Outrun the Moon, by Stacey Lee


Last July, in my post “Cross-Dressing Heroines in New YA Westerns,” I called Stacey Lee’s debut, Under a Painted Sky, “a nontraditional, diverse, feminist western that celebrates female heroism, adventure, and resilience.”  Her latest novel, Outrun the Moon, is not a western; but it is a nontraditional, diverse, and feminist exploration of a significant historical event: the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, which destroyed the city and killed roughly 3,000 people.

Like Sammy in Under a Painted SkyOutrun the Moon‘s Chinese-American heroine, Mercy Wong, is headstrong, ambitious, and clever. According to her Ma, her high cheekbones, called “bossy cheeks,” are a sign of authority, meaning she’s assertive and independent. So true.  We can tell from the first few sentences alone that she’s bold and adventurous:

In my fifteen years, I have stuck my arm in a vat of slithering eels, climbed all the major hills of San Francisco, and tiptoed over the graves of a hundred souls. Today, I will walk on air.

Tom’s hot air balloon, the Floating Island, hovers above us, a cloud of tofu-colored silk trapped in netting.

Mercy almost floats away in Tom’s hot air balloon. But this is not how she wants to escape Chinatown! She has a plan. She will become a successful business woman like Mrs. Lowry, the author of her much-loved Book for Business-Minded Women. First, she must get a prestigious education; but how will she do that when the best schools exclude non-whites? (Mercy has graduated from the Oriental Public School.)

Mercy’s clever plan for admittance to St Clare’s School for Girls is just the beginning of this powerful novel that celebrates triumph over racism, sexism, and classism. When the disastrous earthquake strikes, her assertiveness and resilience become even more important as she must rally other survivors to overcome their sorrows and prejudices and work together to build a community amidst the ruins.

Alyssa just realized she published this post without including her bio! Here it is. She thanks the author for an ARC of Outrun the Moon, for review purposes only, and Alyssa’s opinions are her own.


Cross-Dressing Heroines in New YA Westerns

This month, as I was reading Rae Carson’s Walk on Earth a Stranger and Erin Bowman’s Vengeance Road (forthcoming, September), I kept thinking back to Stacey Lee’s debut, Under a Painted Sky , which I recommended a few months ago. These novels are comparable in many ways. They are nontraditional, diverse, feminist westerns that celebrate female heroism, adventure, and resilience. After tragedy strikes all three heroines, leaving them orphans, they overcome sexist confines by masquerading as boys and heading west.

22501055-1Under a Painted Sky‘s opening scene is powerful. The narrator, fifteen-year-old Sammy, has just killed her landlord with a scrubbing brush. Sammy wonders: “Does killing a man who tried to rape me count as murder? For me, it probably does.” She knows the law will not sympathize with a “Chinaman’s daughter.”

Flashback to that morning, twelve hours earlier. She is angry that she isn’t back in New York City (which has “culture”) and still lives in Missouri. Her father promises they will return to New York “one day”–after he and his friend, Mr. Task, pursue their “great plans” of making a fortune in California. (It’s 1849, the height of the California Gold Rush).

Now it’s late afternoon. Her father’s dry goods store has burned to the ground and he’s dead. Their landlord offers Sammy room and board “in exchange for services.” He threatens her with negligence charges if she doesn’t “pay her debts” as his “exotic number” and “Lily of the East.” When he tries to “test the goods,” she strikes him dead.

Disguised as boys, Sammy and her landlord’s slave, Annamae (now Andy), flee the crime scene and head to California in search of Mr. Task. Their adventures on the Oregon Trail include befriending handsome young cowboys as well as dodging frightening strangers and racists. (To find out what Stacey Lee had to say about creating Under a Painted Sky, read this.)

17564519Rae Carson’s Walk on Earth a Stranger, the first book in the Gold Seer trilogy, also offers a fresh perspective on the Gold Rush narrative. Like Sammy, fifteen-year-old Leah is a brave, resourceful heroine who, masquerading as a boy, runs away to California after a terrible tragedy compromises her freedom.

It’s 1849, and Leah and her parents live on a big homestead in Georgia, but the Gold Rush has ended and less gold is panned each year. There are no sons in the family, so Leah hunts, farms, and drives to school “like a boy.” Her classmates call her “Plain Lee” because of her “manly” features. But Leah brings more to the table than “a man’s work.” She has a magical gift: she divines gold. Her parents have hidden six pounds of gold she’s “witched up” under the floorboards in their house, since they fear that taking it to the bank will attract attention.

But one day, Leah comes home from school to find her parents shot dead and the gold missing. When her uncle shows up at the funeral with gold flakes on his clothes and claims that she and the homestead are now his property, Leah (as Lee) escapes. She wants to meet up with her best friend (and love interest) Jefferson (part-Cherokee), who left a few days earlier for California; but how will her secrets change their relationship once she finds him?

23719270Erin Bowman’s Vengeance Road  also features a tough, gender-bending heroine; this time, in Gold Rush Arizona (1877). Like Sammy and Leah, eighteen-year-old Kate (a Mexican-American) disguises herself as a boy (Nate) and heads further west, after a tragedy leaves her parentless.

The novel opens with Kate finding her father hanging dead from a tree and their home ablaze. The Rose Riders, a notorious band of murderers and thieves, have killed her father–all because of a mysterious journal that hints at a gold mine’s secret location. Determined to avenge his death, she disguises herself as a boy and takes off in search of the Rose Riders and the gold mine. Along the way she teams up with Jesse and Will, brothers in pursuit of gold, and an Apache girl. Although they share high-stakes adventure, they have a contentious friendship and never really trust one another. Vengeance Road is full of plot twists and turns, and brutality, greed, and revenge remain prevalent themes.

Western migration is realistically harsh and unforgiving in all three novels, and yet their heroines find hope and resilience through new adventure, friendship, and romance. But the closer they get to their destinations, the more difficult it is for them to keep their girlhood secret; and gender, sexuality, and romance become increasingly uncertain and complex. They can’t masquerade as boys forever, and what will happen when their secrets are discovered?

Alyssa Raymond is a YA blogger for Coven Book Club and its sister site Spellbinding Books. She thanks Edelweiss, the publishers, and the Boulder Book Store for providing her with digital review copies of these books for review purposes, and her opinions are her own. Please follow Spellbinding Books onTwitter and Tumblr.

Winter 2015 YA Wrap-up: January – March Books

Now that winter is officially coming to an end, it’s a perfect time to highlight my favorite Winter 2015 YA releases, along with a few titles that are still on my TBR list.

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Marissa Meyer’s Fairest is the latest book (following Cress) in The Lunar Chronicles: a science-fiction retelling of Cinderella (Cinder, 2011), Little Red Riding Hood (Scarlet, 2012), Rapunzel (Cress, 2012), and Snow White (Winter, Nov 2015). The series’ overarching plot involves the main characters trying to stop the Lunar queen (who can control minds with her powerful glamour) from threatening the humans, androids, cyborgs, and Lunar refugees that live on Earth. If Prince Kai won’t marry Levana, she’ll attack Earth!

Fairest (2015) tells Levana’s story of how she became the villain we love to hate. While the other books depict her as rather one-dimensionally evil, Fairest reveals the underlying reasons for her villainy. It does not justify her evil behavior but portrays her as a surprisingly complex and sympathetic character.

Jodi Meadows’ The Orphan Queen is an engrossing YA fantasy about a tough princess, Wil, who wants desperately to take back her conquered kingdom. Nearly ten years ago, the Indigo army attacked her homeland Aecor and killed every noble adult, putting their children in an orphanage (from which Wil and her orphan “family,” called Ospreys, escaped).

The Ospreys are stealthy thieves who have been plotting for years to infiltrate the Indigo Kingdom. To spy on the Indigo Court, Wil and her best friend, Melanie, impersonate refugee nobles who have fled a fallen kingdom for the safety of Skyvale Palace. Not only must Wil hide her true identity from Crown Prince Tobiah (whom she fears might recognize her from ten years ago), but she must keep her magical abilities secret. Magic is banned from the Indigo Kingdom to prevent the toxic by-product of magic (called wraith) from spreading. Wil must also avoid another confrontation with Black Knife, a vigilante who is really good at catching magic-users (besides herself). Full of risky adventure, magic, and romance, The Orphan Queen is a great choice for fans of Graceling and Throne of Glass.

I love modern retellings of fairy tales and myths involving magic, curses, and physical transformations. Cat Hellison’s Beastkeeper is influenced by “Beauty and the Beast,” yet thirteen-year-old Sarah’s struggles to understand and cope with her family’s curse is its own unique and lyrical fairy tale.

Why did Cody’s best friend Meg kill herself? Gayle Forman’s I Was Here explores this difficult question with emotional complexity and resonance. Whether you’re a fan of If I Stay, or just want to read something profoundly heartbreaking and heartwarming (along the lines of All the Bright Places), I recommend this book.

If you have read Lauren Oliver’s previous books (Delirium, Panic, etc), then you know she’s an excellent writer who realistically portrays what it’s like to be a teen. With its surprising plot twists and turns, Vanishing Girls is an emotionally turbulent account of how sisters Dara and Nick went from being inseparable to estranged after a terrible car accident pushed them apart.

Stacey Lee’s Under a Painted Sky, which just came out yesterday, takes place in 1849 during the California Gold Rush, but it’s not a typical American frontier myth featuring stereotypical cowboys and cowgirls. The “cowgirl” narrator, fifteen-year-old Sammy, is Chinese, and what she struggles to overcome on the American frontier is racism. When her father’s death and another horrible incident force Sammy to flee Missouri, she and a runaway slave, disguised as male, join a group of guys heading for California on the Oregon Trail. Click here to read what Stacey Lee had to say about creating Under a Painted Sky.

SEQUELS: Since you may not have read the first books in these series (The Winner’s Curse and Seraphina), I’m not going to discuss the plots of Marie Rutkoski’s The Winner’s Crime and Rachel Hartman’s Shadow Scale. Overall, The Winner’s Curse trilogy is about the very complicated romance between a general’s daughter and her slave that takes place in a world similar to the Roman Empire’s conquering of Greece. (Read Nicola’s recommendation here). Seraphina is also about prejudice, political struggles, complicated romance, and war, that is set in an alternative-medieval world where dragons coexist uneasily with humans.


Here’s a recap of what I’ve recommended for Coven Book Club already (with links to those posts): All the Bright Places, Red Queen, The Sin Eater’s Daughter, MonstrousNightbirdEchoA Darker Shade of MagicBones & All and Bone Gap.


Here’s what’s still in my Winter 2015 TBR pile: The Mime Order (read Allison’s recommendation here), A Wicked Thing (read Nicola’s recommendation here), The Darkest Part of the ForestThe Wrong Side of RightEverything That Makes YouWhen Reason BreaksMy Heart and Other Black Holes, and The Last Time We Say Goodbye.

I’ll be back tomorrow to share with you my favorite YA books coming out this spring!

Alyssa Raymond recommends new and upcoming releases in young adult fiction (and occasionally middle grade and adult) for Coven Book Club and its newly-launched sister site Spellbinding Books. She thanks Edelweiss, Netgalley, and the publishers for sending her ARCs and DRCs for review purposes. Please follow her on Twitter.

What We’re Reading

Happy Monday! Here’s what we’re reading this week:

under a painted skyAlyssa: Right now I’m reading Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee
(which will be on the shelves 3/17). It takes place in 1849 during the California gold rush, but it’s not a typical story of the American frontier. The narrator, 15-yr-old Sammy, is Chinese. When her father’s death and another horrible incident force her to flee Missouri, she and a runaway slave, disguised as boys, head for California on the Oregon Trail.

Drawing of 3Erika: I’m re-reading the Dark Tower series by Stephen King; I’m currently on book 2, The Drawing of the Three. King is one of my favorite authors, and I absolutely love this series. He plays with language in really fascinating ways (a lot of his writing tends to take on a kind dream-logic quality), and the story arch of Roland the Gunslinger, Jake, Susannah, and Eddie is just so damn compelling.

cursedSonya: I recently read Cursed, the first in a new urban fantasy series by SJ Harper, the pen name for a collaboration between Jeanne Stein and Samantha Sommersby. The main character, Emma, is (you guessed it) a fallen Siren. Entertaining, quick read – werewolves, vampires, sex…standard fare for the genre, though the addition of the siren and Ancient Greek gods angle was cool. it was a reminder of how much I like to consume fiction. And that I should do it more often.

ashNicola: I’m currently reading Ash, by Malinda Lo, which is a retelling of Cinderella, and I’m really loving how fairy tales are incorporated into it. This is as overt as Ash’s well-loved book of fairy tales, and as subtle as the overall way the story is told. There’s an elusive, magical quality to the prose that reminds me so much of the fairy tales I read as a child.


castleAllison: I’ve been so busy lately and whenever I’m busy, I love to re-read my favorite books. This week it’s I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (the author of 101 Dalmatians). The story of Cassandra and her family is near and dear to my heart, plus it starts with one of my favorite opening lines, “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” Cassandra is equally naive and wise and her narration is so poignant; I get something new out of the book every time I read it.

red tentAbigail: I’m reading Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent right now. Our college book club read it a couple years ago and I’m finally catching up. It’s so wonderful and refreshing. I find Diamant’s writing to be enjoyably silky.