Category Archives: Review

[Blog Tour] Review for The Red Palace by June Hur

It’s a new year already, which sounds fake since it feels like just yesterday we were starting off 2021. I haven’t kept up with my blog as much as I hoped over the past year, but I’m still hanging in there and getting all my blog tour posts in. Today’s review is for one of my most anticipated 2022 releases, The Red Palace by June Hur, as part of the blog tour hosted by Colored Pages. You can find out more about the tour and view the tour schedule on the Colored Pages site.

Book Information

Title: The Red Palace
Author: June Hur  
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Publication Date: January 25th, 2022 
Genres: Young Adult, historical fiction, mystery

Synopsis

Joseon (Korea), 1758. There are few options available to illegitimate daughters in the capital city, but through hard work and study, eighteen-year-old Hyeon has earned a position as a palace nurse. All she wants is to keep her head down, do a good job, and perhaps finally win her estranged father’s approval.

But Hyeon is suddenly thrust into the dark and dangerous world of court politics when someone murders four women in a single night, and the prime suspect is Hyeon’s closest friend and mentor. Determined to prove her beloved teacher’s innocence, Hyeon launches her own secret investigation.

In her hunt for the truth, she encounters Eojin, a young police inspector also searching for the killer. When evidence begins to point to the Crown Prince himself as the murderer, Hyeon and Eojin must work together to search the darkest corners of the palace to uncover the deadly secrets behind the bloodshed.

June Hur, critically acclaimed author of The Silence of Bones and The Forest of Stolen Girls, returns with The Red Palace—a third evocative, atmospheric historical mystery perfect for fans of Courtney Summers and Kerri Maniscalco.

Review

(Note: I received an advance reader copy of the book from the publisher as part of my participation in this tour in exchange for an honest review.)

Honestly I feel like I might be repeating myself somewhat from my review of The Forest of Stolen Girls, but June Hur has delivered yet another masterful bone-chilling page-turner. Something about the way she writes infuses each page with the atmospheric essence necessary to immerse you in the world of her stories. There’s not a word wasted, each sentence a silken thread in a grand tapestry that you cannot fully grasp until it has finished being woven before your eyes. It’s like magic.

At the heart of this tragic serial murder mystery is nuanced commentary on gender and class inequality in 18th century Joseon Korea, the ghosts that haunt Hyeon at each step of her investigation and her life as a whole. As a young woman and an illegitimate child of a noble and a former courtesan, she has few prospects in a world of strict gender segregation and class stratification. Her attempts to pursue truth and justice on behalf of the murder victims and the innocent scapegoat for their deaths put her at odds with the prevailing social order, which would prefer that she keep her head down and mouth shut—if she doesn’t want to end up dead as well.

The story makes it clear who is treated as disposable and who can largely harm with impunity, and the challenge of solving the mystery is very much tied up in social power differentials and access to knowledge and resources. Yet the lurking threats to Hyeon and to those who refuse to let the truth remain untold ironically betray the fragility of the powerful and the faults in the system that allow those with less privilege to gain leverage and turn the tables. Thus the story does not fall into a fatalistic view of society but instead instills hope that toxic systems can be upended and justice can prevail.

As with her previous novels, this newest book of June’s centers on family and the complex feelings of daughters toward patriarchal figures. Hyeon’s desperate desire for validation from her emotionally distant and unforgiving father informs her choices and creates internal conflict throughout the story. Her investigation could jeopardize the achievements she has worked hard to attain as a palace nurse, so she must choose between doing what’s right and doing what is expected of her.

One notable way that The Red Palace diverges from its predecessors is the inclusion of a romantic subplot. Folded into the story’s broader theme of gender and class inequality is an aching tale of forbidden love. Eojin and Hyeon share analytical minds and an eye for detail, a strong sense of justice, and a stubborn streak that puts them in danger of retribution by those who feel threatened by their investigation. Yet the strict rules of gender and class dictated by their time and place cut a wide gulf between them, barring them from forging a socially sanctioned friendship and bond of intimacy. The result is a slow-burn romance replete with soulful yearning, stolen glances, and unspoken affection. It is devastating and beautiful, and you’ll have to read the book to find out not only who killed the palace women and why but what the future holds for Eojin and Hyeon. Trust me, it’s worth it.

In my next post, I’ll share some favorite quotes from the book to give a taste of what you’re in for.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Blackwells | Book Depository | Bookshop.org | Goodreads | IndieBound | Indigo | Kinokuniya USA

About the Author

a black and white photo of a pale-skinned young East Asian woman with long black hair who is smiling widely with teeth showing and eyes crinkled; a veil of maple leaves are faintly visible in the unfocused background

June Hur was born in South Korea and raised in Canada, except for the time when she moved back to Korea and attended high school there. She studied History and Literature at the University of Toronto. She began writing her debut novel after obsessing over books about Joseon Korea. When she’s not writing, she can be found wandering through nature or journaling at a coffee shop. She is the author of The Silence of BonesThe Forest of Stolen GirlsThe Red Palace, and A Crane Among Wolves, published by Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan, and she currently lives in Toronto with her husband and daughter.

[Blog Tour] Review for Bounce Back by Misako Rocks!

So…it’s winter already, and there are only 6 more weeks left of 2021…Sounds fake but isn’t. I’ve been drowning in schoolwork since it’s the last one-third of the semester, but I managed to carve out some time for the blog tour hosted by Colored Pages for a new middle grade graphic novel release, Bounce Back by Misako Rocks!. You can find the tour information on the Colored Pages site.

Book Information

Title: Bounce Back
Author: Misako Rocks!
Publisher: Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan
Publication Date: November 16th, 2021
Age Range/Genre: Middle Grade Contemporary

Synopsis

Friendship, a new school, and a bit of magic converge in this full-color graphic novel.

Lilico’s life in Japan is going well. She has great friends and is the captain of the school’s basketball team. She’s happy!

Then comes her parents’ news: they’re moving to America! Before she knows it, Lilico finds herself in Brooklyn, New York, forced to start all over. And that won’t be easy with her closest friends thousands of miles away or a school bully who immediately dislikes her.

Luckily, anime-loving Nala and Henry eventually befriend Lilico and with help from them—along with her guardian spirit who looks a lot like her cat, Nico—Lilico just might figure out where she fits in.

Review

Before I move on to the substantial aspect, I just want to note that the first thing that struck me when I looked at the cover for Bounce Back was a wave of nostalgia. The art style is highly reminiscent of some popular shoujo manga from the late 90s and early 2000s that I grew up with. In particular, I was reminded of the artwork of Natsumi Matsumoto (St. Dragon Girl, Yumeiro Patissiere) and Arina Tanemura (Full Moon wo Sagashite, The Legend of Princess Sakura, Idol Dreams), but there are others from the same era whose works that I’m not familiar with feature that cutesy, huge-eyed look (Mihona Fujii, Natsumi Ando).

The talking cat on the cover calls back to Luna and Artemis from Sailor Moon, and the story even mentions that resemblance on-page.

It’s always interesting to see how trends emerge and then go out, and when I saw Bounce Back, I felt like I was having a retro moment (not in a bad way though). I definitely feel like this book pays homage to those older shoujo manga.

Blending a shoujo manga-like style with a full-color left-to-right Western graphic novel format, Bounce Back delivers a charming and heartfelt middle grade story about a Japanese girl adapting to her new life in New York City.

Since this is a novel rather than a serialized comic spanning multiple volumes, it definitely feels denser than the typical shoujo manga. There are multiple interwoven plotlines introduced and resolved within the 250-odd pages: Lilico’s adjustment to a new culture; her friendship with the two resident otaku of her school, Henry and Nala; her ascendance to basketball stardom; a blossoming romance with Noah, a popular boy who’s the star of the boys’ basketball team; and the ever-present tension with a basketball teammate Emma who is Nala’s ex-BFF and also the catty Mean Girl of their school.

Throughout all of these events, Lilico’s guardian spirit, borrowing the body of her cat Nicco, acts as her mentor, confidante, and conscience. Though Nicco doesn’t give her a transformation pen to become a superpowered warrior, he does help Lilico tackle the difficulties of social relationships, acting as messenger and liaison in critical moments. He is the embodiment of unconditional love and friendship and a source of comfort that Lilico can depend on. Honestly, I wish I had my own Nicco to snuggle.

At first I was a bit apprehensive about Nala and Henry since interest in Japanese culture can easily slide into fetishizing Japanese people as a whole. Thankfully, their weebiness tones down a bit after the beginning and they establish bonds where they can talk to Lilico about things like fashion and interpersonal relationships rather than Japanese things. The two of them act as valuable guides to Lilico at school.

Though Noah plays a role in helping Lilico come into herself as the star of the girls basketball team and makes a sweet love interest, the primary focus of the story is friendship dynamics and the growing pains that come with them. The bigger question seems to be: How far will Lilico go to gain acceptance in her new school, and can she still be friends with Nala while trying to placate Emma and the rest of the girls on the basketball team?

One of the nice things about the art is that the full-color format allows for darker-skinned characters to shine. Shoujo manga from Japan has a colorism problem where everyone is pale by default despite the range of skin tones in the real life Japanese population, and darker-skinned characters are typically either absent or subject to negative stereotypes. In Bounce Back, brown-skinned Nala is an avid cosplayer and clothing designer who gets to be artsy and versatile while rocking colorful Harajuku-inspired fashion.

In a more general view, the ink wash texture and color patches that don’t quite touch and completely fill the outlines in the backgrounds create a softness that is easy on the eyes and brings out the earnest feelings of the tween characters. The creator’s use of exaggeratedly large eyes along with closeups of the face also helps convey a range of emotions ranging from comedic to sober while underscoring the youthfulness of the characters.

Overall, Bounce Back is a story that brings comfort in the face of big life changes, delivered in a cute and colorful package.

In my next post I’ll be sharing my little playlist I put together for this book.

AmazonBarnes & Noble | Books-A-Million | Bookshop.org | GoodreadsIndieBound | Indigo | Kinokuniya USA

About the Author

MISAKO ROCKS! is the creator of Biker Girl and Rock and Roll Love. A self-taught artist from a family of law-enforcement officials, Misako moved to the United States from Japan as a teenager. She now lives in Brooklyn, New York.

[Blog Tour] Review for Jade Fire Gold by June CL Tan

2021 is already more than 3/4 over, which sounds like fake news even though it isn’t. I’m trying my best to juggle my various responsibilities, and even though I was wary of overloading myself, I simply had to sign up for the blog tour for Jade Fire Gold. This tour is hosted by Caffeine Book Tours, and you can find more details about it on the CBT website.

Book Information

Title: Jade Fire Gold
Author: June CL Tan
US Cover
: GUWEIZ
UK Cover
:  Aaron Munday
Publisher
: HarperTeen
Publication date
: 12 October 2021
Age group:
Young Adult
Genres
: Fantasy

Synopsis

Girls of Paper and Fire meets The Tiger at Midnight in June CL Tan’s stunning debut, inspired by Chinese mythology, with rich magic and an epic slow-burn romance.

In an empire on the brink of war . . .

Ahn is no one, with no past and no family.

Altan is a lost heir, his future stolen away as a child.

When they meet, Altan sees in Ahn a path to reclaiming the throne. Ahn sees a way to finally unlock her past and understand her arcane magical abilities.

But they may have to pay a far deadlier price than either could have imagined.

Ferocious action, shadowy intrigue, and a captivating romance collide in June CL Tan’s debut, a stunning homage to the Xianxia novel with a tender, beating heart, perfect for fans of The Bone Witch and We Hunt the Flame.

On-page Representation

  • POC (Chinese-coded characters)
  • LGBTQ+ (Sapphic, gay)

Trigger and Content Warnings

  • self-harm (gouging, eye horror; non-graphic)
  • child abuse (physical, verbal, emotional manipulation/gaslighting)
  • parent death (implied, off-page)
  • character deaths
  • mentions and descriptions of fantasy/magical violence (blood, war, political violence)
  • mentions and descriptions of physical symptoms that might be triggering to those with emetophobia
  • alcohol consumption

Review

Note: I received a review copy of Jade Fire Gold as part of my participation in this tour in exchange for an honest review.

Jade Fire Gold was one of my most anticipated releases of 2021 and I’m happy to say that I had a great time with this xianxia inspired fantasy. I haven’t read a fantasy novel that’s this many pages in a long time, but I never got bored. There were many things to love about it.

First, I love that this story plays with familiar tropes from Western fantasy and Chinese xianxia. The Chinese-inspired setting was easy for me to immerse myself in as someone who grew up on a steady diet of period cdramas. It was fun to see how June tweaked and repurposed cultural elements that resonated with my experiences. For those who aren’t acquainted with them, she provides ample scaffolding to bring this world to life with poetically drawn descriptions.

Epic fantasy vibes aside, what really kept me invested in the story was the characters. The two main leads, Ahn and Altan, each have their own traumas and desires, and a cruel twist of fate brings them together for a life-or-death mission. I found myself questioning what choices and sacrifices they would make to reach their goals, and whether they’d succumb to their inner darkness.

At first, the romance between Ahn and Altan felt a little too insta-attraction-y for my tastes, but it gradually developed enough that I started genuinely rooting for them and dreading the star-crossed lovers trajectory of their relationship. Slow-burn enemies-to-lovers fans: this one’s for you.

I also really loved many of the supporting characters, particularly the four of who are explicitly queer (including a f/f pairing). The story really built up their personalities and backgrounds as their lives converged with Ahn’s and Altan’s, with some interesting twists thrown in. I was distraught any time it seemed like one of them was going to get hurt, or actually did get hurt. I would totally be down to read companion stories about any of them.

Although the conflict in this book gets resolved enough that it could stand alone, the epilogue of the story creates a clear jumping off point for a sequel. I’m guessing the publisher hasn’t committed to one yet until Jade Fire Gold succeeds, but I hope it happens since I am 👀👀👀 at the revelation in the epilogue. Fingers crossed and please check this book out to help make that book 2 a reality.

Also, as usual, stay tuned for my blog tour bonus content in a separate post. 🙂


Book links (note: you are free to use your own affiliate links or to other booksellers):

About the Author

June CL Tan grew up in Singapore where she was raised on a diet of classic books and wuxia movies, caffeine and congee. She holds various degrees in communication studies, education, and film. After teaching for a few years, she took a detour into the finance industry. To no one’s surprise, she soon realized her mistake and made her escape. Now, she resides in New York City, talking to imaginary people and creating fantastical worlds under the watchful eye of her crafty cat. She enjoys telling stories that draw on both the traditional and modern to create something fresh to the eye, but familiar to the heart. Jade Fire Gold is her debut novel. 

Author links:

[Blog Tour] Review for Things We Couldn’t Say by Jay Coles

Hope everyone is having a nice fall (or spring depending on which hemisphere you’re in). The Mid-Autumn Festival and Chuseok are this week on Tuesday! Also coming on Tuesday is a wonderful queer Black YA novel, Things We Couldn’t Say by Jay Coles. I’m happy to be featuring this book as part of the blog tour hosted by Colored Pages.

Book Information 

Title: Things We Couldn’t Say 
Author: Jay Coles 
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Publication Date: September 21st, 2021
Genres: Young Adult Contemporary

Synopsis:

From one of the brightest and most acclaimed new lights in YA fiction, a fantastic new novel about a bi Black boy finding first love . . . and facing the return of the mother who abandoned his preacher family when he was nine.

There’s always been a hole in Gio’s life. Not because he’s into both guys and girls. Not because his father has some drinking issues. Not because his friends are always bringing him their drama. No, the hole in Gio’s life takes the shape of his birth mom, who left Gio, his brother, and his father when Gio was nine years old. For eight years, he never heard a word from her . . . and now, just as he’s started to get his life together, she’s back.

It’s hard for Gio to know what to do. Can he forgive her like she wants to be forgiven? Or should he tell her she lost her chance to be in his life? Complicating things further, Gio’s started to hang out with David, a new guy on the basketball team. Are they friends? More than friends? At first, Gio’s not sure . . . especially because he’s not sure what he wants from anyone right now.

There are no easy answers to love — whether it’s family love or friend love or romantic love. In Things We Couldn’t Say, Jay Coles, acclaimed author of Tyler Johnson Was Here, shows us a guy trying to navigate love in all its ambiguity — hoping at the other end he’ll be able to figure out who is and who he should be.

Review:

This is a book that really made me go “oof.” Our protagonist, Gio, has to process a lot of complicated and heavy emotions through the story. His anxiety, depression, and PTSD are incredibly raw and so viscerally presented that I found myself hurting alongside him. I can’t speak to the experience of being abandoned by a parent, but I did see myself in many aspects of his struggles with mental illness and trauma. In particular, I empathized with his feelings of guilt and worthlessness, the sense that he did not deserve care and love because he was too broken to do anything but hurt others as a result of his trauma.

Running parallel to the storyline about Gio’s mother and providing some uplifting relief is his budding relationship with the new neighbor who’s also on his basketball team, David. David awakens something in him that he’s never felt before. Although Gio figured out that he’s bi before the events of the story, David is the first boy that he’s truly fallen for, the first person in general who seems to really get his experiences because David has lost someone dear to him, too. The tenderness, earnestness, and vulnerability between the two boys will make your heart ache.

Filling out the cast of characters in the book are Gio’s family and friends: his distant preacher father, his nurturing stepmom Karina, his precocious younger brother Theo, his two BFFs Ayesha and Olly, as well as a host of people in his predominantly Black neighborhood and community that are part of the landscape of his daily life. Each character is given their own depth and humanity, adding texture and nuance to Gio’s story.

There are also a few racist white characters, from Gio’s ignorant Nice White Lady English teacher to an explicitly, aggressively antiblack store manager. These characters will likely be familiar to any readers of color, especially Black readers, who have encountered similar figures in their own lives at various points. Although racism isn’t the central conflict of the story, it still informs Gio’s character and the setting and sustains the realism.

Aside from the plotlines about his mother and David, there’s also one about Gio’s future as it relates to what his father expects. His father is pretty insistent on having him take over the church, but Gio dreams of playing basketball and therefore constantly clashes with his father over what is “really important.” Watching Gio stand up for himself and articulate his desires felt so gratifying. This conflict plays out in so many YA stories, but it never feels old because life is so often a struggle between external pressures and internal desires.

I’m not really one who cries over books super often, but Things We Couldn’t Say made me tear up multiple times. Something about Jay Coles’ writing really just digs under your skin and burrows into your heart. If you’re in the mood for an angsty, cathartic read, this is one to pick up.

And stay tuned for a collection of some favorite quotes from Things We Couldn’t Say. 🙂

Content/Trigger Warnings: alcoholic parent, queermisia, parental abandonment, anxiety (including panic attacks), depression, PTSD, racism/antiblackness

Book Links:  

About the Author

JAY COLES is the author of critically acclaimed TYLER JOHNSON WAS HERE, a composer with ASCAP, and a professional musician residing in Muncie, Indiana. He is a graduate of Vincennes University and Ball State University and holds degrees in English and Liberal Arts. When he’s not writing diverse books, he’s advocating for them, serving with The Revolution church, and composing music for various music publishers. Jay’s forthcoming novel THINGS WE COULDN’T SAY is set to be released 9.21.21 with Scholastic! His novels can be purchased at Barnes and Noble or at Amazon.

Author Links:

[Blog Tour] Review for A Clash of Steel by C.B. Lee

Hello, I can’t believe it’s fall already. I spent this summer taking a course on children’s literature, preparing to move residences and then settling in after my move in August, and even giving my first professional presentation on sensitivity reading. I’ve been in a reading slump, but signing up for the blog tour for A Clash of Steel, hosted by Colored Pages Book Tours, helped me get back into reading again. I’ve been eagerly anticipating the release of this book for a while, and I’m excited to share my thoughts.

Book Information

Title: A Clash of Steel
Author: C.B. Lee
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Publication Date: September 7th, 2021
Genres: Young Adult, Historical Fiction

Synopsis:

Two intrepid girls hunt for a legendary treasure on the deadly high seas in this YA remix of the classic adventure novel Treasure Island.The sun is setting on the golden age of piracy, and the legendary

1826. The sun is setting on the golden age of piracy, and the legendary Dragon Fleet, the scourge of the South China Sea, is no more. Its ruthless leader, a woman known only as the Head of the Dragon, is now only a story, like the ones Xiang has grown up with all her life. She desperately wants to prove her worth, especially to her mother, a shrewd businesswoman who never seems to have enough time for Xiang. Her father is also only a story, dead at sea before Xiang was born. Her single memento of him is a pendant she always wears, a simple but plain piece of gold jewelry.

But the pendant’s true nature is revealed when a mysterious girl named Anh steals it, only to return it to Xiang in exchange for her help in decoding the tiny map scroll hidden inside. The revelation that Xiang’s father sailed with the Dragon Fleet and tucked away this secret changes everything. Rumor has it that the legendary Head of the Dragon had one last treasure—the plunder of a thousand ports—that for decades has only been a myth, a fool’s journey.

Xiang is convinced this map could lead to the fabled treasure. Captivated with the thrill of adventure, she joins Anh and her motley crew off in pursuit of the island. But the girls soon find that the sea—and especially those who sail it—are far more dangerous than the legends led them to believe.

Review:

Because my attention span is almost nonexistent a lot of the time these days, getting into a book can take a while. With A Clash of Steel, I didn’t struggle nearly as much as usual, however. Even without a deadline setting a fire under me, I was still sucked into the story from early on.

At the core, A Clash of Steel is a story about yearning, in various senses of the word. Xiang yearns for many things: her mother’s approval, a more exciting life and future outside of the bounds her mother has set for, and control over her own destiny. When she meets Anh, the yearning for a special someone to be by her side forever blooms as well.

A Clash of Steel is very much a classic quest narrative, with a treasure trove waiting at the end and many obstacles, including a cryptic poem, standing in the way. Thematically, the story’s external conflicts reflect Xiang’s internal conflicts as she is forced to make decisions about what she values most. Moving from a sheltered life inland to braving the boundless ocean, worlds of possibility open up before her. Watching Xiang take her first steps into becoming herself free of her mother was satisfying, and thanks to the gorgeous and detailed prose, I found myself also immersed in the rhythms of life in a busy port city and on a ship weathering wind and rain.

Central to Xiang’s growth is Anh, who takes a chance on her, teaches her new things, and provides a different perspective as someone who has lived the unstable life of a seafaring laborer. The sapphic romance between Xiang and Anh made my heart ache. For a while, Xiang tries her best to suppress her feelings for Anh, believing that there is no place in the world for two women to love and find happiness together. There’s so much tension built up over the book that when Xiang finally acts on her feelings, it feels like a deluge.

One of the refreshing aspects of A Clash of Steel is the unapologetic diversity. The South China Sea was historically (and still is) a host to people from all different places. When Xiang joins the crew of the boat captained by Anh’s mother, Huyền Vũ, she becomes a part of a found family from various backgrounds—Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, and Nepali. Furthermore, since the seafaring folk don’t adhere strictly to the laws of the landbound political institutions, there is greater freedom for queer people to be themselves. Two of the men on board the boat, Châu and Arthrit, are married and everyone is fine with it. It shouldn’t be a surprise, given that same-gender relationships are a part the real history of maritime life, but unfortunately this history is often erased in fiction, along with the racial and ethnic diversity of pirates and sailors.

A Clash of Steel was a very special read to me because it has shown me I can write a historical fiction story with Asian pirates and there will be an audience for it. My family is from Taiwan, which has been a critical player in maritime trade for centuries, and I have plans to write a story connected to that history.

Anyway, if you’re looking for a high-stakes adventure, aching romance, and heartfelt coming-of-age story, read A Clash of Steel! And don’t forget to check out my follow-up post with some of my favorite quotes from the book.

Book Links:

About the Author:

CB Lee is a Lambda Literary Award nominated writer of young adult science fiction and fantasy. Her works include the Sidekick Squad series (Duet Books), Ben 10 (Boom!), and All Out Now (HarperTeen). CB loves to write about queer teens, magic, superheroes, and the power of friendship.
Lee’s work has been featured in Teen Vogue, Wired Magazine, and Hypable. Lee’s first novel in the Sidekick Squad series, Not Your Sidekick was a 2017 Lambda Literary Awards Finalist in YA/Children’s Fiction and a 2017 Bisexual Book Awards Finalist in Speculative Fiction. Seven Tears at High Tide was the recipient of a Rainbow Award for Best Bisexual Fantasy Romance and also a finalist for the 2016 Bisexual Book Awards in the YA and Speculative Fiction categories.

Author Links:

Review for Made in Korea by Sarah Suk

Summer is here for me, and the heat and humidity combo is the Worst, but thankfully I’m mostly indoors reading books. Today’s review is for a recent release, Made in Korea, that exceeded my expectations.

Synopsis:

Frankly in Love meets Shark Tank in this feel-good romantic comedy about two entrepreneurial Korean American teens who butt heads—and maybe fall in love—while running competing Korean beauty businesses at their high school.

There’s nothing Valerie Kwon loves more than making a good sale. Together with her cousin Charlie, they run V&C K-BEAUTY, their school’s most successful student-run enterprise. With each sale, Valerie gets closer to taking her beloved and adventurous halmeoni to her dream city, Paris.

Enter the new kid in class, Wes Jung, who is determined to pursue music after graduation despite his parents’ major disapproval. When his classmates clamor to buy the K-pop branded beauty products his mom gave him to “make new friends,” he sees an opportunity—one that may be the key to help him pay for the music school tuition he knows his parents won’t cover…

What he doesn’t realize, though, is that he is now V&C K-BEAUTY’s biggest competitor.

Stakes are high as Valerie and Wes try to outsell each other, make the most money, and take the throne for the best business in school—all while trying to resist the undeniable spark that’s crackling between them. From hiring spies to all-or-nothing bets, the competition is much more than either of them bargained for.

But one thing is clear: only one Korean business can come out on top.

Review:

Note: I received a review copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Made in Korea is billed as a romcom, and it delivers with its funny and dynamic he-said/she-said dual narrative centering two Korean American teens. Valerie is an ambitious and resourceful girl with an acute business sense while Wes is much less assertive and socially awkward, but still astute in his own way, and sensitive in a way that makes you want to protect him.

The plot of Made in Korea is over-the-top in a K-drama worthy fashion, with twists and turns and increasingly high stakes driving the suspense as the story unfolds. The rivals/enemies-to-lovers trope is wielded with grace and humor as Valerie and Wes navigate that weird gray area where you’re supposed to want the other person to fail but can’t help but respect and even like them.

What really made the book for me is that the lighter romcom elements are grounded by a more serious and earnest theme of wanting to be Seen. While on the surface they may seem radically different, Valerie and Wes both desperately crave the approval and support of their parents. Valerie’s mom constantly compares her to her perfect-on-paper older sister and finds her wanting, dismissing her K-beauty business as child’s play. Wes’s dad requires him to seek out a stable and lucrative field above all else, including his dreams of becoming a musician. These conflicts provide depth to the protagonists’ motivations in their competing businesses and create common ground between them for their blossoming friendship and eventual romantic entanglement.

While their parents may not give them the support they need, Valerie and Wes each has their own support system: Valerie has her Halmeoni, who loves her unconditionally and serves as her rock, and Wes reaches out to his paternal uncle, who understands his experiences as someone who is himself a musician by trade and similarly subjected to the disdain and disappointment of Wes’s father. These relationships add a layer of nuance to their family dynamics and offer hope and solace to the two main characters.

Three other major supporting characters also won my heart: Charlie, who is Valerie’s cousin and business partner; Pauline, a biracial Korean American who ends up partnering with Wes for his business as a way to connect with her heritage; and Taemin, an irreverent Korean American teen who’s trying his best to turn over a new leaf. Pauline is geeky in a way that I understand all too well while Charlie is the charming and loyal sidekick who deserves better because Valerie is too caught up in her own issues to notice that she’s mistreating him. Charlie and Pauline once had a biology partner meet-cute, but a certain incident set them adrift and estranged from each other, so they spend the book trying to find their way back to each other. Taemin is adorable in his bad-boy-with-a-heart-of-gold way who becomes a surprising hero/villain of sorts when he is dragged into Valerie and Wes’s shenanigans. I would 100% be down to read sequels or companion books about how these characters develop beyond/after the events of Made in Korea.

Conclusion: While reading Made in Korea, I laughed out loud multiple times, and toward the end, I found myself crying as well because it’s so heartfelt. It was a wonderful rollercoaster ride of emotions, and I hope it can bring other readers the same experience.


Book Links:

Goodreads | Barnes & Noble | Bookshop | Books-A-Million | IndieBound

About the Author:

Sarah Suk (pronounced like soup with a K) lives in Vancouver, Canada where she writes stories and admires mountains. When she’s not writing, you can find her hanging out by the water, taking film photos, or eating a bowl of bingsu.

Author Links:

[Blog Tour] Review for Sister of the Bollywood Bride by Nandini Bajpai

Pleased to announce that I’m done with school for the spring!!! And I’m happy to be a part of the blog tour for Sister of the Bollywood Bride hosted by Lonely Pages Tours. This is the second book by Nandini Bajpai I’ve read, the first being Starcursed, a historical YA story that I reviewed back in 2017. (It was published in India years ago, so it might be hard to get, but I highly recommend it!)

Book Information

Title: Sister of the Bollywood Bride
Author: Nandini Bajpai
Pub date: May 25th, 2021
Publisher: Poppy (Hachette)
Genres: Contemporary, Young Adult, Romance

Synopsis

For fans of Morgan Matson’s Save the Date comes a charming novel about one teen’s summer tackling disasters including, but not limited to, family, romance, and weather — as she plans her sister’s Bollywood-style Indian wedding.

Mini’s big sister, Vinnie, is getting married. Their mom passed away seven years ago and between Dad’s new start-up and Vinnie’s medical residency, there’s no one but Mini to plan the wedding. Dad raised her to know more about computers, calculus, and cars than desi weddings but from the moment Mini held the jewelry Mom left them, she wanted her sister to have the wedding Mom would’ve planned.

Now Mini has only two months to get it done and she’s not going to let anything distract her, not even the persistent, mysterious, and smoking-hot Vir Mirchandani. Flower garlands, decorations, music, even a white wedding horse — everything is in place.

That is, until a monster hurricane heads for Boston that could ruin everything. Will Mini come through as sister of the bride and save the day?

Review

(Note: I received an advance copy of the book as part of my participation in the tour. This did not affect my evaluation of the story.)

I feel like this was the perfect book to read after a very stressful school semester. It’s a mostly light-hearted contemporary where the stakes aren’t super earth-shattering/life-or-death but still important to the main character. I cannot imagine planning a wedding in real life, but following along Mini for the ride as she tries to coordinate a wedding on a somewhat low budget was highly entertaining.

Indian weddings are notorious for being for over-the-top, and the book delivers on that front with vivid descriptions of everything, especially the clothes. Mini has a talent for clothing design and creates amazing pieces. I feel like I would have appreciated it more if I had a background in fashion and textiles, but it was a feast for the mind’s eye regardless.

As the synopsis promised, there is a romance plotline to the story, but it’s not the main focus, so if you’re looking for a romance-centric book, this is probably not the book for that. Mini has a very classic meet-cute of the awkward variety with Vir, who is mysterious, charming, and almost ridiculously multitalented. There is a twist or two to their relationship, but nothing so dramatic as to completely derail the fun atmosphere of the book.

One of the more serious topics that this book does touch on is grief and losing one’s mother to cancer at a young age. Although I lost my own mother at an older age than Mini (who lost hers at age 10), I still related a lot to her experience, especially with the awkwardness of disclosing to people that your mother has passed away when they assume she’s still alive. Mini tries to downplay her complex regarding her mother’s death, but it’s clearly a thing that still affects her and how she relates to the various people in her family, especially her sister and her maternal aunt, who she felt abandoned by in the aftermath of her mother’s passing.

My primary critique of the story was that there were aspects to Mini’s relationships that felt underdeveloped. I saw hints here and there of deeper things to be explored between her and her sister, who is 8 years older and was just on the cusp of adulthood when their mother passed, but they were not given the space that I hoped for. There was also the thread of Mini excelling at art while being pushed toward STEM by her father that kind of just got glossed over and left hanging, even though various other people were affirming her artistic talent throughout the book and pushing her to consider majoring in art/design. Maybe the author felt like that shouldn’t be the focus since the book is about the wedding planning shenanigans, but personally I felt it would have been better if it had been touched on more.

Conclusion: If you want a fun-filled summer read, read Sister of the Bollywood Bride!

Book Links

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Bookshop | IndieBound

Nandini Bajpai is also running a preorder campaign for the book: http://www.nandinibajpai.com/preorder-campaign.html

About the Author

Nandini Bajpai grew up in New Delhi, India, one of four sisters and many cousins, in a family that liked to read.

She lived and worked in India, Australia, and the US, before settling in the Boston area with her husband, kids, and a fluctuating number and variety of pets. Although she dabbled in corporate finance, business analysis, and fostering shelter animals, her first love is writing.

Author Links:

Website – http://www.nandinibajpai.com
Twitter – https://twitter.com/nandinibajpai
Book Site – https://www.thenovl.com/sisterofthebollywoodbride

Tour Schedule

Check out the other stops on the tour!

[Blog Tour] Review for Counting Down with You by Tashie Bhuiyan

I put a countdown clock to this review on my Instagram story because I thought it was apt, and now the wait is over. I’m excited to be a part of the blog tour for Tashie Bhuiyan’s Counting Down with You, hosted by Shealea @ Caffeine Book Tours.

Book Information

Title: Counting Down With You
Author: Tashie Bhuiyan
Cover: Samya Arif (artist), Gigi Lau (art direction)
Publisher: Inkyard Press
Publication date: 04 May 2021
Age group: Young Adult
Genre: Contemporary

Synopsis:

A reserved Bangladeshi teenager has twenty-eight days to make the biggest decision of her life after agreeing to fake date her school’s resident bad boy.

How do you make one month last a lifetime?

Karina Ahmed has a plan. Keep her head down, get through high school without a fuss, and follow her parents’ rules—even if it means sacrificing her dreams. When her parents go abroad to Bangladesh for four weeks, Karina expects some peace and quiet. Instead, one simple lie unravels everything.

Karina is my girlfriend.

Tutoring the school’s resident bad boy was already crossing a line. Pretending to date him? Out of the question. But Ace Clyde does everything right—he brings her coffee in the mornings, impresses her friends without trying, and even promises to buy her a dozen books (a week) if she goes along with his fake-dating facade. Though Karina agrees, she can’t help but start counting down the days until her parents come back.

T-minus twenty-eight days until everything returns to normal—but what if Karina no longer wants it to?

Review:

Disclaimer: I received a review copy of the book as a part of this tour, but it did not affect my opinion of the book. I ended up reading the finished copy that I bought rather than the ARC, so this review is based on the final version of the book.

Counting Down with You is a book that made me go “oof.” While the story is billed as a fake dating romance (which it is, to its credit), to me, it’s fundamentally a story of a teen girl finding the courage to be fully herself and to witness what is possible when she isn’t being suffocated by her parents’ expectations.

The first thing that really spoke to me in this book was the representation of anxiety. The constant feeling of being on edge, of fearing the worst, of wondering if you’ll ever be enough for anyone, hit really close to home. Karina’s panic attacks and breakdowns were very visceral in a way that resonated with my own experience, to the point where I also found myself struggling to breathe a bit when I was following her emotional journey.

Unlike Karina, I did not have abusive parents, but I still felt the weight of so many expectations that held me back from making choices because I wanted something rather than because I was afraid of any negative consequences that might follow. I also had a STEM to liberal arts pipeline experience. In college, I had a quarter-life crisis where I realized I did not want to do engineering as a career, even though I’d chosen it as a major myself when applying. Even though I was miserable, I kept putting off and dismissing the idea of changing majors until I was already 84% of the way done with my degree requirements. By then I felt like it was too late to change my major, so instead I considered adding a second one, Asian American studies. At the time, I was already a legal adult, so people might expect that you can just do whatever you want because what’s stopping you? But it’s different when you’re the child of Asian immigrants. I was worried what my parents would think about the decision to switch from engineering with its prestige and financial stability to an obscure liberal arts major that almost nobody knows about with career prospects that are super questionable. Plus, I needed to take an extra year to finish the second major/degree, which meant spending more of their hard-earned money because I was still financially dependent on them. So in that sense, Karina’s experience spoke deeply to mine, as a second generation Asian American trying to step off the path that I’d once assumed was the only one for me, terrified of disappointing the people I loved most by choosing happiness.

But enough about me. Back to the characters.

Not gonna lie, I did not particularly like Ace’s character at the beginning (and I didn’t really find the “bad boy” label that fitting because he was just a rich white boy acting out a little but not actually doing that much “bad” stuff), but he grew on me over time. While teen me definitely would have written him off based on appearances, adult me acknowledges he was perfect for Karina in helping her personal growth and bringing out her inner spark. I appreciate that the two talked about boundaries and that Ace respected Karina’s boundaries even when he disagreed with how she reacted regarding her parents’ treatment of her.

I loved pretty much all of the supporting characters and Karina’s relationship with them. Her besties, Cora and Nandini, were the best friendship squad a person could ask for, providing a mixture of good-humored teasing/roasting and unconditional love and support. Karina’s brother, Samir, surprised me in good ways with his maturation over the course of the story, and I guess I’m a sucker for sibling bonds in fiction. Her Dadu (paternal grandmother) was one of my all-time favorite characters because she was brimming with love and wisdom and acted as one of Karina’s staunchest allies against her parents’ harmful treatment. Dadu is my personal hero.

To sum up the book in one sentence: Counting Down with You will break your heart and then heal it.

Trigger/Content Warnings: Abuse (emotional/psychological), anxiety and panic attacks

Books Links:

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Bookshop | IndieBound | Indigo

About the Author:

Tashie Bhuiyan is a Bangladeshi American writer based in New York City. She recently graduated from St. John’s University with a bachelor’s degree in Public Relations, and hopes to change the world, one book at a time. She loves writing stories about girls with wild hearts, boys who wear rings, and gaining agency through growth. When she’s not doing that, she can be found in a Chipotle or bookstore, insisting 2010 is the best year in cinematic history. (Read: Tangled and Inception.)

Author links:

Author website — https://www.tashiebhuiyan.com/
Goodreads — https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/19589512.Tashie_Bhuiyan
Instagram — http://instagram.com/tashiebhuiyan
Twitter — http://twitter.com/tashiebhuiyan 

[Blog Tour] Review for The Ones We’re Meant to Find by Joan He

Hi again! Welcome to my stop on the blog tour for Joan He’s The Ones We’re Meant to Find, hosted by Paola. If you’re on Book Twitter you’ve probably seen the gorgeous cover for this book floating around, and now it’s time to probe beneath the surface (puns intended).

Book Information:

Publisher: Roaring Brook Press
Release Date: May 4th, 2021
Genre: Young Adult Science Fiction/Dystopian

Synopsis:

One of the most twisty, surprising, engaging page-turner YAs you’ll read this year—We Were Liars meets Black Mirror, with a dash of Studio Ghibli.

Cee awoke on an abandoned island three years ago. With no idea of how she was marooned, she only has a rickety house, an old android, and a single memory: she has a sister, and Cee needs to find her.

STEM prodigy Kasey wants escape from the science and home she once trusted. The eco-city—Earth’s last unpolluted place—is meant to be sanctuary for those commited to planetary protection, but it’s populated by people willing to do anything for refuge, even lie. Now, she’ll have to decide if she’s ready to use science to help humanity, even though it failed the people who mattered most.

Review:

Reading The Ones We’re Meant to Find felt like putting together a 3-D crystal puzzle without knowing what the completed puzzle is supposed to be or look like. Even when I managed to get adjacent pieces of the mystery together, I still wasn’t sure what I was looking at until about 50 percent of the way through the story, where suddenly the pieces are all coming together.

You have two storylines told by two narrators, Cee/Celia and Kasey, and there’s an obvious connection between the two threads, but there are also many mysteries and gaps that make it hard to figure out how exactly they connect at first.

Kasey’s character is a tech wiz and part of a political committee responsible for managing the climate crisis, making her the perfect empirically-driven narrator to explore the physical and social architecture of her world, where many people live in soaring eco-cities encasing them in a protective bubble against the destructive forces of a Nature out of equilibrium. Cee’s perspective, by contrast, is more poetic, the artist to Kasey’s scientist. She relies more on passion and impulsive emotion to drive herself. Her life is one of physical isolation from other people as she is stranded on an island without her memories to guide her. Nature is what surrounds her, inescapable, powerful, and as unsettling as it is magnetic.

Between Celia and Kasey, I definitely saw more of myself in Kasey, being introverted, awkward, and having a rough time dealing with other people even while strongly committed to making the world better for everyone. But both sisters have secrets and insecurities and flaws. The story explores their sense of loneliness and the critical choices they make when the stakes become impossibly high. Even though they seem like polar opposites and envy each other’s strengths, they share an unabiding love for each other at their core that keeps them linked together.

The futuristic worldbuilding for this story is incredibly textured and detailed. It’s obvious the author put a lot of thought into the scientific and political implications of survival in a precarious society approaching environmental apocalypse. Beyond its aesthetic value, it also serves as a vehicle for the story’s meditation on humanity, both individual and collective. Even as the story probes the darkness and selfishness of humankind and the temptation of a eco-fascist mentality, it also offers hope and altruism and belief in human goodness to balance things out. It doesn’t provide a neat resolution per se, but it offers some catharsis and space to believe, and that’s the beauty of it.

Book Links:

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository | Books-a-Million | Bookshop.org | Booktopia | IndieBound | Indigo | Powells | Waterstones | Signed and Personalized Copies

About the Author:

Joan He was born and raised in Philadelphia but still will, on occasion, lose her way. At a young age, she received classical instruction in oil painting before discovering that storytelling was her favorite form of expression. She studied Psychology and East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Pennsylvania and currently writes from a desk overlooking the Delaware River. Descendant of the Crane is her debut young adult fantasy. Her next novel, The Ones We’re Meant to Find, will be forthcoming from Macmillan on May 4th, 2021. 

[Blog Tour] Review for The Forest of Stolen Girls by June Hur

Hello, again. I somehow managed to juggle my schoolwork, freelance commissions, and blogging better than I thought. Today’s blog content is for the blog tour hosted by Hear Our Voices for The Forest of Stolen Girls by June Hur. If you haven’t read June’s debut novel, The Silence of Bones, I highly recommend checking that out as well since I adored it.


Book Information:

Publisher: Feiwel and Friends (Macmillan Publishing Group)
Release Date: April 20th, 2021
Genre: YA Historical Mystery

Synopsis:

After her father vanishes while investigating the disappearance of 13 young women, a teen returns to her secretive hometown to pick up the trail in this second YA historical mystery from the author of The Silence of Bones.

Hwani’s family has never been the same since she and her younger sister went missing and were later found unconscious in the forest, near a gruesome crime scene. The only thing they remember: Their captor wore a painted-white mask.

To escape the haunting memories of this incident, the family flees their hometown. Years later, Detective Min—Hwani’s father—learns that thirteen girls have recently disappeared under similar circumstances, and so he returns to their hometown to investigate… only to vanish as well.

Determined to find her father and solve the case that tore their family apart, Hwani returns home to pick up the trail. As she digs into the secrets of the small village—and reconnects with her now estranged sister—Hwani comes to realize that the answer lies within her own buried memories of what happened in the forest all those years ago.

Review:

After reading The Silence of Bones, I was ready to be blown away by this sophomore novel. But I wasn’t ready for just how great it would be.

Even though this book was almost 400 pages, it certainly didn’t feel like it. The nail-biting level of suspense kept me on the edge of my seat (figuratively, since I read it in bed). There were many twists and turns and red herrings that kept me guessing until the end.

Aside from being suspenseful, the story was intensely creepy. A sense of danger pervades the narrative, lurking behind you, unseen yet palpable. The atmospheric writing had me deep in the dark forest with Hwani and Maewol, terrified that the masked man with a sword would come after me next. Perhaps it wasn’t a good idea to read the book at night. 😱

Beyond its appeal as a mystery novel, the book touches on profound themes regarding family, especially sisterly bonds and the love and hate between fathers and daughters. The relationship between Hwani and Maewol is thorny and complex, overshadowed by trauma, jealously, and years of separation, yet it is undeniably bone-deep. They both hurt and help each other in turn as they join forces to investigate the mystery behind their father’s disappearance.

The themes surrounding fathers and daughters is also explored with nuance. The story stretches that bond to its extremes, probing and testing it through multiple father-daughter pairs: the Min sisters and their loving but flawed father, a disfigured village girl named Gahee and her abusive father Convict Baek, and Village Elder Moon and his daughter Chaewon. The line between loving intentions and harmful consequences makes itself known through these relationships.

As the author notes in the back of the book, the story is based on real events. The book would not be what it is without the context of misogyny. Indeed, the narrative emerges from the shackles and violence imposed on women by Korean patriarchy, exacerbated by the power dynamics between the Ming empire and the Joseon tributary state. Class differences also come to the fore in framing gender and power. But the story isn’t a complete tragedy, nor is victimhood an absolute. The agency of girls and women takes center stage in Hwani and Maewol’s journey, giving hope for resistance and change.

In conclusion, The Forest of Stolen Girls is a gorgeous, gut-wrenching read that will stay with me for a long time. I look forward to reading everything that June Hur delivers in the future.

Stay tuned for a book playlist for this book later.

Trigger/Content Warnings: misogyny, assault, kidnapping, murder, abuse, child abuse, suicide, rape (implied)

Book Links:

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Bookshop.org

About the Author:

June Hur was born in South Korea and raised in Canada, except for the time when she moved back to Korea and attended high school there. Most of her work is inspired by her journey through life as an individual, a dreamer, and a Christian, with all its confusions, doubts, absurdities and magnificence. She studied History and Literature at the University of Toronto. When she’s not writing, she can be found journaling at a coffee shop. She lives in Toronto with her husband and daughter.

Her debut novel THE SILENCE OF BONES (Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan, April 2020) is a murder mystery set in Joseon Dynasty Korea (early 1800s), and also a coming-of-age tale about a girl searching for home. It was recently selected by the American Booksellers Association as one of the top debuts of Winter/Spring 2020 (Indies Introduce).

Author Links:

Twitter | Instagram | Website | Goodreads