By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
Another year is coming to a close and that means another year of a whole lot of books. Here are 10 of my top reads—in no particular order—for 2019.
By Traci Chee
G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, 2016
Imagine a world in which the written word did not exist.
This is Sefia’s world. She grew up under the radar with her parents and after they died, she fled into the wilderness with her aunt Nin. Then Nin is kidnapped and the only way to figure out who’s behind that —as well as her father’s murder—is to figure out the odd rectangular object he left behind. After some time, she figures out it’s a book, possibly the only one in an almost completely illiterate society.
“Reader” contains many staples of the hero story: orphaned protagonist, at least one parent’s death that has more to it than it appears, and a quest to figure out the truth and make the world a better place. But Chee’s take on the fantasy adventure is unique as it will have readers thinking about the written word and the art of reading.
The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali
By Sabina Khan
Scholastic Press, 2019
Rukhsana Ali is ready to graduate. Because come next fall, the 17-year-old is headed to college with her girlfriend Ariana at Caltech. She doesn’t plan to come out to her conservative Muslim parents until she’s in California, where they won’t really be able to do anything about it.
But then her mother catches her with Ariana and everything falls apart.
Rukhsana is whisked off to Bangladesh under the guise of an ill grandmother, but it’s really a ploy by her parents to find her a husband.
Some of the measures Rukhsana’s parents take to try to steer her back onto the “right” path can be difficult to read. And while the details may be different and specific to their religious and cultural background, they’re not that different from stories about parents forcing their gay children into conversion therapy.
Despite this darkness, Khan balances the heartbreak with hope throughout the story and in Rukhsana, we have a strong young woman who fights for who she is and who she loves.
Can’t Escape Love”
By Alyssa Cole
HarperCollins Publishers, 2019
Regina Hobbs should be enjoying life. Her pop culture media enterprise, Girls with Glasses, is taking off and becoming a go-to site for all things nerdy. But instead of basking in her success, she’s stressed and suffering from insomnia.
She used to watch and listen to videos of puzzle-obsessed Gustave Nguyen, whose voice helped soothe her to sleep. But all those videos have been deleted. Once Reggie tracks Gus down, the two make a trade: His voice for her help on an escape room he has been tasked with, themed around a romance anime. The two meet in person, sparks fly, and they become more than friends.
“Escape” is a story about two people falling in love and those two people just happen to be in a wheelchair (Reggie) and on the autism spectrum (Gus). While these play a role in their lives, it is just one part of their life and Cole does a great job of balancing this with the desire we all have to just love and be loved.
I Love You So Mochi
By Sarah Kuhn
Scholastic Press, 2019
Kimi Nakamura has been accepted into a prestigious art school and she’s set to become the next great Asian American artist.
But she hasn’t painted anything in months and she can’t find the courage to tell her mother. Instead, Kimi creates Kimi Originals—bold outfits that make her and her friends feel like their ultimate selves.
When her mother finds out, the two get into an explosive fight and Kimi takes advantage of an invitation from her estranged grandparents to visit them in Kyoto. And once she’s there, Kimi is immersed in a culture that is both known and foreign to her, and meets a cute boy along the way. She also gets to know her maternal grandparents and learn more about her mother.
“Mochi” is a sweet coming-of-age story and Kuhn does a great job of showing readers the pressures that come with just being a teenager and the important role relationships can play in our lives.
And to top it off, the story will leave readers wanting to visit Japan to take in the sights, eat amazing food, and find really good mochi.
Patron Saints of Nothing
By Randy Ribay
In his final semester of high school, all Jay Reguero plans to do is play video games until he graduates, before setting off to the University of Michigan. But then his cousin Jun is murdered in the Philippines as part of President Duterte’s war on drugs and no one in the family will talk about it. So Jay travels to the Philippines to learn what happened.
As he searches for answers and learns more about Jun, Jay begins questioning how well he really knew his cousin. He also struggles with the guilt he feels in the part he played in the events that led to Jun’s death.
“Patron Saint” is the story of a young man who reconnects with his family, learning just as much about them as they end up learning about each other. Ribay does a great job of showing readers’ the complexities that come with family.
The story also doesn’t shy away from showing readers the hard truths of the Philippines’ war on drugs. Ribay uses the Reguero family’s story to humanize the issue and hopefully get more people talking about it.
The Bride Test
By Helen Hoang
Khai Diep doesn’t really do emotions. He may feel little things like irritation and contentment, but the big ones like grief or love? He doesn’t do them. But his family knows better. Due to his autism, Khai just processes emotions differently. So his mother takes it upon herself to travel to Vietnam to find him the perfect bride.
She comes home with Esme Tran, a mixed-race girl from the slums of Ho Chi Minh City, who saw Khai’s mother’s offer as a chance to raise herself and her family up.
Through Khai and Esme, we see a relationship can develop under unusual circumstances as two people work to overcome obstacles, both as a couple and individually.
Through Khai, Hoang shows readers how someone on the spectrum may be in a relationship, while Esme is an example of how, if given the opportunity, anyone can work toward improving their lot in life.
Aru Shah and the Song of Death
By Roshani Chokshi
Disney Hyperion, 2019
This is the second installment in Chokshi’s Pandava series. And while I also read the first installment this year, I decided to include only “Song” on this list.
This is Aru Shah’s second adventure after finding out she’s the reincarnation of one of the five Pandava brothers, demigods from the Hindu epic poem, the Mahabharata. And in this installment, we see how much Aru has grown, from her relationship with her mother, to her Pandava training with her soul sister Mini, to how she faces the challenges and obstacles as they try to save the world again.
In addition to Mini, Brynne (a third soul sister) and Aiden (whose role is initially unclear) join the gang on their quest. Chokshi does a great job of showing readers what it means to be a friend, even if you may not agree with the other person.
Chokshi also shows readers the characters’ various insecurities and by showcasing some of the difficulties they are going through, she shows readers that they are not experiencing things alone.
Not Your Backup
By C.B. Lee
Interlude Press, 2019
While I also read the first two installments of the Sidekick Squad’s adventures, I chose Emma Robledo’s story because, well, it’s my favorite.
In “Backup,” our heroes and heroines in the Resistance are continuing to work on taking down the corrupt Heroes League of Heroes. But Emma, a high school senior who has left school, thinks they’re not doing enough. She’s the unofficial leader of the Resistance movement, but she is also the only one without superpowers and as a result, taken out of the action once the adults show up.
“Backup,” like the rest of the books in Lee’s series, features a diverse cast of characters with different backgrounds and races, as well as sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression.
None of this has any impact on their fight against evil, it just happens to be one aspect of who these characters are—which is important to show readers.
Emma’s story is my favorite because she’s a strong young woman who knows her own value, even if others don’t, and she learns to take action when she thinks it is right.
Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune
By Roselle Lim
Natalie Tan is back home in San Francisco’s Chinatown for the first time in seven years, following her mother’s death.
Upon her arrival, Natalie is shocked to see the old neighborhood fading, with families moving away and businesses failing. An even bigger surprise, Natalie learns she has inherited her grandmother’s restaurant.
Before reopening the restaurant, the neighborhood seer tells Natalie she must cook three recipes from her grandmother’s cookbook to help her struggling neighbors. Only then will the restaurant succeed.
“Natalie Tan” is a story about going home and finding where you belong— with a touch of magical realism. Natalie is a strong and flawed woman who must come to grips with the fact that she and her mother left things on not-so-great terms. We see her grow throughout the story and how she becomes more accepting of a community she thought had turned their backs on her and her mother, and how they come to accept her as well.
I Believe in a Thing Called Love
By Maurene Goo
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017
Desi Lee is a girl with a plan. And that plan is going to gather into Stanford.
But despite having so many things going for her, she has never had a boyfriend. So when the new kid in school, Luca Drakos, shows an interest in her, Desi does what Desi does and comes up with a plan. And that plan is inspired by the Korean dramas her father has become obsessed with for years.
Needless to say, hilarity ensues in the form of boat rescues, fake love triangles, staged car crashes, and more. But soon everything becomes more real and she realizes there are things in real life that can’t be solved by slapstick comedy.
Desi is a strong type-A personality so it’s fun to see how she reacts when things don’t go her way and her need to be perfect (definitely a reason for this) is threatened.
In addition to a strong protagonist, “Believe” also features strong secondary characters—from Desi’s two best friends who keep her ambitions in check, to her father with whom she shares a very close bond.
Samantha can be reached at email@example.com.