Monday, July 28, 2014

#Diversiverse Genre Spotlight: Historical Fiction

In anticipation of the A More Diverse Universe challenge in September (still looking for button designers, by the way!), last week I posted a list of non-fiction books by diverse authors.  Thank you to everyone who chimed in with recommendations!  I love when people do that, it makes me feel like part of an active community.

Now that I've gotten non-fiction out of the way, though, I'm a bit flummoxed about the entire fiction genre.  It's so vast!  And there are so many sub-genres!  And how do you compile a list?  I chose to start with historical fiction because it seems like a very popular reading genre.  And, more importantly, unlike fantasy and young adult fiction, I don't think there are a ton of resources out there to help guide you to a book choice if you enjoy historical fiction and want to read more diversely.

I am taking a page from the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign (which is a glorious website and the main reason I will not be devoting a list to young adult fiction), and using the "If you like ____, then read _____ next because _______" format here.  Hopefully you will find something that piques your interest!

Similar to my non-fiction list, I will not include here books that are only about immigration or cultural differences or assimilation.  There are so many books out there like that, and I think they are part of the reason people are intimidated to read diversely - all the books sound the same.  But there are so many other rich stories out there for you to discover, and I am going to focus on those here.

And if you have suggestions here, too, please feel free to fill up the comment section!

If you like John Shors' Beneath a Marble Sky, then read The Twentieth Wife, by Indu Sundaresan, because it's about a woman who rises to become Empress of the Mughal Court in 17th century India.

If you like Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin, then read The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende because she rocks the magical realism in a big old rambling house, too.

If you like Colin Cotterill's The Coroner's Lunch about life in Laos under an oppressive Communist regime, then read Malla Nunn's Detective Cooper series because it features a gloriously conflicted detective in Apartheid South Africa.

If you enjoy CS Forster's Horatio Hornblower series, try Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies, the first book in the Ibis Trilogy, set on a huge trade ship during the Opium Wars of the 19th century.

If you like the big, chunky family epics, then try One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez because it reads like a beautiful, lyrical soap opera across the decades.

If you like Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, try Wench, by Dolen Perkins-Valdez for a telling and intense story of what life was like as a slave.

If you like Pearl S. Buck's Pavillion of Women, then read Peony in Love, by Lisa See for a different look at life as a woman in imperial China.

If you like The Secret River, by Kate Grenville, then read Benang, by Kim Scott because it talks about the European treatment of Aborigines from the side of the Aborigines.

If you liked the gritty, complicated relationships that populated The Bone People, by Keri Hulme, then read Potiki, by Patricia Grace because it too focuses on how complicated the race situation in New Zealand can be.

If you like Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue, then read China Dolls, by Lisa See about another rollicking time in San Francisco's history, the 1930s.

If you like Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford, then read When the Emperor Was Divine, by Julie Otsuka about life in the American internment camps for Japanese during WWII.

If you like When a Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith, try Small Island, by Andrea Levy as it also focuses on the tough life of an immigrant family trying to make it in a big city.

If you enjoyed To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, then read The Round House, by Louise Erdrich, which turns the story on its tail and focuses on a Native American woman unable to go after the man who abused her.  To be fair, The Round House is not technically historical fiction, but if you enjoy To Kill a Mockingbird (which was not historical fiction when it was written), then you really should read this one.

If you like the pageantry and court intrigue of Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, then try Fudoki, by Kij Johnson, set in the pomp and glory of 11th century Japan.

If you enjoy fairy tale retellings, then try Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi, which is a retelling of Snow White.  Or try Thorn, by Intisar Khanani, a retelling of The Goose Girl.  Or The Palace of Illusions, by Chitra Divakarumi, a feminist retelling of the Hindu epic The Mahabharata.

If you enjoy MM Kaye's stories about India under the Raj, then read Raj, by Gita Mehta, about life as a member of the increasingly marginalized ruling class in India.

If you enjoy Shogun, by James Clavell, try Musashi, by Eiji Yoshikawa for an epic tale of life as a samurai in the 17th century 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

"We all fight our own private wars."

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
Guys, this book.  It is so, so good.  Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Saenz, has such a glorious title and a beautiful cover, and it DELIVERS the fantastic story that both of these promise.

Aristotle (Ari) is a 15-year-old living in El Paso, TX in 1987.  He is angry a lot of the time.  His father is a Vietnam veteran and still has horrible memories of the war.  His mom is a sweetheart but never wants to talk about Ari's brother, who has been in prison for 11 years.
It's hot, it's summer, and he doesn't have any friends.  Ari goes to the pool but doesn't know how to swim.  Another guy there, Dante, offers to teach him.  Ari and Dante become best friends, though the two are polar opposites.  Dante wears his heart on his sleeve and seems happy and well-adjusted all the time.  Ari is an introvert; even readers, who spend the entirety of the book in his mind, get no access to his innermost feelings and what drives him to do the things he does.  As the story progresses, Dante's feelings for Ari develop into something deeper than friendship, and both Dante and Ari must come to terms with that.

I loved this book so much.  Saenz packed so many beautiful moments and relationships in here.  Ari and Dante both deal with being Mexican-American, though neither of them fit the stereotype of  Mexican-Americans.  They are both 15-year-olds coming of age, too, and deal with the whole "threshold to adulthood" thing that all of us have gone through and that people will continue to go through for ages and ages.  Ari has a lot of family stuff to deal with - an uncommunicative dad, a brother no one will talk about, an over-protective mother.  Ari also is so angry and lonely inside, and it's hard for anyone to understand why, including Ari himself.  And the way Ari and Dante play off each other and grow and stay such strong friends through so much, was so wonderful.  The dialogue between the two of them is so fun.  They enjoy each other's company, they are quick-witted, they talk about big things and small, and they drift away and back towards each other over the course of a few years in this book.

I loved the emphasis on family, and just how supportive family can be when you are going through a really rough patch.  There is one line from Ari's mom near the end that just set me over the edge because she is SO KIND and wonderful, and you can just see all of Ari's walls and defenses slowly beginning to crumble, and it's because his parents are just so loving and fantastic.  And Dante's parents are just the same.  This book is not just about Ari and Dante, it's about two families.  Every character gets so much care and attention, and the insights that come from all of them are just wonderful.

Saenz packed so much into this book and I've barely scratched the surface because I don't want to ruin the discovery for you.  So much is left unsaid (mostly because of Ari's repressed narrative style), but as you progress in the story, it just blooms into this majestic story, and then you feel ALL OF THE FEELINGS.

I think I've been fairly inarticulate here, but hopefully my gushing has made you want to go out and read this book.  Personally, I plan to read everything Saenz has written because the man can write.  A beautiful story on so many levels - highly recommended.

Monday, July 21, 2014

#Diversiverse Genre Spotlight: Non-Fiction

This weekend, I posted a preview to the revamped A More Diverse Universe event that will take place over the last two weeks of September.  The event challenges you to read and review just one book by a person of color during those two weeks.  In previous versions of the challenge, #Diversiverse focused solely on authors of science fiction and fantasy.  This year, I'm opening it up to authors of any and all genres because I think it's important that people realize not only the depth but the breadth of books out there on so many subjects written by people of color.

Therefore, I'm putting together lists of books for people who are interested in reading within particular subjects and parameters.  I figured that I would start with non-fiction, as that is by far the most difficult "genre" in which to find diverse authors. It's easy to find books about being a minority in Western culture or growing up in war zones in other countries, so I purposely excluded books like that from this list.  Sadly, it's extremely difficult to find books by diverse authors on say, popular science or current events.  Therefore, this list is more of a jumping off point; it is by no means exhaustive.  I would LOVE for people to provide suggestions, and I am happy to add them to this list.

It is pretty exhausting putting together lists like this - for this list, I've gone for quantity over quality as I have not read the vast majority of the titles I list below and therefore don't want to write a misleading blurb about them.  Hopefully, though, some of the titles and subject headings pique your interest!

Those that I have read, I've linked to my reviews.

Economics/Social Behavior
The Art of Choosing, by Sheena Iyengar
Gang Leader for a Day, by Sudhir Venkatesh
Off the Books:  The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor, by Sudhir Venkatesh
Banker to the Poor, by Muhammad Yunus
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua
The Billionaire's Apprentice, by Anita Raghavan
The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Cooked, by Jeff Henderson
Yes, Chef, by Marcus Samuelsson
Taco USA:  How Mexican Food Conquered America, by Gustavo Arellano
Curried Cultures:  Globalization, Food, and South Asia, ed. Krishnendu Ray, Tulusi Srinivas
LA Son:  My Life, My City, My Food, by Roy Choi

History/Current Events
The Inconvenient Indian, by Thomas King
The Devil's Highway, by Luis Alberto Urrea
India Becoming, by Akash Kapur
A Free Man:  A True Story of Life and Death in Delhi, by Aman Sethi
From the Ruins of Empire:  The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia, by Pankaj Mishra
Factory Girls:  Young Women on the Move in Modern China, by Leslie Chang
The Jaguar Smile, by Salman Rushdie

The Emperor of All Maladies:  A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Complications:  A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science, by Atul Gawande
Better, by Atul Gawande
Simon Singh - an author who focuses on a plethora of topics, including codes, the Big Bang, and mathematical phenomena
Michio Kaku - a "futurist" who writes a lot about the science of outer space, the future, and physics



The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, by William Kankwamba
Kaffir Boy:  The True Story of a Black Youth's Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa, by Mark Mathabane
An African in Greenland, by Tete-Michel Kpomassie

Kampung Boy, by Lat
Vietnamerica, by GB Tran
Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi
A Princess Remembers:  The Memoirs of the Maharani of Jaipur, by Gayatri Devi

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?  And Other Concerns, by Mindy Kaling
The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, by Jeanne Theoharis
The Distance Between Us, by Reyna Grande
Lakota Woman, by Mary Crow Dog
Anything by Maya Angelou

Saturday, July 19, 2014

A lil' preview of the remix: A More Diverse Universe

For the past two years, I've hosted the A More Diverse Universe Blog Tour, a tour that focuses on highlighting diverse authors of science fiction and fantasy.  The first year, there were more than 50 participants, which was amazing.  Last year, it was a shorter time period and much less organized, but it was still a pretty fantastic event.

Regardless of how much #Diversiverse has impacted the reading habits of its participants and observers, it has had a massive impact on my own reading.  After hosting the event the first year (with a ton of help!), I made a concerted pledge to read more diversely all year long, not only in fantasy and science fiction, but in all my reading.  Now, I read about 50% diverse authors, and it comes naturally to me to seek out non-white authors.  This is a massive change from where I was three years ago, when I read almost exclusively white authors.

I wish my new habit did not require so much seeking out, that I could default to best sellers or critically acclaimed novels and know that I was reading books by a wide array of authors.  But that is not the case.  If you want to read books by authors of diverse backgrounds, you have to be very conscious about doing so.  If you stick with the best-seller lists or most award-winners or the books that people tend to talk about, even on blogosphere, you are looking at a very monotone set of authors.

So in thinking through this year's iteration of the A More Diverse Universe blog tour, I wondered what it would take to make more people participate, and to motivate more people to read diversely all the time, not just for an event.

There are a lot of reasons people use to defend the lack of diversity in their reading.  The most popular one seems to be that of the "moody reader."  Someone says, "I'm such a moody reader, I just don't want to put rules up that would drive me away from reading altogether."  I used this excuse myself all the time.  I didn't want to change my reading habits because I enjoyed what I was reading, and why should I have to change something that I did for a hobby?

I explained the "why" for changing this habit in pretty great detail two years in a row.  I'm sure I'll do it again as we get closer to the #Diversiverse dates.  For now, let me just say that the "moody reader" argument doesn't really make sense because it implies that diverse authors do not write books that meet your current mood's criteria.  This is unlikely.  I cannot make this clear enough:

You may have to change your book-finding habits to include POC authors in your reading rotation.  You absolutely do not need to change your book-reading habits.

Let me explain.  Have a thirst for epic fantasy?  There's a growing number of books available to you.  Science fiction?  A small but strong contingent.  Non-Fiction?  For sure.  Memoirs?  Definitely.  Graphic novels?  Absolutely.  Travel writing?  Got you covered.  Romance?  Yup.  Women's fiction?  Mystery?  Thrillers?  Historical fiction?  Yes, yes, yes, and yes.  Whatever genre you enjoy, you can read diversely within that genre.

Thus, the A More Diverse Universe Blog Tour is evolving into something bigger and more inclusive than it was previously.  Instead of being focused on science fiction and fantasy, now #Diversiverse is about expanding your entire reading universe.  And instead of being a blog tour, it's more of a challenge.  The criteria are simple:

  • Read and review one book
  • Written by a person of color
  • During the last two weeks of September (September 14th - 27th)
That's it.

I'll make an official sign-up post, because, well, that makes it official.  It will go up in early August and will include a lot of reading suggestions, organized by genre.  Consider this your Save the Date :-)

Also, if you would like to help promote or organize or do anything else, please let me know!  If you have authors you want me to highlight in the sign-up post, or genres you want to make sure I include, or if you want to tackle one genre with author suggestions, or promote the event on Twitter or Facebook or ANYTHING, I am completely open to and absolutely grateful for your help.  Just leave a comment here and I will come find you!  

And if you know how to create buttons or know someone who does, and if you or that other person would be willing and able to make a fun button/badge for people to use when they post reviews for A More Diverse Universe (#diversiverse), I would be very grateful.  I need a refresh so that people know it is not limited just to speculative fiction, and so that people know the dates are in 2014, not 2012.

But really, what I most need (and seriously, I do need it, not want it) from you is to commit and sign up and EXECUTE this reading challenge.  The more we vote with our dollars, our library cards, our reviews, and our recommendations, the more diverse our bookshelves will become, until it's second nature to all of us to read in technicolor.  Let's DO this.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Taking care of business

The Caretaker A.X. Ahmad
I was very excited when I heard about A.X. Ahmad's The Caretaker, for probably obvious reasons.  It's centered on a Sikh man, Ranjit Singh, former officer in the Indian army, who now works odd jobs on Martha's Vineyard, trying to take care of his family.  He works as caretaker for a rising political star, an African-American senator named Clayton Rivers Neals (Seriously, how do authors come up with names like this?  Supposedly, Clayton Rivers Neals is also from a rough area of town, which makes the name even more difficult to believe).  And then his daughter takes an old raggedy doll from the house, and suddenly he and his family are the targets of some very scary people.

I don't know many books at all in which the main characters are people of color from different cultures - here, an Indian family and an African-American one.  It's so sad, but true - how many books can you name that fit these criteria?  So I was pretty thrilled by that.  And it was nice to read a book in which the main character is dealing with the more subtle racism that you can come across in educated and wealthy circles.

So lots of strong points!  But...

But as I continued reading this book, things started to bother me.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Shadow League, Wilhelm Blackflame, and other fantastic names

Sunbolt Intisar Khanani
About a year ago, I raved about Intisar Khanani's adaptation of The Goose GirlThorn.  I loved the story, the setting, the characters, and so much about this novel.  I was so excited to find this author that I wanted to read everything I could by her.  This, sadly, only includes a short story (available for free at pretty much any e-retailer!), The Bone Knife, and the first novella in a series, Sunbolt.

All three of these stories were wonderful, so I am even more firmly in the Khanani fangirl camp (especially as the Thorn cover is now amazing and not at all like the one I showed in my review).  If you have not read her yet, I urge you to at least download The Bone Knife (no monetary risk involved!) and then gobble up her other writing soon after.  I hope that she gets published in physical format soon, too, because I want these books on my shelves, too. E-reading feels so ephemeral sometimes.

Anyway, Sunbolt.  The book is the first in a "serial," not a "series."  Think Star Wars, not A Song of Ice and Fire.  Each story stands alone, but reading all of them should be a richer and more rewarding experience.  Sunbolt is pretty short - only about 140 pages.  I finished it pretty quickly, not only because it was so short but because I was quite engrossed in the story.

Similar to Thorn, Sunbolt is about a girl, Hitomi, who has a secret.  She is the mixed race daughter of two great and powerful mages, but she hides her own magical powers because mages have become killing machines in the current political environment.  Hitomi also hides her involvement in the Shadow League (such an awesome name for an underground movement), dedicated to bringing down the most powerful mage in the land, Wilhelm Blackflame.  (Seriously, all the names here are awesome.)

Hitomi volunteers to help one of Blackflame's enemies escape to safety, but things go drastically wrong.  Instead, Hitomi ends up prisoner to an even more powerful villain, and must put her trust in the idea of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" to get out alive with another prisoner.

I realize that the plot summary above makes this book seem pretty straight-forward and perhaps a bit cliche.  But it's not.  The setting is so rich, you get wonderful details about the land of Karolene, where women wear scarves over their heads, and the surrounding countries that have different languages and spices and recipes.  The main character is female, dark-skinned, smart and kind, and she has some seriously awesome magical power.  The other characters are so diverse - there are shape-shifters, vampires, breathers (who, different than vampires, take the breath of a person, not the blood), mages, regular people, and probably more that I am forgetting.

And ok, mages and breathers are arch-enemies, and of course the other prisoner that Hitomi has to trust is a handsome male breather.  But I trust Khanani completely, and I know that this will not become a Twilight-esque charade.

So, to wrap this up:  I have thoroughly enjoyed every story by Khanani I have ever read, I urge you strongly to read at least one of her stories and then you will probably want to read the rest, and we should all support authors who write kick-butt female characters who are kind and intelligent and powerful and not afraid that these character traits will turn other people off.  

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Bringing South Asians into the American spotlight with humor, fashion, and awesome

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), by Mindy Kaling
Mindy Kaling's book Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?  (And Other Concerns) was not really on my radar.  I am not sure why, because I really love Mindy Kaling.  But I generally don't like memoirs, especially when they are written by people around my age - seriously, how much life experience do you really have to talk about?  But everyone told me Kaling's book was fun, and I like to support normal-sized, funny Indian women, so I went for it.  And I really enjoyed it!

Kaling basically points out in the introduction that there's no reason not to read this book - it's not a huge time investment, she's a fun person, and so the experience is likely to be positive on the whole.  This was pretty much rock-solid reasoning to me, so I was hers for the rest of the audiobook.  Kaling also narrates the audiobook, and sometimes addresses the audiobook readers directly about the audio version vs the physical version, which was also a lot of fun.

I really, really like Mindy Kaling for several reasons, and this book just gave me even more reasons to be a fan:
  • As mentioned above, she is a woman who is happy with her weight and happens to be hilarious and Indian and famous, and this is rare and applause-worthy.
  • There was a wonderful story in this book about how Mindy went to a 50 Most Beautiful People shoot of some sort, but all the dresses there were size 0s, and she is a size 8, and she went into the bathroom and cried a bit, and then realized that she is awesome, and then she went back out, made the tailor take her favorite dress and alter it by adding canvas to the back, and then she wore it for her photo shoot and OWNED it:
Source:  Time Inc.
  • She is really smart, and she tells people who read her book that it is normal to want to be smart and that going to college will get you far in life.
  • She embraces the fact that she had an awkward, dorky stage.  She was very quiet in high school, and she says that just because you are quiet and introverted in high school doesn't meant that you won't be witty and awesome later in life.
  • She just seems like a really nice person who is close to her family and forms friendships for life.
  • In the Q&A section at the back of the book, one of the questions she addresses is why she doesn't talk that much about the debate around how women aren't that funny.  She says that there isn't a debate because women are funny, and it's not worth giving that "debate" any credence whatsoever.
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? didn't change my life or make me think very deeply about most things, but perhaps if you are a teenager, it will change yours.  I just find it so refreshing that Kaling is so honest and upfront about things in her life and in her past so that teenagers today don't have to think that life is supposed to be like Sweet Valley High for everyone, and that if it isn't, then you've failed.

Kaling also is super-fun to follow on Instagram.

Also, she is the new spokesperson for Google's Made With Code to get more girls into coding.  Read all about it here.  Apparently, she really is super-popular with the teenage girl set.

Seriously, I wish we had overlapping Indian social circles, but alas...  Really great book!  If you want something fun and motivating and girly and feminist, read it!


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