Booked on a Feeling by Jayci Lee

I’m here for all the Asian romance novels, as well as romance novels that take place in bookstores. So this book brings both of that together – joy! 

It starts out strong, with lawyer Lizzy, brilliant and determined, working hard but struggling with anxiety. After passing out at work from a panic attack, she takes some time off and takes a break in a small town where she used to spend summers as a child. Her best friend Jack still lives there, where he works at his family’s brewery. He’s had a secret crush on her since he was 10. But doesn’t want to risk their friendship. 

There’s so much of it that I loved – the friends to lovers trope, the bookstore and Lizzy’s love for romance books, Jack’s family, the adorable small town setting. I also appreciate that both Lizzy and Jack had difficult decisions to make about their careers. And that they were afraid of disappointing their families and their expectations, but in very contrasting ways. Is it odd that one of my favorite things about a romance novel was the very sweet and supportive family that Jack has? It was such a contrast to Lizzy’s mum in Korea, who has high expectations and is completely overbearing. 

The romance between Lizzy and Jack was, um, ok? They’re cute together but I wasn’t quite invested in their romance. Maybe because the story lacked major conflict, some kind of painful thorn in the side that’s jabbing away until the couple finally works together to yank the damn thing out. Or you know, leave it there to fester and rot. 

Anyway, this apparently is the third book in the series, and I’m curious to see what the other two books are like. Don’t worry, it reads fine as a stand-alone as the other books are about different characters. 

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

The first book I finished in 2023, although I have to admit that I started reading it in the last days of 2022, was this ambitious and completely delightful fantasy published in 2014. 

Maia, half-goblin, aged 18, the youngest son of the Emperor of the Elflands lives in seclusion far from the Imperial Court. When his father and three brothers in line for the throne are killed in an airship accident, he becomes Emperor. Having lived far from the palace all his life, under the care of a cruel cousin, he has no one, no friends, no family he can trust, and no one really to school him in the court politics. But he is the Emperor and rule he must. 

Don’t go into this book expecting bountiful action and epic battles. There is some court intrigue but ultimately it is a riveting but gentle book, with an awkward, flawed, and completely likeable young man who so happens to find himself now Emperor. A coming of age epic fantasy. 

Maia is a fascinating character. The writer has crafted him so carefully, although he may be rather mild and passive for some readers. He is goodhearted, even toward those who have wronged him. As a half-goblin,the dark skin and hair inherited from his mother give him no advantages at the Elflands court. But he bravely takes up the role, showing his humility and empathy in a hostile world. 

The many characters, as well as the Elvish and Goblin names take a bit of getting used to. The world building is complicated. But it was entirely worth it. 

Favourite quote: 

‘In our inmost and secret heart, which you ask us to bare to you, we wish to banish them as we were banished, to a cold and lonely house, in the charge of a man who hated us. And we wish them trapped there as we were trapped.’

‘You consider that unjust, Serenity?’

‘We consider it cruel,’ Maia said. ‘And we do not think that cruelty is ever just.’

Joan is Okay by Weike Wang

Sunday morning breakfast of French press coffee and a spinach and kale pastry and finished an excellent read, Joan is Okay by Weike Wang.

This novel features Joan, as doctor who feels most at home when she’s at work. Her father in Shanghai died after a stroke, her mother returns to the US after 18 years, and is stranded there due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Joan is a bit of a detached, isolated person. But she’s good with that. She’s okay, she really is. It seems to bother other people, like her brother and boss, more than it bothers her. 

Joan’s struggles with being the other in America are very relatable. At one point she wonders, “What was wrong with being too Chinese? Yet it always seemed that something was.”

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?

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.

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.