Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Loud Asian Chick Lit?: A Review of
SUSHI FOR ONE? by Camy Tang

(See next, non-review post, for how to enter to win this book for your own reading pleasure!)

Debut novels a good portion of the time--not always, but often enough that I've taken notice--start off on unsteady legs, and it takes the author a while to get in the groove.

SUSHI FOR ONE?,by ACFW whirling dervish of writing energy Camy Tang, was this way for me. The first chapters really didn't involve me. They had a certain amount of strain and confusion. The humor seemed to just miss the mark. The characters were unlikable to me. The dialogue faltered.

Then, things started easing, fitting, coming together. The writing became more effortless to read, rather than causing eye-hitches, as I call them, those stumbles to the reader when sentences are bumpy or metaphors dont' quite fit.

I think--strictly theory here, I have no mind-reading spiritual gifty--it's because the writer stops trying superhard to fit an expectation or a mode or, in a multicultural work, cease to focus on how much cultural stuff to cram in or, in comedic writing, feel more comfy behind the wheel and push less for the humorous line; and at that point, simply lets his or her people tell their stories with more naturalness. And that's ALWAYS when books get good. Writers ease up. Characters ramp up. Conflict gets going.

First chapters can be obessive things for writers--don't I know it--so we just fill them up, redo them, redo them some more, and sometimes they just become unwieldy and overworked. For me, that happened here.

Fortunately, as I've seen happen before as well, things improve. I actually checked the page when the story started warming for me, and it was about a fourth of the way in. I won't say the page, or you'll start looking for it as you read. But trust me, Christian Women's Fiction reader, it happens.

That's when it clicked and I started to really enjoy Sushi for One?

That's when I got to care about Lex. Which I didn't from the start.

Who is Lex?

Lex Sakai, a single Asian-American female from a large family where intruding into personal affairs is par for the course. Especially when it's grandma and grandma wants NO SINGLE granddaughters. Only married ones, preferably with lots of babies for grandma to boast over. So, Lex, single and averse to intimacy due to her past, becomes the focus of grandmas's persistent, life-inverting efforts. While brother and grandma and others bring unwanted and unsuitable suitors in often comic and definitely vexing fashion into Lex's path, the unlikely suitor just may be the one who will heal Lex's hurts and open her heart.

This is the month for the blog tour for Camy Tang's debut novel, labeled Asian Chick Lit. It's the first in a three-book series--the "Sushi Series"-- And here is why you may enjoy this novel:

1. The heroine is not a perfect role-model or a girly-girl. She's sporty and flawed. Her acquaintances and relatives include the sports-oriented and the most-definitely flawed. It's nice to see non-perfect folks, because, honestly, Chick Lit wouldn't exist without screwed up human beings valiantly pressing on and..making things worse before they get better.

Confession: I am not sporty. Never have been. I detest sports. I am the one in the middle of weekend gatherings complaning about the men dominating the television with sports events. I almost pray for the tv to blow up. So, for me, I'd sort of skip over the sporty stuff unless it was the office-stuff that came riddled with conflict. Without doubt, there is some good "politics" stuff here, and I can put up with sports stuff for dramatic conflict.

2. As the title suggests, the heroine is not "white bread," if you'll pardon the term. I'm a minority gal and when I began reading "women's fiction" and romance in my teens, it was all about the white women. When I became a romance genre junkie starting in 1987 and lasting through about 2000, when I read several romance novels a week, sometimes more than one a day when I was bedbound, I pretty much had to put up with the milky skin, blue eyes, perfect figure obsession of romances. Hey, I understand. There is a lot of fantsy in the genre, and the primary fantasy of Western culture in the female form is curvy, slender, and fair. White writers make for white heroines. White readerships make for white heroines, even from some non-white writers in the past. (that is, you wanna sell, write white.)

It was only while my romance jones was waning that multicultural heroines started making an appearance. Still, finding romance heroines who look like me is not an easy thing.

Here is a heroine who doesn't look like me, but doesn't look like the Irish or English roses of most romance novels, either. She's Asian and she doesn't have the nipped in waist or the alluring bosom. She's muscular and sleek (definitely popular in our culture, as opposed to fat and jiggly), but she's not white. Okay, so she's beautiful, and that's a par for the course in romance. We can't knock down all the conventions at once, can we?

Along with this non-typical heroince comes the culture--the food, the familial responsibilities, the customs, the language, the dress in some occasions--all with the aroma of the Orient overlaying the American contemporary scene.

I would recommend this novel to Christian romance/fiction readers just so you get into a culture that isn't your own. Get out of the white ladies' club one afternoon and try something flavored with a different spice. The CBA needed this kick of wasabi, if you ask me. (I know, you didn't, but I'm pushy and mouthy.)

3. Energy. Because Lex is an active person, her voice has an energy that, while not always propped up by the perfect prose, is definitely different for the CBA. The same sort of scenes you might have read in CBA women's fiction--the office scene, the dining scene, the job interview scene, the friends hanging out scene, the coffeeshop scene, the family gathering scene, etc--have a different aura because Lex has this sort of muscular, zippy personality. She's not one to drown you in her flowery ruminations. (And I say that as someone who has been known to spit out floral ruminations like nobody's business.)

4. It almost nails the Chick Lit voice. I know, Camy is about to poke me in the eye with her chopsticks, but the Chick Lit voice is very, very, very hard to get right. And 95% of the Christian Chick Lit I've read or sampled drops the "voice" ball. Part of the reason I think this has been so in the CBA is that the writer who wants to write in proper Chick Lit persona must feel the freedom to be sarcastic, snippy, and snarky. They must feel at ease with hyperbole and caustic wit. Or at least doofus-wit. Or some sort of snappy wit. In other words, it requires that Christian writers take off the "I'm a nice girl who doesn't want to offend or seem to be mean" mantle and take on the "I'm a mouthy modern gal" label jacket. It requires lavishly observing and poking fun at human foibles, while retaining a fondness for humanity and an ability to laugh. It also requires that the other points--the romance, the family relationships, the buddy issues--be handled with a laughter AND tears. All that is hard to do right in proper proportion.

And in the church, we want everyone to play nice. Chick Lit encourages us to let a bit of acid flow with the honey. And it's hard for Christian ladies, I think, to, as Lex and Nike would say, JUST DO IT. It takes balls. (And that's a volleyball pun in honor of Lex and her sports obssession.)

Camy almost gets there, but not altogether and not consistently. The CL tone comes and goes, so that we have a novel that reads like regular Christian romance here, regular Christian women's fiction there, and Chick Lit in spots. I loved THOSE spots where the humor and the attitude work really well. Example: The pre-op scene. That worked very, very well in C-L mode. I guffawed.

I think her next books will show if she lets herself take up the Chick Lit regalia and walk the Chick Lit runway with full abandon. It takes a certain chutzpah to really carry off CL. I applaud that she tries, because, man, as someone who loves the snap and crackle of a good Chick Lit narrative, I've not been satisfied by what the CBA has offered. Because Camy is not afraid to be called "loud," she is ahead of the game, Chick Lit-wise.

5. Pain. Characters in pain are interesting characters. Lex is in pain. And people around her are, too. And I like a lot Lex's unguarded, vulnerable moments. Every now and then, there is a lovely unexpected touch from the secondary characters, too, in those moments when our gal is hurting.

6. For those who read romance, the therapist/patient scenario is not a new one. It's one that forces the hero/heroine into contact and allows for physical contact legitimately, adding to sensual tension. The physical therapy scenes, which I feared might be dull--come on, we've read dead medicalese scenes--are anythning but. I was engaged and I found the conflict worked well. Good scenes, and they added to the relationship's gentle progression, as well as addressing a central conflict believably.

7. The Christian content is not preachy. Yay. It's relevant to the theme/plot, but it's not a constant patter of prayers and sermons. This means this sort of book can have crossover appeal, and that's a good thing.

On the weak side, the hero is really not vivid for most of the book. His gentle, good-guyness is appealing and, basically, just what Lex needs. Still, since the story is told in two POVs--Lex's and Aiden's--we could have seen more of Aiden's world.

Also, the grandmother needed to be filled out more EARLIER given her centrality to the premise and the machinations. While her plotting needs to be behind the scenes, there still was a sense of her being a stereotype and not a fully-fleshed love-her/hate-her relative, which is really what she is. The pushy kinswoman who means well and is bound by her own needs and traditions, but who we love out of duty and out of familial connection and less out of full understanding. I wanted more in the few scenes we see her.

I suspect book two will be even stronger. Debut novels let writers start to feel their true feet. Following novels let them walk with more confidence. I'm looking forward to the second book, ONLY UNI, because the protagonist is a troubled one, both in spirit and in relationships in SUSHI FOR ONE? , and spiritually and relationship troubled characters are intriguing characters. Although, honestly, I really wanted to see Mimi's story. :)

My hope is that the subsequent novels by Miz Camy let the C-L voice really rip, no holding back.

And my other hope is that you will get yourself a copy, be forgiving about some rough patches at the start, and enter the world of Lex Sakai, who will find love and a career and herself...and even a path laid out by a Higher Hand in SUSHI FOR ONE?

Even if you have never read a Christian women's fiction/Chick Lit/romance with a minority heroine and characters, take a chance. Diversity in the body, even the storytelling part of the body, is a good thing and not to be feared.


Camy Tang said...

Thanks for the review, Mir! I always appreciate your honesty. I'll be disappointing you in the chick lit voice arena, though--I deliberately wrote the Sushi series in third person because it's more romance than chick lit. I'm a romance reader, first and foremost, and I wrote Sushi and Uni to appeal to romance readers (even though it's classified as chick lit). You're the first person who didn't like the first chapters, though. That's interesting. You prob won't like the opening of Uni, then--I am pure pop fiction, and proud of it, and Uni let me unleash my romance reader side.

Katie Hart - Writer and Avon Representative said...

I've read a lot of CBA chick lit - and I'm curious which books fit in the 5% that get the chick lit voice right.

Great review!

Mirtika said...

Remember that in the CBA, there is always some reservation in the voice--as it developed in the ABA--but right off the bat, I can think of two who, considering their respective contexts--I thought got it right:

Kristin Billerbeck
Denise Hildreth

In England, Penny Culliford got it. She was the first Christian Chick Lit (as far as I know, certainly the first one I found when I went searching for it years ago.)