By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
By Cynthia Kadohata
Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, 2018
For 11-year-old Conor, hockey is life. Everything else comes second — except his dad. Although he’s not positive, Conor is pretty sure hockey is the reason his stepmom Jenny left them. Because the sport is also his dad’s life. One of the only things they love more than the game is their Doberman Sinbad.
Things are going along fine until Sinbad is diagnosed with cancer. And treatment is not going to be cheap. So to help pay for Sinbad’s chemotherapy, Conor decides to scale back his hockey lessons.
But now that he doesn’t have hockey to keep him distracted, Conor notices more of what’s going on around him — such as his dad’s crying bouts at night when he thinks Conor is sleeping and some of his friends’ difficult family issues. And while he is still obsessed with hockey, Conor begins to wonder what life without the sport would be like.
“Checked” is a story about a family learning to adjust when things take a difficult turn and plans need to be adapted. Kadohata paints a realistic picture of the sacrifices they have to make and captures the love they have for each other that makes the sacrifices worth it.
Conor, who is half Japanese, is your typical pre-teen — a bit self-absorbed and initially only concerned about how things will affect him. But as the story progresses, he shows a maturity that typically comes with hard times. The concern he begins to have for his dad, who is a traffic cop, and Sinbad are highlighted throughout the novel. But we also see him begin to think about others, such as their elderly widower neighbor and a former teammate who has stopped playing hockey.
Kadohata also does a great job of showing readers the life of a dedicated athlete. From Conor’s workouts at the park with his dad, to actual hockey practice, she shows some of what it takes to become an elite athlete.
Music of the Ghosts
By Vaddey Ratner
Simon and Schuster, 2017
It’s been about two and a half decades since Suteera escaped Cambodia as a child refugee. The thought of returning was never in the forefront of her mind, but after her aunt dies from a shorter-than-expected battle with cancer, she receives a letter from a man who calls himself “the Old Musician” and claims to know what happened to her father during the Khmer Rouge.
When she arrives in Phnom Penh, Teera finds a society still struggling to come back from its violent history — a society in which perpetrators and survivors live side by side in their beloved country.
Meanwhile, the Old Musician awaits Teera’s arrival with trepidation, as he knows he must confess his connections with her parents and how they embraced the Khmer Rouge’s promise of a democratic society — only to have that promise tragically broken. He also has to reveal the truth about how Teera’s father died.
“Music” is a story about survivors and how to move on from tragedy. But unlike many stories with this theme, Ratner’s characters were on both sides of the violence.
Regular readers of this column will know that my family survived the Khmer Rouge — on the victims’ side. Because of this, I have rarely considered the other side’s perspective. But “Music” shows some of the factors that may have contributed to why people make the choices they did, as well as how sometimes they don’t really have a choice and did what they had to do to survive, and save their loved ones. We also see the struggles they experienced, as they realized too late the truth behind their “cause.” While I wouldn’t say this made me sympathetic toward the Khmer Rouge, Ratner reminded me of how complicated people can be.
Only a Kiss
By Ines Bautista-Yao
Amazon Digital Services, 2014
At the age of 9, Katie had her first kiss. It was with Chris, her best friend. But it wasn’t because she was in love with him. Although she hadn’t even reached double digits yet, Katie had already determined that she was going to marry Chris’ older brother Ethan when they grew up (he had a certain Disney prince quality to him). That first kiss with Chris was because she knew she could make him do what she wanted — no big deal.
But then they grew up. They ended up going to different high schools and drifted apart, as other boys and girls entered the picture.
Taking place in the Philippines, “Kiss” is a simple love story, told from both Katie’s and Chris’ point of view. We see the two grow up from being inseparable, to barely speaking, to finding their way back to each other. And while there is drama throughout the story, there are no bad guys. It is even hard to dislike their respective love interests.
Even though “Kiss” is a love story, Bautista-Yao does a great job showing readers that more than just romantic love is possible in male-female relationships. And besides, their friendship came first — they weren’t supposed to end up together.
True, Katie and Chris eventually develop feelings for each other, but they have such a strong foundation in their lifelong friendship that said feelings may actually pose a threat to their relationship and that is not something either of them wants — although they show this in different ways (drama!).
While this story takes place in another country, Bautista-Yao does a great job of making the characters and situations relatable. What Katie and Chris go through could happen to anyone anywhere in the world who has ever had a crush on someone else. And that simplicity is what makes “Kiss” such an enjoyable story.
Samantha can be reached at email@example.com.