Author: Shay Shortt

Canada Reads Along 2022: Scarborough

Cover image for Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez

by Catherine Hernandez

ISBN 9781551526782

“He opens his arms and asks if I would like a hug. I walk to him. I’m so scared. But then he holds me. He smells like food. He smells like flowers. And smiles. And sorrys. And If Onlys. I Never Meant Tos. I’m Different Nows. I’ve Learned So Muches. I’m Not the Sames. I’ve never been hugged like that before, and that hug feels so good, so I hug him back. It feels so good to hug someone who will never hit you.”

When Miss Hina takes a position working for a government literacy program in Scarborough, east of Toronto, she finds herself embedded in a community full of people struggling to get by. Cory has just taken in his seven-year-old daughter Laura after his ex-wife abandoned her at a bowling alley. Marie is beginning to suspect that her young son Johnny may have a disability, but much of her time an energy is preoccupied by the fact that they’re currently living in a shelter with no prospect for stable housing. Edna sees that her young son Bing is queer, and loves him unconditionally, but has to figure out the best ways to support him in a community where his differences will not be appreciated. Fighting against a system that has specific ideas about what services she should be providing to the community without reference to what its people actually needs, Miss Hina sets out to make a small difference in the lives of these children and their families.

Set in 2011, Scarborough follows the cycle of a school year as Miss Hina begins her work in the Ontario Reads Literacy Program at the Rouge Hill Public School. Catherine Hernandez employs shifting perspectives in first and third person narration that reveal the poverty and racial tensions that simmer through the neighbourhood. Marie’s family is homeless, living in a local shelter while she also tries desperately to access the services to get her son assessed for developmental disabilities. Cory relies on some of the resources Miss Hina can provide, but he mistrusts her hijab and the colour of her skin. He does not want her touching his daughter, and his past as neo-Nazi is ever-present in the background. Every family is facing its own challenges and fighting an faceless, inhumane system that does not see them as people.

In addition to first and third person narrative, Hernandez also employs attendance reports filed by Miss Hina, and emails between her and her distant supervisor, who is unfamiliar with the situation in Scarborough. Miss Hina faces pressure to ensure families aren’t treating the snacks she provides as a free breakfast program, even though lack of access to dependable meals is a major learning barrier for the children in her community. A larger story of systemic failure plays out through these interactions, highlighting the precarious funding of the literacy program at the whims of the sitting government, and the particular agendas of the administrators who control the program budget. All this takes place as a backdrop to the day-to-day struggles of the characters who are simply looking for their next meal or more stable housing.

The stories in Scarborough are interconnected and overlap, sometimes in unexpected ways, and from multiple directions. The neighbourhood is at once large, and so very small. Michelle, the shelter worker, sees two men arguing in the street when she steps out for her smoke break. When we get to Clive’s chapter, we experience this encounter firsthand, and realize that the drunk man is Cory, stumbling through the nearly deserted streets, trying to figure out how he will provide Christmas dinner for his daughter. Things have a way of looping back on one another in a multiplicity of perspectives that add up to form the story of a community that is larger than the sum of its parts.

Scarborough was defended on Canada Reads 2022 by actor and activist Malia Baker, who at fifteen is also Canada Reads’ youngest ever panelist. Baker is from Vancouver, and in her opening statement she highlighted the fact that Scarborough is such a microcosm of Canada as a whole that it spoke to her despite the fact that she had no personal connection to the setting. She also argued that the book’s depiction of community and multiplicity of perspectives is what made it the One Book to Connect Us, which is the Canada Reads 2022 theme. Throughout the week of debates, Baker more than held her own against the much older panelists, successfully championing Scarborough to the finale against Five Little Indians by Michelle Good, which was defended by fashion writer Christian Allaire.

Throughout the week of debates, Christian Allaire was also the only panelist consistently casting his vote against Scarborough, perhaps sensing that thematically and structurally it was his closest competition. Before the finale, no other panelist had cast a vote against it, though that doesn’t mean that it did not come in for criticism. Christian Alliare repeatedly called out the fact that he wanted more from the character of Sylvie, particularly since her family constitutes Scarborough’s Indigenous representation. Indeed, the development of character came up from many of the panelists over the course of the week. Because of the structure of the book and the large cast of characters, we do not spend much time in any one point of view. Many of the characters are barely more than a glimpse, flitting in and out of the story before we get a chance to really know them. However, some of these snapshots are highly effective, and many of the panelists called out the character of Cory who is memorably human while also being thoroughly despicable in his racism.

During the final day of the debates, host Ali Hassan raised questions about how the two remaining books took readers inside the hearts and minds of the characters, revealed our shared humanity, and changed how the panelists moved through the world. The conversation moved quickly, and all too soon it was time for the final round of ballots to be cast. Unanimous votes are rare on Canada Reads in any circumstance, but this may be the first time since I began following the program that such a unified vote took place during the finale. Defender Malia Baker voted against Five Little Indians (only one panelist has ever voted against their own book). However, all four of the other panelists unanimously voted to eliminate Scarborough, making Five Little Indians the winner of Canada Reads 2022.

Thanks for joining me for Canada Reads Along 2022! Need to catch up? Start here with Life in the City of Dirty Water by Clayton Thomas-Müller. Check back tomorrow for my review of the winning book!

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Canada Reads Along 2022: Washington Black

Cover image for Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

by Esi Edugyan

ISBN 978-0-525-52142-6

“How could he have treated me so, he who congratulated himself on his belief that I was his equal? I had never been his equal. To him, perhaps, any deep acceptance of equality was impossible. He saw only those who were there to be saved, and those did the saving.”

Born into slavery on Faith Plantation in Bardbados, George Washington Black has never known any other life. When his master dies, the slaves expect the estate to be broken up and sold off, but instead two brothers arrive, nephews of the old owner. Erasmus Wilde proves to be a cruel man who drives his slaves harder than the old owner ever did. But his brother, Christopher “Titch” Wilde, is a man of science, and while the other slaves on Faith Plantation are doomed to a harder lot, Wash is selected to help Titch with his experiments, and his seemingly impossible dream to launch an airship called the Cloud Cutter. However, being selected as Titch’s assistant will come at a price Wash could never have expected, and their strange, uneven relationship will change the course of Wash’s life forever, for better and for worse.

I first came to love the work of Esi Edugyan with Half-Blood Blues, which was championed by Olympian Donovan Bailey on the 2014 edition of Canada Reads. In Washington Black, Edugyan brings her trademark exquisite prose to the story of a slave who gains his freedom under complicated circumstances. Wash goes on to lead a big, improbable life as a result of Titch’s intervention, but a life that is not without difficulty and costs. The novel reflects some of the harder realities of the abolition movement, such as white men who were more concerned about the moral stain of slavery than about the actual harm suffered by Black people as a result. Titch’s intervention also cuts Wash off from his own people on the plantation, costing him his relationship with his foster mother, and setting him apart from field and house slaves alike. Wash learns to read, and draw, and calculate, but once he finds himself out in the world, he discovers he is an anomaly wherever he goes, not least because of the horrible physical scars he bears as a result of his enslavement. Tellingly, it is a result of Titch’s careless actions, rather than Erasmus’ more standard cruelty, that Wash goes through life thus marked.

Present or absent, Titch’s hand is always irrevocably shaping Wash’s life. Though Titch does not wish to accept responsibility for this fact, it is true nevertheless. While in the beginning Titch is a character that the reader can admire for rebelling against his family’s immoral expectations, in the end he throws off other expectations and responsibilities as well, calling into question whether it was the immorality or the expectations he was resisting in the first place. Although Wash is the protagonist and the narrator, it is Titch who haunts the story, his choices echoing through Wash’s life even after their unequal partnership has unraveled, and Wash has built a new life for himself among the Black Loyalists of Nova Scotia. These echoes will eventually take Wash to Europe and Africa, in search of understanding Titch’s decisions and their far-reaching consequences. But some questions have no satisfactory answers, and Edugyan’s open-ended conclusion reflects that.

Washington Black was defended on Canada Reads 2022 by Olympian Mark Tewksbury. Tewksbury emerged early as a strong debater on this year’s panel, with powerful, well-articulated opening statements, and the ability to find the strengths of the other books in the title he was championing. He emphasized the strong writing in his selection, and the way Edugyan’s descriptions transport the reader to a different time and place. On Day Three, host Ali Hassan asked the remaining champions to open with a statement about why they chose their books. Mark Tewksbury spoke to the relationship he felt to the character of Washington Black, drawing parallels between accepting his own gay identity and Wash’s struggles as a to find his place in the world as a freed slave with visible facial scars.

Throughout the week, Washington Black was often called out alongside What Strange Paradise as the book on this year’s table with the most beautiful writing. Suzanne Simard described it as cinematic, and as a fellow writer Christian Allaire praised its craft. The debates thus far however have focused more on theme and character than on prose or craft. This very much echoed the fate Edugyan’s first book Half-Blood Blues faced when Cameron Bailey defended it on Canada Reads 2014. However, Washington Black also came up against criticism, particularly regarding the ending, and the centrality of Titch’s character to Wash’s journey. Wash’s quest for closure comes to an unsatisfying conclusion, because it is not ultimately something he can find in an external source.

After a day of rapid-fire debate, when the time came to vote both Suzanne Simard and Tareq Hadhad voted against Washington Black, while Malia Baker and Mark Tewksbury voted against Five Little Indians. The outlying vote belonged to Christian Allaire, who voted against Scarborough for the third day in a row. Per the Canada Reads rules, in the event of a tie the panelist who did not vote against one of the two books up for elimination is required to cast the tiebreaking voting. Since Christian Allaire was defending Five Little Indians, which also had two strikes, he naturally voted against Washington Black, making it the third book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2022.  

Just tuning in to Canada Reads 2022? Start here with Life in the City of Dirty Water by Clayton Thomas-Müller.

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Canada Reads Along 2022: What Strange Paradise

Cover image for What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad

by Omar El Akkad

ISBN 9780525657910

“You are the temporary object of their fraudulent outrage, their fraudulent grief. They will march the streets on your behalf, they will write to politicians on your behalf, they will cry on your behalf, but you are to them in the end nothing but a hook on which to hang the best possible image of themselves. Today you are the only boy in the world and tomorrow it will be as though you never existed.”

When Syria is torn apart by civil war, Amir and his family flee to Egypt. But while his mother tries to rebuild their life, his uncle is still looking for a way out, a promise of better things. When he follows his uncle down to the docks late one night, Amir finds himself aboard a smuggler’s ship bound across the sea. On board that ill-fated ship are many passengers with disparate hopes for the future, if only they can get to a better place. When the ship sinks in a storm, Amir meets fifteen-year-old Vanna, a resident of one of the islands that the migrants try so desperately to reach. Pursued by the local authorities, Amir and Vanna go on the run, but tiny islands keep no secrets and have very few places to hide.

What Strange Paradise is broken into alternating Before chapters, which tell of Amir’s life prior to the events on the island, and After chapters, which follow his adventures with Vanna on the island. One final chapter is entitled Now. In the Before chapters, we learn about how Amir’s family lost their home in Syria, took refuge in Egypt, and then tried to escape across the sea. In the After chapters, Vanna tries to conceal Amir from the authorities and—with the help of the local refugee camp coordinator who does not want to see the little boy dragged into that system—tries to get him to an old dock on the far side of the island where a ferryman will smuggle him across the water. 

What Strange Paradise is short but powerful. I read it quickly, and then wished I had spent more time absorbing it as I sat with the ending. The book is open-ended and invites a wide range of possible interpretations. The opening image of a boy’s body washing up on the beach has clear echoes of the death of Alan Kurdi in 2015. But this little boy, Amir Utu, opens his eyes, and the story continues. How that continuation is interpreted is in the hands of the reader, but it is a haunting ending that more than one reader has found frustrating.

The villain of the piece is Colonel Kethros, a broken man who used to be a peacekeeper, only to realize that “peace keeping” meant watching a genocide and being able to do nothing to stop it. He lost not just his leg, but a piece of his humanity on that mission. The same man who will save a small girl from drowning will also throw a little boy into a refugee camp that lacks fresh water without a moment’s hesitation. His duality embodies the limitations and fickleness of human empathy, and the lines that we draw between “us” and “them.”

What Strange Paradise was defended on Canada Reads 2022 by entrepreneur Tareq Hadhad, who himself came to Canada as a refugee from Syria in 2015 with his family. Hadhad drew on that history in his pitch for why it is the one book that all of Canada should read this year. With millions of people just like Amir on the news every day, Hadhad argued that What Strange Paradise is the timely book Canada needs right now to foster empathy and compassion for refugees. Many of his fellow panelists seemed to agree that the book was effective at fostering this empathy, and several called out particular scenes from the Before chapters on the boat that spoke to them and highlighted the humanity of all the passengers, even that of Mohammed the smuggler.

The ending of What Strange Paradise repeatedly came under fire from Canada Reads panelists, an angle of attack which the book’s champion Tareq Hadhad indicated that he had expected. Mark Tewksbury in particular called it out several times, and even Malia Baker, who said that she likes a subjective ending, felt this one might go too far. Hadhad argued that the open conclusion is part of the power of the book, and pointed out that this is a feature it shares with Washington Black, the book Tewksbury is defending. The alternating chapters were also unpopular with some of the panelists, including Malia Baker and Christian Allaire. Baker noted that the character of the antagonist, Colonel Kethros, is much better developed than either Vanna or Amir, and we have much better insight into his motivations than anyone else’s.

The hopefulness of the book was also a point of contention that came up for discussion on the second day of the debates. Tareq Hadhad described What Strange Paradise as hopeful in his argument, and certainly it is a book about the hopes and dreams of immigrants and refugees, but none of the panelists seemed to agree that the book’s ending was hopeful. Some of the panelists, including Mark Tewksbury and Christian Allaire, questioned Vanna’s motivations and believability in her decision to aid Amir despite the serious potential consequences to herself and her family. In response, Hadhad noted that he had found his own Vanna in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, and argued that kindness does not need a reason.

When the ballots were cast at the end of Day Two, Malia Baker and Mark Tewksbury voted against What Strange Paradise, while Christian Allaire cast his vote against Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez and defender Tareq Hadhad voted against Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. In the after show, free agent Suzanne Simard noted that she struggled with her vote but felt that while the book had a Canadian face in many ways, it was the only book that did not have a Canadian setting. Her deciding ballot made What Strange Paradise the second book eliminated from Canada Reads 2022.

Catch up on Day One of Canada Reads 2022: Life in the City of Dirty Water

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Canada Reads Along 2022: Life in the City of Dirty Water

Cover image for Life in the City of Dirty Water by Clayton Thomas-Muller

by Clayton Thomas-Müller

ISBN 9780735240070

“One of the mysteries of creation is how closely saving yourself and saving the world are linked. If you don’t take care of the world, you will only end up harming yourself. And if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t do the world any good. We’re all part of the world. It is an illusion to think any of us can be separate.”

Growing up as a young Indigenous man in Winnipeg, Clayton Thomas-Müller faced a rough childhood marked by intergenerational trauma, racism, and abuse. After the death of his great-grandparents, his family became disconnected from their traditional practices on their tribal lands in Jetait in northern Manitoba. His itinerant youth took Thomas-Müller from Winnipeg to northern British Columbia, with a detour through juvenile detention before landing back on the streets of Winnipeg on the cusp of adulthood. Life in the City of Dirty Water is the story of how, after all this suffering, Thomas-Müller reconnected with his heritage and became an environmental activist who has worked with organizations such as the Indigenous Environmental Network and 350.org.

Thomas-Müller is the biological son of two residential school survivors, though the men who he called father, who helped raise him, whose names he took, were not all one and the same. It is very much a history of intergenerational trauma, and his mother’s story is that of a very young woman from northern Manitoba who became pregnant as a teenager, and had to leave home to go to the city to access the services she would need to support herself and her child as she tried to complete her education. Their journey is not one of smooth sailing, but “he has my full support and permission to share his story; as his mother, that is the gift I can give him at this junction in his life,” Gail Pelletier writes in her forward to the book. Family remains an important theme throughout, both in how families support one another, and how they are fragmented by trauma.

Life in the City of Dirty Water describes Thomas-Müller’s non-linear path into the world of environmental activism, even as he remained tangled with the gangs his family was involved with, and continued to occasionally sell drugs to meet his obligations or help support his family. The latter part of the book turns frequently to Thomas-Müller’s anger at the world, and the way that anger both fueled his activism and also threatened to burn him up from the inside. Anger “consumes you even as it nourishes you” he warns, as he recounts a brutal schedule travelling across Turtle Island and around the world to fight for Indigenous rights in order to protect the environment. In these sections, he recounts both his work with environmental NGOs, and also how the Indigenous practice of the Sundance helped him heal and reconnect with his heritage despite growing up in the city.

Life in the City of Dirty Water employs a chatty and discursive style. Thomas-Müller’s narration is conversational, and his memoir has the feel of an oral tale that has been written down. I read this as an e-book but would be very curious to hear the author’s audio narration, as I have a feeling it might do the tale better service. The story is semi-chronological, but also ranges widely. He will make passing mention of an interesting fact or detail that sounds as if it could be a story in its own right, and then never return to it. There can also be a sort of whiplash to his blandly matter-of-fact narration of some extremely traumatic events, such as childhood sexual abuse, mixed in with descriptions of much more quotidian occurrences. It speaks to the extent that violence of all kinds was normal in Thomas-Müller’s early life, but also conceals a deep hurt that will not bear more interiority or closer examination.

Life in the City of Dirty Water was defended on Canada Reads 2022 by author and ecology professor Suzanne Simard, who teaches at the University of British Columbia. Simard argued that Canada faces an uncertain future grappling with the dual consequences of climate change and intergenerational trauma, two key themes of this memoir. She presented Life in the City of Dirty Water as a book that shows how we can turn anger into action at this crucial crossroads, and care for the earth by first healing ourselves. She felt that it was unique among the Canada Reads 2022 books in offering readers that path forward.

This first day of debates always moves quickly, with good portion of the time taken up by panelist introductions, book trailers, and a pep talk by the authors for their defenders. This year was no different. Often the book that is voted off first is the one that takes a few hits or draws attention and the best strategy on the first day can be to simply fly under the radar. This year’s theme is One Book to Connect Us, and host Ali Hassan’s questions focused on how the books on the table bridge the divides between us. Life in the City of Dirty Water did not come in for particular criticism, however Clayton Thomas-Müller’s memoir did stand out in that it was the only non-fiction book on the table this year, a fact that was called out by panelist Tareq Hadhad.

When the time came to vote, Malia Baker cast the first vote against Life in the City of Dirty Water. In the post-show Q&A with Ali Hassan, she pointed to the book’s multiplicity of stories and that she felt the meat of the activism narrative didn’t come until the second half. Three other books received one vote each, with Suzanne Simard voting against Washington Black, Christian Allaire voting against Scarborough, and Mark Tewksbury voting against What Strange Paradise. Citing the way the book sometimes read like a narrative resume, Tareq Hadhad cast the second vote against Life in the City of the Dirty Water, making it the first book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2022.

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The Magic Fish

Cover image for The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen

by Trung Le Nguyen

ISBN 9780593125298

“The space between two shores is the ocean and being caught in between feels like drowning. And, really, what is the point of tears among so much salt water?”

Thirteen-year-old Tien doesn’t know how to come out to his mom and dad. It’s more than just the fear of rejection; he literally does not know the Vietnamese words to explain what he’s feeling to his immigrant parents. But if there’s one way Tien has always been able to connect with him mom, it’s through fiction, and the many books they borrow from the library, particularly fairy tales. Through the power of stories, Tien and his mother find a way to bridge the language gap, and communicate the things that have been allowed to go unspoken for too long.

The Magic Fish is set in 1998, when Tien is thirteen. He is out to his best friend Claire, but not to their other best friend, Julian, in part because Tien is harbouring feelings for him. He has contemplated coming out to his parents, but he doesn’t know the word for “gay” in Vietnamese, rendering his truth inexpressible. Nor is the American cultural milieu particularly welcoming. News of the murder of Matthew Shepherd plays in the background of one scene, and when Tien and Julian dance together at a school dance, Tien is called in for counseling with the school priest, who advises him against coming out to his parents. “All the parents I’ve counseled described the heartbreak of their children coming out the same way. It feels like a death in the family,” the priest warns, even as Tien’s mother has returned to Vietnam to attend an actual funeral.

"I'm always a little lost these days. There was a time when I knew exactly where I was supposed to go."

Blended with Tien’s coming-of-age story are three fairy tales that weave through The Magic Fish. The first one is read aloud by Tien to his mother as she works on her sewing in the evenings. The second is told to Tien’s mother by her aunt back in Vietnam when she returns home for the first time in many years. The final fairy tale is one she reads to her son, modifying the narrative to convey things that have gone unspoken between them for too long. Each tale has its own unique visual aesthetic, reflecting the imaginations of Tien and his mother. They are stories that are familiar in various versions across cultures, but known in English as Cinderella and The Little Mermaid. Trung Le Nguyen uses three types of colour panels to emphasize the different aspects of this interwoven tale. Blue for the fairy tales Tien and his mother read together, red for their real life, and yellow for his mother’s past in Vietnam. Nguyen does amazing work within the confines of these limited colour palettes, employing shading and texture to great effect, alongside his beautiful line work.

Communication is a theme throughout The Magic Fish, specifically in the struggles Tien faces to communicate with his parents, who do not speak much English. In Vietnamese, Tien lacks the specific vocabulary he needs to come out to his parents, making this already challenging difference feel like an even more unbridgeable gap. However, we also see this theme in Tien’s hesitation to come out to Julian, with whom he does share a language, but whose rejection he fears. Meanwhile, Tien’s mother Hien is also struggling to keep in contact with her family back in Vietnam, to remain connected to them across time and distance. The story she chooses to tell Tien is that of The Little Mermaid, who gives up her voice when she goes to her new home above the sea, just as Hien lost much of her ability to communicate when she moved to a new country where she did not know the language. In the United States, she turns to stories both to improve her English vocabulary and pronunciation, and to find common ground with American-born son. In this way she is finally able to convey her unconditional love and acceptance. The Magic Fish combines striking art with a moving family story for an unforgettable read.

Cheer Up: Love and Pompoms

Cover image for Cheer Up: Love and Pompoms by Crystal Frasier with art by Val Wise

by Crystal Frasier

Art by Val Wise

Lettered by Oscar O. Jupiter

ISBN 9781620109557

“The team is great. They’re the only people who really stuck their necks out for me last year when I came out. But sometimes they’re so eager to prove how much they support me that they don’t listen to what I want.”

When the guidance counselor tells Annie and her mom that she needs some additional extracurricular activities to round out her college applications, Annie is less than thrilled when her mom pushes for cheerleading. Grumpy and unsociable, Annie feels like the exact opposite of a peppy cheerleader. Worse, her past behaviour has alienated more than one member of the team. But her former friend Bebe pushes for the squad to give Annie a chance, the same way they gave Bebe a chance when she came out and transitioned last year. With Bebe and her friends, Annie learns how to be part of a team, and file down some of her sharper edges and defensive impulses. As the two girls repair their friendship, they discover that they may have other feelings for one another as well.

Much of the story in Cheer Up has to do with the different ways in which the people in Bebe’s life support her in the way she needs, or fail to. Bebe’s parents are tentatively supportive of her transition, but they don’t understand that transitioning is literally saving her life. “They think of me transitioning as a luxury. And they’re worried it’ll distract me from getting good grades and getting into college,” Bebe explains to Annie as the two are reconnecting. Meanwhile, the cheer team is almost too supportive in certain ways, sometimes failing to listen to Bebe’s preferences, like the fact that she doesn’t want to run for homecoming queen. Annie has to find her own position in Bebe’s life, and strike the right balance when her combative nature clashes with Bebe’s tendency to go with the flow and pick her battles carefully. Annie has never stepped down from a fight in her life, and their two personalities make a great contrast.

I initially missed the memo about this being a love story, despite the subtitle, and thought that this story would be about repairing Annie and Bebe’s past friendship. Bebe and Annie used to be friends, and we’re never told why they no longer are at the start of the story. It seems that their falling out happened a couple years ago, whereas Bebe’s transition happened the previous year, so the two events do not appear to be directly related. The story does not delve into what led to the rift, or addresses how it might impact their romantic relationship moving forward. However, I loved the way Cheer Up addressed Bebe’s uncertainty about her sexuality—something that had been on the backburner in the midst of her transition—and her worries about how being openly trans might play into the way potential romantic partners perceive her.

The sweet and hopeful nature of the story is complemented by bright, full-colour illustrations by artist Val Wise that really made this graphic novel a joy to read. If you’re looking for a fun, heartfelt read that handles serious issues with a light hand, check out Cheer Up.

MXTX Mini Reviews

Today I’ve got three danmei (m/m romance) novels by Chinese writer Mo Xiang Tong Xiu (MXTX), recently translated officially into English for the first time. All three are also xianxia, a Chinese fantasy genre where the characters cultivate near-magical abilities through meditation or other practices that allow them to direct their life force. One of these novels, The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation, is the source material for the popular television series The Untamed on Netflix, starring Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo. Originally published as web novels, they’ll debut in English in multiple installments over the next year, so I’ve covered the first volume of each here.

The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation

Cover image for The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation (Mo Dao Zu Shi) by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu

Volume 1 of 5

ISBN 9781648279195

“No matter how thoroughly Lan Wangji was praised as an unrivaled rare beauty, nothing could help the fact they he looked profoundly embittered, as if he had lost his wife.”

Once deemed one of the most talented young cultivators of his generation, Wei Wuxian met a tragic end after he deviated from the orthodox path and invented demonic cultivation in order to put an end to an otherwise unwinnable war, only for his allies to turn against him when peace was achieved. When he is unexpectedly reborn thirteen years later in the body of an abused young man named Mo Xuanyu, he finds himself in the middle of a mystery that has unexpected connections to unfinished business from his first life. To solve the case, he’ll need to work with Lan Wangji, with whom he has a tumultuous history. But unbeknownst to Wei Wuxian, Lan Wangji has many regrets about not standing by Wei Wuxian the first time around, and he won’t allow this second chance to slip away. Mysteries and politics abound, but the real draw here is the complex relationship between Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian. As a self-sacrificing character who is often oblivious to others’ regard for him, Wei Wuxian becomes absorbed in the mystery, refusing to allow himself to confront his feelings for Lan Wangji, or accept that they may have been reciprocated all along. As they work together to solve the mystery, incidents from their past are slowly revealed, eventually forcing a reckoning between the two.

The Scum Villain’s Self-Saving System

Cover image for The Scum Villain's Self-Saving System by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu

Volume 1 of 4

ISBN 9781648279218

“Dying for Shizun or dying together with Shizun, either one is something this disciple will gladly do”

Mo Xiang Tong Xiu’s first novel, The Scum Villain’s Self-Saving System, has a more humourous tone than her other works. In many respects, it is a satire of a certain type of web novel. Shen Yuan is an avid reader of such stories, and he dies cursing the terrible writing of Proud Immortal Demon Way by Grandmaster Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky (a pen name like Mo Xiang Tong Xiu). He awakens within the world of the novel, having being transmigrated into the role of Shen Qingqiu, the evil master of Proud Immortal Demon Way’s protagonist, Luo Binghe. In the original novel, Shen Qingqiu meets a terrible fate. If Shen Yuan wants to survive, he’ll need to find a way to avoid becoming the antagonist. However, he is bound by certain rules of the System, a video game-like structure that governs the changes he is trying to make to the plot of the novel in order to save himself. This book is cracky, snarky, meta, weird, and deeply fannish as Mo Xiang Tong Xiu skewers tropes and upends clichés. The new Shen Qingqiu bumbles through, never realizing that Luo Binghe’s feelings for him are more than a disciple for his master. After all, in Proud Immortal Demon Way, Luo Binghe always gets the girl. Shen Yuan is just hoping not to end up dead.

Heaven Official’s Blessing

Cover image for Heaven Official's Blessing (Tian Guan Ci Fu) by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu

Volume 1 of 8

ISBN 9781648279171

“On the night of Zhongyuan Festival, sometimes when people strolled they might discover a road that never existed before. Such a road should never be taken, because if they walked the wrong one, they would enter the Ghost Realm and never return.”

Mo Xiang Tong Xiu’s most recent novel is also her longest, with a projected eight volumes for this English translation. It’s perhaps no surprise then that I felt this first volume was a bit of a slow start, mainly serving to introduce the vast array of characters. We meet Xie Lian, former crown prince of the lost kingdom of Xianle, when he ascends to the Heavenly Realm for the third time. While it isn’t unusual for a god to fall from grace, to fall and then rise again not once but twice is not just unusual but laughable. Xie Lian is known among the other gods as the Laughingstock of the Three Realms. When his third ascension destroys the palaces of two other heavenly officials, he must descend to the Mortal Realm to investigate a case in order to earn merits to repay his debt. Along the way he encounters San Lang, a mysterious youth who seems to be unusually knowledgeable about everything and unperturbed by even the most unnatural events. If you enjoy novels about gods behaving badly, the officials of the Heavenly Realm are no better behaved than the Greek gods. Shenanigans are afoot, and Xie Lian is about to drag his own messy history right into the middle of the heavenly politics he has spent the better part of eight hundred years trying to ignore.

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The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

Daughter of the Moon Goddess by Sue Lynn Tan

Korean American Non-Fiction Mini Reviews

Crying in H Mart

Cover image for Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

by Michelle Zauner

ISBN 9780525657750

“Hers was tougher than tough love. It was brutal, industrial strength. A sinewy love that never gave way to an inch of weakness.”

In her memoir, musician Michelle Zauner explores how losing her mother to cancer impacted her Korean American identity, and the relationship food plays in maintaining a connection to her heritage. The daughter of an American father and a Korean mother, Zauner grew up in the United States, visiting Korea in the summer with her mother. Over a period of a few years during her twenties, Zauner loses her aunt and grandmother in Korea, and then her mother dies of cancer. With each death she feels her connection to Korea slipping away, as if it is embodied in the people rather than the place. One aunt remains, and they struggle to connect across the language barrier of Zauner’s rudimentary Korean, often turning to food as a place to connect. Because her mother never taught her to cook, Zauner makes that exploration herself, both in trying to recreate Korean comfort foods for her mother while she is dying, and then as a way to claim that space for herself after her mother is gone. Their sometimes tumultuous relationship is recontextualized by the fact that Zauner will never see her mother again, never get another good day with her. Crying in H Mart is a visceral account of the slow destruction of cancer, about what death takes from us, and what it gives back. Love, family, grief, and food twine together in this exploration of identity and loss.

Tags: Non-Fiction, Memoir

Minor Feelings

Cover image for Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong

by Cathy Park Hong

ISBN 9781984820365

“Minor feelings are not often featured in contemporary American literature because these emotions do not conform to the archetypal narrative that highlights survival and self-determination.”

Minor Feelings is a series of essays about the intersection of art and Asian American identity that encompasses both history lessons and art theory and analysis, as well as stories from the author’s life. Cathy Hong Park is a Korean American poet who studied at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in the early 2000s, where writing about her heritage was dismissed as “identitarian” or “ethnicky.” The titular concept and the one that gained so much traction for this collection is “minor feelings,” which she defines as “the racialized range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric,  and therefore untelegenic, built from the sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality questioned or dismissed.” For readers, this concept is a valuable lens through which to examine which types of stories about minorities we tend to laud, and which are dismissed because the emotions they contain are unpleasant or uncomfortable, or do not result in triumph and overcoming affliction. “Rather than using racial trauma as a dramatic stage for individual growth, the literature of minor feelings explores the trauma of a racist capitalist system that keeps the individual in place,” she explains. Cathy Hong Park also explores what it means to speak or write with “bad” English, and what impact the tacit decision not to speak or write about her rape and murder has had on the legacy of artist and novelist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Minor Feelings is a broad and sprawling collection that covers vast ground while exploring the question of what it means for Asian Americans to create art in a system that is designed to cater to the white experience.

Tags: Non-Fiction, Essays

All You Can Ever Know

Cover image for All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung

by Nicole Chung

I never had a name for what was happening. I had never heard of or read about any racism other than the kind that outright destroys your life and blots out your physical existence.”

Nicole Chung was prematurely born in 1980s Seattle to struggling Korean immigrant parents who already had two other daughters at home. Told that her biological parents were unable to afford the medical care she needed, or provide for a child who might be sick all her life, they placed her for adoption. She was raised in small town southern Oregon by white parents who touted a colour-blind philosophy, and were ill-equipped to help a lone Asian child navigate what her race meant in a town where almost no one else looked like her. Writing clearly and eloquently about her own experiences, adoptee Nicole Chung describes the mythologizing of the adoption narrative, and how this comforting, pre-packaged story ultimately backfired as she struggled to find her identity. But if the adoption narrative proved to be oversimplified, so too was the stereotypical reunion story of a biological family lost and then joyfully found. Reaching out to her biological relations proved to be just as complex as navigating the intricacies of interracial adoption. In this exploration, Chung excels at taking the adoption narrative beyond “good” or “bad,” instead seeking to portray the institution that created her family in all the complexity that neat narratives seek to oversimplify. Her story refuses to be so constrained.

Read my full review from 2018

Tags: Non-Fiction, Memoir