Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki // Book Review

Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki // Book Review

What does a violin teacher from Hell, a trans runaway, and an alien donut shop owner have in common? Well, I was skeptical too, but then I read Light from Uncommon Stars and now I feel like anything is possible. Thanks to Tor Books for the gifted book.

Here’s more about Light from Uncommon Stars

Shizuka Satomi made a deal with the devil: to escape damnation, she must entice seven other violin prodigies to trade their souls for success. She has already delivered six.

When Katrina Nguyen, a young transgender runaway, catches Shizuka’s ear with her wild talent, Shizuka can almost feel the curse lifting. She’s found her final candidate.

But in a donut shop off a bustling highway in the San Gabriel Valley, Shizuka meets Lan Tran, retired starship captain, interstellar refugee, and mother of four. Shizuka doesn’t have time for crushes or coffee dates, what with her very soul on the line, but Lan’s kind smile and eyes like stars might just redefine a soul’s worth. And maybe something as small as a warm donut is powerful enough to break a curse as vast as the California coastline.

As the lives of these three women become entangled by chance and fate, a story of magic, identity, curses, and hope begins, and a family worth crossing the universe for is found.

My thoughts

This book is incredible. Full stop.

Beautifully written and smartly displayed. It gave me TJ Klune and Becky Chambers vibes. It gave me donuts and so much delicious Asian food. It made me think of my violin-playing youth. And it was a massive love letter to the Asian communities of LA. I honestly was so astounded by the beauty, the embrace, and the creativity this book provided. It’s definitely one of my favorite books of the year.

I don’t even know where to begin with how to explain my feelings. Let’s start with the characters. There are several different characters that this book follows, but the main ones are Lan, an interstellar alien trying to escape from a deadly plague that’s ravishing star systems around the universe. She’s escaped to Earth where her family work to rebuild their ship and as a cover they run an old donut shop. Shizuka was a violin virtuoso back in the day, but not anymore. In fact, she’s spent the last 49 years cultivating young violin students, bringing them great fame and fortune, only to lose them all to tragic ends. Why? Because she works for the devil and collecting the souls of virtuoso is what she does. Katrina is a young trans youth who’s recently run away from home. Without a place to stay, money to get food, or anyone to turn to, she’s made her way doing sexual favors. That is, until one day, when Katrina plays her violin in the park and Shizuka just happens to hear.

The story surrounds these three individuals and their lives become more and more intertwined learning about each other, themselves, and what they’re all capable of doing when given a little bit of love. The beauty of this story is surrounding their relationships and how they each grow so drastically in the pages within. Honestly, it’s so incredible reading this book and watching how these people become the people they’re supposed to be.

Of course, the story wasn’t without its truths. There was a lot of heartbreaking depictions of Katrina as she struggles with being loved by someone unconditionally, with coming-to-terms with what’s happened to her in the past, and how she finds herself through her music and the support of Shizuka and Lan. But there were also some uplifting moments where Katrina and Shizuka’s relationship really made you believe in the good of people; even if they’re actually conditioning their souls for the devil.

It was interesting to see Shizuka grow as well because she’s been literally grooming children for death and eternal damnation. To see her change little by little with Katrina just makes you think there’s possibility for bad people to be good again. And Lan, she changes immensely as well. Coming from a pragmatic people who don’t understand why people would want a variety of donut flavors or why they waste their time with video games, you see how important these things are to humans and how this level of entertainment can be the exact thing the universe needs to keep moving forward.

Then, there was the violin play. Honestly, the violin was its own character in this book. As someone who has played violin for 10 years of her adolescent life, actually played Schradieck and tried her hand at Paganini, these violin references were SPOT ON. Even down to the kinds of bridges used and the kinds of sound the instrument can make if you use the right strings. It’s literally so accurate that I thought Ryka Aoki was a long-time player like me. It was surprising when I realized that Ryka Aoki doesn’t actually play the violin. She really fooled me because she had everything from the makers of violins to the differences a bow can make read like she was as experienced at the violin as Shizuka was.

The descriptions of the violin reminded me so much of The Red Violin; one of my all-time favorite movies. It was this idea that the violin held someone’s soul and the music it played was seductive, embracing, and completely spell-binding. There was something free and beautiful about the violin that everyone coveted it and throughout the movie, you see how it makes its way around the world and touches everyone that plays it. You can watch the trailer here. So much of that feeling was deeply held to the violin parts in this book. I was honestly so moved by the way Ryka Aoki wrote the violin and the way it touched both Shizuka and Katrina’s lives.

The ending is where you see everything come together. Honestly, I was so surprised. I had a feeling the ending would go a certain way; an ultimate sacrifice, but then it was completely thwarted and put a huge smile on my face. It was an incredible ending to finish off such an incredible experience.

The Ones We’re Meant to Find by Joan He // Book Review

The Ones We’re Meant to Find by Joan He // Book Review

I first fell in love with this book because the cover was gorgeous. I think I could spend a lifetime just staring at the cover and how beautifully it came out. But then I read the book and it blew me away in so many different ways.

Here’s More about The Ones We’re Meant to Find

Cee has been trapped on an abandoned island for three years without any recollection of how she arrived, or memories from her life prior. All she knows is that somewhere out there, beyond the horizon, she has a sister named Kay, and it’s up to Cee to cross the ocean and find her.

In a world apart, 16-year-old STEM prodigy Kasey Mizuhara lives in an eco-city built for people who protected the planet―and now need protecting from it. With natural disasters on the rise due to climate change, eco-cities provide clean air, water, and shelter. Their residents, in exchange, must spend at least a third of their time in stasis pods, conducting business virtually whenever possible to reduce their environmental footprint. While Kasey, an introvert and loner, doesn’t mind the lifestyle, her sister Celia hated it. Popular and lovable, Celia much preferred the outside world. But no one could have predicted that Celia would take a boat out to sea, never to return.

Now it’s been three months since Celia’s disappearance, and Kasey has given up hope. Logic says that her sister must be dead. But nevertheless, she decides to retrace Celia’s last steps. Where they’ll lead her, she does not know. Her sister was full of secrets. But Kasey has a secret of her own.

My Thoughts

This wasn’t the typical YA SFF story that I usually read. I mean, it has the tropes. It has the bits and pieces of a YA SFF story that you want, but it was so much more for me. It read like literary fiction. It had that Kazuo Ishiguro Never Let Me Go vibe and it really surprised me. This was definitely one of those stories where it was less important how the world worked, how the science of everything turned out, and how Kasey eventually figured out how to save the world. It’s more about Kasey and Celia; their fractured relationship, their need to find each other, and the world that they grew up in and how that affected both of their lives in very different ways.

Of course, there’s some explanation, but for most of the book there’s a level of trust you need to have in Joan He to guide you towards the inevitable ending. However, if you’re looking for a book with detailed information on how the world is saved from climate change and pollution, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. The main focuses of this book are Celia and Kasey making this much more than just another SFF novel. This makes it literary. It makes it character-driven and elevates the book to a more mature level. Honestly, I think this will be the perfect book for those literary fans out there.

Celia and Kasey are really different from each other and the author shares that in several different ways. It’s there in the text as you read, but it’s also in the different POVs the characters’ perspectives are written. It’s in the way each chapter header begins and how they speak about each other. It really made you think that these two sisters couldn’t be any more different, but the one theme that both of them carry is this love for their sister and finding them.

The twist that eventually came in this book was so surprising and I felt like something was on its way towards that reveal while we were reading. The timelines didn’t make sense or something Kasey said wouldn’t align with what Celia said. It was an interesting play to keep the twist as hushed as possible, but the twist still got me and surprised me.

I will admit, this book isn’t perfect. There are some confusing parts and for much of the book I was wondering where all of this was going. It wasn’t too bad because I knew the author would take care of me, but it still bummed me out when the timelines jumped a lot and some of Kasey’s sections were a little over my head because they weren’t explained well. When I mentioned that the story is more literary, it also meant that there’s some of the classic SFF components that are lost like world-building. Like I mentioned, there’s a lot of trust involved with the author. You have to let her tell the story in her way and follow along the best you can. Then, you’ll see the overall picture and make you think much deeper than what’s happening in the story.

Overall, a captivating story about two sisters on the search for each other. Knowing these sisters is a whole other level as you’re learning not only who they are, but how they think, how they understand and perceive the world, and how much they truly love each other. This was my first book from Joan He and I’m honestly excited to try out more from her in the future.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher. My opinions have not been influenced by the author or the publisher.

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir // Book Review

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir // Book Review

Or How to Make Simone Super Anxious About Space.

But seriously, this was such an engaging and emotional story for me. It will take you on a wild ride across the stars, meet new friends, and hopefully feel like a hero at the end. However, I can’t not discuss how much anxiety it gave me. What’s my trigger? Conversations about life expectancy, existential thought (what does it all mean? what happens to us after we die?), and just thinking about death in general. I walked away from this book with a healthy dose of anxiety about space. Totally personal, I don’t think anyone else suffers from mild existentialist issues, but if you’re like me, proceed with caution.

Here’s more about Project Hail Mary

Ryland Grace is the sole survivor on a desperate, last-chance mission–and if he fails, humanity and the earth itself will perish.

Except that right now, he doesn’t know that. He can’t even remember his own name, let alone the nature of his assignment or how to complete it.

All he knows is that he’s been asleep for a very, very long time. And he’s just been awakened to find himself millions of miles from home, with nothing but two corpses for company.

His crewmates dead, his memories fuzzily returning, he realizes that an impossible task now confronts him. Alone on this tiny ship that’s been cobbled together by every government and space agency on the planet and hurled into the depths of space, it’s up to him to conquer an extinction-level threat to our species.

And thanks to an unexpected ally, he just might have a chance.

Part scientific mystery, part dazzling interstellar journey, Project Hail Mary is a tale of discovery, speculation, and survival to rival The Martian–while taking us to places it never dreamed of going.

My Thoughts

Get ready for space because there’s a lot of it and it’s non-stop. I’m going to try and do this without giving away spoilers, but heed my warning. Much of this book is reveal after reveal especially in the situations where Ryland has no idea how to proceed forward. I’ll try to keep mum about bigger stuff, but I’m going to share smaller details.

I think the biggest thing people will do with this book is compare it to The Martian. And while both books carry some similar themes, they’re starkly different. First off, Ryland is not stuck on Mars. In fact, he’s not even in our solar system. Second, there’s no one coming to rescue him. So Ryland’s mission is to figure out how to save earth and then never return to the world he belongs to.

And this is where most of my anxiety came from. Of course I didn’t think about it while he was on his adventures or through the memories he slowly remembers. It was in every single conversation he had with himself about how he won’t survive this. It’s in the way he talks about how alone he is, how he misses his kids (he’s a middle school science teacher), how what he’s looking at isn’t even our sun, and even if he were to return to earth, 26 years would have passed on earth.

Some of these conversations were so honest and human and they were ones that needed to be had. If Ryland was on this space adventure and didn’t think about the very real reality for him, I don’t think I would have bought the book as much as I did.

It’s not considered an Andy Weir book without science and math and this book discusses it a lot. Specifically, it dives into relative physics; how energy is mass and the speed of light to the 2nd power. You may know the formula E=MC2. Well, this becomes super relevant in this story and it’s really interesting how it’s deployed. It also discusses our technology and how far we’ve come in comparison to other lifeforms in the universe. I loved this juxtaposition of our technology vs. alien technology. I’ve always thought aliens (if they exist) would be leagues more intelligent than us and have the technology to boot. However, this book tackles those preconceived notions and also shares some interesting theories I never would have guessed.

I thought it was interesting to see this alternating timeline for Ryland. There’s a little about what’s happening in the present and then a recall to the past with more info he’s remembering. I found myself wanting to know more about the present than revisiting the past, but I also understand how this is Ryland and his memories are slowly coming back to him. I think the perspective is the best especially since Ryland was his own person and despite being a middle school science teacher, he was smart, inquisitive, and instinctual.

Overall, this was such a great read. I loved traveling through space with Ryland and his friend, seeing what happens to Project Hail Mary and earth, and seeing what happens to Ryland. The ending was a bit bittersweet and a really wild ending, but it’s been such a magical journey so far that you’ll definitely be happy with it.

Thanks to Del Rey for gifting me a copy of this book. My opinions have not been influenced by the publisher or the author.