By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
Well, another year is coming to a close and with that, (at least for me) another year’s worth of reading has come and gone — in short, a lot of books. Here, I’ve narrowed it down, in no particular order, to my top 10 reads of 2018.
Happy holidays and even happier reading!
How to American
By Jimmy O. Yang
Da Capo Press, 2018
Before Jimmy O. Yang joined the cast of “Crazy Rich Asians,” or even “Silicon Valley,” he was a young Chinese immigrant from Hong Kong trying to figure out where he fit in his new Los Angeles home.
While “American” is a memoir with very specific details from Yang’s life — not everyone is nearly deported while on a trip to Tijuana, Mexico or works as a strip club DJ — there are also those common experiences among people with an immigrant background. Yang is just trying to fit in, while working to be true to himself. And to do this, he chooses to pursue comedy and acting rather than put his economics degree to good use, but as Yang put it, he’d rather disappoint his parents for a few years instead of disappointing himself for his whole life. And that’s a lesson we all can think about.
By Sarah Kuhn
DAW Books, Inc., 2018
With her power of emotional projection, it should be a no-brainer that Beatrice Tanaka would join her older sister Evie and Evie’s best friend Aveda Jupiter in their mission to protect San Francisco from supernatural baddies. Instead, Bea finds herself working at the bookstore, It’s Lit. But then a mysterious being starts contacting Bea, hinting that a new evil is coming to San Francisco. Now it’s Bea’s turn to become the superheroine she was meant to be.
This is the third installment in Kuhn’s Heroine Complex series and as I’ve included her first two books in previous top 10 picks, it’s not a surprise to find this one on my list as well. “Journey” may be Bea’s story, but we get to see what everyone else has been doing since the last story. Kuhn does a great job of showing each character’s growth and how, despite the nature of their day jobs, they are just normal people who are imperfect, trying to live their best lives.
The Way You Make Me Feel
By Maureen Goo
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018
Clara Shin goes through life making jokes and pulling pranks. She doesn’t take life too seriously, but when one of her pranks ends up in flames (literally), so do her plans to visit her mom in Tulum, Mexico. Clara is forced to spend her summer working at her dad’s food truck, the KoBra (named for his Korean and Brazilian upbringing).
“The Way You Make Me Feel” is a coming-of-age story about a young woman who is thrust into the deep end of life, after spending a decade and a half in the shallow end. The story has a little bit of everything, from female friendships and teenage romance, to a super-sweet father-daughter relationship. Personally, the latter was my favorite part of the book, as some of the things Clara’s father, a teenage-punk-turned-businessman, did for her reminded me of some of the things my parents did for me when I was younger.
The Kiss Quotient
By Helen Hoang
Math and work are everything to Stella Lane. But when her parents tell her they’re ready for grandchildren, the 30-year-old has to come up with a strategy. That strategy involves Stella, who is on the autism spectrum, “practicing” with a professional. So she hires Michael Phan, a half Vietnamese, half Swedish, escort with the good looks of a K-drama star.
As with any good romance, we know Stella and Michael will begin to fall for each other. But what Hoang does so well is show how they fall in love. She gives readers some insight into what it can be like living on the autism spectrum and how that can affect one’s social interactions. Despite these differences, Hoang also shows that Stella wants what most of us want: to be accepted and loved for who she is. It was also great to read a romance featuring an Asian male love interest, which is not very common. But Michael was definitely swoon-worthy and it was great reading about the Vietnamese side of his family and see how they bring Stella into the fold.
Music of the Ghosts
By Vaddey Ratner
Simon and Schuster, 2017
Suteera fled Cambodia as a child refugee and while it has been about two and a half decades, the thought of going back had never been on the forefront of her mind, until her aunt dies. Following her aunt’s death, she receives a letter from a man who calls himself “the Old Musician” and claims to know what happened to Teera’s father during the Khmer Rouge.
“Music” is a story about survivors, as readers see how the country of Cambodia and the Cambodian diaspora work to move on from tragedy.
While stories about violent regimes are not hard to find, Ratner’s story features characters who were on both sides of the violence. She shows what it could have been like for those like the Old Musician and Teera’s parents, who embraced the Khmer Rouge’s promise of a democratic society, only to have no real way out once that promise was so horribly broken.
American Like Me: Reflections on Life Between Cultures
By America Ferrera
Gallery Books, 2018
Stories about the immigrant experience are fairly common. But it’s not often we find stories in which people embrace their cultural heritage or what it is that makes them considered “different.” But “American Like Me” is an anthology of such stories, collected by America Ferrera. Among the stories are tales by Padma Lakshmi, Randall Park, Michelle Kwan, Kumail Nanjiani, and Kal Penn, who all share what it is they love about their culture.
From hilarious to heartwarming, there are stories of parents who have sacrificed for their children, as well as stories about those children (who have now grown up) and the pride they have in their various backgrounds. For anyone who wishes to be different — be it race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation — a collection of stories in which people accept, embrace, and even celebrate what makes them different from the “norm” could help them do the same.
Wires and Nerve, Volume 2: Gone Rogue
By Marissa Meyer
Feiwel & Friends, 2018
No top 10 list of mine could be without something from Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles. In this case, it’s the second installment of her “Wires and Nerve” graphic novel series. Once again, we follow Iko the android (my personal favorite character of the Chronicles), as she hunts down the bioengineered wolf-soldiers threatening to undo the already tenuous peace agreement between Earth and Luna (the moon).
Iko and the rest of the gang, who we have all met throughout the series, suspect the wolf-soldiers plan to attack New Beijing’s Peace Festival so they have to figure out how to stop the potential attack. “Rogue” is an adventure story filled with themes of friendship, loyalty, and love. And while Iko may be an android, there is nothing she wouldn’t do for her friends, and Meyer does a great job of showing her humanity.
Serving Crazy with Curry
By Amulya Malladi
Endeavour Press, 2015
Devi can’t seem to do anything right. She is unemployed, unmarried, and recently had a miscarriage. With so many shortcomings, she decides she has nothing to lose and tries to take her own life. But on the morning of the “incident,” her mother Saroj stops by and lets herself in using her spare key and ends up saving Devi. So suicide is just one more thing she can’t get right.
Devi then moves back in with her parents. She stops speaking and begins expressing herself through cooking. And as the rest of the family begins to gather regularly for dinner to try Devi’s latest concoctions, they are forced to face things in their own lives. “Curry” is a story of how complicated family can be and how there is a fine line between loving someone and not being able to stand them. This is also a story about mental health, as the family comes to terms with why Devi did what she did and the value of getting help.
Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows: A Novel
By Balli Kaur Jaswal
William Morrow, 2017
For most of her life, Nikki has worked to distance herself from her traditional Indian upbringing. She prefers the independence of her West London life, working as a bartender over the tight-knit Sikh community of her childhood. But when her father dies and her family faces financial hardship, Nikki takes a job at the Punjabi community center teaching, which turns out to be basic literacy instead of the creative writing she thought it was going to be. When one of her students — many of whom are widows — finds a book of sexy stories, the women begin sharing their own stories and experiences.
Jaswal does a great job of telling a complex story from different characters’ points of view that will have readers guessing how and why things are related, especially as we learn about the death of a young modern wife, who was not that different from Nikki.
Dim Sum of All Fears: A Noodle Shop Mystery
By Vivien Chien
St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 2018
Lana Lee, who had just solved the mystery of who killed Asia Village owner Mr. Feng a few months ago, finds herself in the midst of a new mystery. The couple running the store next to her family’s restaurant is found dead in their store and it’s looking to be more than the murder-suicide it appears to be. Soon, Lana is knee deep in the husband’s ex-wives and in the middle of the couple’s family drama. And she’s also been left in charge of the restaurant, as her parents have taken off to Taiwan.
While I read both installments of Chien’s Noodle Shop Mystery series, I chose “Dim Sum,” because we get to see more of how the characters have developed since the first book and how the good people of Asia Village look out for each other and support their own through tough times.
Samantha can be reached at email@example.com.