What I Read in February 2023
HIGHLY SUSPICIOUS AND UNFAIRLY CUTE by Talia Hibbert – 4 stars
YA romance from the author of the Brown Sisters trilogy, I had high hopes for Highly Suspicious and Unfairly Cute and I was not disappointed! Ex-BFFs Bradley and Celine have not spoken to each other in years since they’re big falling apart. In order to win a scholarship for university, they are forced to spend a lot of time together while camping out in the woods. This book was PRECIOUS. Bradley and Celine are nerdy in the most adorable way, and the enemies to lovers trope paired with their innocence was wholesome. The two narrator-s for the audiobook were the perfect choices and really emoted Bradley and Celine’s personalities. Highly recommend, especially on audio!
WANDERING IN STRANGE LANDS by Morgan Jerkins – 4 stars
Reminiscent of The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, Wandering in Strange Lands is about Morgan Jerkins’s journey as she traces her ancestors who have migrated across America. While a personal story, it tells the stories of so many Black people, both those she met during her travels that helped her understand her identity and family history and those who, like her previously, do not have a full knowledge of their families’ legacies. The extensive research Jerkins conducted for the writing of this book is evident, and you see her connecting the dots she was not able to before at every single stop. This was an eye-opening read!
A PHO LOVE STORY by Loan Le – 3.5 stars
I’ve been reading more YA and I think I’m getting into YA romance! Romeo and Juliet-esque, A Pho Love Story is an enemies-to-lovers story but add to that: feud resulting from the Vietnam War, competing family restaurants, and the pressure of an American dream. Bao Nguyen and Linh Mai have known of each other their entire lives but only befriend each other their senior year of high school when they are paired to work on the school newspaper segment together. As they research local restaurants, for Bao to write about and Linh to illustrate, for the paper, the line Bao and Linh were told to never cross begins to blur and perhaps their families’ resentment too? A Pho Love Story was cute and wholesome but felt a tad bit slow for me.
WANDERING SOULS by Cecile Pim – 5 stars
I did not expect too much from Wandering Souls considering its length but it delivered a punch. Siblings Anh, Thanh, and Minh begin their journey ahead of the rest of their family to leave Vietnam and hopefully to America. While waiting at a refugee camp in Hong Kong, they learn that their parents and younger siblings do not make it. They eventually resettle in the UK but surviving is a challenge. Wandering Souls effectively employs three narrative threads: Anh representing the three surviving children; Dao, the second youngest sibling in the afterlife; a third narrator researching the violence and pain Vietnamese people experience across time and border. Wandering Souls gave me glimpses into parts of history I wasn’t familiar with (from the refugee camps to resettling in the UK to the unbelievable events in recent history).
Out March 21, 2023! Huge thanks to Henry Holt & Company for the gifted advanced reader copy.
KILLERS OF A CERTAIN AGE by Deanna Raybourn – 4 stars
A thriller that lives up to the hype! Billie, Mary Alice, Helen, and Natalie–Killers of A Certain Age–retire from the Museum after being professional assassins for the last forty years. On a cruise gifted by the Museum to celebrate their retirement, they realize they have been marked for death by the Museum. In order to stay alive, they begin to target the Museum’s Board members who could’ve been the only ones to have issued this termination order.
Killers of A Certain Age is told chronologically, interspersed with stories from the past that highlight the beginning of the foursome as well as a few notable incidents throughout their career. It has a tight plot which kept my attention, and the story progresses and unfolds the entire time. While I’m not a huge fan of murder in a lighthearted context (last talked about this when I reviewed Dial A for Aunties), it was fun to see the four defy the stereotype and remain sharp and witty in their 60s.
IF YOU COULD SEE THE SUN by Ann Liang – 4.5 stars
Set in Beijing China, If You Could See the Sun is a fantasy academia YA with a romance storyline–perhaps ambitious for a debut but it works. Alice Sun is the “scholarship kid” at Airington except her scholarship doesn’t cover all of her tuition despite being Alice being one of the top students. Struggling to pay for Alice’s schooling, her parents suggest going to a public school in Beijing or a school in Maine, beginning next semester. When Alice magically(!) begins disappearing, she comes ups with a business idea to monetize this ability n the hopes of affording next semester’s tuition. In order to bring her idea into life, she collaborates with her nemesis/forever rival Henry.
Reading If You Could See the Sun felt like a breath of fresh air! I absolutely adored the setting of Beijing, China–you never really read stories in other countries outside of historical fiction. Besides the fact that Alice can disappear, everything felt very real and believable–from the racism and hardship Alice’s family encountered in America to the tough choices working class parents have to make for their children to the gossip and competition at a highly prestigious school. Peeling back the layers of romance and fantasy, If You Could See the Sun is a coming-of-age story like most YAs and I enjoyed seeing Alice growing and maturing.
STAY TRUE by Hua Hsu – 3.5 stars
Stay True is Hua Hsu’s tribute to Ken, his best friend from college. Despite Hua’s initial judgment of their differing personalities/lifestyle choices, Hua and Ken develop a friendship over the years, bonding over their identity as Asian American and having many late-night chats on the balcony–until Ken is kidnapped and murdered by random strangers just shy of their senior year.
A lot of Stay True is about the little moments throughout their friendship, which Hsu captures beautifully but also made it more mundane? I expected more of the book to be about the friendship and his grief (you mostly get this in the last 1/5 of the book) than Hsu’s time in college. I appreciate Hsu’s reflection in Stay True but I just wish it delivered more.
WHITE TEETH by Zadie Smith – 3 stars
My longest read of February, White Teeth, was yet another Letters bookshop subscription pick. At almost 500 pages, I would call White Teeth an epic. It chronicles two generations of the Joneses and the Iqbals whose patriarchs, Archie and Samad, began their friendship while serving in World War II together. Both men start their families later in life: Archie marries Clara, a Jamaican British half his age, after his divorce and a suicide attempt and Samad when his wife is born and becomes of age following an arrangement set up by the families. Archie’s only child Irie and Samad’s twin boys Millat and Magic grow up, together and separately (literally), bestowing a tremendous amount of worry and heartache for their parents.
White Teeth is about race and religion; immigration and the generational divide between the immigrant parents and the UK-born children; what it means to be British, especially for immigrants and those who are not white. There were parts I liked, and certainly many moments that made me laugh. Unfortunately, I didn’t like this book as much as I wanted to, and not necessarily because of its length–I’ve enjoyed books that were even longer, not wanting them to end. I also wish we got to know all of the characters more equally(?). The book focused more heavily on the Iqbals and I felt like I didn’t get to know Archie and Clara very well.
아몬드 (ALMOND) by 손원평 (Won-Pyung Sohn) – 5 stars
One of my goals for this year is to read more Korean books, and I’m happy to report I’m keeping up with it! I picked up Almond while in LA last month after seeing it on social media for some time.
Nicknamed “cute monster” by his grandmother, Yunjae was diagnosed with Alexithymia at an early age and has difficulty feeling and reading emotions. His mother and grandmother do their best to teach him how to react to people and follow the unspoken rules in different social situations. Following a tragic event on his sixteenth birthday, Yunjae finds himself alone but he soon develops relations with a few unexpected friends(?).
Almond is a shorter book but it did take me a bit to get into it, probably because I’m so out of practice of reading in Korean. Once I was acquainted with Yunjae and other characters, I couldn’t put it down. There is a lot of hurt and brutality in Almond but also so much warmth and love (I hope it all translates).
WE ALL WANT IMPOSSIBLE THINGS by Catherine Newman – 3.5 stars
This semi-autobiographical novel is about life-long best friends Edi and Ash. After Edi’s ovarian cancer worsens, she moves to a hospice near Ash’s place. As she deals with her own issues, Ash simultaneously grieves the impending death of Edi, whom she visits every day. I had high hopes for We All Want Impossible Things after hearing about it on Bad on Paper podcast and while there were parts and snippets I enjoyed (really towards the last hour or so of the book), I expected and wanted more out of this one. Ash is a complicated narrator, and I didn’t particularly like her though I could empathize with her grappling with everything throughout the book. I wish I got to know more of Edi and even more of Edi and Ash’s friendship. The audiobook was solidly narrated though I preferred it at 1.15 speed.