stuff I read

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

41880609Summary from Goodreads:
Poet Ocean Vuong’s debut novel is a shattering portrait of a family, a first love, and the redemptive power of storytelling.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read. Written when the speaker, Little Dog, is in his late twenties, the letter unearths a family’s history that began before he was born — a history whose epicenter is rooted in Vietnam — and serves as a doorway into parts of his life his mother has never known, all of it leading to an unforgettable revelation. At once a witness to the fraught yet undeniable love between a single mother and her son, it is also a brutally honest exploration of race, class, and masculinity. Asking questions central to our American moment, immersed as we are in addiction, violence, and trauma, but undergirded by compassion and tenderness, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is as much about the power of telling one’s own story as it is about the obliterating silence of not being heard.

With stunning urgency and grace, Ocean Vuong writes of people caught between disparate worlds, and asks how we heal and rescue one another without forsaking who we are. The question of how to survive, and how to make of it a kind of joy, powers the most important debut novel of many years.

Would you like to be slowly, tenderly, and exquisitely murdered by a novel? If yes, read On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. If no, read it anyway.

This debut novel is a beautiful extended letter from a son to a mother who may not ever choose or be able to read it. Little Dog’s narrative is damn near plotless but reveals very slowly, like attempting to peel off a Band-Aid, so many traumas and scars left by war, racism, homophobia, poverty, mental illness, and addiction. We get vignettes of Little Dog’s grandmother Lan raising a biracial child, of Little Dog witnessing his mother abused by his father, of Lan lost in a haze of PTSD and schizophrenia, of Little Dog’s mother working herself to the bone as a manicurist, and of Little Dog himself as he deals with racism from other children and homophobia from his first lover, a boy named Trevor who is also a victim of the growing opioid crisis.

If you liked Alexander Chee’s writing, particularly Edinburgh, you will love Vuong’s writing.

Dear FTC: I had to buy a copy of this book because I was savoring it too much to merely just read a digital galley.

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mini-review · sleuthing · stuff I read

Death by Dumpling by Vivien Chien (A Noodle Shop Mystery #1)

37535130Summary from Goodreads:
Welcome to the Ho-Lee Noodle House, where the Chinese food is to die for. . .

The last place Lana Lee thought she would ever end up is back at her family’s restaurant. But after a brutal break-up and a dramatic workplace walk-out, she figures that helping wait tables is her best option for putting her life back together. Even if that means having to put up with her mother, who is dead-set on finding her a husband.

Lana’s love life soon becomes yesterday’s news once the restaurant’s property manager, Mr. Feng, turns up dead—after a delivery of shrimp dumplings from Ho-Lee. But how could this have happened when everyone on staff knew about Mr. Feng’s severe, life-threatening shellfish allergy? Now, with the whole restaurant under suspicion for murder and the local media in a feeding frenzy—to say nothing of the gorgeous police detective who keeps turning up for take-out—it’s up to Lana to find out who is behind Feng’s killer order. . . before her own number is up.

I was building up a TBR of books to read on vacation and I was interested in a cozy mystery. Vivien Chen’s new series was recommended by a friend, so I picked up book 1 on my Nook.

Death by Dumpling is a sweet and funny cozy mystery set in a Chinese-American shopping center in central Ohio with a nosy protagonist (Lana Lee) who works at her family’s Chinese restaurant and inadvertently ends up delivering the murder weapon: shrimp dumplings (the victim had a known shellfish allergy, which the whole restaurant knew about, gasp!). There’s also a spunky roommate (this gal had grown up Harriet the Spy written all over her), a pushy mom, a lovable dad, way too many plausible suspects (I do love me a good Murder She Wrote or Midsomer Murders episode), and a cute pug named Kikko. And a cute, gruff detective who really wants Lana to mind her own business and tell him the truth. A little predictable and some of the characterizations were thin but a really fun read. I’ll probably check out book two to at least see where the relationship with the detective goes.

Dear FTC: I bought a copy of this book on my Nook.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang (The Kiss Quotient #1)

36577586._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
A heartwarming and refreshing debut novel that proves one thing: there’s not enough data in the world to predict what will make your heart tick.

Stella Lane thinks math is the only thing that unites the universe. She comes up with algorithms to predict customer purchases–a job that has given her more money than she knows what to do with, and way less experience in the dating department than the average thirty-year-old.

It doesn’t help that Stella has Asperger’s and French kissing reminds her of a shark getting its teeth cleaned by pilot fish. Her conclusion: she needs lots of practice–with a professional. Which is why she hires escort Michael Phan. The Vietnamese and Swedish stunner can’t afford to turn down Stella’s offer, and agrees to help her check off all the boxes on her lesson plan–from foreplay to more-than-missionary position…

Before long, Stella not only learns to appreciate his kisses, but crave all of the other things he’s making her feel. Their no-nonsense partnership starts making a strange kind of sense. And the pattern that emerges will convince Stella that love is the best kind of logic…

I started The Kiss Quotient last year right after it came out but managed to misplace the book. (Oh noes.) Well, I found it again and restarted it and finished today. Yay!

This was a fun read. Reverse Pretty Woman plot = yes! I particularly loved Michael’s interactions with his mom and sisters. Stella was an interesting character, I really liked how she decided to attack her “relationship problem” with logic, particularly since she also has to attack the problem of internalized ableism regarding her autism spectrum disorder. Disorder? Tendencies? It isn’t quite labeled in the book but it’s also pretty clear that Stella’s facility with numbers, her particular preference for how clothes feel, etc. that she is on the spectrum. The author has also been diagnosed with ASD as an adult so I think there are many parts of Stella that come from her experience.

(Tiny spoiler: Michael’s rotten dad NEVER shows up so if returning Prodigal parents are not a thing you like then you are spared.)

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book.

mini-review · Romantic Reads · stuff I read

Can’t Escape Love by Alyssa Cole (Reluctant Royals #2.6)

42117382Summary from Goodreads:
Regina Hobbs is nerdy by nature, businesswoman by nurture. She’s finally taking her pop culture-centered media enterprise, Girls with Glasses, to the next level, but the stress is forcing her to face a familiar supervillain: insomnia. The only thing that helps her sleep when things get this bad is the deep, soothing voice of puzzle-obsessed live streamer Gustave Nguyen. The problem? His archive has been deleted.

Gus has been tasked with creating an escape room themed around a romance anime…except he knows nothing about romance or anime. Then mega-nerd and anime expert Reggie comes calling, and they make a trade: his voice for her knowledge. But when their online friendship has IRL chemistry, will they be able to escape love?

Can’t Escape Love is a very cute “meanwhile” romance for Reggie that takes place during the denouement of her sister Portia’s story in A Duke by Default. We get to see the story from Reggie’s side, which is important given the history we’ve had from Portia. Definitely an important romance story to tell, about a nerdy WOC who uses a wheelchair (which is depicted on the cover!) and a Vietnamese neurodiverse man and it’s lovely and sweet but DAMN I wish it was a full-length novel instead of a novella. The short length really causes Instalust here (along with a bit of overload on the nerd cred information).

But everyone should pick this up – Can’t Escape Love is out today in ebook (mass market paperback coming April 30)! And don’t miss the last book in the series, A Prince on Paper, coming out April 30.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss – and I have a copy pre-ordered on my Nook.

Reading Diversely · stuff I read

All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir by Nicole Chung

untitledSummary from Goodreads:
What does it mean to lose your roots—within your culture, within your family—and what happens when you find them?

Nicole Chung was born severely premature, placed for adoption by her Korean parents, and raised by a white family in a sheltered Oregon town. From early childhood, she heard the story of her adoption as a comforting, prepackaged myth. She believed that her biological parents had made the ultimate sacrifice in the hopes of giving her a better life; that forever feeling slightly out of place was simply her fate as a transracial adoptee. But as she grew up—facing prejudice her adoptive family couldn’t see, finding her identity as an Asian American and a writer, becoming ever more curious about where she came from—she wondered if the story she’d been told was the whole truth.

With warmth, candor, and startling insight, Chung tells of her search for the people who gave her up, which coincided with the birth of her own child. All You Can Ever Know is a profound, moving chronicle of surprising connections and the repercussions of unearthing painful family secrets—vital reading for anyone who has ever struggled to figure out where they belong.

I’ve been following Nicole Chung’s work at The Toast (ah, The Toast, loved it) and other places for some time now. When her memoir deal was announced, I (rather) impatiently kept an eyeball on Catapult’s catalogs. When All You Can Ever Know was announced as a BN Discover Fall 2018 selection, I did a little wriggle. And I really savored the galley

Chung opens her memoir about life as an transracial adoptee by juxtaposing “the story of her adoption” with a meeting to talk to a couple in the process of adopting a child. Was she happy? (Well, yes, on the whole, but also it was incredibly lonely.) Was she OK as a Korean child adopted by white parents? (Again, yes, but there was no one else in her town who even looked like her and people can be cruel.) As the book moves forward, she writes about her birth family, her adoptive parents, her birth, and growing up in a small town in Oregon. She experiences overt and covert racism from both children and adults. Her decision to begin searching for her birth family was not an easy one and, to my surprise, weirdly very hard to accomplish (there was an intermediary, which kind of blows my mind). The “story of her adoption” develops layers upon layers as Chung meets each member of her biological family.

This is a beautiful memoir. What I found most poignant was Chung’s writing about learning to be a Korean-American as an adult. What makes one Korean? Knowing the language? The food? The traditions? One’s family? These sections reminded me very much of Tommy Orange’s debut novel, There There, which delves into questions of what connects a person to their Native roots. The questions become more complicated as Chung begins to raise her biracial children.

All You Can Ever Know is definitely one of my “best books” of the year. I loved every sentence. I highly recommend picking this up for basically everyone on the planet.

Incidentally, I started listening to Lisa Ko’s The Leavers on audiobook while reading Chung’s memoir. Sometimes the universe serves up unexpected connections. The two books had an amazing juxtaposition of adoption stories in their similarities and differences, one real story and one imagined.

All You Can Ever Know will be out October 2.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon

untitledSummary from Goodreads:
A powerful, darkly glittering novel of violence, love, faith, and loss, as a young woman at an elite American university is drawn into acts of domestic terrorism by a cult tied to North Korea.

Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall meet their first month at prestigious Edwards University. Phoebe is a glamorous girl who doesn’t tell anyone she blames herself for her mother’s recent death. Will is a misfit scholarship boy who transfers to Edwards from Bible college, waiting tables to get by. What he knows for sure is that he loves Phoebe.

Grieving and guilt-ridden, Phoebe is increasingly drawn into a religious group—a secretive extremist cult—founded by a charismatic former student, John Leal. He has an enigmatic past that involves North Korea and Phoebe’s Korean American family. Meanwhile, Will struggles to confront the fundamentalism he’s tried to escape, and the obsession consuming the one he loves. When the group bombs several buildings in the name of faith, killing five people, Phoebe disappears. Will devotes himself to finding her, tilting into obsession himself, seeking answers to what happened to Phoebe and if she could have been responsible for this violent act.

The Incendiaries is a fractured love story and a brilliant examination of the minds of extremist terrorists, and of what can happen to people who lose what they love most. who lose what they love most.

When I downloaded the galley for The Incendiaries I wasn’t quite sure if I was ready for an intense literary novel about religious faith and cults. (I mean, look around at the garbage fire of the news.) But I was intrigued after reading a bit of Kwon’s interviews where she talked about growing up with an intense religious faith, then losing that faith, so I decided to go for it.

The Incendiaries is a hallucinatory, violent debut that grapples with the line between faith and fanaticism. I have never been a particularly religious person, especially as an adult (although I was raised Lutheran and I am the child of a church organist, which is just one-off from being the pastor’s kid), and the way Kwon constructed the circuitous religious logic displayed by Phoebe and John Leal was particularly fascinating. I’m not sure I’m completely on board with the structure of the novel as the narrative jumped between Will, Phoebe (reconstructed by Will), and John Leal but I couldn’t put it down. I do wonder what the Phoebe sections would have looked like had they actually been in her voice, but Kwon’s choice does give a very illusory, unsettled feel to the character.

TW: rape. It does occur on the page later in the book. The scene does not feel gratuitous, but it could definitely be triggering.

The Incendiaries is out now.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read · YA all the way

A Thousand Beginnings and Endings edited by Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman

36301029Summary from Goodreads:
Star-crossed lovers, meddling immortals, feigned identities, battles of wits, and dire warnings: these are the stuff of fairy tale, myth, and folklore that have drawn us in for centuries.

Fifteen bestselling and acclaimed authors reimagine the folklore and mythology of East and South Asia in short stories that are by turns enchanting, heartbreaking, romantic, and passionate.

Compiled by We Need Diverse Books’s Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman, the authors included in this exquisite collection are: Renée Ahdieh, Sona Charaipotra, Preeti Chhibber, Roshani Chokshi, Aliette de Bodard, Melissa de la Cruz, Julie Kagawa, Rahul Kanakia, Lori M. Lee, E. C. Myers, Cindy Pon, Aisha Saeed, Shveta Thakrar, and Alyssa Wong.

A mountain loses her heart. Two sisters transform into birds to escape captivity. A young man learns the true meaning of sacrifice. A young woman takes up her mother’s mantle and leads the dead to their final resting place.

From fantasy to science fiction to contemporary, from romance to tales of revenge, these stories will beguile readers from start to finish. For fans of Neil Gaiman’s Unnatural Creatures and Ameriie’s New York Times–bestselling Because You Love to Hate Me.

Do you like fantasy, mythology, and retellings? Do you like strong characters in your YA stories? You need A Thousand Beginnings and Endings! Such a great collection of Asian-mythology-inspired short stories from all different cultures written by YA fantasy writers at the top of their game. Out today! So much fun!

(Full disclosure: my friend Preeti has a story set at garba during Navratri, “Girls Who Twirl and Other Dangers,” in this collection and ngl, it’s my favorite ❤️)

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang (The Poppy War #1)

poppySummary from Goodreads:

When Rin aced the Keju, the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies, it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard, the most elite military school in Nikan, was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.

For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .

Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.

In looking over the Spring Discover selections for BN, R.F. Kuang’s debut, The Poppy War, just stood straight out. A fantasy novel on the epic scale of Game of Thrones, with perhaps a bit of The Once and Future King or Harry Potter thrown in, but based in Chinese history and storytelling. Oh, yes please.

Let me tell you – this book is bananas. BANANAS. We have the smart orphan at boarding school plot and then it takes a LEFT TURN into a major military offensive and then about halfway through I realized I couldn’t quite figure out where Kuang was taking the plot. I could see myriad ways Rin could go, like the many different moves of a chess game, but I couldn’t predict the path (I had sort-of guessed part of the end, but definitely wasn’t prepared for it). This is a fantasy novel grounded in the shamanism and politics of the Asian continent. The world-building is astounding. And the reader is left on a bit of a cliff-hanger at the end.  Well-played, Ms. Kuang.

But fair warning: reading this book is rough. So rough. There are events in the book inspired by the atrocities committed during the invasion of Nanking during World War II. There are scenes that very clearly are reminiscent of ethnic cleansing. Trigger warning for extreme wartime violence (think Khmer Rouge plus Nazis, just as a warning) and rape.

The Poppy War is out today!

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.