Updates

May Wrap-Up + Hiatus in June

Noted Festival

In Canberra on 6th & 7th May. I hadn’t been to Canberra since my school excursion in Year 10 (aaaages ago) and it was so pretty to experience in autumn. Also, really nice to be able to catch up with friends there again ^_^ Highlights:

  • Seeing Jenevieve Chang’s event, where she talked about her memoir The Good Girl of Chinatown. Her thoughts on the theme of running away throughout the book, the city of Shanghai and her grandmother’s stories were fascinating. Really looking forward to reading the book!
  • Listening to the readings + music at the event Mixtape Memoirs. So hard to describe it, let alone in a way that does it justice, but I was captivated.
  • Delivering a kids’ storytelling workshop – I think I handled it okay! It’s good to be able to have that as part of my experience now.
  • The independent publishing fair – so many zines and other artistic stalls around, and my amazing friends Zhi and Shu-Ling sold REALLY well!

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Sydney Writers’ Festival

I went to three events on the YA day on Saturday, as well as an event on Sunday, and I really loved listening to all the speakers. Sorry about the lack of the photos, I was so tired on both days I didn’t take any!

  • Mariko Tamaki Talks the Talk: in conversation with Mariko Tamaki, not just about dialogue but other aspects of her creativity too. She was a really engaging speaker! See here for a thread of live-tweets by Emily (@UncoverAllure)
  • Defying Expectations: on the stereotypes faced by women writers, and countering them. Absolutely incredible and really thoughtful comments from all the panellists. Thread of live-tweets here.
  • Fresh Voices from Western Sydney – A Showcase of Real Talk: spoken word performances by high school students from Western Sydney. I seriously have no words to describe how incredible it was. As far as I can remember, every single one of the performers addressed something to do with identity and/or social issues (body image, consent, prejudice, class, etc.) – which was so inspiring to see.
  • Borders of Our Writing: discussion of non-English traditions in the artists’ writing. Sad that Maxine Beneba Clarke couldn’t make it, but this definitely made me even more interested in reading Rajith Savanadasa’s Ruins. A few of the audience questions at the end were insensitive, and/or frustrating – but that’s for a longer conversation regarding writers’ festivals and access. Live-tweet thread here.

#AsianLitBingo

It was so good to be able to co-host this initiative to promote Asian books and authors during May! Highlights:

  • Being part of an amazing group of passionate bloggers who pulled the initiative together so beautifully; especially the incredible work by Shenwei (@theshenners), the creator, and Aentee (@readatmidnight), who did the amazing graphics.
  • Seeing so many people pick up books with Asian rep by Asian authors which I usually don’t see enough people talking about
  • Interviewing my all-time favourite author, Stacey Lee, here, and encouraging more people to pick her books up
  • #AsianLitChat with some amazing authors and readers and involving fantastic discussions! I was a bubble of happiness throughout and afterwards. The Storify recaps for the chats (put together by the incredible efforts of Glaiza) can be found here.
  • Last but not least, reading incredible Asian books for the challenge! I only finished two books, unfortunately >.< (The Other Shore and The Emperor’s Riddle, both of which I loved) but it was a lot of fun putting together my TBR for it and being motivated to dive in!

Books read in May

  1. The Other Shore by Hoa Pham, a haunting story about a Vietnamese girl who gains psychic powers and the consequences of this. Filled with political and spiritual intrigue (for #AsianLitBingo – SE Asian MC)
  2. The Emperor’s Riddle by Kat Zhang, about a Chinese-American girl on a holiday in China, and uncovering the mystery of an emperor’s hidden treasure. This was a lot of fun and I loved the setting + characters! (for #AsianLitBingo – Free Space)
  3. Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King is the story of a teen artist, Sarah, going through what she calls an ‘existential crisis’ and uncovering painful family secrets. Powerful and heartbreaking.
  4. Read halfway through The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig – a time-travelling ship goes back to Hawaii, where Nix Song was born, and her father (the captain) seeks to reunite with her mother through any means possible. I’m loving the writing and setting so far! Will finish it after exams.

Blog wrap-up

Hiatus in June

This is to let everyone know that I’m going to have to put both my blog and Twitter on hiatus for the whole of June. I’ve got exams coming up (including one which is worth 80% of my final mark – so. much. fun.), some writing deadlines still to meet, and other life stuff going on.

I dislike having to put things completely on hold (usually I have a lot of posts scheduled and just spread them out slowly if I’m too busy), but I’ve got absolutely no choice this time… Use my contact form if you’d like to message me, otherwise I’ll see you in July!

Contemporary, YA

Art, Family, Heartbreak – Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King

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Goodreads Link

Publisher’s Website

Thank you to Text Publishing for the review copy!

Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King was a heart-breaking and a cleverly written book. I especially appreciated the unflinchingly powerful ways it looked at the pain within a fragile family, and the thematic role of art and originality throughout the book.

The story is primarily told from the point of view of 16-year-old Sarah, who is going through what she refers to as an ‘existential crisis’. She’s suddenly stopped going to school, is unable to create art, feels dazed and not-quite-right – and she’s started encountering past and future (10- and 23-year-old) versions of herself as she wanders aimlessly around the city.

The answers are deep within the darkest truths of her family, regarding the relationship between her parents and her brother, who left them and whom she hasn’t contacted, since something happened when they went on a family vacation to Mexico six years ago. Through Sarah’s present point of view, the story of what happened six years ago, and her mother’s perspective, the lies and pain are heartbreakingly revealed.

Firstly, A.S. King’s writing was really engaging. The narrative was immersive (I finished it really quickly) and so clearly conveying how dazed Sarah was and, later on, the pain she was going through with powerful, haunting writing. The strong writing extended to the use of tension throughout the book. The revelations here, at least to me, weren’t completely surprising twists, but were heavily built up beforehand, and I saw certain things coming. What this did was increase the sense of foreboding, which was really effective considering the serious subject matter, and made the emotional and visceral impact hit harder when the truths about what happened in Sarah’s family and regarding her art came to the surface.

I think about still lifes…that’s what I had. A still life. The more I pay attention, the more I see I was wrong.

The multiple points of view/story threads throughout were also used really well – the past was woven in really well with the revelations in the present. Sarah’s mother’s point of view, which I really appreciated the insight of, was gut-wrenching, empathetic and relevant

There were magical realism elements in the story through Sarah (and later on, others) encountering her past and future selves. It was a clever way to move the story forward, forcing her to reflect and question on who she was and would become, as well as simply being interesting and amusing through the interactions with her past and future selves (e.g. meeting other people and all coming together at once, at one point later in the book).

When you learn the truth late, you doubt everything that ever happened in your whole life because your whole life was a lie.

I loved how the protagonist was an artist, the way the narrative delved into her difficulties associated with this, and the way it was tied it in to the rest of the plot. The themes regarding  originality in the book were unique and often relatable. We rarely, and I would love to see more of, such stories regarding art-specific concepts like originality (the most prominent here), the ups and downs of creation, comparing yourself to others, aspiration, the power of art and its role in our lives.

“You know what art is?” he asks. “Art is the truth.”

Definitely recommended, and be prepared for the heavier themes and emotional impact.

Highlight for content warning (NOTE – potential spoiler) domestic violence/abuse

Have you read Still Life with Tornado, or any of A.S. King’s books? Australians – are you going to any of her upcoming events here? Are there any other books you’ve read where an artist is the protagonist?

Interview

Interview with Stacey Lee (an #AsianLitBingo Feature)


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Everyone, I have an AMAZING post to share with you today! In case you missed it, I’m one of the co-hosts for #AsianLitBingo, an initiative to promote Asian books and authors, this month (more details are on Shenwei’s announcement post here). As part of this, my co-hosts and I will be featuring some incredible authors on our blogs, and today I’ll be sharing an interview with (my favourite! author! ever! 😍 *heart eyes*) Stacey Lee.

For those who aren’t aware, Stacey Lee is the author of the historical fiction books Under a Painted Sky and Outrun the Moon from Putnam/Penguin, and the contemporary/magical realism novel The Secret of a Heart Note from Katherine Tegan Books. Outrun the Moon, my personal favourite, just came out in paperback; see more at the end of this post. Her next book, which will be out in 2018, is Dear Miss Sweetie – about “a Chinese teenager in 1890s Atlanta who moonlights as the pseudonymous author of a wildly popular newspaper advice column”, and I can’t wait to read it!

Welcome, Stacey!

Q: Outrun the Moon has just released in paperback, and it won some incredible awards in 2016 – Blast from the Past in the Book Shimmy Awards, the young adult Asia/Pacific American Literature Award (as well as being on many other lists/nominations!). How does everything feel, one year later?

Thank you! It feels wonderful. My characters become like real people to me. I feel like Mercy is out, roaming the hills, getting these done.

Q: What are some of your favourite a) historical books, and b) books by Asian authors with Asian characters?

Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, L.A. Meyer’s Bloody Jack series, Linda Sue Park’s A Single Shard. I loved Cynthia Kadohata’s Kira Kira and Padma Venkatraman’s Climbing the Stairs, and recently read an ARC of Julie Dao’s Forest of a Thousand Lanterns that I loved!

Yes! I love The Book Thief as well, and Kira-Kira‘s my favourite book from childhood, it had such a powerful impact on me when I first read it (Outrun the Moon being my favourite book from my teens, haha). I’m super excited for FOTL as well, and will definitely have to check those other ones out!

Q: Were you always interested in history from a young age? If not, how did you become interested in it and writing historical fiction?

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Sadly, no. I loved historical fiction, but history for me consisted of facts and dates and I had no memory for it. I consider myself a bit of a bathtub historian. I immerse myself in a particular time period in order to write the story, and then I drain the tub to make room for incoming knowledge for the next story. That said, I have to admit that studying history is a little bit of addictive! I’m that person who sees a plaque by the side of the road giving the history of a particular tree stump and I have to stop to read it.

That’s lovely! I’m similar in that I wasn’t really interested in it in high school and only did the compulsory subjects. The personal and emotional side of historical fiction is what I find really compelling, and got me invested in it.

Q: How would you encourage someone who’s resistant to, or hasn’t previously tried, reading historical fiction to do so?

I think more people would read historical fiction if we just relabeled it as ‘adventure’ because that’s what it is, it’s an experience into a world we would not otherwise have access to. Feelings are universal and timeless and a good book will connect us to characters regardless of time period.

I love this answer – will definitely share this with my friends next time I’m recommending your books, and other historical fiction ones 🙂

Q: Do you have any stories in mind, or would you ever be interested in, writing historical fiction that’s set outside of the US (e.g. in China)?

It has crossed my mind! 😉

Q: What are three interesting things you’ve learnt whilst researching for Dear Miss Sweetie?

My story takes place in 1890 and Coca Cola had just been invented. To buy a drink, you’d go into the pharmacy and sit down at a counter and they would pour you soda water with the secret syrup for a nickel. The bottles came out much later.

Bicycles, ‘freedom machines,’ were just starting to become popular in the 1890’s, and was emblematic of the growth of women’s rights/suffrage.

Chinese people first came to the South replace the freed slaves as field workers.

I didn’t think it was possible for me to be even more excited about the book, but I am now! This is fascinating.

Q: What changes would you like to see happen regarding representation of marginalised voices and characters in publishing?

We need a constant flow of new stories with diverse voices. Keep it coming! To get there, we need more diversity in publishing at all levels, and we need vigilance by gatekeepers to make sure they’re buying/recommending the books that include everyone. I would love to see diverse stories get the same kind of marketing that more mainstream stories get. You can’t read a book you’ve never heard about.

So well-said 🙂

Q: What has the experience of writing ownvoices stories been like for you?

There’s not that much thought that goes into it, actually. I think that’s the beauty of writing #ownvoices, it comes rather naturally.

That’s so great to hear! It really shows in your writing, too – I love how compelling your characters’ voices are, and how they’re so uniquely themselves.

Q: If you had a time machine, which time(s) and place(s) in the past would you go to and why?

I would love to see what the dinosaurs looked like (but I would need the time machine to be supremely reliable because I would not want to be stuck there!). I’d also love to see what the Chinese admiral and explorer Zheng He saw sailing his treasure ships between South/Southeast/West Asia and Africa in 1400. None of the ships remain, but they were humongous— six-times the size of Columbus’ biggest ship (the Santa Maria).

Wow, I’d never heard of Zheng He before! That’s incredible.

Q:  Finally – there’s a fair bit of food and cooking involved in Outrun the Moon! What are some of your favourite foods/dishes, including Chinese dishes? 😀

I’m a big fan of dim sum. My favorites growing up were always the fried taro dumplings, steamed sticky rice in lotus leaves, and fried sesame balls with lotus paste. One of my favorite things about Chinese food is the soups, actually. Chinese people don’t waste anything, and bones were always made into nutritious soups. Now they have fancy ‘bone broth’ at the upscale groceries, and my mother in law would roll her eyes at that! Chinese have been cooking and drinking bone broth for thousands of years.

I am feeling so hungry now, haha. Dim sum’s great; I also love shāomài, green onion pancakes, pan fried pork buns, and just about all noodles. (sorry the pictures below aren’t accurate to all the foods listed, I had to make do with free stock photos xD Hope this inspires everyone to go out and eat Chinese food anyway! :P)

Thank you for your time, Stacey! Everyone, be sure to check out her books, as well as her website, Twitter and Instagram profiles.

Thank you so much, Wendy! Your questions were so fun. 🙂

About Outrun the Moon

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San Francisco, 1906: Fifteen-year-old Mercy Wong is determined to break from the poverty in Chinatown, and an education at St. Clare’s School for Girls is her best hope. Although St. Clare’s is off-limits to all but the wealthiest white girls, Mercy gains admittance through a mix of cunning and a little bribery, only to discover that getting in was the easiest part. Not to be undone by a bunch of spoiled heiresses, Mercy stands strong—until disaster strikes.

On April 18, a historic earthquake rocks San Francisco, destroying Mercy’s home and school. With martial law in effect, she is forced to wait with her classmates for their families in a temporary park encampment. Though fires might rage, and the city may be in shambles, Mercy can’t sit by while they wait for the army to bring help—she still has the “bossy” cheeks that mark her as someone who gets things done. But what can one teenage girl do to heal so many suffering in her broken city?

Book Depository (Hardcover, Paperback)

Amazon (Hardcover, Paperback)

Have you read any of Stacey Lee’s books before? What did you think of them, and what she said here? How’s #AsianLitBingo going for you?

diversity spotlight thursday, OwnVoices, Romance, Speculative Fiction, YA

Diversity Spotlight Thursday #5

Diversity Spotlight Thursday is a weekly spotlight created by Aimal at Bookshelves and Paperbacks that specifically illuminates diverse literature. You can find more details of it in the announcement post here. Each post involves sharing:

  1. A diverse book I have read and enjoyed
  2. A diverse book that has already been released but I have not read
  3. A diverse book that has not yet been released

As part of #AsianLitBingo this month, I’m focusing on books by Asian authors and with Asian characters in this spotlight.

Read and enjoyed: Not Your Sidekick by CB Lee

Goodreads Link

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Welcome to Andover… where superpowers are common, but internships are complicated. Just ask high school nobody, Jessica Tran. Despite her heroic lineage, Jess is resigned to a life without superpowers and is merely looking to beef-up her college applications when she stumbles upon the perfect (paid!) internship—only it turns out to be for the town’s most heinous supervillain. On the upside, she gets to work with her longtime secret crush, Abby, who Jess thinks may have a secret of her own. Then there’s the budding attraction to her fellow intern, the mysterious “M,” who never seems to be in the same place as Abby.

But what starts as a fun way to spite her superhero parents takes a sudden and dangerous turn when she uncovers a plot larger than heroes and villains altogether.

My thoughts:

Not Your Sidekick was actually featured in my first Diversity Spotlight Thursday, as a book on my TBR, and I was so lucky that Emily Mead lent it to me so I could finally read it. What I enjoyed:

  • The futuristic setting, heroes-and-villains foundation of their society, and their technologies were so much fun to read about. It reminded me of Big Hero 6 and I would so love to see a similar kind of animated adaptation of this book.
  • Jess was so compelling as a protagonist — her insecurities about not measuring up in terms of achievements, and regarding her cultural identities, felt very real.
  • It’s really interesting to read about an Asian diasporic character in this kind of story — talking about Jess’s Chinese classes in one paragraph and superheroes in the next; very affirming to read about.
  • Family stories are always great, and I loved that Jess’s parents and siblings had such a strong presence in the book, which shifted in a well-developed way as the story progressed.
  • Jess and Abby were an adorable duo!
  • The action-packed scenes and discoveries at the end were fun and gripping to read about

Definitely recommended!

TBR: The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco

Goodreads Link

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The beast raged; it punctured the air with its spite. But the girl was fiercer.

Tea is different from the other witches in her family. Her gift for necromancy makes her a bone witch, who are feared and ostracized in the kingdom. For theirs is a powerful, elemental magic that can reach beyond the boundaries of the living—and of the human.

Great power comes at a price, forcing Tea to leave her homeland to train under the guidance of an older, wiser bone witch. There, Tea puts all of her energy into becoming an asha, learning to control her elemental magic and those beasts who will submit by no other force. And Tea must be strong—stronger than she even believes possible. Because war is brewing in the eight kingdoms, war that will threaten the sovereignty of her homeland…and threaten the very survival of those she loves.

My thoughts:

I’ve heard a lot of friends talking about and saying they really enjoyed this, so this is definitely a book I plan on reading! I love the sound of Tea’s gift for necromancy — the dark magic aspects of the Old Kingdom books by Garth Nix were one of the things I loved about the series, so it’ll be great to see these themes/elements here. The cover also looks beautiful. Knowing that The Bone Witch has culturally diverse elements, and is by a Filipina/Chinese author, is also a strong motivation for me to read it.

Not Yet Released: When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon

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Goodreads Link

Dimple Shah has it all figured out. With graduation behind her, she’s more than ready for a break from her family, from Mamma’s inexplicable obsession with her finding the “Ideal Indian Husband.” Ugh. Dimple knows they must respect her principles on some level, though. If they truly believed she needed a husband right now, they wouldn’t have paid for her to attend a summer program for aspiring web developers…right?

Rishi Patel is a hopeless romantic. So when his parents tell him that his future wife will be attending the same summer program as him—wherein he’ll have to woo her—he’s totally on board. Because as silly as it sounds to most people in his life, Rishi wants to be arranged, believes in the power of tradition, stability, and being a part of something much bigger than himself.

The Shahs and Patels didn’t mean to start turning the wheels on this “suggested arrangement” so early in their children’s lives, but when they noticed them both gravitate toward the same summer program, they figured, Why not?

Dimple and Rishi may think they have each other figured out. But when opposites clash, love works hard to prove itself in the most unexpected ways.

My thoughts:

Rom-com! Indian protagonists with strong cultural elements! Amazing-sounding characters! I don’t really have much to comment except this sounds adorable and I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for this one (good to know it’s being published in Aus/NZ!)

Have you read, or do you plan on reading, any of these books? Let me know your thoughts!

OwnVoices, Updates

#AsianLitBingo TBR

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(Beautiful banner by Aentee @ Read at Midnight)

This month, I’m really excited to be co-hosting an AMAZING reading challenge, created by Shenwei @ Reading (AS)(I)AN (AM)ERICA. The hosts are a group of Asian bloggers, and we’ve created an initiative to support Asian authors and their books in May.

One of the aspects of this initiative involves us sharing various Asian-themed blog posts, and I have a few coming up that I’m really excited to share – my recommended ownvoices historical fiction books, a Diversity Spotlight Thursday focusing on Asian authors, and hopefully an interview later in the month with an author I really admire.

Another part involves the reading challenge below:

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Realistically, I know I’m unlikely to be able to complete a whole line during this hectic month, but I’ve still planned a TBR out, and would love to complete the whole board at some point in the year. For  now, I’m aiming for the diagonal from SE Asian MC to Multiracial/Multi-ethnic Asian MC.

Are you participating in #AsianLitBingo? What’s on your TBR?

Updates

April Wrap-Up + May Updates

Books I read during April, blog wrap-up, and some updates on what I’ll be doing in May.

Books read during April:

  • The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon – incredible, and I especially loved the depiction of migrant experiences from multiple aspects! We so so need more books like these. Post will eventually be up with a review + reflection in relation to the diversity of migrant experiences.
  • The Secret Science of Magic by Melissa Keil – sadly I didn’t enjoy this as much as I’d hoped, the writing just didn’t work well in engaging me. But I still loved the premise of this book, the friendship aspect, the inclusion of POC and the anxiety rep, and if you’re more into contemporary YA romance then you should enjoy it more than I did. Highly recommend checking out Jananee’s review here for an ownvoices perspective on the diversity.
  • Went through a LOT of chapters and volumes from the Blue Exorcist manga — the visuals have been a good break from normal reading because I’m so fatigued from university textbooks. I got into this through initially watching the anime and really loved the premise, the characters (Rin is an amazing hero and I also love Yukio and Izumo), and the fun action plots. Definitely recommend it for anime/manga fans.
  • Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee – thank you to Emily Mead for lending me this! I’ve had SO many friends recommend it and had been desperate to read this for ages. Overall, it was a really fun read and reminded me a lot of the Big Hero 6 film.
  • The Stone Heart (The Nameless City, #2) by Faith Erin Hicks. My feelings towards the worldbuilding (which I’ve seen concerns regarding it being appropriative) and plot (seems hindered by trying to address a very complex topic rather simplistically) are now a lot more mixed than when I initially read the first book in this graphic novel series. I do still love Faith Erin Hicks’ art and Jordie Bellaire’s gorgeous colours, though.
  • Wing Jones by Katherine Webber – loved the writing, loved the characters, lots of feels. Josephine’s review here is a lovely ownvoices perspective on the biracial rep.

Blog wrap-up:

  • I’ve given my Diversity page an update 🙂 It now has a slideshow of photos of + links to some of my favourite diverse books that I recommend.
  • Review of The Pearl Thief (the upcoming prequel to Code Name Verity) by Elizabeth Wein, which was a fun dip into a historical mystery and back into Julie’s character.
  • Made my first ever discussion post – On Languages, Storytelling and Translated Books. Thank you so much to everyone who shared and/or commented – I’ve been overwhelmed by the response and it was incredible hearing about your individual experiences! Will definitely be doing a discussion post again.
  • Review of Listen, Slowly by Thanhhà Lai – I reflected a bit on the visiting-your-homeland Asian diasporic experience in this moving, ownvoices middle grade book.

Review Books:

Thanks to Text Publishing for sending me these!

  • Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King. I hadn’t heard of this before but the premise does sound really compelling – art and family issues. I like the clever title a lot, too.
  • Ballad for a Mad Girl by Vikki Wakefield. I read Friday Brown a long time ago by the same author and remember being intrigued by and liking it. The book’s premise sounds compelling!

May (Event) Updates:

  • Noted Festival in Canberra is coming up, where I’m doing this storytelling workshop for primary school kids from multilingual/ESL backgrounds. Nervous but also excited, and I’m so keen to see the lovely Shu-Ling again (incredible writer, amazing friend) ❤ Check out the rest of the program and the artists, all of which are incredible.
  • After a stressful few hours trying to get tickets through the website and on the phone, I’m really excited for Sydney Writers’ Festival.
  • There’s one more announcement that’s coming tomorrow! It’s an initiative I’m co-hosting which I’m really excited to share, and hope you’ll all be able to take part in it too.

Links

Contemporary, middle grade, OwnVoices

Listen, Slowly by Thanhhà Lai: Visiting your homeland and Asian diasporic experiences

Listen, Slowly by Thanhhà Lai was a unique and compelling read. There were parts of it that particularly resonated with me and I loved the way the setting in Vietnam was evoked. Mai’s character arc and her grandmother’s storyline, although somewhat flawed, were interesting to read about, and this is definitely a book I recommend. Also, I have to say it: look at that beautiful cover!

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Goodreads Link

Summary

Twelve-year-old Mai can’t wait to take a break from being perfect. But all straight A’s have gotten her is an unwanted trip to a foreign country she’s never been to – over eight thousand miles from home.

Mai’s parents are making her spend her vacation in Vietnam so she can learn more about her roots and help her grandmother discover what happened to her grandfather during the Vietnam War. Mai barely knows the language, the culture, or the customs, and she is desperately counting down the days until she can go back home.

In this sharply funny and poignant story, Mai will realise that home is not found on a map, but is instead made up of the people she calls family.

My thoughts:

The explorations of a diasporic experience: visiting your ‘homeland’

One of the most fascinating aspects of this book, for me, was how it explored Mai’s experience as a Vietnamese-American visiting Vietnam, the way it depicted the cultural differences between America and Vietnam, and hence her sense of disconnection as a result. It’s a common Asian diasporic experience – I was actually reading this book whilst staying with extended family in China – and one I’m really grateful to see represented.

Whilst I’ve seen a similar journey portrayed in a handful of other books, this was unique in how it emphasised how starkly different the two cultures were, and the impact of that on Mai – having grown up in America, not being able to speak Vietnamese, and being there for the first time.

Vietnam and China are obviously different countries and cultures, but there are similarities that I really loved reading about in this book, because of how much they aligned with my experiences of visiting China. I’ve always felt the initial shock of having 99% of the people around you look like you, even when you’re used to being around other Asians; the lack of privacy and space; the way relatives might focus on how different you are, both physically and through your inadequacies of not knowing the language and culture; certain habits they have around family; the way they continuously try to feed you as much as possible; Mai walking around a bookstore knowing she can’t read most of what’s in there, resolving to learn more Vietnamese, and finding the bilingual section…

Overall, it was great to see this represented as someone with similar experiences, and well worth learning about for people who don’t share it. Diasporic Asians are often subjected to the idea that we are outsiders and inadequate from ‘both sides’ – mainstream white society and the culture of our origin. Listen, Slowly shares the nuances of this experience with detail and empathy.

Mai: her voice and character arc

Mai is a heavily flawed character at the start: she complains constantly about Vietnam, about having to visit and accompany her grandmother (Bà) there, and about her parents for encouraging her to connect to her roots – “they’re [my dad’s] roots, not mine”. Whilst, personally, my attitudes have been/would be quite different in the same circumstances, I appreciated the realism of this (I’ve known many people who’ve acted the same way) and was excited by the potential of seeing her develop throughout the story.

Unfortunately, the main issue was how inconsistent her character arc was – rather than slowly developing an interest in Vietnamese culture or reflecting on herself in a natural way, there were many times she’d change all of a sudden, and then regress, which I found unnerving. I did like the endpoint, though – how it wasn’t an unrealistically radical change but involved her making a small decision.

In terms of her voice, I generally felt it was a very strong twelve-year-old’s voice. Whilst the humour didn’t really work for me, I’m expecting it would be more suited to the middle grade target audience (I’ve seen similar styles of humour in other such books, like Mike Jung’s).

The setting

Thanhhà Lai’s lyrical writing described Vietnam beautifully, and again there were similarities with China I could relate to here – the chaotic way people drive, the differences between more rural areas and the crowded, in-your-face sights and smells in the city, the climate, as well as details specific to Vietnam which were a wonderful insight into the country. I felt completely immersed in the setting for the entirety of the story.

Bà’s Storyline

As described on the blurb, there’s a prominent storyline regarding Mai’s grandmother , who is searching for the truth of what happened to her grandfather (Ông) during the Vietnam War. There were some pacing issues here, but I did like the way it integrated the legacy of the Vietnam War – I definitely learnt a lot from it – and there were moments that I found genuinely moving.

Overall, Listen Slowly is a book I enjoyed and definitely recommend.

Some similar/further recommendations: Little Paradise by Gabrielle Wang and Willow Tree and Olive by Irini Savvides, both Australian YA novels, also explore the visiting-your-homeland experience. Parts of Her Father’s Daughter by Alice Pung (memoir) is another book that portrays this, though note this is more mature and the middle section contains confronting content about the genocidal regime in Cambodia.

Have you read Listen, Slowly, or any other books about the visiting-your-homeland experience? Have you had this experience yourself? How do you feel towards your ‘roots’?