By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
Well readers, another year has gone by and goodness, what a year it’s been. With most of our regular day-to-day activities now confined to our homes, escapism took on a whole new meaning. So here are my top 10 reads (in no particular order) that helped me — and hopefully, you — take a break from the reality that was 2020.
“Somewhere Only We Know”
By Maurene Goo
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019
An anxious K-pop star and a directionless tabloid photographer, brought together by a search for a burger. Lucky and Jack meet the same night she sneaks out of her hotel and he sneaks into that same hotel. What follows is an adventure that changes the path of both teens’ lives.
While the characters’ circumstances are extreme, “Somewhere” chronicles that point in many peoples’ lives: on the brink of adulthood and trying to figure out what that means. Lucky and Jack challenge each other to think about what they want out of life and to go for it.
Yes, this is a fun, light-hearted story about a whirlwind romance between two young people, but it’s a romantic comedy with depth. Goo touches on more serious topics, such as mental health, as we see the toll K-pop stardom has on Lucky. Through Lucky’s inner musings, Goo plants seeds for readers who might be struggling to consider getting help.
“The Best at It”
By Maulik Pancholy
Balzer + Bray, 2019
Rahul Kapoor is about to enter seventh grade and middle school in his small Indiana town.
Sensing the boy’s growing anxiety, Rahul’s grandfather, Bhai, advises him to find one thing he’s really good at and to excel at it.
This advice leads the young Indian American boy — with the help of his best friend Chelsea — on a quest to figure out that one thing. As expected, hilarity ensues but so does heartbreak as Rahul tries different activities and doesn’t always succeed. But the lesson Pancholy leaves readers with is that you don’t have to be the best football player or the best actor. You just have to be yourself and that’s enough.
Pancholy does a great job of portraying a young person’s struggles with stress, obsessive compulsive disorder, and sexuality in an age-appropriate way for younger readers to understand.
By Charles Yu
Willis Wu is not a leading man — not even in his own life story. In his mind, he’s Generic Asian Man, though sometimes he plays other roles, such as Disgraced Son. The dream is to be Kung Fu Guy, the pinnacle role for an Asian man (though still a secondary character). Everyone believes this. The only one who doesn’t is Willis’ mother, who tells him to “be more.”
Admittedly, “Interior” can be a bit confusing to read initially. The story switches between a TV or movie script style and narrative storytelling. But that’s how Yu differentiates between Willis’ real life and when he’s playing a role. Have I confused you even more? Well, trust me, you just have to read it to understand.
“Interior” is also told from a second-person point of view, a creative technique that will have readers thinking about how there could be more to life than playing bit roles in someone else’s story.
“The Impossible Girl”
By Lydia Kang
Lake Union Publishing, 2018
Cora Lee, the bastard daughter of a wealthy socialite and nameless Chinese immigrant, is the only female resurrectionist in the state of New York in 1850 and she’s making a name for herself. But she’s not going around Manhattan procuring bodies with the strangest anomalies for the money. She’s keeping track of anyone who may be looking for her: the impossible girl, born with two hearts and the top prize among grave robbers and anatomists.
And when a string of murders unfolds, the victims all individuals with strange anomalies, Cora knows it’s just a matter of time before the murderer finds her. Kang weaves a great mystery, filled with plot twists and red herrings, that will have readers guessing who the killer is and who Cora can and cannot trust.
“Impossible Girl” gives readers a glimpse into the world before modern medicine, where people dug up dead bodies for aspiring doctors to study. Kang also shows readers what a difference gender can make as Cora often dresses up as her ‘twin brother’ Jacob for her job, proving anyone is capable of anything, but not everyone is given the same opportunities to show us.
“Aru Shah and the Tree of Wishes”
By Roshani Chokshi
Rick Riordan Presents, 2020
The war between good and evil is coming and Aru Shah and her Pandava soul sisters are preparing to fight. And in this third installment of Chokshi’s Pandava series, the ‘Potatoes’ (read the book and it’ll make sense) are on a rescue mission to save their newest Pandava sisters. But according to a prophecy, one of the Pandava sisters is not true.
Regular readers of my column won’t be surprised to see another Pandava adventure on my top-10 reading list. The series may be written for middle readers, but Chokshi’s writing strikes a great balance and appeals to readers of all ages — myself included.
While a lot of the story is focused on their latest quest, readers will also see how Aru and the gang have grown into their abilities and as a team. The soul sisters — as well as Aiden and Rudy, the two boys who join them on their journey — are all multifaceted characters with their own strengths and insecurities. And it’s great to see them come together to support each other as they work toward a common goal.
By Angie Kim
Sarah Crichton Books, 2019
Miracle Submarine in Miracle Creek, Virginia is a hyperbaric chamber used to treat anything from autism to infertility. It’s owned and run by Korean immigrants Pak and Young Yoo and things are going well until one day, the chamber explodes and a woman and an 8-year-old boy are killed. And it’s clear that the explosion was no accident.
“Miracle Creek” takes place a year later as the lead suspect is put on trial. At first glance, it might appear obvious who the perpetrator is, but as the story goes on, we realize people aren’t always who they seem. Told from various characters’ points of views, Kim does a great job of weaving in twists and turns throughout this courtroom thriller and you’ll be wondering whodunnit until the end. It takes a really talented writer to have readers second-guessing themselves and changing their opinions without even knowing it.
By Sarah Kuhn
Team Tanaka/Jupiter is back and their numbers are growing. Evie Tanaka has just found out she’s pregnant and she’s thrilled. Really. Except she’s also feeling a little uncertain as well. But she has to put her self doubt on hold while she and Aveda Jupiter go undercover at Evie’s alma mater to investigate a string of mysterious “hauntings” that are hurting students.
I’ll be the first to admit I can be a pretty predictable reader — I like what I like. So, it should be no surprise that Kuhn’s latest installment in her Heroine Complex series made this list. This is her fourth novel about the Asian American superheroines in San Francisco and my favorite book in the series so far. Over the course of the series, Kuhn has done a great job of portraying the characters’ dysfunctional, codependent and unhealthy relationships and how they’ve worked —and continue to work — through their issues to get to a more stable place. I’ve loved seeing the team grow and can’t wait to see what new adventures unfold in future books.
“Eva Evergreen, Semi-Magical Witch”
By Julie Abe
Little, Brown Books, 2020
Like many young people in her position, Eva Evergreen wants nothing more than to earn her Novice Witch rank before her 13th birthday. But as the daughter of one of the most powerful witches in the realm, Eva’s got a lot to prove. Unfortunately, she’s only got a pinch of magic, which doesn’t even work half the time.
So when she lands in Auteri, the locals are underwhelmed. They need a powerful witch to help them weather the biggest magical storm in history coming their way — not a semi-magical girl who falls asleep when she overuses her powers.
Eva is a clever young girl readers of all ages can root for. Her limited abilities don’t stop her from trying her best to help others and she refuses to be dismissed or ignored. All of the young people in this story prove age means nothing when it comes to getting something done or making a change.
By Kat Cho
G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books, 2020
Somin and her friends have just gone through a traumatic year. She just wants to move on, but not everyone has reached that point. The only one in their group who seems to have moved on is Junu, their not-so-favorite dokkaebi, or goblin. While Somin and Junu are drawn to each other, they can’t figure out the attraction between them as last year’s events prove to be just the beginning of their troubles.
“Vicious Spirits” picks up shortly after the events of “Wicked Fox,” Cho’s first book — during which Miyoung, a nine-tailed fox from Korean folklore that feeds on men called a gumiho, lost the source of her power, her fox bead. As a result, a hole has been torn between the world of the living and the world of the dead. So ghosts are appearing all over Seoul and Somin and her friends have to fix it.
Cho does a great job of weaving a budding romance with the paranormal and an adventure to save the world. She pulls readers deeper into the world of Korean mythology, giving them just enough of a taste to leave them wanting more.
“The Strange Disappearance of a Bollywood Star”
By Vaseem Khan
Mulholland Books, 2017
Retired police inspector-turned-private-detective Chopra has been tasked with finding Vikram “Vicky” Verma — Bollywood’s biggest up-and-coming star — who has disappeared while working on what’s said to be the most expensive film in industry history. While on the case, Chopra uncovers feuds, death threats, and bad financial decisions that prove many have motives for wanting Vicky out of the way.
And where Chopra is, his baby elephant sidekick, Ganesha, is sure to follow. This petite pachyderm is my favorite character in the series, intelligent but also a baby prone to petulance and throwing tantrums when he doesn’t get his way. Who wouldn’t want to see that?
In addition, “Bollywood Star” brings readers into the world of India’s transgender community, or eunuchs. Khan does a great job of reminding readers that they are human just like the rest of us, with hopes and dreams, same as everyone else — something we should all take care to remember at the end of the day.
Samantha can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.