The Epic Crush of Genie Lo (F.C.Yee)

5 stars

Genie is a very tall, slightly awkward, sixteen year old girl. Every hour of her day is spent in homework, volleyball, volunteering and trying to get into the college of her dreams. She’d like to think she has enough things on her plate, thank you very much, without the appearance of a very beautiful and very obnoxious boy half her size. But Quentin Sun, ‘transfer’ student from somewhere (definitely not China), seems to think that he knows her, worse, that she belongs to him somehow, and she just can’t let that stand.

But Quentin has a strange habit of getting everything to go his way and Genie’s mother may have fallen in love with the very idea of him. Genie’s attempts to get him to leave her alone certainly aren’t helped by the sudden appearance of demons from traditional Chinese mythology, or the revelation that she might not be quite human.

Well, that’s all fine and dandy, but even creatures from Chinese Mythology have to work to try and get into Princeton, and Genie isn’t giving that up for anything.

To say that I simply enjoyed this book would be doing it a disservice. I loved it.

One of the strongest parts of this story was definitely the narrative voice. It’s smooth, sharp and effortlessly witty, without you ever getting the feeling that Genie is anything other than a sixteen year old girl. If I had to compare Yee’s voice to another author it would definitely be Rick Riordan. A bit out there, a bit slapstick, and very very good. At certain points in the story , to help us clueless readers, Yee explains some of the more salient points of Chinese Mythology and, honestly, if Yee were to write a book of myths from Genie’s point of view I would preorder it in approximately two seconds.

The second thing on my ‘most beloved list’ are the characters. Genie is stubborn, driven and impatient, she’s bored and uncomfortable with herself, aka, she reads exactly like my sixteen year old self. Quentin is just…it’s very obvious from early on that he’s not functioning on human social norms. He’s blunt, arrogant and frustratingly charming. It’s the perfect recipe for an uncontrolled explosion, and, wow, when it blows, it blows. There are a couple of other characters in the book that I’d love to meet in more detail, especially Genie’s fierce mother and effervescent friend, Eunie, but as there’s a sequel on the way, I can hope that we see more of them there.
 
Now, going into this story I knew very little about Chinese Mythology. So little. Did it affect my reading? The answer is no, because Yee explains every mythological element in fun, engaging ways. You never feel that you’re getting forcefed information, it’s a lot more relaxed than that. There’s also a lot of references to Chinese culture and, specifically, the culture of the Chinese diaspora. Genie is raised Chinese-American, and whilst there are a lot of similarities with mainland Chinese culture, the diaspora also have cultures which are specifically their own. It was refreshing to read Chinese-American characters that were written by a Chinese-American author, not the cardboard cutouts, or just sheer non-existance, of such characters that we usually see in western media.

I will warn you that for the first 20-30% of the book that you might find Quentin almost pathologically annoying, very much in the same way that I’m sure Genie does. But he grows and changes and, indeed, Genie grows and changes through the book. Many of Quentin’s actions also make a lot more sense once you realise who he is.

The part of the story that resonated most with me is Genie’s academic life. I was once a hard nosed, over driven kid trying to get into a top Medical School. I worked all the time, did extracurriculars all the time, and was absolutely obsessed with getting where I wanted to go. It was painful, it wasn’t fun, but it never felt like an option to not be fighting for my future. Goal driven characters tend to maybe get slightly villainised in YA, or at least, the moral of the story tends to be that they’re happier when they’re not fighting above their weight. ‘Genie Lo’ does something different in that is advocates balance, work hard but also be aware of your social and personal needs. Work hard, but make sure you’re working hard at what you enjoy. I think that as a sixteen year old I would have been pretty chuffed to see myself in a book like that.

‘Genie Lo’ is not the book that I expected it to be. It is more than I expected it to be. I’m honestly a little shocked that Yee is a debut author. It’s laugh out loud funny, warm and quirky and I think that if you’re looking for something fun, and a little bit different then definitely give this a go.

Many thanks to Amulet Books for a copy in return for an honest review!


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The Darkest Part of the Forest (Holly Black)

5 stars

“Down a path worn into the woods, past a stream and a hollowed-out log full of pill bugs and termites, was a glass coffin. It rested right on the ground, and in it slept a boy with horns on his head and ears as pointed as knives.” 

I’d had this book on my ‘to be read’ list for a while, but had somehow decided that it was another heterosexual faerie story that I wasn’t really all that interested in. Oh, how wrong I turned out to be…I can remember seeing this book recommended on a pride month list and being deeply confused. There were queer people in this book? Why had I never gotten that memo? So, queer people and faeries, this book immediately shot right up my reading list. It was a beautiful beautiful coincidence that the following day I happened upon a well loved hardback of this exact novel in my favourite charity bookshop. It was meant to be.

Hazel lives with her brother Ben and their somewhat unusual parents in the town of Fairfold, a town where faeries and humans tentatively co-exist. Faerie magic attracts tourists to the otherwise innocuous town, whilst locals side step faerie tricks by avoiding the deep woods and the full moon revels. Hazel knighted herself as a killer of monsters when she was very young, slipping into the forest with her brother to hunt the faeries that wished the people of Fairfold ill. But growing older has meant growing away from her childhood days of knighthood and growing away from the strange faerie music that her brother used to be able to wield. Now Hazel has put her sword to sleep, and Ben has locked his music away entirely.

People from far and wide travel to see Fairfold’s most unique attraction, a faerie boy with horns nestled in his curls, sleeping within a casket of glass. To the people of Fairfold he is an omnipresent spectre, the sleeping prince around which teenagers hold their own midnight revels and spill their secrets upon the glass.

Until one day they find the glass casket shattered, the faerie boy missing, and a strange ancient creature of sorrow stalking their once familiar forest.

I love faerie stories, always have done. Growing up, I too was raised in a faerie forest, rich with lore, dark and beautiful, and there was something about this book that perfectly captures that. It’s gnarled trees and crisp leaf litter, gurgling streams and paint smeared pages, the never-ever silence of the forest and nests of warm sheets. It’s boys and girls with glinting eyes and sharp smiles, the spin and surge of a faerie revel and the coolness of a full moon’s gaze. It’s everything that I wanted it to be.

“They are twilight creatures, beings of dawn and dusk, of standing between one thing and another, of not quite and almost, of borderlands and shadows.” 

Hazel, our protagonist, is a girl torn in two. Part of her yearns for normalcy, the rest of her rejects it as a cage. She feels that she is running on borrowed time after making a bargain with the Erl King in exchange for seven years of her life and fears that she must savour every moment as if it is her last. Hazel has always looked to her brother and her parents as ‘true creatives’, feeling as if she is living somewhat in their shadow. Once she was a killer of monsters and now she is finding that being ‘normal’ isn’t all it was cut out to be.

Not popular, but not quite ostracized, Hazel and her elder brother, Ben, both long for a faerie prince of their own. Fierce Hazel and soft musician Ben have spent all of their life spinning stories of the boy in the casket, now he is free and they’re not quite sure what to think. I loved the interactions that Black writes between these two, how both are deep wells of secrets united by a childhood spent entirely in each other’s company. They are siblings that truly love and support one another, especially growing up in a household where their parents were less than reliable.

A common point in both their lives is Jack, a faerie changeling who, unusually, lives alongside his human counterpart. Half Yoruban, with gorgeous high cheekbones, glowing brown eyes, silver loops in his ears and perfect hipster style, Hazel has the biggest crush on Jack, but doesn’t believe that he reciprocates it. I don’t want to say anything to ruin the plot, but he quickly became one of my favourite characters. Raised in the human world by a mother who refused to give him back to the fae, Jack is both part of the town of Fairfold and strangely separate. When faerie sentiment changes towards the town, and people start to get hurt, Jack becomes the focus of their attention. He is not one of them. It was heartbreaking to see how people reveal their true colours the moment that their hateful views become in any way ‘legitimized’.

Black has said that this story is set in the same faerie world as ‘Tithe’, ‘Valiant’ and ‘Ironside’, though in a court somewhat separate from those of the Seelie and Unseelie. I read ‘Tithe’ for the first time a week ago and loved it, but it’s incredible to see how much Black has grown as a story teller since then. This book is so lush and vibrant and chilling. I could rave for days about how much I love how smoothly she integrates lore and story and flashback. It’s perfect, it was honestly like reading a faerie tale from my childhood.

I’ve avoided talking about the boy in the casket here, mostly because anything I wanted to say felt like a spoiler. One of my favourite parts of the story was learning about him, so I won’t take that mystery away from you. I will say, however, that I adored how this story ended, so so much.

So, if you’re looking for a non heteronormative faerie story with all the richness and dark charm of the Erl King’s Court, filled with the creak of the old forest and the wild magic of the midnight hunt, I implore you to pick this book up. It exceeded every single one of my expectations.

“Stories like that were will-o’-the-wisps, glowing in the deepest, darkest parts of forests, leading travelers farther and farther from safety, out toward an ever-moving mark.” 

A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars (Yaba Badoe)

4.5 stars

“Sante was a baby when she was washed ashore in a sea-chest laden with treasure. It seems she is the sole survivor of the tragic sinking of a ship carrying migrants and refugees. Her people.

Fourteen years on she’s a member of Mama Rose’s unique and dazzling circus. But, from their watery grave, the unquiet dead are calling Sante to avenge them:

A bamboo flute. A golden bangle. A ripening mango which must not fall… if Sante is to tell their story and her own.”


‘Strangers pitch up on our shores and we herd them into camps. They come in broken boats and we let them drown.’

I honestly don’t think there is a more important time to read this book than right now. With the political turmoil of Brexit and the resurgence of the far right, people seem to be forgetting that the desperate people trying to make their way into Europe are humans deserving of all the rights that we so take for granted. This book is about people whose only option is to attempt to cross the Mediterranean, who know it might kill them, who know they might fall into the hands of traffickers, but also know that it is the only choice that they have left. Honestly, with many peoples heads turned by the rhetoric plied by politicians, that we must strengthen borders and turn people away from our gates, I hope that people read this book and feel their opinions change.
Sante is one of the younger narrators that I’ve read recently, only fourteen, but her voice is so authentic that I feel it can be enjoyed by young and old alike. Badoe has a gorgeous way of writing, fluid and magical and, honestly, I didn’t even feel the pages passing, it was like a wonderful dream. It’s one of those books which is almost surreal, but you never feel the need to question it, it all makes sense in its own strange way. The closest category I’ve found when trying to explain it is Animist Realism, a genre of African Literature close to the Latin concept of Magical Realism, which is born from animism, a belief that everything on earth, be it rock, animals, weather or thought has its own spiritual essence. It’s the perfect genre for Sante’s story, allowing her to deal with the death of her parents, her exploration of the little she knows of them, and the ancestral echoes of the treasures that were left alongside her in the sea chest.

‘The baby gurgles, entranced by the rough play of water as a wave steadies her boat. She smiles, a jigsaw of stars and fire reflected in her eyes, and she stretches a dimpled hand to touch the moon.’

 

This book is so gorgeous. It’s rich and vibrant, filled with lush descriptions and poetic prose. Where in many books the inclusion of an animal companion can risk infantilising the story, Sante’s golden eagle felt more like a guardian spirit, a anthromorphisation of her strength and determination. It was a clever decision to balance the cold hard realities of the book against more whimsical prose. It’s the literary equivalent of casting fragrant rose petals over a rotting corpse, the scent only become more cloying, more horrific in the juxtaposition. The book is never graphic in its horror, it does not linger over the sordid details of what the traffickers do to their captives, but it does show the aftereffects of the trauma, the trembling fear and pain of survivors. It’s been a long time since I was so filled with hate for a villain, but ‘The Captain’, the head of the trafficking ring, is so powerful and vile that it honestly sent a shiver up my spine when he was first introduced.

The half star that I removed is for pacing, there was a bit of a lull at about the 60% mark that I felt was unnecessary and was the first time whilst reading the book that I felt a little bored. I was also a little confused about the use of the word ‘gypsy’ in text. Multiple times throughout the book Sante describes the word being used as a slur against other members of her circus family and yet once or twice she uses it to describe them herself. There’s also a random paragraph where Mama Rose, the head of the circus is described as dressing up in a kimono and white face powder for ‘thinking time’…whilst Mama Rose is a white woman. They’re small aberrations, but unnecessary ones that could easily be removed from the final product with no change to the plot itself.

Conclusion
‘A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars’ is a rich, vibrant young adult contemporary with a bright magical sparkle, that deals with incredibly important and relevant issues. It’s a short book, only 256 pages, which I’d genuinely love as many people to read as possible, because it’s the perfect foil to the dehumanisation of migrants that is horribly common in modern media.

‘A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars’ is out on the 7th of September, definitely one to be added to your ‘to be read’!

Many thanks to Head of Zeus Books for a copy in return for an honest review!

The Abyss Surrounds Us (Emily Skrutskie)

4 stars

Cas has fought pirates her entire life. But can she survive living among them?

For Cassandra Leung, bossing around sea monsters is just the family business. She’s been a Reckoner trainer-in-training ever since she could walk, raising the genetically-engineered beasts to defend ships as they cross the pirate-infested NeoPacific. But when the pirate queen Santa Elena swoops in on Cas’s first solo mission and snatches her from the bloodstained decks, Cas’s dream of being a full-time trainer seems dead in the water.

There’s no time to mourn. Waiting for her on the pirate ship is an unhatched Reckoner pup. Santa Elena wants to take back the seas with a monster of her own, and she needs a proper trainer to do it. She orders Cas to raise the pup, make sure he imprints on her ship, and, when the time comes, teach him to fight for the pirates. If Cas fails, her blood will be the next to paint the sea.” (Flux)

So I went into this book knowing two things, a) the lesbian representation was apparently excellent, and b) it was filled with raging sea monsters. Two of my favourite things, sign me up right now!

Our protagonist, Cas, has spent almost her entire life studying to be a Reckoner trainer, she pretty much breathes, eats and sleeps her work. To her there is nothing as exciting and important as this job and her Reckoner. She’s been raised with almost unquestioning loyalty to the programme and the task that they complete, protecting civilian vessels on the vast seas of a world ravaged by global warming.

The world that Skrutskie builds is chilling. Seriously, nothing manages to get under my skin more than a future where we did nothing to slow the progression of global warming. The world Cas lives in has been dramatically changed by rising sea levels with many cities, even countries, being swallowed by the waves. The remaining landscape is so changed, the landmass so depleted, that federations of countries had to form to redistribute people across the available space, leading to war and deprivation.

I think one of my favourite parts of the book was Cas’ growing awakening to the world around her. Her realization, after seeing the cramped and desolate floating cities, that she doesn’t deserve food, land or security more than any other citizen of the earth, and the understanding that the breeding of Reckoners was always to protect those with wealth from those without.

Swift is the instrument of Cas’ moral awakening, a hard nosed young pirate, training and competing to be next in line for Santa Elena’s throne. Swift is very much a victim of her circumstances, born on a floating city, learning to look at the Reckoners that Cas’ adores with fear and dread. Swift would have chosen to have nothing to do with Cas, were it not for a twist of Santa Elena’s game that left Cas’ success as a trainer and their lives entwined. The romance between these two is slow, slow burn. Although it was maybe a little too slow for my liking, I can appreciate Skrutskie’s reasons for doing so. A romance any faster would have been a romance with a unhealthy power dynamic, that of captor and captive, something which Skrutskie deliberately avoids. It did, however, mean there wasn’t as much romance in this as I would like, but, I’m hoping that in book two this will be ecstatically rectified. Another massive positive for the LGBT aspect in this book is the fact that the world seems to be a place where non-heterosexual relationships are not looked upon with any kind of bigotry, avoiding any homophobic narratives and making this a safe and satisfying f/f romance.

From reading other peoples reviews I thought I would come out of this crying that it was my favourite thing I’d ever read. Unfortunately, I found that, whilst I enjoyed it, there were some things lacking in it for me. Namely that I think I wanted it to be more hardcore sci fi than it actually was. However, I think I could be the problem here. Weirdly, I think I’m slightly too old for this book, which is something I rarely feel when reading YA fiction. I also think it was maybe a little too slow burn for me, romance-wise, and I entirely understand why Skrutskie chose to write it that way (and I know other readers loved it), but I wanted more angst…and more kissing.

So, would I recommend this? Yes, definitely yes. Queer sci fi and fantasy books, especially with an Asian lead, rarely come up on my radar, and this is a little gem that I’m sure lovers of all f/f romance will enjoy, regardless of whether science fiction is a genre they usually avoid.