By Samantha Pak
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
By Maurene Goo
Zando Young Readers, 2023
Meet Sam: A second-generation Korean American Gen Z-er. Now meet Priscilla: Sam’s Gen X mother. The two don’t always get along. As a former high school cheerleader, Priscilla expects Sam to be like her—all about that school spirit, with all-American ambitions. Sam is still figuring herself out, but she does know this is the last thing she wants to be.
After a huge argument, Sam wants nothing more than to get away from her mom. Instead, she’s thrown back in time to 1995, alongside a 17-year-old Priscilla. Now Sam needs to figure out why she’s there and how to get herself back to the present.
Unsurprisingly, hilarity and life lessons ensue.
As someone who was alive during the 1990s, I loved all the Easter eggs, cultural references, and fashion Goo included from that era. It was amusing to see Sam try and figure out the technology (or lack thereof) of the time—the microfiche scene was especially funny.
But as funny as the fish-out-of-water moments are, Goo balances them out with the emotional connections between characters. This book is for anyone who has ever felt growing up that the adults in their lives don’t understand them (so most of us).
“Throwback” has usurped my previous favorite of Goo’s novels, “The Way You Make Me Feel,” and I loved seeing Sam grow to understand her mom. Not only does she learn what her mom was like when she was her age, but she also sees what Priscilla dealt with as an Asian American during a time when casual racism and other microaggressions were an everyday occurrence.
For those of us who were alive in 1995, it may not seem like long ago, but it was 28 years ago. Goo does a great job of highlighting some of those cultural differences whenever Sam stands up for herself and others, to the shock and confusion of nearly everyone around her. I loved these moments because it shows that just because things were done or said during “a different time,” it doesn’t mean they were right or OK.
The Fortunes of Jaded Women
By Carolyn Huynh
Atria Books, 2022
The Duong sisters are cursed—everyone in Orange County’s Little Saigon knows this. It all started when their ancestor, Oanh, was brave enough to leave her marriage for true love (with a Cambodian man, no less!) and a Vietnamese witch cursed her and her descendants. They would never find love or happiness and the Duong women would only give birth to daughters, never sons. (As a Cambodian American woman, should I be doubly offended by the cause and result of the curse?)
Oanh’s current descendant Mai Nguyen is well aware of the curse. She’s divorced and estranged from her younger sisters, Minh Pham (the middle and mediator) and Khuyen Lam (the youngest, who runs coffee shops and nail salons, not Little Saigon’s underground). And things aren’t much better with her adult daughters Priscilla, Thuy, and Thao—they may be successful in their professional lives, but their love lives are another thing. When Mai consults Auntie Hua, a psychic in Hawaii, she receives an unexpected prediction: this year, the family will witness a marriage, a funeral, and the birth of a son. And thus begins reunions among mothers, daughters, aunts, cousins, and sisters.
Told from multiple perspectives, “Jaded Women” is the story of a family in need of some serious healing—and not just from the curse. Everyone has issues with someone, and with so many people estranged from each other, it’s no surprise that when they come back together, drama, chaos, and hilarity ensues. I really appreciated how Huynh balances out the trauma with levity. The women have been through a lot, but they have all found ways to survive, and with the curse possibly lifting, some are even starting to thrive. And even though it may be years since some of them have spoken (a decade, in some cases), it’s clear they still love each other—and with the mothers, that they only want the best for their daughters.
And while it was a little difficult at first to keep track of everyone, Huynh does a great job of differentiating the characters with their own personalities and issues (so many issues!). These women are complicated, complex, imperfect, and messy—just like women in real life.
A Magic Steeped in Poison
By Judy I. Lin
Feiwel & Friends, 2022
Losing your mother is hard enough under any circumstance, but for Ning, the grief has been made worse knowing it was her fault—that she was the one who unknowingly brewed the poison tea that took her mother’s life and now threatens her sister Shu’s life.
When she hears about a competition to find the kingdom’s greatest shennong-shi—masters of the ancient and magical art form of tea making—Ning travels to the imperial city to take part in the contest. The winner will receive a favor from the princess and Ning plans to use it to save Shu’s life—it may be her only chance to do so.
But once she arrives, Ning quickly learns that winning the competition is the last of her worries. Between backstabbing competitors, bloody court politics, and a mysterious (and cute because, of course) boy with a secret, she might actually be the one in danger.
“A Magic Steeped in Poison” is a story about grief as Ning is still coping with the death of her mother, who has taught her all she knows about tea making. While the competition and being in the city take over her life, Ning never forgets why she’s there and we see this as so many things remind Ning of her mother and their time together. Lin does a great job with balancing Ning’s grief with her mission of trying to save her sister.
In addition, Lin has created a rich universe, with an interesting magical system—which, lover of fantasy that I am, had not seen before. From creating confidence, to revealing secrets, I really enjoyed how she has created a world in which tea can do so many things. As a big tea drinker, I love the idea that what I drink could have such an impact on everyday life.