stacey lee

Review: Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee

9780399175411_OutrunTheMoon_BOM.indd “No, the key to wealth was opportunity. And if opportunity didn’t come knocking than Mrs. Lowry says you must build your own door.”

Outrun The Moon is author Stacey Lee’s second book, and it is just as stunning and well-researched as her debut, Under a Painted Sky (which I reviewed here).

Set in San Francisco in 1906, Outrun the Moon details the journey of Mercy Wong, a fifteen-year-old girl living in Chinatown. Mercy is a US citizen, although her parents are not, and her family and friends live and thrive within the confines of Chinatown’s industry. Mercy’s father is a launderer, and her mother is a well-respected fortune teller. Mercy also lives with her younger brother, Jack, whose weak lungs keep him from running and playing as other children might. Aided by the medicine of their neighbor, Ah-Suk, Jack’s health remains in check.

Mercy is smitten with her longtime friend, Tom. Tom is Ah-Suk’s son and is expected to take over the family trade. However, Tom has dreams of flying, and he has even crafted a hot air balloon. Similarly, Mercy has dreams that would take her outside of Chinatown: she wants to run a successful business.

Mercy is an intelligent narrator who, despite her modern ways of thinking when it comes to business and the role of the female, deeply respects her upbringing and Chinese traditions. She has a dislike of the unlucky number four, and she frequently uses her mother’s body-mapping techniques to discern qualities in individuals. For example, Mercy’s high cheekbones (sometimes referred to as “bossy cheeks”) denote an assertive nature. I found this mixture of modern thinking and respect for tradition to be incredibly refreshing and interesting to read. Mercy is also witty and quick to act, and I would happily read another book narrated by her.

Mercy Wong knows that she needs to further her education if she wants to make a name for herself in the business world, and so she strikes a deal with the wealthy Du Lac family. Chocolatiers by trade, Mr. Du Lac also serves on the board of St. Clare’s School for Girls, one of the most exclusive private schools. An elaborate ruse is concocted, and Mercy is granted a trial period at the school where she must pretend she is a Chinese heiress.

Being the first non-white person at the school, Mercy garners a lot of attention – not all of it favorable. Soon after settling in, however, disaster strikes: the historic earthquake of April 18, 1906 sends San Francisco into turmoil, and the girls of St. Clare’s have to put aside their differences to survive.

Outrun the  Moon features a cast of unique and likable characters, each with their own flaws and inner battles. From enemies, to friends, to grumpy headmistresses, Mercy deals with them all. Reduced to living in a park together after the earthquake, the girls’ true natures come to light.

Although Lee takes some liberties with historical accuracy (she changes the time that the earthquake hit Chinatown, among a few other things that she mentions in an author’s note), I found Outrun the Moon to be a wonderful glimpse into a time period and a culture that I am not entirely familiar with. The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 was a history lesson reduced to one class when I was in school, and I never stopped to think about the myriad of ways that people were affected and what this tragedy meant to the city. Between this book and Under a Painted Sky, Lee has single-handedly made me want to research periods in history to learn more. Anyone who can do that outside of a classroom is doing something right!

I want to thank Stacey Lee for providing me with an advanced copy of Outrun The Moon in exchange for an honest review. The book was released in May by GP Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, and I cannot recommend it enough. Go – read – and fall in love with a time and a place.

Danielle Villano is the editor of BiblioSmiles, and she is really glad you’re here. Learn more on the About page.  Tweet @daniellevillano.

Review: Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee

paintedsky Under a Painted Sky is the exciting debut novel by Stacey Lee. Released in March 2015 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, Under a Painted Sky shakes up the YA historical fiction genre by placing two unlikely protagonists in the spotlight: a Chinese musician and an African American hired hand on the run on the Oregon Trail. The kicker? Both of these protagonists are young women, and must disguise themselves as men to avoid being caught. Will the cowboys who take them under their wing uncover their secrets, or will these two heroines make it to California scot-free?

It’s 1849 in Missouri, and Samantha has had a fight with her father. She longs to move back to New York City, where there is a larger community of Chinese immigrants. In Missouri, they stick out like a sore thumb. Her father has lofty ideas about moving out to California, and gives Samantha’s mother’s jade bracelet – the last remnant of her mother’s memory – to a colleague to ensure its safekeeping on the journey there.

In a grotesque turn of events, Samantha is left orphaned, and an act of self-defense has her fleeing for her life. She escapes with the help of Annamae, a runaway slave who longs to find her older brother at Hope Falls, a destination that may or may not exist. The two young women decide early on that they have enough attention on them because of their race; they don’t need their sex dragging them down, too.

So Samantha and Annamae become Sammy and Andy, disguising their feminine characteristics and mannerisms as best they can. Sammy has dreams of meeting her father’s colleague somewhere on the trail, and Andy hopes to reconnect with her brother. Early on they fall into the company of three genuine cowboys – West, Peety, and Cay – and though there’s some resistance on the three young men’s part, they decide to take the inexperienced Sammy and Andy under their wing and teach them how to survive on the trail.

Lee has done her research, and the Oregon Trail really came alive for me here. No longer did I see the trail as only pixels in a(n amazing) computer game; the scenery became treacherous and dusty and startlingly beautiful in my mind. The sensory details in Under a Painted Sky are gorgeous and vivid; I could taste the food cooked over a campfire, and smell the warm scent of the horses. Everything feels gritty: the dirt Sammy and Andy cake their faces in, the rough fibers of rope. Aside from Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, this is the first Western I’ve ever read, and it piqued my interest enough to look further into the genre.

The racial diversity of the characters added another rich dimension to this story. Sammy is seen as an oddity on the trail, and her Chinese ancestry makes her “mysterious” to her fellow travelers. And while she may be able to excuse certain slip-ups by referencing fake Chinese curses or beliefs (cowboys will fall for anything), you can tell that Sammy is proud of her heritage. The same can be said for Andy. While she resents her place in the hierarchy, she remains a courageous, spirited young woman who stays strong in her beliefs.

From gunfights, to stampedes, to wild weather, the action in this book does not stop for a second. At the heart of this story, however, is the friendship between Sammy and Andy. Both alone in their own way, they learn to trust each other and to rely on one another, and the story of their blossoming friendship is one of my favorites this year.

I received an e-galley of Under a Painted Sky for review, courtesy of NetGalley. Thanks for always supplying me with interesting reads!

Danielle Villano is the editor of BiblioSmiles, and she is really glad you’re here. Learn more on the About page.  Tweet @daniellevillano.