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Diverse characters bring range of cultures to life

Esther J. Cepeda on

CHICAGO -- This is my seventh year of highlighting books that are diverse, but not about diversity. In other words, stories featuring people who are not the usual protagonists of mainstream novels but aren't interesting solely because of their race, gender or ethnicity.

It's a genre that is a bit difficult to describe.

For instance, I finally read Kevin Kwan's "Crazy Rich Asians," a delightful novel and soon-to-be movie (August 2018) about the intersecting lives of some seriously wealthy -- as in, beyond all our wildest dreams -- Chinese families living in New York, Silicon Valley and Singapore.

There's a wedding full of familial intrigue that everyone flocks to in their luxurious private jets. Secrets come to a head as a scion of one of the clans comes out as a super-millionaire to his girlfriend, a lowly "commoner" the family disapproves of.

It's a fun book in a campy, soap-opera way, and the author relies on some of his personal experiences to mine issues of heritage and assimilation while still entertaining us. To be sure, anyone who is not Asian could (and should) enjoy this story, but it's not an obvious pick for a category of fiction that breaks out of the ethnic literature genre and presents people of color as ordinary components of the American fabric.

That said, here are three books that do cast diverse, frequently stereotyped people as featured characters that truly reflect universal experiences and aspirations.

My first favorite of the year, "New People" by Danzy Senna, could be considered African-American literature, simply by virtue of having been written by a half-Irish-English and half Afro-Mexican woman who frequently includes mixed-race people in her stories.

But "New People" doesn't explore race as much as how young people approached the big questions of life -- What do I want to do when I grow up? Who should I marry? -- in the '90s, before the proliferation of the internet and smartphones.

Call me age-biased, but reading about fully formed humans with charms and idiosyncrasies in the luxurious silence of a non-digital lifestyle felt decadent.

Yes, "New People" is a fascinating look into how youthful, multiracial people who were "woke" long before being "woke" was a thing, maneuver emerging adulthood. More importantly, it's a well-written, interesting story about a young woman trying to find her way in life.

On to science fiction.

Everything the author Peter Clines writes is pure fun. Clines is 48, a little geeky (OK, a lot geeky), and a certain type of reader (me!) will devour his books and feel like they were written by a brother from another mother.

His latest novel, "Paradox Bound," features Harry Pritchard, a female time-traveler. Give the guy props for writing this ode to the guarding of the promise of the American Dream before the "Doctor Who" people announced their first female Time Lord.

 

Harry (short for Harriet, of course) is the perfect mix of action hero and proper lady. Along with her co-protagonist Eli Teague, she takes readers through a steampunky, Illuminati-ish story that features a magical 1929 Model A car, a cadre of faceless (and murderous) goons and the race to preserve American liberty, all while rocking a tricorn hat.

Lastly, I reluctantly include "Artemis," the new space novel by Andy Weir, author of the blockbuster "The Martian."

I listened to the audiobook, which was read by the wonderful Rosario Dawson, during a long Thanksgiving car ride. My son and I thought it was terribly boring, but, admittedly, we only watched the theatrical version of "The Martian" and didn't read the original book, so it's tough to compare the two.

Because I didn't really care for the "Artemis" story, it's hard to recommend. But the book deserves a mention because it's destined to be a best-seller that features a protagonist who is not only a moon-dwelling immigrant, but a plucky young Saudi Arabia-born woman.

Yep, "plucky."

Jazz Bashara is poor but resourceful; a failed civil servant, a smuggler and, eventually, the team lead of the story's heist caper.

As one review put it, "Artemis" is rife with "leaden dialogue and repetitive narration. ... That may be fine for 'hard' science fiction fans who prioritize idea over execution, or who simply crave well-researched technical speculation presented as fiction."

But those of us who read for word craft and narrative might be better off waiting for the movie. Let's just hope Hollywood doesn't whitewash Bashara out of the picture.

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Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

 

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