By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
The end of a year often leads us to reflect on the past 12 months. For me, this means thinking back on all the books I’ve read. Here are the top 10 AAPI books I read in 2022.
There’s no ranking, but this was definitely my favorite
I read a lot—for this column, and for other reasons—and there are few characters that stick with me as much as 18-year-old Zetian has. I love her and her audacity to speak her mind and question everything in such an overtly patriarchal society. I especially love her anger and rage—some of the other characters may
see her as unhinged, but it’s my absolute favorite thing about her. Her give-no-effs attitude is the stuff of dreams for any woman who’s ever been made to feel less than because of her gender.
“Iron Widow” follows Zetian as she joins the army in Huaxia—not to serve, but to assassinate the male pilot who killed her sister. When revenge happens faster than expected, she’s labeled an Iron Widow, which she uses to her advantage to figure out why the pilot system is so misogynistic and to stop more girls from being sacrificed.
I couldn’t have asked for a better conclusion
While I read the final two books of Kuhn’s Heroine Complex series this past year, I picked “Holiday” for this list because it was a very satisfying conclusion to one of my favorite series. This final installment follows Bea Tanaka as she hosts her family in Maui during the holidays. As usual for Team Tanaka/Jupiter, otherworldly entities interrupt the gang’s time together and Bea is somehow transported back to San Francisco. So she has to find her way back to Maui, fight the demons, and try to have a Merry Christmas.I’ve loved seeing the characters’ growth and how far they’ve come throughout the series—going from the very definition of dysfunctional, to healing themselves and their relationships with each other. Kuhn does a great job of showing readers how we are all works in progress—even those with superpowers. I particularly related to Bea as a fellow younger sibling and her woes of having a more “successful” older sibling, and faking it to prove we’re doing great.
Preteens can be so dramatic, but they’re not all bad
I may no longer be a preteen, but I still remember that time—all the big feelings and how every little thing was actually a big deal. Barba Higuera does a great job of capturing this with Lupe Wong, a 12-year-old whose goals include becoming the first female pitcher in Major League Baseball and meeting her favorite pitcher, Fu Li Hernandez, a fellow Chinacan/Mexinese (Chinese and Mexican American)—which she can if she gets straight As on her next report card.
Things are looking good and Lupe is on her way to meeting Fu Li. Then she has to learn how to square dance in physical education. A champion of causes and never afraid to speak her mind, Lupe tries to find a way to stop this horror of all horrors. As expected, hilarity ensues—but also growth as Lupe’s campaign against square dancing goes from selfish to more thoughtful and compassionate.
Youth doesn’t shield us from the ‘bad stuff’
It’s the first night of the 1992 L.A. riots, after police officers were acquitted in the beating of Black man Rodney King, and Black teen Latasha Harlins was and killed by a Korean store owner.
12-year-old Jordan Park finds himself smack dab in the middle of it all as he braves the city to get to his dad, who has gone to a liquor store. As racial tensions rise, Jordan worries his dad is unprotected, so Jordan resolves himself to bring his father his gun.
When it comes to children, there’s always a question of how much we should shield them from the bad stuff. Cho does a great job of acknowledging the fact that many kids are quite aware of it—and many BIPOC young people experience it firsthand. Racism, riots, and guns are pretty heavy topics for a middle-grade story, but he does a great job of handling them all with care and age appropriately.
The aunties are back and chaotic as ever
It’s hard for a sequel to top its predecessor, but Sutanto does it here in her followup to “Dial A for Aunties.” Meddy Chan and her family are back and just as chaotic as ever as they have another wedding in their future. But instead of working it, it’s Meddy’s nuptials to her college sweetheart, Nathan, that they’re preparing for and they’ve hired another Chinese-Indonesian family business to run the wedding.
Things seem to be going well until Meddy overhears the wedding photographer, Staphanie, talking about taking out a target and realizes her vendors are actual mafia—and Meddy’s wedding is a cover for them to do business. And just like last time, enter Meddy’s mom and aunties, exit logic and common sense. As a reader, once you accept this, then you’ll have a great time with the hilarity that follows when five women try to take on the mafia, stop a murder, and get through a wedding with minimal disruption.
The book that makes me glad to be single
Meet Claudia Lin: lifelong mystery reader and Jane Austen fan (who will judge you on your reading choices), verifier for the online-dating detective agency Veracity, and family disappointment. She’s also keeping a few things from her family—like the true nature of her job, as well as the fact that she has no desire to meet a nice Chinese boy. In fact, she actually prefers girls.
When a client—who seems to have an agenda beyond figuring out her online matches’ lies—disappears and ends up dying under sketchy circumstances, Claudia breaks protocol and investigates. She uncovers a web of lies and deceit from the personal to corporate level. Pek’s attention to detail about technology and how corporations use the information we so freely provide them will have you thinking twice about all of your online activity. Honestly, it made me grateful to be single.
Once and for all: Don’t underestimate young people
In this final installment of the Pandavas quintet, Aru Shah and the Potatoes are back and ready to stop—once and for all—the Sleeper’s quest for immortality and infinite power. They’ve got about two weeks, but after losing their celestial weapons, Aru, Mini, and Brynne are at a loss as to how to defeat the Sleeper and they’re running low on hope.
Nevertheless, the Potatoes persist and persevere—and along the way, they call on old friends and new allies to help them on their quest. Regular readers of this column will know I’ve been a longtime fan of Aru and the gang. So it’s bittersweet to see it all come to an end. But Chokshi brings everything to a satisfying end, showing again that we shouldn’t underestimate young people just because of their age. If we just believe in them and have faith, they have the potential to do great things.
A cross cultural fairy tale
Shiori’anma, the only princess in Kiata, has a secret. In a kingdom where magic is forbidden, she has it running through her veins. And on the morning of her betrothal ceremony—during which she’s set to meet her future husband-to-be—she loses control and can’t keep it concealed. This stops the wedding, but also catches the eye of her stepmother, Raikama—a sorceress herself, who banishes Shiori to a far corner of the kingdom and turns her six brothers into cranes.
I always appreciate new and different takes on classic stories and here, Lim does a great job of combining elements from Western fairy tales and East Asian folklore. In particular, I loved how she played with some of the archetypes many of us are familiar with—from the evil stepmother, to the young woman relegated to a lower social position, to the prince searching for his missing princess—in unexpected ways.
When familial duty goes too far
Jessamyn Teoh’s life isn’t great. Closeted, broke, and unemployed, she’s moving back to Malaysia with her parents. She also starts hearing the voice of her estranged grandmother in her head—and things just continue to go downhill. Then Jess learns her Ah Ma was a spirit medium for a deity called the Black Water Sister and Ah Ma is determined to settle a score against a business magnate who offended the god—and Jess has been recruited (against her will) to help.
“Black Water Sister” is a story filled with gods, ghosts, and family secrets, and I enjoyed seeing how Jess figures out how to deal with all of it—as well as a vengeful grandmother who likes to spy on Jess’ personal life and use her body to commit felonies.
Take away the supernatural elements, and you get a story about three generations of women learning how to speak to each other—something many of us can relate to because mother-daughter relationships are always complicated.
You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but this one lives up to it
The first thing that attracted me to this story was the book’s cover. It’s beautiful and I’m happy to say that the story lives up to this. Xingyin is the daughter of the moon goddess, Chang’e. Having grown up in solitude, Xingyin is unaware that she’s actually being hidden from the Celestial Emperor, who exiled her mother for (allegedly) stealing his immortality elixir. So when Xingyin’s magic flares up and her existence is discovered, she’s forced to flee, leaving her mother behind and setting out on a quest to free her.
Weaving Chinese mythology with romance and adventure, “Daughter” is a beautiful story of a resourceful woman, whose love for her mother is palpable as she does what she can to free her mother from exile. It’s an interesting dynamic and a nice change of pace because we read so many stories where the roles are reversed in parent-child relationships.
Samantha can be reached at email@example.com.