Category Archives: .Fiction

Insufficient Direction by Moyoco Anno, translated by Satsuki Yamashita

Insufficient DirectionIf you can get over the initially disturbing caricatures of a toddler and bearded man as the two married-to-each-other protagonists, you’re in for some ingenious, goofy fun. [Having had a parent at our kids' school be convicted as one of the country's worst child pornographers – a high-power civil rights lawyer, egads! – I admit my cynical wariness remains on high alert, even over a decade later.] Admittedly, the toddler/adult trope aptly represents the comical relationship here: both wife and husband are elite members of the manga/anime industry, but the husband happens to be inarguably legendary while his younger wife perceives herself to be still in training.

Insufficient Direction begins with a disclaimer: “All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” Don’t believe too much of that: wait for the disclaimer to the disclaimer at title’s end. Let the first sentence of the second paragraph be your guide: “To have your life exposed to the public is the fate of anyone who marries a manga artist.”

Creator Moyoco Anno, aka Rompers, is that manga artist, who portrays herself here with just a sprout of hair, bouncing across the pages in a onesie and bib. In real life, her immature self-portrait is a bit misleading: Anno is an award-winning, bestselling manga star in her own right. Her bearded other half is not quite a decade older, whom she addresses as ‘Director-kun,’ which recognizes both his elevated public status as well as her affection for him with the ‘-kun‘ suffix. In real life, hubby is the animator and film director Hideaki Anno who, for anyone familiar with anime, will recognize him as the creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion, one of history’s most successful series ever.

Regardless of their fame outside the walls of their home, Rompers and Director-kun are also just regular folk – who happen to communicate via manga and anime scripts and lyrics, decorate their space with plastic imaginary friends, and forgo sleep far too often to watch cartoons all night. Somehow in between their otaku obsessions, the rest of life occasionally demands attention –wedding plans, food, weight gain, house-hunting, work, and other such mundane pursuits. Complementary lovebirds that they are, somehow they manage to have way too much fun. Take a peek and join in.

Tidbit: For potential readers who themselves are not otaku, no worries! You can choose to read this as a purely entertaining, rather funny love story. For those with varying degrees of knowledge and interest in manga and anime, your reading might be that much heightened (and/or tested), depending on how high your fandom meter might go. For maximum enjoyment, an exhaustive, almost-30-page “Annotations” section appears at manga’s end, co-compiled by publisher Vertical, Inc.‘s own Ed Chavez. Now you know – as much as you might want to!

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2005 (Japan), 2014 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, .Translation, Japanese

Bird by Crystal Chan

BirdIn the small town of Caledonia, Iowa, Jewel stands out: she’s “‘half-Jamaican, a quarter white, and a quarter Mexican.’” As if to provide a physical embodiment of Jewel’s hapa background, the audible producers cast Amandla Stenberg, who played the heartbreaking role of young Rue in the film version of The Hunger Games. No doubt, Stenberg’s nuanced narration is a literary gift.

While Jewel’s appearance marks her as different in Caledonia, her family’s tragedy is what most circumscribes her young life. On the day she was born, her 5-year-old brother John – called Bird for “the way he kept jumping off things” – plummeted off a nearby cliff as he “tried to fly.” With his death, Grandpa stopped talking. Birthdays, understandably, were the most difficult of all: “I’ve always had to share my special day with the silence behind Grandpa’s closed door and the silence at the cemetery and the silence that hangs thick between Mom and Dad’s words.”

On the night of her 12th birthday, Jewel finds a stranger in “her” tree: a boy named John who is as “dark as the night sky,” who introduces himself as a neighbor’s visiting nephew from Virginia. He bluntly explains his lack of family resemblance: “‘I’m adopted. Raised by white people. It’s not as bad as it sounds.’” As the two become fast friends, Grandpa becomes agitated to the point of violence; he’s convinced that John is a “duppy” – an evil spirit from Caribbean folklore that Grandpa and Jewel’s father believe caused Bird’s death. Yet John’s possible resemblance to a brother she never knew makes him that much more intriguing to Jewel. For the rest of her family, John’s presence is both threatening and comforting, and eventually forces the too-many secrets to break through their silent surface.

Debut author Crystal Chan clearly shares a Midwest, small-town, mixed-race background with her protagonist: in addition to her bio, her author website offers a fun FAQ page with the question “What mix are you?” Her answer, complete with two photographs as a child with each parent, is: “My dad is from Hong Kong, and my mom is from Wisconsin and is of Polish descent. So I grew up eating pierogies, along with stir fry.”

Chan writes deftly not only about being different surrounded by homogeneity, but the conflict within those differences for both Jewel and transracially adopted John. Bird proves to be an empathetic, resonating read, full of wisdom, grace, hope, and – of course – the greatest love.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, African American, Carribbean American, Chinese American, Hapa, Latino/a

Decoded by Mai Jia, translated by Olivia Milburn and Christopher Payne

DecodedThe layers here are astonishing, revealed through the filtered lens of an unnamed narrator who gathers the shared experiences, memories, and words about an enigmatic, brilliant man who has lost his sanity by the time the narrator’s research begins. The subject is Rong Jinzhen – orphan, mathematical genius, unparalleled code breaker, national hero. In spite of the narrative spotlight, he is allowed a mere two instances to speak for himself: in a message written in his own blood professing lifelong devotion to his adoptive mother, and in a lost-then-found blue notebook that can only be partially divulged as a redacted afterthought.

The Rong family’s fortune accumulated through salt, until a peripatetic member of the seventh generation becomes “the first person … to break from their mercantile heritage and become an academic.” After an education overseas, he founded what would become “the famous N University.” The most illustrious of the eighth Rong generation is an extraordinary woman who assisted the Wright brothers take to the sky, but childbirth takes her life. Her genius is reborn in her illegitimate grandson Jinzhen.

The narrator spends “two years on the railways of southern China, travelling the country to interview the fifty-one middle-aged or elderly eyewitnesses to these events” that comprise Jinzhen’s major life events: his birth, his early years as “Duckling,” his adoption by relatives, his university life as a teenage prodigy, his sudden induction into Unit 701 – the most elite division of code-breakers for China’s secret service – and what follows in the decades hence.

As Jinzhen attempts to decipher the impossible, the anonymous narrator works assiduously to graft together his subject through multiple voices with varying degrees of reliability. The Rashomon-esque story is filled with countless phrases meant to reassure: “to tell you the truth,” “to put it another way,” “in other words,” and yet that truth remains elusive throughout. Regardless of all who weigh in with scattered glimpses of family, mentorship, marriage, and career, Jinzhen’s own personal ‘codes’ remain incomplete and unknowable.

First published in 2002, Decoded was Mai Jia’s first novel; since its debut, Mai has catapulted into top-selling stardom in his native China, including winning his country’s top honor, the Mao Dun Literature Prize. He writes seemingly what he knows, having spent almost two decades as a soldier and possible spy in China’s “intelligence services,” according to his publisher bio. Decoded marks Mai’s arrival Stateside in translation; smart, compelling, exceptional as it proves to be, it should ensure more of his titles will be western-bound.

Tidbit: Not wanting to sully the novel itself, I’m adding this warning here: Choose the page. Why does a novel set in China, populated mostly by Chinese characters, need to be narrated in fake-Chinese-inflected English? The implication is that the characters are incapable of fluently speaking their own language. Really?! Because it’s a Chinese novel-in-translation that needs to be slapped with spurious exotica to sell it stuck in the ears? Narrator Ryan Gesell (an L.A. native clearly not of Asian descent) uses a similarly fabricated accent in Jamie Ford’s Songs of Willow Frost, giving U.S.-born Asian American characters a ching-chong flair. Is this aural yellowfacing offensive to anyone else?

Readers: Adult

Published: 2002 (China), 2014 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, .Translation, Chinese

Two Parrots by Rashin, inspired by a tale from Rumi

Two ParrotsAccording to a note at book’s end, Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Balkhī of 13th-century Persia, also known as Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, or simply Rumi, “… is currently considered to be the ‘most popular poet in America.’” International award-winning illustrator/writer Rashin wants to make sure that even the youngest readers can access and appreciate the timeless poet. To that end, in a simple, contemporary translation illuminated with captivating pictures, Rashin presents a story about love and freedom from Rumi’s iconic, extensive Masnavi, his six-volume poem of Sufi spiritual lessons.

“Once upon a time, in Persia,” begins this tale of “a wealthy merchant who had everything.” Still, he found himself a bit lonely, and bought a lively talking parrot to keep him company. In spite of all the endless comforts the merchant offers his fine feathered friend, the parrot remains sad in his beautiful golden cage.

As the merchant makes plans for a trip to India, he generously asks all his servants what he might bring back as gifts. Rather than any luxuries, the parrot’s only desire is but a message to a friend: “‘Tell him I would love to see him, but I can’t because I live in a cage.’” The merchant dutifully delivers the missive, only to witness the friend’s sudden death at the news. Upon his return home, how the merchant’s own parrot reacts to his regretful report teaches the merchant “a lesson [he] will never forget.”

Rashin, too, is just as ingenious as her avian characters, as she creates a complementary ‘hidden-in-plain-sight’ narrative in Farsi. In case you’re not lucky enough (like grateful me) to have a literary Persian friend, allow me to share a few tidbits. The three servants’ requests penned on a long scroll, begin with the word ‘sogati,’ the Persian concept of gifts gathered from one’s travels to specifically share with family and friends waiting at home (think souvenirs with purpose) – in this case, items include “perfume, clothes, jewels, sweets, wine, fruits, scarf, fabric.” The merchant is surely indulgent.

Most revealing of all is the parroted epistolary exchange: the sealed envelope at story’s beginning suggests that the Indian parrot’s name is Sina, as he writes, “My dear friend, salaam [hello] …,” to his caged buddy; as the ending nears, the scattered pages around the parrot’s cage show a letter in progress, in which the trapped parrot replies to his friend: “Salaam, my dear friend, I wished I could see you,” and “You are lucky because you are free.”

Love should never be at the cost of freedom, and Rashin-via-Rumi offers an important early lesson about healthy relationships (21st-century helicopter parents – who me?! – might take careful note). Thanks to Rashin’s vivid, empathetic presentation, here’s a teachable moment translated into an enchanting, memorable experience.

Readers: Children

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, Iranian American, Persian

I Know Here and From There to Here by Laurel Croza, illustrated by Matt James

I Know Here and From There to Here

Absolutely no doubt that you could read either of these titles separately and find two engaging standalone stories. But read them together and you’re guaranteed a much more satisfying experience that reveals Kathie’s love of frogs, the significance of “[only] me in grade three” meeting someone “[e]ight, almost nine,” the importance of the sketchbook, and so much more.

I Know Here – a Canadian mega-award winner – captures all that is familiar for a little girl about to move from a nameless “yellow dot” somewhere in Saskatchewan to the big city of Toronto. Her “here” is close to Carrot River where her baby brother was born, and Nipawin from where the family’s groceries get delivered. “Here” is an enclave of 18 trailers, of which her “school is the trailer at the end of the road.” “Here” is where the dam her father is building “will send out electricity far across the prairies,” signaling that “[s]oon we will all be leaving.” What the little girl knows are the forest, the howling wolves, the tobogganing hill, the moose and rabbits on the Pas Trail – and somehow she’ll need to figure out how to take some of “here” to “there.”

Four years after Here, the sequel hits shelves next month. “Here” trades places with “there” when the family arrives in Toronto: “It’s different here, not the same as there,” the little girl narrates. “There” is where her father’s dam stretched across the Saskatchewan River, and “here” is where his next project is a city highway. From a “road without a name,” the family now lives on Birch Street, even though the birches “must be hiding in the backyard behind the fences.” Doors went unlocked there, but not so here. There the aurora borealis “dance[d] just for us”; here the street lamps keep darkness at bay. But best of all, here is something – someone – new: Anne, who knocks on the door to ask if the little girl is “ready” … for new adventures and new friendship.

Author Laurel Croza, whose back flap bio reveals her peripatetic past, uses her own Saskatchewan-to-Toronto childhood relocation as inspiration for both titles. Her co-traveler, artist Matt James, presents a rich, saturated palette to give textured energy to Croza’s memories. His intentionally naive, guileless style captures just the right balance of longing for the familiar, intertwined with the excited anticipation of discovery. Croza and James twice prove the strength of their complementary collaboration, creating a poignant journey both timely and timeless.

Readers: Children

Published: 2010, 2014

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, Canadian

Look Who’s Morphing by Tom Cho

Look Who's MorphingEach of Tom Cho‘s 18 stories in his just-over 100-page-debut is a surprise waiting to happen to you. Already lauded and awarded in Cho’s native Australia, his Stateside arrival is sure to elicit gasps, guffaws, and more.

Welcome to half a century of pop culture icons – before you ask ‘how can pop culture be that old?’ allow me to point out that ‘the hills came alive’ 49 years ago on a screen near you back in 1965. That said, Cho’s Captain Von Trapp isn’t who you might expect. In fact, morphing proves to be the occupational hazard of choice throughout.

“Suitmation” has a different identity available to anyone and everyone, from Godzilla to Olivia Newton-John, while two siblings admit in “Dinner with My Brother” they might choose “Marlon Brando” and “Indiana Jones” over their own Chinese monikers, given the chance. “Dinner with Auntie Ling and Uncle Wang” becomes a computer adventure, and “Learning English” means hiring Bruce Willis to talk instead. Inner rage goes out of control in “Today on Dr. Phil,” while “The Bodyguard” chivalrously deals with a bionic stalker to save Whitney Houston. Mother and son get transformative makeovers in “I, Robot,” and the girlfriend dismisses a Muppets adventure in “Pinocchio.”

As the stories unfold in surreal glimpses, a blurred outline of the unnamed narrator emerges: a Chinese Australian young man with extended relatives on multiple continents, including parents and a brother Hank, who has a sometime girlfriend Tara among many, many lovers, who is driven by a fertile imagination without boundaries – not to mention quite the multi-platform command of TV, film, music, and games. In his many morphing guises, Cho explores a myriad of unexpected identities and impossible situations. This is fluid fiction, he seems to insist on every page: forget any expectations about culture, race, gender, sexuality, and more … embrace the pure, fantastical stories found here.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2009 (Australia), 2014 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Short Stories, Australian

The Blue Notebook by James A. Levine

Blue NotebookClearly, James A. Levine is a 21st-century Renaissance man. He’s an endocrinologist and professor at the renowned Mayo Clinic, he co-directs Obesity Solutions, a project of Mayo and Arizona State University (where he also professors), he’s credited with pioneering the treadmill desk, he NEATly Gruves … oh, and he also happens to write bestselling novels.

Perhaps he never sleeps – at least not well. He confesses to as much, about the “vivid nightmares” he endured for years after meeting a Mumbai child prostitute in his detailed “Afterword”; although narrator Meera Simhan provides a superb reading, you’ll need to turn to the actual pages for Levine’s not-to-be-missed additional insights, memories, afterthoughts, and more.

As part of investigating child labor in India, Levine found himself on the infamous “Street of Cages” in Mumbai, “one of the central areas for the estimated half-million child prostitutes in the country.” There he saw a 15-year-old girl in a pink sari, writing in her blue notebook. “I’ve found that the mantra ‘Education is the answer’ is invariably touted as pivotal to any solutions. That being so, I could not reconcile the image of a child prostitute who wrote.” Levine’s nightmares repeatedly ended with the specter of the girl standing over him in the middle of night. And so he “finally set out to write her story – it spilled onto the paper” in 58 days and became this, his debut novel.

Batuk, as Levine named her, was 9 when her father sold her to a brothel. Her virginity is auctioned off to the highest bidder and after she’s been heinously abused, she is eventually sent to “Common Street” where she lives in a “cell, with its steel bars … the size of a toilet.” Her best friend is beautiful Puneet, who “occupies the nest two down”: “Puneet is the most valuable of us all because he is a boy.”

“I have been blessed with beauty and a pencil,” Batuk introduces herself. “My beauty comes from within. The pencil came from the ear of Mamaki Briila, who is my boss.” That pencil records her shattering life, recalls the stories she was told as a village child, and enables her to create her own as the only means of escaping her unbearable reality. Summoned to a luxury hotel to be a spoiled heir’s temporary sex slave, Batuk takes what solace she can by writing of the horrors she endures on sheets of hotel stationery. Her literacy will preserve her sanity, even when her body can no longer endure.

As unflinchingly brutal as the novel is, Levine cautions that “[t]he pictures I paint onto Batuk’s canvas … are not fully accurate.” These children’s fates are even worse: “Were the burdens of sufferance to be detailed in their duration and intensity, the book would be agonizing to read. I can only open the door but then leave. I paint these images … and apologize that they are only glimpses. More than that I cannot sustain.” Neither, too, could most readers …

Batuk’s uncompromising testimony haunts with its inhumanity, even as it bears witness to a remarkable young girl’s strength, ingenuity, and somehow, hope. Her stories become her salvation – and will also inspire her audience to enable and ensure salvation for others like her, as well.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2009

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Indian, Nonethnic-specific, South Asian

Salem Brownstone: All Along the Watchtowers by John Harris Dunning, art by Nikhil Singh

Salem BrownstoneSalem Brownstone, once the proprietor of the Sit & Spin Laundromat, gets an ominous telegram (on Halloween, naturally) calling him to New Mecco City, Azania to “take immediate possession of his [late father's] house and the contents therein.” His mourning – “[a]fter all these years of wanting to know my father, now it’s too late. I’ve lost him” – is short-lived when he discovers an intruder in the manse …

Before Salem has time to get better acquainted with visiting Cassandra Contortionist, who knew his father, the Shadow Boys descend. Uh-oh. Cassandra passes Salem the “scrying ball” which belonged to Salem’s father, with warnings that he must always keep it safe. Injured during their escape, Salem wakes up surrounded by the many creatures of Dr. Kinoshita’s Circus of Unearthly Delights. As Salem recovers, many strange occurrences happen, not the least of which include evil, dark plans to take over the universe. Salem, of course, holds the key – I mean the ball – to keeping the world in balance.

While the plot follows a rather straightforward good vs. evil narrative, the art is anything but predictable. As revealed in artist Nikhil Singh’s bio notes, the panels were seven years in the drawing with a major move in between for both creators from South Africa to London. From Salem’s single expressively squiggly eyebrow, to the mysterious Lola Q’s eyepatch, to Ed Harm’s stages of mutant transformation, and so much more, Singh’s irreverent, protean imagination is clearly manifested in the myriad tiny, peculiar elements of each panel.

Reading swiftly through will restore your sense of goodness and safety, but you’ll find you need to go back again and again)to make sure you haven’t missed any important details. After all, the fate of the universe lies between these glorious, mercurial pages.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2010 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, British, British Asian, South African

Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan

Homeless BirdKoly, the only daughter in a poor, rural Indian family, leaves all she’s ever known to fulfill her duties in an arranged marriage. Once the wedding is over, Koly realizes her family was tricked: her new husband is a sickly young boy whose parents are interested only in her dowry. Paltry as it is, it’s enough to take her dying groom to the holy city of Benares for a miraculous cure, and if not that, then at least a blessed burial.

Just 13, Koly becomes a widow. Tradition bans her from returning to her own family, so she assiduously serves her new family Over the next four years, Koly’s sister-in-law marries and leaves, her father-in-law dies, and her bitter mother-in-law remains unrelenting in her accusations and demands.

Koly dreams of escaping her hungry, belittled, desperate life, but she never expects that freedom will come as a result of abandonment: her mother-in-law leaves her in Vrindavan, a town where too many discarded widows meet their end. But thanks to the remarkable kindness of strangers, Koly is destined for so much more.

Winner of the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2000, Gloria Whelan writes deftly of unchallenged traditions that begin with the devaluation of girls which allows for child marriage, abusive in-laws, and ends with disposable widowhood. Whelan empowers Koly to better face her bleak challenges: she is Brahmin-born, India’s highest caste; her mother teaches her a valuable practical skill, embroidery; her father-in-law secretly enables her literacy (the title originates from one of the poems in his beloved Rabindranath Tagore collection). Clearly aware of her younger audience, Whelan invests Koly with the determination to survive and thrive.

Should you choose to go audible, hapa British Indian actress Sarita Choudhury is an ideal narrator as she effortlessly adapts her voice from despair to feisty to hope to resolve to wonder. Her authentic range gives credible plausibility to even the deus ex machina-ending that may give cynical naysayers cause to sigh once or twice, but should ultimately leave most readers exhaling with relief and joy.

Readers: Middle Grade

Published: 2009 (United Kingdom), 2001 (United States)

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Indian, Nonethnic-specific

Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood by Varsha Bajaj

Abby Spencer Goes to BollywoodOkay, so what are the chances?! Varsha Bajaj‘s exuberant debut middle grade novel begins with a food allergy that sends her teen protagonist, the titular Abby Spencer, to the ER with an anaphylactic reaction. Talk about eerily prescient – less than 12 hours later, I’m repeating Abby’s opening number, Benadryl shot “meant for the baby hippo,” ambulance, and all. Before old age kills me, overcautious doctors will, egads!

“‘No one in my family is allergic to coconut,’” Abby’s mother tells the ER staff. “‘What about Abby’s father?’” is, naturally, the next question the doctor asks. At 13, Abby has spent her life explaining “‘Families come in all shapes and sizes’” when kids voiced curiosity about her absent paternal parent. Sure, she’s wondered, but Abby’s ever-caring mother and doting maternal grandparents have been all the family she’s needed … until now.

That coconut allergy is reason enough to want to know more at least about her medical inheritance. Although her mother is ready with a few answers, the internet ends up providing far more: Abby’s father, who has changed his name since he was a college student in Dallas with her mother, turns out to be Bollywood’s most famous mega-star. After a few fraught phone calls and Skype sessions, Abby’s flying first-class to Mumbai, to a family she never even knew she had … not to mention more glamor and surprises than she could ever have imagined.

Bajaj occasionally tries too hard to make her teen tale contemporary, even as she mixes in Taylor Lautner and Simon Cowell with the 1960s Jetsons and a so-called “PBS voice,” all in a few pages. If nothing else, such references are more likely to unnecessarily date her modern fairy tale. That said, Bajaj carefully presents Abby’s unexpected journey to the other side of the world as quite the eye-opening experience. Mingling with the over-the-top fabulous are important glimmers of reality: the grinding personal price of fame, the paralyzing consequences of tradition, parental neglect however unintended, the extreme poverty amidst vast luxuries that teems throughout Mumbai.

Young readers in search of an international adventure will surely enjoy accompanying Abby on the page. Bajaj’s vivid descriptions of paneer and pooris should inspire repeated visits to an Indian kitchen. Place an order for takeout, then queue up Dhoom 1, 2, or 3. Although no one compares to my Aamir, I’m guessing Abby’s Dad is not unlike Hrithik Roshan: “Dhoom again and run away with me on a roller coaster ride, dhoom again and see your wildest dreams slowly come alive.” Dancing yet …?

Readers: Middle Grade

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, .Fiction, Hapa, Indian, Indian American, South Asian, South Asian American