By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
Well readers, we survived 2017. And with the year coming to an end, it’s a time to reflect. So here, I give you the top 10 books I have read this year. Check them out for yourself or give them as a gift for the bookworm in your life (’tis the season, after all). Happy reading!
First They Killed My Father
By Loung Ung
Harper Collins Publishers, 2010
As the daughter of a high-ranking government official living in Phnom Penh, 5-year-old Loung Ung lives a life of privilege. But then, in April 1975, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge takes over the Cambodian capital and everyone is forced out of the city.
This is the true story about a young girl and her family as they do what they have to do to survive, from separating from each other, to working in labor camps, to Ung becoming a child soldier. Ung’s story hits particularly close to home as I have relatives who survived the Khmer Rouge’s regime and others who did not. “First They Killed My Father” will have readers in awe of one small girl’s strength and determination, as she works to stay with her family despite harrowing circumstances. (Also, I highly recommend the film of the same name. My mother, who worked in the labor camps, said it is one of the most realistic portrayals of the Khmer Rouge that she has seen.)
By Sarah Kuhn
DAW Books Inc., 2017
In Kuhn’s sequel to “Heroine Complex,” we follow Aveda Jupiter (also known as Annie Chang) as she goes from the only person working to protect San Francisco from demons, to being part of a duo and sharing the spotlight with her best friend. But lately, there’s been a lull on the demon front and Aveda finds herself having an identity crisis. Then, let’s just throw in some maid-of-honor duties and a supernatural force targeting brides-to-be to make things interesting.
“Worship” is a story about redemption as Aveda works to make up for her past diva behavior.
Kuhn also paints a realistic picture of friendship, as two people do their best to repair past wrongs. Another highlight of this story is the fact that the protagonist and many of the secondary characters are Asian American. While this is obviously the focus of my monthly column, it is not every day that you find API superheroes (or superheroines, in this case), which is a shame because we live in this world too, so why can’t we save it?
Rich People Problems
By Kevin Kwan
Some people look forward to movie releases. I look forward to book releases. And in 2017, this was definitely one of them. In this final installment of Kwan’s trilogy, the matriarch of our favorite Crazy Rich Asians is on her deathbed and the entire Shang-Yang clan has convened at the family estate, Tyersall Park — not to mourn Shang Su Yi’s passing, but to stake their claim on the family fortune.
Just like its predecessors, “Rich People” is filled with the over-the-top extravagance we’ve come to know and love (and shake our heads at how wasteful it all is). As Kwan wraps up the characters’ stories, he does an excellent job of humanizing them in a way that has us common folk feeling sympathy and actually rooting for these members of the 1 percent (though realistically, they’re probably closer to the 0.5 percent).
By Carol Goodman
Viking Books for Young Readers, 2017
It’s Dec. 7, 1941 and Japan has just bombed Pearl Harbor, bringing the United States into World War II. As this happens, four 13-year-olds — Kiku, Madge, Joe, and Walt — find themselves at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and suddenly thrown into the role as knights who must track down an ancient book of Arthurian legends: the Kelmsbury Manuscript. This document holds the key to preventing another attack on American soil.
“Metropolitans” is a story of perseverance, as the foursome do what they must to save New York, despite being told ad nauseam that they’re just kids. Goodman combines history with fiction, mythology, and folklore, and brings together four very different people and shows that their differences are no reason for them to distrust each other.
Wires and Nerve
By Marissa Meyer
Feiwel & Friends, 2017
This was another book I looked forward to being released this year. As regular readers of my column know, I’m a big fan of Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles. So when I heard she was releasing a graphic novel, I was stoked.
“Wires and Nerve” picks up after our favorite ragtag gang has defeated the Lunar Queen Levana, as they work to rebuild and strengthen the peace alliance between Earth and Luna (the moon). We see all of our favorite characters again, but much of the story follows Iko, the android with a heart of (mechanized) gold, after she volunteers to take down rogue packs of wolf-hybrids that were set loose during Levana’s reign. Iko has been one of my favorite characters throughout this series, so I was excited to see her be the focus of this story. While she may be nonhuman, you would never know it as she has the personality of a boy-crazy teenage girl. Despite her more frivolous side, Iko is fiercely loyal and will do anything for her friends — proving that you can love dresses and still kick butt.
Double Cup Love: On the Trail of Family, Food, and Broken Hearts in China
By Eddie Huang
Spiegel & Grau, 2016
Eddie Huang had a good life. His first memoir was a bestseller, he was starring in his own TV show, and his restaurant was doing well. But then he fell in love and that changed everything.
Having fallen for an all-American white woman, Huang began asking, “How Chinese am I?” To find out, he and his two brothers, Emery and Evan, travel back to the motherland: China. In addition to connecting with his roots, Huang goes on a mission to see if his food stands up to the Chinese palate. Despite this well-laid plan, things don’t turn out well.
Huang takes readers on a journey many children of immigrants experience, going back to where he came from. That desire to learn about where he came from is a feeling many of us have and can easily relate to. Huang’s distinct voice, filled with curse words and hip-hop references, gives the book the more personal feel of a conversation between two people. As Huang is a chef, food plays a big role throughout and I do not recommend you read “Double Cup Love” on an empty stomach.
In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom
By Yeonmi Park with Maryanne Vollers
Penguin Books, 2015
It’s hard to know exactly what life is like in North Korea. Park’s memoir gives readers a glimpse into the “Hermit Kingdom” (so nicknamed for its isolation from the rest of the world) and the lengths she and her mother went through to get out and make a new life for themselves.
Park and her mother were smuggled across the Yalu River to China when she was 13. Not only were they escaping a harsh and brutal life, they were also searching for her older sister, who had escaped days earlier and had not been heard from since. But instead of a better life, Park and her mother are sold into sexual slavery, as “wives” to Chinese men who bought them.
This is the story of Park’s harrowing journey and even though it’s not always easy to read, there are moments of lightness as she shares some of the good memories she has with family and friends, showing readers the resilience of the human spirit.
Momotaro: Xander and the Lost Island of Monsters
Written by Margaret Dilloway, illustrated by Choong Yoon
Disney Hyperion, 2016
I love a good underdog story. There is nothing quite like exceeding people’s expectations and proving them wrong. “Lost Island” is exactly this, as we follow Xander Miyamoto who learns he is descended from Momotaro, a samurai warrior born out of a peach pit.
As a 12-year-old who is more interested in drawing comics and creating computer programs, he is not what we would typically think of as hero material. But when his father is taken by oni, demons, and monsters from Japanese folklore, Xander is quickly thrust into the role of having to bring his father back and save the day. Despite all of his doubts, his determination to get his father back shows that there is no one way to be a hero.
In addition to being a story about finding strength in what may be seen as your weaknesses, “Lost Island” is a fun good-versus-evil adventure story filled with action and heart.
The Boat Rocker
By Ha Jin
Pantheon Books, 2016
In 2005, Feng Danlin, a Chinese expat, is living in New York and working at a small news agency that produces a website that is read by Chinese people around the world.
His pieces have uncovered corruption and hypocrisy and attracted the attention of readers, as well as Communist officials. Then he is assigned to investigate his ex-wife, Yan Haili, and her claims that her debut novel is going to be the next big thing. Danlin, who knows his ex’s work, eagerly jumps on the assignment, which seems too good to be true. In fact, it is and Danlin is soon on the receiving end of never-ending harassment from people in power. This is a fast-paced story that includes situations that are so over-the-top and ridiculous that while readers will be entertained, they will also be wondering if they’re true.
By G.L. Tomas
Rebellious Valkyrie Press, 2016
Back in Chicago, Paul Hiroshima had it all: charm, good looks, and a reputation for his artistic talents and dancing ability. But now that his family has moved to Portland, Maine the summer before his senior year of high school, things have changed.
Fortunately, he meets Felicia Abelard, the girl next door. The two become fast friends, bonding over their love of comic books and even assuming secret identities — fully embracing their inner (and outer) geek. But then, as these stories go, the pair begin developing feelings for each other and things get complicated.
“Unforgettables” has many of the staples of a young adult novel, from that awkward first love and that feeling of not belonging, to parents who are seemingly out to ruin the protagonists’ lives and annoying siblings. But the story also features a diverse cast of characters, including Paul’s half Japanese, half white family and Felicia’s Haitian family, as well as secondary characters who show diversity goes beyond race and ethnicity.
Samantha can be reached at email@example.com.