Rewriting History: Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know by Samira Ahmed and The Kingdom of Back by Marie Lu

The two books I’ll be talking about in this post seem very different on the surface. Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know by Samira Ahmed is largely contemporary YA (with small snippets of a second POV in the dual storyline), and involves a teenage girl in Paris trying to figure out a historical mystery of a Muslim woman involving art history and literature, along with her own future and romantic relationships. The Kingdom of Back by Marie Lu is set across several years and European countries in the mid/late 1700s, and follows a re-imagining of the story of Nannerl Mozart, the sister of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was also a gifted musician but has been buried within history because she was forbidden from composing, unlike her brother.

But when I read them within a short period of each other, I couldn’t help making links between them. And these links become clear when you consider the author’s notes, below, which I found really resonant.

In writing Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know […] I felt a profound sadness for all the real genius we failed to celebrate. For all the art we will never see and the stories we will never read because their creators were not history’s conquerors, because their lives were deemed unworthy.

History doesn’t need to be an exclusionary tale. Our lives and worlds are richer for the diversity inclusion brings. […] Dig deep to reveal the wrongs of the past, so we can write this world as it should be.

— Author’s note of Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know by Samira Ahmed (which you can read here)

What beautiful creations were lost to us forever because Nannerl was a woman? How many other countless talents have been silenced by history, whether for their gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic circumstances?

I wrote this book for the Nannerls of today and tomorrow, in the hopes that when they are ready to share their brilliance with the world, the world is ready to give them the attention and honor that they deserve.

— Author’s note of The Kingdom of Back by Marie Lu

Both these stories take real figures (or an allegedly real one, in the case of Mad, Bad) which we know little about, and the authors used their imaginations to give them life and voice. And this process of using fiction to fill in the gaps was necessary because of the way these women’s voices have been silenced in the past. It’s not just a historical issue either — anyone with some awareness of publishing will know the challenges that marginalised creators continue to face in the industry.

As some of you might already know, I’ve long been passionate about reading historical fiction by authors of colour, and how powerful it can be for the reasons the authors expressed above (Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo is another book I’m looking forward to reading which unearths such marginalised voices). For those who may be less familiar with such stories, I hope one of these books may lead you to developing an interest in them as well. I’ll now share more about these books and my thoughts on them in turn:


Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know by Samira Ahmed

The latest novel from bestselling author Samira Ahmed is a ravishing tale interweaving the stories of two young Muslim women from two different centuries in two different continents, with one common purpose: to write their own stories.

It is August in Paris and budding art historian Khayyam should be having the time of her life – but even in the City of Lights she can’t stop worrying about the mess she left back home in Chicago. Only when she meets a cute young Parisian – who happens to be a distant relative of the novelist Alexandre Dumas – do things start to get interesting, as she starts to unveil the story of a 19th century Muslim woman whose path may have intersected with Dumas, Eugene Delacroix and Lord Byron.

Two hundred years earlier in the Ottoman empire, Leila is the most favoured woman in the Pasha’s harem. Her position is meant to be coveted; but she is struggling to survive as she fights to keep her true love hidden from her jealous captor.

Echoing across centuries, as Khayyam uncovers the scintillating truth of Leila’s long-forgotten life, her own destiny is transformed forever.

My thoughts

Aspects of this story which particularly resonated:

  • The setting in France, and the significance of Romantic writers in the story, was particularly resonant to me for a story about decolonisation. As a twelve-year-old at the beginning of secondary school, I chose French (and German) as a European language to study and was resistant to selecting Japanese as it also had a character system like Chinese and because of the other Asian students in my year group choosing it. In my last year of high school, we’d also studied the Romantic writers and idolised them, without ever considering these silenced voices. Decolonising my knowledge and mindset is an ongoing process, and seeing this so directly in the story meant a lot to me. In other YA/contemporary books which often refer to literature and art, the references are almost always to well-known classics and they uphold the dominant narrative — this book was refreshing for challenging this.
  • Khayyam, the protagonist, is shaped by multiple cultures and identities and is interfaith — I always appreciate such representation

General strengths of the book:

  • Khayyam’s narrative voice was likable and easy to read
  • I loved seeing Khayyam’s supportive and protective parents! This was so refreshing in YA
  • Overall, it was a unique storyline and I’d love to see more stories like this in YA — where there’s a passionate contemporary protagonist and the mystery has all these intellectual and historical aspects. The clues and slow reveals were well-developed throughout to a satisfying conclusion
  • There are snippets from letters throughout which form part of the uncovering of the mystery — I also loved this aspect

Mixed Feelings:

  • There’s a subplot involving Khayyam’s ambivalent relationship with her two love interests, and I found this difficult to engage in, especially at the start, because we don’t know much about her ex-boyfriend Zaid and Alexandre is depicted in such an idealised way. However, I did appreciate that this was directly related to the commentary about the historical aspects — that women shouldn’t be defined through the eyes of men, and that Khayyam was asserting her own agency — as well as the realistic messiness of the fallout and the genuine feelings in the resolution

The Kingdom of Back by Marie Lu

From #1 New York Times bestselling author Marie Lu comes a historical YA fantasy about a musical prodigy and the dangerous lengths she’ll go to make history remember her–perfect for fans of Susanna Clarke and The Hazel Wood.

Two siblings. Two brilliant talents. But only one Mozart.

Born with a gift for music, Nannerl Mozart has just one wish–to be remembered forever. But even as she delights audiences with her masterful playing, she has little hope she’ll ever become the acclaimed composer she longs to be. She is a young woman in 18th century Europe, and that means composing is forbidden to her. She will perform only until she reaches a marriageable age–her tyrannical father has made that much clear.

And as Nannerl’s hope grows dimmer with each passing year, the talents of her beloved younger brother, Wolfgang, only seem to shine brighter. His brilliance begins to eclipse her own, until one day a mysterious stranger from a magical land appears with an irresistible offer. He has the power to make her wish come true–but his help may cost her everything.

In her first work of historical fiction, #1 New York Times bestselling author Marie Lu spins a lush, lyrically-told story of music, magic, and the unbreakable bond between a brother and sister.

My thoughts

The overall premise:

  • I’d actually been familiar with the figure of Nannerl before — although I haven’t seen it, I came across the trailer for the 2011 French film Mozart’s Sister around the time it was released and have vague memories of searching up and reading more about her. I definitely appreciate Marie Lu taking up this story and introducing Nannerl to more people, and provoking further contemplation in me
  • What I hadn’t known was that the Kingdom of Back, which inspired Marie Lu to develop the fantasy elements of this story, was something that the Mozart children really had made up (see more in the full author’s note of the book). Again, really intriguing.

Highlights:

  • I definitely empathised with Nannerl, her passion, and the dread of society restricting and defining her limits as she grew into a young woman
  • The focus on the sibling relationship was refreshing, and although my relationship with own sibling is very different, aspects of this were still really poignant in terms of being the oldest, and gender differences
  • The overall atmosphere of mystery and otherworldliness throughout the book, especially in the Kingdom, was well-written and really held my attention. It’s a really interesting example of a quieter, more personal fantasy in YA, and how the genre doesn’t always have to be intense and high-stakes.
  • I really liked the bittersweet climax and the way the stakes, and twists which I hadn’t seen coming, were built up in leading to it

Additional thoughts:

  • This isn’t necessarily a criticism as it was fitting for the story, but do be prepared for the beginning and some parts of the middle to be somewhat slow. The ‘real-life’ storyline did especially feel repetitive at times, though I guess this was reflective of the real story it’s based on. And I do think this was worth getting through for the ending
  • I do feel that the book could have been stronger if written in third person rather than first, especially considering that it covered several years from when Nannerl was a child, to a sixteen-year-old

Overall, I’d definitely recommend picking up both these books. I also hope that my thoughts, and the authors’ thoughts which I’ve shared above, will inspire you to read more historical fiction and consider the marginalised voices in our dominant narratives of history.

Have you read either of these books? What are some similar books which you recommend or want to read?

This Light Between Us by Andrew Fukuda: WWII, Injustice, and Friendships Across Distance

I’m so excited to finally share a review of one of my favourite books of all time, and also one of my favourite reads of 2020 — This Light Between Us by Andrew Fukuda, which is a YA historical novel. This book transported me so immersively into the the US and Europe during WWII, was emotionally gripping, and the two protagonists (Charlie Lévy, a French Jewish girl, and Alex Maki, a Japanese-American boy) were truly unforgettable. Their friendship and love across distance spoke so much to me, and there were aspects of the book which were powerfully thought-provoking in its depictions of injustice and the characters’ differing responses to it.

About the book:

“I remember visiting Manzanar and standing in the windswept plains where over ten thousand internees were once imprisoned, their voices cut off. I remember how much I wanted to write a story that did right by them. Hopefully this book delivers.”—Andrew Fukuda

In 1935, ten-year-old Alex Maki, from Bainbridge Island, Washington, is disgusted when he’s forced to become pen pals with Charlie Lévy of Paris, France—a girl. He thought she was a boy. In spite of Alex’s reluctance, their letters continue to fly across the Atlantic, along with the shared hopes and dreams of friendship. Until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the growing Nazi persecution of Jews force both young people to confront the darkest aspects of human nature. From the desolation of an internment camp on the plains of Manzanar to the horrors of Auschwitz and the devastation of European battlefields, the only thing they can hold onto are the memories of their letters. But nothing can dispel the light between them.

As Andrew Fukuda explains in the Author’s Note of the book, this story was inspired by two key historical facts: that Anne Frank had an American pen pal, and that part of the concentration camp which the American military liberated was by the segregated Japanese-American unit.

Review

These were the key aspects of the book which I particularly loved:

The long-distance love and friendship between Alex and Charlie

The book is mostly told in third person from Alex Maki’s point of view, but there are multiple extracts of the letters that both characters write to each other, and their relationship forms the core of the book. These two young people, from different countries and different from each other in many ways, become pen pals by chance through their school. In the first chapter, we get a snippet of how their friendship started before the book jumps forward three years later to 1938, when they are still writing and are close friends. As the story progresses, they face challenges getting the letters to each other, and Alex fears for Charlie as time passes and he doesn’t hear from her.

Being part of the online book and writing communities, in this age, and during a pandemic — I’m sure many of you can relate to these kinds of long-distance friendships. Alex and Charlie are pen pals during the 1930s-40s, have never seen each other before, and must wait agonisingly long periods before they receive each letter. Whilst there are fewer technological barriers today, I still related so much to the joys and inherent heartaches of having such a close friend which you are unable to see in person. On the one hand, such friends are the most irreplaceable and understanding of who you are deep down; on the other hand, there are times when you wish so much that they could be there with you, or do more to help them, and it’s simply not possible.

Even though your words were few, I sensed you are hurting very deeply. I wish I can be there with you. This is one of the times when I feel so much the 8,000 kilometres that separate us.

I worry that you have no friends to talk to. […] And no, I don’t count even though we are really good friends, maybe even best friends. You need friends who are there with you on Bainbridge Island!

Charlie’s letter, p53

I’ve actually been thinking about the 5,000 miles that separate us. As much as we both hate the distance, it might ironically be the reason why we’ve both become so close. […]

Don’t worry about me, Charlie. As long as I got you, I’m fine.

Alex’s letter, p56

There’s a hint early on in the book that the two do have romantic feelings for each other. Either way, what the story focuses on is their friendship, in terms of how they confide in and support each other, and the fractures in their relationship when they disagree or aren’t completely honest with each other. There were also touching moments when they imagined what it would be like when they finally did meet, and all the things they wanted to do together — again, something I found relatable. This was incredibly powerful, and I became so invested in the development of their friendship, and wanting the two characters to finally meet each other in person.

Prejudice, persecution and injustice

This Light Between Us was masterful at weaving two stories about the insidious effects of prejudice during WWII together — the persecution of Jewish people in Europe, and the internment of Japanese-Americans. Both characters grapple with the ways this affects how they feel about their identity — how do you reconcile with being treated in this way by the country in which you are supposed to belong? Such historical events have ongoing relevance when we consider how people are marginalised and treated with prejudice today. It’s a perfect example of why historical fiction is such essential reading to understand the present.

Alex’s brother, Frank, was a particularly outspoken and thought-provoking character in this regard, as he expressed his anger towards their treatment, and the idea that they should be expected to prove their loyalty to and serve their country, because they are marked as different by their Japanese heritage:

“Tell me why I should fight for a country that’s treated us like common criminals when our only crime was to dream the dreams America promised. […]

“I am an American! Why should I have to prove it?”

Frank, on p215

When Alex responds in a different way, it causes heartbreaking divisions within their family. Later in the story, Frank’s views of Alex’s actions also shifts. The story itself does not try to give a simple answer on how best to respond to injustice — and in depicting these conflicts, became all the more powerful and memorable.

Charlie, too, grapples with the persecution and discrimination she faces for being Jewish, and her mixed feelings towards her home as a result. One of her lines particularly stood out to me:

Maybe, Alex, maybe loving a city, a country, is like loving a person: you love her despite her faults, you forgive her constantly, you always believe in her, fight for her, you never give up on her.

From Charlie’s letter, quoted on page 371

Immersive setting and plot

In terms of more big-picture thoughts on the book, I cannot praise it enough. The timeline and plot develops at a suitable pace, with sufficient build-up and growing dread for the characters, as well as turning in different directions to what I expected. The book was clearly incredibly well-researched with all its details about the time period, and key locations like Manzanar and the concentration camps.

As I mentioned in my 2020 Wrap-Up, I initially listened to this on audiobook and both narrators were fantastic, so I’d highly recommend it if you like audiobooks. There are also some illustrations in the print version which I enjoyed seeing when I finally got a hard copy.

Overall: the highest of recommendations. This book wasn’t just powerful or well-written, it was unforgettable, and I know I’ll be rereading it for a long time.

Fantasy Book Recs: Shadow of the Fox trilogy by Julie Kagawa

Hi everyone! As I said, I’d like to get back to book blogging regularly, albeit slowly, this year. My first post for this year is a recommendation for a trilogy that I started and finished in 2020, was one of my favourite escapist fantasies that helped me get through last year, and my first time reading the work of well-known SFF author Julie Kagawa: 1. Shadow of the Fox, 2. Soul of the Sword, and 3. Night of the Dragon.

As an overview of the whole trilogy, this is a high fantasy series, influenced by Japanese mythology, centering on sixteen-year old Yumeko, a half-kitsune, and Tatsumi, originally a samurai and demon slayer. Their paths are brought together by a quest to find and protect the pieces of a Scroll which can summon the Kami Dragon, which can grant a wish every thousand years — a phenomenon which, in the past, led to their world being drowned in darkness. This journey takes them across their land of Iwagoto, and across the paths of several unexpected characters, as the deadline looms for the night of the Wish.

Here’s more about the first book, Shadow of the Fox:

One thousand years ago, the great Kami Dragon was summoned to grant a single terrible wish—and the land of Iwagoto was plunged into an age of darkness and chaos.

Now, for whoever holds the Scroll of a Thousand Prayers, a new wish will be granted. A new age is about to dawn.

Raised by monks in the isolated Silent Winds temple, Yumeko has trained all her life to hide her yokai nature. Half kitsune, half human, her skill with illusion is matched only by her penchant for mischief. Until the day her home is burned to the ground, her adoptive family is brutally slain and she is forced to flee for her life with the temple’s greatest treasure—one part of the ancient scroll.

There are many who would claim the dragon’s wish for their own. Kage Tatsumi, a mysterious samurai of the Shadow Clan, is one such hunter, under orders to retrieve the scroll…at any cost. Fate brings Kage and Yumeko together. With a promise to lead him to the scroll, an uneasy alliance is formed, offering Yumeko her best hope for survival. But he seeks what she has hidden away, and her deception could ultimately tear them both apart.

With an army of demons at her heels and the unlikeliest of allies at her side, Yumeko’s secrets are more than a matter of life or death. They are the key to the fate of the world itself.

If you’ve read many fantasy series in the past, you’ll know that there’s nothing quite like the unforgettable aspects of such a reading experience: falling in love with characters which you follow across multiple books, a world which feels incredibly real and lingers with you long after you’ve finished it, making you want to return, and seeing the entirety of the plot come together after several books. It’s also hard to find good series which fulfil all these criteria, and many have let me down prematurely, or which didn’t end well.

But after having finished all three books in this trilogy, this definitely falls into the category of memorable series which I’ll continue to recommend. It’s not for everyone — most prominently, I’m aware that some readers may not want to commit to the continuous journey plot. It does also have slower moments, although not to the extent that it bothered me, as I still really enjoyed being in the world and characters. Here are some reasons I enjoyed the series and found it to be a fun and immersive read, and why you might like to also pick it up:

Well-developed characters and their friendship

This series has the best kind of found family vibes with the way it brought together the very different characters — more than one of which had been attempting to kill the other when they met! — and how they developed from being reluctant or antagonistic to forming a close bond.

Each of them also developed strongly throughout — Yumeko is clever but has been sheltered from the world, and matures and acts courageously in the most satisfying way; Tatsumi had originally been brought up to shut off all his emotions, yet slowly opens up to Yumeko and other characters; Reika, the shrine maiden, with her amusing exasperation and ‘mom of the group vibes’; others who had only been defined narrowly in their life up to that point, or hadn’t had much meaning to it at all, and become part of something bigger when they come together as part of the quest. I was so sad to leave these characters after reaching the end!

The fun and rich Japanese-inspired worldbuilding

I’m actually not the most well-versed in anime and manga, but do have a few favourite series with Japanese-inspired supernatural elements, like Ao no Exorcist. For those who are familiar with such series, aspects of the worldbuilding in this trilogy will feel familiar in the best way, drawing from similar original myths.

The richness of the different layers of the world is revealed bit by bit, from the different kinds of the demons, the yurei (ghosts), the kami, and clans, and everything in between — really made the world enjoyable to immerse myself in.

Satisfying plot and conclusion

Following on from above, I’ve often been impatient with anime and manga series that go on forever, and book series which don’t end well. Which is why I appreciated this trilogy so much — all the mysteries that are set up are expanded and built upon, and come together in an epic, satisfying conclusion which was also fittingly bittersweet, considering the high stakes of their quest, but ultimately very hopeful. The roles that different characters play, and your expectations of which ones will ultimately be most threatening and important, shift throughout the series — making it unpredictable.

I particularly enjoyed finding out about Yumeko’s origins and backstory, and seeing the significance of one of the minor POV characters from the start, Suki, in the final book.

Final Notes

I want to note that I listened to most of the series on audiobook, and loved the narration of Joy Osmanski, Brian Nishii and Emily Woo Zeller, so I’d recommend it if you’re an audiobook fan (though having a paperback or e-copy on hand might be good so you can check the glossary if needed).

This was also my first time reading one of Julie Kagawa’s novels, though I’d been meaning to for a long time after enjoying her short story Eyes Like Candlelight in the anthology A Thousand Beginnings and Endings (eds Ellen Oh, Elsie Chapman). It’s always nice to see when an author of colour can finally get to write and publish ownvoices stories, when they haven’t been able to in the past during a different publishing landscape.

Overall, if you’re looking for a series which is fun and intriguing throughout, and you’re in the mood for high fantasy escapism, I’d definitely recommend this series.

What is the last fantasy series you read or are there any you particularly recommend? Have you read any of Julie Kagawa’s books?

2021 Anticipated Reads

Most Anticipated 2021 Books

New book releases by diverse authors, especially Asian authors, always helps me feel more hopeful. In order of release date, these are the books I’m most looking forward to reading in 2021:

When We Were Infinite by Kelly Loy Gilbert

(9 March 2021)

To date, Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert is one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read, but everything I hear about When We Were Infinite makes me want to read it even more. I’m keen to see deep explorations about friendship in a YA book (as that theme tends to be prioritised in middle grade), and the idea of struggling with feeling helpless about supporting someone you care about, and trying to hold onto friendships which have been so crucial for filling emotional needs in your life, is one which already resonates so much.

You can find the cover reveal and an excerpt here.


The Forest of Stolen Girls by June Hur

(April 20 2021)

I really enjoyed June Hur’s debut The Silence of Bones, for its well-crafted historical setting in Joseon Korea, as well as deeply personal themes woven into the mystery. The cover for her next book looks stunning, and I’m so excited to read it!


A Glasshouse of Stars by Shirley Marr

(4 May 2021 in Australia, June in US and UK)

I haven’t seen too many people discuss this book — the author’s not on Twitter — and this middle grade ownvoices story about a Chinese immigrant girl definitely deserves more hype. Shirley Marr’s work has so much personal meaning to me:

  • It’s always great to see a POC from Australia getting published internationally — there are so many fantastic authors here who deserve to be more widely recognised
  • Her YA book Preloved, which was published in Australia ten years ago, was a wonderful book about love, family, and the growth of a protagonist who feels insecure about herself. It was also the first book I EVER read with a Chinese-Australian protagonist, while I was still a teenager myself. I’m so excited to see Shirley return with another ownvoices story ten years later, and it makes me so hopeful!
  • I first came across Shirley’s books through my friend the late Steph Bowe, so it means a lot to hold on to that connection

The cover for the book looks absolutely STUNNING and as someone who also migrated to Australia as a child, I’m so excited to see this experience represented.


Misfit in Love by SK Ali

(25 May 2021)

I’ve raved about SK Ali’s Love from A to Z and her short story in Hungry Hearts already, though I still need to get to Saints and Misfits. Either way, I’m incredibly excited for Misfit in Love! Again, look at what a beautiful cover the book has!

One Hundred Days by Alice Pung

Alice Pung’s adult fiction debut! I love intergenerational stories and am so keen to see the family dynamics play out here. It’ll be great to read some new work from her again!


Kiki Kallira Breaks a Kingdom by Sangu Mandanna

(6 July 2021)

Another Hungry Hearts contributor! I loved Sangu Mandanna’s Color Outside the Lines anthology, too, and the premise for this book sounds amazing — art coming to life! South Asian mythology! Middle grade rep of anxiety! Another stunning illustrated cover! I really cannot wait.


Blog goals for 2021

I actually really do want to get back into updating this blog, and I think it would be a doable goal to aim for posting at least once every two months. There are so many books I’ve enjoyed and things on my mind over the past months and years that I haven’t really talked about. I also think it’ll be a good method of accountability and keeping myself on track and allow me to reflect on

One thing I am not going to set a restriction for myself on is in terms of content — this used to be almost entirley a book review & diversity rec focused blog with a bit about writing in between. Maybe in the future I’ll have a better idea of how to ‘streamline’ everything. But for now, I just want to get back in it and focus on whatever strikes my interest.

Some things I do have in mind already:

  • Book reviews, especially for upcoming books I’m anticipating on
  • Updates on and keeping myself on track with my goals
  • Sharing a bit more photography — I usually post things on Instagram but on a private account so it might be nice to share here, and I’d also like to get better at taking polaroids!

Let me know if you’re looking forward to any particular books, or have any blog goals of your own, for 2021!

2020 Recap

Hi all! I’ve been pretty absent from here and most social media for a while, but I thought I’d reflect on and recap everything from this … unique … year for those who might be interested in what I’ve been up to. This post turned out very long, so here are the jump links for the sections on:

Favourite Books of 2020

The escapism was definitely strong this year, and at the time of writing I’ve finished over 40 books — a lot more than in the past two years! One thing that changed this year as a result of the extensive free trial that Scribd offered at the start of the pandemic is that I now read many more audiobooks! My library system doesn’t have as many of the diverse ones as I would like, so Scribd has made a huge difference in that regard. I used to find it hard to concentrate on audiobooks, but that’s now something I also find much easier.

Below, in the order I read them:

Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay

A Filipino-American teen seeks to uncover the truth of his cousin’s death arising from the drug war in the Philippines. This book has some of the most unforgettable writing I’ve ever come across in YA.

Many aspects of the diasporic explorations in this book resonated so deeply with the way I felt about my identity, whilst being insightful into the specific cultural experiences/political issues in the Philippines. I’ve said to multiple people that, alongside Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert (which I read in 2019), this is compulsory reading if you want to see how powerful contemporary stories and/or YA can be.


This Light Between Us by Andrew Fukuda

I’m planning to get back into more historical fiction, and This Light Between Us is still on my mind as a book I really want to reread and slowly revisit all the powerful themes of. This is the story of a French Jewish girl, Charlie Levy, and a Japanese-American boy, Alex Maki, who become pen pals and develop a deep, loving friendship across the distance that separates them. But when WW2 leads to devastating impacts on both of them — with the book focusing on Alex’s experiences at Manzanar internment camp — they struggle to stay connected — and alive — and long to find one another.

Both these characters found a permanent their way into my heart, and I appreciated the questions the book raised about how one responds to injustice and what the nature of courage is. The audiobook narrators for this were absolutely amazing, and I’d highly recommend it for those who can access. Note, however, that there are a few illustrations in the print version, so it’s worth picking that up after too.


Love from A to Z by SK Ali

I’m usually not the biggest fan of romance-heavy books, but this YA contemporary about two Muslim teens, the way they deal with heavy aspects of life, and the marvels and oddities that bring them together was so wonderful, emotional and moving that I really need to get a physical copy and reread certain parts over and over. Zayneb had such a strong voice and through her, we explore anger and injustice and how one responds to it; Adam’s storyline with his family was also a touching exploration of dealing with illness and grief.

I really clicked with SK Ali’s work in her contribution to the Hungry Hearts anthology, and it was wonderful to really immerse myself in her writing and characters here


The Poppy War by RF Kuang

I held off from reading this book for a long time because I was unsure of the heavier aspects that I’d seen many people mention, but I am so glad I did read it this year. Again, I listened to this on audiobook, and Emily Woo Zeller was an amazing narrator (with a minor gripe about the pronunciation of ‘Cike’, haha)

This was set in an amazingly developed world based on Chinese mythology (Fengshen yanyi) and modern history (the second Sino-Japanese war). I appreciated the nuances of the cultural references, and became incredibly invested in all the characters — both the ones that terrified me and ones I felt a lot of love for. I’m looking forward to diving into the sequel, The Dragon Republic.


The Girl and the Ghost by Hanna Alkaf

The girl and the ghost by Hanna Alkaf

This was another audiobook gem! A lonely young Malay girl inherits a pelesit from her grandmother which she names Pink, and an emotional journey ensues in terms of their friendship, with both its moments of joy as well as pain and heartbreak. All the characters felt incredibly raw and real, and even without being personally familiar with the setting, I enjoyed the loving nostalgic vibes throughout. The mystery and slightly scarier elements were really well-written too! I started replaying snippets almost immediately after finishing because of how much I wanted to be immersed in the characters and their journeys again.

Remember when I said I would do this as a regular thing? Hahahaha …

Nevertheless, I thought I’d share a few posts from around the internet which I came across this year and thought were particularly worth sharing.

Writing Updates

Literary Analysis/Reviews

Notebook and bubble tea
Notebook + essential writing fuel

I only have one tangible publication to point to this year, haha — my ‘What I’m Reading’ piece for Meanjin’s blog, which I’m still very proud of! I enjoyed being able to critically analyse books I’ve loved whilst reflecting & drawing on my own experiences.

Aside from the limited posts here, I also wrote a review of All Who Live on Islands by Rose Lu, which you can find here on Lit CelebrAsian.

Fiction

Images of: yin/yang symbol, Chinese temples, and ghosts
Aesthetic board for the Chinese-inspired fantasy WIP

In terms of fiction, I finished the first draft (~50k words) of a (Chinese-inspired fantasy) novel earlier in the year. I haven’t been able to finish a complete manuscript like that for literally about eight years, and for once, the voice finally felt right and like it was my own.

Then … I started working on completely rewriting it. I reached a stage where I had completely refined the first 10,000 words for an application, which felt like a huge achievement. However, I’m feeling much more mixed on the whole thing now. There are aspects of the core story which I still love … but I think I do need to a take a step back from it.

I’ve been reflecting on the fact that the initial drafting process felt cathartic to me because I was finally expressing a lot of the insecurities and struggles with identity that I’d omitted when I’d erased myself within my writing for so long, as well as feelings that I’d been keeping inside at the time. But as much as stories should come from a genuine (which often means vulnerable and scary) place, the revision process and having to constantly go over things has made me more hesitant about how I approach my writing in the future. Having to revisit painful past experiences over and over again can be incredibly draining, and rewriting the hopeful ending really emphasised how much being in the protagonists’s dark mindset for most of the story had been affecting me.

There was definitely a lot about the story and writing process which I found enjoyable (magic systems and worldbuilding can be so much fun!), but I’m going to take a step back and re-evaluate.

And yes, I did get multiple rejections this year in terms of local opportunities I applied for, which was disappointing — although that is always to be expected and is just a part of the journey. But I’m looking into new ones now that may be suitable in terms of my development.

And there are multiple more experienced Australian authors who have been very, very kind to me this year, which I’m endlessly grateful for and have never taken for granted: a big thank you to Wai Chim, Leanne Hall, and Emily Gale.

What else I’ve been up to

Kyoto & Tokyo

In retrospect, it’s pretty ridiculous how lucky I was to have been able to travel overseas briefly and come back right before COVID-19 turned into a pandemic. (I am SO glad I didn’t go on a semester-long exchange!) I was in Kyoto (+ with a brief visit to Osaka) & Tokyo for two weeks in February, undertaking an elective unit in Japanese Law, which turned out pretty interesting!

I was pretty spontaneous when I was there in terms of where I visited, but Ueno Park in Tokyo was particularly nice — I wish I could have seen it with all the sakura in spring — and overall just really appreciated the convenience in Japan compared to Sydney.

Another overseas trip is far off for now, but I’d love to go interstate and visit Melbourne again (last time I went there was January 2017, so it’s been several years), and hopefully New Zealand in the future.

Ice Skating

Late last year, I knew I really needed to pick up some kind of physical activity on a regular basis, and one I genuinely enjoyed. I’m not the most active person, unfortunately, and wanted to change that. I’ve only ever gone ice skating casually, and actually hadn’t done it for about two years, but was still confident the moment I got back onto the ice when I went in December last year.

White ice skates against a red background

I’m not sure why it never occurred to me to take proper classes before, but I finally started doing so earlier this year, and it was such a great experience! It’s something that makes me feel so free and is great in terms of stress relief. The pandemic disrupted my first set of classes, and I had to postpone them again for a while, but I somehow managed to jump through the first two levels upon grading both times, anyway! I’ll be continuing from the Novice 2 level next year.

I’ve really appreciated having something fun, unique, and pressure-free to do (contrast to the pressures I do put on myself in my writing), which I’m actually good at too.

Reflections & Looking Ahead

An adorable kookaburra who turned up next to my balcony one morning!

I’ve not been the only one struggling this year, so I guess that’s a small comfort and can’t be a surprise to anyone. And of course, I acknowledge that I’ve been really lucky and that there are many people going through harder situations than I am. Still, after having a really really tough year in 2019 as well, things do feel endless a lot of the time and it can be hard to feel hopeful again.

I don’t want to keep dwelling on all of that. Instead, I’ll try to keep a few things in mind. Many of these words came from wise friends & others are ones which I did already have inside me but can be hard to remember:

  • That I’m not inherently lesser than anyone else and that I have many positive qualities; that being accepting of myself is more important than what anyone else thinks of me
  • That I can still be a good influence on & source of happiness for people around me even if I don’t feel like it a lot of the time
  • That what I do and the way I support other people may not be very ‘visible’, but it’s still significant
  • That so much of life is completely outside of my control, and I shouldn’t dwell on those things or take them as a reflection of anything about me being flawed
  • That on the flip side, there are many things I do have control over in order to make my life happier & I can rely on myself to make that happen
  • That I shouldn’t be hard on myself for having unwanted, difficult feelings
  • That many many people have been very kind to me, and will continue to be in the future
  • That my harder feelings & experiences won’t last forever, and I have a lot to look forward to with my whole life ahead, and I am capable of strength and healing

I used to feel ridiculously optimistic about the new year, especially as a teen. At the beginning of each new year of high school, I was convinced everything was going to be perfect, nothing would seriously upset me, and I had so many hopes about things being better than in the previous year. I haven’t felt like that for a long time, and it’s particularly hard to convince myself of that now after, as I said, two really difficult years in a row.

Still, the magic and blank slate of a new year is appealing, so I’m going to try. I’ll make a separate post with my anticipated reads, goals and somewhat optimistic plans for 2021, but here’s hoping that this time next year, things will be a bit brighter.

Hope all of you have a restful end of the year, and are gentle with yourselves as we go into 2021.

Spell Starter by Elsie Chapman: Blog Tour Stop

Click the image above to go to the Caffeine Tours schedule for Spell Starter

Hi everyone,

I’m really excited to be able to share my post for the blog tour of Spell Starter by Elsie Chapman, run by Caffeine Tours. It’s my first time ever participating in a blog tour — thank you so much to Shealea for the opportunity! This duology is a fantastic example of Asian speculative fiction and I’m excited for the second book to come out into the world and for more people to pick up the first.

Caster, the adaptation, and my Netflix mockups

Before I go into Spell Starter — for those who aren’t aware, this is the sequel to Caster by Elsie Chapman, which was released in 2019. This review and post are spoiler-free for Spell Starter, but will necessarily contain references to the first book. You can also click here to jump to the last part of the post where I talk about other books by Elsie Chapman.

For those who haven’t read Caster yet, you can check out the following:

If you need any more incentive to read the first book, it was recently announced that it’s being adapted to film by Paramount Pictures! This is so incredibly well-deserved and I can’t wait to see all the vivid scenes in the book on-screen.

Coincidentally, a few months before this was announced, I made some mockup Netflix graphics expressing how much I wished for an adaptation of the book O.O and I was absolutely stunned when it turned out an adaptation was going to be reality! You can find them below (click to expand) – the jacket photo is by Lissette Emma and Nika de Carlo, and the rest of the images I added are from Unsplash/Pexels/Pixabay.

Onto Spell Starter!

About the Book

  • Title: Spell Starter
  • Author: Elsie Chapman
  • Publisher: Scholastic
  • Publication date: 06 October 2020
  • Age group: Young Adult
  • Genre: Fantasy

Synopsis:

The Sting meets Fight Club in this magical, action-packed sequel to Caster by Elsie Chapman.

Yes, Aza Wu now has magic back. But like all things in her life, it has come at a great cost. After the tournament, Aza is able to pay off her parents’ debt to Saint Willow. Unfortunately, the cost of the gathering spell she used to strip Finch of his magic has put her permanently in the employ of the gang leader. Aza has been doing little errands using real magic — collecting debts, putting the squeeze on new businesses in the district. But that had never been the plan. Saint Willow is nothing if not ambitious and having Aza as a fighter is much more lucrative than as a fixer. Especially if she can control the outcome. Aza is going to have to put it all on the line again to get out of this situation!

Book Links:

Aesthetics/Moodboard

For my creative contribution to the book tour, I compiled a few pictures from Pexels, Unsplash and Pixabay to create these aesthetic boards of the book!

Review and Highlights

Thank you to Scholastic for the digital ARC of this book. Please note that any quotes are taken from an early galley and may not reflect the final text.

There were many aspects of Caster which I really enjoyed — Aza’s intriguing arc and conflicts, and the fast pacing — which made it easy to dive back into the world in Spell Starter. These were some of the highlights of the sequel for me:

The Chinese influences on the story

I’ve talked about how I enjoyed the Chinese influences on Caster and seeing myself reflected in the book, especially because it was in an otherwise Western (Vancouver-based) setting that reminded of how I grew up myself. In Caster, this was mostly developed through Aza’s family and their teahouse legacy, and the gangs in their sector.

In Spell Starter, those gang members are the primary villains pulling the strings in the new tournament Aza is forced to take part in, and these Chinese influences become more prominent in terms of the magic and worldbuilding, as well as the aspects mentioned above. Without spoiling the details, I was delighted at the setting of the first and final action sequences (as well as enjoying the ones in between, which were well-developed and distinct from those in the first book). These details were vividly integrated into the story. It was nice to see more Cantonese, too, and added to the overall realism of the setting with the cultural influences it drew on.

Aza’s character arc and reversal from Caster

In the first book, there are plenty of challenging and dark moments for Aza, but her overall journey through the tournament was an uphill arc — strengthening in her use of magic, succeeding in successive rounds. This time, her situation has completely reversed — she’s struggling with magic that she doesn’t control and which doesn’t belong to her, is being pressured by external forces, and is dealing with failure after failure.

I found it really interesting to see the impact of these challenges on her character in contrast to the first book. Some lines from the book were particularly refreshing and powerful in terms of Aza’s visceral reactions. Just one example:

My face is on fire even as the rest of me goes icy. I knew it was coming, but hearing it out loud is hard.

It’ll be just like this tomorrow night if I lose again. And I will lose again, since I still can’t control this magic. That makes me the weakest fighter here.

(page 95)

A fast-paced plot exploring costs and sacrifice

As with the first book, I really enjoyed the thrilling, fast-paced ride of Spell Starter. When I pause to think over the books I’ve read in the past year, it’s rare to find them immersive from beginning to end and not feel too slow at any point. Spell Starter wove in twist after twist, while building up a sense of urgency towards the conclusion.

Caster explored prominent themes of how to use magic when it comes at great cost, but a greater layer of complexity is introduced in Spell Starter. Greater environmental destruction is unleashed on Lotusland, Aza has to trust or try and protect more people while being pushed to her limits, and she also tries to come to terms with her own role in these consequences. Saint Willow was an interesting foil to Aza, in terms of the differing approaches the two characters had to the dangers and consequences of magic.

In Caster, Aza reluctantly accepted that she would have to give up her own magic in order to accomplish what she wanted. Getting magic — and this time, not her own — back again provokes further exploration of her initial doubts, fears, and guilt.

What if I let Saint Willow keep pushing me until I’m out of room? [..] Who can I dare to become?

(p301)

If you enjoyed Caster, I hope you’ll consider picking up this sequel!

Recommendations for Elsie Chapman’s other books

Having read most of Elsie’s other books and short stories, I thought I’d discuss them briefly here in case you’re interested in reading more after Caster and Spell Starter (which you should!). Hungry Hearts and A Thousand Beginnings and Endings in particular meant a lot to me and I highly recommend checking them out, for her stories as well as the contributions by other authors.

Hungry Hearts, anthology co-edited with Caroline Tung Richmond:

  • An anthology which “explores the many meanings food can take on beyond mere nourishment”
  • The short stories in this are by different authors, but they are set in the same location of Hungry Heart Row and are interconnected — characters from one turn up in other stories! That is some seriously superhuman editing and coordination 😮 And there’s an adorable map at the front of the book!
  • I honestly enjoyed every single story in this anthology, but my favourites were: Rain (Sangu Mandanna), Kings and Queens (Elsie Chapman), The Slender One (Caroline Tung Richmond) and A Bountiful Film (S. K. Ali)

A Thousand Beginnings and Endings, anthology co-edited with Ellen Oh:

  • An anthology of East, South East, and South Asian mythology retellings by a variety of fantastic authors
  • Coincidentally, Elsie’s story Bullet, Butterfly happened to be the one based on a Chinese folk tale I was already familiar with and which meant a lot to me — the butterfly lovers — and it was a done really well in an intriguing setting!
  • Other stories in the anthology which I loved were Land of the Morning Calm by EC Myers and Eyes Like Candlelight by Julie Kagawa

All the Ways Home (middle grade contemporary)

  • Centres on twelve-year-old, Japanese-Canadian Kaede Hirano, who travels to Japan to be with his estranged half-brother and dad after his mother’s death. On this trip, he grapples with the meaning of ‘home’ and the school project he needs to put together on it
  • I appreciated how the book wasn’t afraid to dive into the darker emotions and vulnerabilities that affect kids at this age, and I really liked how it explored the relationship between two brothers
  • There was clearly a lot of love put into this book in terms of the music/band references and vivid setting in Tokyo
  • An incredibly heartwarming ending which I didn’t see coming but which was perfect for the characters

‘The Boy Is’, short story in the Color Outside the Lines anthology (edited by Sangu Mandanna)

  • The story starts with a Chinese teenager breaking up with her white boyfriend, and navigating family expectations
  • I didn’t see where the story was going to land right up to the very end, and it was done so well!
  • Really appreciated the exploration of issues like assimilation and stereotypes, and the narrator’s conflicts were portrayed in such a refreshing way

That’s all from me! Thank you for stopping by, and be sure to check out the rest of the tour! 

Have you read Caster/are you looking forward to Spell Starter? What’s a speculative fiction book you enjoyed by an Asian author?

About the Author

Elsie Chapman grew up in Prince George, Canada, and has a degree in English literature from the University of British Columbia. She is the author of the YA novels Dualed, Divided, Along the Indigo, and Caster as well as the middle-grade novel All the Ways Home, and the coeditor of A Thousand Beginnings and Endings and Hungry Hearts. She currently lives in Tokyo, Japan, with her family.

Author links:

What I’m Reading

Here’s a link to my recent ‘What I’m Reading’ piece on Meanjin’s blog, discussing some books I read last year with Chinese diaspora communities, reflecting on identity and the impact of seeing yourself in stories.

And if you haven’t already, be sure to pick up the books I discussed in it after!

Caster by Elsie Chapman

Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert

Stargazing by Jen Wang

#Pondathon Sign Up Post: Backlist TBR

Pondathon: The Quiet Pond's story-driven readathon. Image: Two swords with vines wrapped around it frame the words 'Pondathon', with three little forest sprites sitting on top. One forest sprite has a leaf on its head, the middle has twigs for horns, and the right has a mushroom on its head.

What is the Pondathon?

The Pondathon is a co-operative and story-driven readathon hosted and run by CW from The Quiet Pond. The aim of the Pondathon is to read books and collect points to protect the friends over at The Quiet Pond from the encroaching malevolent forces that threaten our friends in the forest.

Have fun participating in the Pondathon readathon by joining one of five teams, each with a unique way to collect points and signing up! You can also follow the story of the Pondathon as it unfolds, and participants can also complete ‘side quests’ during the readathon to collect extra points. The readathon takes place from January 24th 2020 to March 7th 2020. More information about the readathon can be found here.

Information about Joining the Pondathon

  1. To join the Pondathon, simply sign up anytime between January 18th 2020 to March 5th 2020.
  2. Choose a team, create your own animal character for the Pondathon and create a character card!
  3. Create a blog post, bookstagram post, booktube video, Twitter thread, or whatever medium you wish, with ‘#Pondathon’ in the title or your tweet. Share the character you have created and your character card!
  4. Link back to this post so that others can find this readathon and join in.

Share your updates on your blog/bookstagram/booktube and social media. You are more than welcome to tag @thequietpond or @artfromafriend on Twitter or Instagram in all your updates! We’d love to see all of the beautiful and awesome characters that you create!

My Pond Character


Art by CW @artfromafriend from The Quiet Pond. More details on character creation here.

Rui 瑞 means ‘auspicious’ in Chinese. I knew I had to pick the mouse/rat character for this year’s zodiac year!

My Pondathon TBR

I chose Team Gen as I thought it would give me a good opportunity to catch up on my backlist TBR. A couple such books are below, though I doubt I’ll be able to get to all of them in the readathon:


When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon
With a background that says 'love'

When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon

I was really interested in this book around the time it came out, but somehow never got around to it! Sandhya Menon’s story in Hungry Hearts was fantastic and it pushed me to finally pick it up. I love the idea of Dimple’s character — a girl who’s interested in technology — as well as the opposites attract aspect of the romance.


Along the Indigo by Elsie Chapman

I got about a quarter of the way through this book late last year before being pulled away by uni and having to return it to the library. This had such a dark and intriguing atmosphere and characters which I’m keen to return to. I’ve loved Elsie Chapman’s other works (Caster, A Thousand Beginnings and Endings, Hungry Hearts) and I’m excited to make my way through the rest of her books!


Certainty by Madeleine Thien

The book Do Not Say We Have Nothing by this author (multi-generational historical fiction about Chinese musicians during the Cultural Revolution + their descendants post Tiananmen Square) is one of my favourite books of all time, and I’ve had Certainty on my shelf for a while. Looking forward to immersing myself in this setting.


Queen of the Night by Leanne Hall

This is the sequel to This is Shyness, which I loved when I read it years ago, but I’ve unfortunately let it sit on my shelf for so long that I’ve forgotten almost everything from the first book D: Putting this here to keep myself accountable, as I really loved Leanne Hall’s writing and definitely want to catch up on all her books.

Are you joining in the #Pondathon? What are some backlist books on your TBR?

Animation: Recent Favourites in 2019

Changing things up from my usual discussions of books and writing today, as I’d like to share more about one of my other loves — animation! I’ve always found animated series/films more compelling than live-action ones, and their emotional impact on me is often deeper. There are many animated films which I’ve watched in the past and found unforgettable for how incredible and relatable they were — e.g. Whisper of the Heart (which I discussed and reflected on here) and When Marnie Was There (which I might write a separate post about!) from Studio Ghibli, and Big Fish and Begonia (from China and animated by Studio Mir in Korea).

So far this year, there have been a few new animations I’ve discovered which I really enjoyed and recommend, and have a few thoughts to share on them. Most of this is spoiler-free, and I’ve clearly marked and scrambled the text for the spoilers so you won’t see anything by accident. If you’ve already seen these and would like to read the spoilery thoughts, simply paste the scrambled text into ROT13 to decode. (or… decode it yourself if you feel so inclined, it’s a 13-step Caesar shift ;D)

Abominable

Collaboration between Dreamworks and Pearl Studio in China

I’d been looking forward to Abominable since the trailer came out, because it looked like exactly the kind of film I would’ve loved as a kid. The story starts in a city based on Shanghai, where a girl named Yi discovers a yeti and goes on an adventure throughout China to return him home to Mount Everest, with the help of her friends Jin and Peng.

Highlights:

  • It was nice to see Chinese kids and teens as protagonists, going on a fantasy adventure where for once a Western animation studio isn’t mining through a marginalised culture’s mythology for their story/it isn’t an Othering depiction like most of Disney’s films (topic for another time…). Most of the cast, and apparently the extra background voices, are Asian-American, which is a good step forward in terms of inclusiveness in the industry.
  • The background animation was absolutely breathtaking, and it’s really worth seeing in cinemas in order to experience that — I was in wide-eyed awe every time they reached a new location, or there was a wide/panning shot. Probably the best animation I’ve ever seen from Dreamworks.
  • On the whole, I really liked the main characters, and how realistic their personalities felt. Yi was very lovable, Peng was a good source of humour and Jin completely cracked me up because he reminds me of someone I know.
  • The violin sequences were also absolutely stunning, both in terms of the animation, which was very attentive to detail, and the music.

Mixed Feelings:

  • It really just felt like the whole film was very rushed. Many aspects were underdeveloped and should’ve been expanded on further, and I would’ve liked to get to know the characters better when there was so much potential in their personalities.
  • Much of the script felt like it really needed another revision, and the dialogue was weak at times. (spoiler warning) Sbe rknzcyr, jura Lv jnf qvfpbhentrq vg jnf erfbyirq zhpu gbb dhvpxyl, naq nyy fur arrqrq jnf bar fragrapr bs rapbhentrzrag gb or nyy evtug naq ernql gb tb ntnva. V jnf nyfb guebja bss ol gung yvar nobhg “bhe naprfgbef va gur fgnef” — jurer qvq gung pbzr sebz/jung jrer gurl ersreevat gb? V znl or jebat urer — Puvan’f irel qvirefr fb vg znl whfg or fbzrguvat V’z abg snzvyvne jvgu — ohg vg’f abg n Puvarfr oryvrs V xabj bs, fb vs gurl jrer tbvat gb vapyhqr fbzrguvat yvxr gung, vg fubhyq’ir orra orggre rkcnaqrq ba.
  • Whilst I loved the violin music, as I said above, the pop songs they included could’ve been better, and I wish there had been more effort put into that aspect of the film. Using Coldplay’s ‘Fix You’ in one scene was a bit jarring when it’s such a popular song… also, having read the behind-the-scenes info on Nerds of Colour that they did a Chinese version of the song, I wish they’d been willing to put that in the English-language version too. It shouldn’t matter that not everyone can understand it, and can be important to expose Western audiences to other cultures and languages in an organic way. (for those who might not know, in Crazy Rich Asians the song that plays near the end is a Chinese cover of ‘Yellow’ by Coldplay, which I didn’t even realise at first — I absolutely loved the Chinese lyrics, which were very different from the original)
Abominable trailer

She-Ra and the Princesses of Power

Netflix original series from Dreamworks

I have nothing but praise for this fantastic series which I whizzed through, and which messed around which my emotions so much (in a good way). Set on an imaginary planet, Etheria, it centres on a former child soldier from the evil Horde named Adora who defects and becomes the legendary hero She-Ra, fighting against them alongside several Princesses with magical powers.

Highlights:

  • The very organic queer representation and varieties of appearances in the character designs
  • The core of the show is the conflict between Adora, the ‘chosen one’ She-Ra and her former best friend, now enemy, Catra – a unique dynamic which never stops making me want to find out what’s next for them, and with flashbacks which showed the depth and complexity of their relationships
  • The darker aspects of the storyline which weren’t shied away from, and villains which were equally as compelling and fleshed out as the heroes (Spoiler warning) Pngen vf gur bar punenpgre jub’f orra oernxvat zl urneg bire naq bire, naq lrf rira nsgre Frnfba 3 V’z fgvyy ubcvat fur jvyy svaq fbzr xvaq bs erqrzcgvba be urnyvat.
  • The multiple twists and lore — the writers certainly have thought through what they’re doing
  • As with almost all TV series, the first season starts off with more of a focus on setup of a large cast of characters, but I genuinely found this enjoyable and it’s worth it when the plot charges ahead later on
She-Ra Season 1 Trailer

Weathering With You

Japanese animated film from Makoto Shinkai

A new film from Makoto Shinkai, most well-known as the director of Your Name (Kimi no Na wa). A sixteen-year-old boy named Hodaka runs away by himself to Tokyo, and encounters a girl named Hina who can make the weather become sunny through praying.

Highlights:

  • The animation and music were both amazing, but also synchronised really well — in certain scenes it genuinely made you feel like you were flying with the characters
  • The intricate details of how Tokyo was depicted in the art were great
  • Hodaka’s personality – it had a fun adorkable vibe
  • Hina was also compelling in terms of how she put her family first
  • The found-family relationships between the young characters interacting was a joy, and one of my favourite scenes in the film
  • Most of the humour, especially with the younger brother, were adorable and engaging
  • Star-crossed lovers stories! Yes I am weak for these.
  • (Spoiler warning) Gur pnzrbf sebz Zvgfhun naq Gnxv sebz Lbhe Anzr

Mixed feelings:

  • Some parts were a touch overly dramatic and contrived, (spoiler warning) r.t. gur tha naq gur jnl gur cbyvpr gevrq gb vagreebtngr Ubqnxn (vafgrnq bs pnyyvat uvf cneragf?!), jul rknpgyl qvq Uvan pubbfr gb fnpevsvpr urefrys onfrq ba na bssunaq pbzzrag ol Ubqnxn?

Disliked:

  • The humour based on objectifying women/the male-gaze. This is so frustratingly prevalent in anime
Weathering With You trailer

Modest Heroes

Netflix original from Studio Ponoc

Kanini & Kanino from 'Modest Heroes'

A series of three short films from Studio Ponoc, the creators of Mary and the Witch’s Flower, and which comprises of many people who previously worked at Studio Ghibli, titled: Kanini & Kanino, Life Ain’t Gonna Lose and Invisible.

Highlights:

  • Kanini & Kanino, directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (Arrietty, When Marnie Was There, and Mary and the Witch’s Flower) was by far my favourite — it centres on two tiny crab-hybrid (? see for yourself) siblings, who try to rescue their father after a current carries him away.
  • Its animation was really beautiful, reminding me slightly of Ponyo, but I could see the animators stepping up because it had a really fresh and unique look — blending photo-like realism, hand-drawn animation of the expressive characters, and CGI
  • Invisible directed by Akihiko Yamashita also had an intriguing premise — a man who no-one can see goes about his life, hoping deep down that someone will be able to see him during his encounters — and a completely different vibe to the other two stories, with its dark and melancholy mood. I liked it!
  • Netflix also has an additional look behind the scenes of Studio Ponoc and working on this film with producer Yoshiaki Nishimura, which is worth checking out 
Modest Heroes trailer

Have you seen any of these films/series? What are some of your favourite animations?

Review of The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

I’ve praised Stacey Lee’s books everywhere since her debut Under a Painted Sky in 2015, and I was really, really excited to dive into her latest novel, The Downstairs Girl, set in Atlanta in 1890. Below are some thoughts on aspects of the book that I loved.

The Downstairs Girl will be released on August 13th, 2019. Please note that quotes are taken from an uncorrected ARC and may not reflect the final text.

A big thank you to Shenwei for passing their copy on to me!

About The Downstairs Girl

By day, seventeen-year-old Jo Kuan works as a lady’s maid for the cruel daughter of one of the wealthiest men in Atlanta.

But by night, Jo moonlights as the pseudonymous author of a newspaper advice column for the genteel Southern lady, “Dear Miss Sweetie.” When her column becomes wildly popular, she uses the power of the pen to address some of society’s ills, but she’s not prepared for the backlash that follows when her column challenges fixed ideas about race and gender. While her opponents clamor to uncover the secret identity of Miss Sweetie, a mysterious letter sets Jo off on a search for her own past and the parents who abandoned her as a baby.

But when her efforts put her in the crosshairs of Atlanta’s most notorious criminal, Jo must decide whether she, a girl used to living in the shadows, is ready to step into the light.

What I loved about The Downstairs Girl:

Jo Kuan and the characters

One of my favourite aspects of the writing in Stacey Lee’s previous books was the distinctive, engaging and humorous voice of Chinese-American protagonists. This was fully showcased in The Downstairs Girl — Jo Kuan is perceptive about society, strongly opinionated, and offers a unique perspective of Atlanta, which is usually seen through a white lens. This shines not only in the narration, but in the engaging excerpts of her columns as ‘Miss Sweetie’.

Someone needs to blow the trumpets of change. Someone who has viewed society both from the top branch, and the bottom, from the inside of the tree, and from the outside. Someone like … me.

(p39)

Along with this, so much about Jo was simply  fascinating. She secretly lives in the basement of a print shop, and had a really unique upbringing: by her adoptive father, Old Gin; the string of Chinese ‘uncles’ who had previously lived with them; and through the conversations she overhears from the Bells, who own the print shop. 

Towards the later parts of the book, I felt for Jo on an even deeper level — as the story about her parents and past unravels, she’s faced with revelations which she had never expected. I admired her so much for the strength which she found, and needed in order to go on, when her understanding of herself and her world is completely shaken.

Several of the supporting characters also really won my heart — Jo’s adoptive father Old Gin, the wonderful Noemi, and Nathan Bell from the print shop. Each of them were well-rounded and had a unique relationship with Jo.

A voice against injustice

If I had to narrow it down to one word, I would say that The Downstairs Girl is a story concerned with injustice. Specifically, a large part of the plot is connected to progressive ideas regarding women, the suffragette movement, and the intersectionality of this with race, in the movement led by the suffragists. Through Miss Sweetie’s columns, and well-developed characters like Noemi, a Black woman who also works at the Paynes’ and becomes involved in the movement with Jo, the book raises the issue of exclusion and marginalisation.

“They’re not colored concerns, they’re human concerns, and women make up half the humans. If we all work together, we can make some real change.”

(p248)

Further injustices which Chinese-Americans in the South specifically faced during that time in history are also portrayed or hinted at. These historical aspects are always woven into the plot and Jo’s voice, so that it never feels excessive, but instead thought-provoking and deeply tied into the experiences of the characters.

Interwoven storylines and twists

One thing which was a surprise to me about The Downstairs Girl was the multiple storylines throughout the book, and how all of them tied together beautifully and unexpectedly at the end. This is probably a good thing to keep in mind before you read it — I’d started off thinking I would whizz through it in the way I’d done with Stacey Lee’s previous books, but soon found myself introduced to many more characters and plotlines than I’d expected.

However, in a series of twists which left me completely stunned, everything came together in the last part of the book — the advice columnist plotline, Jo’s experiences and relationships with people she works with or for at the Paynes’, the mysteries about Jo’s parents, her relationship with her adoptive father, the suffragette movement, and more.

When I immediately started rereading after finishing the book, I found so many clever hints and foreshadowing that I hadn’t paid enough attention to at first. So, I’d suggest being attentive to the details in The Downstairs Girl and reading through it slowly so you’re fully immersed in what’s going on — it’ll increase its emotional impact.

Final thoughts

Honestly, it was really difficult to write a spoiler-free review for this book because so much of what I loved about it were the aspects (vaguely described above) involving the revelations and the ending — something you really need to experience for yourself as a reader.

I’m really happy to see that The Downstairs Girl received so many well-deserved starred trade reviews, and it’s also the first of Stacey Lee’s books getting an Australian release! 😀 The author’s note in the ARC (not included in the final copy, though she posted it on Instagram here) and the book overall really shows how much of an inspiration Stacey Lee is to writers everywhere in her determination to challenge the erasure in the historical narratives which we usually have ingrained.

It’s not too late to enter the preorder/library request campaign for the book, which is open internationally (I’ve received my door handle, which looks lovely, and the images on it directly refer to aspects of the book). Be sure to pick this up in August!

Are you planning to read The Downstairs Girl? What are some other historical fiction books you’ve read and enjoyed?