If You Could See the Sun



I’ve loved stories set in boarding schools since I was a kid reading Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers (did you read that too?). But many of these boarding school stories often take place in western countries like the UK. So when I learnt that If You Could See the Sun by Ann Liang was set in an international boarding school in Beijing, I quickly put a hold on the library ebook. 

Alice Sun discovers that she has the power of invisibility. And she uses it to do favors and secret tasks for the other students – for a fee. She needs that money to pay for her school fees as her parents are no longer able to afford it. She enlists the help of academic rival Henry to build her an app, Beijing Ghost. (Which would have made a great title for the book, I reckon). She does make some questionable choices, and learns more about herself along the way. 

I like how Liang uses the invisibility power to illustrate the idea of Alice feeling unseen by her peers, who are children of the wealthy and powerful of Beijing. But as she gets to know some of them better, she too realizes that these classmates are more than just the daughter of a famous model, the son of a rich businessman. The best part is that her rival Henry maybe doesn’t really see her as a rival at all? For me, their relationship was the best part of this book.  

When it comes to her invisibility power, she can’t seem to control it and it just turns on and off without any explanation. Maybe I’m overthinking it but I would have preferred more details about this magical ability. 

Still, this was a unique story in one of my favorite settings, the boarding school. And better still, a boarding school in Asia. It’s a story that my teenaged self would have lived, but as an adult I definitely appreciate it too.  

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin

“SADIE MIRANDA GREEN. YOU HAVE DIED OF DYSENTERY!”

Sam Masur yells across a crowded subway platform to get the attention of a girl he once knew a long time ago, when they were both in hospital. He was recovering very slowly from a bad car accident and she at first because her sister was sick, then later for community service hours for time spent with Sam.

Sadie is studying video game design at MIT and Sam is a math student at Harvard. They work together on a game called Ichigo, which turns out to be a hit, and this kicks off their successful gaming work together, along with Sam’s roommate, Marx, an acting student who’s talent, it turns out, is as a video game producer.

Despite not knowing what the story was about when I started it, I loved this book. This was a love letter to video games. But it was also about the struggle of being a woman in the male-dominated video game world, disability, issues of cultural appropriation etc. Sam and Sadie were great, flawed characters. Their relationship which would often blow up from time to time, but I just couldn’t help but root for them.

“If this were a game, he could hit pause. He could restart, say different things, the right ones this time. He could search his inventory for the item that would make Sadie not leave.”

Zevin made the design and creation of a video game so absorbing and immersive that I wanted to be part of it. But it’s really due to the strength of her storytelling and character building that ties it all together. And she has created this brilliant, layered story that kept me going through these 401 pages and even wanting more.

I have to admit that I probably have too many games on my phone/tablet. I check in with In The Seom every day. I tried to play Animal Crossing: New Horizons on the kids’ Nintendo switch but decided that I would rather play the Pocket Camp version on my phone. I recently started playing Cookie Run Kingdom because of the BTS tie-up. Since my kids started playing that too, it’s a game the three of us play together. So while I can’t deal with the other games they love (Minecraft, Roblox etc), I kinda like playing Cookie Run Kingdom with them (they only get to play on Fridays and the weekends though!). Of course, as a parent, I can’t help but wonder about the effects of video games on their young minds. But that’s another discussion for another time. Do you play video games? What are your favourites?

The Charmed List by Julie Abe

The Charmed List is a fun magic-infused romcom that involves once-friends-now-enemies Ellie and Jack on a road trip to a magic convention in LA. Ellie was set to do this coastal California road trip with her best friend Lia, and work on her Anti-Wallflower list, such as riding rollercoasters, crashing weddings, and falling in love. Instead, she’s stuck with her former best friend Jack. He’s on her list: “Revenge on Jack Yasuda). That doesn’t exactly bode well for a long road trip.

The magical society they live in is kept hidden from the world and it was an interesting way to bring in magic – it’s infused into all kinds of things, even drinks and food. Like a Vietnamese coffee shop dusts their drinks and desserts with a magical powder for strength, either physical or emotional, depending on what’s needed. A stationery store sells bullet journals that are imbued with spells for fame and power.

Their charms are powered by raw magic dust that has to be collected. It comes out of raw emotions, and can be seen and collected by magicals when they wear charmed, rose-tinted spectacles. The magical charms they cast are small, such as a cleaning charm or a fix-it elixir.

I loved that this book is set around Northern California. It was fun to follow the characters as they visited places I’ve been to, like indie bookstore Books Inc in Palo Alto and Shuei-Do Manju Shop (which makes so many delicious flavours of mochi) in San Jose’s Japantown.

The Charmed List is a sweet and cute romance with a hint of magic. It was a nice summer read, great to enjoy with some popcorn, although I wouldn’t have minded some magic sprinkled onto my snacks.

Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto

Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto, translated from the Japanese by Asa Yoneda

Yoshie lives on her own in the Shimokitazawa neighbourhood. She works at a local bistro called Les Liens. She moved there a year after the death of her father. He died in a “love murder suicide in a forest in Ibaraki with a woman who’d apparently been a distant relative”.

Her mother soon moves in with her, saying that she can’t live in their family home. Yoshie is at first hesitant, wanting her independence and own space. But as she watches her mother, looking like a young girl, staring out the window at the street below, a thought comes to her mind: 

“What must it be like for your life to suddenly be a blank page, at her age? I wondered. No young children who needed her energy, no need to scramble to make ends meet. Only the dark, heavy shadow of regret that clung constantly to us both.”

The neighbourhood of Shimokitazawa is actually more important than I expected. The Japanese title of the book is “Moshi Moshi Shimokitazawa”. And the story opens with Yoshie talking about a movie called “Zawa Zawa Shimokitazawa” which moved her to tears the first time she watched it. She felt that it managed to put into words something she had been on the verge of grasping. 

“I longed to have the same kind of effect, in my own way – to cast such a wonderful spell over people.”

I was struck by how there’s a lightness in this book, despite it being one dealing with grief and death. A very unusual death at that. But Yoshimoto has this way of talking about small everyday details, like the neighbourhood and Yoshie’s work at the bistro. Life goes on even after the death of a loved one. 

“Our bodies forgot, left things behind, without our hearts meaning to.”

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.