By Samantha Pak
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Another year has gone by and with that, here’s another year of great reads. Here are my top 10 favorite AAPI books from the last 365 days—in no particular order.
The power of love—in all of its forms
By Roselle Lim
After three years of training in Shanghai, Sophie Go has visions of returning to her hometown of Toronto to work as a matchmaker. But when word gets out that she never actually graduated, she has a hard time landing clients. Who wants to trust their love life to an inexperienced, unaccredited matchmaker?
Enter the Old Ducks, a group of seven elderly Chinese bachelors living in Sophie’s condo building, and the key to her success—but only if she’s able to find successful matches for all of them.
“Lonely Hearts Club” is a sweet and heartfelt story about loneliness and the power of love, in all of its forms. While tradition states that love isn’t in the cards for matchmakers, Sophie is surrounded by it. From her best friend Yanmei to the Old Ducks, we see that there is more than just romantic love (though there is that possibility for Sophie)—something we can all do well to remember.
The definition of ‘cozy romantasy’
By Sangu Mandanna
Mika Moon may live in a dangerous world for witches, but that doesn’t stop her from posting YouTube videos of herself “doing” magic. Her videos lead to a request from Nowhere House to teach three young witches how to control their magic. Once she arrives, she meets her three charges as well as the other inhabitants, including Jamie Kelly, librarian and resident grump.
Of course when you juxtapose Mika’s cheery disposition with Jamie’s curmudgeonly attitude, the only possible result is love.
In addition to the romance, this is a story about found family and finding your tribe as Mika has been through some tough times. It’s great to see her find a family at Nowhere House and create connections—something she has wanted all her life. You can’t help but fall in love with all the different characters.
There’s a new auntie in town and I’m here for her
By Jesse Q. Sutanto
Meet Vera Wong, a lady of a certain age, living alone above her tea shop in San Francisco’s Chinatown. While she may be lonely, Vera is not needy and can take care of herself. So when she finds a dead man in her shop one morning, she takes it upon herself to investigate.
Not long after, Vera suddenly finds her shop filled with new customers and she knows the killer is among them. But as she digs into their lives, Vera begins to care for all of them. What will happen when she finds out who the murderer is?
As in her “Aunties” series, Sutanto knows how to write about older Asian women and here, she shines. Vera is an unstoppable force to be reckoned with and readers will have no doubt in their minds that she will (eventually) find the killer—and hope we can be like her when we grow up.
Back to the Future, but make it Asian
By Maurene Goo
Zando Young Readers, 2023
Sam, a second-generation Korean American Gen-Zer, doesn’t always get along with her Gen X mother, Priscilla. She may not know what she wants for herself, but Sam does know she doesn’t want what Priscilla wants.
After a huge argument, Sam finds herself thrown back in time to 1995, right alongside a 17-year-old Priscilla. Now Sam’s got to figure out why she’s there and how to get back home. Needless to say, hilarity and life lessons ensue.
Filled with 1990s Easter eggs, cultural references, and fashion (not to mention the lack of technology), “Throwback” is a hilarious fish-out-of-water story, but Goo balances it with more emotional moments. It’s now my favorite of her novels (usurping “The Way You Make Me Feel”). For anyone who’s ever felt the adults in their life don’t understand them (so most of us), this book is for you.
Probably the messiest Asians I’ve ever read
By Carolyn Huynh
Atria Books, 2022
Everyone in Orange County’s Little Saigon knows the Duong sisters are cursed. Going back generations, the women of this family have been cursed to never find love or happiness and only give birth to daughters—all because their ancestor Oanh left her marriage for true love.
But then Mai Nguyen visits a psychic who predicts the family will witness a marriage, a funeral, and (finally) the birth of a son, and thus begins reunions among mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts, and cousins.
“Jaded Women” is the story of a family in need of some serious healing—from the curse or otherwise. Huynh does a great job of balancing the trauma and drama with hilarity and chaos. The Duong women are messy (emotionally and literally, as they all tend to throw fruit during arguments), but that’s what makes them relatable. Their antics are so entertaining that as a Cambodian American woman, I’m willing to overlook the fact that one of Oanh’s biggest “offenses” was falling for a Cambodian man.
The origin story I didn’t know I needed
Written by Sarah Kuhn, illustrated by Arielle Jovellanos
DC Comics, 2023
Small town girl Lois Lane has big dreams of becoming a hard-hitting journalist at “The Daily Planet” in Metropolis. But before that can happen, she’s got to spend her summer as an intern at a website in National City. But once she arrives, Lois’ life is derailed as she finds herself living with her best frenemy, and the internship has become nothing more than fetching coffee for her boss.
Then she discovers a potentially explosive scandal and against her boss’ wishes, she self-publishes the story on the website she and her friends have created for young people.
Most people know Superman/Clark Kent’s origin story but who was Lois Lane before she met the Man of Steel? Kuhn and Jovellanos give us a young, mixed-Japanese American woman with the Type A personality we associate with the character, but she’s also insecure and uncertain—like any young person figuring out themselves. I really appreciated seeing Lois in her early years and the possible events that shape her into the woman we all know.
A more realistic response to being a cozy detective
By Mia P. Manansala
From two eligible bachelors vying for her attention to a new cafe just about to open, there’s a lot going on in Lila Macapagal’s life. But she can’t seem to bring herself to move forward—not after the incident at her aunt’s Filipino restaurant just a few months ago.
And to top that off, Lila’s been asked to judge the newly revived Miss Teen Shady Palms Beauty Pageant. And when the head judge is murdered and Lila’s cousin (and rival) Bernadette becomes the main suspect, the two cousins are forced to put aside their differences to solve the case.
Although I read the first two installments of the Tita Rosie’s Kitchen mystery series, I picked this one, the second story, because we actually see the toll that solving a murder mystery has taken on Lila. This isn’t something we typically see in cozy mysteries and I appreciate Manansala grounding the story in some sense of reality and addressing mental health issues—something that needs to be discussed more in BIPOC communities.
A retelling that would make Shakespeare proud
By Chloe Gong
Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2020
In 1926, Shanghai is divided, with a blood feud between the Scarlet Gang and White Flowers, leaving the city in a state of constant violence and chaos. In the middle are Juliette Cai and Roma Montagov, the heirs to the Scarlet and White Flower thrones, respectively.
Then a strange illness takes over Shanghai that causes people to go mad and claw at their throats until they die—affecting gangsters on both sides, as well as everyday civilians. With their lives, as well as their city, at stake, Juliette and Roma have to work together to find a cure.
A retelling of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” “Violent Delights” has all the hallmarks of the star-crossed lovers’ story. In addition, Gong does a great job of balancing this with the bigger picture of what’s happening in Shanghai—not only in terms of the illness, but also the political landscape and how the latter might be affecting the former. Readers will be wanting to see the young lovers resolve their issues just as much as they want to find out who or what is behind the madness infecting the city.
When shenanigans turn (slightly) illegal
By Mai Nguyen
Atria Books, 2023
Things aren’t going great for the Trans. Sunshine Nails, their family owned, no-frills nail salon in Toronto is just getting by. And when a fancy new chain salon opens across the street, and their landlord jacks up their rent, things go from bad to worse. The Trans might just lose their business.
In hopes of surviving, parents Debbie and Phil, along with their children Jessica and Dustin, and niece Thuy, devise plans to drum up more business and bring in more money—to varying levels of success. Certain members of the family even resort to morally ambiguous (and in some cases, illegal) measures.
Told from different family members’ perspectives, “Sunshine Nails” gives readers a glimpse into the world of nail salons—from dealing with discrimination as an Asian-owned salon, to eavesdropping on clients’ conversations. This is a funny and sweet story about the lengths one family will go to save their livelihood, and by extension, themselves.
Where was this book when I was a kid?
By Vichet Chum
Quill Tree Books, 2023
Soma Kear’s life is a lot. Her dad’s been deported back to Cambodia and her mom’s also traveled there to help him adjust. Her sister Dahvy’s wedding is coming up and they don’t know if their parents are going to make it back to Lowell, Massachusetts in time. Then, a video Soma posts of herself performing slam poetry goes viral.
After becoming an internet sensation, Soma considers entering her school’s spoken word contest but isn’t sure she’s ready to be that vulnerable with the rest of the world.
Following a Cambodian American teen as she tries to figure out her life, “Kween” is a story I craved growing up. Soma experiences many of the things most teens do, as well as a few that are specifically Cambodian. I related to Soma in many ways—both as a former teenage girl as well as a fellow Cambodian American. I’m so happy this book exists, not just for my younger self, but also for the young Khmer kids looking for representation on the shelves.