By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
Pahua and the Soul Stealer
By Lori M. Lee
Rick Riordan Presents, 2021
Pahua Moua is known for being weird. The 11-year-old Hmong American girl can see spirits—including a cat spirit named Miv—and spends her days babysitting her younger brother Matt.
When Pahua accidentally untethers an angry spirit from the haunted bridge in her neighborhood, Matt becomes sick as a result and can’t be awakened. Pahua is worried the bridge spirit has stolen his soul, but when she returns to the bridge in hopes of confronting the spirit, things go from bad to worse when she accidentally summons a demon.
As Pahua embarks on a quest to save Matt, she and Miv are joined by a warrior shaman with an attitude problem. While she may be focused on getting her brother’s soul back, Pahua also makes a few other discoveries along the way.
“Soul Stealer” is a fun and funny story about a young girl determined to help her brother in his time of need. One of the things I loved about Pahua is that she’s far from perfect and makes mistakes—she’s the reason Matt is even in trouble, after all—but she learns from them and does what she can to make things right. As a Hmong American, she is different from the other kids in her neighborhood. And her ability to see spirits makes her even more different, even among her own Hmong community. But what I appreciated was that these differences are a strength and what’s needed to save her brother.
In addition to the fantasy adventure, Lee introduces readers to elements of the Hmong culture that I, at least, hadn’t known about. From the idea of everything having a spirit (I particularly loved the mushroom spirits and the spirits around her family’s home), to folk tales and mythology, “Soul Stealer” had me wanting to learn more about the Hmong culture and I know I won’t be the only reader who feels that way.
Hot and Sour Suspects
By Vivien Chien
St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 2022
Lana Lee is mixing things up at Ho-Lee Noodle House by helping her best friend Megan Riley host a speed dating night at her family’s restaurant. Things go well, but before Lana and Megan can celebrate, Lana’s friend Rina Su—and fellow Asia Village shop owner—calls to tell her that her speed dating match has been killed. And since Rina was with the last person to see the man alive, she’s now the main suspect. Lana, being Lana, jumps in to help immediately.
As she digs into the case, Lana learns that Rina’s date had a rather sketchy past and there are more than a few people who have motives for wanting him dead.
“Hot and Sour Suspects” continues Lana’s adventures in amateur sleuthing. By now (her eighth case), she’s developed a reputation and everyone in her circle (and sometimes beyond) knows her pension for helping (snooping and butting in, really). Some welcome her help, but Rina insists that Lana stay out of it. Of course, Lana doesn’’ listen. It’s this part of her character that makes Lana so admirable.
Rina’s an adult, but Lana feels a lot of responsibility toward her after her sister and brother-in-law were killed (book two in Chien’s series). Though at times, I admit to thinking she just needed to chill.
But her inflated sense of responsibility just shows that Lana’s not perfect—like the rest of us.
With this eighth installment of her Noodle Shop Mystery series, Chien has established not only Lana as a character, but the people around her. From seeing Lana’s two best friends, Megan and Kimmy Tran (forever my favorite character in the series) starting to get along, to getting a closer look at what’s really going on with Lana’s sister Anna May, it’s been fun to see Lana’s community grow and develop around her as well. I look forward to seeing more of them in future installments (and am crossing my fingers for a more Kimmy-centric story).
By John Cho, with Sarah Suk
Little, Brown Books, 2022
At 12, Jordan Park already feels like he can’t live up to his parents’ expectations. When he comes home from school after being suspended for cheating, he knows he’ll become even more of a disappointment. But in the wake of police officers being acquitted after beating Black man Rodney King, and Black teen Latasha Harlins being shot and killed by a Korean store owner, Los Angeles has become a place of unrest.
Jordan’s father leaves the house to board up and protect their liquor store. As the news shows increasing violence in the city, Jordan worries for his father’s safety and that his last memory will be of their Big Fight. So Jordan resolves himself to bring his father his gun.
Set against the first night of the 1992 LA riots, “Troublemaker” follows a young boy on a mission to protect his father. Along the way, Jordan learns more about this country’s racist past and present—how his Korean American community has benefited from it at the expense of Black people, as well as racism perpetuated by his community. It’s an intense journey, filled with near misses and revelations about what it means to be human.
For a middle-grade story, “Troublemaker” contains some very heavy content—from the riots, to racism, to guns. I didn’t have a problem with the former two—with the internet and social media, young people’s access to news and information is greater than it ever has been, and Cho keeps things age appropriate. Also, youth doesn’t always shield you from racism, as many BIPOC folks of all ages can tell you. The latter, however, did make me pause. But Jordan feels the weight (and not just physically) of the weapon he’s carrying around in his backpack. Like many pre-teens, Jordan is impulsive and doesn’t always think things through, so even though he is always careful and aware of his father’s firearm, the true gravity of the situation occurs to him gradually, and I think Cho handled the topic with great care.
Samantha can be reached at email@example.com.