The Astonishing Color of After: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. PanLeigh knows that her mother turned into a bird after she killed herself. The bird came to her before the funeral. She came again with a box for Leigh to take with her when she goes.

She isn’t sure what the bird wants or how to help her mother. All she knows is that she and her father are now in Taiwan and Leigh is meeting her maternal grandparents for the first time.

Nothing about the trip or her family is what Leigh expected. Her world feels colorless and confusing–coated with grief and filled with ghosts. But as Leigh learns more about her family, her heritage, and her mother’s past it starts to feel like Leigh might be able to find a way through in The Astonishing Color of After (2018) by Emily X.R. Pan.

The Astonishing Color of After is Pan’s debut novel.

It’s taken me a while to review this book because I’ve been struggling with separating how hard this book is to read with how very good it is.

The novel opens shortly after Leigh’s mother has killed herself. Leigh comes home just in time to see her body being taken away, to see the blood, and she is haunted by the thought that she might have been able to do something if only she’d been home instead of celebrating 2.5s Day with her best friend and longtime crush Axel.

Leigh finds a way to channel her grief when a bird comes to her. Leigh knows it’s her mother. She knows the bird is real. She also knows that her mother the bird has things she shouldn’t have–photographs that were burned, heirlooms that were sent to Taiwan.

In traveling to Taiwan Leigh thinks she can somehow rescue her mother the bird and bring her home. Instead Leigh embarks on a journey of discovery and understanding as she learns more about her heritage and her family’s past. She still hurts, she still mourns, but she also begins to learn how to move on and how to forgive.

In traveling to Taiwan Leigh also begins to learn more about her family’s heritage and culture–things that were hard to hold onto as a biracial girl–especially with her mother eager to embrace her new life in America and leave the past behind.

The Astonishing Color of After is not an easy read–Pan’s writing is too visceral, too evocative for that. Instead readers are immediately drawn into Leigh’s journey. Flashbacks shed light on Leigh’s relationship with Axel–a thread that ties the novel together from its painful opening to its hopeful conclusion–while memories from Leigh’s relatives shed light on her mother’s past while also underscoring the flaws in Leigh’s memories and the things she has tried to forget.

The Astonishing Color of After is a powerful and nuanced story about loss, forgiveness, art, and all of the things that make a family–whether it’s blood or a deeper bond. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Down and Across by Arvin Ahmadi, Starfish by Akemi Dawn Boman, The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui, Tell Me No Lies by Adele Griffin, Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram, This Raging Light by Estelle Laure, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, The Summer of Chasing Mermaids by Sarah Ockler, 500 Words or Less by Juleah del Rosario, Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez, The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma, The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner, American Street by Ibi Zoboi

Soundless: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Soundless by Richelle MeadFei’s entire village lost its hearing generations ago. Some claim that mythical pixius eliminated sound on the mountaintop so that they could slumber but no one really knows. For Fei and her people it is the way life has always been in their village isolated by mountains on all sides.

Life in the village can be bleak as miners work to extract precious metals from the mountain’s mine in exchange for food rations sent up via zipline from the kingdom of Beiguo far below.

With villagers going blind and food–already a precious commodity–coming in smaller and smaller quantities, the fate of the village is uncertain. Fei can see the growing threats to her people every day as she observes the village to paint her part of the day’s record that are displayed in the village center each morning.

Awoken one night be unsettling dreams and a noise unlike anything she could imagine, Fei realizes that her hearing has been restored. With this strange new sense to help her and steadfast Li Wei by her side, Fei has the power to change her own life and that of her entire village forever in Soundless (2015) by Richelle Mead.

Find it on Bookshop.

Soundless is a standalone fantasy inspired by Mead’s fascination with and love for Chinese folklore.

Fei is a fantastic heroine fueled by fierce love for her sister. She is strong, capable and confident in her own strengths. Fei brings an artistic eye to her world as she begins to push against the status quo in her village. Surprising twists and shocks make for an surprising final act as Soundless builds to an exciting conclusion.

Although this novel does employ a magical cure for Fei’s deafness, the subject is still handled thoughtfully with cleverly integrated dialog (written in italics as characters sign to each other) and carefully blocked scenes (Mead is always mindful that the characters are looking at each other before they begin signing for instance). Fei’s struggle to make sense of sound after a lifetime without is fascinating and extremely well done. Moments in the narrative also highlight times when not hearing is an advantage as well.

Fei does come to see her restored hearing as an asset and something of value that she hopes her friends and loved ones will also experience one day. However it is important to note that lack of hearing is never portrayed as a limitation for any of the characters.

Soundless is further strengthened with a sweet romance between Fei and Li Wei who are thrown together to save their village. Their evolving relationship throughout the novel is, in a word, adorable.

Diverse characters, unique mythology, and a thoughtful examination of deafness add another dimension to this rich narrative. Soundless is a provocative and original fantasy novel in a rarely seen setting. A must-read and highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, Brightly Woven by Alexandra Bracken, Red Rising by Pierce Brown, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, Mistwood by Leah Cypress, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, Eon by Allison Goodman, The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton, The Shadow Behind the Stars by Rebecca Hahn, Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale, Princess Academy by Shannon Hale, The Floating Islands by Rachel Neumeier, Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner, Updraft by Fran Wilde

*A copy this book was acquired from the publisher for review consideration at BEA 2015*

The Hundred Secret Senses: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

 

The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy TanWhile Amy Tan is an amazingly talented writer with a lot of great books under her belt, she is arguably most well known as the author of The Joy Luck Club, which I have yet to read. I did, however, read The Hundred Secret Senses (1996) not once but twice. (Find it on Bookshop.)

I almost never do that because the second reading just feels boring. However, that wasn’t the case with this book because it was so enjoyable and rich that rereading felt more like visiting old friends than rehashing something I already knew.

While on the subject of this novel’s freshness, it bears mention that some reviewers suggested The Hundred Secret Senses was little more than a rehash of previous, very similar, plots from her earlier books. Obviously, I can’t speak for The Joy Luck Club but I did read The Kitchen God’s Wife which had a similar theme but in my view an entirely different plot. I also happened to think this novel was the markedly better of the two.

Olivia’s mother is American, her father Chinese. She comes from a “traditional American family.” At least for the most part.  At the age of eighteen, Kwan entered the lives of Olivia (then four) and her family from her native China. Nothing about Kwan is American from her accent to her belief that she has yin eyes to see “those who have died and now dwell in the World of Yin, ghosts who leave the mists just to visit her kitchen on Balboa Street in San Francisco.”

These ghosts are not only a fundamental part of the story but one of the main reasons Olivia can never truly get along with her older sister.

For a while, it seems like Olivia will be able to ignore Kwan’s eccentricities and lead her own, American, life. But the more Olivia hears, the more Kwan’s old ghosts stories intrigue her. Their enticement grows when Olivia unexpectedly finds herself traveling to China with her husband, Simon, and Kwan for a magazine assignment. As the three navigate Kwan’s childhood stomping grounds, surprising connections are made between the threesome and, amazingly, with one of Kwan’s ghost stories.

The novel chronicles Olivia’s relationship with Kwan as well as her early courtship and eventual estrangement from Simon. At the same time, in alternating chapters, The Hundred Secret Senses tells the story of one of Kwan’s past lives in China during the 1800s–a dramatic love story closely tied to Kwan’s (and Olivia’s) present lives.

Tan’s prose here is conversational and enticing, feeling like a friend telling a particularly juicy story at dinner or over the phone. The connections between past, present and the very distant past is seamless creating a tight narrative that, by the end of the book, weaves all aspects of the story together in a neat package.

At the same time, The Hundred Secret Senses offers an interesting commentary on assimilation and multi-cultuarism with both Olivia and Simon being half-white and half-Chinese. Although Olivia might be too old to say she comes of age in this novel, it would be fair to say she learns to accept her own identity by the novel’s completion.

While all of that makes for a dynamo on its own, my favorite aspect of this book is the way in which it deals with family relations both romantically (with Olivia and Simon) and otherwise (with Olivia and Kwan). The story ends with an optimism that suggests, if you are willing to see them, loved ones are never very far away.

Possible Pairings: The Ghost of Stony Clove by Eileen Charbonneau, Drown by Junot Diaz, The Namesake by Jhumpa Larhiri, Snowfall by K. M. Peyton