Snapshot Review: Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin

Title: Ayesha at Last
Author: Uzma Jalaluddin
Series: N/A
Pages: 368
Publisher: Berkley Books
Release Date: June 4th 2019

      “A modern-day Muslim Pride and Prejudice for a new generation of love.
      Ayesha Shamsi has a lot going on. Her dreams of being a poet have been set aside for a teaching job so she can pay off her debts to her wealthy uncle. She lives with her boisterous Muslim family and is always being reminded that her flighty younger cousin, Hafsa, is close to rejecting her one hundredth marriage proposal. Though Ayesha is lonely, she doesn’t want an arranged marriage. Then she meets Khalid who is just as smart and handsome as he is conservative and judgmental. She is irritatingly attracted to someone who looks down on her choices and dresses like he belongs in the seventh century.
      Ayesha is torn between how she feels about the straightforward Khalid and the unsettling new gossip she hears about his family. Looking into the rumors, she finds she has to deal with not only what she discovers about Khalid, but also the truth she realizes about herself.”

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“Because while it is a truth universally acknowledge that a single Muslim man must be in want of a wife, there’s an even greater truth: To his Indian mother, his own inclinations are of secondary importance.”

  • Diverse P&P retelling – I am currently on the hunt for more P&P and other Austen retellings by and about PoC. Ayesha and Khalid are both Indian-Canadian and Muslim. Both of these identities are essential to who they are as characters and how they move about the world.
  • Ayesha – Loved that this novel features an “older” young adult (Ayesha is 27) who hasn’t quite figured out what she wants out of life yet. She’s fallen back on teaching, but her true passion is her spoken-word poetry. Ayesha is opinionated, willing to go toe-to-toe with anyone who might disagree with her, and continuously pushes against conventional expectations.
  • Khalid – Khalid is incredibly pious, conservative in his beliefs, and feels a strong sense of obligation toward his family. He comes across as extremely judgmental, but he’s also incredibly honest, shy, and socially awkward. I loved every interaction between Ayesha and him, whether they were at odds or not.
  • Nana and Nani – Perhaps the best characters in the novel are Ayesha’s grandparents. These two made me laugh so much. I loved how recalcitrant Nana was, especially when it came to his health and how knowing, yet wise Nani was. Rather than interfering, they allowed the young people in their lives to make mistakes and grow from them.
  • P&P quotes sprinkled throughout – Jalaluddin sprinkles P&P quotes throughout her novel. Some of them are obvious like the quote above, but others you might not catch unless you are more familiar with the classic.

  • Certain aspects of the conflict – I might be a little vague here to avoid spoilers. I didn’t completely buy into the part of the conflict that required Ayesha to not only believe a rumor about Khalid’s family, but also somehow place blame on him when the alleged misdeed took place when he was barely a teen. I couldn’t reconcile what I knew of Ayesha and this sort of unfair judgement she had for what Khalid did or didn’t do when he was thirteen years old.

  • Uzma Jalaluddin’s Ayesha at Last pays homage to Pride and Prejudice without feeling confined by certain aspects. The characters’ struggles feel more relevant in a modern setting and Jalaluddin’s infuses just enough humor and romance to make this a must for P&P fans.

★★★★
(4/5)

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ARC Review: Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Title: Gods of Jade and Shadow
Author: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Series: N/A
Pages: 352
Publisher: Del Rey
Release Date: July 23rd 2019
**Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book through NetGalley which does not influence my review**

      “The Mayan god of death sends a young woman on a harrowing, life-changing journey in this dark, one-of-a-kind fairy tale inspired by Mexican folklore.
      The Jazz Age is in full swing, but Casiopea Tun is too busy cleaning the floors of her wealthy grandfather’s house to listen to any fast tunes. Nevertheless, she dreams of a life far from her dusty small town in southern Mexico. A life she can call her own.
    Yet this new life seems as distant as the stars, until the day she finds a curious wooden box in her grandfather’s room. She opens it—and accidentally frees the spirit of the Mayan god of death, who requests her help in recovering his throne from his treacherous brother. Failure will mean Casiopea’s demise, but success could make her dreams come true.
      In the company of the strangely alluring god and armed with her wits, Casiopea begins an adventure that will take her on a cross-country odyssey from the jungles of Yucatán to the bright lights of Mexico City—and deep into the darkness of the Mayan underworld.”

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With Gods of Jade and Shadow Silvia Morena-Garcia proves once again that she is a master at storytelling with this Mayan-inspired fantasy. In the dreary town of Uukumil in southern Mexico, Casiopea Tun toils away her youth, treated more as a servant than family to her affluent but ailing grandfather. The other members of her family look down upon her for her Indigenous heritage and those like her cousin Martín do not even consider her to be a real member of the Leyva family. Though she dreams of leaving and experiencing all the revels to be had during the 1920s, she has all but accepted this as her lot in life. Until one day when she opens a mysterious box, unleashing an imprisoned God and accidentally binding herself to him. Casiopea has no choice but to follow Hun-Kamé as he recovers missing pieces of himself hidden by his brother in a quest to regain the throne of Xibalba.

Moreno-Garcia draws from Mayan folklore to build the bones of Gods of Jade and Shadow. Hun-Kamé and his twin brother Vucub-Kamé have been locked in a battle of wills for centuries. The former was content to accept the Gods’ diminished role and growing indifference from mortals while Vucub-Kamé wishes to usher in a new era of adulation and sacrifice. The Gods’ power is irrevocably tied to the worship of mortals. Though they yield a great deal of influence, I found it really interesting that in this world mortals were given more freedom. Though a God cannot change fate, mortals have the autonomy to change their fate, making them unpredictable pieces in a game of chess.

Moreno-Garcia pays equal attention to both the mortal and immortal worlds. Readers are taken on a journey across Mexico and into the very heart of the Underworld known as Xibalba. Mexico City is both dazzling and overwhelming, having profited off the U.S.’s prohibition era. Here there is music and dancing and a celebration of life. Xibalba, though the land belongs to the dead, is subtle in its allure. Dangerous and misleading, but dark and mysterious. Through Hun-Kamé’s eyes, Casiopea begins to see that Xibalba is a place of beauty, despite its nefarious creatures, and a home to those who were born there.

Casiopea is a protagonist I grew fond of rather quickly. Though she longs for another life she isn’t consumed by her fantastical daydreams. She is too practical to drown in the sorrow of her insipid life. Though she has been treated as a servant and expects to give deference to the more prominent members of her family, Casiopea is stubborn and willful, defiant in the face of those with more power than her. This makes for an interesting dynamic with the haughty God Hun-Kamé, who expects obedience. Their bond chips away at Casiopea’s strength, but also makes Hun-Kamé more human with each passing day. Their relationship is slow to develop, subtle yet beautiful.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow is a quiet, yet intoxicating fantasy with delicate prose and a satisfyingly, yet bittersweet romance.

★★★★
(4/5)

Nocturna by Maya Motayne

Title: Nocturna
Author: Maya Motayne
Series: A Forgery of Magic, #1
Pages: 380
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Release Date: May 7th 2019

      “Set in a Latinx-inspired world, a face-changing thief and a risk-taking prince must team up to defeat a powerful evil they accidentally unleashed.
      To Finn Voy, magic is two things: a knife to hold under the chin of anyone who crosses her…and a disguise she shrugs on as easily as others pull on cloaks.
      As a talented faceshifter, it’s been years since Finn has seen her own face, and that’s exactly how she likes it. But when Finn gets caught by a powerful mobster, she’s forced into an impossible mission: steal a legendary treasure from Castallan’s royal palace or be stripped of her magic forever.
      After the murder of his older brother, Prince Alfehr is first in line for the Castallan throne. But Alfie can’t help but feel that he will never live up to his brother’s legacy. Riddled with grief, Alfie is obsessed with finding a way to bring his brother back, even if it means dabbling in forbidden magic.
      But when Finn and Alfie’s fates collide, they accidentally unlock a terrible, ancient power—which, if not contained, will devour the world. And with Castallan’s fate in their hands, Alfie and Finn must race to vanquish what they have unleashed, even if it means facing the deepest darkness in their pasts.”

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“What did you do that would make you never want to see your own face again? What makes you bury it under all this magic?”

Maya Motayne’s Nocturna is an exciting fantasy debut that embraces its Latinx culture, seamlessly weaving it into a high fantasy setting. When Prince Alfehr “Alfie” Reyes returns home to Castallan, he has one goal in mind: find his older brother who was swallowed by a magical void months earlier. If he doesn’t succeed, he will have to accept his role as the next king, something he is not ready for. Finn Voy is used to being on her own. Her ability to change her appearance has been invaluable, after all, you can’t catch a thief if you don’t know what she really looks like. When Finn is blackmailed into stealing an item from the royal family, it places her in direct opposition with Alfie. Their encounter sets up a series of events in which the prince is forced to make an impossible decision in order to save his cousin, but in the process he unleashes a dark and ancient power. As unlikely allies, Alfie and Finn race to stop the malicious magic from reuniting to its master, an event that will bring back a darkness capable of corrupting the entire world.

Nocturna is a Latinx fantasy that doesn’t detach itself from real world history. It addresses colonialism and slavery while also creating its own unique world. Castallan was once enslaved by Englassen colonizers who believed only they deserved to wield magic. They stripped Castallans of their culture, including their language which tied them directly to their magical abilities. Castallans were able to expel the Englassen out of their land and reclaim their language and magic. Nocturna underscores the long-term consequences of colonialism and how a culture is forever altered by it even in ways that at first seem inconsequential. I loved that the magical system in the novel had so many different layers. While people had an affinity for a particular elemental type of magic, their level of skill depended on training and study. Finn and Alfie have also been gifted with propio magic that manifests in different ways but is tied to how a person perceives themselves.

I loved both Alfie and Finn as characters and they were both easy to like and root for. Alfie has grown up the second son and never imagined that the kingdom could one day be his. He is haunted by the death of his older brother Dezmin, and isn’t sure if he can live up to the same kind of expectations. Alfie is sensitive, compassionate, and despite how much he beats himself up for any dark thoughts he might have, incredibly good. It’s always so refreshing to read about a soft male character and I especially loved how important his relationship with his brother and cousin, Luka, were to him. The Alfie and Luka dynamic was one of my favorites in the novel and it’s so rare to see such an affectionate relationship between two male relatives in fiction.

I loved how brusque Finn could be, her words were often as sharp as her blade. She is also clever and crafty. Much of who Finn is is a result of the traumas in her life. She grew up poor and lost her parents at a young age. Finn was taken in by a man who enjoyed controlling her, who was possessive and abusive. When Finn was finally able to get away, she had already learned keeping people at bay was both easier on them and herself. Like thievery, it’s just another means of survival. Much of her character arc revolves around her reclaiming personal autonomy. Her dynamic with Alfie is a lot of fun to read because they are so different, but also because they make a stellar team. I loved how rewarding their interactions were and how each of them made such an significant impact on the other.

Maya Motayne’s Nocturna is a fun fantasy that functions on multiple levels both as a fictional story and narrative on Latinx history. With every page I read, I grew more and more invested in the characters and the bittersweet ending left me begging for more.

★★★★

(4/5)

Snapshot Review: American Panda by Gloria Chao

Title: American Panda
Author: Gloria Chao
Series: N/A
Pages: 311
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Release Date: February 6th 2018

TW: Fatphobia

      “At seventeen, Mei should be in high school, but skipping fourth grade was part of her parents’ master plan. Now a freshman at MIT, she is on track to fulfill the rest of this predetermined future: become a doctor, marry a preapproved Taiwanese Ivy Leaguer, produce a litter of babies.
      With everything her parents have sacrificed to make her cushy life a reality, Mei can’t bring herself to tell them the truth–that she (1) hates germs, (2) falls asleep in biology lectures, and (3) has a crush on her classmate Darren Takahashi, who is decidedly not Taiwanese.

      But when Mei reconnects with her brother, Xing, who is estranged from the family for dating the wrong woman, Mei starts to wonder if all the secrets are truly worth it. Can she find a way to be herself, whoever that is, before her web of lies unravels?.”

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“But with each burst of energy, I didn’t feel release. Something was different. My feet slipped on the tile that should have caressed my toes and allowed me to turn endlessly. My limbs didn’t feel like extensions of my body—they were burdens, weighing me down and dragging me around. The wind through my hair wasn’t refreshing—it made my head pound with bursts of pain.”

  • Mei – I really enjoyed Mei’s voice, found her to be very relatable, and her overall journey to be a really rewarding story to read.
  • Growing up and apart from your parents – I really liked that this one not only focused on growing up, but how this sometimes means growing apart from your parents. I think letting teens know that you might not agree with your parents’ values as you grow older isn’t a bad thing.
  • Parental expectations vs individual dreams – Mei’s parents want her to become a doctor, but because of her germaphobia, she fears she will never be able to make it through med school. She also has a passion for dance, one that was only supported by her parents when they believed it could help her get into college.
  • Sibling relationship – My favorite relationship in this one was Mei’s with her older brother Xing. He’s been estranged from his family and when the two reconnect with one another, it made me unexpectedly emotional. I loved that despite their different relationship with their parents, they find a way to support one another.
  • Adult characters also get a chance to learn about themselves – Mei’s character arc is really important, but I loved that she isn’t the only one who learns things about themselves. Several adult characters are pushed out of their comfort zone and while most of them don’t change, it made me incredibly happy to see those who did grow.

  • Stereotypes – I mention this only because I’ve seen many reviews complain of the unflattering stereotypes in this novel that involve Mei’s parents and other relatives. They come across as very rigid, unreasonable, and overbearing. I personally believe #OwnVoices books should have the freedom to explore stereotypical characters, but this might be a turn off for some readers.

  • Gloria Chao’s American Panda focuses on a Taiwanese-American teen straddling the fence between two cultures and is ultimately a cathartic story about finding out who you are despite all the external voices telling you who you should be.

★★★★
(4/5)