By Samantha Pak
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
By Katherine Min
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2024
After her mom dies, 23-year-old Kyoko has one thing on her mind: revenge. The target of her revenge is Daniel, the man who seduced her mother and callously dropped her, which led to her death. And when she finally has him in her sights, Kyoko kidnaps Daniel, with the intention of killing him. Except nothing goes as planned.
Meanwhile, Daniel, a violinist with a case of yellow fever (and fetishist in question), is forced to confront his philandering past—particularly Alma, the love of his life who has fallen ill and is on her deathbed.
Told from multiple perspectives—mostly Kyoko, Daniel, and Alma, with a few other characters thrown in the mix—“The Fetishist” is a story of grief, reflection, love, and regret. We see everyone experience some version of these emotions and how everyone responds to them differently. Because there is no one way to respond. And admittedly, not all of their responses are great—or legal, for that matter.
Kyoko, in particular, shows readers how grief can make us do out-of-character things. Hellbent on avenging her mother, she doesn’t think (or care) about the repercussions of her actions. True, kidnapping and murder may be on the extreme end of a grief response, but we see Kyoko’s humanity and how much she’s hurting—something many people can relate to.
In addition, by including Daniel’s point of view, Min humanizes a character who—as an Asian American woman—I would’ve just thought of as a creep. And while he still is that, she does a great job of creating a character readers will at least understand better and empathize with.
Despite its darker themes, “The Fetishist” also contains lighter moments and humor. Min gives us characters who are complex and flawed, who like most of us, are just trying to get by and deal with the life we’ve been dealt.
The Spirit Glass
By Roshani Chokshi
Rick Riordan Presents, 2023
On the verge of turning 12, Corazon Lopez wants nothing more than to start training as a babaylan (a mystical healer and spirit guide), so she can finally use her powers to bring her parents back from the dead. Because seeing them a few hours every Saturday night is not enough.
But when a vengeful ghost steals Corazon’s soul key, which allows her parents to visit every week, the balance between the human world and spirit world is thrown off and now she’s got to fix things. Not only that, Corazon’s guardian, her Aunt Tina, tells her if Corazon wants her magic to awaken, she has to lay the ghost to rest by fashioning a new soul key.
So with her bloodthirsty gecko Saso (whose bark is way worse than his bite) by her side, as well as a bespectacled ghost named Leo, who she meets along the way, Corazon sets off on her quest to save both worlds.
If you’re a regular reader of this column, you know how much of a fan I am of Chokshi’s work. And “The Spirit Glass” is no different—this time, paying tribute to her Filipino heritage. Inspired by Filipino mythology and folklore, she introduces us to a new magic system, which includes a bartering system based on fairness. Chokshi also includes a bit of Philippine colonial history, which will have readers of all ages curious to learn more about the impact guys like Ferdinand Magellan had on the country.
As fun and humorous as Corazon’s quest is (Saso is particularly hilarious), this is also a story of grief as Corazon has been in a holding pattern since her parents’ death, centering her life around their weekly visits. Chokshi doesn’t shy away from this theme, but keeps it age appropriate for middle grade readers. This story will have readers of all ages (at least this reader) feeling all their feelings, right alongside Corazon.
Opium and Absinthe
By Lydia Kang
Lake Union Publishing, 2020
The year is 1899 in New York City and Tillie Pembroke has just broken her collarbone in an equestrian accident. Then just days later, her sister Lucy’s body is found, drained of blood with puncture wounds on her neck. This happens shortly after the release of Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula,” and Tillie can’t help but draw similarities between Lucy’s murder and a vampire’s victims. But vampires aren’t real, right?
But as Tillie reads and researches to try and solve her sister’s murder (and the additional vampiric slayings that soon come to light), it becomes more and more difficult because since her accident, she’s been taking more and more laudanum—first to ease the physical pain, but once she realizes it also dulls the pain from losing her sister, she quickly becomes addicted. And in her now-constant mental fog, she doesn’t realize that there are those close to her who are more than willing to keep her that way.
Tillie is an imperfect character and, at times, was frustrating to read. But only because she’s so sharp and intelligent, and seeing her descend into addiction will make readers want to yell at her to just stop. But this also reflects what addiction can do to anyone in real life.
“Opium and Absinthe” is a historical whodunnit that will have readers racing alongside Tillie to figure out who’s behind the murders, as well as questioning whether this is a supernatural mystery. Filled with twists and turns, readers will be guessing until the end.
Kang also does a great job of painting a picture of the way of life during this time. From Tillie’s more privileged circle, to the lives of the working class—including the newsboys and newsgirls (as well as the real-life strike they go on to demand better pay) she meets during her pursuit of justice—we get a glimpse of how people lived back then. I also appreciated the references to Nellie Bly, a pioneering female journalist from that time who became known for her investigative work, and Tillie’s heroine.