By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
Another year has passed and while 2021 was definitely better than 2020, it was only slightly so. But we made it! And one more year in the rearview mirror means a lot more books taken off my to-read list (and possibly added to yours). If you’re having a hard time narrowing things down on what to read next, don’t worry. I’ve done the work for you. Here are my top 10 favorite reads from 2021.
Read this book—just not when you’re hungry
A Phở Love Story
By Loan Le
Simon & Schuster, 2021
Bảo Nguyễn and Linh Mai are both Vietnamese American teens whose families own phở restaurants, but they’re not friends. Those restaurants are located across the street from each other and the families have been at odds with each other for as long as anyone can remember. A chance encounter brings Bảo and Linh together and before they know what’s happening, they’ve become friends—and soon, more.
This is more than a sweet love story. It’s filled with family drama and a complicated shared history that goes even further back than Bảo and Linh realize—showing readers that trauma isn’t something you can leave behind in the old country.
“Phở Love Story” is also all about food, and not just phở. Le includes descriptions of a number of Vietnamese dishes—some I knew, some I didn’t—and you’ll be craving all of them. So while I highly recommend this book, I don’t recommend reading it on an empty stomach.
Not the same old story
Fatal Fried Rice
By Vivien Chien
St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 2021
I love a good cozy mystery series, but it’s easy for stories to get repetitive. In “Fatal Fried Rice,” Chien does a great job of breathing new life into her Noodle House Mystery series. This is the series’ seventh story and protagonist Lana Lee has become pretty good at solving murders. This time around, things are a bit harder because Lana has no connection to the murder victim, Margo Han.
It all starts when Lana, manager of her family’s Chinese restaurant, signs up for Chinese cooking classes (she may be a boss at running things, but her skills in the kitchen are lacking). After the first class, Margo ends up being killed and Lana is on the case.
One of my favorite aspects of a series is seeing characters we love grow and develop. I was particularly happy to see my personal favorite character, one of Lana’s ride-or-die best friends, Kimmy Tran, get more page time. Pairing Lana’s more cautious personality with Kimmy’s punch-first-ask-questions-later approach was definitely funny, but the contrast also shows readers that not all Asians—specifically Asian women—are the same.
A story that’s grown up with its readers
Aru Shah and the City of Gold
By Roshani Chokshi
Rick Riordan Presents, 2021
Aru Shah and her fellow Potatoes are back and it appears Aru has acquired a new sister. Not a soul sister, an actual sister, who claims to be the Sleeper’s daughter, like Aru. But after being missing for several months, Aru has to figure out what’s really going on before war breaks out between the devas and asuras.
In the penultimate installment of Chokshi’s Pandava series, the Potatoes’ quest to save the world from the Sleeper continues. But even though they’re still determined to fight, the teens are starting to really think about who they should be fighting for. I appreciated seeing this in Aru and her friends. Like all young people their age (14-15), they’re figuring out what’s truly important to them.
I may be a couple decades older than the target audience for this series, but I still love it and especially love that Chokshi’s characters are growing up alongside her readers. They’re going through the same experiences their real-world counterparts are—from experiencing romantic feelings for others, to questioning the authority figures in their lives—grounding them in reality while they continue on their fantastical adventure.
If she’s written something, it’ll be on this list
From Little Tokyo, with Love
By Sarah Kuhn
Viking Books for Young Readers, 2021
Longtime readers of this column probably won’t be surprised to see Kuhn on this list. Let’s face it, if she’s written something, it’s likely going to end up on my top reads list. In this case, it’s her reimagined Cinderella story, featuring a biracial protagonist who doesn’t have evil relatives, doesn’t need saving, and doesn’t believe in happy endings for herself.
High schooler Rika Rakuyama grew up as an orphan, raised by her aunts. But a chance encounter with actress Grace Kimura during the Nikkei Week Festival has the teen embarking on a quest to find the truth: Is the queen of Asian American rom-coms her mother? She’s joined on her quest by actor Hank Chen, one of Grace’s recent co-stars.
In addition to the aforementioned departures from the classic fairy tale, one thing I really loved about this story was just how angry and short-tempered our “princess” is. Racism and sexism has led to very narrow views of how society thinks Asian females should act, so to see Rika really get mad, stand up for herself and others, and have those feelings validated was a beautiful thing.
Representation in a genre that’s been long overdue
The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea
By Maggie Tokuda-Hall
Candlewick Press, 2020
Mermaids, witches, and magic are pretty commonplace in fantasy stories. What hasn’t always been in these tales—but is fortunately changing—are main characters who are not straight and/or white. Enter Tokuda-Hall, with her swashbuckling adventure filled with diverse characters of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, with a range of sexual orientations and gender identities.
In “Mermaid,” orphan-turned-pirate Flora/Florian meets highborn Lady Evelyn Hasegawa while sailing the high seas. As the two become close and fall in love, the former begins to consider her past misdeeds—most of which she carried out to survive—especially with their ship’s captain and crew preparing to enslave their rich passengers. Soon the pair, who have lived by the rules and whims of others, have taken their fates in their own hands to carve a path for themselves.
I grew up on fantasy stories, but as a young girl, I longed to see stories featuring kids who looked more like me. It shouldn’t be just the white kids who got to have these adventures. “Mermaid” is the kind of story my younger self would’ve devoured and I’m looking forward to coming back to this universe.
A story that will make you think
Zara Hossain is Here
By Sabina Khan
Scholastic Fiction, 2021
Immigration has been a hot conversation topic in recent years and in “Zara Hossain,” it’s front and center. Our title character is a 17-year-old girl in Texas. In addition to living the typical teenage life, she and her Pakistani immigrant family are awaiting their green card approval. This is easier said than done, especially when Zara and her family are on the receiving end of racist and Islamophobic attacks that end in a violent crime, putting everything in jeopardy.
As Zara and her family navigate their options to stay in the country, we get a glimpse into how complicated the United States’ immigration system is. Even for those who do it “right,” it’s a long and tedious process and their status can change with the slightest misstep. The Hossain family’s story is an eye opener for anyone who has taken their U.S. citizenship for granted.
I also appreciated how close Zara and her parents are. There’s not the usual combative relationship we often see in stories featuring children of immigrants or young people who are also immigrants. Zara’s parents are understanding and accepting, especially when it comes to her bisexuality. This representation shows not all immigrant parents are the same.
A crazy, chaotic story that will crack you up
Dial A for Aunties
By Jesse Q. Sutanto
When Meddelin Chan’s meddlesome mother sets her up on a blind date, she doesn’t have many expectations. But something she definitely doesn’t expect is to accidentally kill the guy. And when that happens, Meddy doesn’t call the police. She turns to said meddlesome mother, who recruits Meddy’s three even more meddlesome aunties to help them get rid of the body. All of this happens just as the five of them are working a billionaire wedding. Throw in a supposed family curse and Meddy’s great college love, and what you get is a comedy of errors.
The thing about “Dial A” is that you’ve got to throw out logic (because Meddy’s Indonesian-Chinese family is anything but logical) and lean into the chaos and crazy. Once you do that, you’ll really be able to enjoy the story in all of its ridiculous glory.
From Meddy’s aunties competing over the best dead-body-disposing method, to their constant bickering, this is a story filled with laughs. Sutanto really nails the family dynamics, showing readers that just because these women are the definition of ride or die, it doesn’t mean they’re going to get along all the time.
A story about being ok with being different
More Than Just a Pretty Face
By Syed M. Masood
Little, Brown Books, 2020
When Danyal Jilani is selected for his school’s Renaissance Man competition, it’s his chance to prove to everyone he’s smarter than they think. It’s not going to be easy.
Sure, he’s funny and gorgeous (his words), and on his way to becoming a great chef. But academics is not his strong suit. But if he wants to show his longtime crush—and her family—that he’s the ideal arranged marriage prospect, he’s got to step up.
“Pretty Face” is about defying expectations. Danyal is the furthest thing away from your stereotypical model minority. He’s happy coasting and being just mediocre enough to get by.
The story also defies expectations in that Danyal doesn’t object to the idea of an arranged marriage. The Pakistani American teen doesn’t reject this aspect of his culture. He accepts it and tries to figure out how to make it work. I appreciated this acceptance, showing readers that different customs and practices are no better or worse than the “norm.” They’re just different.
The story that made me feel seen
By Anthony Veasna So
When it comes to the AAPI characters in the stories I read for this column, I can often relate to them in a broader sense. Rarely have I felt like what I’ve read were experiences pulled straight from my life. “Afterparties” was one of the first times I truly felt this, specifically as a Cambodian American.
This collection of short stories takes place within the Khmer community in an unnamed California city. So gives readers an intimate glimpse into a group we’ve rarely seen on the page: Cambodian Americans, specifically those whose lives go beyond the Khmer Rouge. So shows there’s more to the community than surviving a genocide. His characters are messy and flawed and one thing I especially appreciated was how none of them never wanted to be anything but Khmer.
It’s all in the details and Khmer readers will definitely recognize things that are very specific to our community. Whether it’s insisting Chinese is different from Chinese Cambodian (because it is), Hennessy being the liquor of choice or enjoying beef sticks at every Cambodian gathering, I have never felt so seen in literature and know I won’t be the only one.
A love story beyond romance
Donut Fall in Love
By Jackie Lau
Things are not great for actor Ryan Kwok. His new romantic comedy is getting mixed reviews. His family is still grieving the death of his mother and Ryan doesn’t know how to help anyone. Then he meets Lindsay McLeod, by knocking over two dozen specialty donuts at her bakery. Needless to say, she’s not happy, but there’s a definite attraction between them. So when Ryan signs up to do a celebrity baking show, he asks Lindsay to help him and she reluctantly agrees.
“Donut” is more than a rom-com. Sure, it’s fun to watch Ryan and Lindsay experience the ups and downs of a new relationship. But we also see them connect on a deeper level as they bond over their grief of losing a parent (Lindsay lost her father seven years earlier, but the pain is still there).
Lau also does a great job of rounding out the rest of their lives. Fom Ryan trying to fill the void his mother left in the family, to Lindsay trying to make new connections—and not just romantically—in her life (something she hasn’t done since her father’s death), I appreciated these sides of the characters because they remind the reader how complicated life is and that romantic love isn’t the only kind of love.
Samantha can be reached at email@example.com.