an update (and a few recs)
Long time no see! I’ve been swamped both at work and at not-work, and I was out of town for half the weekends in May—which is why there was no May update. To make up for it, I’ll probably be spamming you with more than one post in July.
I like reading because I don’t have to think about the real world when I’m reading. (I never claimed to be deep and am not starting now.) So here are a few picks I’ve recently enjoyed for escapist purposes. Both these titles are by Asian American authors because this is me making up for my missing May post, and May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Coincidentally, both are by Taiwanese American authors (I’ve listed more recs by a wider geographic variety of AAPI writers below also). Not coincidentally, both happen to have queer themes—happy Pride Month!
Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword by Henry Lien
If you liked Avatar: The Last Airbender, you’ll like this book! This is a Middle Grade fantasy novel that is the first of a planned trilogy. The sequel is out but the third one hasn’t been released yet.
Side note: There will probably be another MG novel on this blog in a few months since I’m eagerly awaiting the final entry in Brandon Sanderson’s Alcatraz series this fall (Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians is still one of my perennial favorites and has a hallowed place on my bookshelf). For those who aren’t aware of publishing marketing buzzwords, these books are aimed at ages 8-12 but are enjoyable for any age, and some well-known examples include the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson series. I enjoy reading MG as a non-12-year-old because you’re guaranteed a happy ending and memorable characters. I have so many favorites that the Middle Grade category might warrant its own blog post sometime down the road, but in the meantime, some of them include The Little Prince, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler, and The Sea of Trolls, Nancy Farmer’s Norse fantasy epic that absolutely imprinted on me as a kid.
Back to Peasprout Chen. We follow Peasprout Chen in fantasy Taiwan as she skates her way into the Pearl Academy for wu liu (武/wu as in wushu and 溜/liu as in liu bing or ice skating), a fictional martial art that 12-year-old girls are the champions of. Peasprout and her brother Cricket have to use their wits and skating skills to survive the Academy. Peasprout is very headstrong and overestimates her abilities, often to a fault, but she grows into herself over the course of her arc. It’s a lot of fun, although the story got more serious than I expected starting out and ended up having a neat queer twist at the end.
Gods of Want by K-Ming Chang (One World/Random House, July 2022)
Thanks to NetGalley for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
K-Ming Chang is, according to an interview in The Rumpus, a “beacon of Gen Z excellence” and is one of those people who make me feel bad about how little I’ve done with my life (https://therumpus.net/2020/09/30/the-rumpus-interview-with-k-ming-chang/). She already has a poetry collection and a novel out—Bestiary, which was published in 2020. Gods of Want is her first full-length short-story collection. I originally planned on reviewing this for Strange Horizons because I’m a fan, but another reviewer at the magazine beat me to the punch and got dibs first. No hard feelings haha.
Where is the line between real and imaginary, and what kind of truths do the stories that our families pass down, even the most absurd ones, contain? What lessons do queer daughters learn from their mothers? Gods of Want takes a stab at answering these questions. Chang uses a surreal, fabulist lens to examine the Taiwanese American and Chinese American immigrant experiences. From the ghosts of dead cousins in “The Chorus of the Dead” following around a newly married couple to a girl who becomes something akin to a mermaid following a flood in “Dykes,” she skillfully uses imagery to make myths of the lives of ordinary first and second generation immigrants, many of which are queer women.
The collection is organized into three sections: “Mothers,” “Myths,” and “Moths.” The “Mothers” section is more accurately about relationships between older women and the younger generation. Specifically, the central relationships in this section are those where women are at the center: mothers and daughters, mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law, and aunts and nieces. “Myths” is concerned with the stories, both true and false, passed down to the second generation in these immigrant families. Gods of Want is concerned with ghosts and how they affect their family in the present, and nowhere is this more obvious as it is in the section “Moths.” As explained in the first story of “Moths,” “Resident Aliens,” moths in Chinese folklore contain the souls of the dead, and all the stories in this section are about literal and figurative ghosts.
Gods of Want stretches traditional genre labels, eschewing them in favor of telling truths about families and the stories and worlds passed down between generations. The boundary between what is real and what is mythical or fable is somewhere between hazy to nonexistent in Chang's stories. Reading them is a bit of a trust fall, and Chang successfully brings together wildly disparate elements into cohesive stories.
Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri: The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri is a novel I love, and I remember reading both The Namesake and Unaccustomed Earth on the benches outside the Geology buildings in college on weekends. Unaccustomed Earth is a short story collection with a novella at the end that hits hard. Definitely recommend if you’re in the mood for something with a bittersweet tone.
When the Elephants Dance, Tess Uriza Holthe: I haven’t actually read this one (it’s on top of my TBR), but I have heard from sources I trust that it’s fantastic. When the Elephants Dance takes place in the Philippines in the final days of WWII. Even though there is no food left, the characters tell each other stories for sustenance and to give each other hope as Japanese and American soldiers fight outside, inspired by Holthe’s father’s lived experience during this time in the Philippines.
Fire Island: The AAPI LGBT club at work did an advance screening of this gay, Asian American retelling of Pride and Prejudice featuring Margaret Cho, Bowen Yang of SNL fame as Jane Bennet, directed by Andrew Ahn (previously best known for an edgy gay arthouse movie), and with Conrad Ricamora, who is gay and of Filipino heritage, as our Darcy. I loved it. It was so funny and clearly a labor of love. Joel Kim Booster—who plays our Lizzie Bennet stand-in Noah, wrote the screenplay, and executive-produced the whole thing—wrote a hilarious essay here about how Jane Austen connects to being a 21st-century gay man that is worth your time even if you don’t watch the movie.
“Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” by Sarah Pinsker: Not an Asian American or queer story, but an epistolary-format short story in Uncanny about an old English ballad and my short story rec of the month. This was recently awarded a Nebula, and I’m still obsessed even though it’s been a month since I read it. My inner galaxy-brained conspiracy theorist is still making theories about the ballad and what happened to LyricSplainer user HenryMartyn after the story ends.
Thanks for sticking around. I’ll be back sooner next time!