Like a Love Story (Book Review)

I’ve been meaning to read Like a Love Story by Abdi Nazemian for a while. The cover caught my eye forever ago, and the premise sounded really interesting. Add to that a Stonewall Award honor award and an endorsement from Mackenzi Lee and you’ve got a must-read for me. I’d been looking for a good time to read it, so it being AAPI heritage month clinched it.

What’s it about?

Like a Love Story follows three teens in New York City in 1989. Reza is gay, but his terror of the AIDS epidemic would be enough to keep him in the closet even if he weren’t afraid his mother and new stepfamily wouldn’t accept him if he came out. When he meets Judy, a clever and cool fashionista whom he genuinely likes, dating her feels like a no-brainer; he gets to hang out with someone fun, and he’d have a handy beard. But there’s a problem: Art, Judy’s best friend and the only openly out person at Reza’s new school. 

What’d I think?

Rating: 2 out of 5.

In short, I hated Art. 

In long, I was pretty disappointed in the book as a whole. I was interested in how Nazemian was going to handle his emotionally weighty subject material. It’s difficult enough to tell a gay love story during the worst of AIDS that doesn’t either minimize the crisis for a happy story or dwell in tragedy, but adding the perspective of a beard complicates the situation even farther. I’m not a big fan of love triangles because they so often feel contrived, but his is one of the rare situations where it actually makes sense how this might have happened, and the emotions it digs up are deeper than oh no we both have a crush on the same guy

Unfortunately, the pacing in this book undercuts all the emotion. Every section I wanted to luxuriate in was cut short. We skip over the beginning of Reza and Judy’s relationship and catch up with them when they’ve been dating a while and are relatively comfortable. Then Reza and Art get together, Judy disowns them both, and we skip again to when Reza and Art have been dating a while and are relatively comfortable. I wanted to see Reza building these relationships. I wanted to see the fallout when they all fell out. The novel hinges on the development and destruction of these relationships. They’re messy and complicated and it feels cheap not to get to dig into them. It’s hard to really care about Reza’s relationship with Judy when pretty much all we get of them is that he thinks she’s pretty cool and she thinks he’s really attractive. It’s hard to care about Reza and Art’s courtship when, as far as I can tell, the only thing that they’ve really got for them going as a couple is that they’re both gay teenagers who don’t know any other gay teenagers. One could argue, I suppose, that that’s kind of the point, but I think we are supposed to care more about their romance than I did. 

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The Scorpio Races (Book Review)

I love Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle, so my interest was very piqued when I saw an Instagram post indicating that The Scorpio Races is her favorite of her novels. It’s pretty rare that a writer will publicly pick their favorite work, but Stiefvater is pretty unambiguous about this. On Goodreads, she gave The Scorpio Races five stars and explained: “You know I had to. It IS my favorite of all my books, after all.” It was hard to imagine that I could like this more than The Dream Thieves (which I love so much that it was my favorite read of 2020), but I definitely needed to check it out. I had high hopes, I had a gift card, and I was in the mood for some fantasy.

What’s it about?

Every November on the island of Thisby, tourists flock in for the annual Scorpio Races. This dangerous competition is only for the bravest as riders do not race atop regular horses but rather upon capaill uisce, bloodthirsty mythological horses that come from the sea. Still, the races are a major part of Thisby, and winning can mean everything. For Sean, a favorite in the race, winning again could mean the freedom to live life on his own terms. For Puck, whose parents were killed by capaill uisce, it is the only way to dig herself and her remaining family out of financial ruin.

What’d I think?

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

To truly love The Scorpio Races, I think I’d have to care a lot more about horses. I was never what you’d call a horse girl. I rode them once or twice as a kid in scouts, but it wasn’t something I did regularly, and I have never had a deep emotional connection to a horse. I think that’s needed for this novel. Both our protagonists have intense connections to their horses, and the story hangs on that bond. From the outside, The Scorpio Races looks like a fantasy adventure novel, but at its heart it is a horse book and feels more akin to something like Seabiscuit than The Hunger Games.

I mean, yes. Sean’s horse is a mythological creature that kills at least person but that’s not really the point. His love for Corr is no different than Puck’s love for her pony horse Dove. There are stakes for both characters, but the main one is that they both want to keep their horses, which is in question for them both. I understand their love, I do. But I never really… felt it. I sort of feel like the horse love is something you have to go into the book with. 

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The Family Chao (Book Review)

I read The Family Chao by Samantha Lan Chang for book club. I’ve had a mixed bag when it comes to this book club, but between the attractive cover and interesting premise, I was willing to be optimistic about this one. 

What’s it about?

Loosely inspired by Dostoyevsky’s classic novel The Brothers Karamazov, The Family Chao follows a Chinese-American family who have been cooking up resentments for as long as they’ve been serving delicious Chinese food to white and Asian customers alike. The family patriarch, Leo, is a domineering and patronizing man whose boorish behavior has over the years driven the various members of his family away.

What’d I think?

I will say upfront that I’ve never read The Brothers Karamazov; most people who respond positively to The Family Chao have done so, and speak highly of the way Chang maps the old story onto her novel. From what I can tell from reading other reviews, reading Dostoyevsky is a prerequisite for appreciating The Family Chao, even though Chang has said that the story is an homage more than a retelling. There may be exceptions, the odd reader who liked Chang’s work on its own strength, but it’s certainly not the trend. 

I almost feel unqualified to discuss The Family Chao, except that the official blurb doesn’t itself reference Dostoyevsky, which makes me think that—while the inspiration is clear to any who know what to look for—Chang’s work is supposed to stand on its own two feet. 

If there’s one thing that stands out to me about this novel, it’s the pacing. I don’t think I’m alone in that (or, in any case, I’d be surprised if I were), but that seems to be a minority opinion; most reviews I’ve perused point to Leo Chao as the main source of their dislike for the novel as a whole. While I agree that Leo is a despicable man, I don’t find his despicableness a mark against The Family Chao. Leo being despicable is arguably the point of the novel. It is the reason why his sons are the way that they are. He literally gets murdered for being despicable. The pacing problems are not intentional. 

The two halves of the novel simply don’t match. The first half, the leadup to Dagou (the oldest son)’s party, unfolds slowly. It checks in on almost every character at every moment and lets the reader really experience things with them. Part two sprints. Most of it is told through blog posts written by a minor character, describing emotionally weighty moments that our new guide is only tangentially connected to. This both undercuts and rushes some of the novel’s most dramatic scenes. So much happens in the second half that gets blown right past. 

And I get it. I do. Distancing the readers from the family lets us witness the trial the way the Chao’s neighbors would, from the outside. Stylistically, it makes sense. Emotionally, I found it unsatisfying. The Family Chao does its best work when it keeps us close to the brothers but still keeps us guessing about them, like when we see Dagou’s financial situation drastically change but don’t know until near the end where or how he got his cash. 

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Our Flag Means Death (Season 1 Review)

The Internet’s uncanny ability to psychoanalyze us is definitely disturbing if you think about it any real way, but credit where credit is due when it comes to recommending good TV shows. All of a sudden I started getting inundated with Our Flag Means Death content. It appeared in suggested instagram posts. YouTubers I follow started doing deep dives on it. I started seeing memes (including some from SparkNotes, who is the meme master). Weirdly, I didn’t see a single official advertisement. Tragically HBO has not done much to promote Our Flag Means Death—which is ludicrous considering how good a show it is, many big name comedians appear, albeit in small roles, and how expensive it must have been to produce—but the fans have been doing their due diligence to get the show noticed. In any case, I went from never having heard of the show to seeing it everywhere (and with some really promising commentary). Additionally, I was going through a bit of a pirate phase (there are a couple of badass privateers in YA right now), so when I had a day off from work and the house to myself I decided I’d give it a shot.

I’m really glad that I did. I meant to try a couple of episodes and then get on with my life, but I ended up binging the whole thing in a single day. That’s not my usual style. Our Flag Means Death, on the other hand, totally is. It’s a hilarious ensemble comedy with a heartfelt emotional core. It’s also incredibly queer, which is the main thing that I knew about going into the show and honestly the thing that sold me on it. There were three things I knew about Our Flag Means Death going in: it’s funny, there’s a nonbinary pirate, and it’s not queerbaity. After the debacle that was Supernatural, “it’s not queerbait” is a heck of a pitch. Is it a spoiler? Eeeh. I guess, technically, but honestly who cares?

What’s it about?

Based very loosely on the story of the real-life “Gentleman Pirate” Stede Bonnet, Our Flag Means Death follows a wealthy, middle-aged man who abandons his comfortable life of leisure to take to the seas. Despite his intentions, Stede doesn’t have much in the way of pirate instincts: his ship has a full library and secret passages, he pays his men a standard wage instead of a loot percentage, encourages them to talk through their mental anguish, and reads bedtime stories. The men aren’t sure about this kinder, gentler way of pirating, but an encounter with the British navy and, later, a partnership with the infamous Blackbeard promises to change them all.

What’d I think?

There is a lot to like about Our Flag Means Death. It’s a comedy and in many ways it feels like a workplace sitcom (albeit a workplace that is a pirate ship, with all that entails), but it has a very defined season-long storyline that you don’t generally find in that traditional comedy. Yes, the best half-hour comedies develop their characters over their series runs, but as a general rule you don’t have to see all the episodes. You can more or less catch on even if you’ve missed a few episodes or even a few seasons. Parks and Recreation is one of the best sitcoms out there, and the first episode I saw was from the back end of season six. You couldn’t just drop into Our Flag Means Death halfway through, because while the surface level is immensely funny, the larger parts of the story—the overarching plot, the emotional development of both individual characters and their relationships as a whole—play out more like a drama, with the events of episode one driving the development that comes back throughout the rest of the season. A lot of the jokes also tie into the larger emotion and storylines, so a lot of the best ones require context from previous episodes to get the whole laugh.

A good example of this is the scene towards the end of the season with Stede and Chauncey Badminton (if you’ve seen the show you 100% know what scene I’m talking about; if you haven’t, it’s way too big a spoiler and would require way too much context to explain). If you have all the context about Stede’s personal journey and opinion of himself, paired with his past with Badminton’s twin brother, the scene is both heartbreaking and ludicrously funny. If you’d just jumped in, you might get a surprised chuckle out of it, but it absolutely would not land. 

The marriage of comedy and drama makes for the best kind of entertainment. The laughs make it an actively good time, but the dramatic and emotional high stakes are really what keep you engaged. It gives you that I have to know what happens next drive but never gets so bogged down in misery that it stops being fun. 

I’m also a big fan of the ensemble cast, especially when they’re all well-developed and well-balanced. Of course there’s always going to be a couple of central characters—Stede is clearly our hero, with Blackbeard a close second, then Jim, Izzy, and Lucius, and the others falling somewhere beneath them, but having a large group of characters gives lots of opportunities for the audience to find someone who really speaks to them. For instance, my favorite characters are Lucius and Stede but when scrolling Tumblr I’ve found that all the other significant characters are just as represented there, if not more so. I’m a bit bewildered by the amount of love for the brutish and cruel Izzy Hands, but for a lot of people he’s a top tier character. When you have a deep bench, there’s someone for everyone. 

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All Our Hidden Gifts (Book Review)

Since I work at Barnes and Noble I try to make a point of reading at least one of their monthly picks. I don’t always do it, but when I do I tend to go for the young adult choice because that’s both my section at work and because it’s what I read by choice. I occasionally go into it reluctantly, like last month when I made a rare foray into horror. This month, though, the book already appealed to me: it’s a fantasy novel full of magic and magic that touts a nonbinary love interest and has some beautiful cover art. I don’t know if All Our Hidden Gifts by Caroline O’Donoghue would have made it to the top of my TBR if it hadn’t been a monthly pick, but that put it on my radar and I read it very happily.

What’s it about?

Maeve is a bit of a problem child. Her siblings are all major overachievers, and she’s struggling even at the expensive private school her parents sent her to in an attempt to straighten her out. She’s not much better with her social life, having semi-recently thrown over her best friend to try to climb the social ladder. Things change when she finds an old deck of tarot cards while cleaning out the school basement for detention. Maeve has an uncanny ability to memorize and interpret the cards, and her readings become something of a novelty at school until, goaded by her new friends and under pressure to maintain her nebulous new popularity, Maeve does a reading for her ex-best-friend Lily that goes sideways when Maeve draws an unfamiliar card and in the heat of the moment wishes that Lily would disappear.

What’d I think?

I really enjoyed All Our Hidden Gifts. I was first struck by the voice. Maeve is a great protagonist, and by that I mean she’s a little bit terrible but very compelling and somehow, at the end of the day, someone you can root for. When we first meet her she’s in detention for throwing a shoe at a teacher, and she’s hilariously unrepentant. Her voice flows freely, letting the reader easily sympathize with her while being fully aware that this is a girl who makes very questionable decisions. One of my biggest pet peeves with fiction is when writers can’t quite figure out how to keep a character’s POV without buying into all their shortcomings; I want to be able to tell that something is intended as a character flaw, and not something that the author is excusing. O’Donoghue never has to step out of Maeve’s voice to moralize her decisions, but she also never gives the impression that we’re supposed to agree with everything that Maeve does. It’s a hard line to walk, and I really appreciate when it’s done well.

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10 Books for Asian American Heritage Month

Happy AAPI Heritage Month!

Obviously we should all be reading diversely year-round, but heritage months are always a good time to check in with our reading lists. In that interest I decided to put together a list of some great books by and about Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. In so doing I realized that I have a major deficiency: while I’ve read and adored lots of Asian writers, the PI half of AAPI has not figured into my reading. That’s something I’d love to correct. If you have any recommendations for me, please put them in the comments!

I didn’t want that issue to stop me from sharing a list of favorite Asian writers, though! I did a top ten since ten is a nice number, and I’ve included only YA books because they’re my favorite/specialty. I didn’t make a particular point of balancing the country of origin (although I did make sure to highlight it in the summaries), but coincidentally by choosing books I loved I got a decent—though obviously, since I only picked ten books, not exhaustive—selection.

There is also a pretty good spread of genre and focus. I picked some contemporary fiction, some romance, some fantasy, and one historical fiction novel. Some deal with serious issues and others are fluffy. Lots of them are LGBTQ+. All are great.

If you haven’t read these books, you absolutely should! I highly recommend them all! And you should also definitely give me more suggestions because I’m always looking for more great books.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

What it’s about: When Lily Hu comes across an advertisement for a male impersonator, it awakens something in her and ignites a friendship with a classmate who takes her to the Telegraph Club, an underground LGBTQ+ hotspot. But Lily’s queer awakening and potential romance are threatened by circumstance: Lily’s Chinese-American family can’t afford to make any waves without risking deportation as both the Red and Lavender Scares are in full swing. Last Night at the Telegraph Club won the Asian/Pacific American Award for Youth Literature just this year!

Read my review here

Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram

What it’s about: Darius Kellner is half Persian, technically. He’s inherited his mother’s Persian looks (and the racist abuse he gets from some of his classmates at school), but that’s about all the connection he has to his culture. He can’t speak Farsi and, aside from occasional and largely silent Skype conversations with his maternal grandparents, he’s never even met his mother’s family. Despite this, he’s no closer to his father, who is übermensch and endlessly disapproving. When Darius’ Persian grandfather’s health takes a turn for the worse, the family packs up and travels to Iran for the first time in Darius’ life, and his experiences there—as well as his friendship with his grandparents’ neighbor Sohrab—affect him deeply.

Read my review here

Meet Cute Diary by Emery Lee

What it’s about: Noah, a young mixed race (Japanese and Puerto Rican) trans boy, runs a blog wherein he posts about sweet meet-cutes that will give hope to other trans people who worry that they’ll never find love. There’s one problem, though. Noah doesn’t actually collect true stories from trans submitters; the stories are all wish-fulfillment fiction of chance encounters Noah had that might’ve been been a standard meet-cute if they’d ended with romance. They didn’t. When rumors start to fly online that the Meet Cute Diary is a scam, Noah fears that it’s all over. But then the universe tosses him a lifeline in Drew, one of the guys Noah cutely met and wrote about on the Diary. Drew is a dream come true: Noah’s first boyfriend and a lifeline for the blog all in one handsome package.

Read my review here

Love, Hate, and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed

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