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?

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An Action-Packed, Visually Stunning Tournament of Magic: CASTER by Elsie Chapman

Cover of CASTER by Elsie Chapman

So, everyone, it’s been … *checks* OVER TWO YEARS since I last posted a full book review here O_O and I may be a little rusty! But there’s so much I’m excited to talk about in my discussion of CASTER by Elsie Chapman. CASTER was one of those books which I’d been anticipating since the announcement, and it completely lived up to my expectations as well as to the huge potential within its premise.

Thank you so much to Elsie Chapman and to Scholastic for the review copy! CASTER will be out on September 3rd, 2019.

Please note: quotes in this review are taken from an uncorrected proof copy of the book and may not reflect the final text.

What’s CASTER about?

Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Fight Club in this action-packed fantasy about a secret, underground magic fighting tournament.

If the magic doesn’t kill her, the truth just might.

Aza Wu knows that real magic is dangerous and illegal. After all, casting killed her sister, Shire. Now Aza is responsible for the money to pay off Saint Willow, the gang leader who oversees her sector of Lotusland. If you want to operate a business there, you have to pay your tribute.

When Aza comes across a secret invitation, she decides she doesn’t have much else to lose. She quickly realizes that she’s entered herself into an underground casting tournament, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. Real magic, real consequences. As she competes, Aza fights for her life against some very strong and devious competitors.

When the facts about Shire’s death don’t add up, the police start to investigate. When the tributes to Saint Willow aren’t paid, the gang comes to collect. When Aza is caught sneaking around with fresh casting wounds, her parents are alarmed. As Aza’s dangerous web of lies continues to grow, she is caught between trying to find a way out and trapping herself permanently.

Here are some of the aspects of this book which I loved:

The magic system

I only have endless praise for the well-developed magic system in CASTER, which was introduced in an engaging way from the first chapter. So much hinged on this aspect of the book in order for the tournament plot and the action sequences to fulfil their potential, and it did not disappoint.

Having approached this from the writing side, I know how difficult creating a magic system and building a fantasy world are. I’m going to be vague here so you can experience the enjoyment of discovering the magic for yourself throughout the book, but CASTER’s magic system was impressive in so many ways:

  • It had a strong visual element, so that I could picture what was happening each time. These visual aspects became even more enjoyable and impressive during the actual tournament, in terms of the settings and action sequences.
  • There were clear rules and patterns, so that I could understand what Aza was doing whenever she cast magic. At the same time there was enough room left for discovery to keep up the sense of surprise and awe at its implementation, and new revelations.
  • The magic also had a strong sensual element, really allowing me to feel what Aza did each time she cast magic.
  • It had implications for the Earth, which has been threatened by the overuse of magic. This raised wider questions about destruction and exploitation which were a nice touch in terms of social commentary, though left open-ended.
  • It was unique! The pitch compares it to Avatar: The Last Airbender, a series which I adore, but I actually only saw a small resemblance between the two here. Having said that, I definitely agree that Avatar fans would enjoy CASTER’s magic system.
  • Most importantly, the magic came at a cost. This put definite limitations on what Aza could do, was crucial to the high stakes in the book, and forced her to think creatively.

I want to say dread fills me at the idea of having to cast, and it does. But there’s a sick anticipation, too, because casting full magic is what we do.

(p116)

All of this was such a delight to experience throughout the book.

A thrilling ride of a plot

CASTER’s storyline naturally involves some great action sequences. As explained above, the well-developed magic system really allows it to live up to its potential, and is used in exciting new ways in each fight. I particularly love the visual aspects of these sequences, which are surprising, engaging and contributed to a sense of the scope of the world of Lotusland. All the descriptions of the physical action and casting were also really well-written.

Nice idea, Sokka, but I think Aza might want a better strategy…

Additionally, there is a great sense of emotional urgency within these action sequences. The stakes and tension here rose and rose throughout the tournament, from the first fight when Aza is facing the dangers for the first time, to the disadvantages and sudden decisions she had to face in the second fight, the revelations in the third, and the extreme tension and anticipation in the climactic finale. As a result, all of the fights had unique features and were memorable.

Beyond the action, CASTER has fantastic tension, which is established and maintained from the first page, yet the book never feels like it is rushed. The twists and intrigue kept me turning the pages, and every time there was a flashback to Aza’s past and her memories of her sister, Shire, I was fully immersed and intrigued by the character and plot revelations.

The book is pitched in comparison to Fight Club, which I haven’t personally watched before. But the stakes within the tournament, uneasy alliances and fear reminded me of the first Hunger Games book and of Hong Kong martial arts dramas like the Ip Man films, so I really enjoyed this premise.

There was only one aspect of the plot which I thought could have been developed better: (spoiler warning! Highlight below)

The plotline with Cormac pushed my suspension of disbelief a bit too far, and its resolution — which we didn’t completely see — seemed rushed.

However, this was minor compared to how much I enjoyed the rest of the plot. I whizzed through CASTER really quickly, and it’s a good choice if you’re trying to pull yourself out of a reading slump like I was at the time.

Aza, her family, and community

Aza Wu (yay, Chinese protagonist!) was a well-constructed heroine who was easy to empathise with and an enjoyable perspective to experience the story through. She’s in a tight spot with her family and the gang leaders from the start of the book, forcing her to make difficult moral choices concerning revenge, the web of lies she becomes entangled in, and whether the ends justify the means, pushing her in ways that bring out a darker side within her.

Her identity as a caster and the choices she makes as a result of this — always crucial to a character arc, especially in YA — is also a source of conflict. This gave so much depth to her character.

Because that fine line between honor and dishonor — I can’t stop it from shifting.

(p226)

I also loved how unquestionably loyal Aza is to her family — a subtle reflection of East Asian cultural nuances — in her determination to save her family’s legacy, their teahouse. Along with this, some of the lighter moments between her and her parents really made me smile. Flashbacks further reveal that the relationship between her and Shire was also filled with protectiveness, affection and loyalty.

In the letter from the author which was included with the ARC, Elsie Chapman mentioned that Lotusland is based on Vancouver and its multiculturalism, and Aza’s sector on Richmond, a location with a majority Chinese-Canadian population. Having grown up in a similar Chinese-Australian-dominant suburb at a young age, it made me really happy to see this kind of setting woven into the book.

Final thoughts

Overall, CASTER was a fantastic ride of a book, and one I’d definitely recommend to anyone looking for a fast-paced read. I enjoyed Elsie Chapman’s story in A Thousand Beginnings and Endings as well, so I definitely hope to read more of her books in the future!

The story in CASTER is wrapped up by the end of the book, but there’s a scene at the end which does set it up for a new conflict and potential sequel. I certainly hope that we’ll get more of Aza and Lotusland in the future — there were a few characters I’d love to see more of, and there were larger overarching questions woven within the story which can’t be fully resolved within one book.

Recommendations for similar books

An underrated series I enjoyed in high school which has similarly high stakes and a well-developed magic system is the Healing Wars series by Janice Hardy (Book 1: The Shifter), where healing powers have clear limitations and dark sides. The protagonist has the power to shift pain from one person to another and when she is forced into a tight spot, faces many difficult choices.

I’ve yet to completely read Jade City by Fonda Lee (I know, I know!), an adult fantasy with an Asian-inspired setting, but from what I know of it, it’s also got great action-packed plot and magic that fans of CASTER would likely enjoy, and vice-versa.

What’s the last thriller/action-packed novel you read? Have you read any of Elsie Chapman’s other books?

General Updates & To-Read books by Asian authors

Happy Easter to those who celebrate/have public holidays! I’m excited to have some time to rest and to dive into books. This post includes some general updates on my reading and writing, as well as further books by Asian authors on my TBR which I’m hoping to get to at least sometime this year.

Reading

In my previous post I’d mentioned The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf, which is now out, and The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee, which is coming out later this year. As for The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling by Wai Chim, it now has a beautiful cover! I feel so lucky to have beta-read this and can’t wait for everyone to experience the story. Keep an eye on Wai Chim’s website for more details in the next few months!

The Beast Player by Nahoko Uehashi

A book I recently loved was The Beast Player by Nahoko Uehashi, which involves a girl caring for magical beasts and trying to understand nature. She comes to realise her actions have unpredictably dangerous consequences as she uncovers secrets in her people’s history, and is caught in a political conflict. The sequels haven’t been translated into English yet so I’m thinking of attempting to read them in Chinese… I’m also hoping to read the Moribito series by the same author, as I love stories involving spirit worlds.

Writing

I’ve been working on and off on a new fantasy manuscript, and I’m mainly still in the planning/worldbuilding stage at the moment. Even though I’ve written more historical/realistic fiction in recent years, some of the first few stories I loved and wrote were fantasy, and it’s been fun diving into it again now.

The key difference is that in those early stories I’d erased anything to do with my culture from it, whereas I’ve grown a lot since then. So it’s been fascinating looking into loosely Chinese-inspired elements and coming up with my own story.

The trailer of Big Fish and Begonia (大鱼海棠), a film from China animated by Studio Mir. I loved the worldbuilding and themes in it and it’s been on my mind as I’ve been working on my own writing.

To-Read Books by Asian Authors

If you haven’t yet come across it, check out the Year of Reading Asian Challenge that some great book bloggers are hosting, including my friend CW of The Quiet Pond. I’m not officially setting a goal but they’ve got some great prompts for those of you who are looking for inspiration. May is also coming up so Lit CelebrAsian is looking to also have something (probably more low-key this year) that you can participate in throughout the month — stay tuned 🙂 For now, I wanted to share some books by Asian authors I’d really like to read in the near future:

America is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo
  • America is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo – my friend and Lit CelebrAsian co-host, Glaiza, loved this book, and the author’s coming to Sydney Writers’ Festival this year! I love multigenerational historical fiction and explorations of migrant families (e.g. Pachinko and Do Not Say We Have Nothing) — this sounds like a book I’d adore
  • Jade City by Fonda Lee — I’ve started this and am intrigued, meant to read it for the Lit CelebrAsian readalong but unfortunately didn’t get far before then! I’m excited to finish reading it soon 😀
  • Descendant of the Crane by Joan He — basically the premise sounds really fascinating, and I’m always glad to see ownvoices Asian fantasy. The author’s Twitter threads about writing about Chinese culture and language in the Anglo publishing context have also provoked my interest to see how she to implement this in action.
  • The Day the Sun Died by Yan Lianke — I found the book Dream of Ding Village by the author fascinating when I read it last year, and I’m excited to look into more of his works!
  • Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee — the concept sounds fascinating and I’ve heard nothing but good things about this book!
  • Nausicaa graphic novels by Hayao Miyazaki — I loved the film and I think I read the first few volumes a long time ago, but have completely forgotten them and would love to finish.
  • The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo — I’d enjoyed The Ghost Bride by the author and this book has a fascinating premise. Chinese-Malaysian historical fiction — will definitely be a great read!
  • The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro — I love the thematic description of this book — about memory and forgetting — and am intrigued by the speculative aspect and setting. I really liked Nocturnes and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, so I’m sure this will offer plenty of interest to me as well.
  • No Country Woman by Zoya Patel — I’d seen a lot of the author’s articles and also interviews in the past, but haven’t actually read the book yet. The themes in No Country Woman sound really relatable and I’m excited to explore her perspective on identity, culture and race in Australia.

Not yet released:

Stargazing by Jen Wang
  • Stargazing by Jen Wang — The Prince and the Dressmaker is one of my favourite graphic novels to date, so I was always keen to see what Jen Wang would have out next. Any stories involving Chinese diaspora communities is so relatable and fascinating, and I’m excited to read a story focusing on friendship. And as always, the art in the previews look beautiful!
  • Caster by Elsie Chapman — the pitch compares it to Avatar the Last Airbender, so that’s a definite drawcard! Again, great to see ownvoices fantasy (the story is described as involving Chinese-inspired magic) and I really enjoyed Elsie Chapman’s story in A Thousand Beginnings and Endings
  • The Rise of Kyoshi by FC Yeecontinuing with the Avatar theme as above, this sounds like a great prequel about the Earth Kingdom Avatar. One issue I’ve always had mixed feelings about regarding the animated series is the lack of POC on their writing team — so I’m really, really pleased with FC Yee’s involvement here, considering how imaginative he was with the Chinese mythology in Genie Lo. (as a sidenote, I’m also looking forward to the next Korra comic trilogy with art by Michelle Wong and Killian Ng). This book will be illustrated too! *heart eyes*

What are some of your favourite fantasies, and books by Asian authors you’re looking forward to reading?

2018 Reading Recap and Anticipated 2019 Releases

I’m doing something a bit different in my recap this time round, because 1) the total number of books I finished this year (20) has been much lower than I read in past years, and 2) surprisingly, I recommend all of them in different ways, and it’s really difficult to pick 3 or 5 or 10 favourites.

I’ve listed all of the different books I read this year according to category below, and would love to hear your thoughts on any of them!

Historical Fiction

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Chinese-language Literature

Note that these are Chinese-language books which I read in their English translations. Not all of these are from mainland China — Notes of a Crocodile was written by a Taiwanese author, Oztale Sweet and Sour is from Australia, and Cantonese Love Stories is from Hong Kong 🙂

Mr Ma and Son by Lao She

Cat Country by Lao She

Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke

Cantonese Love Stories by Dung Kai-cheung

To Live by Yu Hua

Half a Lifelong Romance by Eileen Chang

Oz Tale Sweet and Sour by Leo Xi Rang Liu

Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin (currently finishing this up)

Young Adult fiction

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

The Bone Witch and The Heart Forger by Rin Chupeco

Between Us by Clare Atkins

American Panda by Gloria Chao

The Astonishing Colour of After by Emily X.R. Pan

Graphic Novels

Amulet 8: Supernova by Kazu Kibuishi

The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

Misc

Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

2019 Anticipated Releases

Looking forward, here are some of the books I’m most looking forward to being released in 2019:

The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling by Wai Chim (concept covers here!)

The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf

The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee


Stories Uncovered, Stories Untold

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Thank you to Verity La for publishing my creative nonfiction piece – ‘Stories Uncovered, Stories Untold’ – which you can read here. It’s fairly different from what I’m used to writing, but I’m glad I eventually got it to a point where I was happy with it. Let me know your thoughts if you decide to give it a read.

 

Literary Links & Inspirations

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Something I thought would be nice to do is to start sharing various links to articles, etc. I find inspiring around the Internet as a writer.

Liminal Mag

Liminal was an online magazine founded by Leah Jing McIntosh in late 2016 which publishes an interview with and photography of an Asian-Australian every Monday. I’ve loved the beautiful photos — this is especially important to me considering how rare it is to see Asian-Australians in the media — and reading through the profound questions and answers in their interviews.

So many people I admire or am friends with have been featured in it. Here are some of my favourite interviews to date, but be sure to check out everything on their website 🙂

Podcasts

I’ve got so many podcasts I’ve subscribed to that I should spend more time listening to! Author interviews are always so insightful, particularly in this ‘natural’ way where you hear more details and more of the emotion behind their answers than in a written interview.

  • Recently, I really enjoyed the interview 88 Cups of Tea did with Emily X. R. Pan, the author of The Astonishing Colour of After (a really powerful book). I found it really interesting listening to her insights on how she changed from studying + working in business to doing an MFA.
  • Diversity Arts Australia has a wonderful podcast, The Colour Cycle. They’ve interviewed writers like Benjamin Law and discussed thought-provoking topics like making space for refugee artists, art and identity politics, and making art in exile.
  • I’ve been meaning to go through the old podcasts from The Wheeler Centre

Pencilled In Launch

The launch of Issue 3 of Pencilled In is going to be at Wandering Cooks in Brisbane on the 24th of May and it sounds like it’s going to be incredible — if you can make it, you should definitely go! So looking forward to receiving my copy.

Writing Updates

Brief update on my writing and pieces that are forthcoming:
A short fiction piece inspired by Chinese folklore, which is appearing in Issue 3 of Pencilled In. You can pre-order it here.

A historical fiction piece in the anthology Meet Me at the Intersection. More details are in the media release here.

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So grateful to Yen-Rong and Rachel, and Bec and Ambelin, for their hard work in putting all of these together! I’m really excited to read the rest of the stories, and honoured to have my piece alongside them.