Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao

Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor is an engaging start to an action-driven fantasy series that is written in a winsome prose that is guaranteed to appeal to fans of Rick Riordan. Like Riordan’s books, Zhao combines an action-driven quest with a coming of age tale exploring the highs and lows of being a 12yr boy. I loved the way the author managed to incorporate—with varying degrees of self-awareness—existing tropes of the ‘chosen one/kids with powers’ genre whilst adding new dimensions and elements to their story. Additionally, unlike a lot of MG books, Zhao addresses serious and topical issues/realities in a very clear-eyed and straightforward manner.

Zachary Ying, our main character, has tried to distance himself from Chinese culture in order to fit in his white majority school. His mom, who is his sole carer, works long hours, so Zack spends a lot of his time playing Mythrealm. One day at school he comes across Simon who seems eager to get to know Zack. Turns out that Zack, the host of the spirit of the First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, who, alongside Simon, host to Tang Taizong, and later on Melissa, host to Wu Zetian, are tasked with a crucial mission: they have to seal the portal to the Chinese underworld before the Ghost Month. Zack doesn’t really want to be part of all of this but with his mom’s life in jeopardy, he has little choice in the matter. Unlike Simon and Melissa, however, Zack’s emperor was not fully able to possess him and was forced to tie himself to Zack’s AR gaming headset (which lends many of the action sequences a gameplay quality). To rectify this Zack flies to China to strengthen his bond with his Chinese heritage, all the while being chased by baddies…but as their mission unfolds and Zack learns more about the emperors’ reigns, he begins to worry that he is not working for the good guys either.

Throughout the course of the narrative, the author references superhero comics, games, anime (i mean, code geass gets a mention which will always be a win in my books), as well as, you guessed it, Avatar: The Last Airbender. The narrative is quite self-aware in that these references often come at an apt moment, and usually poke fun at the existence/perseverance of said trope/storyline (for example with the ‘fridging’ of zack’s mom). I liked this meta aspect of the narrative as it gives the storytelling a playful edge that serves to counterbalance the more serious themes/scenes. Through Zack’s storyline, the author is able to explore the everyday realities of being a Chinese-American kid who feels pressured by his white peers to distance himself from his own Chinese heritage. Additionally, Zack is Hui, an ethnoreligious minority group with Islamic heritage and/or adhere to Islam. Like other minority groups in China, the Hui can be and are discriminated against by the current Chinese government. Zack’s father was executed after protesting the government’s treatment of Uighur Muslims, and this makes his journey to China all the more fraught. While the author criticizes the current Chinese government, through Zack’s quest they are also able to showcase their love for Chinese culture and history, presenting us with a complex image of this country, its past and present. The author’s depiction of and discussions around China oppose the kind of monolithic and homogenous image of this country that sadly seems to prevail in a lot of western media and public discourses. The China that emerges from these pages is enriched by its expansive history and many idiosyncrasies (other MG authors, please take notes!).

I loved the way they incorporate historical facts in the action sequences, so when we are introduced to a new historical figure we get a punchy introduction giving us an overview of their life. There were instances where I wish the author had not added American, or otherwise western, equivalents when introducing a certain figure or when touching upon a certain historical period (we often are given enough context to understand the cultural/historical significance of said person/period). Still, I really appreciated how the author avoids the usual good/bad dichotomy that tends to be the norm in a lot of MG books. Zack repeatedly questions the past behaviours and present motivations of the emperors.
The chapters all have funny titles that were very much a la Riordan. The banter between the various emperors and historical figures was very entertaining, even in those instances where it was trying a bit hard to be ‘young/relatable’. I loved the way the narrative includes and discusses historical-related things, as it very much reminded me of the author’s youtube content, which—as you may or may not know—I am besotted by. While I thought that the historical characters were equal parts interesting and amusing, the contemporary ones, except Zack, were not quite as dynamic. Simon and Melissa in particular lacked dimension and seemed the type of stock characters you find in any ‘trio’ (melissa in particular is the kind of aggravating sidekick who is meant to be a ‘spunky girl’ but comes across as kind of a jerk). I didn’t like them that much either, even before the latter half of the novel. Zack deserves some real/better friends.

Anyway, Zack steals the show as this is ultimately his story. He goes through a lot in this book and is forced to question the kind of person he wants to be/become. He makes mistakes, and he learns from them. He knows he wants to be stronger but finds his notion of strength to be challenged more than once. I wish that the narratives had called out a bit more people like Melissa who mistake his moments of vulnerability or hesitancy as signs of weakness or a ‘lack of moral fibre’. Dio mio, he’s a KID, leave my boy alone. I don’t know, I felt protective of Zack and because of this found myself rather peed off by anyone who tried to make him feel ashamed of being sensitive. But I digress. Overall I thought this was an enjoyable book that manages to blend together history and technology. If you a fan of heroes’ quests you should definitely give this one a try. Added bonuses: hints of casual gay rep + positive Muslim rep.

I for one liked it a lot more than the author’s debut novel, which I sadly was unable to enjoy (i know, don’t get me started if i could actively control and change my response to that book i would). I found the author’s prose to be a lot more confident in this one and their style really worked for this MG-type of storytelling. This is the kind of book I wish had been around when I was a 12yr old as I would have been able to love it, whereas now I can only just ‘like’ it. Anyway, I liked the humor and the historical facts, so this gets a thumbs up from me and I look forward to its follow-up.

ps: i just remember but some of zack’s reactions to learning some of the horrific things the emperors did are gold

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ½

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Caucasia by Danzy Senna

“It’s funny. When you leave your home and wander really far, you always think, ‘I want to go home.’ But then you come home, and of course it’s not the same. You can’t live with it, you can’t live away from it. And it seems like from then on there’s always this yearning for some place that doesn’t exist. I felt that. Still do. I’m never completely at home anywhere. But it’s a good place to be, I think. It’s like floating. From up above, you can see everything at once. It’s the only way how.”

Enthralling and haunting, Caucasia makes for a dazzling coming-of-age story. With piercing and heart-wrenching clarity, Danzy Senna captures on the page the psychological and emotional turmoils experienced by her young protagonist. Similarly to her later novels, Symptomatic and New People, Caucasia is a work that is heavily concerned with race, racial passing, and identity. But whereas Symptomatic and New People present their readers with short and deeply unnerving narratives that blur the lines between reality and the fantastical, Caucasia is a work that is deeply grounded in realism. Its structure takes a far more traditional route, something in the realms of a bildungsroman novel. This larger scope allows for more depth, both in terms of character and themes. Birdie’s world and the people who populate are brought to life in striking detail. Senna’s prose, which is by turns scintillating and stark, makes Birdie’s story truly riveting and impossible to put down.

Caucasia is divided in three sections, each one narrated by Birdie. The novel opens in Boston during the 1970s Civil Rights and Black Power movements when the city’s efforts to desegregate schools was met with white resistance and exacerbated existing racial tensions. Enter Birdie: her father Deck is a Black scholar who is deeply preoccupied with theories about race; her mother, Sandy, is from a blue-blood white woman who has come to reject her Mayflower ancestry and is quite active in the ‘fight’ for Civil Rights. Birdie is incredibly close to her older sister Cole, so much so that the two have created and often communicate in their own invented language. Before their parents’ rather messy break-up the two have been homeschooled, something that has sheltered them somewhat from the realities of the world. Even so, they both have been made aware of their ‘differences’. Whereas Cole resembles her dad, Birdie is paler and has straight hair, something that leads people to assume that she is white or perhaps Hispanic. During their rare visits to their maternal grandmother, Cole is completely ignored while Birdie receives all of her (unwanted quite frankly) attention. Later on, Deck’s new girlfriend is shown to be openly intolerant of Birdie for not being Black enough. When the girls begin attending a Black Power School, Birdie is teased and bullied. While Birdie is in awe of Cole and dreams that she could look like her, she’s also peripherally aware of the privileges afforded to her by her appearance. We also see how Sandy, their mother, for all her talk, treats Birdie and Cole differently (there is a scene in which she implies that unlike Birdie Cole should not be worried about paedophiles/serial killers). Sandy also struggles to help Cole with her hair, and soon their mutual frustration with each other morphs into something more difficult to bridge. When Sandy gets involved in some ‘shady’ activities her relationship with Cole sours further.
Birdie’s life is upended when Sandy, convinced the FBI is after her, flees Boston. In pursuit of racial equality Deck and his girlfriend go to Brazil, taking Cole with them, while Birdie is forced to leave Boston with Sandie.
Sandie believes that the only way to escape the feds is to use Birdie’s ‘ambiguous’ body to their advantage. Not only does Birdie have no choice but to pass but it is her mother who chooses her ‘white’ identity, that of Jesse Goldman.
The two settle in New Hampshire where Birdie struggles to adjust to new life. While the two spend some time in a women’s commune, they eventually move out and into a predominantly white town. Sandy’s paranoia leads her to distrust others, and secretiveness and suspicion become fixtures in their lives. Being forced to pass and being forced to pretend that her sister and father never existed alienate Birdie (from her own self, from Sandy, and from other people). She cannot truly connect to those around her given that she has to pretend that she is a white Jewish girl. She eventually makes friends and in her attempts to fit in emulates the way they speak and act. Because the people around her believe she is white they are quite openly racist, and time and again Birdie finds herself confronted with racist individuals. other people’s racism.
Senna captures with painful clarity the discomfort that many girls experience in their pre and early teens. For a lot of the novel, Birdie doesn’t really know who she is and who she wants to be, and because of this, she looks at the girls and women around her. But by doing this, she is merely imitating them, and not really figuring out her identity. In addition to having to perform whiteness, Birdie denies her own queerness.
As with Symptomatic and New People, Senna provides a razor-sharp commentary on race and identity. While Caucasia is easily the author’s least disquieting work, it still invokes a sense of unease in the reader. On the one hand, we are worried for Birdie, who is clearly unhappy and lost. On the other hand, we encounter quite a few people who are horrible and there are many disquieting scenes. Yet, Senna doesn’t condemn her characters, and in fact, there are quite a few instances where I was touched by the empathy she shows towards them (I’m thinking of Sandy in particular).
It provides a narrative in which its main character is made to feel time and again ‘Other’, which aggravates the disconnect she experiences between her physical appearance and self. The people around her often express a binary view of race, where you are either/or but not both. Because of this Birdie struggles to define herself, especially when she has to pass as white.
Senna subverts the usual passing narrative: unlike other authors, she doesn’t indict her passer by employing the ‘tragic mulatta’ trope. Throughout the narrative, Senna underscores how racial identity is a social construct and not a biological fact. However, she also shows the legacies of slavery and segregation in this supposedly ‘post-racial’ America as well as the concrete realities that race have in everyday life (Deck being questioned by the police, the disparities between the way Cole and Birdie are treated, the racism and prejudice expressed by so many characters, the way Samantha is treated at school).
Throughout the narrative Senna raises many thought-provoking points, opening the space for in-depth and nuanced discussions on identity, performativity, peer pressure, and sexuality.
The realism of Birdie’s experiences was such that I felt that I was reading a memoir (and there are some definite parallels between Birdie and Senna). If you found Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls and Dog Flowers: A Memoir to be compelling reads I thoroughly recommend you check out Caucasia. I can also see this coming of age appealing to fans of Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults. While they do not touch upon the same issues, they both hone in on the alienation experienced by young girls whose fraught path from childhood to adolescence make them aware of painful truths and realizations (that they are not necessarily good or beautiful, that the people around them aren’t either, that adults and parents can be selfish and liars, that not all parents love their children). I would also compare Caucasia to Monkey Beach which is also an emotionally intelligent and thoughtful coming-of-age. And, of course, if you are interested in passing narratives such as Passing and The Vanishing Half you should really check out all of Senna’s books.

The novel’s closing act is extremely rewarding and heart-rendering. Curiously enough the first time I read this I appreciated it but did not love it. This second time around…it won me over. Completely. Birdie is such a realistic character, and I loved, in spite or maybe because, of her flaws. Her story arc is utterly absorbing and I struggled to tear my eyes away from the page (even if I had already read this and therefore knew what would happen next). Senna’s dialogues ring true to life and so do the scenarios she explores. Birdie’s voice is unforgettable and I can’t wait to re-read this again.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden

“I wanted to be the diametric opposite of who I was; am. To get gone.”

T Kira Madden’s bold and unsparing storytelling makes for a brutal yet ultimately kaleidoscopic coming of age. This is easily one of the best memoirs I’ve read this year. Madden’s memoir makes for a bittersweet read, one that I look forward to revisiting again.

“Did I want to die? Not really, no. I wanted the beauty of the doomed. Missing girls are never forgotten, I thought, so long as they don’t show up dead. So long as they stay missing.”

The chapters within this memoir have an almost episodic quality to them as they transport us to a specific time and or period of Madden’s childhood and later on teenage years. I appreciated the often unresolved nature of these chapters, as Madden doesn’t try to extract moral lessons from her experiences growing ups. During the very first chapter, we understand just how unconventional Madden’s upbringing was. Both of her parents struggled with substance addictions and were possibly involved in something shady. While her parents had plenty of money to spare their parenting style leaves a lot to be desired. Their unstable relationship too sometimes seemed to take priority over Madden’s wellbeing. Madden paints an unflattering picture of herself as a child, as she seemed to have adopted a horse-girl persona that made other children tease or avoid her. Also, growing up biracial in the nineties and Y2K came with a whole lot of racism, bullying, and confusion. Madden grew up in Boca Raton, Florida, a white-majority city. While her mother tethers her to her Chinese Hawaiian heritage, Madden is often made to feel other. Her family situation also makes her feel somewhat separate from her peers. But alongside this pain (over her loneliness, her parents’ addictions and toxicity), Madden’s gritty humor shines through, reminding me at times of other media focused on dysfunctional families (such as Shameless). Madden’s recollections of her past and her childhood are incredibly vivid, so much so that I could picture with ease the scenes which she was describing. At times this resulted in me feeling quite uncomfortable given the nature of what was happening (at one point madden decides to remove one of her ). Also, there was quite a lot of second-hand embarrassment which is rather expected given that Madden details those awkward years of transition between childhood and adulthood. Adolescence is hell. Seriously. Madden’s meditations on her changing body were certainly relatable. Madden’s observations on girlhood are piercingly clear. While what Madden is writing about is clearly deeply personal, readers can easily identify themselves with her. Madden’s recollects her first sexual experiences as well as the confusing feelings brought about by her own desire. Madden also details how she was sexually assaulted with unflinching clarity. Her longing to belong, to be loved, to be herself, well, it broke my heart. While she does forge friendships with other ‘fatherless’ girls, they also seem to take advantage of Madden (here i was reminded of the movie Thirteen).

“Sometimes I miss them most when we’re all together, when we’re already looking back at the moment, wondering how it will ossify with time, how much more we will know and unknow about each other.”

Madden’s shifting relationship to her sexuality certainly struck a chord with me. I loved the way she articulates that knowing-but-not-knowing. It was distressing to read of how misattribution leads her to confuse fear with love and of the shame she feels over her sexual desires. Madden is also frank when it comes to portraying the difficulties and intricacies of girlhood. From the all-consuming friendships to the desperate need to be seen as older, mature, adult.
In revisiting her childhood and adolescence we inevitably gain a picture of Madden’s rocky home-life. Her parents’ volatile relationship and their struggles with addiction weigh on Madden. But, rather than just reducing her parents to their addictions, Madden makes sure that we see their virtues alongside their vices. While the individuals that emerge are certainly not perfect, they come across as real people. They make mistakes, they fall into bad habits, and their personal crises and dramas often cause them to lose sight of Madden. However, we also see just how deeply they love her, even if their way of expressing this love is somewhat eccentric.
Within this memoir Madden explores her shifting identity growing up, letting us in on some pivotal moments in her childhood and teens. In doing so Madden examines the way American society treats young girls and their sexuality, the many ways in which girls are over-sexualised, the way porn normalizes abuse, and the invisibility and fetishization experienced by Asian American women. Additionally, Madden tackles grief, trauma, belonging, and queerness, in a frank yet poignant way. Her prose is truly illuminating, and I was captivated by her voice within the very first few sentences.
As the daughter of an addict myself this memoir certainly resonated a lot with me.

“These hushed years. These secrets of the body. To whom did they belong first? I want to find where it began and say, I’m here now, listening. I want to reach through the years and tell the women I’ve been lonely.”

This memoir was a real banger. While Madden is not afraid to discuss serious and or ‘uncomfortable’ topics, her writing is so compelling that I found myself tearing through this. Sad, funny, and sharp, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls is a lyrical and hard-hitting memoir. I would definitely recommend this to fans of coming-of-ages such as Monkey Beach and hard-hitting memoirs such as Dog Flowers and Crying in H Mart.

my rating: ★★★★☆

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

The first time I read Coraline I was 10 or so and I won’t lie, it scared the bejesus out of me. I mean, the Other Mother has buttons for eyes. Buttons. And she wants to sew buttons into Coraline’s eyes. Wtf.
Anyway, this is a great piece of fiction. The story revolves around Coraline, a young girl who, alongside her distracted and workaholic parents, has recently moved into a big house divided into flats. As Coraline is out of school at the moment she grows increasingly bored and restless. After visiting her neighbours, who are rather peculiar, she ends up exploring her home and coming across a small locked door. The door, once unlocked, reveals a bricked wall.

One day, after a sort of argument with her mother, Coraline finds herself alone at home and decides to open the door once again. This time it leads into a corridor that takes her into a flat that is almost identical to her own. Here we meet Coraline’s Other Mother and Other Father who seem eager to bestow their love and attention on her. While Coraline is momentarily swept away by the delicious food she’s being served and by this ‘other’ version of her parents, she can’t help but feel slightly put-off by their appearance. Her Other Parents happen to have black buttons for her eyes. As the story continues we see just how terrifying the Other Mother is.
As I said, this is a creepy, even unsettling book. Coraline is such a likeable and sympathetic character that I found myself immediately invested in her and her wellbeing. I’m also a sucker for dark fairy tales, and while this book isn’t quite as dark as say Pan’s Labyrinth, the two definitely share their similarities. Coraline is tempted into accepting a seemingly perfect vision of her life and family. But, she can’t quite make herself forget and or stop loving her real parents, however imperfect they may be. The Other Mother’s love is not love, not really, and her behaviour towards Coraline, and her other ‘subjects’, can be seen as echoing the ones of an emotionally abusive parent. Ultimately the story takes a cat-and-mouse turn where Coraline has to outsmart the Other Mother.
I absolutely love Gaiman’s storytelling, and here he really outdoes himself. He has written something that is accessible to younger readers without sacrificing depth or dumbing down his narrative. And of course, the cat steals the show.
The film adaptation is great too. A favourite of mine even if does add Wybie into the story (he’s very much a comedic-relief type of character). If you have time I also recommend you check out The Eldritch Horror of Coraline by CJ The X (it’s a chaotic & funny analysis of the character of the Other Mother).

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Pet by Akwaeke Emezi

Pet, by Akwaeke Emezi

Pet is my second book by Akwaeke Emezi and while I did find it to be an engaging read it didn’t quite hit me the way as their ​​The Death of Vivek Oji did. I had a similar experience when I read All Our Hidden Gifts, Caroline O’Donoghue’s foray into the MG/YA genre. I couldn’t help but feel that at times the tone and content of these two books didn’t always quite mesh well together.
Pet opens with some pages of exposition which paint a rather vague dystopian picture. Apparently, monsters (what kind of monsters? i’m not sure) are no longer a thing and have been banished or annihilated by badass looking angels (when? how? not sure). Jam, our protagonist, is a child who lives in Lucille. She has loving parents and a best-friend named Redemption (all of their names are like this…why? not sure). Her mother is an artist and one-day Jam bleeds on one of her paintings. Her blood brings forth the clawed and monstrous-looking creature her mother had depicted in said painting. This creature, Pet, is a monster hunter who speaks in a painfully ‘i’m not human’ way that brought to mind Yoda from Star Wars. Apparently, this (scary things popping out of paintings) has happened before but we don’t really learn the details of why/when/how. Do monster-hunters always emerge from paintings? What happens if no one paints anything? Do they exist before the painting in another dimension? How are the painters able to depict them if they never saw them? How often does this happen? I do not know. Anyhow, Pet is adamant that a monster is ‘hiding’ in Redemption’s house. Jam, worried for Redemption and his family, decides that she will try to help Pet in its hunt, even if it means lying to the ones she loves the most. The final section of the story gave me Avatar: The Last Airbender Book 3 vibes, but instead of Aang angsting over what to do with Fire Lord Ozai, we have Jam worrying about what to do with the monster. Pet seems intent on destroying the monster but Jam is adamant that this is never the solution. Like many other middle-grade books Pet highlights how parents and adults often dismiss and or overlook children. They may not do this intentionally but they simply do not pay attention or listen to them.
In Pet, there is also an attempt at discussing evil and goodness. While Emezi does seem to challenge strict binaries (such as good/bad), they ultimately do seem to go for a Dinsey-esque vision of ‘bad’ people. Even their portrayal of abuse and abusers struck me as relatively ‘safe’.
I found the tone of the story often a bit too simplistic. At times I didn’t wholly believe in Jam’s responses to certain things and Pet made for a rather inconsistent character (on the one hand it knows that Jam is ‘spiralling’ and tries to help her, on the other, it seems not to recognise or care for human ‘emotions’). Certain things were a bit too dumbed down, and I would have loved to see more nuance in the author’s portrayal of ‘monsters’. The world-building was very vague and one of the book’s weakest aspects.
I did appreciate the casual trans rep and the platonic relationship between Jam & Redemption.
Still, if you are in your early teens you might find this to be a more compelling read than I did. I, for one, think that I’ll stick to the author’s adult fiction.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Colorful by Eto Mori

First published in 1998 Colorful is narrated by an unknown soul who is given a second chance at life. He will occupy the body of fourteen-year-old Makoto Kobayashi who has attempted suicide and during this ‘homestay’ our narrator has to remember the big mistake he made in his previous life.

At times ‘Makoto’ is aided by the angel Prapura, easily the most entertaining character of the novel, who gives him information on the boy’s family and past. It appears that Makoto had no friends and was not particularly close to his family. His older brother was often mean to him and his parents both were up to ‘no good’.
After being released from the hospital this ‘new’ Makoto attempts to resume his ‘host’s’ life. He goes to school where he discovers that he has a crush on the girl Makoto had a crush on and that someone in the school seems to know that he’s changed.

The story definitely reads like something that was written in the 90s. While I appreciated that the author tackles topics related to mental health and addresses how difficult middle and high school can be, there were certain issues that were touched upon in a rather superficial way (such as suicide and bullying) and quite a few narrative points that were incredibly clichéd (someone has an affair with their flamenco instructor, a beautiful girl sleeps with older men because she wants to buy cute bags and clothes).
It didn’t help that I found Makoto to be a really irritating character. His sanctimonious behaviour irked me, and his attitude towards his parents was childish to the extreme. He was also a bit of a perv.
The author’s portrayal of female characters left me wanting (they are the kind of female characters that are usually written by male authors…so i was actually amazed to discover that the author of this novel is not a man).

Still, this was a harmless story with an ultimately positive, if cheesy, message (acceptance, forgiveness, yadda yadda). If you are looking for a more contemporary release that explores similar themes (being a teen in Japan) I highly recommend Mizuki Tsujimura’s Lonely Castle in the Mirror.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Things We Lost to the Water by Eric Nguyen

“How unrecognizable America had made them, she was thinking, all of them.”

Subtle yet deeply evocative Things We Lost to the Water is a novel about belonging and displacement. In a similar fashion to Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists and Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, Eric Nguyen’s novel does not adopt the traditional structure that characterises family sagas (which usually offer an all-encompassing view of a family), honing in instead on specific periods of her characters’ lives. These moments do not always reveal crucial aspects of their identities and or experiences but they do succeed in giving us a crystal-clear snapshot of a particular moment in their lives.

“How much could they remember? There must have been a limit, a moment of transition when they were more American than Vietnamese, and there was no going back.”

The narrative, which spans three decades, from 1978 to 2005, and alternates between Hương, a young woman who was forced to leave Vietnam, and her two sons, Tuấn, aged 6, and Bình, who was born at a refugee camp in Singapore and is just a baby by the time they relocate to New Orleans. Công, Hương’s husband and the children’s father is still in Vietnam with the plan that he will join them at a later date. In New Orleans, Hương not only has to adapt to a new culture and language, but she has to provide for her two sons.

“The world was cold and wild. A country could collapse. A father could disappear. She would have to protect her sons, she was thinking, protect them from all the cruelties of the world.”

Although Hương moves to a Vietnamese neighbourhood in New Orleans she feels deeply isolated. She attempts to keep loneliness at bay by sending tape recordings to Công. Soon these tapes become a lifeline, a connection to her husband and to Vietnam itself. As time passes however Hương is forced to confront the possibility that Công will not be joining her in New Orleans after all. Later on, and to her sons’ chagrin, she begins dating a car salesman, who is also Vietnamese.
Meanwhile at school Tuấn experiences racism, from being bullied for his accent to being treated as if he were ‘slower’ than his peers. Unlike his younger brother, Tuấn has memories of their father, he can speak Vietnamese, even if in time he loses his fluency, and during their early years in America he does seem to yearn to return ‘home’, that is Vietnam. He eventually begins dating a Vietnamese girl who soon pressures him into joining a gang.
Bình decides to go by Ben, a name more or less thrust upon him by his teachers/peers, and unlike his older brother and mother is quick to embrace American culture and values. His storyline, sadly, was the most predictable of the three as it seems a step-by-step queer coming of age/sexual awakening.
Over the years the three begin to drift apart as they embark on incrementally diverging paths. Yet, they are united in their longing for something (be it the roads not taken or Vietnam or Công or to feel like they belong).

“Wanting—what a strange feeling, what a queer idea to have toward another person! You could want food, you could want rest, you could want safety, and—it dawned on him—you could want a person, too.”

Each chapter presents us with a different period in these characters’ lives. At times these glimpses felt too brief or inclusive. We may witness an argument or some other conflict, and we never really see how those fights/disagreements are resolved. The next chapter will jump ahead in time and to a different character without providing us with an explanation/summary of what has happened since the last chapter. This gave their storylines a rather elusive and fragmented quality. We never truly gain a full picture of their lives or of who they are. Consequently, this made me feel at a remove from the characters. I wanted more from them but before I could get invested in what they were experiencing the narrative would march onwards, leaving so many things up in the air.

For the most part, I really liked the author’s prose. In its apparent simplicity, it brought to mind authors like Anne Tyler and Jhumpa Lahiri. I also appreciated the author’s focus on the quotidian; the snatches of conversations and or interactions we get are far from monumental but they provide us with an insight into the characters’ everyday realities.
The dialogues were a hit or miss sometimes. Some brought to mind Benjamin Alire Sáenz (a favourite of mine), so that we have characters echoing each other, or speaking about nothing in particular. I found these to be extremely effective in conjuring specific moments as they really rang true to life. But, when it comes to exchanges of a more argumentative nature, these came across as somewhat forced, their rhythm was slightly off.

Still, this novel has a lot to offer. There is some beautiful recurring water imagery (which seem to serve a similar function to the trains in The Namesake) and plenty of atmospheric descriptions of New Orleans and Vietnam (alas I found the author’s portrayal of France to be a bit too quaint: the wine, the bread, the man riding a bicycle). The novel is also characterised by an almost palpable sense of longing and offers a thought-provoking exploration of identity and family. Longer chapters would have probably made me feel more invested in the characters. By the time I began warming up to them or to gain a fuller impression of who they were the novel had come to a close.
As debuts go this is nevertheless a solid one and I look forward to reading more by this author.

my rating: ★★★¼

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Lonely Castle in the Mirror by Mizuki Tsujimura

“The only place she could now go to freely from her bedroom was the castle. If I’m in the castle, she started to think, then I’ll be safe. Only the castle beyond the mirror could offer her complete protection.”

Lonely Castle in the Mirror is a heartfelt slice of life novel with a magical twist. Personally, I don’t think that this novel has much in common with Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman…while I understand that yes, they both are authored by Japanese women and yes, they both are concerned with mental health but story and style wise the two have nothing in common. Lonely Castle in the Mirror is closer to the work of Ghibli (more When Marnie Was There than Spirited Away) or anime such as AnoHana or Orange.
Lonely Castle in the Mirror is told by third-person narrator that primarily focuses on Kokoro, who is in seventh grade (first year of junior high). Kokoro, however, no longer attends school. The prospect of going to her class fills her with such unease that she often experiences anxiety-induced stomach aches. She’s unwilling to ‘confess’ to her mother the reason why she stopped going to school and spends her days at home, trying and failing not to think about her classmates. One day she notices a weird light emanating from within her mirror and finds herself transported into a castle that seems to belong in a faerie tale. Kokoro, alongside six other children/teenagers, has been selected by the Wolf Queen (whose appearance is that of small girl wearing a wolf mask) who informs them that within the castle is a key and whoever finds it will be granted a wish. The magical castle has opening hours and if they fail to leave by 5pm they will be eaten by wolves. The castle will be available to them for a year, until the end of March (school years in Japan go from April to March).

While this summary makes this story sound like a fantastical adventure, Lonely Castle in the Mirror is more of a character-driven story that just happens to take place in a magical castle. Kokoro and the other students spend most of their time playing games and slowly getting to know each other. For the majority of the novel they do not seem overly interested by the promise of a ‘wish’, nor are they worried by the possibility of being eaten by wolves. The castle becomes their playroom, a safe space in which they do not have to think about their home-lives. Although they differ in age they are all in junior high. While they realise immediately that they have all stopped going to school, they do not often broach this topic.
Overtime however they get to know each other. There are a few disagreements now and again, and their bond with each another is not always an easy or drama free one. Still, in spite of their different background and interests they do begin to view their time together as an escape from their intolerable ‘reality’.

While Mizuki Tsujimura touches upon sobering topics—such as bullying, domestic and sexual abuse—these do not weigh down her narrative. When discussions around these subjects crop up the author demonstrates great sensitivity and empathy. The friendship that blossoms between Kokoro and the others makes for some tender scenes. The ‘revelation’ behind the castle and the reason why they were chosen will probably were not all that ‘surprising’. Still, even if readers know more than Kokoro or the other characters, this will probably not detract any enjoyment from their reading experience (the story has a lot to offer without those final ‘twists’).
While I understand why the narrative mainly stuck to Kokoro, part of me wished that the story could have also focused on the other characters.
Tsujimura certainly captures the anxiety and fear that many feel at the prospect of going to school. When I dropped out of high school I felt much of what Kokoro was feeling.

“School was everything to her, and both going and not going had been excruciating. She couldn’t consider it only school.”

Although the castle lies inside of a mirror, it did not feel all that magical. There are very few descriptions about the way it looks, and I think that the story would have benefited from having a more vividly rendered setting. And, maybe I would have liked the story even more if there had been more fantastical elements (the Wolf Queen makes an appearance now and again but other than that the castle is very much like an ordinary playroom). Towards the end the story definitely has more of a fantasy feel and really reminded of a Ghibli film.
Overall, I did enjoy this novel. I think Tsujimura’s narrative succeeds in being both gentle and emotional. She allows time for her characters to develop and learn to get to know and care for each other. Kokoro, in particular, is given a satisfying character arc.
Lonely Castle in the Mirror is a novel about friendship, realistic issues (such as bullying), self-acceptance with some magical undertones.

my rating: ★★★½

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