Book Review: The Walled City

the walled cityTitle: The Walled City
Author: Ryan Graudin
Genres:  Realistic, Thriller
Pages: 432
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Review Copy: Copy from Publisher
Availability: In Bookstores now

Summary: There are three rules in the Walled City: Run fast. Trust no one. Always carry your knife. Right now, my life depends completely on the first. Run, run, run.
Jin, Mei Yee, and Dai all live in the Walled City, a lawless labyrinth run by crime lords and overrun by street gangs. Teens there run drugs or work in brothels—or, like Jin, hide under the radar. But when Dai offers Jin a chance to find her lost sister, Mei Yee, she begins a breathtaking race against the clock to escape the Walled City itself. – Cover image and summary via Goodreads

Review: In her author notes, Ryan Graudin states that when she learned about the Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong, she was reminded of the settings of many dystopian novels. I agree with her because while dystopian novels are very popular, there are parts of the world where many teenagers already live in a dystopian world. Graudin continues to write that  her imagination ran wild with stories ideas upon learning about the various types of people who lived in a .010 square mile of space, and we are all the better for it. The Walled City is a intense thriller, that is full of action, yet has many quiet moments between characters that allow us to really connect and empathize with them.

It was clear that Ryan Graudin did her homework before starting to write this lovely novel. She writes the setting to clearly, so well, that I can picture the twisting alleys and stacks of apartments that practically blocks out all sunlight perfectly. In fact, the Walled City, Hak Nam, almost feels like a character itself, so rich were Graudin’s descriptions. Little details, such as places were Jin and Dai purchase food, to the grander details such as Dai’s thinking place, really gave a sense of this dense city that is filled a large number of people in a small amount of space.

While Graudin’s setting definitely set the tone of the novel, the three main characters, Jin, Dai and Mei Yee,  had the most impact on me. All three were written with depth and care that made them seem like real teenagers living/surviving horrible circumstances. The fact that Jin disguises herself as a boy doesn’t seem like a gimmick but a real reason that makes the reader understand what is really at stake. The opening scene with Jin running from some teenage thugs and then coming across an escaped victim of human trafficking, reinforces this fact. When one contrasts Jin’s life with her sister Mei Yee, we really understand her decisions. Dai is the definition of the reluctant, flawed hero who has a dark past but is working hard to redeem himself. He is burdened from the results of a costly mistake, but he’s not the type of character whose walling becomes annoying. We understand why he is driven to change his life, and why it is so important to him that he achieves his goals in 18 days. Lastly, I was surprised at how Mei Yee’s situation was handled in the novel. She is a victim of human trafficking, and I wondered how Graudin would express this fact, and I’m glad that she is very truthful with the ugliness of this deplorable practice. Mei Yee was not the often portrayed “spunky girl trying to fight her way out”, but as a real victim, one who is forced in this situation, makes the best of it, while longing for freedom. Not once, however, did I feel like Mei Yee was helpless. In fact, when she does decide to fight back, you worry for her because the reader clearly understands how deadly her captives are and what could potentially happen to her if she should fail. The connection these three characters have really brought me into the story and I was rooting for them to succeed, even when it didn’t seem like it.

I’d heard a lot of buzz about The Walled City and I have to say that this novel definitely lived up to the hype. Ryan Graudin wrote a touching, yet intense novel that tackles the lives of a group of people in a unique situation with care that did not fetishize Chinese culture, nor sensationalize life among a criminal sect. I really came to care for Jin, Dai, and Mei Yee and enjoyed the time I spent with them. Those three have stayed with me in the days since. That is the mark of a great book.

Recommendation: Buy It Now!

The real Walled City. Kowloon, Hong Kong

The real Walled City. Kowloon, Hong Kong

Aerial view of the city.

Aerial view of the city.

In case you’re interested, here is a CNN article on Kowloon Walled City.
Life inside the Densest Place on Earth: Remembering the Kowloon Walled City

 

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Book Review: Otherbound

otherTitle: Otherbound
Author: Corinne Duyvis
Genres: Fantasy/SF
Pages: 387
Publisher: Amulet Books
Review Copy: ARC from publisher
Availability: Now! Just came out on Tuesday!

Summary: Amara is never alone. Not when she’s protecting the cursed princess she unwillingly serves. Not when they’re fleeing across dunes and islands and seas to stay alive. Not when she’s punished, ordered around, or neglected.

She can’t be alone, because a boy from another world experiences all that alongside her, looking through her eyes.

Nolan longs for a life uninterrupted. Every time he blinks, he’s yanked from his Arizona town into Amara’s mind, a world away, which makes even simple things like hobbies and homework impossible. He’s spent years as a powerless observer of Amara’s life. Amara has no idea . . . until he learns to control her, and they communicate for the first time. Amara is terrified. Then, she’s furious.

All Amara and Nolan want is to be free of each other. But Nolan’s breakthrough has dangerous consequences. Now, they’ll have to work together to survive–and discover the truth about their connection.

Review: At first glance, the premise of this novel seems like it could be confusing and have the potential to go dastardly wrong. I’m thrilled to let you know that in fact, the opposite happens! You can’t put this book down. My plan was to read the book slowly over a series of nights and instead I ended up staying up way too late to finish it. Corinne Duyvis knocks it out of the park with this amazing debut of a novel.

Both Nolan and Amara are instantly likable characters that the reader is able to connect with, despite their extreme differences. Because of his connection to Amara, Nolan’s life is in constant flux and poor guy cannot get a break. In fact, he has lost a leg because of his connection to Amara and his family believes that he has seizures, when in reality he is in Amara’s world. Amara is a servant to a princess on the run, and she is actually mute, and communicates using sign language. Despite their disabilities, both Nolan and Amara are like action heroes, really. Once Nolan figures out how to “chat” with Amara, they work together to solve a mystery, so to speak, putting both their lives at risk. I find that characters who make the choice to be heroes are braver than the ones who are “destined for greatness”. Both Nolan and Amara fit into the description of the former and do not let their disabilities to hamper their goals in any way. For me, while the novel is a fantasy, the way Nolan’s and Amara’s disabilities were presented, as more background and just how they get about in the world, is realistic. I loved that this novel was not about them overcoming their disabilities, but more about the mystery of how Nolan and Amara, people from two different worlds, connect and overcome an oppressive government.

Another aspect of the novel I loved, and why Corinne’s book is so enjoyable, is how she writes the narration. The story is told from both Nolan’s and Amara’s point of view, which could be confusing especially when Nolan blinks and/or is with Amara. The way Corinne chose to break down those moments is what makes the novel interesting. The novel is particularly from Nolan’s point of view, and when he is drawn from Amara as some moments, you scream in frustration with him. When Nolan is fully with Amara, then the novel is in her point of view. The transitions between the two points of view is seamless and pulls the reader into the story. I can honestly say it was one of the reasons why I stayed up too late reading. Both voices are strong and like I said earlier, I was able to really connect with Nolan and Amara.

Lastly, the world that Corinne creates, Amara’s world, is just a diverse and real as our world. It was a foreign place, a unique world all it’s own, but there was hints of our world dropped in here and there. A reason exists for those small hints and the explanation given is just…you have to read the book to find out!

I greatly enjoyed this book and was sad when I finished. I don’t think there is a sequel planned, but I would love to spend more time in Amara’s world and even spend some time with Nolan

Recommendation: Get it now!

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Diversity Done Right: Dreams of Gods & Monsters

Full Disclosure: To avoid spoiling the Daughter of Smoke and Bone series, this blog post will be vague in parts. Sorry. Go read the series!

I’m going to admit something a bit embarrassing, but all to real for readers of color. When I first read Daughter of Smoke and Bone, I made the mistake of not clearly reading the physical descriptions of the character Akiva. I was enjoying the story, inhaling the gripping twists and turns that I did what many readers do – defaulted in my mental picture of Akiva (i.e. White guy). It wasn’t until I was reading the last book of the trilogy, Dreams of Gods & Monsters, that I realized my error. There was a description of him that brought me up short. I stopped, read the line again, and my mental picture changed. I grabbed the first book in the series and scanned looking for physical descriptions and bam, found my error. I had read the words, but did not truly take in what skin tone the descriptions meant.

I imagined this….

Because I'm a HP fan.

Because I’m a HP fan.

Now I picture this….

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While I can’t fault the author for my misinterpreting, I think if she had included a few more physical descriptions, I think I would have caught my mistake earlier. She clearly described the main female character, Karou, many times so the reader could create a full mental picture, but with Akiva, the descriptions are few and somewhat vague. It is really easy to see how in this instance, a reader could default. There have been many discussions about how much description a writer should use when writing a character of color; the debate being giving too much description or is it “othering” to only describe characters of color. I am in the camp of that a writer should be specific in their descriptions and to repeat a few times throughout the novel. Let us be aware of what the characters look like, otherwise we will default to the Eurocentric standards of beauty.

In Dreams of Gods & Monsters, Laini Taylor changed up her tactic and spent more time giving character descriptions, repeating them sometimes in beautiful ways to make sure the reader know that the characters that inhabit the world of her story are very diverse. The novel takes place in different places in our world and on an entirely different world, but all the people in both worlds are made of a variety of colors. By making sure both her worlds were reflective of the racial diversity of our world, the book felt more grounded in reality (as much as she can make it). This attention to detail in her character descriptions made the book extremely enjoyable to me. I liked knowing that in a major event in our world, all the people would be represented, and that even in a different world, the different colors are all represented as well.

Another aspect of the novel, a “Diversity Surprise” moment, was that Taylor also made one of the major characters a Black woman. I actually sat up and read the description twice because I was so happy to see this character included. I loved that a Black character was included in the ensemble and that the focus was not on her being Black, but other things which I can’t say because….

River-Song-Spoilers
But I will say that Taylor wrote her character to perfection as she was a real character where we learned more about her fears, her hopes, her dreams, instead of focusing just on her race. When authors ask “how do I write a character of color,” the aspects of the character’s personality is what they should focus on, not just a character’s race. A writer still should address it someone, after all, race does color how one views the world, but do so sparingly as dealing with racial issues is not something a POC worries about 24/7. For example, Taylor has Eliza describing her interactions with a hostile co-worker, she writes, “Eliza was used to being underestimated, because she was black, and because she was a woman, but no one had ever been quite so vile about it as Morgan”. Talk about your intersectionality laid out in one sentence! Taylor has lines like this peppered throughout out Eliza’s narrative, but it is not the focus of her story, it is just Eliza’s observations that she has from time to time. Those little moments, those small comments, will show that a writer has done his/her homework when creating a character of color and will make the character read like a real person instead of a stereotype.

I’m sad that Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone series has come to an end because I really did love its epic story. I highly recommend this fantasy series to anyone who also loves plot twists that keep you reading well past your bed time, and characters that make morally gray decisions in order to survive. The story is gritty in it’s realness in regards to war and doesn’t hold back with the darkness just because it’s considered a YA novel. I fully respect authors who don’t insult the intelligence of the teen reader and my respect for Laini Taylor has grown three-fold with her creation of a truly diverse world.

Seriously, go buy this series.  You will not be disappointed.

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Creating Diverse Worlds

This post is for all you writers out there wondering how to create diversity in your novel. Creating diversity is not just the act of developing a character of color, it is also creating a diverse world. Think about the world that you live in. Who do you interact with everyday? I’ll use myself as an example.

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Mural expressing the diversity of my city. From virtualtourist.com

I live in Long Beach, CA, one of the most diverse cities in America. My student population is 60% Hispanic/Latino and 40% African-American, but the teaching staff is much more diverse with a good mix of different nationalities. I live in a large condo complex and there is every race and age living in the building. Yesterday as I walked out, I was behind an elderly Japanese couple and there is a mixed race family with two girls that I have seen grow into beautiful young ladies. Our neighbors across the courtyard are Samoan. This is just my complex. My best friend from high school is Puerto Rican and my husband’s best friend is a mix of Mexican and Navajo. Another high school friend, who is Caucasian, married a man who is a mix of Mexican and Japanese. Their daughter is a lovely blend of everything that makes up her parents. Another friend’s fiancée is Filipino, and she herself is a mix of Persian and Jewish. I am sitting in a coffee shop as I write this and the ethnic makeup of everyone in here is a mix of all the colors of the world.

Obviously, I encounter diversity in every aspect of my life, except for in novels. Why is this? I know writers do not write in a vacuum and have lives outside of the computer. Why not have the world you create from the pen, reflect the world the you live in? If you are unsure of how to do that, just spend some time sitting in a restaurant, coffee shop, mall, wherever people gather and watch them. Imagine their lives. What are they doing? Where are they going? What are the relationships with the people they’re with? You don’t have to create full character histories for them, but do remember them when creating the world your characters lives in. Just having a main character of color is not enough; the people the character interacts with should be diverse as well.

Don’t just focus on their ethnicity as well. People of color are more than just their skin. We are as unique and varied with our own special interests (I’m a Trekkie) and when creating diverse characters make sure you are creating a real person, not just a stock stereotype. Even if your main character interacts with a person for just one scene, create a small character profile in your head and then use that as a basis for how you write him/her in that once scene. Or, use the personality of someone you know and think about how he/she would react in the same situation. Think outside of the box and strive to make your world reflect the world you live in.

Now, unless your world is set in a place that is not diverse, say the novel “Spirits Chosen” which was set in a mythical Japan, then obviously your characters will not reflect the diverse world you live in. However, if you are interested in writing fantasy, why stick to the European version of elves and such? Why not look into the ancient history or folklore tales of other cultures? There is such a wide variety of stories from distant places that are just waiting to be told.

chaos

Image via Goodreads.com

Nalo Hopkinson’s “The Chaos” is a novel that creates a diverse world the right way. In fact, it felt as if she were hitting us over the head with diversity, but that is because it is so rare in fiction to find a novel that accurately reflects the culture we live in. The novel is set in modern day Toronto when an odd supernatural event happens, dubbed The Chaos for that is exactly what it is, and the story deals with one characters attempts to survive the event. The novel does have an aspect of fantasy pulling from Caribbean, Asian and European folklore traditions. I recommend that every writer interested in creating a diverse world, read Hopkinson’s book for inspiration.

Go forth and create diverse worlds!

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