Tuesday, September 13, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Outrun the Moon / Stacey Lee

TITLE: Outrun the Moon
AUTHOR: Stacey Lee
PUBLISHER: G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers

Young Adult -- Historical Fiction

My God, it’s full of stars! There aren’t enough stars on Amazon and Goodreads and Audible combined to do justice to how much I loved this book. I get excited whenever I find historical fiction starring Asian Americans, so I bought the audiobook of Stacey Lee’s OUTRUN THE MOON without even reading the description. Which was kind of fun, because I went in knowing only that it was about a Chinese girl in early 1900s California, and every little plot point was a surprise (I had no idea the earthquake was going to feature in the book, let alone throw the entire plot off-kilter). I suppose, in a way, this is how books are meant to be experienced… with the reader knowing no more than the character does about what’ll happen next.

15-year-old Mercy Wong is determined to escape the poverty of San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1906. Armed with nothing more than advice from a business book written by a tough Texan lady, a can-do attitude, and a handful of business connections, she strolls into the halls of St. Clare’s School for Girls aiming to get herself an elite education. However, St. Clare’s only admits wealthy white girls, and even after she manages to talk her way in (through a mix of cleverness and bribery), she finds herself unwelcome. Despite the bullying and blatant racism, she’s determined to succeed. Then the historic earthquake strikes, upending her entire world. Suddenly, it doesn’t matter if you’re an heiress or the daughter of a launderer—the only think you can do is go to the emergency park encampment and hope the army will bring food before everyone starves. But Mercy isn’t about to sit around waiting to be rescued. Resourceful and brave, she rallies her classmates to fight for survival and maybe, just maybe, start to heal this broken city.

To say I loved this book is a glaring understatement. It was one of those audiobooks that had me hoping for traffic jams so I might get an extra chapter in before reaching my destination. I loved everything about it—Mercy, the plot, the setting, the writing, the supporting characters… everything glittered. Lee does a fantastic job of bringing 1906 San Francisco to life, whether it’s the bustling streets of Chinatown or the elitist institution Mercy attends. This book tells the story of one tough-as-nails teen girl while showcasing aspects of history and culture that aren’t often discussed. I really enjoyed the way Mercy’s superstitions, stemming from her Chinese heritage, were subtly woven into her thoughts and actions—and also the way her culture and background shaped the way she saw the world. There are so many little things that mold a person’s perceptions, many of which are too minute for most to notice, let alone capture, and yet whose absence is felt on a visceral level. I get this a lot when reading about Asian characters written by non-Asian authors, so it was lovely to meet one of those rare Chinese American characters who feel 100% authentic. (P.S. In case this review somehow ends up posted somewhere that doesn’t show my profile—I’m Chinese American).

While the plot may sound low-key on paper, the writing style makes it unexpectedly tense. Also, I was so invested in Mercy that I really felt for her… I was rooting for her as she sought to get into St. Clare’s by any means necessary, cheering with her when she succeeded, appalled with her as she dealt with blatant racism, laughing with her as she plotted her revenge on the bullies, horrified with her as she searched for her family in the wake of the earthquake… I was bummed when this book ended because I felt like I was saying goodbye to a friend who was moving to a country without Facebook, meaning I wouldn’t get to see how her life turned out afterward.

This gush-fest wouldn’t be complete without giving a shout-out to the truly fabulous audiobook narrator, Emily Woo Zeller. She really made Mercy’s voice come alive—sometimes with youthful bravado, sometimes with honest vulnerability. And the voices of the supporting characters all felt distinct and unique in their own ways. If my computer keyboard had emojis, I’d be typing a string of applauding hands right now.

So in conclusion… BUY THIS BOOK!!!!

Stacey Lee is a fourth generation Chinese-American whose people came to California during the heydays of the cowboys. She believes she still has a bit of cowboy dust in her soul. A native of southern California, she graduated from UCLA then got her law degree at UC Davis King Hall. After practicing law in the Silicon Valley for several years, she finally took up the pen because she wanted the perks of being able to nap during the day, and it was easier than moving to Spain. She plays classical piano, raises children, and writes YA fiction.

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