the former

there were terms once in our parlance.
wits,
thoughts,
and postulations
drafted on faded
paper used
for etching
floor plans
as handstands
on the roof
make headlines
while youths sit still.

hummingbirds
prattle,
the unchecked elite.

wood panels
fall,
inward sighs.

*Cat No. 35 of the 500 Cats Project

Swiftly Paced Intricacy – Oak and Mist by Helen Jones

Available on Amazon via Kindle or paperback.

Available on Amazon via Kindle and paperback.

Admittedly, I’m not what you’d call extremely well-read. That being said, aside from the first installment of The Lord of the Rings series, and the Harry Potter books that I’ve rarely ever re-read, I have hardly read any fantasy. Perhaps it’s all too intimidating, with its multiple worlds, factions, alliances, alter-egos, and allusions to mythology and other things I find elaborately rich. While I’ve intended to, I’ve never really given attention to the YA genre. It takes a skilled and enthusiastic writer to draw me into such works, and with Oak and Mist, Helen Jones does the job.

We see predestination’s lingering hold as Alma faces a tall order. Ambeth, a world outside the familiar, is threatened by an imbalance between Light and Dark. One does not choose the faction he is born into, and ultimately, one is not granted volition to shift, even in the unlikely presence of a desire to do so. Caleb, Alma’s friend, makes this clear as he dissuades her emotions for a boy from the wrong end of the spectrum.

Jones presents a world that I found highly believable, intricate though uncomplicated. Ambeth is lush with pleasantries, elegant party wear, a hierarchy and party scenes that warmly remind me of the Royal Diaries series. Alma, quiet though brave and resolute, reminded me so much of my younger self, overly impressed with the outwardly beautiful and concerned of other’s perceptions. She’s like a snow globe; you can sense when something unsettles her, whether it regards the dangerous, the lustful, or simply, the possibility that she has wounded a friend, however lacking the intention to. Her friendship with Caleb is something most of us have had, along with exasperating conversations about whether That Guy is worth dating.

While I found descriptions of Alma’s infatuation to be gratuitous and sweetly tedious to read, I was impressed with Jones’s integration of the conventional human world with that of contentious Ambeth. The idea of hybrid individuals and half-siblings isn’t new, though I appreciated the dialogue regarding acceptance of one’s blood, and awareness of one world over another. At several points throughout the novel, what appear to be gaps are eventually sealed. The story itself is considerably fast-paced to where one may not acknowledge that something is amiss. However, upon this realization, readers can appreciate that few things mentioned in Oak and Mist could be dismissed as trivial.

Oak and Mist details what I’d expect in the YA genre: formative relationships, both romantic and platonic, familial bonds, and reconciliation between how one would like things to be and how things actually are. Events and relationships are presented so cohesively to where the book could well stand on its own, though the detail in thoughts, interactions, and transferrals between Ambeth and the world in which we readers live leaves much to be predicted and returned to. Delightfully, Oak and Mist is just the first book of the Ambeth Chronicles, as Ms. Jones has just finished its followup, No Quarter. I anticipate the second book to be just as enjoyable.

With all being said, I should really give some genres more of a solid read.

Neon Tights on a Friday. Typically, Alone.

______, I really like you. I know you live by me.

In a small word, this could be true. But truly, most of that time I’d be sleeping. By you, but deeply enough that I won’t remember whether your earlobes are small and detached. I pay attention to detail. By the centimeter. It disconcerts.

______, I want to get with you. I’ve seen you walking by me.

On a daily basis, yes. I leave at seven thirty. But I probably haven’t seen you yet, because in honesty, this is the first job that hasn’t given me a writeup, and I’d like to keep it that way for the next year or so. And by get with me, you mean partner. You’d like to plan a venture. I’m okay with this over milk and happy graham crackers.

______, I want to play with you. I’ve seen you looking through me.

Blue marble or the red one? The not-so-lidded piggy bank that entraps and saddens even the most complacent of aging goldfish. I tend to play alone, with a broken Atari. The way I did with a pogo stick that brought my ankle to shame. The scar glares blanched, a leg unshaved.

______, I want to satisfy you. I’ve seen you wanting in me.

Now, I believe you’ve misunderstood. I opened the door, you rested and smirked and I hesitated to thumb at your melting curiosities. On top of a bagel, good. On soulful chocolate, God.

I’ll share you with my cat.

A Peculiar Identity – Xin-Mei’s Afraid to be Chinese

Available on Amazon, via Kindle and Paperback.

Available on Amazon, via Kindle and Paperback.

When I was fifteen, I had several pen pals. Claire from Australia, Veronica from Russia, and Giselle from the Philippines. “My family’s from China,” she wrote me. “They had left when the communists took over.” Her letters were vibrant, expressively contrasting her family’s culture to that of the one which surrounded her. She described herself as “non-Chinese speaking,” mentioned the absence of exact birthdays, and discussed the stringency of familial expectations when it came to dating. Interpersonal regulations were written along guidelines of ethnic purity, features that made one beautiful, and a mission to maintain original customs while assimilating with traditions not typically Chinese. I sensed confusion in Giselle’s many narratives.

Xin-Mei’s Afraid to be Chinese touches on similar points of ambivalence. This modest, though eloquent collection of short stories not only reminded me of letter-writing nine years prior, but also left me increasingly attentive to the dissimilarities in cultures that seem so close, if one looks to geography as a sufficient attribute. Xin-Mei’s fictionalized accounts are among few that I’ve encountered concerning transplantation within the same continent, as I’ve only previously read several short story collections of Asians immigrating to North America.

The writing reads like a soft murmur. Familiar, concise, though vivid. Especially memorable are the scenes of relatives cooking, family chatter over an ever-spinning lazy Susan, the wisdom and toil appreciated in spotted hands and young lamentation over veiny ones as wedding days draw near. Readers may smile at recollections of childhood crushes and the concealing of an admirer’s flowers, while sighing at conversations regarding epicanthal fold correction decades before plastic surgery became so commonplace.

The stories are rich and relatable, each chapter readable during a standard coffee break. One may finish the book in a little more than two hours, possibly wishing the author could have elaborated on the more double-edged aspects of Tsinay life in the Philippines. A daughter strives to comply with commandments and morality learned through the Catholicism of her private education while respecting the wishes of her parents so guided by gods at the temple. We see her consulting with a Catholic priest, who shares his presence with those deferring to Buddhist traditions and superstitions concerning the afterlife. Embalmment, burial, and cremation are practices worrisomely debated, and duties to please the in-laws aren’t so readily received. While the accounts I allude to are lush in emotional involvement, I felt more was needed to supplement the author’s illustration of an ambiguous culture. Particularly, Chinese notions of marital incompatibility sparked my interest, in addition to the actualization of nightmares I was too well acquainted with, growing up half Filipina.

Afraid to be Chinese, while minute in length, provides a winsome, musical, and sometimes mournful perspective on cultural confrontation, compromise, and preservation of identity. Through artful weaving of dialogue and eye-popping descriptives, Xin-Mei effectively seals gaps in my pen pal’s stories that so left me confused and curious. The collection may be light, though kaleidoscopic conflict intrigues, perhaps prodding us to explore divergences, nonconformities, and preservations within our personal histories.

pricking her conscience

at the hat factory
where my second
and third
and forty-fifth
cousins
removed faraway
by some fairytale marriage
stood a lion
I was warned
not to touch.

but I went ahead
while the dog
sipped brandy
and rolled
in sewage
for three hours
and I recovered
my hand
and counted to three,
bleeding.

she was just
a bit dusty
and I wanted
to give her a bath
out of
hot water
as flowers
in the front
so cried
and needles murmured.

*Cat No. 34 of the 500 Cats Project

Taste Buds

My mother often fretted
and playfully
humiliated
a girl
with an uncommon humor
who ate crackers
topped with
strawberry cream cheese.

no one wants to marry you.

approaching your twenties
not cooking well
as you haven’t yet found
just what you
could be good at.

you only know
these formal things
that you’ve been told
you can’t do.

like dogs
and their smooth kisses
moonlike smiles
at plates of bacon
that a neighborly enemy
enjoys without
asking permission
because ice cream
before dinner
is what adults sometimes choose.

*Cat No. 33 of the 500 Cats Project