Making Reading Magical Again: A Review of Wintersong

There is nothing more magical than diving into another world when you’re a child, whether it’s through a good movie, a video game, or for me, a really great book. In his book Why Write?, University of Virginia professor Mark Edmundson discusses the particulars of reading as a child. He writes that reading when you’re young is a completely immersive experience, one in which the mundane norms of real life fall away in their entirety and you’re fully transported to another time, place, or body.

The slightly depressing thing, Edmundson continues, is that this complete immersion doesn’t continue into adulthood, especially for writers.  We have to shed books as a form of true escapism when we grow older, because when we turn to books as writers, we read to analyze HOW our contemporaries or literary heroes are writing, not just what. Of course we still enjoy reading, but it becomes a rare thing for people who decide to devote their lives or parts of their lives to the written word to truly fall into a story, free of criticism or analysis, like we did while we were young.

And I’m sorry to say that Edmundson is completely right. When I pick up a book, any book, these days, it takes all of five minutes for my inner English major to rear her annoying head and start pulling apart the text in front of me. But sometimes, if I’m really lucky, a certain book comes along and completely knocks me back to my childhood, to days spent curled around stories that pulled me out of the bunny-covered walls of my bedroom and into other worlds. And the first book that’s done that for me in recent times? Wintersong by Korean-American author S. Jae-Jones.

Wintersong is a triumph of storytelling. Set in the German state of Bavaria, the events of the Wintersong spin into motion when Liesl’s younger sister Käthe is captured by Der Erlkönig, the legendary and mythical Goblin King. Desperate to retrieve her sister from his clutches, Liesl becomes swept up in a Romantic quest that turns out to be about more than just physically rescuing her sister from the underworld. Her ambitions, family relationships, and desire to live an unrestrained life all come to a head as she pursues the Goblin King underground.

First, Jae-Jones crafts incredibly human characters that you immediately identify with. She does what writers like George R.R. Martin are getting lauded for these days – she builds a fantastical world full of real, flawed human beings, all of whom have their own motives and agendas and wishes for their lives. There are no outright heroes or villains in Wintersong, not even the trickster Goblin King, who becomes an incredibly alluring love interest for Liesl. You end up sympathizing with every single character in the novel at some point, except maybe the goblins. And for a first time novelist like Jae-Jones, that is freaking masterful.

Not only does Jae-Jones create a brilliant cast of characters, she writes a lead character that has a creative agency that I haven’t really ever encountered before in YA literature. Liesl may be young and figuring her life out, but one thing she is sure of is her passion for creating and composing music. This passion, along with truly mesmerizing passages detailing Liesl’s composing, drives the novel and, of course many of Liesl’s missteps. But seeing this young woman so completely certain of her passion and her desire to freely create music is one of my favorite things about Wintersong.

The best thing by far about this novel is the mental landscape Jae-Jones draws for the reader. The Goblin King is first and foremost a trickster, and under his influence, the characters literally get caught in a haze of belief versus disbelief, real versus imagined. Liesl remembers something important and true on one page, but she forgets it by the next. She questions her reality, and somehow you find yourself trying to remind Liesl of what’s really happening. Jae-Jones’s interplay between a captivated narrator and a truly invested reader constructs a world of whispered magic that you can’t easily get home from. As Liesl falls prey to the magic of Der Erlkönig and his kingdom, you too fall under Jae-Jones’ spell.

My verdict:

If there’s any book that completely subverts the stigma about YA novels being somehow less complex and captivating than novels written for adults, it’s Wintersong. From a group of gorgeous, multifaceted characters to an inspiring lead protagonist who convinces you to live a more creative life, to a spellbinding landscape of questioning what’s real and what’s not, Wintersong unapologetically throws you into a deeply immersive and mesmerizing world that you’ll never want to leave.

Advertisements

Brown People Can Have Sex Too! A Review of The Bollywood Bride

I adore romance. And when I say adore, I really mean “I unabashedly live for all romantic storylines and romantic chemistry and romantic everything.” This obsession is not surprising. I grew up on a healthy diet of Hollywood’s romantic comedies, both classic and new, and a bombardment of Bollywood melodrama from the 90’s. From Tom Hanks’ heart-eyes at Meg Ryan at the airport in Sleepless in Seattle, to Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol’s sultry waltz in that rain-drenched gazebo in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, I go absolutely gaga for all kinds of love stories. Believe me when I say that from a very young age up until I met my husband, I had always imagined myself meeting the love of my life against a gorgeous backdrop and a soundtrack sung either by Savage Garden or Sonu Nigam.

So just imagine my pure rapture when I stumbled onto The Bollywood Bride by Sonali Dev. A Persuasion-esque love affair for the ages, The Bollywood Bride contains absolutely everything an avid reader AND a romance fanatic could want. The story follows Ria Parkar, a Bollywood film starlet who, after years away from her family, gets sucked back into the pain of her non-public life when her cousin Nikhil decides to get married in Chicago. And the great source of this epic pain? Among other things, a slighted, long-lost lover by the name of Vikram.

The best novels about love aren’t just about love – they’re about the messy, heartbreaking, and often painful lives of the people who happen to fall in love. And from the first page of The Bollywood Bride, Dev’s alluring, vibrant language coupled with her ability to construct such authentic and complex characters seduced me out of my own world and into Ria’s.

Dev channels Jane Austen with her uncanny skill to adapt the Indian immigrant community in America in an authentic and consumable way. She immediately thrusts Ria back into a world of wedding prep and preening, yet loving, Indian aunties who all color-coordinate their saris. And as someone who has grown up surrounded by uncles and aunties who have somehow become family through our shared Indian-American experience, I can tell you that I have never seen my community described in such a real and hilarious way.

You also get a happy yet completely unexpected taste of Charlotte Bronte in this novel as Dev deftly unwraps the secrets of Ria’s past, and how those secrets caused her to break Vikram’s heart prior to the events of this novel. The story is steeped in secrets and secret-keeping, which only heightens the tension between Ria and Vikram, as they simultaneously explore and avoid the nostalgia of their childhood together and the realization that their love for one another hasn’t disappeared, but evolved.

But the most tantalizing aspect of this novel was one that I did not see coming at all. I was drawn to The Bollywood Bride mainly because it was a romance novel written by an Indian woman about two Indian/Indian-American characters. Yay. And I expected there to be sex, because it was a romance novel, and that’s what the genre usually entails. But as I approached the final consummation of Ria and Vikram’s physical and emotional journey, i.e. their first round of really enjoyable and completely worth-the-wait sex, I realized that I had never before encountered such a raw and uninhibited depiction of Indian intimacy in fiction. And in that moment I realized: BROWN PEOPLE CAN HAVE SEX TOO.

One fact about Bollywood movies that you might not know is that they never ever show two characters having sex. Like, in a bed together. They rarely show two characters entering into a bedroom, or even making out on screen. The best you get is like a really seductive dance in the rain with extremely suggestive song lyrics. I could get into the traditionalism and conservative values and why there’s no onscreen lovemaking, but the point I’m trying to make is that realistic Indian intimacy is all but invisible in Bollywood cinema. And since #HollywoodSoWhite, there’s no Indian intimacy in films over here either.

So the fact that Dev gifts us with two unmarried Indian/Indian-Americans having delicious, well-deserved, tantalizing but not gratuitous sex is freaking groundbreaking. Instead of shying away from human sexuality, or neutering it by cutting away to a more G-rated scene, Dev revels in it, and gives her characters a sexual agency that I have only ever seen given to non-Indian characters. And for that, I am eternally grateful to Ms. Dev, and to her beautiful novel.

My verdict:

Sonali Dev’s The Bollywood Bride is an unadulterated delight. She crafts a narrative that whispers secrets on every page. She details a deeply authentic depiction of the Indian immigrant experience. And best of all, Dev opens up readers to the sexual side of Indian romance. Go read this book, and be prepared to frantically fan yourself on every single page.

Seeing Myself: A Review of The Star-Touched Queen

Growing up in the nineties and early 2000’s, I didn’t encounter many young characters of color in the novels I perused. The majority of my favorite books had white male protagonists. I reread books like Tangerine by Edward Bloor, and Holes by Louis Sachar, because they featured outcasts trying to find a home for themselves, and despite the friends and relationships I had, I always felt a little on the outside growing up as well. The closest I got to really loving a heroine for everything she was and stood for was Jo March in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women trilogy. She was passionate, obsessive, and didn’t embody the ideals of womanhood typically on show in 19th century New England.

As a child of Indian immigrants, I often felt torn between celebrating my Indian culture at home and on the weekend, and embracing my American-ness at school during the week. No one person or group is to blame for this inner divide – I attribute this now to a complete lack of representation of Asian kids in the media I consumed, and in the reluctance of our society to discuss diversity in an open and frank manner while I was growing up. Despite my voracious love of literature, I never once encountered a novel with a complex and non-white girl whose culture is embraced and explored. I never once read a story about an Indian girl whose culture reflected mine.

For this reason, I am so excited to share my review of The Star-Touched Queen, a YA novel written by Roshani Chokshi. Chokshi comes from an Indian and Filipino household, and she chooses to focus on her Indian heritage, and its vast mythology, in this fantasy novel. The Star-Touched Queen tells the story of Maya, princess of a fictional kingdom called Bharata, which happens to be the original Sanskrit name for India. Maya grows up on the outskirts of royal life, since her horoscope indicates that all her future holds is a dangerous marriage that will bind her with destruction and death. Her family does not willingly embrace her, either emotionally or physically, and the only real relationship she has is with her half-sister Gauri.

Maya’s real story begins when a sexy but aloof stranger named Amar whisks her away from the destruction of Bharata and makes her the queen of Akaran, the underworld. For the rest of the novel, Maya learns to navigate this new world while still struggling to understand what she really wants. For the third act of the novel, an unforeseen villain forces Maya out of Akaran, and Maya ultimately makes the choice to return, save her love, and resume the throne.

Chokshi’s writing is beautiful and intoxicating. She creates a world that is kinesthetic and touchable, and so weaves a visceral experience for her reader. You feel a part of the destiny tapestry that becomes so essential to Maya and Amar’s story. As the reader, you are not a witness to these proceedings – Chokshi’s vibrant storytelling pulls you into the narrative and makes you a silent character holding on to Maya’s hand throughout the whole story. I loved the physical experience of this novel, so gorgeously crafted by Chokshi.

The Star-Touched Queen highlights the time-old struggle between fate and personal choice as its primary theme. Maya struggles to break free from the foreboding narrative written by her astrological charts, and she is often pulled between accepting her destiny as queen of the underworld and questioning why Amar really brought her there. As a feminist, it would be easy for me to dismiss this book as yet another YA novel which inexplicably and inextricably ties the fate of a female character to that of a male character. But, I have to remind myself – The Star-Touched Queen does this deliberately and with purpose. This is a novel rooted in ideas of astrology and reincarnation, and to Chokshi’s immense credit, her character Maya fights these ideas on every step of her journey. Furthermore, the “star-crossed lovers” relationship isn’t perfect and free of conflict – Maya and Amar are vulnerable and immensely flawed characters, which ultimately makes their romance more palatable and interesting. Chokshi navigates the parameters of the fantasy romance genre with incisive choices about the strength of Maya’s character. Maya is determined to think for herself and question her situation, and her choices allow her to explore her own identity as well as save Amar from evil. Empowering? Check. Still romantic and fun to read? Double check.

But writing and thematic elements aside, the real beauty of this novel is that it gifts younger readers a completely new mythology that is accessible and fascinating. We have plenty of novels that are rooted in Greek mythology and Norse mythology – Rick Riordan and his Percy Jackson universe are a prime example of the lasting power of those mythologies in the Western psyche. And I happen to love those novels. But Chokshi gives life to a world of bhuts and rakshsas, words that don’t have Wikipedia pages like centaur and minotaur but are just as interesting. She exposes this beautiful Indian mythology to a Western audience, and the fact that she is now a New York Times bestselling author means that Western audiences are ready for a new mythology.

All in all, I had a grand old time reading The Star-Touched Queen and whole-heartedly recommend it to any reader. If you’re looking for an intriguing romance, then Maya and Amar’s will sweep you off your feet. If you love the old tales of Apollo and Odin and all of their antics, this narrative teems with fantastic Indian mythology and will give those gods a run for their money. And, if you’re a young Indian girl looking for a story of a powerful heroine who makes her own choices and who just so happens to share your cultural roots and skin color, then The Star-Touched Queen is absolutely the book for you, and for me as well. Maya is the heroine I wish I’d had when I was younger and trying to feel that my brown skin was just as relevant as white skin. I am so grateful that she exists for readers now.