Book Review: Song of the Crimson Flower

song of the crimson flowerSong of the Crimson Flower
by Julie C. Dao
Fantasy / Romance
272 pages
Published November 2019

This is a companion book to Julie Dao’s duology, after Forest of a Thousand Lanterns and Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix. I really enjoyed the three books as a whole; the stories in each book were connected but standalones at the same time. In Forest of a Thousand Lanterns we had the rise of the evil queen from Snow White (but Asian) and Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix was Snow White (but Asian). Kingdom could stand alone fine, but knowing the back story of Xifeng made the ending that much more heartbreaking. Similarly, Song of the Crimson Flower could also stand alone just fine, but knowing the background of Commander Wei made his small part in the story much more worthwhile, and lent more weight to the cameo by Empress Jade.

But Song of the Crimson Flower isn’t about Empress Jade, or Commander Wei. Song is about Lan, a nobleman’s daughter of no real import, and Bao, the poor orphan boy who loves her. Bao reveals an elaborate deception to Lan, and in her heartbreak, she is cruel to him and sends him away. He flees their village and happens across the river witch, who thinks he came to her for some malicious purpose, curses him, and sends him back to where he came from. Which happens to be Lan, who is already regretting her actions towards him. Lan agrees to help break his curse, and we’re off on the adventure.

The book is actually quite short – under 300 pages – and a LOT happens. Dao has a rare talent for description and action, together in a succinct way that makes it a lush tale that doesn’t FEEL like it’s hurried along, but is still over before you know it. (For an example of her beautiful prose, see my last Friday 56!) This is a lovely addition to Forest and Kingdom, and I’m curious if Dao plans to write more in this world or not.

From the cover of Song of the Crimson Flower:

WILL LOVE BREAK THE SPELL?

After cruelly rejecting Bao, the poor physician’s assistant who loves, her, Lan, a wealthy nobleman’s daughter, regrets her actions. So when she finds Bao’s prized flute floating in his boat near her house, she takes it into her care, not knowing that his soul has been trapped inside it by an evil witch, who cursed Bao, telling him that only love will set him free. Though Bao now despises her, Lan vows to make amends and help break the spell.

Together, the two travel across the continent, finding themselves in the presence of greatness in the forms of the Great Forest’s Empress Jade and Commander Wei. They journey with Wei, getting tangled in the webs of war, blood magic, and romance along the way. Will Lan and Bao begin to break the spell that’s been placed upon them? Or will they be doomed to live out their lives with black magic running through their veins?

In this fantastical tale of darkness and love, some magical bonds are stronger than blood.

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Book Review: Ayesha At Last

ayesha at lastAyesha At Last
by Uzma Jalaluddin
Contemporary Fiction / Retelling / Romance
348 pages
Published June 2019

Ayesha at Last is yet another Pride and Prejudice retelling – I might need to make a book list of these! Pride and Prejudice through an Asian lens seems to be really popular, between the Pakistani Unmarriageable, the Indian-American Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors, and now this Muslim-American version. (The characters here are from a mix of countries.) The Muslim and Asian custom of arranged marriage fits well with the original plot of Pride and Prejudice, so it’s no real surprise.

Ayesha is a really strong character here, as she should be to be the stand in for Elizabeth Bennet. I disliked Hafsa; yes, she’s flighty like Lydia, but Lydia was never intentionally mean, and Hafsa is. There is no elder perfect sister in this version; Hafsa and Ayesha aren’t even sisters, but cousins, and Ayesha’s best friend is already in a long-term relationship. There’s a lot of parts of the original that are shaken up and mashed together in different ways in this retelling, but the core plot of “awkward rich dude keeps younger girl’s reputation intact and gets revenge on the man who would have ruined it while falling in love with the slightly-older spinster” is intact.

A lot of the action in this book takes place in the mosque; the mosque’s daily operations are a fairly big plot point in the book. I enjoyed the peek into the mosque-as-community-center. The other big aspects of this retelling are the family dynamics, from the Aunties brokering marriage offers to the adult children struggling with their elders’ relationships – in some cases, revering them as relationships goals, in some cases being completely in the dark as to what their marriages looked like at all! Ayesha’s grandparents are totally goals, but it takes most of the book to learn the mystery of her parents’ relationship.

This book lacked the lush descriptions of fashion that characterized Unmarriageable, and the mouth-watering descriptions of food that were the specialty of Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors, but I would still rank it somewhere between those two – above the latter but below Unmarriageable. All three are excellent, though.

So. Another excellent addition to the Pride and Prejudice pantheon, but very similar to both Unmarriageable and Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors. I do have to say the manner in which our Wickham is taken down is hilarious, and VERY modern. I laughed out loud and read much of the chapter aloud to my spouse to explain why I was so amused.

From the cover of Ayesha At Last:

Ayesha Shamsi has a lot going on. Her dreams of being a poet have been set aside for a teaching job so she can pay off her debts to her wealthy uncle. She lives with her boisterous Muslim family and is always being reminded that her flighty younger cousin, Hafsa, is close to rejecting her hundredth marriage proposal. Though Ayesha is lonely, she doesn’t want an arranged marriage. Then she meets Khalid, who is just as smart and handsome as he is conservative and judgmental. She is irritatingly attracted to someone who looks down on her choices, and dresses like he belongs in the seventh century.

When a surprise engagement is announced between Khalid and Hafsa, Ayesha is torn between how she feels about the straightforward Khalid and the unsettling new gossip she hears about his family. Looking into the rumors, she finds she has to deal with not only what she discovers about Khalid, but also the truth she realizes about herself.

Book Review: There’s Something About Sweetie

there's something about sweetieThere’s Something About Sweetie
by Sandhya Menon
Young Adult Romance
378 pages
Published May 2019

There is so much to love about this book. I read When Dimple Met Rishi a while back, and fell in love with Rishi like I VERY rarely do with fictional characters. This book is about Rishi’s brother, Ashish. I don’t care for Ashish as much as I liked Rishi, but Sweetie – oh, girl.

See, Sweetie is fat. But despite how all the traditionalists around her would have her feel, she’s okay with that. She’s still the fastest runner on the track team, an amazing singer, and has a close group of loyal friends.

So when she’s approached by Ashish’s mother to arrange dating him, and it’s turned down flatly by her own mother because she’s “not at his level” – she makes the decision to show her mother she CAN be happy, and have the things her mother wants for her, WHILE BEING FAT. And so is born the “Sassy Sweetie Project,” which is adorable.

I love Sweetie, and being a fat person myself (who also snagged a hottie, not gonna lie) I identify SO MUCH with her struggles here. Snide remarks from family friends, the constant “if you’d just lose weight” from the people close to you, the expectation that you can’t be happy while fat – Sweetie faces all of that, tells it to sod off, and proves you can be fat and healthy and happy.

One thing I really like about the Menon’s arranged relationships – the Patels, at least, treat it as “we’ll arrange this, but it’s up to you to follow through. If you don’t like each other, we won’t force you to go through with this.” Which is a nice thing to see. It’s probably just an American stereotype that says arranged marriages are forced relationships; not knowing the culture first hand, I can’t say which one is closer to the truth. BUT it challenges American assumptions about arranged marriages, and that’s a great thing, and another reason to read diversely. (I’m willing to bet Menon’s version of it is closer to the modern norm for arranged marriages, at least.)

I love that even in a sweet, lighthearted romance such as this one, reading diversely challenges American assumptions about other cultures. I feel like this is especially important in Young Adult lit – presenting other cultures to teens before opinions about them are fully formed. Because I’ll admit, I have a instinctual “ACK!” reaction to the thought of an arranged marriage – in my mind that infringes on all the independence and free will I’ve clawed so hard for – but it’s worthwhile to be reminded that sometimes it looks like this, and not “Hey, my 14-year-old daughter, you’re going to marry a 40-year-old man tomorrow, deal with it” (though that does certainly happen, but it happens in the US, too! Don’t believe me? Read here).

Both of Sandhya Menon’s books that I’ve read present arranged relationships in a much more positive light than typical American media. It’s important representation, and the characters and relationships are a joy to read to boot.

(Tagged LGBT for an adorable gay couple who are friends of Ashish’s and show up throughout the book.)

From the cover of There’s Something About Sweetie:

ASHISH PATEL didn’t know love could be so . . . sucky. After he’s dumped by his ex-girlfriend, his mojo goes AWOL. Even worse, his parents are annoyingly, smugly confident they can find him a better match. So, in a moment of weakness, Ash challenges them to set him up.

The Patels insist that Ashish date an Indian-American girl – under contract. Per subclause 1(a), he’ll be taking his date on “fun” excursions like visiting the Hindu temple and his eccentric Gita Auntie. Kill him now. How is this ever going to work?

SWEETIE NAIR is many things: a formidable track athlete who can outrun most people in California, a loyal friend, a shower-singing champion. Oh, and she’s also fat. To Sweetie’s traditional parents, this last detail is the kiss of death. 

Sweetie loves her parents, but she’s so tired of being told she’s lacking because she’s fat. She decides it’s time to kick off the Sassy Sweetie Project, where she’ll show the world (and herself) what she’s really made of.

Ashish and Sweetie both have something to prove. But with each date they realize there’s an unexpected magic growing between them. Can they find their true selves without losing each other?

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: Frankenstein in Baghdad

frankenstein in baghdadFrankenstein in Baghdad
by Ahmed Saadawi (Trans. Jonathan Wright)
Contemporary Fiction / Magical Realism
281 pages
Published in Arabic in 2013, in English 2018

This book won at least two awards; the International Prize for Arabic Fiction and France’s Grand Prize for Fantasy, and the author had previously been named one of the 39 best Arab authors under the age of 39. I picked it up to read for the Year of the Asian Reading Challenge, since the Middle East is all-too-often neglected in regional groupings like that. People don’t think of it as Europe or Asia. I also try to read translated books on occasion, in an effort to diversify my reading. So this hit a number of my interests – I  wish I had actually liked the book more!

It’s an interesting retelling of Frankenstein – which I haven’t actually read, and now feel like I really should. But it bounces around between several viewpoints. It’s not too many to keep straight, but it’s definitely too many to truly care about. And it suffers from an unreliable narrator – it’s written as several stories told to an author from multiple people that he’s woven together into a single narrative, and while he does that well, it suffers from contradictions between how different characters recall things, scenes that don’t play a part in furthering the plot but the characters thought they were important, and no authoritative “this is what REALLY happened” to draw it all together.

And I very much dislike unreliable narrators, so that alone is enough to make me dislike the book. If you like ambiguous narratives and vigilante stories, however, you might enjoy this, and the writing style itself was quite engrossing.

From the cover of Frankenstein in Baghdad:

From the rubble-strewn streets of U.S.-occupied Baghdad, Hadi – a scavenger and an oddball fixture at the local cafe – collects human body parts and stitches them together to create a corpse. His goal, he claims, is for the government to recognize the parts as people and to give them proper burial. But when the corpse goes missing, a wave of eerie murders sweeps the city. Hadi soon realizes he’s created a monster, one that needs human flesh to survive – first from the guilty, and then from anyone in its path. With white-knuckle horror and black humor, Frankenstein in Baghdad captures the surreal reality of contemporary Iraq.