Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Kirkus Reviews gave TIGER GIRL a great review! My publisher, GemmaMedia, just sent me the clipping! Yay!!!

Author: May-lee Chai

Nineteen-year-old Khmer Rouge survivor and Cambodian refugee Nea Chhim sets out to uncover a lifetime of lies in this quietly powerful sequel to Chai’s Dragon Chica (2010).

It’s been a year since Nea found out she was adopted by Ma, and the people she’s always known as Auntie and Uncle are her biological parents. Plagued by nightmares about her childhood, Nea decides to confront the past in order to exorcise the ghosts of the present, resolving to gain Uncle’s love and approval as his daughter so her mind can rest. Nea is shocked to find that this once-wealthy man is now a low-key bakery owner living a monklike existence, donating most of his inventory to local charities in penance for the guilt he feels over his wife’s death. Nea plans to win him over by helping him prosper, but when the bakery becomes a local hot spot, her plan doesn’t yield the results she desires. When a family member long thought lost reappears, Nea must learn to let go of what’s she been trying so hard to grasp. Nea’s narration is meticulous, recapping the events of the earlier book and then proceeding, describing events and emotions in detail.

Readers need not have read the previous book to understand this story of family, forgiveness and belonging, and it provides a jumping-off point for further reading about Cambodian history. (Fiction. 15 & up)
Review Issue Date: September 15, 2013
Online Publish Date: August 28, 2013
Pages: 240
Price ( Paperback ): $14.95
Publication Date: October 30, 2013
ISBN ( Paperback ): 978-1-936846-45-0
Category: Fiction


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 (My publisher Trish O’Hare at GemmaMedia  just sent me a link to this review of Dragon Chica by Lyn Miller-Lachmann, author of the novel Gringolandia about life in Chile under Pinochet. This review just made my day! Writing can be a lonely affair, as writers never know if our works will be meaningful to other people. When I hear back from readers that the story resonates with them, I am cheered immensely!–May-lee)

Crossover Dreams: A Review of Dragon Chica

July 4, 2011


Reading Ann Angel’s review of Carlos Eire’s memoir Learning to Die in Miami—and then reading the book itself—got me thinking about the crossover genre, books originally published for adults that have found a wide audience of teens, or books published for teens or younger children that have become adult favorites. My own Gringolandia first came out as a YA novel but is now showing up in college classes and on bookstore shelves in the adult section. In various stops on my blog tours several years ago, I participated in thoughtful discussions on why the novel was published as young adult rather than adult, as its teen protagonists moved almost exclusively in an adult world, with the high stakes reflected in this exchange between Daniel and his girlfriend after they’ve entered a brutal dictatorship (Chile under Pinochet) with forged documents:

With her finger, Courtney traces the map in the guidebook. “We have to be back before curfew.” She flips to the previous page and says, “It’s kind of like the government is our mother.”

“Yeah. Except she doesn’t ground you when you miss it. She shoots you.” (208)

The same high stakes characterize May-lee Chai’s Dragon Chica, published by indie press GemmaMedia as an adult novel but of interest to teen readers who appreciated An Na’s award-winning YA novel A Step from Heaven. Like A Step from Heaven, Dragon Chica is told in chronological vignettes that end with the Asian-American protagonist about to leave for college after a series of crises that threaten to divide her family forever.

Dragon Chica doesn’t begin in the old country, however, but in Dallas, Texas in the 1980’s, where then-12-year-old Nea’s mother has abruptly taken the family and from where they will leave just as abruptly. Nea’s mother is accustomed to fleeing under cover of night. The family—including Nea, her older sister, her younger brother, and younger twin sisters—have escaped Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge for asylum in the United States following the death of the children’s father in the camps. Leaving Dallas, the family arrives in Nebraska, where Nea’s aunt and uncle own a struggling Chinese restaurant. Once prosperous, Aunt and Uncle have found few customers and much prejudice in their small town. Ultimately, Uncle will sell both the restaurant and Nea’s older sister’s hand in marriage to a wealthy and somewhat sketchy former business associate who is establishing a chain of Chinese restaurants in the Midwest.

In contrast to her submissive older sister, Nea quickly embraces the ways of the United States and of every place she has lived—hence the tough “Dragon Chica” image (and Spanish accent) she has adopted from her months in Dallas. She chafes against a family that sees her only for the labor she can provide and a community that refuses to accept her as an equal. She wonders why her mother, aunt, and uncle don’t treat her the same way that they treat her siblings, but her memories of the dark days of the Khmer Rouge and her life before are dim and reflect the trauma of having survived the genocide.

Dragon Chica is a powerful and gripping story that offers a model of strength and survival to young people going through difficult times. Nea is far from a stereotypical “good girl” and her toughness and willingness to stand up to injustice add to her appeal. Although published as an adult title—and certainly of interest to adult readers—Dragon Chica belongs in teen collections. It is a story that transcends age, ethnicity, and immigration experience to cast light on all of us struggling against the forces that constrain our lives.

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The editor of a new anthology CHERISHED: 21 Writers on the Animals They Have Loved and Lost just sent me the first online review. This is certainly a surprise as the book won’t hit stores until April!  My essay “Red the Pig” is mentioned in the review from Tribute Books. FYI, the photo used in the review  is *not* of my pig but just an illustration. My pig looked like this:

Monday, February 7, 2011


Barbara Abercrombie – Cherished: 21 Writers on Animals They Have Loved and Lost – Giveaway & Review

The loss of a beloved animal is often best commiserated among fellow pet owners. Those who do not have a four-legged family member in their lives often cannot comprehend the inconsolable void that accompanies the death of a pet. When the earthly bond of unconditional love is shattered, only the memory of it remains. That is the empathetic feeling that is captured in the short story collection, Cherished: 21 Writers on Animals They Have Loved and Lost edited by Barbara Abercrombie. It is a heartfelt look at bereavement and grief throughout the animal spectrum. There is no defined limitation as to what constitutes a pet, and each of the contributors reflects on the specific losses they have endured. For many, it is the first time they have turned to writing in order to express the emotions that accompanied their final good-byes. 

The standout piece of the anthology is “True Love” by Samantha Dunn concerning her horse, Gabe. In a fitting description, she writes, “I see him again each time I go to a movie theater and the logo for TriStar Pictures appears on the screen – the strong white chest, the thundering legs.” What makes this relationship even more remarkable is that at the time, Samantha was living in a trailer park – not the typical residence of a horse owner. Throughout her teenage years, Samantha enjoyed riding and caring for Gabe. It is not until she returned home during a college break that she learned that her grandmother had sold the elderly equine to a children’s summer camp. Samantha never found out if this story was true, or just something her grandmother told her in order to comfort her about Gabe’s final resting place. Choosing not to uncover the truth, this unresolved ending still affects Samantha to this day.

Another atypical pet revolves around May-lee Chai’s “Red the Pig.” Growing up in the farmlands of South Dakota with a white mother and an Asian father wasn’t easy for May-lee and her brother. In order to fit in, they decided to work together in raising pigs. Red was the biggest of the piglets. May-lee named them by color in order to not get emotionally involved, but it wasn’t long before she was posing with Red for her senior picture. As Red continued to grow, the day arrived when he was destined for the slaughterhouse – something that May-lee could never really accept. After the loss of her pig, she knew she “never wanted to live on a farm again.”

In “Party Girl,” Monica Holloway explores the animal-autism connection between her son, Wills and their shepherd-collie mix, Hallie. Monica shares, “there was a deep love between them, but it was as if Hallie were a protective aunt, standoffish but fiercely protective.” When Wills was 12-years-old, he returned the favor. After Hallie fell into the pool and her arthritic body sank like a stone, it was Wills who jumped in and saved her. Pretty impressive for an autistic boy who didn’t like getting his clothes wet. As the selection comes to an end, Hallie is rapidly approaching her final days. Monica ends with a poignant thought, “Hallie … has been the one constant through the years, completely devoted but asking nothing in return.” It is a fitting summation of love between pets and owners everywhere.

The subject matter of the book may be one that many readers will be afraid to approach. The loss of one’s pet is hard enough without having to endure the blow-by-blow accounts of other owners for over 200 pages. The repeated scenes of physical deterioration and subsequent euthanization do not make for happy reading. The ending of each story is known before diving in. While it can lead to an experience of continual heartbreak, the collection’s intention is to help a pet owner through the grieving process by being able to gain insight from the coping strategies of others. Whether this is a helpful strategy or not is up to the needs of the individual reader.

Overall, these writers share their personal experiences in order to empathize with other grieving pet owners.

Cherished: 21 Writers on Animals They Have Loved and Lost by Barbara Abercrombie is available for $14.95 at Amazon.com and at BarbaraAbercrombie.com.

Review copy was provided by New York Journal of Books.

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BIUTIFUL starring Javier Bardem has restored my faith in filmmaking. Why? The truly beautiful performance from Bardem and the very moving story about globalization’s underbelly (or rather, frankly speaking, its most despised participants: migrant workers and their go-betweens). Also the best use of ghosts this side of Korean filmmaking!

Bardem, who has been nominated for an Oscar for his performance, plays a man dying of cancer with very little time to tie up a lot of loose ends in his life. Many people depend upon him–not the least of whom are his two young children. Others include a group of illegal African and Chinese migrant workers in Spain; various middle-men, including factory managers, a construction site foreman, and a crooked cop; and the families of the dead who pay him to tell them their loved ones’ last thoughts. Yes, in a twist that would seem out of place in less deft hands, Bardem’s character Uxbal has the psychic ability to communicate with the newly departed.

This theme, far from being hokey, is essential to director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s vision. Death is not seen as a release from life’s troubles nor the gateway to a munificent Heaven. Instead as another psychic mentor in the film tells Uxbal, death is the beginning of a long, arduous road.

This notion is echoed in the sentiments that the dead whisper to Uxbal. They worry about thefts, the pains in their bodies (one man says his body is a sea of mud, his hair on fire). They do not impart words of wisdom or comfort. . . just as BIUTIFUL does not provide pat answers to the serious issues of economic inequity, exploitation of global migrant workers, and desperation that the characters endure.

Yet I did not find BIUTIFUL ultimately depressing. Far from it. The fact that a renowned director and successful actor who could have his pick of Hollywood roles chose to make this movie about the least powerful people among us gives me hope. The film does not disparage or condescend in telling the story of the difficult lives of its characters. It also does not turn any of them into paper saints. They are all complex, flawed, interesting and at times infuriating characters portrayed believably by the actors in the film.

Obviously, this film is not “lite” entertainment. It is not meant to distract us from our daily worries. And if your daily worries are overwhelming at the moment, this is probably not the film to see right now. But if you are invigorated by great acting and moments of visual poetry, BIUTIFUL provides a profound journey indeed.

(Note: a friend of mine has pointed out that the gay couple who run a sweatshop in the film could be used by homophobic and ignorant individuals to justify their bigotry. That is unfortunately possible given the climate of hatemongering that we live in…even though I don’t think it’s the intention of the filmmaker or his cast. Straight characters–male and female–also exploit those who are less powerful than themselves for profit. Straight people are not shown as being in any way morally superior because of their sexual orientation.  In fact one of the most exploitative characters–he’s willing to dig up his father’s coffin and sell the space so a shopping mall can be built–is clearly shown to be heterosexual by his many sordid liaisons. The film is not a critique of sexual orientation or a study of sexual orientation. It IS a study of people who exploit poorer people, often because that is the only way they themselves can keep from falling into a greater poverty. That being said, until there is equal representation of gay characters in movies–and truly complex explorations of gay characters in mainstream movies–I think my friend’s concern is a point well worth mentioning.)

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Australian author, Walter Mason (Destination Saigon, 2010), posted the most beautiful review of Dragon Chica today. I was deeply moved by his insights and his lovely prose. This kind of profound reading is what makes all the years of writing and working on a novel worth the effort!

Dragon Chica

Posted by Walter Mason

The fascinating American writer May-lee Chai, one of my most treasured Twitter-friends, has recently published a Young Adult novel, called Dragon Chica, about the experience of a Cambodian-Chinese family settling into small-town America.
It so happens that I am at the moment working on my own book about Cambodia, so I was doubly fascinated to read Dragon Chica. And I was not disappointed. Based on a brief experience in her own life, when as a youngster she met an exotic family of Cambodian-Chinese running a restaurant in a rural district of America, May-lee Chai has been working on Dragon Chica for the best part of 10 years, and the care and time taken seems definitely to have paid off. It is a beautifully nuanced work of enormous appeal, not just to its intended Young Adult audience, but to anyone interested in the themes of race, belonging and the mysterious dynamics of family. It is also an exploration of outsider-ship, that meta-theme of all young adult fiction. And while specifically (and masterfully) dealing with questions of racism and ethnic identity, it is ultimately much more universal in its story. It is about the great pain and torment of all adult awakening: the struggles with sexual identity, the search for a more strongly (and separately) identified self and the enormous resentment at family strictures and eccentricities. One of the themes that spoke strongly to me as someone who grew up in a regional area (as did May-lee Chai) was the fury at being isolated at a point in life when experience and glamour seem to be the very most important elements of existence. The dullness of a provincial teenage existence and the constant thwarting of adolescent fantasy are brought to life in the pages of Dragon Chica in a way that brought constant smiles of recognition (and occasional pangs of long-forgotten angst) to my reading face.

The characters are rich and complex in a way that would be enormously attractive to a YA reader. What it also does, with great sophistication and lightness of touch, is bring to life the rich, complex and shifting cultures of the Chinese diaspora, and the special (and harrowing) historical circumstances of the Cambodian-Chinese in particular. There is a magic in Chai’s treatment of legend, folklore and superstition, and the characters – especially the older ones- occasionally lapse into a kind of dream-world of memory that is at turns whimsical and harrowing. There is, too, an exquisite and subtly-played symbolism to these stories, as when the hapless Uncle, the family’s struggling patriarch, reflects on his experience of the Buddhist tradition of releasing caged birds to cultivate merit. He recalls his wife’s words in the face of his scepticism about the project:

“Maybe they like to fly in the air for a day? Even if they return at night, how do you know they don’t enjoy their freedom during the day?”

All this in the context of his own horribly caged existence, limited, ironically, by that same wife’s tenuous grasp on reality and her inability to overcome the tragedy of her past.

Of course, mine is a particularly adult reading, one especially interested in the nuances of remembering and the play of culture and tradition in the narrative. I mustn’t ignore the main part of the book, which is the journey of the lovely Sourdi, the big sister charged with caring not just for her siblings but for her impossible mother; and the novel’s true heroine, the gutsy and terribly real teenaged girl Nea, who isn’t even that interested any more in any identity that isn’t her own. It is Nea’s growth into adulthood that is the novel’s central story.

Chai’s intention with this book seems to have been an ambitious one, describing the tensions of race and identity that are a unique part of multicultural societies – tensions which are not necessarily resolved till several generations have passed, and which are frequently played out, as in Dragon Chica, among the more aware and more socially equipped generation of migrant’s children. The ambition has, in my opinion, been rewarded. Dragon Chica is a beautifully written, clever and perfectly crafted novel, one that succeeds at every level without ever falling into the embarrassing and cringe-making didacticism that can frequently plague the “issues” novel, particularly one directed at young people. Chai speaks perfectly to her young readers, trusting in their intelligence, their sensitivity and their great desire for subtlety.

For me the most intriguing character was the tragic, scarred and monstrously selfish Auntie. She is almost an archetype, and a figure that is easy to recognise if anyone has had anything to do with migrant families. Auntie’s is the life that is lived on the knife-edge of tragedy; she is the one who bears the pain of exile, lost forever in the old stories the others can’t afford to recall. Neurotic, spiteful and attention-seeking, Auntie is both the family’s matriarch and its ultimate betrayer. She uses her health and her fragility to manipulate those around her:

“She insisted that we take her back to the house even though it was a busy night…she had to go home immediately. She couldn’t wait . She’d forgotten her medicine. There was no telling what would happen if she delayed.”

It is May-lee Chai’s genius that she delivers such a familiar figure so sensitively and, I should add, with a wonderful dose of mystery and intrigue that has the reader guessing right to the very end. The author’s sympathy for the outsider is palpable, and allows each of the characters to be fully human in their greater or lesser alienation.

I adored this book, and would recommend it to any young person, particularly those with an interest in Asia and the Asian immigrant experience. May-lee Chai deserves to be better known in Australia, and Dragon Chica is the kind of book that almost any young Australian could identify with.


[Note: You can follow Walter Mason on Twitter: @walterm and read about his nonfiction book, Destination Saigon, which was named one of the top ten travel books by the Sydney Morning Herald (see: The Couch Potato\’s Getaway), and follow his travel tweets @DestSaigon. Walter is an accomplished writer, world traveler, scholar (he speaks and reads many languages, including fluent Vietnamese), and blogger: www.waltermason.com]

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Book Review: ‘Dragon Chica’ by May-lee Chai

12:00 AM CST on Sunday, December 19, 2010

By ANNE MORRIS / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News
Anne Morris, a member of the National Books Critic Circle, lives in Austin.

When a church sponsors an Asian refugee family and sets them up with a trailer in a small town west of Dallas, difficulties arise. The family has survived the Khmer Rouge, but now the children must endure nasty treatment from their new classmates, who at first think they are Native Americans.

It is the strong bond between the two Chinese-Cambodian sisters that makes Dragon Chica a tender story. Sometimes funny, always very much alive, this novel introduces yet another variation on the modern-day immigrant experience as the Chhim family continues to move on – to East Dallas, where Ma gets a job in a Chinese restaurant, then on to Nebraska.

May-lee Chai creates a lively narrator in Nea Chhim, who goes from age 11 to 19 in the course of the novel, and never loses her willingness to defend her family – especially her much prettier sister, Sourdi, four years older. Nea is the scrappy Dragon Chica of the title. She remembers how Sourdi once carried her through a Cambodian minefield, finding safety by stepping on corpses. She would do anything for Sourdi. In the pattern of little sisters everywhere, sometimes Nea tries to do too much. In part, the book is about both girls’ coming of age, and the different paths they take to happiness.

Their mother – or Ma – charts the course of the family using miracles, luck and dreams she backs with hard work and intelligence. When Ma loses her job in Texas, she almost simultaneously receives a letter from her older sister’s family. Missing until now, they are miraculously alive in Nebraska and have started a restaurant called The Palace. They want Ma and her family to join in their undertaking.

“We left quickly,” Nea says, “not because we were naïve or simple or foolhardy, any of these things people might want to accuse us of being, but rather because we understood about miracles all right, how their shelf life was as long as a butterfly’s summer.” That lyrical phrase may surprise the reader, coming as it does in the middle of practical prose, but it’s one of the stylistic hallmarks of Chai’s best writing.

When Nea’s family reaches Nebraska, the restaurant has as yet no customers. Moreover, Auntie and her husband are in debt to a loan shark. At one time they had been prominent in Cambodian society. Now they have very little – only bitter memories and the scars of war. But at least Ma and her sister are reunited.

In the course of the novel, this second sister bond is shown to have deadly weaknesses.

Asians stand out even more in small town Nebraska than in Texas. Nea’s description of feeling different at school echoes that of anyone who ever failed to fit in. Eventually, she and her siblings learn to survive.

One thing that separates this immigrant narrative from many others is the skill with which the author describes how the kids are tortured by their peers. Naive brother Sam’s wrestling teammates invite him to a party but then try to get him to cook the family dog “gook-style” and serve it to the others on the team. Such an act, they say, would show team spirit. The drama of the kids’ problems in Dragon Chica suggests that this novel might also appeal to young-adult readers.

Chai is the author of six books, including The Girl From Purple Mountain. She lives in San Francisco and is a translator for PEN American Center.

Anne Morris, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, lives in Austin.

Dragon Chica

May-lee Chai

(Gemma, $14.95)


[Note from me: This review certainly made my day. Christmas came early this year! For anyone interested in buying a copy of Dragon Chica, I’ve listed some sources below for you.]

Signed copies can be purchased from Tattered Cover Book Store of Denver, CO. (Be sure to ask for an autographed copy; the price is the same.)

Dragon Chica is also available as a Google e-book (available from independent bookstores), Kindle, your local bookstore, online book retailers and directly from the publisher GemmaMedia‘s online catalog.

To read the original post from the Dallas Morning News, click here.

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It’s always exciting when I hear that another writer likes a book that I wrote. Young Adult author Medeia Sharif recently posted a wonderful review of my novel Dragon Chica on her blog. Wow! Who knew this was coming? Sometimes Heaven can be kind.

I don’t know Medeia personally, so I was naturally really psyched to find a positive review of my novel on her blog Sharif Writes!

Here’s the text:

“I read May-lee Chai’s Dragon Chica via netgalley.com, courtesy of the publisher.  Nea is a Cambodian girl living in Texas in the 1980s.  Her family struggles to make ends meet.  The story follows her to Nebraska, where her mother moves the family so that they can work in her aunt and uncle’s Chinese restaurant, considered a cash cow.

“All is not well in Nebraska.  Nea is initially frightened by her aunt, whose face bears extreme scars.  She comes across shady Asian businessmen who take an interest in her uncle’s restaurant.  She’s close to her older sister Sourdi, but she’ll soon marry and leave them.  Nea’s memories jump back to life in Texas and to where it all began, communist Cambodia and its harsh regime.  Both in Texas and Nebraska, Nea experiences racism when her looks are misunderstood and maligned.

“What I loved about Nea is her fighting spirit.  If she has a problem, she gauges the weaknesses of her foe and goes in for the attack.  With family secrets tumbling around her and brutal classmates picking at her, she takes nothing sitting down.  Even though the book has a simple, easy-to-follow style and I found it in the teen section of Netgalley, this is a book that will appeal to people of all ages because of its historical and cultural aspects.  I enjoyed Dragon Chica and will be on the lookout for Chai’s next novel.”


FYI Medeia Shariff ‘s  young adult novel, Bestest.Ramadan. Ever, comes out in 2011. Medeia is a Kurdish American writer and teacher born in New York City. You can find out more information about her and her new book on her blog.

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