Asian American Literature Fans – Megareview for May 3, 2017
It’s Asian Pacific American Month! Last year, I attempted a review writing challenge that nearly broke me. But I’m going to try again. I’ve been a little smarter about it this time, because I banked some of the reviews already (but not all). In any case, as per usual, I’m hoping to be matched in my challenge by a total of 31 comments (from unique users) by May 31st. We didn’t quite reach that goal last year, but maybe we can this year. An original post by a user will count as “five comments,” so that’s a quick way to get those numbers up.
Challenge tally: me = 12 reviews; “you” = 5 comments (thanks Kai Cheang for his post)
AALF uses “maximal ideological inclusiveness” to define Asian American literature. Thus, we review any writers working in the English language of Asian descent. We also review titles related to Asian American contexts without regard to authorial descent. We also consider titles in translation pending their relationship to America, broadly defined. Our point is precisely to cast the widest net possible.
With apologies as always for any typographical, grammatical, or factual errors. My intent in these reviews is to illuminate the wide-ranging and expansive terrain of Asian American and Asian Anglophone literatures. Please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with any concerns you may have.
In this post, reviews of Viet Dinh’s After Disasters (Little A, 2016); Tiffany Tsao’s The Oddfits (AmazonCrossing, 2016); Evelyn Skye’s The Crown’s Game (HarperCollins, 2016); Amy Zhang’s This is Where the World Ends (Greenwillow Books, 2016); Kendare Blake’s Three Dark Crowns (HarperTeen, 2016); Linda Sue Park’s Cavern of Secrets (HarperCollins, 2017).
A Review of Viet Dinh’s After Disasters (Little A, 2016).
Viet Dinh’s debut After Disasters is yet another work coming out of Amazon’s publishing sector. Again, I’ve been consistently impressed by the production level qualities and the writing in general. Despite my ambivalent feelings about the company’s tactics overall in terms of publishing monopolies and pricing issues, their publishing imprints might be proving to be beneficial in one way: allowing new releases in book publishing. These days I often like to joke that my discipline is going the way of the dinosaur, so any entity that does put out more books rather than less seems to exist in the plus-side column. But I digress: the review here is for Viet Dinh’s After Disasters (Little A, 2016), which focuses on a set of individuals connected to and dealing with a catastrophic earthquake in India. Here is B&N with a pithy description for us: “Beautifully and hauntingly written, After Disasters is told through the eyes of four people in the wake of a life-shattering earthquake in India. An intricate story of love and loss weaves together the emotional and intimate narratives of Ted, a pharmaceutical salesman turned member of the Disaster Assistance Response Team; his colleague Piotr, who still carries with him the scars of the Bosnia conflict; Andy, a young firefighter eager to prove his worth; and Dev, a doctor on the ground racing against time and dwindling resources. Through time and place, hope and tragedy, love and lust, these four men put their lives at risk in a country where danger lurks everywhere. O. Henry Prize–winning author Viet Dinh takes us on a moving and evocative journey through an India set with smoky funeral pyres, winding rivers that hold prayers and the deceased, and the rubble of Gujarat, a crumbling place wavering between life and death. As the four men fight to impose order on an increasingly chaotic city, where looting and threats of violence become more severe, they realize the first lives they save might be their own.” What’s interesting about this description is that it fails to mention the sexualities of three of main characters: Ted, Dev, and Andy are all queer, at least in some sense of the word and engage in same-sex relationships in one form or another. I add this additional element because the disaster relief narrative, while obviously the central aspect of the novel, is also scaffolded by the fact that Ted and Dev once knew each other in a previous circumstance. Ted was once employed as part of a marketing team for an AIDS/ HIV pharmaceutical company; he meets Dev while at a conference, where they strike up a transitory relationship. Dev is married you see, and, to complicate matters further, when Dev discovers that Ted’s company has made it impossible to sell an AIDS/ HIV drug at a cheap price in India, Dev takes his ire out on Ted, leaving that relationship not surprisingly in shambles. Fast forward about a decade and the earthquake occurs. Ted’s in a new job as part of DART, a disaster assistance relief team, which brings him together with others, including the aforementioned Andy. Once in India, Ted’s world collides again with Dev’s, but the circumstances are of course much different, and they must set aside their past in order to deal with the gruesome, yet crucial work of disease relief and medical assistance. Dinh skillfully juxtaposes broken relationships with a catastrophic event, showing us how one issue is not divorced from the other. Such a comparative approach might have led to a profane mode of narration, but Dinh avoids allowing the romantic tensions to obscure all else precisely because the peril in their work is to confront death in all of its unexpected and graphic forms. One of the most difficult sequences becomes the moment that Andy and part of his firefighting team are forced to leave behind a dog that has been trapped in the rubble because this life is deemed expendable. They cannot put the time and effort in for this particular entity, when they can choose to put their time and energy somewhere else. Such difficult choices are the groundwork of this novel, so when a small mercy appears, however ephemeral we can expect it to be, at the conclusion: you’re relieved that there can be a lifeboat amongst so much rupture. Another novel that I thought I would start reading at 11 a.m. and just stop an hour later. Entirely wrong. Sleep time = 2:40 a.m. You are forewarned.
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(does anyone see the slight irony in the posting link here?)
A Review of Tiffany Tsao’s The Oddfits (AmazonCrossing, 2016).
Tiffany Tsao’s young adult debut novel The Oddfits comes out of its ever-growing original publications sector. The premise is as strange as the title suggests: a young European boy, with blonde hair and blue eyes, is raised in Singapore. He’s not surprisingly marked as an outsider, but for reasons that extend beyond his racial difference. The opening of the novel is made more mysterious, as it focuses on a man who disappears for decades, only to return to Singapore as abruptly as he originally left. This man ends up opening an ice cream shop, which does very well. It is there that he strikes up a friendship with the young boy, who we discover is named Murgatroyd Floyd. With a name like that, you can expect that he is going to suffer further humiliation (and as we discover, his parents indeed intended this nominal ostracization to be the case). On one particular day, the man ends up taking Murgatroyd into the ice cream shop’s freezer, which apparently is magical because it extends far and wide and holds far more ice cream flavors than the man actually sells. But this sense of wonder is shortlived, because the old man will end up dying not too long after this event. Further still, readers are left wondering about why the old man found his young boy to be so important and why the young boy needed to be recruited for something called “the quest.” What is this quest, we wonder? The novel then fast-forwards into the future: Murgatroyd has survived in Singapore, though his life is far from ideal. He is christened with a Chinese-sounding name, Schwet Foo, and works as a waiter at a local restaurant under a tyrannical employer. He has managed to make one best friend. Amid this milieu, another strange visitor emerges named Ann, who, as we discover, comes from the same realm that the ice cream shop owner did. Then, there is this question of “the quest” again, but what is the quest and why is Murgatroyd so perfect for this particular venture? I won’t spoil much more of this plot, because it’s original enough for me to encourage you to read it. Tsao does wonderful work with dynamic world-building here, though sometimes she is a little bit TOO successful at marking Murgatroyd’s social difference. Indeed, it becomes well apparent that there are many people who actively dislike him, so much so that the various ways in which Murgatroyd is made to feel an Other becomes frustrating. Exacerbating matters is the fact that Murgatroyd still feels an incredible sense of responsibility to these various individuals, who seem to make his life more difficult than he is willing to realize. Nevertheless, Tsao eventually gets us to where we need to go, all the while leaving us with a conclusion that sets up a very open-ended sequel to take place. Indeed, by the last pages, we’re still wondering about how Murgatroyd’s quest will actually unfold, though not necessarily disappointed that we don’t have much more information about all the new places he may be exploring. On a different level entirely, Tsao does some intriguing work in terms of Singaporean depictions: there are key moments which are very much invested in the contemporary social contexts of this city/ nation-state, so I continue to see how writers are twining together the political with generic (by which I mean genre). Of the recent spate of Singaporean texts I’ve been engaging in my distance reading group, this one was certainly the most surprising! Definitely looking forward to the sequel, which already has a listing on goodreads.
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(I disagree with the lone 3 star rating I saw as I linked it).
A Review of Evelyn Skye’s The Crown’s Game (HarperCollins, 2016).
So, I read Evenly Skye’s debut young adult fiction (in the paranormal romance subgenre) right after Tiffany Tsao’s The Oddfits; I completed reading both of these in the same night, so I guess I was in a young adult binge reading mode. We’ll let B&N provide some background for us, as per usual: “Vika Andreyev can summon the snow and turn ash into gold. Nikolai Karimov can see through walls and conjure bridges out of thin air. They are enchanters—the only two in Russia—and with the Ottoman Empire and the Kazakhs threatening, the tsar needs a powerful enchanter by his side. And so he initiates the Crown’s Game, a duel of magical skill. The victor becomes the Imperial Enchanter and the tsar’s most respected adviser. The defeated is sentenced to death. Raised on tiny Ovchinin Island her whole life, Vika is eager for the chance to show off her talent in the grand capital of Saint Petersburg. But can she kill another enchanter—even when his magic calls to her like nothing else ever has? For Nikolai, an orphan, the Crown’s Game is the chance of a lifetime. But his deadly opponent is a force to be reckoned with—beautiful, whip-smart, imaginative—and he can’t stop thinking about her. And when Pasha, Nikolai’s best friend and heir to the throne, also starts to fall for the mysterious enchantress, Nikolai must defeat the girl they both love . . . or be killed himself. As long-buried secrets emerge, threatening the future of the empire, it becomes dangerously clear—the Crown’s Game is not one to lose.” Fortunately, I did NOT read any of these plotting details before I started because it would have put me in a foul mood. As soon as I discovered that there was a game involved, I kept thinking about Katniss Everdeen and things like the quarter quell. Certainly, Skye’s premise is not exactly the same, but a duel to the death involving a paranormal fictional world was a little bit too close for my comfort. Nevertheless, Skye’s fictional world was immersive on the level of her commitment to this premise, and she creates a number of perfect romance triangles, including the central three figures in the editorial description. There were times when I had to roll my eyes because of the inevitable moments in which characters were seen to be fawning in desire over each other, even as they were apparently trying to kill each other, but you sort of have to go with it anytime you’re going to go with the the paranormal romance. The game does have some rules: each enchanter has about five turns to impress the tsar, but complications immediately arise because there’s a side plot involving Nikolai’s mother: she somehow has returned from the dead, and seems to be intent on killing the tsar in order to enact some sort of revenge (the likes of which we’re not sure). What was most compelling to me in terms of this particular fictional world was the research that had to go into it: Skye was evidently a fan of 19th century Russia and used as historical figures as the guides for the main royal family, but deviated with some details (such as the names and genders of particular characters). Additionally, it is clear that Skye is at least attempting to some sort of alternative history, so that the contemporary historical trajectory of Russia has little or not bearing on how we understand the plot. Issues of race (both figuratively and metaphorically speaking) are not entirely evacuated in this fictional world, as both Nikolai and Vika have complicated ancestries. Nikolai is at least part Kazakh, while Vika may be the daughter of a nymph, though we’re unsure. Thus, these markers of social difference are of course important to their class trajectory as well. Both Nikolai and Vika are considered to be commoners, far outside the lineage of the royalty that are the most powerful. Certainly, the success of Skye’s work is reliant upon the chemistry of the two lead characters: we want them to find a way to survive the crown’s game together and perhaps even have their happily ever after. In this way, the novel generates its momentum, and the conclusion sets us up for a wide-open plot, especially because Skye wraps up the most primary plot points in this work, something that I highly appreciated.
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A Review of Amy Zhang’s This is Where the World Ends (Greenwillow Books, 2016).
Amy Zhang’s follow-up to her young adult debut (Falling into Place) is This is Where the World Ends (Greenwillow Books, 2016). The premise is simple enough: there are two protagonists, who are essentially given alternating first person narratives. There’s Micah, who presents us with the “after” period of the story, in which a bonfire has occurred, but with devastating results. There’s Janie, who presents us with the “before” period of the story, in which she establishes Micah and Janie’s unique friendship, and why these two are so closely bonded. The “after” period is perhaps the most critical, because it sets up a central mystery: what happened with the bonfire and where in the world is Janie? Is she actually in Nepal or is Micah being presented another version of the events because he has endured a significant head trauma with selective retrograde amnesia? Early on, Zhang’s writing style grated on me, partly because I’ve been in revision mode for a number of my own scholarly publications. I immediately noticed commas missing and repetitively passive sentence structures. These issues stood out for me because Zhang tries sometimes a little bit too hard to be poetic in her style. Nevertheless, Zhang’s work eventually won me over because of its austere second half in which we begin to see the darker workings of the story. Rather than spoil what does occur, I will say that this work reminds me of a number of other young adult texts in which it is hard to get a sense of the temporal or historical specificity of a given location. We know that the time is relatively contemporary because of the references to texting. We know that the location is somewhere in which there would be a large rock quarry and associated natural surroundings and waterways. There is a significant reference to Nepal, but beyond that, it’s very difficult to understand if there’s anything else actually going on in this fictional world. The insularity is mostly suffocating in the first half because it’s easy to wonder why we should care about either of these characters: so, they’re close and they do crazy things together, but really: what’s so unique about their experiences? Why should we devote our fictional sympathies to them? Janie, for instance, is convinced that she’s setting herself up high school glory by dating the high school jock that she knows is actually a “douchebag,” and yet, she also knows that he’s going to look great in a skin tight uniform while he wrestles. *Frowns* At one point, even Janie admits she’s not a good person, and I had to agree, but the second half does present us with an interesting case of how trauma unfolds and how it cannot necessarily be harnessed in a productive way, especially when teenagers become the source of each other’s biggest support. The depictions that go on this section did make me wonder if this novel was one I could adopt in my course on trauma and psychoanalytic theory. In any case, this novel is an interesting one to compare against something like Evelyn Skye’s The Crown’s Game, which I just read. Though Skye must take obvious liberties with cultural and historical references to Russia in her work, there is somehow still a level of texture that the fictional world must accrue due to a stronger weaving together of the political and the personal, the magical and the referential. On another level, Zhang’s work functions in another “pattern” in many of these young adult fictions which involves one protagonist being “cool,” while the other being an “outsider” or “geek,” and yet these two figures will somehow be “destined” for each other. I’ve seen this formula at work for quite awhile.
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A Review of Kendare Blake’s Three Dark Crowns (HarperTeen, 2016).
I’ll admit that I wasn’t a huge fan of Kendare Blake’s Goddess War series and was wondering how her next YA paranormal effort would turn out. Fortunately, Three Dark Crowns is a return to the kind of form we saw already on some display in her original Girl of Nightmares series. Here, Kendare Blake has engaged some intriguing and what I would consider to be dynamic narrative conceits, especially in the creation of a society in which three sisters are born every generation, who must duel each other to become an outright queen. The winner rules all, the losers will die. To be sure, there’s a Hunger Games-ish element in the construction of a kind of contest, but this world operates by its own set of rules. First of all, the three queens are all born with gifts. Typically, these gifts are unique to a specific society. The oldest sister, Mirabella, holds the Elementalist gift and is supported by the Priestesses and a ruling family known as the Westwoods. The middle sister, Arsinoe, is a Naturalist, an individual with a connection to the land, and should be able to summon a familiar. She lives out on an island with her allies, including Jules, a powerful Naturalist with a cougar as a familiar, and Jules’s mother, Madrigal, who encourages Arsinoe to dabble in something called Low Magic, especially because Arsinoe’s gift has not yet fully manifested. The youngest, Katharine, is a Poisoner, someone who should be able to construct toxins out of various powders, but is also able to withstand any such deleterious substances in her own body. As with Arsinoe, it’s not apparent that Katharine is a very talented Poisoner, so her alliances with a maternal figure, Natalia, as well as a young noble, Pietyr, are important to her potential success. Two other gifts are possible: the war gift, which is not really described in this novel very much, and probably the subject of a future book; and the sight gift, which is a Cassandra-type oracle power that causes a young girl to go mad. If one is gifted with the sight, the girl will not even be able to “compete” in the quest to become queen because she’s sacrificed before that time. As the novel moves toward its conclusion, the stakes become higher obviously, as the central event showcasing each Queen’s power takes center stage. A disastrous occurrence at that final event factionalizes each group even further. The Poisoners are in disarray when Katharine is determined to be missing, but the biggest and most monumental reveal involves Arsinoe. This revelation alone makes me incredibly excited for the sequel, especially to see where the author will be going with this particular fictional world and its various conceits. An immensely engrossing YA work and another must read for fans of the young adult/ paranormal fantasy genre.
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A Review of Linda Sue Park’s Cavern of Secrets (HarperCollins, 2017).
So, the second installment in Linda Sue Park’s Wing and Claw series has come out. I really enjoyed the first one, Forest of Wonders, as it had talking animals and young apothecaries working together. Anything that reminds me of Pokemon is going to be a bit hit with me. In any case, this Kirkus Reviews description is right on point: “In this sequel to Forest of Wonders (2016), hero Raffa [Santana] applies his apothecary skills to thwart the Chancellor of Obsidia's malevolent plot to treat wild animals with botanicals and use them against her own people. Raffa, his cousin, Garith, and his friend Kuma, along with a talking bat named Echo, a gigantic bear, and a raccoon, have spent the winter in the Sudden Mountains, hiding from the Chancellor who wants to silence them because of their knowledge of her secret plan. With spring's approach, Raffa decides to return to his parents. On the perilous journey home, Raffa discovers a hidden cavern where he harvests a mysterious, translucent plant whose healing properties cure the ailing Echo. After witnessing the Chancellor's manipulated foxes, stoats, and crows devastate Kuma's village and finding his own home in ashes, Raffa covertly develops an antidote from the cavern plant, hoping to cure and free the captured animals. When his plan fails, a desperate, desolate Raffa faces a precarious future, pondering his role as a healer vis-à-vis his family, friends, and Obsidia. As in the trilogy opener, Park demands that her child protagonist make adult-sized choices that come with real consequences. Raffa's world is a diverse one; he has dark hair and light-brown skin, Kuma's skin is dark, and Garith is newly deaf. The nail-biting adventure, relevant moral dilemmas, and complex characters will leave readers eager for the final installment.” What is interesting about this review is the ways in which it already is considering the nature of race, as it is allegorically represented through “diverse” characters and associated phenotypes. Park’s work complicates this allegorical representation through racial connections to animal life. For instance, Raffa wonders about his close friendship to the felicitously talking bat named Echo. As Raffa discovers a plant that may cure how animals are being brainwashed, it also has the potential effect of causing animals the ability to lose a measure of intelligent life that they had once possessed through the selective use of plant extracts (recall, this novel is one about apothecaries). Raffa specifically worries that Echo will lose the ability to speak, if he is given a specific plant extract that might actually be beneficial over the long term. Raffa larger plot that pits himself against the ruling factions of Obsidia is certainly the pinnacle of this particular work, setting readers up for what will likely be a riveting conclusion to this series. The Chancellor makes for an effective and chilling antagonist, and young readers will especially be energized to root for Raffa in the concluding courtroom sequence. I’ve been thinking more and more about teaching an actual course on children’s and young adult literature as imagined by Asian American writers, and I’ll certainly consider this particular series as an option.
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