Emergency Contact by Mary H K Choi #AsianLitBingo

 

It was thanks to being laid up in bed due to a minor procedure that I borrowed this book. All the other books on my tablet were just too serious and heavy reading for that day and I was looking for something that would be fun and lighthearted and so I reached for YA.

I love how there is so much diversity going on in YA and while I had said earlier in a previous post, how I wished I could be a teen and reading all this, I’m just going to go ahead and get my diverse YA fix now.

Emergency Contact is definitely one book my teenaged self would have approved of. Because Penny is that kind of awkward, cynical, and not very sociable person I was (and sometimes still am). She is introduced to Sam as he is her roommate’s uncle of sorts (his mom and her grandfather were married for a quick minute). But only really talks to him after she notices him having a panic attack in the street one day. She makes sure he’s ok, gives him a ride back to the cafe where he works (and unknown to her, where he lives) and adds her number to his phone to make sure he gets home safe. She’s now his “emergency contact”.

This book has been on the back of my TBR list for a while, but I think that I’ve always been a bit hesitant because I didn’t think I wanted to read a book in which texting seems to be at the forefront. But in the end, the text conversations actually felt quite natural and comfortable to read.

And I found myself just hanging on to every word in this book. I read it in one sitting.

It seems like this is the kind of book that you either detest or love (at least judging from the polarizing Goodreads reviews). I loved it. I can see why some people may not like it but for me, this was a thumbs up.

 

 

I read this for Asian Lit Bingo – romance with POC love interest

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The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo

A book like this just makes me wish I were years younger! When I was a teenager, YA didn’t really exist. And really, pretty much all the books I was reading as a teenager were probably written and starring white people. Don’t get me wrong, plenty of these books I read (especially for school), were great books. I am especially grateful to one of my A-Level English lit teachers for introducing Carol Shields to me. But I hardly remember reading anything with an Asian protagonist. Or if there were Asian characters they tended to be your stereotypical nerdy Asian kids.

So to read this book by Maurene Goo, many years too old for this genre, was with a wistful, oh, if only I could have read this when I was younger. But also a eh, who cares if I’m reading this too late, I’m just glad someone out there is writing this for the young girls of today.

Clara Shin is a prankster. But she takes a prank one step too far and is suspended from school, along with, Rose, the girl she fought with.

Clara’s dad, who owns a food truck selling Korean-Brazilian food, convinces the principal to switch the suspension to having them work on the KoBra for the summer and pay off the damage they caused. And that becomes a life-changing experience for her.

First of all, I love that this book was pretty much a love letter to LA. I have been to LA a few times but I don’t really know it that well, still it was fun to read about places they go to. And while I live in the northern part of CA, where there is a pretty decent variety of food from Asia, it cannot beat LA especially when it comes to East Asian food.

And on that note, a book that features food always makes me happy. I really want to try some kimchi and cheese pasteis. I love kimchi (although I’ve not eaten it with cheese!) and we eat Korean food regularly but I’ve never had Korean-Brazilian food before.

Clara wasn’t easy to like at first. She comes off initially as really immature but as the story progresses, she grows into herself and I really liked being on this journey with her and her friends.

I’m excited to read the rest of Maurene Goo’s books. And whee, she’s got a new one out!

This is my read for East Asian MC for AsianLitBingo

The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo is an enchanting read

Dark, magical, and bewitching, The Night Tiger transports the reader to colonial Malaya where weretigers supposedly roam, strange deaths are happening in a sleepy town in Ipoh. A young boy is searching for a missing finger and is mysteriously connected to a woman trying to make some money as a dance hall girl.

Choo permeates her story with all the sounds, smells and tastes of Malaysia. She brings in so many Malaysian foods that I am often left hungry after reading a few chapters (Malaysian and Singaporean foods are quite similar).

She deftly weaves in a variety of folklore and superstitions like the pontianak and weretigers. It’s a great mix of supernatural and historical. And overall, a beautifully written, magical tale blended with some mysteries that left this reader guessing until the end.

The Lost Garden by Li Ang

“Although I spent so much of my life at Lotus Garden, it was only recently that I was deeply moved by the many wondrous scenes, a result of learning to observe the garden in its minute details. The world is filled with boundless mysteries and wonder; everything is possible and nothing is tenable.”

I really need to start writing down how I come across certain books. I can’t remember the exact details for this one, possibly that it came from a list of books in translation written by women. I definitely hadn’t heard of Li Ang before this. She is a Taiwanese writer, her real name is actually Shih Shu-tuan. And her major work is The Butcher’s Wife. Unfortunately my library only had this book of hers so I made do.

The main character in The Lost Garden is Zhu Yinghong, an only child, the last generation of an old family in Lucheng, Taiwan. The family’s home is known as Lotus Garden, a sprawling estate, very much the pride of the family, and which, in the prologue we are told is being opened to the public.

There are two important men in her life. One is her father, Zhu Zuyan, part of the old guard, who speaks to her in Japanese, calls her by her Japanese name Ayako, and was once arrested for dissent, then returned to his family due to his old age. He then devotes his life to photography and to his beloved garden – replacing foreign trees with native Taiwanese plants

The other man is Li Xigeng, a real estate mogul, filthy rich, powerful, materialistic, and fond of the seamy nightlife of Taiwan.

The contrast between the two men is stark, representative of the old vs new, culture and tradition vs development and modernisation. It’s a story full of symbolism.

The narrative moves from past to present and back again but what takes some getting used to is the occasional switch from third-person to first-person (from Yinghong’s POV). It can sometimes be a bit too jarring.

The Lost Garden would please plant lovers as Li Ang is adept at writing about the garden and all its wonders.

“Cape lilacs were overtaken by a blanket of misty white flowers in the spring, like a lost cloud pausing at the green leaves; it was the kind of mysterious illusion that could only be embodied by a string of lithe, tinkling notes plucked by the nimble fingers of a harpist.”

Despite having traveled to Taiwan a couple of times – once as a kid with my family (my father used to travel to Taipei for work quite often) and then once again about 12 years ago for my own work when I used to be a research assistant and was working on a project about creative clusters in Asia – I know pretty much nothing about Taiwan’s history. So to read in the translator’s note that this book, published in 1990 (3 years after martial law was lifted), was the first to re-create in fictional form the “White Terror Era”. I of course had to go google that and learnt to my surprise that martial law in Taiwan lasted for 38 years and some 140,000 Taiwanese were imprisoned during this time with around 4,000 executed.

It seems that the following books also feature the White Terror Era and if you’ve got any Taiwanese author recommendations, please let me know!

The Third Son – Julie Wu

The 228 Legacy – Jennifer J Chow

Green Island – Shawna Yang Ryan

I believe this book works for the Reading Women Challenge – about nature.

Severance by Ling Ma

What exactly was I expecting from this book? Yet another dystopian tale. And yes there was that (this thing called Shen Fever has affected the world) but there was also so much more. There was a story about immigrants – a couple from Fujian province who leave their young daughter to be raised by grandparents while they try to find a better life in the US, bringing her over only a few years later. I was excited – Fujian province, that’s where some of my family is from!

But also I was intrigued by how this woman continues to work at her job in New York City as the world crumbles around her.

And the unusual epidemic, in which the “fevered” go through the motions of their daily lives over and over. For instance, a woman sets the table and her family raises their utensils to “eat” then she clears the table and it all begins again. And yet there are subtle differences with each repetition.

There is a kind of coldness to the book and yet it is irresistible and I am drawn to this woman and the cult of sorts she finds herself in.

A strange and intriguing read.

What We Were Promised by Lucy Tan

In the first chapter of this book, I learn a surprising fact about China – it has one standard time zone, despite it spanning five geographical time zones! How confusing is that?

Luckily this book, despite its interweaving stories of an expat family, a long-lost brother, and a housekeeping staff-turned-ayi, isn’t confusing at all.

Sunny is from rural China. She works as a maid cleaning rooms and serviced apartments at a hotel in Shanghai. Her name isn’t Sunny of course – it’s just a name tag she picked out of the bin, finding something that seemed right about the name, although she couldn’t even read it herself.

“Chinese names were too difficult for foreign residents to pronounce and carried too much meaning to be revealed to the Chinese speakers. When characters in a name were combined, they produced a complex of feelings and images. That was no good; the best thing for a housekeeper to be was forgettable. Better to take on the blankness of American names.”

One of the apartments that Sunny cleans belongs to the Zhen family, an expat family returned to China after a decade in the US. Lina and Wei have had a long history, having been betrothed since they were young. Wei works long hours at his advertising job, Lina is one of the many taitais in the hotel – “ladies of luxury who could not be called housewives because, aside from cooking the occasional meal, they did no housework at all”.

Wei’s long-lost brother Qiang, contacts them out of the blue after 22 years, and comes to visit. What exactly does he want? Why did he disappear all those years ago? And it turns out that Qiang and Lina have had a history of their own.

I’ve read quite a few books by Chinese authors but this one is written from a very different perspective of a returning Chinese family. Their move from China to the US and then back to China was such a contrast – from a young couple with no money to spare, entertaining themselves by wandering into drugstores and looking at all the goods on display and not being able to buy anything, to becoming a well-off expat family living in a fancy apartment, owning Rolex watches and expensive jewelry. It was a bit hard to like Lina though, although I felt like we had plenty in common in that I am an immigrant to the US myself and while Singapore isn’t such a huge contrast from the US with all its shopping malls and what not, there were all these very “American” things that fascinated (and sometimes frustrated) me. Like the way our first apartment had an open kitchen and this combination cooker hood/microwave over the stove – how was one to get rid of all the cooking smells if that was all?

“American kitchens weren’t designed for wok use, Lina complained. She had tried the American recipes and decided people here didn’t know what real cooking was. All that boiling and baking? Those were safe ways of preparing food. Oil was meant to be splattered on walls, the wok lid held in front of your body like a shield. Cooking, she said, was an act of love and creation. Danger should be somewhere in the mix or it didn’t count. You had to put yourself on the line; you had to sweat. Chinese cuisine required more energy and a higher flame.”

What We Were Promised is a story of contrasts. Sunny’s qunzu fang, a room she shares with five others and which reeks of boiled cabbage and urine vs the large and luxurious jasmine-scented Lanson Suites she cleans. The silk factory where Lina’s father worked vs the skyscraper in which Wei’s office is located. Rural vs city life, rich vs poor.

In case you can’t tell by now, I loved this book and I am just so excited to see what else Lucy Tan writes.

Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li

This wasn’t a definite 🤘for me. We didn’t exactly start out as best friends, this book and I. I was wanting more for our relationship, expecting book here to leave me salivating and craving Chinese food (yes, even Chinese-American food) so I was a bit disappointed. But our friendship grew as I realized this was a book about the drama of ordinary families, amid the struggles of a second generation running a restaurant.

And like a Chinese eatery, it is loud and chaotic and sometimes the service can be brusque but in the end you leave satiated.