Book Recs: Mental Health Representation

Hi everyone! Today’s book recommendation list is for a topic close to my heart: mental health representation in fiction. Destigmatising discussions of mental health, and accurate representations of this in literature, is a topic that I’ve long been passionate about — having studied Psychology as a major during my Arts undergrad. I’ve particularly always wanted to see more intersectionality, considering the specific challenges that cultural issues can raise.

It’s incredible to me that there are now such a variety of books which offer such explorations, and I thought I’d share some of my favourites here today! This isn’t meant to be any kind of comprehensive post, and there are certain types of mental health issues that you may notice recurring more than others on this list; other books resonated with me because of the specific cultural or diasporic experiences depicted. I’m hoping to share more recommendations on this topic in the future! (And when you get to the end, I also have a bonus film recommendation)

When We Were Infinite by Kelly Loy Gilbert

About the Book:

All Beth wants is for her tight-knit circle of friends—Grace Nakamura, Brandon Lin, Sunny Chen, and Jason Tsou—to stay together. With her family splintered and her future a question mark, these friends are all she has—even if she sometimes wonders if she truly fits in with them. Besides, she’s certain she’ll never be able to tell Jason how she really feels about him, so friendship will have to be enough.

Then Beth witnesses a private act of violence in Jason’s home, and the whole group is shaken. Beth and her friends make a pact to do whatever it takes to protect Jason, no matter the sacrifice. But when even their fierce loyalty isn’t enough to stop Jason from making a life-altering choice, Beth must decide how far she’s willing to go for him—and how much of herself she’s willing to give up.

My thoughts:

  • It’s spoilery to spell out everything, but at the start the protagonist, Beth, appears to be struggling with depression and severe social anxiety; there are also depictions of panic attacks (additional content warnings appear at the front of the hard copy of the book)
  • What I found so powerful about this book is the unflinching way that it was willing to go to dark, raw places with the characters, and then leave the reader with a profoundly hopeful message of resilience and survival. That no matter what happens, it is still possible to find the strength to go on. And the growth that Beth underwent felt so well-earned after her struggles — the final chapter of this book will stay with me forever
  • This book is also a powerful exploration of friendship (I loved the entirely East Asian friendship group with their relatable experiences, and particularly Sunny) and found/chosen family, and the difference that this can make to Beth as someone who feels deeply alone and doesn’t have the kind of family support network she needs
  • It’s also fairly unique to see a character like Beth who is incredibly selfless and also makes various messy choices at times, while grappling with her underlying anger and self-worth, and it’s a story I really appreciated

Harley in the Sky by Akemi Dawn Bowman

About the Book:

Harley Milano has dreamed of being a trapeze artist for as long as she can remember. With parents who run a famous circus in Las Vegas, she spends almost every night in the big top watching their lead aerialist perform, wishing with all her soul that she could be up there herself one day.

After a huge fight with her parents, who continue to insist she go to school instead, Harley leaves home, betrays her family and joins the rival traveling circus Maison du Mystère. There, she is thrust into a world that is both brutal and beautiful, where she learns the value of hard work, passion and collaboration. But at the same time, Harley must come to terms with the truth of her family and her past—and reckon with the sacrifices she made and the people she hurt in order to follow her dreams.  

My thoughts:

  • The entire point of the representation in this book, which the author discussed here, is that the protagonist, Harley has undiagnosed mental health issues — something reflective of the experience of many teens, who do not have the privilege of getting full support that they need. (What we are told is that Harley had undergone periods of depression)
  • Harley made a lot of highly, highly flawed choices in betraying her family, but (although this doesn’t excuse what she did), those choices were, in a way, necessary for her to grow and undertake a journey of her own. It’s a very relevant topic to YA, and I found the way this book depicted it particularly refreshing (rival circuses! training and stardom!)
  • Harley also hurts her best friend and various other people, and there’s a poignant moment when she questions everything about herself and considers the ways she’s ruined her relationships with others. I loved the realistic messiness of this and, again, the growth she goes through
  • As with all of Akemi Dawn Bowman’s previous books, the protagonist is mixed-race, and there are some wonderful moments right from the start as she learns more about her extended family (through her Popo) and she reflects on the sometimes-incongruent parts that make up her identity

The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf

Melati Ahmad looks like your typical movie-going, Beatles-obsessed sixteen-year-old. Unlike most other sixteen-year-olds though, Mel also believes that she harbors a djinn inside her, one who threatens her with horrific images of her mother’s death unless she adheres to an elaborate ritual of counting and tapping to keep him satisfied.

But there are things that Melati can’t protect her mother from. On the evening of May 13th, 1969, racial tensions in  her home city of Kuala Lumpur boil over. The Chinese and Malays are at war, and Mel and her mother become separated by a city in flames.

With a 24-hour curfew in place and all lines of communication down, it will take the help of a Chinese boy named Vincent and all of the courage and grit in Melati’s arsenal to overcome the violence on the streets, her own prejudices, and her djinn’s surging power to make it back to the one person she can’t risk losing.

My thoughts:

  • Stories about lesser-known historical events outside of the US, and Western countries, are so, so needed — and this was an incredibly written story about the May 13th incident and Chinese and Malay riots, a key event in Malaysia’s history. (Whilst I don’t have any personal connection to this, I did learn a bit about it as background when I was studying global Chinese-language writers in a literature unit at university, so I really appreciated seeing those facts and detached reports of the incidents being brought to life so vividly in the book)
  • The protagonist, Melati, struggles with anxiety and specifically OCD — but being set in the 1960s when people didn’t have the same understanding of mental health that we do now, her perception is that a djinn has possessed her. The book involved a really thoughtful interweaving of historical attitudes, mental health representation, and religious beliefs
  • A resonant depiction of the dangers of racial division, as well as the kindness that people can show each other in overcoming this — I loved Vince and Aunt Bee and the bond that Melati forms with them
  • For those who aren’t aware, there’s a Webtoon adaptation that is complete and freely available online!

The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling by Wai Chim

Anna Chiu has her hands pretty full looking after her brother and sister and helping out at her dad’s restaurant, all while her mum stays in bed. Dad’s new delivery boy, Rory, is a welcome distraction and even though she knows that things aren’t right at home, she’s starting to feel like she could just be a normal teen.

But when Mum finally gets out of bed, things go from bad to worse. And as Mum’s condition worsens, Anna and her family question everything they understand about themselves and each other.

A nourishing tale about the crevices of culture, mental wellness and family.

  • I’m 100% incapable of being unbiased about this book, as I am friends with the author, read an early version and am in the acknowledgements, but yes it’s wonderful and I really recommend it! It explores some of the stigmas around mental illness through the eyes of a Chinese-Australian family. Specifically, the teenage daughter, Anna, struggles with her caretaker role, her responsibility over her siblings and how much she has to hide from the outside world, and starts off with a limited understanding of what her mother is going through
  • This book also doesn’t give a specific diagnosis to Anna’s mother, but there are depictions of psychosis and depressive episodes, as well as discussions around potential diagnoses
  • There’s also a subplot exploring Rory, the love interest, who has experienced depression, and there are poignant reflections on the impact this had on him as well
  • The food theme throughout the book was also really fun and thoughtfully written, and you’re going to want dumplings after reading!

Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert

Danny Cheng has always known his parents have secrets. But when he discovers a taped-up box in his father’s closet filled with old letters and a file on a powerful Silicon Valley family, he realizes there’s much more to his family’s past than he ever imagined.

Danny has been an artist for as long as he can remember and it seems his path is set, with a scholarship to RISD and his family’s blessing to pursue the career he’s always dreamed of. Still, contemplating a future without his best friend, Harry Wong, by his side makes Danny feel a panic he can barely put into words. Harry and Danny’s lives are deeply intertwined and as they approach the one-year anniversary of a tragedy that shook their friend group to its core, Danny can’t stop asking himself if Harry is truly in love with his girlfriend, Regina Chan.

When Danny digs deeper into his parents’ past, he uncovers a secret that disturbs the foundations of his family history and the carefully constructed facade his parents have maintained begins to crumble. With everything he loves in danger of being stripped away, Danny must face the ghosts of the past in order to build a future that belongs to him.

  • I already did a full review of this book here, so I’ll keep it short, but Picture Us in the Light made me feel seen in ways I really needed as a teenager
  • It’s also a spoiler to directly spell out the major past event in this book, but what I found unique about it was the way it explored the interaction between mental health issues and the dynamics in a very specific, high-pressure Asian-dominant diaspora community (reminiscent of the Chinese-dominant one I grew up in)
  • Aside from this, there are depictions of panic attacks and the impact of devastating choices and intergenerational trauma — all of which are very relevant to teenagers from Asian migrant families

Girls of Paper and Fire, Girls of Storm and Shadow by Natasha Ngan

Each year, eight beautiful girls are chosen as Paper Girls to serve the king. It’s the highest honor they could hope for…and the most cruel.

But this year, there’s a ninth girl. And instead of paper, she’s made of fire.

In this lush fantasy, Lei is a member of the Paper caste, the lowest and most oppressed class in Ikhara. She lives in a remote village with her father, where the decade-old trauma of watching her mother snatched by royal guards still haunts her. Now, the guards are back, and this time it’s Lei they’re after–the girl whose golden eyes have piqued the king’s interest.

Over weeks of training in the opulent but stifling palace, Lei and eight other girls learn the skills and charm that befit being a king’s consort. But Lei isn’t content to watch her fate consume her. Instead, she does the unthinkable–she falls in love. Her forbidden romance becomes enmeshed with an explosive plot that threatens the very foundation of Ikhara, and Lei, still the wide-eyed country girl at heart, must decide just how far she’s willing to go for justice and revenge.

  • I had to make sure to include fantasy book/series as well as contemporaries! Girls of Paper and Fire is probably my number one most admired book in terms of Asian-inspired fantasy worldbuilding, and it does so much more incredibly well too
  • A powerful depiction of the horrors of sexual violence, and specifically the second book depicts PTSD-like symptoms and the long-term impacts of trauma. Interwoven through all this is a message of resistance and hope.
  • I adored the romantic relationship between Lei and Wren, the touching moments of them falling in love in the first book, and how realistic tensions arise when more about Wren is unveiled in the sequel
  • The first book in particular also had some incredible supporting characters, and great build-up of tension
  • Looking forward to the conclusion of the trilogy, to be released in November!

The Memory of Light by Francisco X Stork

Vicky Cruz shouldn’t be alive.

That’s what she thinks, anyway—and why she tried to kill herself. But then she arrives at Lakeview Hospital, where she meets Mona, the live wire; Gabriel, the saint; E.M., always angry; and Dr. Desai, a quiet force. With stories and kindness, honesty and hard work, they push her to reconsider her life before Lakeview, and offer her an acceptance she’s never had.

Yet Vicky’s newfound peace is as fragile as the roses that grow around the hospital. And when a crisis forces the group to split up—sending her back to the life that drove her to suicide—Vicky must find her own courage and strength. She may not have any. She doesn’t know.

Inspired in part by the author’s own experience with depression, The Memory of Light is the rare young adult novel that focuses not on the events leading up to a suicide attempt, but the recovery from one—about living when life doesn’t seem worth it, and how we go on anyway.

  • Depicts grief, depression, and the struggles and non-linear trajectory of healing after surviving attempted suicide, as well as various additional mental health issues in the supporting characters
  • This book released back in 2016; I finally got around to it in 2019, and loved every word of its emapthy and honesty
  • I loved Dr Desai and the positive portrayal of therapy in this book — it’s beautiful and affirming, but also done with nuance
  • In contrast, the misunderstanding which Vicky faces in her family was heartbreaking, and it was an honest portrayal of how dangerous excessive pressures can be especially for young people

The Never-Tilting World by Rin Chupeco

A world split between day and night. Two sisters who must unite it. The author of The Bone Witch kicks off an epic YA fantasy duology perfect for fans of Furyborn.

Generations of twin goddesses have long ruled Aeon—until one sister’s betrayal split their world in two. A Great Abyss now divides two realms: one cloaked in eternal night, the other scorched beneath an ever-burning sun.

While one sister rules the frozen fortress of Aranth, her twin rules the sand-locked Golden City—each with a daughter by their side. Now those young goddesses must set out on separate, equally dangerous journeys in hopes of healing their broken world. No matter the sacrifice it demands.

Told from four interweaving perspectives, this sweeping duology packs elemental magic, star-crossed romance, and incredible landscapes into a spectacular fantasy adventure that’s equal parts Frozen and Mad Max: Fury Road.

  • One of the POV characters, Tianlan (‘Lan’), has PTSD. Her poignant struggles are revealed in flashbacks, and I loved the realism of this and her trajectory towards healing.
  • This book had a pretty fascinating premise and worldbuilding — both Aranth and the Golden City were so atmospheric — and it was interesting to see how the highly-relevant climate change commentary was woven into the fantasy world with mythological elements
  • The slow revelations of the lore and backstory caught me by surprise in the best way at times, and again, felt very unique
  • There are some great romantic elements and progressive build-up of this throughout the book, and I loved Odessa and Lan’s relationship

BONUS: Film recommendation for When Marnie Was There

  • This Studio Ghibli film is actually based on a 1950s book by Joan G. Robinson, which I’ve read and did enjoy as well, but I’d personally direct you to the film for the subtle ways it evoked emotions and its more streamlined adapation of the storyline
  • The 12-year-old protagonist, Anna, appears to be struggling with social anxiety and low self-esteem, and symptoms of depression; I appreciated how honest the story was about the dark emotions that children can face at that age
  • A wonderful portrayal of how friendship/platonic love, and connections with your family’s past, can be transformative and healing

Have you read any of these books? Do you have any other recommendations for books with mental health representation?

The Gaps by Leanne Hall: Abduction, Female Friendships, Art and Social Commentary

Thank you to Text Publishing for sending me an early copy of The Gaps! This has not affected my opinion of the book.

Hi everyone! It’s been ages since I’ve shared a recommendation of a book by an Australian author here, and I’m so happy to be rectifying that with this review of The Gaps by Chinese-Australian author Leanne Hall! This is a contemporary YA novel with psychological thriller elements, set in Melbourne, and reminded me how wonderful it was to read something that directly reminded me of my teen years and the world I’ve grown up and live in. The writing was so immersive and compelling in evoking the realism of a tense and frightening situation for the young women involved.

About the Book

When sixteen-year-old Yin Mitchell is abducted, the news reverberates through the whole Year Ten class at Balmoral Ladies College. As the hours tick by, the girls know the chance of Yin being found alive is becoming smaller and smaller.

Everyone is affected by Yin’s disappearance—even scholarship student Chloe, who usually stays out of Balmoral dramas, is drawn into the maelstrom. And when she begins to form an uneasy alliance with Natalia, the queen of Year Ten, things get even more complicated.

A tribute to friendship in all its guises, The Gaps is a moving examination of vulnerability and strength, safety and danger, and the particular uncertainties young women face in the world.

My thoughts:

The psychological thriller elements

The action kicks off right away in The Gaps — we learn on the first page that a high school student has been abducted, and the narrative follows the investigation and the impact this has on her classmates and the wider community.

What’s fascinating is how, as the story progresses, the question becomes less about who did it and what’s going to happen to Yin and more about how the girls and their wider networks respond to it — will they find Yin alive? Can any of them feel safe? How can they keep going with this hanging over their heads, not knowing? How can it be acceptable that this happens to people? These progressive shifts over the book were done so well — I really found myself in the same place as the characters in each step of their thinking. This premise was also a sobering reminder of how women, and especially women of colour, are treated by society.

If women hold up half the sky, then why are we so disposable?

Female friendships: changes and unexpected connections

The book is narrated from two points of view. Chloe is an observant outsider, who’s aware that the impact of Yin’s abduction on her classmates extends beyond how she personally feels, yet is nevertheless shaken by the events. Natalia is revealed to have been best friends with Yin when they were younger, and there are explorations of the regrets and longings which come up in the circumstances, and how she feels she should have acted differently.

I appreciated the depth and realism of how the book portrayed the ways people change over time, and how we all have regrets about the way certain friendships play out, as well as showing how people can form unexpected connections and learn from each other. The other classmates were also unique in their personality and responses, and I really admired the strength of the book’s characterisations.

Privilege: class, race and intersections

Chloe is biracial (Chinese-Singaporean and Anglo), describes herself as taking after her Asian mother in appearance, and is on a scholarship at a new private school, Balmoral. There are sharp observations on racism, and class privilege and inequality, woven throughout. In an early scene, Chloe hears certain white classmates comment on how there are “too many Asians”:

“We don’t mean you, Chloe,” says Ally in her baby-soft voice. […] “You’re not a real Asian, you know what I mean? You’re from here.”
Her eyes shoot over to the international students, as if I won’t get it. In her eyes I’m slightly more acceptable because I was born here and I don’t have an accent.

This kind of scenario was achingly familiar to me, from the way my classmates would talk about academically-focused selective school Asians (which was the kind of school community I went to primary school in) and international students (with whom I made closer friendships with than most domestic students, because of speaking Mandarin proficiently and not having been born in Australia myself). I really appreciated this portrayal of the specific kind of oblivious xenophobia that reinforces white supremacy in deeming who is ‘acceptable’ and isn’t (I mean, we all know from COVID how conditional this kind of ‘acceptance’ by white people is, isn’t it? *Weak laughter*). Although Chloe otherwise keeps under the radar, the fact she sees past this and calls this out very early on in the book was refreshing and really made me cheer for her.

Chloe maintains contact with her friends from her old school, yet is uneasy around them and hides aspects of her new, completely different world. She reflects on how her new environment has given her opportunities she doesn’t feel she can step back from, and also notes the sense of entitlement in those around her. All of this commentary on class, and inequality in education, was so thoughtful and necessary, and woven into the plot.

Visual art, photography, and its social implications

One storyline that took me a little by surprise was how the book explored the social implications of photography and art. Chloe’s visual art project is what pulls her and Natalia together, but this takes a deeper turn as she becomes invested in it and in expressing her views and feelings in light of Yin’s abduction.

Chloe has a sinking moment of noticing how people of colour are erased in the work of a photographer she admires, then meets another artist who inspires her. When she pours everything into her own project, she has to deal with others challenging and wanting to silence her, and debating how she will respond to it. I really appreciated the nuance in the resolution of this storyline.

“I remind myself that being a young woman who wants to take pictures of other young women and queer folk and people of colour is enough. Putting my own representation, my own images forward, that’s powerful in itself.”

— an artist, speaking to Chloe

Overall: I finished this book in one day, and would highly recommend it if you’re in the mood for something tense and in a realistic setting, with thoughtful commentary and observations about relationships between young women

About the Author

Leanne Hall is an award-winning Australian author for young adults and children. 

Her debut novel, This Is Shyness, was the winner of the Text Prize for Children’s and Young Adult Writing, and was followed by a sequel Queen of the Night. Her novel for younger readers, Iris and the Tiger, won The Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. 

Leanne started her career in the world of short stories and has had stories published in MeanjinAgeBest Australian Stories and the anthology Growing Up Asian In Australia. She hopes to publish a short story collection (one day!) 

She was an Asialink Artist in Residence at Peking University in 2013 and participated in Australian Writers Week in China in 2014. 

Sugar and Spite by Gail D. Villanueva: Rivalry, Love Potions and Magic

Thank you to Scholastic Press for providing me with the e-ARC via Edelweiss! This does not affect my opinion of the book. Please note that any quotes may not reflect the final text.

As my book rec post from last month might have indicated, I’ve been diving into middle grade more than usual in the past few months, and it’s been fun! Sugar and Spite was a lighthearted joy after my previous heavy read, and I really enjoyed the characters and unique plot.

About the Book

Jolina can’t take Claudine’s bullying any longer!

The taunts and teasing are too much. Though Jolina is still learning her grandfather’s arbularyo magic and isn’t supposed to use any on her own, she sneaks into his potions lab to get her revenge. There she creates a batch of gayuma, a powerful love potion.

And it works! The love potion conquers Claudine’s hateful nature. In fact, Claudine doesn’t just stop bullying Jolina—now she wants to be Jolina’s BFF, and does everything and anything Jolina asks.

But magic comes with a cost, and bad intentions beget bad returns. Controlling another person’s ability to love—or hate—will certainly have consequences. The magic demands payment, and it is about to come for Jolina in the form of a terrible storm…

Magic and reality mingle in this brilliant new middle-grade novel about true friendship that asks whether it’s ever okay to take away someone’s free will.

My thoughts:

The unique plot: a love potion for a mean girl/rival!

  • The story centres on the unique premise of the protagonist Jolina using a gayuma (love potion) on another girl, Claudine, when she can’t take the way Claudine’s been taunting her and making her feel like an outsider any longer
  • This kind of ‘love potion’ storyline would usuallly be a premise in a romance — I loved the twist on this by making it a friendship storyline instead!
  • Later in the story, Jolina has to deal with the consequences and costs of magic and how to undo her wrongs

The friendship storyline

  • Jolina and Claudine’s dynamic was interesting and explored with great depth — how they initially make assumptions and are jealous of each other, how socioeconomic privilege affects their dynamics (Jolina’s mother works for Claudine’s mother, Claudine spends money without thought in ways that makes Jolina uncomfortable when they are “friends”) and their different origins and life circumstances
  • Both of them were feeling lonely in different ways, and the story explores how people are kinder than they may appear below the surface, taking responsibility, and how to overcome conflicts and assumptions and to forgive others
  • The overarching question mark of the love potion controlling Claudine, and how it affects the future relationship between them, created great tension and was well-resolved

This is what love is all about. And friendship. Mom tells me that friendship is also a kind of love. […] This is the kind of genuine relationship Claudine deserves, I realize with a pang. Not the friendship I dragged her into — a friendship born out of anger and revenge.

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Vivid setting, food, and animals

  • The isle in the Philippines which the story is set on is fictional, but was evoked vividly from Jolina’s perspective as an outsider from Manila who is new there
  • There were some fun details throughout, such as a seafood market and the variety of Filipino foods mentioned, which really immersed me in the scenes
  • In addition to the socioeconomic differences mentioned above, there’s brief commentary on colourism and colonialism — I always appreciate it when there are realistic, harder topics incorporated into children’s stories in an age-appropriate way
  • The animals! Kidlat, Jolina’s dog, was adorable and loyal and played a great part in the story

Overall: This was such a unique and refreshing book — recommended for anyone who enjoys friendship stories, middle grade, and a touch of magic

About the Author

Gail D. Villanueva is a Filipino author born and based in the Philippines. She’s also a web designer and an entrepreneur. She loves pineapple pizza, seafood, and chocolate, but not in a single dish together (eww). Gail and her husband live in the outskirts of Manila with their dogs, ducks, turtles, cats, and one friendly but lonesome chicken. Her debut novel My Fate According to the Butterfly (Scholastic, 2019) was named a Best Book of the Year by Kirkus Reviews, an Amazon Best Book of the Month Editor’s Pick, and a NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People. Gail’s next book, Sugar And Spite, will be published by Scholastic on April 20, 2021. Learn more at http://www.gaildvillanueva.com.

Picture Us in the Light: Family Relationships, Friendships and Tragedy, Art and Healing

Hi everyone! I’ve recommended Picture Us in the Light to just about everyone I know since first reading it in 2019, and yet found it difficult to elaborate on the details of why I loved it — it’s a book which you really need to experience for yourself, without knowing too much beforehand. Still, after discussing it briefly alongside two other books in my piece for Meanjin’s What I’m Reading series last year, I really felt like I’d only scraped the surface of the book, and it’s motivated me to share more.

About the Book:

Danny Cheng has always known his parents have secrets. But when he discovers a taped-up box in his father’s closet filled with old letters and a file on a powerful Silicon Valley family, he realizes there’s much more to his family’s past than he ever imagined.

Danny has been an artist for as long as he can remember and it seems his path is set, with a scholarship to RISD and his family’s blessing to pursue the career he’s always dreamed of. Still, contemplating a future without his best friend, Harry Wong, by his side makes Danny feel a panic he can barely put into words. Harry and Danny’s lives are deeply intertwined and as they approach the one-year anniversary of a tragedy that shook their friend group to its core, Danny can’t stop asking himself if Harry is truly in love with his girlfriend, Regina Chan.

When Danny digs deeper into his parents’ past, he uncovers a secret that disturbs the foundations of his family history and the carefully constructed facade his parents have maintained begins to crumble. With everything he loves in danger of being stripped away, Danny must face the ghosts of the past in order to build a future that belongs to him.

There are basically two key plot lines in this book: Danny unravelling his family’s secrets and the impact this has on him and his parents, and the relationships between him and his friends as they grapple with an incident a year ago, and other changing dynamics. Throughout the book, we come to understand the characters intimately as past actions and tragedies come to light.

Danny and his family

This book has one of the most resonant, but also heartbreaking, depictions of parent-child relationships I’ve ever come across. Danny’s parents have so much overwhelming love for their son — something the book demonstrates in touching ways which felt so real with their subtle detail and familiarity. When he gets accepted to RISD at the beginning, his parents are elated and were confident all along that he would have been accepted; in a quiet family dinner scene that follows, Danny notices that there’s something that they seem to want to tell him about but they hold back, wanting to focus on celebrating him and their happiness.

Their love is something which Danny is completely sure of, yet they are also overprotective of him. Later in the story, he becomes resentful with confusion and frustration at their increasingly unexplained actions.

Having an overprotective family without fully knowing the reason for your parents’ attitudes was something I could really relate to. How can you argue against their fears, even when it’s holding you back and makes you feel different from your peers, when you know it’s all driven by love? How do you argue against their overwhelming need to ensure your safety? We see this love and protectiveness over and over again in how much Danny’s parents are willing to sacrifice for him.

They exchange that look that means they’re weighing something I’ve asked for against all the threats of the world — a cell network glitch that means they can’t reach me if they need to, a blind curve up in the hills by Harry’s house.[…]

I’ve long since stopped trying to argue or to promise that nothing will ever happen, even when I’m going to be just a few minutes away.

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I’ve never really pinpointed one exact reason for my own parents’ overprotectiveness — it’s probably a combination of circumstances arising from migrating at a young age and leaving a lot behind. In the case of Danny’s parents, there are specific, tragic experiences which have shaped how careful they are. At the start, we learn that he had an older sister who died in China, and there have been evident impacts on both his parents. But there’s more to it than that which they are keeping from him.

As the massive secrets Danny’s parents have kept from him are revealed, we can’t help but think about what a difference it might have made to their circumstances if they’d told him more, even when Danny makes his own flawed decisions which hurt them. But we also understand why they had held back — their son was the centre of their world, and they didn’t want him to have anything but a hopeful and a positive outlook. Many immigrant parents make numerous sacrifices for their children, and this story made it so personal in this family’s specific choices.

I should’ve recognised sooner how intimately they understand guilt and how it’s shaped them and shaped me, too, both the choices they’ve had to make and the stories they tell themselves.

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High School experiences, friendships and tragedy

For more discussions on this aspect of the book and how I could personally identify with the Cupertino community, see my Meanjin piece. In general, I loved seeing so many Asian-American characters in the school and story in a normalised way — with all their last names on the page, the mentions of things like tutoring and the impact of their parents’ expectations, referring to tests and how their lives are driven by academics. It really felt like being back in the Chinese-dominant school and suburb I lived in when I was younger.

Fun fact: after seeing my friend CW (the Quiet Pond) initially recommend this book and searching it up, I found this interview with the author. Her answers, specifically to the question about intersectionality, were ones that I understood so intimately that I went online and ordered the book right away. (I’d never done that before with barely knowing anything about the book and have never done it since, but it really felt like this book had been waiting for me, and I had been waiting for it)

Danny frequently reflects on the past and how he grew up in this tight community, with all the experiences from their primary school and younger years which have shaped and lingered with him, and I enjoyed this shifting narrative, weaving past and present.

I also admired the complexity of friendships and relationships which were depicted. A subplot of the book is Danny falling in love with his best friend Harry, and his conflicted feelings towards Harry’s relationship with his girlfriend Regina. Because Danny cares so much about Regina, her happiness, and what she thinks as well — he describes her friendship as “the most important one I had growing up, the person who always knew me best and whose opinion I always needed” (p40). There are such nuances in how each of them feel about each other.

Finally, it’s always wonderful to see queer Asian rep: in this case, not only through the m/m romance, but also because it’s implied that Danny is demi.

Art, life, and healing

Danny is an artist, and this shapes the way that he sees things, and how he connects with people. I’ve heard multiple other readers say that this book felt healing in spite of its heavier moments. This rings true to me, and I think that Danny’s artist perspective is crucial to this: it shapes the way we see life through his eyes, and see him and the other characters as we come to understand them.

Art doesn’t change the ending. It doesn’t let you lose yourself that way — the opposite, really; it calls you from the darkness, into the glaring, unforgiving light. But at least — this is why it will always feel like a calling to me — it lets you not be so alone.

-p224

As evident from the above quotes, I adored the writing in this book — it genuinely felt like a teen’s voice whilst also being reflective and insightful in ways I’d truly never come across up until that point. Picture Us in the Light really helped me to see expanded possibilities of what books could achieve, and I’d point to it as compulsory reading for anyone who wants their work to be meaningful and empathic.

Overall, I mean it when I say that if you take only one recommendation from my blog, please make it Picture Us in the Light. My only additional note is that Kelly Loy Gilbert has a new book, When We Were Infinite, coming out in March 2021, which I’m sure I’ll love just as much.

About the author

Kelly Loy Gilbert believes deeply in the power of stories to illuminate a shared humanity and give voice to complex, broken people. She is the author of Conviction, a William C. Morris Award finalist, and Picture Us in the Light, and lives in the SF Bay Area.

Twitter: @KellyLoyGilbert

Website: KellyLoyGilbert.com

Middle Grade Book Recs: Amina’s Song, Front Desk, Amal Unbound and A Thousand Questions

Hi everyone! I’ve recently been reading a lot more middle grade books than usual. I thought I’d share a few of my recent reads and recommendations together, and these were all wonderful, wholesome and inspiring reads for people of all ages.

Amina’s Song by Hena Khan

(Releases March 2021) Thank you to Simon & Schuster/Netgalley for the e-ARC!

About the Book:

It’s the last few days of her vacation in Pakistan, and Amina has loved every minute of it. The food, the shops, the time she’s spent with her family—all of it holds a special place in Amina’s heart. Now that the school year is starting again, she’s sad to leave, but also excited to share the wonders of Pakistan with her friends back in Greendale.

After she’s home, though, her friends don’t seem overly interested in her trip. And when she decides to do a presentation on Pakistani hero Malala Yousafzai, her classmates focus on the worst parts of the story. How can Amina share the beauty of Pakistan when no one wants to listen?

Highlights

  • This was a wonderful story filled with relatable diaspora experiences of grappling with your heritage and how it affects your identity — despite being from a different cultural background myself, I could really identify with how strongly Amina was affected by her experiences in Pakistan, and how it lingered with her when she went back to America
  • I liked some of the small moments of challenging people’s assumptions throughout the story — Zohra, Amina’s cousin, explains how she’d prefer to live in Pakistan near her family and help her family there rather than live somewhere like America where they’d be discriminated against; how people in the US and the West may know little about the accomplished and inspiring people from the Global South
  • In the first book, Amina’s Voice, Amina’s friendship with Soojin and Emily go through strained moments — seing them so happy together here was a delight
  • I can see this being a really inspiring book for its target audience of readers, encouraging them to think beyond themselves in terms of their community. I loved the emphasis on Amina’s passion for music and how she uses this to uplift and help others.

Back then, I thought about America as mine and Pakistan as hers. Now I think of them both as part of me, and I am proud of that, even if it is complicated.

Amina’s Song, p275

(Please note that the above quote is from an e-ARC and may not reflect the final text)

Front Desk by Kelly Yang

About the Book:

Mia Tang has a lot of secrets.

Number 1: She lives in a motel, not a big house. Every day, while her immigrant parents clean the rooms, ten-year-old Mia manages the front desk of the Calivista Motel and tends to its guests.

Number 2: Her parents hide immigrants. And if the mean motel owner, Mr. Yao, finds out they’ve been letting them stay in the empty rooms for free, the Tangs will be doomed.

Number 3: She wants to be a writer. But how can she when her mom thinks she should stick to math because English is not her first language?

It will take all of Mia’s courage, kindness, and hard work to get through this year. Will she be able to hold on to her job, help the immigrants and guests, escape Mr. Yao, and go for her dreams?

Highlights

  • I adored and could really relate to this story, as someone who migrated to Australia as a child. There were some details about China and Chinese immigrant families that I appreciated seeing — Mia’s mother being reluctant about her passion for English and writing because she knew she couldn’t help her (unlike with maths), her cousins in China being like her siblings because of the one-child policy
  • Seeing Mia develop her writing skills throughout the book, and using it to help others, was so heartwarming
  • The ending was wonderful — it felt so well-earned with the challenges leading up to it and not going for an easy solution, yet was also inspiring with seeing the community come together
  • I loved the sweet friendships in this story, especially between Mia and Lupe, and Mia and Hank

Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

About the Book:

The compelling story of a girl’s fight to regain her life and dreams after being forced into indentured servitude.

Life is quiet and ordinary in Amal’s Pakistani village, but she had no complaints, and besides, she’s busy pursuing her dream of becoming a teacher one day. Her dreams are temporarily dashed when–as the eldest daughter–she must stay home from school to take care of her siblings. Amal is upset, but she doesn’t lose hope and finds ways to continue learning. Then the unimaginable happens–after an accidental run-in with the son of her village’s corrupt landlord, Amal must work as his family’s servant to pay off her own family’s debt.

Life at the opulent Khan estate is full of heartbreak and struggle for Amal–especially when she inadvertently makes an enemy of a girl named Nabila. Most troubling, though, is Amal’s growing awareness of the Khans’ nefarious dealings. When it becomes clear just how far they will go to protect their interests, Amal realizes she will have to find a way to work with others if they are ever to exact change in a cruel status quo, and if Amal is ever to achieve her dreams

Highlights

  • Amal was truly an inspiring character with her courage and aspirations, and wonderfully developed with the range of emotional responses she had to her heartbreaking circumstances
  • I loved the dynamics within her family, with the joy and close relationship she has with her younger siblings, but also the burdens on Amal as the oldest daughter and the sense of unfairness this brings up
  • The story touched on some tough themes — sexism and indentured servitude — while being age-appropriate for a middle grade audience and ultimately hopeful. That’s such a difficult thing to accomplish and Aisha Saeed has all my respect for doing so (I’m aware she said during the 88 Cups of Tea podcast that the book took 7 years to write)

A Thousand Questions by Saadia Faruqi

About the Book:

Set against the backdrop of Karachi, Pakistan, Saadia Faruqi’s tender and honest middle grade novel tells the story of two girls navigating a summer of change and family upheaval with kind hearts, big dreams, and all the right questions.

Mimi is not thrilled to be spending her summer in Karachi, Pakistan, with grandparents she’s never met. Secretly, she wishes to find her long-absent father, and plans to write to him in her beautiful new journal.

The cook’s daughter, Sakina, still hasn’t told her parents that she’ll be accepted to school only if she can improve her English test score—but then, how could her family possibly afford to lose the money she earns working with her Abba in a rich family’s kitchen?

Although the girls seem totally incompatible at first, as the summer goes on, Sakina and Mimi realize that they have plenty in common—and that they each need the other to get what they want most. 

Highlights

  • I absolutely adore friendship stories. The unlikely friendship between Mimi and Sakina, who are from very different worlds but come to understand each other, the way they keep supporting and caring about one another — was absolutely wonderful. The story was so empathetic in terms of diaspora identity and class privilege.
  • There was a lot packed into the plot whilst feeling organic — Sakina’s desire to improve her English and get an education in spite of being a servant, the girls’ respective family struggles, and the background of an election in Pakistan
  • Following on from the above, the family issues each girl faces (Sakina needing help for her father’s health issues, Mimi being estranged from her father and wanting to reconnect with him despite her mother’s resistance) were developed in a wonderful way

Overall, I highly recommend picking all of these books up! Some of the commonalities between these books — reflecting middle grade as a whole — are how empathetic they were, their emphasis on friendships, and their powerful and immersive voices (all of the above books were in first person). They were all willing to depict harder themes about how difficult the real world is, but in gentle ways.

How many of the books above have you read? What other middle grade books do you recommend?

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.