My Review of THE VALET’S SECRET by Josi S. Kilpack

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Though I love reading romance books, I’m not a historical romance fan, especially of books where the hero is a Duke/Earl/other nobility and/or is a rake (aka playboy). No offense to those who enjoy reading and writing such books. They’re just not my cup of tea. For a long time, I wanted to read a historical romance featuring simple, humble, common people as the protagonists. Not innocent, virginal wallflowers as the heroine and the dashing, rakish dukes/earls/whatever nobility you have as the hero. No, I wanted common people, who have almost no links to the nobility class.

Here comes Josi S. Kilpack with her new book, The Valet’s Secret. I’ve never read anything by the author before but reading the synopsis on NetGalley made me request it and I was so glad to have it granted. I devoured the book in less than 24 hours and was in a book hangover for a long time. Still am, btw.

Anyway, this book is such a breath of fresh air from all the other historical romance. It features two protagonists in their late forties, both been widowed and have grown-up kids. Kenneth used to be a non-nobility gentleman with a considerable amount of wealth and two sons. He’s a widower who never experienced romance in his life. He’s a simple, kind, humble man who, despite being on his way to become a member of the nobility soon, still treats his own valet as a best friend of the same class and is aware of his simple, homely looks and his age. Meanwhile, Rebecca is a widowed mother of one daughter. She lives with her abusive, hotheaded father at first, who steals her contribution and artistic works but still treats her like dirt. She later emancipates herself and becomes a housemaid later. Rebecca is unlike all the historical romance heroines. She’s practical, smart, independent, pragmatic, and very down-to-earth. She’s also not a rich woman. She’s a maid and she knows her status in society and how it affects how people see her. I loved her no-nonsense attitude toward Kenneth and her practical outlook of the world. Truly, these two deserve each other.

Of course, there’s gonna be your typical antagonists and hurdles. It’s a Cinderella retelling, after all. I’m so glad there was no stupid misunderstandings between the two protagonists. They always act rationally despite their feelings and I love them for it.

But mostly, I love this book for its beautiful message. That you’re never too old to fall in love. That you’re never too old to find the love of your life and start a new life with them. Even if you’re in your forties with graying/balding heads and kids who are grown-ups and almost reaching the marriageable age. I loved how soft and kind and gentle Kenneth and Rebecca’s love story is and how kindly they treat each other.

Rufus Sewell as Kenneth (fancast)

If I want to fancast anyone as Kenneth and Rebecca, I’d choose Rufus Sewell as Kenneth and Kate Winslet as Rebecca.

Kate Winslet as Rebecca

It is also a very chaste, sweet romance. Other than some kisses, there isn’t any other intimate moments. So, if this kind of romance is your preference, please read it.

Thank you, NetGalley and Shadow Mountain Publishing, for providing me with an eARC in exchange for my honest opinion.

My Review of FIERY GIRLS by Heather Wardell

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I’m from Bangladesh, a country that prides itself over its textile industry and its glorious past. Before the colonial times, we prided over exclusive muslin production. Now, we pride over our garment industry, which brings in the most remittance. However, it’s not free from controversies as well and those come from the negligence the workers face. The garment workers in Bangladesh form a large number among the laborer class. Every day in the morning at 8 o’clock sharp, they begin to walk from their slum homes to the factories on foot, carrying a purse each, some even lunch carrier boxes. Twelve hours later, at 8 o’clock in the evening, they return from the factories to their slum homes. After 12 long hours of gruelling work every weekdays, they get a pay of (lowest) 8k taka per month, which is less than US$100. Not only that, the factories cut from their pays if they so much as take a leave of absence, no matter how justified the reasons are. They work in hazardous environments that often cause them health issues they can’t afford to treat, such as hearing loss from working next to loud machines all day long, working with toxic dyes, and musculoskeletal effects for sitting all day, slouching over the sewing machine, not being able to take a walk or do physical exercise, cramped in one room with so many other workers. On top of the lack of pure drinking water and safety measures, there are also harassment in sexual, verbal, and psychological manners. The fire escapes are rusted, narrow, and rickety. No fire sprinklers on the ceiling if there’s ever a fire. The buildings are often old and dilapidated. There have been multiple disasters in the garment factories, i.e. the 2010 That’s It Sportswear Ltd fire, the 2012 Tazreen Fashion factory fire, the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse, and the 2013 Mirpur textile factory fire, to name a few.

(If you’ve stayed this far, thank you, you’re too kind to digest my preaching words)

All of these things have been portrayed in Heather Wardell’s FIERY GIRLS. Although not set in present day Bangladesh but rather in early 1900 New York city, the book shows harrowing, poignant stories of garment workers who were killed in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The book also depicts the long struggle and movement by the workers and their union and how much harassment and torture they face just because they demand their fair rights. The book gives you firsthand accounts of the fire and the struggle of the union workers before and after the fire. Without preaching you about things, the book descends into the disaster without any melodrama or inserting historically inaccurate details. As a lover of anything historical, I love love love this book.

FIERY GIRLS is centered on two fictional characters; a Jewish Russian immigrant, Rosie Lehrer, and an Italian Catholic immigrant, Maria Cirrito. The two girls, still in their teens, are forced by their parents and family members to journey across the pond and find work in NYC, preferably at a shirtwaist factory. The two girls are diametrically opposite in the beginning. Rosie is a shy, timid, mousy girl who would rather duck her head and melt into the background than be heard by others or stand on a stage and give speeches. Maria is the opposite. She’s stubborn, impulsive, free spirited, and rebellious to the core. At first though, she came across to me as a selfish, bratty girl who blindly loves an unworthy man and dedicates her life to be married to him. But once the two girls are forced to see the world as it is, grimy and seamy, they begin to shed their timid/bratty self and grow into mature, brave young women. They both become fierce, fiery advocates of worker’s rights and without hesitance, become activists. While Maria contributes by giving fiery speeches, Rosie is more in the background, doing desk work necessary for the movement.

I love how the author shows that you can be a strong woman without being loud and brash through Rosie’s story. I liked her immediately and although she began to irritate me at the midpoint, I returned to loving her again once she gained her footing in the end. I also loved Maria once she shed off her blind love toward Alonzo and became dedicated to the movement. Although they both have a somewhat bittersweet ending, I’m satisfied by how the author showed it. IMO, Rosie is Sansa Stark while Maria is Arya Stark. They both are needed for a movement, the soft and the stubborn. They’re both strong women who sacrifice a great deal to become what they should be, the cogs necessary to gyrate the worker’s rights movement toward success.

I’d forever cherish this brilliant, splendid, perfect book. I can’t believe how underrated it is. It deserves way more noise than what it got, like Rosie did despite her hard work and diligence.

Thank you, NetGalley and Heather Wardell, for providing me with an eARC in exchange for my honest opinion.

My Review of THE SILENCE OF SCHEHERAZADE by Defne Suman

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Back in May when I requested the eARC of this magnificent book, I did not imagine it’d be THIS. I’ve always been a huge fan of well-crafted third person omniscient point of view. However, they don’t write it like the authors of the past did. Most authors who use third person omniscient POV don’t get it right, thus tarnishing the reputation of this amazing storytelling method, just like prologue and second person POV. But at the deft hands of Defne Suman, this storytelling put an extraordinary touch to this story.

I also adore reading historical fiction about events the whole world is unaware of. I was aware of how the Ottoman Empire sundered into many countries after the Great War. What I wasn’t aware of was the consequences of this sundering on the locals. The Allies cut the pieces of the once great Ottoman Empire like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. They didn’t take into account the effects on the lives of the locals, like they didn’t take into account dividing India into two countries, or Korea/Vietnam into a North and a South section. Western white people have always taken advantage of local conflicts and fanned the flames of those fires into epic proportions to divide countries. It happened in ’47 in South Asia when the subcontinent was divided into two countries, India and Pakistan. Deadly riots broke out across the country, creating irreparable divide between the Hindu and the Muslim population. Almost the same thing happened in Turkey in early 1920s, but also not quite in the same way. Defne Suman masterfully gives us a fictional account of 1922’s Great Fire of Smyrna, today’s Izmir, and the massacre of the Greek and the Armenian populace. Through the story of four families (one Greek, one Turkish, one Levantine, and one Armenian), she’s showed us the unspeakable horrors of that event.

The tragic fate of the four families is united through one thread. I won’t reveal what it is but if you didn’t guess the plot twist by the 50% mark, prepare to gasp aloud and wonder for a long time around the 90% mark. Because I guessed the twist by 50% mark, I was pretty pleased with how deftly Defne Suman plotted and executed this story. It’s not easy to incorporate multiple POV in a story, let alone in an omniscient POV. You won’t feel like head hopping when you’re reading. Ms. Suman effortlessly slips into her characters’ head and you won’t even mind it, rather admire it.

Anyway, the story is about the aforementioned four families. Edith Lamarck is the youngest daughter of a French expat, whose rebellious streaks exasperate her scheming mother and win over her lover, British-Indian spy, Avinash Pillai. Panagiota Yogcioglu is a Greek teenager whose doting yet strict mother curbs at her teenage fanciful dreams of romance and adventure. Avinash Pillai is an Indian-British spy who strives to achieve the British standards of being a gentleman and loves Edith wholeheartedly. The Rahmi family as a whole tries to survive after most men of their house leave for one war after the other. Meline is a gifted, experienced Armenian midwife whose conscience repeatedly reminds her of a past deed she cannot forget and cannot forgive herself over. The lives of multiple characters of both the four families and from outside cross paths throughout the story many times. At the end, you’ll be left pondering over the peculiarity of humanity. One moment a person can show the most touching of kindness, then the next moment they can display such barbaric, ruthless behavior that you’ll be left wondering if they had a doppelganger out to tarnish their names. Not many books succeed in showing such complexity and multiplicity of human nature. Defne Suman is a master storyteller whose books adequately portray the multifaceted nature of human beings.

(Side note: I couldn’t not mention this here, but the repeated use of the term g*psy threw me off. This is a term the Romani folks do not liked to be called.)

Thank you, NetGalley and Head of Zeus, for providing me with an eARC in exchange for my honest opinion.

My Review of A STRANGE AND BRILLIANT LIGHT by Eli Lee

Cover art by Sing Yun Lee and Sinjin Li

First thing I wanna say before talking about this book is that although I finished it long ago, I did not sit down to write this review for almost a month. I have a valid reason. I was asked to be part of the social media blast for this book ahead of its release and I agreed. Soon, I was sent a visual containing my blog name and social media handle. I was enthused by the GoodReads synopsis. But soon I found out I was not the intended reader for this book and hence, I delayed to post this review. I didn’t want to post a review with a rating lower than 4 stars and hence, I decided to post this review on a much later date.

So that’s my reason. Now let’s move on to the book.

I started reading this book hopeful to discover a literary sci-fi after reading a few in recent past. However, this book was more academic than cerebral. It’s a slow paced, character driven sci-fi that can be either a cyberpunk or a simple dystopian sci-fi. Or maybe a dystopian cyberpunk sci-fi? Anyway, the point is that the book is more heavy on the literary section than the sci-fi one. Several things made me realize I’m not the intended reader for this book.

First, the book was way too slow for me. Almost nothing noteworthy happened in the book and a lot of the incidents could be cut off and the book will not suffer from it. The climax was anticlimactic and a deux ex machina. The solution almost came out of nowhere and solved too easily and quickly, as if you blink and you miss it. The whole story is basically the author discussing with us the pros and cons of having AI take over our world. The nuances made me appreciate the book and the deep insights the author provides us, the nuances, the farsightedness, and the way intersectionality are all considered. However, a lot of the book feels like academic rambling and a lot of big, intellectual words were used. Yes, the author raised some great points as well as some gray, unacknowledged parts of what our grim reality could be in an AI revolutionized society. However, the way she executed it into the characters’ lives wasn’t seamless. Most of the time, nothing noteworthy happened. The characters felt to me very passive and reactionary, especially Janetta and Lal. Rose felt very active and interesting at first until she couldn’t shake off toxic Alek. Same goes for Lal who just wouldn’t stop thinking for herself for one second, or Janetta who wouldn’t stop toxic women from ruling her heart and career and life. The ending felt rushed and again, anticlimactic and deux ex machina. The villain is too robotic and apathetic to actually strike fear, rather I felt like the efforts to make her disturbing and chilling failed. She rather felt one-dimensional and flat. The supporting cast just fades away and leaves no remarkable effects on you or the main characters’ lives. The toxic exes, the overenthusiastic creepy or overfriendly colleagues, even the family members of the main characters appear for one or two scenes, serve their purposes, and then leave for the rest of the book.

I also couldn’t grasp the world building. It felt too all-over-the-place. The randomly sprouted names of places and mountains and religions and food items felt too foreign. The food items especially made me confused. The author mostly provided their names and that’s it. Not much descriptions to expand her fantasy world. It felt also like a one-dimensional, flat character who melts into the distance after her purpose to the story has been served.

Overall, this felt more like a fictional example of a nonfiction thesis/dissertation. I’m sorry if my review feels harsh but that’s how it made me feel in the end.

Also, Tekna feels like a fictional Tesla and Uhli Ranh may be a fictional Elon Musk. I’m imagining Angelina Jolie as Taly Kett.

Thank you, NetGalley and Jo Fletcher/Quercus Books for providing me with an eARC in exchange for my honest opinion.

My Review of THE STONE ROAD by Trent Jamieson

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This is a weird fantasy and I’m slowly liking weird SFF books, as of late. I’m glad Erewhon Books is providing a lot of weird SFF books for readers like me out there. I’m also glad that this book is a standalone, because ever since I learned I have ADHD since January 2020, my attention span reduced to that of a goldfish. Hence, I’m sort of glad everything sorted out through a satisfying ending in one book.

First off, the good things. I like our protagonist, Jean’s voice and her way of seeing the world. She’s not a know-it-all like her Nan, neither is a swashbuckling daredevil like her mum used to be. She’s practical and pragmatic. She does things after thinking them through and isn’t one to do impulsive things. She’s also accepting of circumstances and doesn’t whine or lament over the series of unfortunate events that always happen on her birthdays. She knows she’s no regular kid and her family is no ordinary family and hence all the bad things in her life. But this doesn’t mean she’s a passive, limp noodle. She acts when she needs to and reacts when she needs to. That’s what I love about her. Jean March is a cool protagonist.

I also like the supporting cast. Nan March is an affectionate grandma who possesses a rough diamond personality. She loves Jean with all her heart but doesn’t pamper her or sugarcoat the truths of the world from her. Ella March is a douchebag mum with reasons. Lolly is a good friend who provides some comic relief and support whenever needed. The Huskling King is my favorite, with his witty banter with Jean and lots of sarcasm. Mark comes way too late to cut a mark on the story. The Graceful Man unfortunately feels like a two-dimensional villain whose worst, most disturbing traits makes me go “Meh”. He could use some more development, IMO.

My three complaints now. First, no chapter breaks. Like none! The eARC was broken in 5 parts and none of them had individual chapter breaks. It was hard to keep on reading after the first 10-15 pages without a break. Things kept happening and kept threading into another event that kept happening. I really don’t like long, long, long chapters with no breaks. Really exhausting and it just ruins your mood to continue the book.

Second complaint, the setting. I felt like most of the things in this setting happened without reason. This world has so many similarities with ours, yet nothing to explain things. Why are the March women destined to have an arch nemesis? What’s the reason for this arch nemesis’ existence? What if one girl was born with no arch nemesis? Other than being their evil counterpart, is there no other purpose to these nemesis’ existence? What or who decides what kind of nemesis a March girl gets? What if the March family gets a boy child for a long time? Or someone is born without any abilities that make the March family the walkers? What are walkers and what’s so special about them and how have they come to be? What’s the In Between? How many powers do the March women get? Do they all get the same power? How powerful can you become? Is there no choice to choose a different life? So many things in this world are left unexplained and I don’t like it, tbh.

Third, that ending. It felt like deux ex machina. Too easy, too brief, another thing left unexplained (or maybe I am dumb, who knows ¯\_(ツ)_/¯)

Anyway, if you’re up for a weird fantasy of powerful women, intriguing villains, and a coming-of-age story about a girl slowly coming into her calling and her powers, this book is for you.

Thank you, NetGalley and Erewhon Books, for providing me with an eARC in exchange for my honest opinion.

My review of THE RED PALACE by June Hur

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Art by Sunga Park (@park_sunga); cover by Liz Drenser (@LizDresner)

Last month, I lost my Dad. To say it was hard would be understating it. In simple words, the grieving and mourning invited in depression where I was always numb and felt like in a daze. As if this was a fever dream I won’t ever wake up from. I tried my hand at everything that makes me feel better. Watching FRIENDS and Tasty videos. Listening to my favorite songs. Trying to dive into writing my book. Reading books. Sleeping. Nothing worked. I was in such a bad funk. I even tried to catch up on all the eARC I had on my NetGalley account but nothing stuck. I felt like being stuck in a quicksilver quagmire. Sinking and sinking and no matter whether I stilled or flayed, I’d drown regardless.

During such times, I received THE RED PALACE in my inbox. Having June as a mutual, I could see people enthusiastically tweeting about receiving the eARC. At first, I dumped the email into my folder for all the eARC emails. But then I DNF another book and couldn’t take it anymore. I downloaded TRP and I didn’t look back.

June’s books being summed up as K-drama style historical fiction would be another understatement. Unlike most historical K-drama, which are almost always a romcom between a commoner girl and a royalty/nobleman, June’s books are much, much more. I’m not saying this just because of reading and loving TRP. I read her debut, THE SILENCE OF BONES and I loved that equally as well. Without inserting unnecessary romance plots into her books (which as an asexual, I love about her books), June takes us through the historical events of Korea, all the while building a story with depth and characters with heart. TSoB had no romance, yet it was 1000 times better than all the historical K-drama I’ve watched and loved. So although I picked up TRP during a reading funk prompted by grieving for a lost one, it turned out to be the exact book I needed.

The core of TRP is about two things; holding on and letting go. Several characters in the book have experienced loss in many forms. Some lost a loved one, some lost a home, some an identity they’ve worked toward their whole life. Regardless of what they lost, their responses to those losses were different. Some reacted with resorting to vengeance, some gave up, and some recognized whether the thing they’ve clung to were good for them or not and decided to either pursue or let go. It’s easy to hold on. You’ve held on all your life. It’s difficult to let go. Letting go of a loved one or a long cherished dream. It’s hard to let go and move on. But to continue life as life should be, you must. And you heal faster when you let go of things you should let go. That’s what I took away from June’s book. That’s what I’m cherishing from TRP.

Thank you, June, for this book that brought me back to life. And thank you, NetGalley and Feiwel & Friends, for providing me with an eARC in exchange for my honest opinion.

7 Criminally Underrated Books by Asian Authors

Recently, I came across a really great post by YourTitaKate, who recommended seven underrated books by Asian authors on her blog. Kate also added in her post the link to another blogger, Michelle (Magical Reads) and her post on what underrated book means, booktwt’s view on underrated books, and vice versa. I’m linking the post here as well so you can check it out yourself.

Anyway, Kate’s recommendation post on underrated books inspired me to do one myself, since thanks to participating in Year of the Asian Reading Challenge last year, I came across several gems who are so underrated that they barely got 500 reviews on GoodReads. So I decided to do a post of my own, featuring books that:

•I’ve read and reviewed
•have less than 500 reviews on GoodReads
•by Asian authors (since May is the AAPI Heritage Month)
•in the young adult category
•were released in the last five years

So without further ado, here are the 7 criminally underrated books by Asian authors I’d recommend.

01. RISE OF THE RED HAND by Olivia Chadha

Cover art by Rashed Al Akroka;
Design by Dana Li

Published February 04, 2021
Published by Erewhon Books
No. of GoodReads review: 91
GoodReads rating: 3.68
GoodReads page here
My review on GoodReads here

RISE OF THE RED HANDS is a YA cli-fi by author Olivia Chadha, set in a cyberpunk dystopian South Asian Province split into two, the privileged Uplanders who live inside a climate-controlled biodome, while the poor, underprivileged Downlanders live in a slum outside where they fight for survival in every step of the way. Our protagonist, Ashiva, works with the underground rebel group, Lal Haath, aka Red Hand, who is fighting to expose the nasty corruption of the South Asian Province’s technocratic government to the world.

ROTRH is such an underrated gem. The premise presents a gritty, grim image of the future, including human corruption despite climate collapse, as well as the scraps of humanity you can find in the most unexpected places. I’d heartily recommend this underappreciated book that came out earlier this year.

02. PRIVATE LESSONS by Cynthia Salaysay

Published May 12, 2020
Published by Candlewick Press
No. of GoodReads review: 113
GoodReads rating: 3.48
GoodReads page here
My review on GoodReads here

This is one of the best books about sexual assaults I’ve read so far. The poignant way the author shows us Claire’s journey is really touching. At seventeen, she’s lost her father and lives with her religious mother in San Francisco. An aspiring pianist, she begins to take lessons from a famous pianist famous for his charms and talents, as well as notorious for his strict, stern ways of teaching. Expect to find an illicit teacher-student that no way romanticizes this kind of thing, rather shows you a harrowing portrait of sexual abuse and grooming that is perfect for the current #MeToo movement. The journey from naïvety to self-realization to recovery to finding your voice and confronting your abuser, this is a very emotional book that doesn’t include any melodramatic moments, yet can being tears to your eyes both from the steak, harrowing reality and the powerful message it sends.

03. REBEL SEOUL by Axie Oh

Book design by Elizabeth Casal; Jacket illustration by Sebastien Hue

Published September 14, 2017
Published by Tu Books
No. of GoodReads review: 253
GoodReads rating: 3.95
GoodReads page here
My review on GoodReads here

Another cli-fi in this list, this book is less gritty and grim, more full of giant mecha reminiscent of Pacific Rim but minus the Kaiju. Set in a futuristic Neo Seoul, this is the story of Lee Jaewon, a teenager who escaped brutal street gangs to enter a military sponsored weapons project. One of the most action packed sci-fi I’ve read so far and enjoyed every moment of it. From k-drama style teen romance to Pacific Rim style action sequences, this book has it all. But don’t be fooled by these descriptions that it’s all romance and actions. This book also features the corrupt government you’ll find in RISE OF THE RED HAND, as well as how far they can go to spread propaganda and suppress the truth.

04. THE LIGHT AT THE END OF THE WORLD by London Shah

Cover art by Mike Heath; Cover design by Marci Senders; Lettering by Russ Gray

Published October 29, 2019
Published by Disney Hyperion
No. of GoodReads review: 322
GoodReads rating: 3.79
GoodReads page here
My review on GoodReads here

I was lucky enough to read one of the earliest draft of this mesmerizing book. Another cli-fi on the list (I guess cli-fi genre is totally my thing ;)), this one is set not on the aboveground but at the bottom of the oceans. The world has experienced a devastating catastrophe that rose the sea level and drowned every city on the planet. People now live underwater and travel via submarines and submersibles. Layla McQueen is a Afghan-British teen submersible racer who enlists herself into a submersible race to free her father from wrongful imprisonment. Throughout the book, you’ll encounter a brooding love interest, a butler who takes after Oscar Wilde (you heard me!) and an adorable, fluffy pup, Jojo. The setting is dazzlingly pretty and the worldbuilding is stunning. The cover can tell you enough.

05. THE SURPRISING POWER OF A GOOD DUMPLING by Wai Chim

Cover and text design by Romina Panetta Edwards

Published August 5, 2019
Published by Allen & Unwin
No. of GoodReads review: 401
GoodReads rating: 4.12
GoodReads page here
My review on GoodReads here

This book is such a heartbreaker. But then again, so are all the great books that deftly capture reality. And the reality for mentally ill people are often full of pain and suffering, not just due to the fact that mental illness is unfairly misunderstood and villainized, also because rarely do mentally ill people get a realistic portrayal of their experiences. This book is full of raw, painful moments, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t contain many moments of joy and peace. Although our protagonist, Anna, doesn’t have mental illness, rather it’s her mother, the portrayal doesn’t become incorrect. Through this story, the author shows us the struggles of mental illness but also the struggles of immigrant life. The racism, the way mental illness is a touchy subject among Asians, the way people mock and bully mentally ill people. Every scene here is poignant and moving. A must read 100%.

06. MAD, BAD AND DANGEROUS TO KNOW by Samira Ahmed

Cover by David Lanaspa

Published April 7, 2020
Published by Soho Teen
No. of GoodReads review: 406
GoodReads rating: 3.88
GoodReads page here
My review on GoodReads here

The word HIStory itself says enough. History is about and by men. Rarely does history tells us about female figures. Up until the 20th century, women had almost no presence in history, unless they were empresses and queens, like queen Elizabeth I, queen Victoria, or Catherine the Great. And often famous historical female figures were white women, as I mentioned above. Women of color rarely get any mention, let alone praise. No matter their contribution to society or country, they’re either erased or villainized. In MAD, BAD AND DANGEROUS TO KNOW, Samira Ahmed tells us the story of a fictional young woman of color who inspired many well-known figures in history yet remained unnamed and in the shadows, thus telling us about the hidden figures of history, the women who got pushed either to the margins or completely erased, even their contributions hijacked. Our protagonist, a Muslim French-Indian-American teen, who goes on a journey to unravel one such figure erased from history by the men in her life.

07. IGNITE THE STARS by Maura Milan

Cover artwork by Craig White;
Cover model: Jessika Van;
Design by Ellen Kokontis

Published September 4, 2018
Published by Albert Whitman
No. of GoodReads review: 452
GoodReads rating: 3.92
GoodReads page here
My review on GoodReads here

Another sci-fi in the bunch, but this time far into the future and into the space. Our protagonist is Is Cōcha, a criminal mastermind and daredevil pilot who has been attacking and terrorizing the Olympus Commonwealth, the futuristic space equivalent of the British Empire. After she is captured via blackmail, she is forcefully enrolled in a military academy run by the Commonwealth, to show the rest of the universe they’ve suppressed the biggest revel out there. However, things don’t go as they plan out for Ia Cōcha, who continues her rebellion throughout her stay in the academy.

So that’s the 7 criminally underrated YA books by Asian authors that I recommend. Do you know any such underrated gems that has less than 500 reviews of GoodReads and think more people should read it? Let me know in the comment section below.

My Review of THE UNRAVELING by Benjamin Rosenbaum

I dunno if you’ve read the novel SENSE AND SENSIBILITY by Jane Austen, but while reading this book, I was reminded of this Regency romance. Now, you must be wondering, what on earth does a Regency romance have anything to do with a sci-fi set in a secondary world?

The connection lies in the two books’ protagonists. While the Regency romance has two sisters who are vastly different in temperament; one being sense (as in serious and sedate in emotions) and the other being sensible (back then this word meant sensitive). Elinor Dashwood is as serious and sedate in emotions as Marianne Dashwood is impulsive and passionate. These two temperaments are the basis of THE UNRAVELING, a groundbreaking sci-fi by author Benjamin Rosenbaum.

In THE UNRAVELING, there are two genders in this world, the Staids and the Vails. Now, if you google their meanings, you’ll find that Staid means serious, conventional, unadventurous, solemn, somber, stiff, uptight. So yeah, the Staids are the gender who are like Elinor Dashwood. Meanwhile, the Vails are the Marianne Dashwood; passionate, hot-blooded, sentimental, sensitive. Vail also means, according to Google, “take off or lower (one’s hat or crown) as a token of respect or submission”, aka the Vails are seen as something of a lower status than the somber Staids. Though there isn’t any strict order for the two to mingle or even mate, it is forbidden for the Staids to display emotional outbursts and the Vails to engage in physical violence outside designated areas, referred to as “the mats”.

Anyway, this will be a polarizing book. I mean it. Firstly, because it’s written in neo-pronouns, no he/she. Instead, the Staids use ze/zir/zir/zirs/zirself; the Vails use ve/vir/vem/virs/vemself. For me, it was tough to not read he/she, rather ze/ve. The first time I began to read it, I only made it to chapter 2 before I had to stop and let my brain stew this in. That took me a week. I returned to the book a week later, dumping all my preconceived notions of gender and sex and bodies and privacy of mind and family structure out the door. I began again and this time, it took me less than two days to finish.

Yeah, the story sucked me in. At its heart, THE UNRAVELING is a story of two themes; gender identity, and individual vs community. In a world where your place is determined immediately after birth and forever, in a world where you’re rigidly stuck in one temperament and denied a chance to express yourself as you like, do things as you like, without any privacy inside even your head, life can become suffocating. So it becomes for our protagonist, 16yo staid Fift Brulio Iraxis. Born, gendered, and raised in a cohort (alternate word for “family” in this world) of close to ten parents, Fift often feels suffocated by the lack of privacy, lack of freedom, and lack of any chance to choose things for zirself. The same thing zir best friend, Shria, feels as well. Gendered as a Vail, vir cohort already makes a huge mistake when ve was a child, having another child without the consent of their community. That’s right! In this world, to have a child, you’ll need consent and approval from your community. If not and you still birth a child, the Midwives, who assign gender to a child upon birth, take away the child and bring them up as a midwife for future. While this community connection can be good, it has its dark sides. If a cohort doesn’t abide by the ridiculous rules imposed by the Midwives, the latter holds the power to disband any rule-breaking cohort and take away their child too. Also in this world, a child’s mind and activities can be constantly monitored by their parents, no matter how many bodies the child possesses (yup, here everybody possess more than one body, almost like clones, except they share one mind). So the chapters contain lots of head-hopping, another thing that can confuse and frustrate and irritate readers, thus further dividing their opinions about this book. Personally, it was somewhat tough to constantly head-hop almost every paragraph, but it became easier for me when I began to imagine the events in my head the way movies and shows with multiple parallel timelines are shown onscreen simultaneously. Maybe this tip can help you read it better? 🙂

Anyway, the story begins when Fift and Shria accidentally find themselves in the middle of an unprecedented revolutionary riot during a festivity and the inappropriate affection they display toward each other. Complicated by Fift’s stubborn refusal to conform to societies ridiculous rules that demand from zir to end zir friendship with Shria, they find themselves at the precipice of a revolution that not only threatens to tear them apart, but also tear apart their respective cohorts, their communities, even the fabric of this Midwives-controlled world. An interesting weave of utopia and dystopia, THE UNRAVELING both changes and challenges our ideas of gender, identity, personality, and family. Again, this book is full of conflicting tug-of-war between a sense of community and a sense of individuality. How far would you go to retain your individuality? Can you survive without a community? Can you have individuality within a community?

Another cool thing about this book is that the pressure and expectations to conform to this world’s standard of gender identity is eerily similar to our own. In real life, anything other than male or female is considered an oddity. Although at present, the binaries of gender identity has been pushed and broken a few many times, the idea still stands. In THE UNRAVELING, you’ll find similar rigid, arbitrary expectations and pressure from society. The Staids cannot express emotions, the Vails cannot access into the Long Conversation, a detailed, erudite collection of this world’s intellects. Although unlike ours, this society does not bestow gender identity based on one’s sex, the dark side of the binaries still stands. Gender identity in our world is assumed upon arbitrary attributes, same as the world of this book. The author does not reveal what makes the Midwives assign one child Staid gender and another child Vail, and by keeping this vague and somewhat arbitrary, the author is asking us to ask those same questions to ourselves, about our society’s way of assigning gender to a person. Just the same way Vails can be stoic and Staids can be expressive and both can be both or neither, men can have vagina and women can have penis and both can have both or neither as well.

With such deep thematic exploration, this book will divide people. Some will love it, some will hate it, some will hate it with love, some will love it with hate. But it’ll make all its readers think and perform some serious brain work to figure out the machinations of this book’s world.

Thank you, NetGalley and Erewhon Books, for providing me with an eARC in exchange for my honest opinion.

Blog Tour: COUNTING DOWN WITH YOU by Tashie Bhuiyan

BOOK INFORMATION
Title: Counting Down With You
Author: Tashie Bhuiyan
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication date: 04 May 2021
Age group: Young Adult
Genres: Contemporary

Cover: Samya Arif (artist), Gigi Lau (art direction)

Synopsis:
A reserved Bangladeshi teenager has twenty-eight days to make the biggest decision of her life after agreeing to fake date her school’s resident bad boy.

How do you make one month last a lifetime?

Karina Ahmed has a plan. Keep her head down, get through high school without a fuss, and follow her parents’ rules—even if it means sacrificing her dreams. When her parents go abroad to Bangladesh for four weeks, Karina expects some peace and quiet. Instead, one simple lie unravels everything.

Karina is my girlfriend.

Tutoring the school’s resident bad boy was already crossing a line. Pretending to date him? Out of the question. But Ace Clyde does everything right—he brings her coffee in the mornings, impresses her friends without trying, and even promises to buy her a dozen books (a week) if she goes along with his fake-dating facade. Though Karina agrees, she can’t help but start counting down the days until her parents come back.

T-minus twenty-eight days until everything returns to normal—but what if Karina no longer wants it to?

On-page Representation
POC (Bangladeshi-American MC; Black, Indian, and Chinese side characters)
Religion (Muslim MC)
LGBTQIAP+
Mental health (MC with anxiety)

Trigger and Content Warnings
In-depth discussions of mental health (specifically anxiety) and mentions of parental abuse (emotional and psychological)

Review:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

When I was reading this book, terrible, horrible brutality was being unleashed on the Palestinians by Israel. I did my best to show support by constantly retweeting and sharing stuff. But my heart was so heavy (cannot imagine what the Palestinians are going through), I needed something to keep me from spiraling into a depressive anxiety.

This book showed up to do exactly that.

Photo collected from Unsplash

It’s full of fluff and adorableness and all the cuteness that a romcom needs. Rarely I have read romcoms where the couple don’t fight over stupid misunderstandings that can be remedied over a conversation. Here, there is no such stupid misunderstandings. Here, it is mainly Karina’s story, not just the love story in her life. CDWY is more about Karina rebelling against her parents strict and stern rules flouted at her. Here, Karina battles anxiety and stress over making her parents happy, or making herself happy. Here, Karina finds support in a loving gaggle of best friends and a warm, kind-hearted grandmother. This book is about finding yourself and loving yourself and standing up for yourself, even if it means rebelling against the people you love with all your heart. Karina’s bravery is soft, not fiery and loud. She’s a brown girl whose parents are immigrants, dreaming and hoping big things for her, even if it means stifling her own dreams. Unlike white girls, it’s not easy for brown Desi girls with immigrant parents. Karina’s defiance and rebellion aren’t to disrespect and paint her parents as the villains. They’re to help her breathe, dream, create, without the suffocating pressure of parental expectations. If you’ve never experienced this, you won’t get it. Hence this is not a book everyone will get, let alone love. But anyone who’s been in Karina’s situation, like I was and still am sometimes, will see how strong and resilient she is. She wants her dreams fulfilled and her parents be proud of her for those dreams. And why not? Why can’t she have both? Why can’t she nurture and pursue her dreams, be with the boy who stole her heart, AND be blessed by her parents’ pride in her? Why can’t a brown girl have it all?? Too many times, Western media showed brown Muslim parents as someone who are strict to the point of honor killing and forced marriage and etc etc. Here, Tashie Bhuiyan shows that, although brown Muslim parents can be extremely strict to their kids, they can change and be lenient and supportive to their kids. And boy, am I glad to see this kind of portrayal.

we’ll pretend it’s a game of lost and found
or maybe even hide-and-seek
and perhaps for a while
in the darkness of the night
it will be enough
until the sun comes bursting from the east
and we fall to the flames

Page 197 of COUNTING DOWN WITH YOU by Tashie Bhuiyan, published by Inkyard Press (May 4, 2021)

Besides this, I also found copious amount of things represented through Karina that I too have experienced.

1. Her parents being no boys no boys no boys to her all the time, to the point she can’t even have a male friend.

2. Her parents having STEM career expectations from her. Mine did too until I rebelled in uni and became an English major, something Karina wants to do too.

3. Her parents not allowing petting and touching any dogs, calling them Haram and all. Until recent years, I too never touched dogs, stray or not, and I realized recently how much I’ve missed out!

4. Her anxiety! Oh God, her anxiety is so believable!! And relatable!! I’m often an anxious mess, especially when unwanted attention falls on me. I’ve been an anxious mess since high school and I know how Karina feels every time the most trivial thing go wrong and you have no control over the outcome.

Photo collected from Unsplash

5. Loving literature. I’m such a lit nerd. Ever since I could read, I’ve loved reading with all my existence. I even starve myself to save lunch money and use them to buy book. One Eid, I even told my parents not to buy me new clothes just so I can use the money to buy books. I live and breathe books and literature.

I am not Atlas, born to carry the weight of the world
I am Icarus, wanting and wanting and wanting
at the risk of exploding when I fly too close to the sun

Page 201 of COUNTING DOWN WITH YOU by Tashie Bhuiyan, published by Inkyard Press (May 4, 2021)

6. Like Karina, I too write poems occasionally and most of them are super personal.

Photo collected from Unsplash

Karina’s almost entire experience here were so relatable! I’ve almost never seen myself portrayed so well. This book is everything a brown Muslim girl like me needed and wanted and wished for from a YA romcom, no matter what my age is while reading it.

Thank you, NetGalley, Caffeine Book Tour, and Inkyard Press, for providing me with an eARC in exchange for my honest opinion.

Book Links:

Amazon | GoodReads | Indigo | IndieBound | Alibris | Abebooks | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository

AUTHOR:

Bio:
Tashie Bhuiyan is a Bangladeshi American writer based in New York City. She recently graduated from St. John’s University with a bachelor’s degree in Public Relations, and hopes to change the world, one book at a time. She loves writing stories about girls with wild hearts, boys who wear rings, and gaining agency through growth. When she’s not doing that, she can be found in a Chipotle or bookstore, insisting 2010 is the best year in cinematic history. (Read: Tangled and Inception.)

Links:

Website | GoodReads | Instagram | Twitter

Tour Schedule:

Launch Post

May 17
beyond a bookshelf
Literary Delirium
This Bookish Life Of Mine

May 18
legenbooksdary
Sunshine N’ Books
thr4sam

May 19
Heart’s Content
MissMaddyChats
READING (AS)(I)AN (AM)ERICA

May 20
A Book and Chai
A Logophile’s Love
The Mind of a Book Dragon

May 21
KymieeTriestoRead
Love, Paola
With Love, Saoudia

My Review of THE WOLF OF OREN-YARO (CHRONICLES OF THE BITCH QUEEN #1) by K.S. Villoso

⭐⭐⭐⭐

(spoilers below)

The thing about character driven fantasies is that their characters are much more interesting for three reasons: a) their agencies are most often solid af, b) the characters have this muchness that the characters from plot driven fantasies don’t usually possess, and c) the events that unfold are much more interesting and not clichéd than plot driven fantasies. Which is why THE WOLF OF OREN-YARO was such an interesting book for me. Not only did it have a protagonist closer to my age (I’m 24, Talyien is 26), also she’s a married woman who’s been separated from her husband and she has a child. Usually I don’t find fantasies with parent protagonists. It’s always the other way around. In a typical fantasy, Talyien’s son, Thanh, would’ve been the protagonist. His mom and dad are gone, he’s surrounded by spies and assassins and conspirators. His birth status is questioned etc etc. He’s the sole heir of two rival clans. His birth will supposedly usher in a peaceful era to an otherwise constantly turbulent Jin-sayeng.

However, that’s not the case in this book. Here the protagonist is Queen Talyien, whose husband left her for her infidelity, whose child may or may not be a bastard, whose childhood friend is the ultimate grumpy grump, his possessive and brooding level off the charts. She also meets a conman who, at first, felt like a creepy creepster but later turns out to be a softie cinnamon roll who had his heart broken once and it was his own damn fault.

However, that’s not the case in this book. Here the protagonist is Queen Talyien, whose husband left her for her infidelity, whose child may or may not be a bastard, whose childhood friend is the ultimate grumpy grump, his possessive and brooding level off the charts. She also meets a conman who, at first, felt like a creepy creepster but later turns out to be a softie cinnamon roll who had his heart broken once and it was his own damn fault.

Anyway, the point is, THE WOLF OF OREN-YARO is not your typical fantasy. Queen Talyien is a practical minded woman who has her equal share of hot temper, rational mind, and emotional heart. All three of them drive her judging by the situations she finds herself in. From the highest high of being the sole queen of a country who’s never had a ruling queen before, to the lowest low, i.e. being sold as a prostitute to a gangster to later being sexually assaulted on the street in broad daylight to being on the run from assassins galore. She’s been everywhere, seen and done everything, broke bread with everyone. She’s evaded brothel madams, horny gangster leaders, ambitiously unhinged princes, skeptical and judgmental husbands, sympathetic and understanding conmen, even faced misogynistic highwaymen and calculating officials. She’s seen it all. The book is written in a breakneck pace and you won’t have time to rest and relax before another wringer is yeeted on your way. If you’re a fan of fast paced fantasy completely driven by the characters and their bad, bad choices?? This is the book for you.

Thank you, NetGalley and Little, Brown Book UK, for providing me with an eARC in exchange for my honest opinion.