In this post, reviews for: Sudha Koul’s Tiger Ladies (Beacon Press, 2003), Thien Pham’s Sumo (First Second, 2012), Pauline A. Chen’s The Red Chamber (Knopf, 2012), Mary Ting’s Crossroads (World Castle Publishing, 2012), Yvonne Woon’s Dead Beautiful (Hyperion Books for Children, 2010), Yvonne Woon’s Life Eternal (Hyperion Books for Children, 2012), and Andrew Fukuda’s The Hunt (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2012).
A Review of Sudha Koul’s Tiger Ladies (Beacon Press, 2003)
I was originally alerted to this title when reading through the critical work of Rocio Davis (author of a number of monographs on the topic of Asian American cultural production), a scholar whose command of Asian American cultural production is incredibly vast. Anytime I read something written by Davis, I have to pick up a number of new titles I have not seen or heard of before. Sudha Koul’s Tiger Ladies was one of the titles that interested me and is one of a handful to come out of Beacon Press that are germane to this literary community (some other titles include a pair of earlier novels by Indira Ganesan). Koul’s memoir, lushly written and warmly conceived, is a mostly nostalgic accounting of what we might call a form of gendered intergenerational cultural transmission, in which one of the northernmost regions of India—Kashmir—looms large. Structured in parts and related through the maternal line, Tiger Ladies focuses on the importance of heritage and culture as connected to Kashmir. Koul thus focuses sections on her grandmother, her mother, and then later her own position as the bearer of a particular regional culture. What’s abundantly clear for Koul is that Kashmir has had to shoulder the brunt of international conflict. This process has forced its peoples to evolve as border disputes and religious animosities between Pakistan and India remain turbulent. Realizing that her readers might not necessarily schooled in regional history and culture, Tiger Ladies also possesses a scholarly and ethnographic tone that makes this work quite appealing to a variety of readerships. Perhaps, the most compelling aspect of Koul’s work is her commitment to a conception of a local homeland and the external forces that can slowly tear a place apart.
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A Review of Thien Pham’s Sumo (First Second, 2012)
Thien Pham’s Sumo is his second graphic novel publication (after Level Up, which he illustrated and was written by Gene Luen Yang). Sumo is a kind of transnational sports narrative. Our protagonist, Scott, travels to Japan in the wake of his failed romantic relationship with Gwen. His professional football career in ruins, he seeks to restart a new life as a sumo wrestler. Thus, the graphic novel also tracks Scott’s challenges as he attempts to excel in this particular athletic tradition, one so firmly rooted in Japan’s national history and culture. Pham’s drawing style is fairly minimalist and there is a sparseness of the panels that evokes the work of Tomine and, on the more extreme level, of Shaun Tan in The Arrival. Pham also employs the use of different colored shading to denote shifts in time and the graphic novel is, in this sense, fairly non-linear. By the conclusion, it is clear that the graphic novel is a kind of identity quest, one rooted in the hope of second chances. One issue that remains quite interesting in relation to this work is Pham’s choice to leave the racial discourse unremarked. From our perspective, Scott cannot be denoted as Japanese, but at the same time, we’re unsure of his status and his specificity as a kind of foreigner figure. As discussions in my own class on the graphic narrativemade clear, racial designations in graphic novels can only ever certifiably be presented alongside textual markers (captioning, direct dialogue, thought bubbles etc). Overall, a promising debut!
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A Review of Pauline A. Chen’s The Red Chamber (Knopf, 2012).
I’ve been meaning to read and to review Pauline A. Chen’s The Red Chamber for quite a long time, but this quarter has really pushed me, especially as I created a new prep on the Asian American graphic narrative. Chen’s The Red Chamber is of course based upon the Chinese classic, Dream of the Red Chamber, and takes many of the same characters and plot trajectories in that work as the inspiration for her own fictional narrative. In some cases, Chen has taken liberties with the existing text by excising certain figures, condensing others, and making other such alterations in order to streamline the plot and focus more aggressively on the female figures who populated the original. I have not read the original work, so I can’t speak with any expertise on Chen’s reconstruction of that novel, but this work stands on its own in terms due to its careful rendering of female subjectivity during the 18th century. Chen places the emotional center of the novel in Daiyu, a young women who opens the novel having to deal with the death of her beloved mother, Min. Her father, hoping that Daiyu can re-establish relations with Min’s birth family, sends her to live with her maternal grandmother, the dowager of the powerful Jia family. Daiyu struggles to make a new home there, but eventually comes to the romantic attention of Jia Baoyu. She also makes a tentative friendship with a young woman named Baochai, who eventually becomes a sort of female rival for the affections of Jia Baoyu. Baochai and her mother share their own complications precisely because her brother Pan has married a woman who wants nothing to do with them and they are stuck on their own. There are many other important female characters, especially Xifeng, married to a man named Lian, who must deal with the fact that she cannot bear any children for Lian. Eventually, Xifeng is forced to deal with the addition of a concubine—once her personal and loved servant named Ping’er—to their family, one who bears a daughter for Lian. The novel eventually takes a very dark turn once Daiyu’s father dies and she is forced to make a permanent home with the Jia family, but her rootlessness is a source of ire and her extended family merely tolerates her. Daiyu’s sole hope for a new life is in her relationship with Jia Baoyu, which seems to become impossibe once Baoyu is betrothed to Baochai. Chen’s novel must consistently work to weave these many characters and subplots together and she shows a deft handling of so many different narratives. Because I’ve been reading so many books regarding the Victorian novel and the marriage plot, what I find interesting is that Chen’s novel depicts a period in which the challenges and the perils of courtship also bear importance for the young woman who exists on the fringes of what we might call the Chinese landed gentry. Though Daiyu makes a rather tragic exit from the narrative, we see her largely as an emblem of the fragility of a woman’s place in 18th century Beijing.
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A Review of Mary Ting’s Crossroads (World Castle Publishing, 2012).
Just when I think I’m closing in on the gap of young adult teen fictions composed by American writers of Asian descent, I find yet another entry into this paranormal urban fantasy genre. At the center of Ting’s Crossroads series is Claudia Emerson. The novel opens with a spooky coincidence in that her friend, also named Claudia Emerson, happens to have died. Some think she was the person who has died, but this overlapping name is another way of granting Ting the opportunity to root the “living” Claudia in the “crossroads,” a kind of halfway point between heaven and earth. Claudia keeps accidentally dreaming herself to the crossroads and soon her wayward adventures lead her to a number of angelic beings, some who become guardian-figures (such as Michael) and others who seem far more sinister (like Aden). That Claudia has been able to access the crossroads is itself a sort of mystery and suggests that she has a kind of power that others might want to exploit. In this way, we come to realize her life may be marked for something special and that she may otherwise be also in peril. Ting has to spend much of her time in the process of world building and the strength of the first book of the Crossroads series is that she places so much effort in giving the divine realm its own history of enchantment. Claudia seems rather generic, though, as a character and her adventures in high school sometimes drag the plot down a bit. The other element that is becoming abundantly clear is that the male leads of these young adult romances are always going to somehow be incredibly handsome and/or mysterious and Ting does not disappoint in this regard. Indeed, the angelic beings overall possess a preternatural beauty that makes it seem as if the crossroads might be populated with the high elves of middle earth. At the end of the day, I’m still waiting for a book that really breaks with some of the more traditional modes of romance, courtship, teen angst, and incredibly beautiful characters. While you won’t get that recalcitrant narrative here, Ting’s first book demonstrates a knowledge of a dedicated fan base and this target audience will find much to celebrate in this first installment.
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A Review of Yvonne Woon’s Dead Beautiful (Hyperion Books for Children, 2010) and Life Eternal (Hyperion Books for Children, 2012).
So, Yvonne Woon’s Dead Beautiful series, of which there are two currently published (and with a potential third coming in 2013) came at the exact right time for me. I got some great news in a period of that has been rather, well, depressing, so I rewarded myself with reading these two rather inventive novels concerning the supernatural, the afterlife, and a spirited protagonist by the name of Renee Winters. It is difficult to write too much of the plotting because each novel is really built around central mysteries and I don’t want to spoil them, precisely because a great part of the success of these books is that you are moving alongside the expectation that you will have one or more big reveals. These reveals place Woon’s work alongside many of the dynamic and idiosyncratic fictions to be emerging from the young adult genres in which the paranormal and the romance plot somehow successfully collide. Dead Beautiful begins with a tragic event: Renee accidentally stumbles upon the dead bodies of her parents. The circumstances of their deaths are suspicious but deemed accidental. Her grandfather is granted guardianship and Renee is shipped off to a morbid academy in Maine called Gottfried. There, she makes quick friends with her roommate Eleanor and begins to discover that there are more mysteries to be uncovered. What happened to one of the students (Benjamin Gallow) who was found dead in circumstances very similar to her own parents? Why is another student (Cassandra Millet) missing? How is one very handsome, very mysterious student (Dante Berlin and our obvious romance lead) connected to all of these enigmatic happenings? Finally, what’s up with the positively moribund Gottfried, a place which would or should deter any parent from sending their children to given its rather problematic history? Woon is game to answer all such questions and her plotting is absolutely perfect. I finished this book in one sitting and had to make myself stop halfway through the second novel in order to get some much needed rest. The second novel leaves right where the first left off, but adds in a huge wrinkle when one of the faculty members from the Gottfried Academy is found dead. And when Gottfried Academy is officially closed (due in part to the events of the first novel), Renee must be sent off to a new boarding school, but what of friends, of romance? Never fear, we are always in Woon’s capable hands and those who have been a fan of the many reviewed here in the genre, including Kat Zhang, Michelle Sagara, Andrew Fukuda, Marie Lu, Rebeca Lim, etc, these novels will definitely draw you in. We eagerly await the possibility of that third installment!
A Review of Andrew Fukuda’s The Hunt (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2012)
I just wanted to alert our faithful readers that pylduck first reviewed the hunt over this a way:
If Twilight and Hungers Games had a novel as a love child, it would probably be Andrew Fukuda’s The Hunt, which takes plot and content elements of both books and melds it into a unique passing narrative. Our narrator and protagonist, Gene, is a heper, a slang term for a human, but the twist is that he’s living among a group of beings that are just like vampires. They burn in the sun, they sleep during the night, they have incredible bloodlust, they have ageless features and do not emit body odor, they do not sweat, they do not show fear, they do not laugh. There is one significant difference in that these beings do seem to age, so it’s not clear if they actually are vampires at all. There is no term for these beings and Fukuda likely relies upon the wealth of popular knowledge about such mythological creatures to help ground the laws of this fictional universe. Gene, along with his classmate, Ashley June, are selected in a lottery to participate in The Hunt, an exciting and thrilling event which grants a very select few vampire-like beings the opportunity to hunt what are considered to be the last vestiges of the hepers. These hepers have been raised from infancy and protected inside a special dome until the very day when they are used as prey for The Hunt. For Gene, who is actually a heper, this event is particularly problematic because he must continue to pretend to be a non-heper and at the same time, must consider his relationship to the prey involved in this hunt. Is he any different than the hepers who literally have been farmed to participate in this game of bloodlust and violence? Fukuda is especially talented at moving the plot forward. I finished the book in one sitting and I was reminded that one of the book blurb authors stated that it was “unputdownable.” I agree: the novel is “unputdownable,” but I will hope that this novel, which is the first of the trilogy, will take time to articulate the nature of the vampire-like beings, what they actually are and how it is that they can age. Ultimately, I tend to read such novels as racial and social metaphors: that is, these types of novels are always invested in forms of systemic social inequalities. In this case, the vampire-like beings who have almost total and utter control over the lives and experiences of other group of living beings, seem to reveal to us the ways in which power can so oppressively be wielded.
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