn’t become the Sorcerer Royal by just means. He is blamed for the decline in ambient magic levels in England.

Prunella’s experiences are shaped by the intersection of race and gender. Not only is she a POC, she’s a woman of color. Even outside the realm of magic, she is viewed through a prejudiced lens, assumed to be a morally depraved and sexually “indecent” woman. The white men of the magical establishment barely deign to recognize the magical skills of upper class white women, who are forced to purge themselves of any magic “for their own good,” let alone a biracial brown woman. The idea that she might be trained in sorcery is absurd to the Society members.

But train her Zacharias does, to both their benefits. While everyone else is making a fuss plotting to have Zacharias removed from his position and even killed, he and Prunella are working together to fix issue of the missing magic and avoid diplomatic disasters for the Crown.

Aside from tackling race and gender, the book also calls out classism. The Society members are all gentlemen from prestigious, “well-bred” families, and they largely disdain the magical spells of the working class as inferior and unsophisticated, even though objectively speaking they’re no less artful or intricately constructed than those of the rich. Zacharias doesn’t have his head too far up his ass to realize this, so he has a mind to reform not only the gender restrictions but also the class restrictions on becoming thaumaturges.

I’ll be honest and say the beginning was slow and hard to get through, but once I adjusted to the old-fashioned writing style, it was smoother sailing. The dialogue is witty and the magical elements original. I really loved the dynamic between Zacharias and Prunella, and the supporting characters were a diverse lot with their own charms. The last half definitely picked up a lot in terms of pacing, and the ending was a blast. I’m eagerly awaiting the second book in the series. The only thing that was missing from this book was queerness and disability rep.

Recommendation: Highly recommended! If you like historical fantasy with an explicitly social justice bent, this book is perfect for you.

Review for Noteworthy by Riley Redgate


Note: My review is based on the eARC of the book that I received via NetGalley. The final version will be published on May 2nd, 2017.

My Summary: Jordan Sun is a scholarship student at the elite fine arts school, Kensington, and she’s desperate to get a role that will prove that she’s good enough to her parents. When her audition for the fall musical flops because her vocal range and texture aren’t “feminine” enough, she resorts to desperate measures: cross-dress as a guy and audition for the elite all-male a cappella group, the Sharpshooters, for a shot at the prestigious tour that will elevate her from nobody to the cream of the crop. It’s only for three months, so it can’t go wrong, can it?


Okay, so Seven Ways We Lie was good, but Noteworthy is amazing. I’ll be up front in saying that this is in large part due to the main character of Noteworthy being a bisexual Asian American, which is lot more relatable to me than the mostly-white cast of SWWL, no offense to them.

Noteworthy has all the same things that made Seven Ways We Lie good: well-done characterization all across the board, relatable protagonist, beautiful prose, interesting premise, excellent plotting. What puts Noteworthy on a different level from Seven Ways We Lie is the way it manages to tackle just about every social issue imaginable throughout the story. Race, gender, sexuality, class, disability, religion, and body image–plus the intersections of many of these–are all addressed at some point in the narrative, usually very explicitly.

Although Kensington is pretty white overall, Jordan’s world isn’t as white. Jordan herself represents a lot of things at once: She’s not only Chinese American, she’s bi (late at figuring it out, to boot), poor (her parents are working-class and her family receives government assistance), tall (5’10”!!!) and thick-framed (not to mention tan/brown), and has a lower voice. She also has impostor syndrome that has nothing to do with her cross-dressing and everything to do with anxiety. She’s basically me, except I’m Taiwanese American, genderqueer, not quite as tall (5’7″), and can’t sing (sadly).

The other members of the Sharpshooters are a diverse bunch in ways that extend beyond race, including (warning: a few spoilers): Isaac Nakahara the Japanese American hottie, Theodore who is fat and never fat-shamed by anyone except horrible people, Trav Atwood who is Black and the musical director of the group, Jon Cox who has a learning disability, and Nihal Sehrawat who is Sikh and gay. It is through these characters that the aforementioned issues are explored.

One of the things I appreciated about the execution of the cross-dressing premise was that unlike many books with a similar premise, the author actually discusses the implications of cross-dressing-as-disguise for trans people. For Jordan, it’s a tool and a lie, for trans people, passing is a matter of trying to live their lives and be seen as their authentic selves. The situations are vastly different, which makes cross-dressing-as-disguise a kind of appropriation.

The narrative also calls into question the constant and automatic gendering of certain traits and behaviors as masculine or feminine. It points out the flaws in gender essentialism that views things as inherently male or female as well as the sexism that is tied up in it. It also undermines cisheteronormativity* by normalizing the existence of queer people, not assuming that attraction is only between boys and girls, and, of course, having a bisexual main character who expresses her attraction to two genders.

The primary reason I love this book so much is the characterizations of and dynamics between the members of the Sharpshooters. They’re so realistically portrayed and given depth and complexity. They all care about one another, but as is inevitable when you throw together eight people into a high-pressure situation, tempers explode and conflicts erupt. My favorite relationship was the friendship between Jordan and Nihal, who bond over various shared experiences.

Last, but not least, I’d like to throw garlands at the writing style of this book. Riley Redgate is a master of poetic turns of phrase, and I’m envious of how gracefully she manages to describe every little thing. Plus, there’s nothing like reading a story about singing from someone who knows what they’re talking about and can capture the impressions of sound in the written word. While I was reading, I couldn’t help but pause over certain descriptions and think, “Wow, this is breathtaking…”

*There was one instance where the author slipped up and said “boys and girls” while excluding non-binary people. However, I contacted her about the mistake, and she promptly responded and promised to fix it ASAP, before the final printing if possible, and if not, in future printings of the book. This is a good model for how authors should respond to problematic language being pointed out.

Recommendation: *throws confetti everywhere* READ THIS BOOK!

Review for The Secret of a Heart Note by Stacey Lee


My Summary: Mimosa is one of the two remaining aromateurs on the planet and feels the weight of having to carry on her family’s business of mixing elixirs to help people fall in love. But she’s a teenager, and she wants to be able to experience some of the regular old aspects of teenage life, like joining clubs and getting a boyfriend. When she accidentally gives an elixir to the wrong person, she teams up with the school’s star soccer player to set things right. Unfortunately for Mim, falling for someone means losing her ultra-sensitive nose.


Stacey Lee broke her pattern of writing historical fiction, but it wasn’t a bad break at all. We still have our likable heroine, keen eye for detail, and inclusion of diversity.

The worldbuilding is done so well and makes the magical realism work. The author gives the aromateurs a history and their work a clear structure and logic that makes them believable. She also references scientific facts that help lend the magic credibility. I liked the “quotes” from past aromateurs included at the beginning of each chapter.

One of the most noteworthy things about this book is the way it engages your senses, especially the sense of smell. The kinds of details a character notices inform their perspective and are part of what makes well-written characters distinctive. Stacey Lee is a master at writing first-person narratives because she expresses those unique aspects of character voice very well.

Mim is talented and knowledgeable at what she does, having an almost encyclopedic knowledge of different scents and plants. However, that doesn’t mean she’s perfect. She makes mistakes, and her aromateur expertise is balanced out by her socially awkward side. Even when she has good intentions, those don’t always lead to good results, and she makes questionable decisions at times. More importantly, she faces the consequences of her decisions, and these mistakes feed into her growth as a character.

I love that diversity is integrated so naturally into the landscape of the book. Whiteness is far from being the default. Mim is multiracial because aromateurs are well-traveled in their quests to find ingredients for the elixirs, and she was conceived using a sperm donation. We also have Kali, Mim’s best friend who’s Samoan and queer, Whit Wu the cute and talented soccer player, Pascha Hassan the hijabi girl on the student council, Vicky the antagonist who’s Latina but not stereotypical or horrible because she’s Latina.

Although Mim is straight, the story does a decent job of challenging heteronormativity. When Mim talks about people who are predisposed to like her, she mentions boys and girls. When she’s checking people’s scents for whether they have a significant other, she doesn’t assume that whoever they might be with is of the “opposite” gender. Unfortunately, some of this good is offset by the exclusion of non-binary people and one or two places where she got a bit gender essentialist by labeling scents “male” or “female.”

Kali’s queerness was handled pretty well, overall. She’s not the token gay best friend who’s secretly in love with the protagonist or the tragic gay person. She’s not out to most people, and outing her against her wishes is never romanticized or condoned but is rather shown as being the horrible violation of privacy it is. In fact, Vicky, one of the main antagonists, uses the threat of outing Kali against Mim to get Mim to make an elixir for her.

What I appreciated about the way this situation was handled in the text was the aftermath of the way Mim responds to this threat. Mim, with good intentions, tries to take things into her own hands to defend and avenge Kali, but in the process she erases Kali’s agency and breaks away from the ethical principles that Kali respected her for, and Kali is justifiably upset by it. In the end, Kali gets to come out on her own terms, and she gets a happy ending.

I can’t really speak for the accuracy of representation as far as Kali’s Samoan identity is concerned. I’d like to see a Samoan reader’s thoughts, as there were certain things that I thought could have veered into being stereotypical instead of being realistic in the way they were portrayed: Kali’s lower-class background, her history with gangs, and her love for hip-hop.

One of the things I really enjoyed about the book was the different relationships that it explored. Although Mim’s romance with Court was a major part of the story, it wasn’t the only relationship that was given depth and space for development. We get to see the conflicts and growths of Mim’s relationships with her mother, her estranged aunt Bryony, and Kali. Court was cute and nice, but I was a lot more invested in those other relationships, to be honest.

Another thing I liked was how the author managed to slip in little criticisms of certain social norms like institutional racism and sexism. At one point, Court remarks that Whit Wu is a better player than he is, but he got chosen to be on the Sports Illustrated cover because he looks more “All-American,” i.e. white. The school librarian also talks about sexism in her field, which is majority women but dominated by men at the upper tiers. This is a good example of diversity done right, in which diverse characters are not only present, but the characters and narrative also challenge the norms that lead to the exclusion of marginalized people.

Recommendation: Recommended for its vivid sensory descriptions, well-developed magical realism, diverse cast of characters, and heartfelt exploration of different kinds of relationships.

My 17 Most Anticipated MG Releases of 2017

Follow-up to My 25 Most Anticipated YA Releases of 2017 post. I love middle grade fiction and want to give it some love. ^_^

So the first book on this list is already out but I don’t have it yet, so I’m still anticipating it. ;D

Midnight Without a Moon by Linda W. Jackson (Jan. 3rd)

  • #ownvoices
  • Black MC
  • Historical fiction
  • Related to Emmett Till murder case

Stef Soto, Taco Queen by Jennifer Torres (Jan. 17th)

  • #ownvoices
  • Mexican American MC
  • Contemporary
  • Food, family, and friendship

The Crystal Ribbon by Celeste Lim (Jan. 31st)

  • #ownvoices
  • Chinese MC
  • Historical fantasy
  • Intelligent animal friends

Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly (Mar. 14th)

  • #ownvoices (for one MC)
  • Filipinx American MC (#ownvoices), Japanese American MC, d/Deaf MC
  • Contemporary
  • Friendship story

Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan (Mar. 14th)

  • #ownvoices
  • Muslim Pakistani American MC
  • Contemporary
  • Tackles issues of identity and Islamophobia

Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire by Susan Tan (Mar. 28th)

  • #ownvoices
  • Biracial white/Chinese American MC
  • Contemporary
  • Multicultural family story

The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi (Mar. 28th)

  • #ownvoices
  • Bangladeshi American Hijabi MC
  • Fantasy, Steampunk
  • Puzzles and games

Lucky Broken Girl by Ruth Behar (April 11th)

  • #ownvoices
  • Jewish Cuban American MC
  • Immigrant story

The Emperor’s Riddle by Kat Zhang (May 2nd)

  • #ownvoices
  • Chinese American MC
  • Contemporary
  • Mystery and adventure story

One Shadow on the Wall by Leah Henderson (June 6th)

  • Black MC by a Black author
  • Senegalese MC
  • Contemporary
  • Magical realism

Jasmine Toguchi, Mochi Queen by Debbi Michiko Florence (July 11th)

  • #ownvoices
  • Japanese American MC
  • Contemporary
  • Family and food traditions

Spirit Hunters by Ellen Oh (July 25th)

  • #ownvoices
  • Biracial white/Korean American MC
  • Fantasy
  • Ghost story

Akata Warrior (Sequel to Akata Witch) by Nnedi Okorafor (TBD)

  • #ownvoices
  • Nigerian American MC
  • Fantasy
  • Nigerian/West African magic

The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora by Pablo Cartaya (TBD)

  • #ownvoices
  • Cuban American MC
  • Contemporary
  • Tackles issue of gentrification in Miami

Love Sugar Magic by Anna Meriano (TBD)

  • #ownvoices
  • Mexican American MC
  • Magical realism
  • Family of brujas (witches)

Weaving a Net is Better than Praying for Fish by Ki-Wing Merlin (TBD)

  • #ownvoices
  • Chinese American MC
  • 1st generation immigrant
  • Mystery/suspense

Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword by Henry Lien (TBD)

  • #ownvoices
  • Chinese/Taiwanese(?) American MC
  • Fantasy
  • Sport that combines martial arts with ice skating