Mini-Reviews: East Asian Crime Fiction #AsianLitBingo #DiverseDetectives

I wish I could be one of those 15 books a month readers, but sadly I read more slowly, watch too much Netflix and stare into space a lot. Still, when a bunch of my fave bloggers create awesome events such as #AsianLitBingo I try to read more and watch less TV and this month I actually got more than the required minimum read, yay! Now, I just need to get those books reviewed, ahhh. Also, I strayed a bit from my tbr, as always, but also noticed this week that instead of completing lots of bingo squares I read several books for a few spaces, facepalm. So, yeah, themed mini-reviews it is and perhaps I’ll even manage to complete a line in the next few days. I’ll update the bingo card once I got that figured out.

Now, book 1 was actually on my tbr! And then uuum I went off on a #DiverseDetectives binge somehow. It’s my favorite genre, so it’s not a complete surprise.

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The Agency: The Body at the Tower by Y.S. Lee is the second book in the Agency series around young Mary Quinn, a biracial detective in Victorian London. Now part of the Agency and with more detective training, Mary’s second case requires her to don the disguise of a young boy and solve a murder at a building site.

I really enjoyed the first book, the series is great for all of us who enjoy Victorian age mysteries but without the casual racism even white contemporary authors of the genre love to include for “authenticity” or whatever the fuck. Mary is Irish-Chinese but passes as Black Irish, which I hadn’t ever heard of before reading the series but appears to exist so white people can make sure other people know they have the cool “exotic something” but not that racial Other Brown.  Passing as kinda white, Mary can enter privileged social circles absolutely closed to people of color and with the political situation of the times, she definitely tries hard to appear not-Chinese. However, other Chinese characters she meets do recognize her, but Mary doesn’t feel part of the British-Chinese community. There’s little privilege found in claiming that identity, but it’s also shown that Mary does not feel that she belongs, having been orphaned at a young age and not knowing the language. I do love finding more mixed-race characters in literature and especially ones who cannot claim ethnic belonging since this is the closest I come to identifying with characters in that regard.

Apart from that, the mystery is quite good and the all-female agency is a perhaps fanciful, but welcome institution that cleverly makes use of women being relegated to the private sphere. The cool thing is that according to the author, the cover model actually fits Mary Quinn, so yay for not whitewashing the cover. I think the third book deals more with English-Chinese relations during the 19th century and with Mary trying to find a place for herself, so I look forward to reading that one soon.

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Then I was looking for more mysteries with an Asian MC and the second book I found is a more suspenseful/thriller style kind of mystery. Set in the Midwest, A Person of Interest by Susan Choi follows the case of a bombing and an Asian-born math professor who ends up a person of interest in the FBI investigation. Now Choi seems to deliberately leave out the professor’s ethnicity but is very particular about the surveillance that Asian people in the US are subject to (this book is from 2008 by the way).

The story follows Lee, a professor at a third-rate university in the Midwest, not too far away from retirement. While Lee is a difficult character to carry the story, the third person narrative is unsympathetic but brutal in its examination of Lee. The professor takes self-loathing to a whole new level but at the same time is sure to make things about himself. This belief makes him jittery and anxious and the FBI takes a closer look at him, but an Asian immigrant? They’d been itching to do just that.

While this first part of the book is fast-paced, Choi brings in another narrative in flashbacks, of Lee as a younger man, of his first years in the US, of badly-handled relationships. I would’ve preferred these two narratives to be more neatly wrapped in the end, but Choi’s writing style is beautiful and the character study of Lee moves a bit too slowly but is so haunting that I didn’t really mind. The mystery does have a satisfying solution and Lee’s crime really is that he is closed-off and unlikable, he is not the deferential, overly emotive caricature white people prefer.

Choi has written several novels and I need to read my way through her backlist. Why hadn’t I heard of this author before?

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Book three I chose cause I thought I might as well make a themed thing of it😁 Out by Natsuo Kirino is one most of you are probably familiar with and I thought I’d read it before but I think I confused it with Grotesque. Note to self, remember to update your goodreads regularly!

Out is a long one for me with 400 pages, but it’s utterly readable and I was hooked from the premise of a young woman killing her deadbeat husband and then getting her co-workers to help get rid of the body. Kirino is a star in the Japanese thriller/crime fiction scene and deservedly so. This is definitely not a cozy mystery, but definitely give it a go, if you’re not too squeamish. Set in Tokyo in the late 90s, this is a gritty, sometimes brutal story of women who feel trapped and unhappy in their lives. Kirino highlights their situation while also refusing to set these women up as sympathetic and driven too far. Her characters are flawed and do horrible things, but for me this together with the strong pacing and the moments of dark humor worked extremely well. Definitely recommended!

Are you participating in #AsianLitBingo? What have you been reading?

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[Review]: Hope in Nautical Dusk by Miri Castor

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“The Gift of Twilight flourishes within Opal Charm as winter descends on Dewdrop. Life was already rough before, but Opal’s got new obstacles to face – getting into high school, bringing her brother back home, and training to protect Athre and Earth from Samael, the mysterious overlord who seeks to rule all, and put an end to her and the Charm lineage. The balance between harsh truths and sweet lies is more fragile than ever.

Yet, as winter rolls on, the balance begins to break as a new threat emerges. Memories Opal once trusted are disintegrating her friendships, and lies are clouding her Path of Dawn and Dusk. Opal must seek the truth while protecting those close to her, no matter how painful it may be.

This is a story about what it means to have hope in the face of despair.”

I really enjoyed Opal Charm: The Path to Dawn, which I reviewed here (and also interviewed author Miri Castor) and so I was happy to return to Dewdrop and reconnect with Opal. We find her still very much a reluctant hero, dreading going back to JAEL training and anxious about her ability to save Athre from the khanship of Samael Serkhan. Which, you know, is a lot to put on the shoulders of one eighth-grader.

The world of Athre that we were introduced to in the first book gets a much larger place in Hope in Nautical Dusk. I definitely appreciated the world-building and learning more about how the powers work since that was teased at a lot in Path to Dawn. This, as well as character development, for me is why I invest in fantasy series. Even more than plot, I really like to learn the details of the worlds SFF authors create. And yes you guessed it, I want to learn even more in book 3 (it’s going to be a 4 book series).

What I also liked was the strong focus on friendship, between Opal, Anza and Aaron but also with their Athrenian friends Evron and Adaeze. And it’s fantastic to see more bisexual rep, as Opal figures out she’s crushing on girls and boys and her friends are  very supportive about it.

I don’t want to spoil anything, but I do want to warn you that reading this one was tough emotionally and you’ll want to hold onto the Hope part. But that’s the great thing, Miri gets you so invested in her characters.  I’m glad the journey isn’t over and there will be another book about Opal and her Path of Dawn and Dusk.

Disclaimer: I received a free e-version of this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: The Marauders’ Island (Hen & Chick I)

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The Marauders’ Island by Tristan J. Tarwater is a coming of age tale around a teenage mage. Just when Azria is supposed to become a fully fledged, certified mage of Miz, bureaucracy throws a wrench in and to top it off her estranged mother, seafarer/ pirate queen Apzana, comes to see Azria to take her on an adventure. Well, a serious mission to unsink a sunken island to the displeasure of the villanous mage who sunk it in the first place.

The book shines where the setting is concerned. The world-building of Miz, its culture, and magical system is detailed and I love that. The open sea and island are described so visually, you’ll feel the sand between your toes and want to drink the coconut wine. Makes for a perfect escapism read.

One of my favorite aspects of the book was the mother-daughter relationship at the heart of it. So much of the literature I used to read or had to read in uni was all about destructive friendships, dysfunctional relationships etc between women and I’m so happy that especially women writers of color give me not necessarily uncomplicated but always rewarding representations of women’s relationships, be they romantic, filial or epic friendships. The quest to raise the island also becomes a journey of reconnecting and healing for Azria and Apzana and suffice it to say that it is immensely satisfying to see a WOC mother-daughter duo kicking ass.

Also absolutely fantastic was the matter-of-fact diversity of the characters. They are all Black and other people of Color and all over the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. Especially the ragtag crew was such a diverse bunch, bisexuality, transwomen, polyamorous relationships, you name it. And the glorious point of the story was still their adventure not the supposed drama of being non-normative.

This is the first book in the Hen and Chick series and I’m so excited for book 2. Hopefully we’ll get to know Apzana’s crew better and I can’t wait to see how Azria’s journey continues.

So why should you read it? Let me throw around some keywords: Cause magic! Women of Color pirates! Swashbuckling! Adventure! Treasure! And I bet some of you would like to escape the cold to a tropical island. I’m getting a hardcopy of this one for future rereads, but the kindle version is on sale at $1 at the moment if you need to budget.

Just a heads-up, this might be YA fantasy, but I think would be suitable for middle graders as well.

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Disclaimer: I was given a free e-copy of this book by the author, but never fear I remain my opinionated self.

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Review: Opal Charm + Interview with Author Miri Castor

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The titular character of Opal Charm: The Path to Dawn, a YA fantasy novel, is a Black (pre-)teen girl living in the quiet New York suburb of Dewdrop with her parents and sister. But Opal isn’t having the best time what with the death of her older brother, her sister alway snapping at her, no friends and parents who are in turns distant and all up in her space. Things seem to look up, however, when a new girl, Hope Adair, befriends Opal and Opal reconnects with her childhood friend Aaron. But Opal keeps having these unsettling dreams and there’s more to Hope than meets the eye.

Opal is an unlikely heroine and a very reluctant one at that. Through much of the book, we also see her suffering from depression and having withdrawn from friends and others. Opal can be unlikable and difficult, but her depression and isolation grow out of grief, and I found myself empathizing with her, but also her family who were clearly overwhelmed with the situation. I thought I’d mention this as for much of the first part of the book the reason for Opal’s behavior might not be clear and some might read her as simply annoying and be put off.

The Path to Dawn is the first part of a book series and I really enjoyed the focus on Opal’s situation and her overcoming isolation and reconnecting with people. It is only in the latter part of the book that the Chosen One aspect of the story really kicks off and we learn a bit about the troubled world of Athre and the gifts Athrians and Opal share, cause make no mistake this is gonna be a superhero story! A superhero who happens to be a Black girl, yass! I’m so happy to see more stories where the chosen one isn’t a white dude.

All in all I really enjoyed reading the beginning of Opal’s story. At times the dialogue and reactions by the characters felt a bit off to me especially in the first few chapters and I would have liked to see a deeper exploration of Opal and Hope’s developing friendship. But I liked the long exposition and the focus on Opal’s struggles and the showdown at the end of this book seems like a promise that readers will find out what motivates the different factions fighting in Athre. I’m also hoping to see more of how Opal’s family might reconnect and heal. I’ll be reading Hope in Nautical Dusk or sure.

Make sure to scroll down to hear from the author, Miri Castor!

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Disclaimer: I was given a free e-copy of this book by the author, but never fear I remain my opinionated self!

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Miri Castor is the author of Opal Charm: The Path to Dawn. She spent many recesses in middle school writing fantasy stories, with Opal Charm being one of many. She has written for Black Girl Magic Literary Magazine and was featured as a Spotlight New Author in 2016.
Now attending a university on the East Coast, she studies biochemistry and will receive her B.S. in 2016. A New York native, Miri is working on her second novel while in her last year as an undergraduate. She enjoys playing video games, attending music concerts, and strolling through the City.

Bina: What made you start writing and how do you manage writing while attending college?

Miri Castor: I was a huge bookworm back in the day. It started with me replacing the protagonists of my favorite SFF cartoons with my own characters when I was around eight years old. Then I started thinking after a few years, “wouldn’t it be cool to give them their own stories?” And that’s where I started.

Well, it was much easier when I was an undergraduate and had month-long breaks! As a college senior, I had a lot of time to dedicate to writing since I took a few classes. Now that I’m a first year in a PhD program, it’s a bit harder to manage with studies and research. I write with any downtime I can get.

Bina: Where do you draw your inspiration from?

Miri Castor: As a nerd, I’m inspired by my favorite video games, anime, and a handful of fantasy authors, like Tananarive Due. Music is another major source of inspiration. Janelle Monáe’s music and style got me hooked into afrofuturism, as well as Solange, and a handful of alternative R&B singers.

Bina: What is your process with regard to feedback and editing as a self-published author?

Miri: I try to learn from all feedback I get, good or bad. I don’t let it interfere with my original ideas though. I feel like it’s definitely more personal as a self-published author to receive feedback because you usually don’t have a team behind you. You’re the editor, the artist (possibly), and the author.

Bina: Do you feel that self-publishing gives you more leeway with regard to diversity?

Miri: Definitely. I’d like to think in the near future traditional publishers won’t be as reluctant to showcase diverse books as they are now.

Bina: In Opal you’ve created a (reluctant) superhero, who is also a young Black girl. Can you tell us about reading (or not) about Black characters growing up and what you hope to contribute to issues of representation with your books?

Miri: “Reluctant” is such a nice way of putting it, haha! That aside, the only black characters I read growing up were from urban fiction books. These characters were from the hood, and had to deal with issues around family, school, and their environment. It wasn’t a bad thing, but that was the only representation I got for black girls as a kid. I would’ve loved to have read fantasy stories about magical black girls who became the chosen ones, and had to save the world.

My main goal with the Opal Charm series is to have humanizing portrayals of people of color, and to write stories the 12-year-old me would love.

Bina: The Path to Dawn is the first book in a series, how many books are you planning and can you tell us a bit about what’s next for Opal?

Miri: I’ve planned for 4 books for the main series, but I also have prequels and spinoffs in mind. I’m especially excited to get started on the prequels!

Opal’s got a lot in store for her. She undergoes training to protect Earth and the alternate world Athre, while learning more about her powers, the secrets of each JAEL member, and herself. All I can say is Opal’s hopes for the future will be put to the test.

Bina: Thanks so much for answering my questions!

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