Notes: Quotes are taken from the digital review copy I received, so I don’t have page numbers. The quotes may differ from the final published version. All quotes are from Gio’s narration unless otherwise stated/attributed.
“MatchUp is for hookups, Ayesha.” I sound like an overprotective brother. I would know because I went through this phase last year where I met up with some random girls every now and then for a quick hookup and even some guys, too, as an experiment to see if I was really into guys the way I started to think I was. Somehow making out with a random guy helped me figure things out, like icing on the cake.
Sometimes I wonder if things would be different if she were still here with us. I wonder if pops would drink like he does. I wonder if Theo would still need me to walk him to school every morning. I wonder a lot of things and I might not ever know the answers. And I tell myself that it’s…okay.
Dr. McCullough, she said counting or naming the states in alphabetical order and even reverse alphabetical order helps you clear your head, helps push through anxiety and panic attacks.
In my thoughts.
But I can’t shake this grief.
Suddenly I wonder if the darkness that I feel in my chest is there because I’m holding on to it rather than emptying it out. Something inside me is stirring and stirring and it feels wrong. I can’t focus on anything.
I’m so hurt and beat up about the fact that this whole time I could’ve had some sort of relationship with her, some sort of contact. Maybe I wouldn’t have needed to go through counseling with Dr. McCullough back when I was a freshman and sophomore. At least, not as often as I did. Or maybe at least her absence wouldn’t have felt as heavy. Maybe I would have the answers to all the questions written on my heart that I don’t even know to ask. Maybe the grief I experience in waves and seasons wouldn’t be as heavy as a tsunami tiding over me, completely consuming every inch of my body until I, too, am something to be grieved.
“Loss fucks you up, but it doesn’t change who you are. I have to believe that. It forces you to be brave and strong so you can hold your life together, and the lives of the people you love together—the ones who are still here.”
This boy is such a mystery, but I can’t help but feel like I’m on top of the world when I’m near him. I can’t help but feel every butterfly in a fifty-mile radius flutter in my stomach. I don’t take my eyes off him—I can’t.
“The biggest lie the world tells you is that you have to have everything figured out. You don’t. That’s part of the journey of life—figuring out the different layers of you. And when you’re ready to share those layers, you deserve to be able to do that. But you don’t have to do it till that time comes.”
-Jackie, Gio’s mother
On top of everything else, I’m terrified David will see right through the different layers of me. He won’t see this soft, nice, somewhat shy boy, but instead and ugly fucking disaster.
That’s the thing about grief: it’s a sneaky little devil that creeps up on you and catches you off guard. It pops up when you’re not prepared and takes shapes that you least expect.
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.
Title: Things We Couldn’t Say Author: Jay Coles Publisher: Scholastic Press Publication Date: September 21st, 2021 Genres: Young Adult Contemporary
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.
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.
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.
I’ve selected some quotes that represent the story or stood out to me in some way. All quotes without quotation marks are narration from Xiang’s perspective. Dialogue is attributed to a character where applicable.
Note: These are spoiler-free, so don’t worry. Also, the quotes are taken from the final published version.
I close my book, whispering the words of the poem I’ve committed to memory, each verse filled with a longing I’ve never truly understood: “Once you’ve experienced ocean, nothing else is considered water.”
I gasp as the horizon comes into view, and beyond the mouth of the river, the glittering ocean approaches. Hundreds of flickering lights gleam from streets unseen, softly glowing against stone, and distantly I can make out the cheerful red of lanterns and banners streaming from buildings. There’s the border of a massive stone wall, ambling as it tracks through the forest, and clusters of buildings rising up on the hills leading to the ocean. I can see the shadows of ships’ masts and the outline of docks, just barely.
I love it.
I love the motley crowd, the unruliness of the patrons, how there are just…so many people who have seen so many things. I want to see what they’ve seen, hear their stories. I want to know where those sailors in the far corner have been, what enemies that would with the sword has slain, what lost romances the singer on the dais is yearning for as she pours it all into her song.
“Emperors and kings and officials…they all want the same thing from their people: constant tribute, money or grain or people for their endless wars. On the water, we aren’t a part of any empire. Our home is the sea, our port wherever we choose to travel.”
Anh, page 101
My cheeks burn, and I tell myself it is the wine, but that feeling again raises its head, making itself known, that deep unbidden yearning in my heart I have never voiced. The simple touch seems at once too much, the warmth of her, and I both want to move away from the intensity of it and to also linger here in this moment forever.
I reach out my hand, and I feel I can almost touch the sun as the ship speeds toward the new day—the swift wind, the great expanse of water ahead, and the great unknown rushing up to meet us.
I know now what I knew then but was too afraid to admit: I had wanted her, the way the poets would write about. I wanted her steady companionship, her bright laughter as we raced through the fields together. I wanted her like a lover, to hold her face and sweep her hair out of her eyes and draw her in for a soft kiss.
“Who is more the thief: the government that preys on its own people, or those who must become thieves in order to survive?”
Xiang, page 241
“You all are here for a reason—whether it be your blood cast you out, your emperor did not do as he promised, or your king found you lacking—well, I did not! The sea cares not of your status, of whom you love! On this ship we work hard, and no emperor, no king, no navy lapdog could tell us what to do!”
Captain Hoa, page 268
I have felt untethered all my life, drifting endlessly, and here, finally, is a safe place to land, a quiet harbor to protect me from the turbulence of the sea.
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.
Title: A Clash of Steel Author: C.B. Lee Publisher: Feiwel & Friends Publication Date: September 7th, 2021 Genres: Young Adult, Historical Fiction
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What would mom think of a simple civil ceremony with twenty guests? The answer to that was staring me in the face. She wouldn’t have saved and scraped for such fancy jewelry if she hadn’t wanted a proper Punjabi wedding. That’s what she would have liked. Lots of family, food, flowers, music. Vinnie in a gorgeous lehenga. Her groom in a red turban on a white horse, like in one of those Bollywood movies.
“Your mom is not taking care of it?” she asked.
Was there a way to avoid telling her? I wondered, dreading the usual awkwardness that followed when I mentioned what had happened to Mom. If it’d been anyone but Preet, I’d have found a way to avoid answering directly.
“She…” I squared my shoulders. “She passed away. Years ago.”
Suddenly all the chatter around me hushed. Crap. What a dumb idea this was. Great way to identify myself as the clueless, motherless freak show. I wanted their help, not their pity.
“Didn’t want to break up the cozy chat you were having,” Shayla said. “God knows you don’t talk to many guys.”
“I talk to Peter, and David, and Isaac….”
“AP study group is not talking!”
“He found my keys,” I said. “That’s all. He wasn’t, like, chatting me up, or anything.”
“Sure he wasn’t,” Shayla said.
Vir left the console and came over to where I was standing.
He held out a hand. “Would you like to dance?”
“Sure,” I said. I was glad the lights were low because I’m pretty sure I looked horribly self-conscious—is it actually possible to have a whole-body blush? Then both his hands were around my waits, and both mine were on his shoulders. Breathe, Mini, I told myself.
In a bid to shake off the blues (no pun intended), I packed my watercolors, bottle of water, and brushes into my French easel and headed to Fellsway with the dog. Painting en plein air always helped me slay whatever was bothering me. Besides, I had to add to the portfolio that I’d been neglecting for weeks. Now that I wasn’t retaking the SAT and Vinnie’s wedding planning was off to a good start, it was time to focus on college app stuff. My portfolio was exactly where it had been when junior year wound down and I finished submitting everything for AP Studio Art. It would be good to paint something that wasn’t going to be graded and evaluated!
“It’s cooler here,” I said, and held up my hands to frame the scene I was trying to capture. “And the perfect vantage point.”
“Yes, it is,” he said, and pulled off his shirt to reveal an impressively firm and muscled torso—and caused my heart rate to go from highly escalated to practically flatline.
What was he doing?
Mum always said when you can’t buy something because it is very, very expensive, go treat yourself to something happy, and fun, and beautiful that is very, very cheap—a pretty pair of earrings, a bright scarf, or a small cup of Haagen-Dazs ice cream.
“How does it look?” she asked.
“Brilliant!” I said. It was very vintage—like something Madhuri Dixit would have worn—but Vinnie’s fresh young face updated it immediately. There was a lump in my throat. It wasn’t that she looked like Mom exactly, but there were flashes of Mom in the way she moved and smiled and sounded, even. And with that lehenga on, there was no mistaking it.
If I were the praying type, I would have been praying, but what was the use? Miracles had stopped working for the likes of us a long time ago.
All we could do was wait. We’d know by Friday, definitely. Until then, there was nothing to be done except wring our hands, write place cards, and go on as if nothing the size of Texas was barreling down on us at 120 miles an hour.
It was going to be legendary—or a disaster. Either way, no one would ever forget it. Game. On.
Title: Sister of the Bollywood Bride Author: Nandini Bajpai Pub date: May 25th, 2021 Publisher: Poppy (Hachette) Genres: Contemporary, Young Adult, Romance
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?
(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!
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.
Note: These quotes are from the final published version of the book.
Abiding by all these rules day in and day out is exhausting, but my parents have sacrificed too much for me to throw it all away by being selfish. They left behind their lives in Bangladesh and moved here in the hopes of giving me a better life. They want me to grow up and be successful, to be financially stable, to be focused and diligent and hardworking.
I know they’re thinking about my future, but I don’t know how to be the daughter they can gloat about at our community parties, the daughter whose achievements they can praise to their coworkers, the daughter who never steps a toe out of line and does everything exactly as they wish. Still, a part of me wants that—to be enough for them, to have them be proud of me. The rest of me wishes I could crawl into a hole.
I have no idea what’s happening, but I do know I want to sink into the ground.
“Writing is what helped me gain confidence in myself. There’s something really special about being able to express yourself with words. I love stories and I love poems and I love learning more and more with each word. I think it’s amazing.”
Ace’s smile widens into a blinding grin. I’m going to kill him. “I took her on a date to a local bakery. She ordered the cheesecake and said it wasn’t nearly as sweet as me.”
His foot is close enough that I step on it in retribution. He winces but quickly covers it up. It still brings me some satisfaction.
“If you don’t explain what the hell is happening right now, I’m going to pour my orange juice down your shirt,” Cora threatens pleasantly.
“Stop flirting,” Cora says, her eyes bright with amusement.
I gape at them. “I just told him to die.”
Nandini looks exasperated. “We’re Gen Z, Karina. That’s how we flirt.”
As promised, Ace is waiting when I step out of AP Physics. “You’re like an annoying stray cat that won’t stop following me,” I say before wiggling my fingers at him. “Want a scratch on the head?”
Why am I selfish if I want to do what I love? It’s my life and my future. Not my parents’. Mine. They gave me the tools to be here, but that shouldn’t mean that they get to make every choice for me.
I’m not a bad person for wanting a life different than what’s expected of me. I’m not a bad person for wanting to pursue something I love.
I’m not a bad person for wanting. But I feel like I am.
But then, strangely enough, Ace holds out a hand to me. “Do you trust me?”
I stare at the hand, a mix of exhilarated and nervous. “This isn’t Aladdin.”
“It’s not,” he says. “But do you trust me?”
“The older I am, the more I realize it’s not worth it to prioritize things that make you miserable,” Dadu says. “I don’t want that for you.”
And that’s the end of the quotes. I hope this gives you a taste of what the story and characters are like and their appeal. 🙂
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
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?
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
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.)
Welcome to my Taiwanese American Heritage Week feature series! Taiwanese American Heritage Week is celebrated every year in May starting on Mother’s Day and ending the following Sunday. Each year during TAHW I spotlight Taiwanese authors and books in some form or fashion on my blog. You can find all of the past features in my Post Index.
The fifth author interview in my 2021 TAHW series is with Jennifer Yen on her debut YA novel A Taste for Love.
To her friends, high school senior Liza Yang is nearly perfect. Smart, kind, and pretty, she dreams big and never shies away from a challenge. But to her mom, Liza is anything but. Compared to her older sister Jeannie, Liza is stubborn, rebellious, and worst of all, determined to push back against all of Mrs. Yang’s traditional values, especially when it comes to dating.
The one thing mother and daughter do agree on is their love of baking. Mrs. Yang is the owner of Houston’s popular Yin & Yang Bakery. With college just around the corner, Liza agrees to help out at the bakery’s annual junior competition to prove to her mom that she’s more than her rebellious tendencies once and for all. But when Liza arrives on the first day of the bake-off, she realizes there’s a catch: all of the contestants are young Asian American men her mother has handpicked for Liza to date.
The bachelorette situation Liza has found herself in is made even worse when she happens to be grudgingly attracted to one of the contestants; the stoic, impenetrable, annoyingly hot James Wong. As she battles against her feelings for James, and for her mother’s approval, Liza begins to realize there’s no tried and true recipe for love.
Q: Food is such an essential part of Taiwanese culture. What is your favorite Taiwanese food (or one of your favorites since I know how hard it is to choose), and what memories or feelings do you associate with it, if any?
A: A lot of my favorite Taiwanese foods are street snacks (or derived from them). Some of my most vivid childhood memories come from eating and sharing them with my family. Stinky tofu is still one of my go-to guilty pleasures, but it’s definitely an acquired taste—or rather, smell—for most non-Taiwanese.
There was also this fried chicken stall in the day market my mom would take us to for groceries. It was run by an elderly man, and it was his family business. There was something about his batter and spices that made his chicken out of this world. Sadly, his children opted not to carry the recipe on after he retired.
My favorite sweet street snack were these soft animal-shaped waffles. They were made from a batter very similar to Hong Kong egg waffles, and the vendors would cart around their iron molds and make them on the spot for you. What I wouldn’t give to have them again!
Q: It seems to be a common thing for second generation Taiwanese writers to first try med school or some other STEM field before becoming writers (this was a thing for Gloria Chao, Livia Blackburne, and also me). What advice do you have for Taiwanese and other Asian youth who are thinking about venturing off the beaten (and often expected) path of the doctor/lawyer/engineer trifecta to write or do other creative work?
A: This is such a tough question, because I went down the same path you did (and am still in STEM to this day)! To me, the key is compromise. Many immigrant parents drive their children towards STEM because of the perceived financial stability in those fields. Mine were definitely that way, and it stung to have them dismiss anything they didn’t consider worth my time. Now as an adult, I understand their point of view, but there’s also a middle ground. Pursue your passions, but do your research and know how to deal with the financial ups and downs of creative work. That could be a “fallback” career, or a job that at least helps you to pay the bills. It’s also important to remember that it’s never too late to be creative. There is no age limit to your imagination!
Q: If you were to pick a combination of a baked good and a bubble tea mix (base+flavor+topping) to represent Liza, Grace, James, and Ben, respectively, what would you choose for each of them, and why?
A: Hmmmm this is another great but challenging question! I would say the following:
Liza is probably charsiu bao and jasmine green milk tea with boba, because she’s sweet and salty (haha) and your go-to person for any occasion!
Grace would be egg tart and cheese foam peach oolong tea! She’s well-loved, looks impeccable, and always on trend.
James is definitely boluo bao and Japanese matcha. He’s crusty on the outside, but soft and sweet on the inside. While he isn’t for everyone and takes getting used to, there’s lots of perks if you give him a chance.
Ben would be milk custard bun and brown sugar black tea with boba, because he’s sweet outside and in, but has layers you might miss if you only fall for his looks.
Q: Your story mentions Taiwanese and Korean dramas. Did you draw inspiration from any of these while you were writing? What other sources served as inspiration for the story (aside from Pride & Prejudice and GBBO)?
A: I would say that I draw inspiration from the themes and tropes we see in all dramas. However, there’s obviously cultural complexities that I weave into A Taste for Love that fall more in line with what you see in the Asian ones. One of my favorite things is the multi-layered twists Taiwanese and Korean dramas throw at their audience, and I tried incorporating a small version of that into the story (if you’ve read it, you know what I’m talking about).
Q: A lot of Asian immigrant parents don’t necessarily show love through “I love you”s or physical affection. If you were to analyze Liza and her mom using the 5 Love Languages model (https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/the-5-love-languages-explained), how would you rank the two characters for each “language” on a scale from 1 to 5, 1 being the least important, 5 being the most important?
A: Funny you mention that, because I feel a lot of immigrant families struggle with communication because the generations have different love languages.
For Mrs. Yang, she’s definitely acts of service (5), quality time (4), gifts (3), words of affirmation (2), and physical touch (1), though the last three are fairly equal (and minimal).
For Liza, I would say her primary love languages are words of affirmation (5) and gifts (4), followed by quality time (3), acts of service (2), and physical touch (1), though again, the last three are fairly equal.
One thing to keep in mind is that you’ll see Mrs. Yang and Liza switch between their love languages depending on who they are with. It’s not uncommon to see that, because all relationships involve common ground and compromise!
Q: I love how this book pays tribute to Houston and its Chinatown. Did you base any of the locations in the story on real places?
A: The majority of the places in ATFL are based on real places. Mama Lee’s is loosely based on 85C Bakery, while Mrs. Yang’s bakery is an amalgamation of the smaller, local bakeries in Houston’s Chinatown. Yin and Yang came from a joint restaurant-and-bakery my family used to frequent up in Plano (I am not sure if it still exists), and all the boba and shaved ice shops are also a combination of the many wonderful places you can find here!
Q: Since the pandemic started, a lot of East and Southeast Asian restaurants across the US have seen decreases in traffic due to racism and xenophobia. What E/SE Asian restaurants and bubble tea shops are your favorites to visit in the Houston area? (Note: Hyperlinks redirect to Google Maps!)
A: Oh my goodness! Honestly, there’s so many I could write a whole essay on them. I tend to go to restaurants for specific dishes or specialties, so it really depends on my mood! Some of the ones I’ve been eating at lately are:
San Dong Noodle House – Taiwanese cuisine, also the inspiration for Dumpling Dynasty…and yes, their leek dumplings are to die for (note from Shenwei: I also love this place, they have amazing dumplings!)
Mein – I’m obsessed with their wonton noodle soup, Sansai egg tofu, and shaking chicken/beef (along with so many other things)
Jennifer Yen began her writing career in the fourth grade, when her teacher took the detective story she wrote and turned it into a printed book as a gift to her. The encouragement of her teacher, as well as her love for reading and telling stories, kept her writing about the worlds that exist in her imagination.
While Jennifer’s penned everything from poetry to fanfiction, her passion lies in young adult and adult fiction. Drawing from her own experiences growing up as an Asian American, she especially loves writing about family, food, and of course…love!
Jennifer now lives in Texas with her adorable rescue dog. She spends her days healing the hearts of others, and her nights writing about love, family, and the power of acceptance. She believes in the magic of one’s imagination, and hopes her stories will bring joy and inspiration to readers.
If you find Jennifer wandering around aimlessly, please return her to the nearest milk tea shop.