Book Review: A River of Stars

river of starsA River of Stars
by Vanessa Hua
Contemporary Fiction
292 pages
Published August 2018

I’ve said many times I don’t tend to like contemporary fiction, but for all that, I’ve been reading a decent amount of it. And liking some of it. In trying to read inclusively, I’ve come across books like this one and Number One Chinese Restaurant. Both books were on my summer TBR/beach read list, but having read them, I’m not sure I’d classify them as such. They are both quite good, though!

Scarlett falls in love and gets pregnant by her boss, the owner of the factory she works in, and he sends her to the US to give birth so their son will have citizenship. Which is a little shady, but I can totally believe it’s done among wealthier families. She’s one of only two unwed mothers at the secret maternity home in LA – the rest are wealthy wives there to get the same benefits for their children. When one woman goes into labor unexpectedly, Scarlett turns out to be one of the few people in the home that know how to drive, and is charged with driving the laboring mother to the hospital. After dropping her and the head of the house off, she simply drives away in the van.

Her first stop is McDonald’s, which is quite believable, from what I understand. (I’ve never been pregnant myself, but I’ve seen the cravings of my friends!) On her way back to the van from the restaurant, she finds Daisy, the other unwed mom-to-be, getting out of the van. The two women make peace with each other and wind up heading for San Francisco, where they get an apartment in Chinatown.

In Chinatown, they dodge private investigators, scratch together rent money for the tiny room they share, and take care of each other through delivery and raising their newborns. Daisy was born in the US, but Scarlett lives in fear of being deported.

The book is a fascinating look at the perils immigrants face, and especially immigrant women, who don’t always move of their own free will but then have to make the most of their situations while taking care of children and loved ones.

The ending seemed a little too…neat. I actually liked the way things were going before the last couple of chapters, even if the way it ends is a happier ending for the two women. I still enjoyed it, but I think it would have been more interesting to end the book in a slightly different way. That’s about all I can say without spoiling things!

From the cover of A River of Stars:

Holed up with other mothers-to-be in a secret maternity home in Los Angeles, Scarlett Chen is far from her native China, where she worked in a factory and fell in love with the owner, Boss Yeung. Now she’s carrying his baby. Already married with three daughters, Boss Yeung is overjoyed because the doctors have confirmed that he will finally have the son he always wanted. To ensure that his child has every advantage, Boss Yeung has shipped Scarlett off to give birth on American soil. U.S. citizenship will open doors for their little prince.

As Scarlett awaits the baby’s arrival, she chokes down bitter medicinal stews and spars with her imperious housemates. The only one who fits in even less is Daisy, a spirited teenager and fellow unwed mother who is being kept apart from her American boyfriend.

Then a new sonogram of Scarlett’s baby reveals the unexpected. Panicked, she escapes by hijacking a van – only to discover that she has a stowaway: Daisy, who intends to track down the father of her child. The two flee to San Francisco’s bustling Chinatown, where Scarlett will join countless immigrants desperately trying to seize their piece of the American dream. What Scarlett doesn’t know is that her baby’s father is not far behind her.

A River of Stars is an entertaining, wildly unpredictable adventure, told with empathy and wit by an author the San Francisco Chronicle says “has a deep understanding of the pressure of submerged emotions and polite, face-saving deceptions.” It’s a vivid examination of home and belonging, and a moving portrayal of a woman determined to build her own future.

Book Review: The Poppy War

poppy warThe Poppy War
by R. F. Kuang
Asian Military Fantasy
530 pages
Published May 2018

Have you ever read a book that is so good you don’t know what to say about it? It’s taken me almost two weeks to even attempt this review because I just don’t know what to write. The Poppy War is your typical story of downtrodden, disadvantaged girl testing into the highest school in the land and gaining the opportunities and privileges that come with that, but then the book takes a sharp twist into war. Rin doesn’t exactly get the most typical of educations, even before war breaks out. And when war breaks out, the school is disbanded, the students getting flung all over the land to where the government thinks they will help the most. For Rin, that’s joining The Cike. The Bizarre Children. The division of people who can do….things. Things the rest of the military isn’t comfortable with. The Cike can call on the powers of gods, and doing so makes them not-quite-untouchables. Rin, who was never short on resentment before this, grows ever more resentful.

Rin is an interesting character; she’s been hard done by, yes, but she makes decisions that only make things harder on herself. So I feel for her a little, but at the same time, girl. Check yourself. What’s been done to you doesn’t justify what you plan to do to others. I am hoping she comes to see that in the next book, because her rage and need for vengeance definitely gets the best of her in this one.

The Poppy War is an excellently written blend of military fantasy, epic fantasy, and coming-of-age novel. Unlike some books, where the military aspect far overshadows the characters, leaving them flat, Poppy War doesn’t ignore the characters to focus on the bigger picture. It’s a very good mix of both close-up focus on characters, fights, battles, and zoomed-out strategy and war. It’s probably the best military fantasy I’ve read, and the Asian aspect of it makes it even better. So much military fantasy is western European, or Steampunk, or both. I’ve been finding more and more Asian and African fantasy, and I am SO HERE FOR IT. I need to try to find more South American fantasy. I know it’s out there.

I will definitely be watching for the next book in this series, because it’s awesome.

From the cover of The Poppy War:

She is a peasant.
She is a student.
She is a soldier.
She is a goddess.

When Rin aced the Keju – the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to study at the academies – it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who always thought they’d be able to marry Rin off to further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was now finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard – the most elite military school in the Nikara Empire – was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Rin is targeted from the outset by rival classmates because of her color, poverty, and gender. Driven to desperation, she discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power – an aptitude for the nearly mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive – and that mastering control over her powers could mean more than just surviving school.

For even though the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied the Nikara Empire for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people in the Empire would rather forget their painful history, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away.

Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god who has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her her humanity.

And it may already be too late.

Book Review: A Thousand Beginnings and Endings

a thousand beginnings and endingsA Thousand Beginnings and Endings
Edited by Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman
Retold Asian Mythology Anthology
328 pages
Published June 2018

This is one of the many new releases I have been eagerly awaiting from the library, and it did not disappoint! There are fifteen stories here, reimagining Asian myths, legends, and fairytales. Each story has an author’s note following it, giving a little bit of background information on the inspiration for the story. I didn’t realize until reading the author bios in the back of the book that three of the authors (including the two editors) are from the We Need Diverse Books team, which is one of my favorite book twitters! (@diversebooks) Their book recommendations are always fantastic. One of the editors is actually local to me, so that’s pretty neat, too!

I think my favorite stories were the last two in the book – Eyes Like Candlelight (by Julie Kagawa), about a Kitsune falling in love with a mortal, and The Crimson Cloak (Cindy Pon), about a goddess falling in love with a mortal. Stories range from Japanese mythology (Eyes Like Candlelight) to Filipino, Hmong, and Punjabi-inspired tales. The diversity in both culture, style, and time period of these tales is fantastic. I really enjoy Asian mythology, and I love seeing more and more books exploring it. (Forest of a Thousand Lanterns was another semi-recent one.)

Because it’s a bunch of short stories, it’s an easy book to take in small bites – a story here, a story there. I like mixing short story collections in with my longer reads; they make for nice breaks. I highly recommend this book, and I’ll be looking up the authors to find some of their other works! (That’s another reason I love short story collections – they introduce me to authors I might not otherwise read!)

From the cover of A Thousand Beginnings and Endings:

Star-crossed lovers. Meddling immortals. Feigned identities. Dire warnings.

These are the stuff of myth and legend. Add a dangerous smile, a game that pulls players out of one world and into another, a ghost town, a never-ending war, a night of dancing . . . and this collection of inspired and original retellings is only just beginning. Fifteen acclaimed authors reimagine tales from their own East and South Asian cultures. Classic epics, lush fantasy, inventive science fiction, sparkling contemporary – there is a story here for every reader to devour.

But beware . . . not every tale has a happy ending.

Book Review: The Great Zoo of China

great zoo of chinaThe Great Zoo of China
by Matthew Reilly
Action/Thriller
393 pages
Published 2015

I don’t typically read thrillers, and I haven’t read Jurassic Park because the movie gave young me nightmares for YEARS. (I haven’t seen ANY of the sequels, it was that bad!) But this was billed as Jurassic Park but with DRAGONS. And dragon-themed ANYTHING gets my attention, so in the queue it went! And I am glad for it, because this book was awesome. From the first glimpse of dragons flying above the tourist area, to the moment when everything starts to go wrong, to racing through the pages to find out how our hero manages to survive, this book had me entranced. The action just careens through the swamps and mountains of the park, almost as out of control as the dragons CJ is running from. And while we know CJ has to survive, because she’s the main character, she has a brother, a little girl she’s taken under her protection, old colleagues, and countrymen that she could lose at any moment.

And the dragons. Oh my, the dragons. They come in three sizes – Princes, about the size of a small car, Kings, about city bus size, and Emperors. Emperors are the size of passenger jets. With creatures this size, the action is supersized, too! Picture dragons picking up garbage trucks and flinging them at buildings, and you’ve got the idea! These dragons are intelligent, too. They have a language, and can plan and set traps together. They are devious and DEADLY.

If the dragons weren’t enough, the story is also set in China. China is known for squashing dissent, and it’s no different with the zoo. No one outside the zoo knows about the dragons, and until they have things under control, and the zoo up and running, they can’t let anyone know about it. Which means any witnesses to this dragon rebellion need to die, whether to the claws of the dragons or the bullets of the Chinese military.

The Great (Dragon) Zoo of China is one heck of a ride, and the action is amazing. I think this is one of my favorites of the year. It’s also the fourth book on my Summer reading list.

From the cover of The Great Zoo of China:

Get ready for action on a gigantic scale.

It is a secret the Chinese government has been keeping for forty years. They have proven the existence of dragons – a landmark discovery no one could ever believe is real, and a scientific revelation that will amaze the world. Now the Chinese are ready to unveil their astonishing findings within the greatest zoo ever constructed.

A small group of VIPs and journalists has been brought to the zoo deep within China to see these fabulous creatures for the first time. Among them is Dr. Cassandra Jane “CJ” Cameron, a writer for National Geographic and an expert on reptiles. The visitors are assured by their Chinese hosts that they will be struck with wonder at these beasts, that the dragons are perfectly safe, and that nothing can go wrong.

Of course it can’t….

Book Review: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns

forest1kForest of a Thousand Lanterns
by Julie C. Dao
Fairy Tale Retelling
363 pages
Published 2017

You know I love my Fairy Tales! Especially re-imagining the villains. Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is an Asian take on the evil queen from Snow White. The author is a Vietnamese American, and this is her debut novel. She has quite skillfully woven a new origin story for the wicked stepmother in a fantasy land heavily influenced by East Asian mythology and culture. I don’t know enough about the individual countries’ mythologies to tell you if the influences come specifically from Vietnam, or more generically from the area. I know that their beliefs can vary pretty wildly by locale.

That said, this is another superb debut novel. I’m eager to read the sequel – it’s billed as “A Rise of the Empress novel” so I’m sure there will be one or more. Xifeng is a pretty complex character – she is somewhat single-minded in what she wants, but conflicted in what to do to get it. (It being the position of Empress.) I was intrigued by who was chosen to fill the roles of the traditional tale; Xifeng, of course, would be the wicked stepmother. The Fool is Xifeng’s version of Snow White, and Xifeng thought for some time that she knew who The Fool was. The reader, of course, knows the Fool must be Snow White, and so not the people who Xifeng suspected. The one that surprised me was the identity of The Huntsman. I won’t spoil anything – but he was unexpected.

There’s also more going on than just the Snow White plot. There are gods and goddesses and spirits and an underlying war. I am quite eager to see how those play out.

There is a slow spot in the middle – I set the book down for a couple of days before picking it up again, and that’s always a sign I’m not as absorbed in the book as I could be. But I did pick it up again and read straight through to the end, so it’s not too bad!

If you like Fairy Tales and Asian mythology, this is definitely a neat blend of the two. I really liked it.

From the cover of Forest of a Thousand Lanterns:

Eighteen-year-old Xifeng is beautiful. The stars say she is destined for greatness, that she is meant to be Empress of Feng Lu. But only if she embraces the darkness within her. 

Growing up as a peasant in a forgotten village on the edge of the map, Xifeng longs to fulfill the destiny promised to her by her cruel aunt, the witch Guma, who has read the cards and seen glimmers of Xifeng’s majestic future. But is the price of the throne too high? Because in order to achieve greatness, she must spurn the young man who loves her and exploit the callous magic that runs through her veins – sorcery fueled by eating the hearts of the recently killed. For the god who has sent her on this journey will not be satisfied until his power is absolute.