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Asian American Literature Fans Megareview for May 28, 2014

Asian American Literature Fans Megareview for May 28, 2014

In this post, reviews of Samit Basu’s Turbulence (Titan Books, 2013); Marisa de Los Santos and David Teague’s Saving Lucas Biggs (Harper Children’s Division, 2014); Melissa de la Cruz’s The Ring and the Crown (Disney Hyperion, 2014); and Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian’s Fire for Fire (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2013).

As always, with apologies for factual inaccuracies, typographical errors, and grammar mistakes. If you should need to contact me, please send to:

A Review of Samit Basu’s Turbulence (Titan Books, 2013).

Samit Basu’s Turbulence is definitely one of the most fun reads I have had in a long time. Basu is already known for his cult series The Simoqin Prophecies, which was published out of Penguin India. This series is hard to get in the States, but it established Basu as a speculative writer of formidable talent; descriptions make clear that The Simoqin Prophecies brings together postcolonial Indian Anglophone fiction and the fantasy genre. Basu takes a similar turn with Turbulence in what I would consider to be postcolonial Indian Anglophone fiction meets X-Men meets Tim Kring’s Heroes (specifically in its evocation of a Sylar-like big baddie). Turbulence explores what happens to a group of Indians who all happened to take the same plane flight. All those who were on that plane apparently exhibit special powers. Aman Sen, one of those individuals, attempts to unite those who were on that plane and keep them safe from forces that seem to be looking to kill them. Enter Uzma: a woman who was on the plane and who enters Sen’s would-be refuge and meets the others who are specially powered. For his part, Sen is gifted with incredible talents related to the internet. Others include Tia, who can make multiple copies of herself; Bob, who can change the weather based upon what he eats; and Sundar, who has become proficient at creating new technology, with the power of invention. Uzma’s gift seems to be a little less impressive: anyone one who meets her immediately falls in love with her. In any case, the plot takes on greater urgency when it becomes clear that there is an evil force looking to exploit the specially powered plane flight passengers and use them to rule over the entire world: Jai, the leader, has his own group of cronies with special powers, including Mukesh, who can take the form of a snake; Amina, a young girl who has taken on persona of an anime character in a video game and can accordingly injure people with special moves; Sher, a man who can take the form of a tiger; among others. Sen’s band of merry mutants seems to be the only thing stopping Jai.
Basu’s novel is so engaging because there’s a wonderful mix of action and humor. Basu puts to effective use some of the unique powers, with Tia’s multiple copies perhaps being the most comedic. Indeed, Tia’s many versions of herself often argue with each other, while others go on their own missions without informing the larger mutant clan. Basu is well aware of the intertextual resonances of his novel and is sure to cite other popular culture documents featuring mutants and monsters. Readers will be overjoyed to note that Basu’s follow-up to Turbulence, Resistance, will soon see its release in 2014. Truly, a pyrotechnic feat of the superhero-oriented imagination.

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A Review of Marisa de Los Santos and David Teague’s Saving Lucas Biggs (Harper Children’s Division, 2014)

Marisa de Los Santos takes a break from her single-authored books to team up with her husband David Teague for their debut collaboration: Saving Lucas Biggs (Harper Children’s Division, 2014). Santos and Teague split storytelling duties up among three characters: Margaret O’Malley, her best friend Charlie, and Charlie’s grandfather Josh. Initially, readers are split into two different times frames, with alternating viewpoints from Margaret in 2014 and from Josh in 1938. In the present time, Margaret O’Malley’s father has just been convicted of murder based upon a fire that he reputedly had set, one linked to the very corporation that he had been trying to take down as a whistleblower for Victory Fuels, a large fossil fuel-related corporation. The circumstances are of course sketchy and Margaret makes it clear that her father was likely the victim of a framing. The novel then shifts to 1938 where Josh tells us the story of his parents’ move from Mississippi to Victory, Arizona, (in part due to his brother who seems to have some sort of respiratory ailment) a town that is just beginning its development of industries. In 1938, this industry is coal mining. These two time periods seem to be, for the most part, unrelated, except for the fact that Margaret and Charlie do happen to be best friends and that Margaret does know Josh in 2014, as an elderly man. But, about one-third of the way into the novel, we finally figure out what the strange maxim that Margaret lives by concerning “foreswearing,” which is related to the fact that everyone in the O’Malley line (seemingly passed down from Margaret’s paternal line) is able to do time travel. Whut, whut, you say?! Yes, time travel. So, this young adult fiction clearly moves into the realm of the paranormal from this point forward, though it obviously gestures to a social realist impulse based upon the issue of union organizing occurring in 1938 and the fight against big corporations destroying the environment in 2014. Margaret, after hearing a key story from Josh in 2014, realizes that if she travels back to 1938, she might be able to alter a set of events that would then result in a different set of happenings in 2014. Specifically, she looks to prevent another framing and murder that occurred in 1938; the father of Josh’s best friend, Aristotle Agrippa, is accused of murdering the then owner of the Victory company, Mr. Ratliff. The actual killer is none other than a man named Elijah Biggs, who will later go on to own the company and adopt Aristotle’s son (and who is Josh’s best friend) Luke. If this is all sort of confusing for you, you should read the novel and enjoy its many twists and turns. Santos and Teague certainly have created a stimulating and enthralling story, one easily read within a single night (especially for those like me with reading addiction). The twining of the sociopolitical with the family drama (and the paranormal no less) heightens the stakes of this particular novel and proves to make it quite relatable to current and past social contexts. As with many books aimed at younger audience, you can expect some sort of closed resolution. This formal conceit seems to one of the primary modes of distinguishing more adult-oriented narratives from the youth-oriented ones. The question I have is related to the impulse behind this approach: are we attempting to simplify the narrative of good over evil, re-introduce the viability of a proto-romance plot? Certainly, these works traffic in the ur-narratives of our time and exploit our desire to see the heroes triumph over perceived villains. If anything though, Santos and Teague’s narrative rises above strict binaries in its climactic reorientation of the central Big Bad.

Buy the Book Here:

A Review of Melissa de la Cruz’s The Ring and the Crown (Disney Hyperion, 2014).

In what seems to be a stand-alone novel, The Ring and the Crown offers Melissa de la Cruz yet another golden opportunity to showcase her tried and true formula of romance and intrigue set in a paranormal fictional world. In this case, she’s created a kind of counterfactual history in which magicians and sorcerers live alongside British Royalty. The novel starts off a little bit slowly, as de la Cruz generates narrative perspectives from at least five different characters; the two most important characters are: Princess Marie-Victoria, who is set to be married to Prince Leopold VII, heir to the Prussian throne and Aelwyn Myrddn, a powerful mage, who is separated from Marie-Victoria at a very young age due to the potential destructive power of her abilities. A goodreads member actually created a relationship chart for this book which I thought was hilarious, but also quite on the money. de la Cruz creates so many different possible romantic combinations that you sort of want a chart somewhere in the book. By this point, de la Cruz has mastered a kind of shifting third person perspective with a focus on romance plots. Certainly, this approach has been successful for her, but I can’t help but hope that de la Cruz will branch out a little bit more narratologically, perhaps experiment with different storytelling approaches in the future.

For the relationship chart, go here:

The tension of the novel is that Marie-Victoria does not want to marry Prince Leopold; her sights are on another, a guard named Gill Cameron. The other major character is Prince Leopold’s younger brother Wolf, who ends up entertaining a possible romance with an American (named Ronan) who is on the lower fringes of the landed gentry. The Ronan figure is perhaps the one most connected to the traditional courtship and marriage plot; consider her a stand-in for a kind of Lizzie Bennet figure. She’s looking to secure the right match, especially in this case to help out the dire financial circumstances of her family. With so much of the focus on the relationships, de la Cruz’s novel loses its paranormal luster; the magical elements seem tacked on and only come into play—for the most part—in one sequence involving a switcheroo between Marie-Victoria and Aelwyn. Further still, readers may balk at the concluding pairing, which abruptly pairs two figures together that seemed one of the least likely couples. de la Cruz was certainly working with the hope that such a surprise might delight, but the gamble, at least in my opinion, does not work within the logic of that fictional world. de la Cruz, as always, is exceedingly steady in her publications, the coming months and years offer another installment in the Blue Bloods series (a take I think on an adult-oriented fictional approach to this series) and then of course the Witches of East End Series and the Heart of Dread series. It remains to be seen whether The Ring and the Crown is part of a larger sequence of books, but if so, let’s hope de la Cruz gives us more of the magical and the mystical to flesh out what will surely be another “game of thrones” type plot.

Buy the Book Here:

A Review of Lauren Francis-Sharma’s ’Til The Well Runs Dry (Henry Holt, 2014).

Lauren Francis-Sharma’s debut novel ’Til The Well Runs Dry uses a polyvocal first person narrative to great effect in the complicated story of a mixed race family in the Caribbean. This particular novel mines the crucial interracial histories that have linked those of African and Asian descent in Trinidad. The three first person perspectives are given to Marcia Garcia, who begins the novel as a teenage seamstress who hails from an impoverished background; Farouk Karam, a police officer, Marcia’s lover and later father to her four children; and then Jacqueline Karam, one of Marcia and Farouk’s children. Because the novel is split into these perspectives, there are always at least three “diegetic” plots occurring. For her part, Marcia simply struggles to make a life for her and her four children (Patsy, Jacqueline, Yvonne and Wesley). Her life with Farouk is complicated because Farouk’s parents, who are of South Asian ancestry, do not welcome her as a potential marriage partner. Their relationship sours after this point and Marcia must also contend with a romantic rival in the form of the daughter of a woman who practices Obeah. Marcia and Farouk are separated, though Farouk does do what he can to help support the family. His life as a police officer keeps him busy, but his professional job takes a complicated turn when he starts laundering money and he must work with corrupt officials and organized criminals. Jacqueline Karam gives us the perspective of the potential of the next generation. Jacqueline is bookish and observant, realizes that her prospects in life are limited and considers education as a possible escape route from poverty and obviously desires a life different than the one that has mired her mother. Francis-Sharma’s ability to clarify the boundaries of these three very distinct narrative positions is one of the great strengths in this novel, which grants us a kaleidoscopic viewpoint of a family that always seems to be stuck in some sort of peril. These characters are complicated and flawed, and as I mentioned earlier, this work adds much to the representational terrain of Afro-Asian Caribbean literatures; it certainly could be taught alongside works such as Patricia Powell’s The Pagoda, Kerry Young’s Pao, and others.

Buy the Book Here:

A Review of Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian’s Fire for Fire (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2013).

(hmmm... I think Kat is in the middle and Mary is on the right?)

I was saving this read for a time when I needed to take a mental break from some research, knowing Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian’s next installment was sure to be entertaining. In the follow up to Burn for Burn, revenge continues to get both sweeter and more complicated. The trio that began the first book are back for more retribution: there’s Lillia, the popular, pretty and smart Korean American; Kat, the gothic, punkish rebel; and Mary, the formerly overweight, bookish, slightly socially awkward wallflower who all come together to hatch a plan for revenge. In the first book, the intended target Reeve is now suffering from a devastating leg injury that jeopardizes his chances for a college football scholarship. Though the three seem to have gotten the revenge that they so desired, the injury has done little to change Reeve’s character. A chance encounter with Mary, who has long harbored feelings for Reeve but was unceremoniously dropped as a friend and ridiculed for being fat, reveals that Reeve is still in need of more character refinement, so the three teens hatch a plan to get back at Reeve yet again. This plan involves Lillia pretending to win Reeve’s heart, which will of course be all an act. Lillia will then proceed to break his heart in the way that he broke Mary’s. Of course, nothing ever goes as planned and we’re not surprised when Lillia starts becoming confused about whether or not Reeve is really as bad as everyone makes him out to be. Things also get complicated because Lillia’s bestie, Rennie, also has her sights set on Reeve. This rivalry generates enough tension to create the narrative momentum needed for the plot to move toward to its cataclysmic conclusion. If you thought the ending of the first book had some generally negative and catastrophic results, this installment raises the stakes in multiple ways. The first novel hinted at the possibilities of the paranormal and Han and Vivian finally take one of the characters in the direction that all the readers were probably expecting. Even with this expectation fulfilled, Han and Vivian do surprise us with where the novel ultimately goes with this particular character and leaves readers with an excruciating cliffhanger that will have all fans lining up to buy the third copy right away. Definitely an improvement over the first of the series.
As always, you can’t help but wonder what “reality” this novel is set in; Han and Vivian create a fictional island (not unlike the many we have seen in other novels reviewed in this community) that allows them to construct a kind of isolated laboratory where you can almost forget that there’s supposedly other stuff going on in the world. In this sense, the insularity that emerges in the lives of these teen characters seem potentially alarming, especially since Han and Vivian do choose to set the fictional world in a realist aesthetic frame (indeed characters do end up traveling to colleges in preparation for graduating high school, rooting this fictional world on one that is somewhat like our own). In any case, Han and Vivian do some interesting and subtle, but nonetheless compelling work with race in this novel that cannot be overlooked. Lillia is a character that is more fully fleshed out in this version and her viewpoint is definitely the one that carries the weight of this novel, especially given her pivotal role in the faux-romance plot.

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