By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
Rent a Boyfriend
By Gloria Chao
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2020
Introducing your boyfriend to your parents is nerve-wracking under the best circumstances, but for Chloe Wang, coming home from college for Thanksgiving will be especially stressful.
That’s because not only are her parents meeting her boyfriend for the first time, she is as well.
In order to get her parents off her back about accepting a proposal from the wealthiest—and sleaziest—guy in their Asian American community, Chloe hired Drew Chan from Rent for your ’Rents, a company that specializes in providing fake boyfriends trained to impress even the most traditional Asian parents.
Drew, an artist whose parents cut him off after he dropped out of college to pursue his dreams, started working for the company to pay the bills. His job with Chloe begins like any other but of course, the two begin to fall for each other. And there lies confusion and hilarity.
“Rent a Boyfriend” takes a tried-and-true romance trope—the fake relationship—and adds a very specific Asian twist to it. Companies like Rent for your ’Rents actually exist in Asia and you can tell Chao had fun creating Drew’s fictional employer and the attention to detail is impressive.
Both Chloe and Drew are at that stage in their lives where they’re figuring out who they are, separate from their parents and what that means for those relationships. Seeing them go through all of that reminded me of those times in my own life and made me grateful I’m (mostly) past them.
You know a book is good when you have a physical reaction to what you’re reading. And there’s a moment about halfway through this story that got my heart beating and all sorts of agitated (in the best way). You’ll just have to read it to figure out what it is.
Fatal Fried Rice
By Vivien Chien
St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 2021
Lana Lee may be a boss at managing her family’s Chinese restaurant in Cleveland’s Asia Village, but in the kitchen, it’s a different story. Beyond cooking rice, her Chinese culinary skills are nonexistent.
So to quiet her sister’s teasing, Lana signs up for Chinese cooking classes at a local community college. But because it’s Lana, it doesn’t take long for a dead body to show up. This time, it’s her cooking instructor, Margo Han. So once again, Lana is on the case—especially since she discovered Margo and is at the top of the suspect list.
As I’ve established in this column, I love a good series. And I love Chien’s Noodle House Mystery series. But one issue you can run into—especially in cozy mysteries—is the storylines can get a bit repetitive. And with this being the seventh book in this series, Lana and her best friend/roommate Megan have gotten pretty good at solving mysteries. So I appreciated the extra challenge Chien added this time of Lana having no connection to the victim, and no one in her immediate community having a connection to Margo either.
Another thing I love about this series is seeing the characters we love and watching their growth and development with each new installment. My favorite character in this series is Lana’s other best friend, Kimmy Tran. Like Megan, she is ride or die when it comes to being there for Lana (as I’ve said before, we all need a Kimmy in our lives) and I loved that Kimmy received more page time in “Fried Rice.” Juxtaposing Lana’s more cautious personality with Kimmy’s punch-first-ask-questions-later approach definitely has a comedic effect. But this contrast also serves to show readers that not all Asians—specifically, Asian women—are the same. Which, given everything that’s happening in the real world, is apparently something we still need to teach people.
The Dragon Warrior
By Katie Zhao
Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2019
Twelve-year-old Faryn Liu wants nothing more than to become a warrior in the Jade Society and honor her family and the gods. But ever since her father disappeared years ago, she and her brother Alex have been shunned and forced to train in secret.
This seems to be the Liu siblings’ fate, but while out on an errand in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Faryn comes across a demon. She battles it and actually helps to defeat it. And that changes everything because it soon comes out that she might be the Heaven Breaker—a powerful warrior meant to serve the all-mighty deity, the Jade Emperor, with an army of dragons at their command. But first, she has to find the island of immortals and prove herself before the Lunar New Year.
So with Alex and a few other allies, Faryn sets off on a quest that takes them to Chinatowns all over the country. The closer they get to the island, the more Faryn realizes that something’s going on among the deities and things aren’t as straightforward as they thought.
One of the themes throughout “Dragon Warrior” is Faryn’s and Alex’s feeling like they’re outsiders and outcasts in their community. Part of this is due to their father’s disappearance, but another part is because they’re “only” half Chinese. For many of us, this feeling of otherness is so relatable. And while people within the Jade Society might look down on Faryn’s and Alex’s mixed backgrounds (they’re Egyptian, Greek, and Turkish on their mother’s side), there are moments in which other characters think their heritages is a good thing—which is a great message for readers of all ages.
Samantha can be reached at email@example.com.