Four Treasures of the Sky by Jenny Tinghui Zhang

An unflinching story about a young girl kidnapped from China and smuggled to America in the late 1800s. Her journey takes her to a brothel in San Francisco to a mining town in Idaho, where she poses as Jacob.

“Daiyu to Feng to Peony to Jacob Li. When will I be me again? And if I become me again, will I know who she is?”

Not an easy read, as I kept wondering if life would get easier for Daiyu/Jacob. But this is the 1880s and the Chinese Exclusion Act is in play. While I had heard about the Act, I wasn’t aware of the many acts of anti-Chinese violence throughout the country at that time.

Four Treasures of the Sky was thoroughly researched and beautifully written. But I found it difficult to read the parts where the tragic heroine from Dream of the Red Chambers Lin Daiyu manifests herself. Not quite a ghost but perhaps an alter ego of the main character? It’s a way for teenaged Daiyu to emotionally extract herself from the trauma she faces. And she has a lot of traumatic experiences.

Beautiful but brutal.

Sea of Tranquility by Emily St John Mandel

I guess 5-hour airplane rides are good for reading books. I finished Sea of Tranquility by Emily St John Mandel and was rather impressed by it, although her previous book The Glass Hotel didn’t quite do it for me. 

But this time travel pandemic novel really just held on to me and wouldn’t let go. Maybe it was me sitting in an airplane wearing a mask and on the other side of the aisle, the man and his teenaged son were maskless, like maybe about half of the other passengers. 

We had traveled to Hawaii when masks were required on airplanes. And flew out of Big Island with most people not wearing masks. We’re still in the midst of this thing, are we not? 

This passage in the book especially made me sit up and reread it: 

“Pandemics don’t approach like wars, with the distant thud of artillery growing louder every day and flashes of bombs on the horizon. They arrive in retrospect, essentially. It’s disorientating. The pandemic is far away and then it’s all around you, with seemingly no intermediate step.”

I don’t want to give you a synopsis of the story. I went into it not really knowing much about it. And I think that’s the best way of reading this book. Pull on your mask and plunge in. 

The Turning Pointe by Vanessa L. Torres

I really needed a book like The Turning Pointe at this moment. Dance! 1980s! Prince! 

Rosa is a student at a ballet academy, where her father is ballet master. She’s also obsessed with Prince, who happens to be training upstairs for a performance. And the ballet students get a chance to audition for this very concert that the Purple One will be headlining.

I loved Rosa and following along with her struggles as she tries to figure out her own path. Her family is all ballet. And while she’s a star ballet student, there’s a part of her that wants to try something different. 

This was an incredible debut. Loved all the 80s vibes and all the wonderful diverse characters. 

Donut Fall in Love by Jackie Lau

Ah the things that one does for the book photos. Like going to the doughnut shop. Picking out doughnut flavours. Eating those doughnuts.

All for a book that features a baker and a meet-cute with an actor. He bumps into her and knocks over a batch of matcha tiramisu doughnuts. Alas, this was just your regular Krispy Kreme and their most exciting flavour that day was probably the maple doughnut. 

So a (minor) movie star and a baker. Ryan Kwok joins a TV baking competition and hires Lindsay McLeod to teach him so that he won’t flop completely on the show. Of course he thinks she’s cute. And for him, well, let’s just say that he’s trending on Twitter for his abs. 

Romance aside, there’s quite a bit going on in this book. 

First, grief and death. Ryan’s mom died unexpectedly a few months ago. She’s the glue that held the family together. And now it feels like his family is coming apart. Ryan’s sister just gave birth. His father is  just absent and unavailable, except for snarky tweets on his own account (@RyanKwoksFather). 

And while this is a romance, and romances are all about the main characters, can I just say that I adored the growth of the father-son relationship? Asian fathers of a certain age tend to be stoic and stubborn, and it was encouraging to see how hard Ryan tried to get his father involved and being part of the family again. 

Also, I liked how this book discussed their Asian heritage. Lindsay’s mom is Chinese and was born in Canada. Her father wanted them to be Canadian, to assimilate, “but at school, nobody could see me as being just like the other kids”. She felt different from the other Chinese who arrived later in life, or those who lived in Chinatown. She didn’t go to weekend Chinese school, she couldn’t read or write Chinese, and could barely speak it. 

For Ryan, it’s about the movies he’s in. His latest movie didn’t bomb but the reviews and ticket sales weren’t great. He’s worried that he’s now potentially made a mess for other Asian actors: “Movies about guys like him weren’t allowed to flop. People would point at this single movie as proof that no more like it should be made.”

Donut Fall in Love was a sweet read. It’ll make you crave baked goods – cupcakes, donuts, cakes, cookies. Not just matcha tiramisu doughnuts, but orange cardamom, chocolate raspberry, creme brûlée doughnuts, salted caramel cupcakes, lemon meringue cupcakes, and Nanaimo bars (which I’ve never had and am curious about! But also it sounds super sweet). 

I have to admit that I went into this book with zero expectations – aside from being surrounded by lots of doughnuts. And emerged satisfied and delighted by the family dynamics, a different setting (Toronto bakery), cute banter, abs, the doughnut-beer pairing event, and a Nailed It!-like baking show. 

Ghost Forest by Pik-Shuen Fung

Good things come in small packages. Like dim sum. Siu Mai and Har Gow are perfect one or two bite dumplings, any bigger and they just seem a bit too much. 

And in Ghost Forest, the scenes and vignettes, are sometimes just one or two pages. Sometimes not even reaching one page. But they convey so much. 

This is the story of a family that moves from Hong Kong to Canada before the 1997 Handover. The dad remains in Hong Kong to work. He’s known as an “astronaut father”, visiting his family for Lunar New Year. 

A Chinese painting by my grandfather

The story opens with 21 days after the father’s death, and the daughter watches a bird perched on her balcony. She says, “Hi Dad”. That made me think of that huge moth that stayed in our house for a few days after my grandfather’s funeral. Some Chinese people believe that moths are the spirits of your dead loved ones visiting you. And maybe that’s just superstition or us clinging to any little symbol that brings us meaning, but somehow that brought some comfort. 

At 272 pages, this is a short and simply written book, but it’s best if you take your time with it. I tend to be a fast reader, so when reading a book like this, I’m forced to slow down, to take a pause between these segments and reflect on them. 

Ghost Forest is a quiet and soft read but it managed to wring out all these emotions from me via its spare prose and blank space. 

Almond by Sohn Won-pyung

I woke up super early Thursday morning to catch the BTS Seoul concert livestream at 2am PST and it was so worth it. I couldn’t really sleep after it ended at 445am. Yes, I really am a big fan of the group! Because it’s the second book I read that is linked to BTS’ series In The Soop and it’s the second one that I’ve been disappointed by (the first was Midnight Library by Matt Haig. I really did not like that book.). But BTS, especially Namjoon aka RM, have previously mentioned several other books that are good reads, like Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, and Kitchen

“This story is, in short, about a monster meeting another monster. One of the monsters is me.”

Ah, I probably had too high expectations of this one as it sounded a bit quirky, since it’s about a boy who doesn’t feel emotions. He has a disorder called alexithymia because of underdeveloped amygdalae, two almond-shaped neurons in the brain. 

Also, his mother runs a secondhand bookstore and uh yeah, that’s definitely a draw for many readers. I love a book that’s set in bookstores or libraries! 

But while I enjoyed the first part of the book, the ending seemed too…easy. Also, the main character just never quite drew me into his story. 

Overall, it was an interesting read but I just wanted more. More depth into the friendship between the boy who can’t feel and the boy who feels too much.

The Shimmering State – Meredith Westgate

I constantly thought of the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as I read this book. But instead of a procedure to remove your specific memories, there is a drug that stores these memories. This drug, Memoroxin or Mem, is one that holds not just the memories but all your feelings and emotions that you had about those moments. 

It’s initially used as a treatment for Alzheimer’s, to allow patients to relive some of their memories. But it soon becomes a party drug, a different way to get high, an escape perhaps into the life of someone else for a few hours, drifting through their emotions. 

The story opens at a rehab center for those who hooked on Mem. There’s Lucien, a photographer who stole his grandmother’s pills to try and find his deceased mother in her memories. Sophie is a ballerina and waitress who is also hooked on Mem. The narrative flits between their time at the center and their past. 

This book makes me wonder what it would be like to dive into someone else’s memories. Would it feel like a dream? What memories would I want to see? And what would your life be without your memories? 

Daughter of the Moon Goddess by Sue Lynn Tan

Pictured: a tea set from Singapore which has lovely details of flowers, peaches, and phoenixes, next to Daughter of the Moon Goddess by Sue Lynn Tan

This book brought me back to my childhood in Singapore and Sundays at my grandparents’ house where we would watch Chinese-language shows on TV. There were Singapore-made dramas and also those from China and (maybe?) Taiwan. I remember watched 西游记 (Journey to the West) and a show about 呢咋 (Nezha, a child deity). The gods lived in the sky, and they traveled around on clouds. 

So when Daughter of the Moon Goddess opened with a chase through the skies on clouds, I was absolutely delighted. 

Xingyin is the daughter of Chang’e, the Moon Goddess. She’s been hidden from the Celestial Kingdom her whole life. But she now has to leave her home on the moon and ends up in the Celestial Kingdom. She’s determined to free her mother and along the way becomes the companion to the Crown Prince. 

This book was just magical to read. It was packed full, and made me wonder, how can it be a duology? Luckily there’s no cliffhanger at the end so I was a happy reader (and not an anxious why won’t they give me an ending? reader). 

The world building was fabulous and I always appreciate when writers include food and drink into a story, as it helps to complete a reader’s journey into a fantasy story. It was lush and immersive. 

There is a romance in this story but I didn’t feel very invested in it. I was surprised by a plot twist and do hope that the second book explores more about one of the characters involved! 

I really enjoyed Daughter of the Moon Goddess. It was an exciting journey through a fantasy world yet one that was familiar. And with one of the most beautiful covers ever.