Book Review: New Suns

new sunsNew Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color
Edited by Nisi Shawl
Short stories / Sci-Fi / Fantasy
279 pages
Published March 2019

This was quite the collection! I disagree with the cover description’s use of “unexpected brilliance” – I think that’s actually slightly insulting, and possibly racist. (Who wrote that line?!) I fully expected the brilliance I got, and was very pleased with it!

From the forward by Levar Burton, through stories by Hispanic, Black, Asian, and Indigenous authors, all the way to the Afterword from Nisi Shawl, this was an amazing, fascinating, mind-blowing book. Rebecca Roanhorse is probably the most well-known of the authors, thanks to Trail of Lightning, but Indrapramit Das wrote The Devourers, which I’ve heard about and have on my Kindle but have not yet read, and Steven Barnes is married to another author I’ve read, Tananarive Due. Silvia Moreno-Garcia wrote the recently released Gods of Jade and Shadow, which I picked up through Book of the Month in July but have again, not yet read. Library books keep taking priority over things I own!

Going through the biographies in the back of the book makes me want to add EVERYTHING to my TBR – with titles like The Sea is Ours: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia, Will Do Magic For Small Change, and The Beast With Nine Billion Feet, how could I not?!

Back to the book itself, though! There are 17 stories in this book, ranging from 5 pages to 20-30 pages. I think my favorite was “The Freedom of the Shifting Sea” by Jaymee Goh, about an Asian mermaid, but the one just before it, “Burn the Ships,” about indigenous South Americans fighting back with blood magic against Spaniards, was also amazing. (Written by Alberto Yáñez.) Really all of the stories are spell-binding, though. And the variety is VAST. From a story retelling The Emperor’s New Clothes, in three variations, to Earth becoming a tourist destination for galactics (aliens), to a story imagining what we would be like with computers in our heads to keep us from having destructive emotions, these are wildly imaginative and thought-provoking.

I love reading short story anthologies because they always introduce me to new authors I want to read more of, which this book unequivocally did. I also have more reason to read Gods of Jade and Shadow now!

This should be on the reading list of every spec fic fan. I’m going to leave you with the quote that begins the book and inspired the title, from one of the mothers of modern science fiction, Octavia Butler:

“There’s nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns.”

From the cover of New Suns:

New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color showcases emerging and seasoned writers of many races telling stories filled with shocking delights, powerful visions of the familiar made strange. Between this book’s covers burn tales of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and their indefinable overlappings. These are authors aware of our many possible pasts and futures, authors freed of stereotypes and cliches, ready to dazzle you with their daring genius.

Unexpected brilliance shines forth from every page.

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Book Review: Love from A to Z

love from a to zLove from A to Z
by S. K. Ali
Young Adult / Romance
342 pages
Published April 2019

I read S. K. Ali’s first book, Saints and Misfits, and quite enjoyed it, so I knew I’d be picking this one up eventually. I finally did – and this just solidifies S. K. Ali as a MUST READ author for me. Because this was excellent.

I complained in my last review that while the book was good, it was fluffy contemporary fiction, which is not where my current tastes lie. THIS is a much better book for me. While it’s still contemporary fiction, it has a heavier romance line, and it deals with issues of racism, islamophobia, chronic illness, and casualties of war.

It’s written in journal form, alternating between the journals of Adam and Zayneb. (The A to Z of the title!) Both of them were inspired to keep journals of “Marvels” and “Oddities,” individually, when they ran across The Marvels of Creation and the Oddities of Existence, an ancient manuscript in an Islamic museum. Adam sees Zayneb’s journal when they’re sitting near each other in an airport, which is what prompts their first meeting.

I really loved this book, and I adore Zayneb. She’s passionate and angry about injustice. Her ongoing feud with an islamophobic teacher drives her and her friends to take action, and I loved how her aunt encouraged her, but also encouraged her to be smart about it.

Zayneb wears a hijab, and the book actually goes into some detail on her feelings about it – who’s allowed to see her without it, what she does to make a makeshift hijab if she needs one unexpectedly, her daydreams about the special man who will get to see her hair. It was pretty special to get an inside look at hijab wearing; it’s such a personal thing.

Adam has just been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, the disease that killed his mother, so there’s a lot of struggling to come to terms with that and what it means for his long-term health.

Some things, like hijab-wearing, get explained to the reader, but other things, like the three bits of Arabic script, the greetings, and a passage where Zayneb “takes a deep breath and says bismallah” are not. This is where I’m glad my husband was an Arabic linguist in the military, because they taught him a lot of the culture, as well. So now I know the Arabic script, repeated a few times in the book, all basically says “God Willing,” a standard Arabic phrase. I knew the greetings, but it was the bismallah that stumped me, so I asked him about it.

“Saying bismallah” is saying the name of God. It’s used as a beginning for many things, whether those are nice things, or difficult things, so in this case Zayneb was saying it before she started a difficult conversation with her mother. The book doesn’t explain it; it doesn’t need to, to understand the narrative, but I always enjoy learning the cultural underpinnings of things like this.

The afterword of the book is worth reading, as well. Ali explains that all of the discriminatory acts in the book were taken from real experiences; even the islamophobic teacher was taken from an incident three years ago in Toronto. Sadly, this doesn’t surprise me at all.

Final verdict – this book is great. It’s going on my Best of 2019 list. It covers all kinds of important topics and holds a wealth of diversity, all wrapped around a sweet romance. I’ll be watching for more books by S. K. Ali, because she is wildly talented.

From the cover of Love from A to Z:

A Marvel: something you find amazing. Even ordinary-amazing. Like potatoes – because they make french fries happen. Like the perfect fries Adam and his mom used to make together.

An Oddity: whatever gives you pause. Like the fact that there are hateful people in the world. Like Zayneb’s teacher, who won’t stop reminding the class how “bad” Muslims are.

But Zayneb, the only Muslim in class, isn’t bad. She’s angry.

When she gets suspended for confronting her teacher, and he begins investigating her activist friends, Zayneb heads to her aunt’s house in Doha, Qatar, for an early start to spring break. Fueled by the guilt of getting her friends in trouble, she resolves to try out a newer, “nicer” version of herself in a place where no one knows her.

Then her path crosses with Adam’s.

Since he got diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in November, Adam has stopped going to classes, intent instead on perfecting the making of things. Intent on keeping the memory of his mom alive for his little sister. 

Adam is also intent on keeping his diagnosis a secret from his grieving father.

Alone, Adam and Zayneb are playing roles for others, keeping their real thoughts locked away in their journals. 

Until a marvel and an oddity occurs . . . .

Marvel: Adam and Zayneb meeting.

Oddity: Adam and Zayneb meeting. 

Book Review: The Way You Make Me Feel

the way you make me feelThe Way You Make Me Feel
by Maurene Goo
Young Adult
323 pages
Published 2018

I liked this book but I wish I hadn’t read it.

Yeah, that’s an odd sentence, isn’t it? The Way You Make Me Feel is a funny, well-written book about a teenager’s summer. She struggles with her parents, their long-ago divorce, authority, consequences for her own actions, and starting to take things seriously. It is a great, fluffy little book with fantastic minority representation.

The fact that I wish I hadn’t spent the time to read it is entirely indicative of where MY reading tastes are and has nothing to do with the book. Which makes this a difficult review to write! My tastes generally lie in fantasy, fiction that deals with heavy topics, or nonfiction. I don’t tend to read contemporary fiction that doesn’t have a message. (Unless it’s guilty pleasure romances.) So I feel like my time could have been better spent on another book, I suppose? But this book is important in its own way.

Between the Korean-Brazilian main character, her black nemesis-turned-friend, and her Chinese-American love interest, there’s a lot of minority representation in this book, and they deserve happy, fluffy books. (There’s also a gay side character.) It’s something I’ve seen talked about a lot – minority authors sometimes feel pressured to address issues of discrimination, immigration, and the like in their books – but they also need books where their characters are just average people.

So the book sits in an odd in-between place for me. It is well-written and a fun book to read. I enjoyed the story. But I have so many books on my TBR right now that I wish I’d spent the time on something more substantial or closer to my personal tastes. For actual young adults – especially any of the identities represented by the book – it would be an excellent summer read.

From the cover of The Way You Make Me Feel:

Sixteen-year-old Clara Shin doesn’t take life too seriously, but when she pushes one joke too far, her dad sentences her to a summer working on his food truck, the KoBra. Clara was supposed to go on vacation to Tulum to visit her social media-influencer mom; she was supposed to spend lazy days at the pool with her buddies. Being stuck in a sweaty Korean-Brazilian food truck all day, every day? Worse still, working alongside her nemesis, Rose Carver? Not the carefree summer Clara had imagined.

But as time goes on, it turns out that maybe Rose isn’t so bad. Maybe the boy named Hamlet (yes, Hamlet) who’s crushing on Clara is pretty cute. Maybe Clara actually feels invested in her dad’s business. What if taking this summer seriously means that Clara has to leave her old self behind?

With her signature warmth and humor, Maurene Goo delivers a relatable story of falling in love and finding yourself in the places you’d never thought to look.

Book Review: With The Fire On High

with the fire on highWith The Fire On High
by Elizabeth Acevedo
Young Adult / Contemporary Fiction
388 pages
Published May 2019

With this book, Elizabeth Acevedo has solidified her position as one of my must-read authors. The Poet X was EXCELLENT, and this one is every bit as good, which is awesome, considering the wildly different formats of the two books. The Poet X was a novel in poem form, being the collected poems of a teenage girl. This book is a more traditional novel, written in prose. It loses none of the lyrical, enchanting quality of Acevedo’s writing, however.

With The Fire On High centers on Emoni Santiago, a teenage mother struggling to graduate from high school on time. When a culinary arts elective is offered during her senior year of school, she takes it despite feeling like she should be spending her energy on her daughter’s future instead of realizing her own dreams. The elective opens up an entire world for her, however, taking her from whipping up magic alone in her own kitchen to being recognized by talented chefs as having something special. The added hours spent on cooking begin to affect her other responsibilities, however, and Emoni struggles to balance everything in her life, a fight that is very nearly upended by the new, very cute boy who just transferred to her school.

Emoni deals admirably with the vast responsibilities of being a parent, the complications of her own somewhat unusual home life (she’s been raised by her grandmother after her mother’s death and her father’s absence), and the pressures of high school. Especially a school where she spent freshman year pregnant. Rather luckily, her daughter’s father goes to a different school, so at least she doesn’t have to deal with him every day.

Similar to The Poet X, the book deals with the intersection of black American culture and Puerto Rican culture, a combination I’ve been seeing more and more in Young Adult. (Well, The Poet X was Dominican, but they have very similar worries, mostly revolving around feeling “not black enough.”)

I loved Emoni, I loved Malachi (the cute transfer student), I loved Abuela and Baby Girl/Emma. I even didn’t mind Tyrone too much. For being a player, he was trying to do right by his daughter. Acevedo has such a talent for characters. Angelica (Emoni’s best friend) and her girlfriend were a delight, too.

If you see a book by Elizabeth Acevedo, pick it up. You won’t be disappointed. I can’t wait to pick up her next book, which appears to be another novel in verse called Clap When You Land, due out next year!

From the cover of With The Fire On High:

Ever since she got pregnant freshman year, Emoni Santiago’s life has been about making the tough decisions, doing what has to be done for her daughter and her abuela. The one place she can let all that go is in the kitchen. There, she lets her hands tell her what to cook, listening to her intuition and adding a little something magical every time, turning her food into straight-up goodness.

Even though she’s always dreamed of working in a kitchen after she graduates, Emoni knows that it’s not worth her time to pursue the impossible. Yet despite the rules she’s made for her life – and everyone else’s rules, which she refuses to play by – once Emoni starts cooking, her only choice is to let her talent break free.

From the author of National Book Award winner The Poet X comes a dazzling story of a girl with talent, pride, and a drive to create that keeps her fire burning bright.

Book Review: Juliet Takes a Breath

juliet takes a breathJuliet Takes a Breath
by Gabby Rivera
Young Adult / LGBT / Contemporary Fiction / Feminist
264 pages
Published 2016

Ohhhhhh my. This is a short book, and a quick read, but MAN is it great. It tackles racism, microaggressions, white feminism, coming out, “it’s just a phase!”, polyamory, breaking up, trans-exclusive language…and so much more.

The plot revolves around Juliet’s summer internship with an author in Portland, Harlowe Brisbane. Many of the chapters begin with an excerpt from Brisbane’s fictional treatise on feminism, Raging Flower: Empowering Your Pussy by Empowering Your Mind. One of these excerpts in particular took my breath away:

Read everything you can push into your skull. Read your mother’s diary. Read Assata. Read everything Gloria Steinem and bell hooks write. Read all of the poems your friends leave in your locker. Read books about your body written by people who have bodies like yours. Read everything that supports your growth as a vibrant, rebel girl human. Read because you’re tired of secrets.

Juliet reminds me a lot of me when I was detaching myself from Christianity and the conservatism I grew up with. Devouring books, learning about historical figures that I should have known about and was stunned that I’d never heard of. So I totally understand her wonder and shock at an entirely new world opening up before her.

Through Harlowe and her primary partner, Maxine, Juliet learns about polyamory. It’s a remarkably good example; even though Harlowe and Maxine have their issues, their arguments are reasonably healthy, and despite disagreeing on some topics, they still love each other and say as much.

In Harlowe, we have an example of a white feminist who tries to be intersectional, at least a little, but can still be blind to a lot of her own microaggressions. Maxine, her partner, is a woman of color, as are most of the other characters in the book, so Juliet has lots of opportunities to see how white feminism can be ignorant of issues and blind to its own faults.

As a white feminist myself, I took this portrayal for the warning it really is. I do my best to lift up voices of color by reviewing books by and about minorities on this blog as often as I can. I try to be as intersectional as possible, but I know I will make missteps, and I can always be better. But this book, though it’s meant for the other side of the equation, is a reminder to feminists like me to keep trying to be better, and the costs to other people when we screw up.

From the cover of Juliet Takes a Breath:

Juliet Milagros Palante is leaving the Bronx and headed to Portland, Oregon. She just came out to her family and isn’t sure if her mom will ever speak to her again. But Juliet has a plan, sort of, one that’s going to help her figure out this whole “Puerto Rican lesbian” thing. She’s interning with the author of her favorite book: Harlowe Brisbane, the ultimate authority on feminism, women’s bodies, and other gay-sounding stuff. 

Will Juliet be able to figure out her life over the course of one magical summer? Is that even possible? Or is she running away from all the problems that seem too big to handle?

With more questions than answers, Juliet takes on Portland, Harlowe, and most importantly, herself.

Book Review: Ship It

ship itShip It
by Britta Lundin
Young Adult
375 pages
Published 2018

Claire’s an obsessed jerk. Let me just get that out ahead of everything else. Claire is one of two viewpoints in this book, and I won’t even call her a protagonist, because Forest, the male viewpoint character, is FAR more sympathetic. Yeah, he’s a touch homophobic at the beginning of the book, but he learns. Claire, on the other hand, has one goal that she’s obsessed with and Will. Not. Let. It. Go. Single-minded determination can be a great thing, but Claire doesn’t see or understand the harm she’s doing in pursuing her goal. The few times she does see, she doesn’t seem to care. Sure, she’s sixteen, but holy crap, girl. Maybe, when people tell you a thing can’t happen, you should stop and ask them why instead of stubbornly insisting it CAN happen if only they’ll let it.

Let me back up slightly. Claire is a superfan of a show called Demon Heart. In the show, a demon hunter and a demon-with-a-heart play off each other in what the fans see as a romantic manner. This comes as a huge surprise to at least one of the stars of the show, Forest Reed, who plays the demon hunter. Forest has a rather disastrous interaction with Claire at a Q&A (he’s an asshole about her question, which is about the two characters being gay) and the show decides, in order to salvage things, to have Claire travel with them to the next few public appearances, since she’s a big name in the fandom. Forest sees this as a job he has to put up with for a paycheck. Claire sees this as a chance to make her ship real, and goes to – well – ridiculous lengths to convince the showrunners and stars.

Ultimately, Claire is right that representation is incredibly important. And she’s probably even right that showrunners and stars should take risks with their careers to bring that representation to screen. But she’s such an asshole about it that I can’t even cheer her on. She’s even kind of a jerk to Tess, the cute fanartist she meets at the first convention (and keeps running into at the ensuing cons).

Claire aside, I actually enjoyed the book. There were a couple of twists at the end that I very much enjoyed.

One bit I did NOT enjoy was Tess identifying as pan “because bi means two.” That definition of bisexual – that it’s binary, only attracted to men and women – is biphobic and has NEVER been true. Bisexual means attracted to your own gender and others. That first definition tries to make bisexuals seem transphobic, and I’m frustrated that it persists. So it’s disappointing to see the statement made in the book go unchallenged.

There’s also an anxiety-inducing scene late in the book that I can’t say much about because it’s a major plot twist, but if you have issues with intimidating men, maayyyybe skip this one.

There is quite a bit of representation in the book, between Tess, the pansexual black girl, Claire, a questioning/queer white girl, and Forest, who is definitely questioning his sexuality, and learning about gender and sexuality representation issues from Claire. Oh, also Caty, a studio assistant, who is bisexual. (But who clarifies, unnecessarily, that she’s attracted to boys and girls.)

So I’m quite torn on this book. I liked it, but it has issues.

From the cover of Ship It:

Claire is a sixteen-year-old fangirl obsessed with the show Demon Heart. Forest is an actor on Demon Heart who dreams of bigger roles. When the two meet at a local Comic-Con panel, it’s a dream come true for Claire. Until the Q&A, that is, when Forest laughs off Claire’s assertion that his character is gay. Claire is devastated. After all, every last word of her super-popular fanfic revolves around the romance between Forest’s character and his male co-lead. She can’t believe her hero turned out to be a closed-minded jerk. Forest is mostly confused that anyone would think his character is gay. Because he’s not. Definitely not.

Unfortunately for Demon Heart, when the video of the disastrous Q&A goes viral, the producers have a PR nightmare on their hands. In order to help bolster their image within the LGBTQ+ community – as well as with their fans – they hire Claire to join the cast for the rest of the publicity tour. What ensues is a series of colorful Comic-Con clashes between the fans and the show that lead Forest to question his assumptions about sexuality and help Claire come out of her shell. But how far will Claire go to make her ship canon? To what lengths will Forest go to stop her and protect his career? And will Claire ever get the guts to make a move on Tess, the very cute, extremely cool fanartist she keeps running into? Ship It is a funny, tender, and honest look at all the feels that come with being a fan.