Paper Names by Susie Luo (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4.5 / 5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 4/5
I quite enjoyed this story which weaves together three characters: Tony, a first generation Chinese immigrant who gives up a prestigious engineering career in China for the promise of more opportunity in America for his descendants; Tammy, the daughter who “gets” to live his dream for him — Harvard educated with a promising legal career in a wealthy firm; and Oliver, a wealthy (white) lawyer with a very secret past, whose path brings him close to both of them.


I don’t agree with the book blurb: “An unexpected act of violence brings together a Chinese-American family and a wealthy white lawyer in this propulsive and sweeping story of family, identity and the American experience.” IMHO the “act of violence” — which happens fairly near the end — did serve as a forcing function for some essential reflection and self-reckoning, but it didn’t bring them together and detracts from the real meat of the story which indeed was about “family, identity and the American experience.”


I quite liked the characters and found them both realistic and individualized (no stereotypes!). I enjoyed the contrast between the first generation immigrant father and the second generation immigrant daughter. I found the expression of how each felt — about his or her history, opportunities, and values as well as the complex web of feelings and attitudes about each other — to be artful, genuine, and identifiable.

The chapters alternate between perspectives of the three and jump around in time. I didn’t find it difficult to keep track of the time (very appreciative of the chapter labels!)
There are a lot of Asian immigrant stories out there — I found this one to be more reflective, less stereotyped, and less over-dramatic than most. Definitely recommend.

Thank you to Ballantine, Dell and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 6th, 2023

Yellowface by RF Kuang (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 4.5/5

This book never goes where you expect it to go. Ostensibly the story of an author (Juniper Song) who takes the latest manuscript from a recently deceased friend (Athena Liu), completes it, and publishes it as her own. But the depth of introspection, thought, and reaction every step of the way neatly details the complexities of every aspect of the world of writing, publishing, marketing and fandom. And it is absolutely fascinating.

Ever noticed how easy it is to have a (strong) opinion on something for which you’ve only read a headline? You’re not the only one. This book forces us to think a lot more deeply about a whole slew of issues: What is plagiarism vs influence vs mashups? How are we influenced by both direct marketing / branding and the more subtle (but equally insistent) influence of current trends and fads? How quick are we to leap to conclusions without analysis or an attempt at understanding?

Kuang also tackles the hydra of cultural appropriation by having her narrator (a white woman) writing a (thoroughly researched) book about Chinese history. Does she have the right to write about something that is not her heritage? Is it more reasonable for someone who is of Chinese descent but has never experienced (or been exposed to) anything like the characters in the book to write it? Kuang (who herself is ethnically Chinese) presents multiple sides to a whole slew of issues via the opinions, thoughts, and comments of various characters — both fully fleshed out and spewed in every angry storm of social media commentary. If Kuang herself has a strong opinion on these topics, she keeps it well camouflaged through her characters’ many disparate voices. I think she showed real courage tackling the subjects — helpful that she is already an award winning author — but I hope the strong-minded Internet trolls bother to think things through before attacking!

Lots of literary references, real insight into the industry, and a wildly convoluted plot that is actually clean, believable, and easy to follow. Human nature presented with all of its intricate folds dancing about in the intersection of morality, social acceptability, and judgement. Very different from her last book (Babel — which I loved) — it is equally compelling.

A fantastic first line, which drew me in instantly: “The night I watch Athena Liu die, we’re celebrating her TV deal with Netflix.” A fantastic last line, too, but I won’t include that here!

A small selection of good lines — there are so, so many:
“I stare at Athena’s brown eyes, framed by those ridiculously large lashes that make her resemble a Disney forest animal, and I wonder, What is it like to be you?”

“Cue the myth making in real time, the constructed persona deemed maximally marketable by her publishing team, paired with a healthy dose of neoliberal exploitations. Complex messages reduced to sound bites; biographies cherry-picked for the quirky and exotic.”

“The Last Front hardly breaks new ground; instead, it joins novels like The Help and The Good Earth in a long line of what I dub historical exploitation novels: inauthentic stories that use troubled pasts as an entertaining set piece for white entertainment.”

“In any case, Twitter discourse never does anything — it’s just an opportunity for firebrands to wave their flags, declare their sides, and try to brandish some IQ points before everyone gets bored and moves on.”

“It’s hard to reach such a pinnacle of literary prominence that you remain a household name for years, decades past your latest release. Only a handful of Nobel Prize winners can get away with that. The rest of us have to keep racing along the hamster wheel of relevance.”

“But enter professional publishing and suddenly writing is a matter of professional jealousies, obscure marketing budgets, and advances that don’t measure up to those of your peers. Editors go in and mess around with your words, your vision. Marketing and publicity make you distill hundreds of pages of careful, nuanced reflection into cute, tweet-size talking points. Readers inflict their own expectations, not just on the story, but on your politics, your philosophy, your stance on all things ethical. You, not your writing, become the product — your looks, your wit, your quippy clapbacks and factional alignments with online beefs that no one in the real world gives a shit about.”

Thank you to William Morrow and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 16th, 2023

Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice for Murderers by Jesse Q. Sutanto (Cozy Mystery)

This book really grew on me. At first I just thought it was a (very silly) cozy mystery, but in reality the mystery is just an excuse for Vera Wong — a kind of Chinese Mary Poppins — to make everything better for everyone. Definitely upbeat!

Vera Wong runs a tea shop in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Vera Wang’s World Famous Tea House in fact, though it is named after the famous Vera Wang not the proprietor Vera Wong, and doesn’t appear to be very terribly famous as it rarely has any customers. Everything changes one morning, though, when Vera heads down to the shop and finds a dead body clutching a thumb drive on the floor. Based on her unshakeable premise that a criminal always returns to the scene of the crime, Vera soon has four “suspects” who, while still under suspicion (from Vera’s perspective), also become close friends and subjects for Vera’s meddlesome, tyrannical and yet heartfelt ways.

What started as a kind of stereotypical Chinese auntie persona for Vera really blossomed with individual personality as the story went on. One of my favorite scenes: Vera reads Rumplestiltskin to an impressionable young girl and rails against the utter stupidity of the story in favor of an alternative Chinese folk story that addresses the situation … differently. Some actual interesting comments on tea as well. And the resolution of the mystery nicely surprising. Very pleasant read.

Some good quotes:

“In Chinese culture, respect only flows in one direction, from the younger to the older, like a river. The older generation doesn’t owe the younger ones respect; if any is given it is done so out of kindness and generosity, not necessity.”

“Lipton, like many other Western brands of black tea, uses inferior tea leaves that are then roasted at a higher temperature, killing all traces of subtle flavoring. The result is a strong black tea that can stand up to aggressive boiling and generous amounts of sugar and milk.”

As an opening line, this one tickled me: “Vera Wong Zhuzhu, age sixty, is a pig, but she really should have been born a rooster.”

Thank you to Berkley Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 14th, 2023

The Vanishing of Margaret Small by Neil Alexander (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 4/5
Margaret Small is not your typical protagonist. Seven year-old Margaret was “Vanished” (her words) in 1947 — left at St. Mary’s Hospital in Canterbury by her grandmother who never saw her again. St. Mary’s was an institution for people who were unwanted — those with disabilities such as Down’s Syndrome, polio, or “moral imbecility.” Though we never get a stated diagnosis for Margaret, she appears to have been “slow” or “simple minded.” When we meet her in 2015 at the age of 75, she is (still) unable to read or write.

In a dual timeline, the 75-year old Margaret recalls her past in a set of chunks: the sudden drop off at seven — scared, and confused; a confusing sexual experience when she is 22; sudden (scary) freedom at 32 when she is told she can leave the hospital and live in a small group home with the help of a Social worker / carer. As her social worker helps her come to terms with her life, he draws an analogy between people with disabilities and people who are gay 50 years before when that was illegal. There are several long lectures about how people with disabilities were seen as having illnesses (like being gay) and how they were put away for that reason.

While the end is ultimately uplifting, I found the (longish) story somewhat depressing and a little simplistic in terms of how her life could have easily been much better. The story did highlight how people were shunted to these institutions with no hope of “release” and no effort made to help them overcome whatever difficulties they had. While the story is not new to me, it was particularly upsetting to lump in people who literally could not care for themselves (severe mental retardation or extreme physical disabilities) with people who simply did not confirm to social norms at the time (usually due to some kind of sexual preference or action that upset someone else).

Thank you to Embla Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Nov 16th, 2022

Cantoras by Carolina De Robertis (Literary / Historical Fiction)

Writing: 3.5/5 Characters: 4.5/5 Plot: 4.5/5
Five women find each other amidst the oppressive dictatorship in Uruguay in the 1970s. Together they manage to find and buy a small shack in a lonely coastal town where they can be themselves without fear, where they can blossom into themselves. They are “cantoras” or “women who sing” — a euphemism in this case for women who prefer women. Flaca, a relatively masculine butcher’s daughter; Romina, a Jewish refugee from Ukraine; Anita, renamed “La Venus,” a housewife who can no longer bear the standard life she is expected to lead; Malena, a schoolteacher with a hidden past; and Paz, the youngest at 16.


Following the individual and collective stories of these women through the long dictatorship and through the first years of recovery was far more captivating that I had expected. Based (I believe) on many interviews with people who had lived through this time period, the author really captured the experiences, feelings, and reactions of individuals without going overboard on the drama. I’m always appreciative of an author who recognizes that the subject can speak for itself when properly depicted without resorting to melodramatic finger pointing. Woven together in the narrative is the general persecution of people during an oppressive regime as well as the more generic persecution of homosexuals (in truth this persecution seemed to be more cultural and not actually related to the dictatorship, though the book jacket links the two together). The writing was full and descriptive, doing an excellent job of depicting the sensuality of the lesbian relationships and the pervasive tumult of feelings — fear, joy, worry, exultation — resulting from living through the period. I liked the reflection of each character as she considered her life and the larger situation into which she had been born. And her decision as to how she would participate — enjoy what she has? Take chances by working with those willing to rebel? Hide — either physically or culturally?


I learned a lot about Uruguay — I’m probably not alone in simply being unaware of this aspect of Uruguayan history. While not mentioned in the story, the all-knowing Wikipedia claims the 1973 coup that brought in the military was backed by the U.S. (I’m guessing to stop the perceived Community insurgency). Separately, the gradual opening of the culture to homosexuality, culminating in the 2013 right to same-sex marriage (the third country to do so in the Americas after Canada and Argentina), was also depicted through the stories of these women. The narrative brought together these two concurrent themes well — the book felt quite real.

A few good quotes:
“Histories tend to grow richer with time, gathering details as they pour down generations.”
“That the silence of dictatorship, the silence of the closet, as we call it now—all of that is layered and layered like blankets that muffle you until you cannot breathe. For many people it is too much. In Paraguay we have seen it. And so, here, none of you should carry the blame.”
“Furniture gave slow birth to itself: a table started as a plank on four stacks of bricks, then became a slab of swirled driftwood, found on the beach and dragged back home, cut, placed over the bricks at first until the attempt began to hammer on legs and to sand the knots and whorls on the top into a more even surface.”

Central Places by Delia Cai (Literary / multi-cultural fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 3.5/5
A somewhat over-detailed but ultimately satisfying story of a young woman coming to an understanding of herself — the person she wants to be and the person she evolved from. Twenty something Audrey Zhou loves her life in New York City: her kind and conscientious NYC born and bred photojournalist boyfriend (Ben) and her job as a salesperson for a trendy NY magazine, but most of all she loves the extreme distance from her home and immigrant parents in Hickory Grove, Illinois. When her father has a potential health problem, Ben insists on accompanying Audrey home to meet her parents for the first time and learn more about her.

I was impressed by the way this book worked out — it really did focus on a single person’s experience, rather than another agenda heavy diatribe about racism in the U.S. Assumptions, biases, and exposed hypocrisies appear in multiple places, and the recognition of what part Audrey finds herself playing in all of that is worth the price of admission. The story did NOT evolve the way I expected it to, and I found I really liked the non-standard, unexpected ending. Some of the more descriptive sections contrasting her Hickory Grove memories and current experiences went on for a little longer than I needed, but I was overall quite happy with the book.

Thank you to Ballantine Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on January 31st, 2023.

Interior Chinatown by Charles Wu (Fiction)

A bizarre, screenplay format novel told in the second person as Willis Wu describes his life as a series of bit part Asian roles, particularly Generic Asian Man with a dim hope of becoming a specialty character: Kung Fu Guy. Moving from an SRO to the Golden Palace restaurant where the cop show Black and White (starring — wait for it — a black cop and a white cop) is constantly “playing,” we are treated to an ongoing internal monologue where the bitterness is as often directed against himself as to others. Full of a wry humor that derives from essential and uncomfortable truths, the narrative is interspersed with a recitation of U.S. laws aimed specifically at excluding Asians (e.g. the Chinese Exclusion Act, 1882; the SF Bingham Ordinance of 1890; the Geary Act of 1892; the Cable Act of 1920; and the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 — look them up — they are appalling) and a pretty compelling speech asking why, after two centuries in America, Asians are not fully assimilated and are not considered “American”? By the way, I particularly enjoyed this quote which I am including out of context:

“What are you looking? Do you think you’re the only group to be invisible? How about: Older women. Older people in general. People that are overweight. People that don’t conform to conventional Western beauty standards. Black women. Women in general in the workplace.”

It’s always irked me that there are so many “groups” which are treated unfairly in one way or the other, but unless you are part of some larger, acknowledged, “oppressed” group, nobody really cares…

In sum: a short book with a pretty interesting message and engaging format.

Maame by Jessica George (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 5/5 Characters: 5/5

In Twi (one of the languages spoken in Southern and Central Ghana), Maame means “woman” or “mother” or “Responsible One.” And that is the name by which Maddie is known (and treated) within her (somewhat dysfunctional by many standards) family. This story of the 25 year old dutiful daughter of Ghanaian immigrants in London is beautiful, insightful, humorous, and utterly engaging. Maddie is finally ready to strike out on her own after several years of caring for her Parkinson’s debilitated father whilst her brother and mother have managed to find urgent excuses to be elsewhere. With a new job, a new apartment (with new flatmates), and a few boyfriend experiments, Maddie feels ready to transpose herself into “fun” Maddie and “happy” Maddie, though her true (intentionally stifled) feelings always manage to seep through. With deft and spare prose, the book delves into deep issues of how we become the selves we want to be, rather than the selves that have unintentionally emerged while we were making other plans.

The story explores the roots of Maddie’s desires and unhappiness — seen through the lens of multiple cultures, friends, family, religion, and … the ultimate source of all knowledge … Google. Some honest and new (to me) discussions of racism, from a personal point of view rather than a strident, social justice approach. I loved the first lines: “In African culture — Wait, no, I don’t want to be presumptuous or in any way nationalistic enough to assume certain Ghanaian customs run true in other African countries. I might in fact just be speaking of what passes as practice in my family, but regardless of who the mores belong to, I was raised to keep family matters private.” In one fell swoop George outlined Maddie’s personal context in the many layers of identity to which she belonged.

I absolutely love George’s writing. Great structure with most of the content deriving from interactions (in-person, text), reflections (including some great conversations with “subconscious Maddie” who can be quite flippant bordering on rude), and extensive (and intriguing) “conversations” with Google. I love her use of vocabulary — the exact right word at the exact right spot in the prose. I love that Maddie’s flirtation with one man made extensive use of accurately placed semicolons. I loved Maddie’s Voice — so real and so individual. The language conveys essence and experience skillfully, without resorting to tricks of plots and constant emotional tugging. It feels genuine — that rarest of literary attributes.

So many excellent quotes — here are just a few:

“When Waterloo station approaches, I brace myself for another day at a job Google itself has deemed deserving of a bronze medal in the race to unhappiness.”

“We were friendlier at first, joked around a bit more, but that dried up like the arse of a prune on a date and time I still can’t stick a definitive pin in.”

“For some reason, at night, when you’re meant to be sleeping, your brain wants answers to everything.”

“It’s mentally exhausting trying to figure out if I’m taking that comment on my hair or lunch too seriously. It’s isolating when no one I know here is reading the Black authors I am or watching the same TV shows.”

“Still, that doesn’t change the fact that although I didn’t think I’d be rich I expected to be happy and the failure to do so has left me gasping for air most of the day.”

“I only suffer a few hiccups, mainly with the printer because they’re all bastards and will likely lead the technological charge in the eventual war against humans, but I’ve finished everything before Penny returns from her last meeting of the day.”

“I’d googled what to do when your flatmate is dumped by someone they’re casually seeing, but Google seemed very confused with at least two parts of the sentence.”

“I know what to do, how not to bring attention to myself. I’m skilled in assimilation, though my subconscious is quick to remind me that it’s nothing to be proud of. I have spent the entirety of my professional life in predominantly white spaces. As a bookseller, a receptionist, at the theater, and now a publishing house. Over the years, my instinct has been to shrink myself, to make sure I’m not too loud, to talk only about subjects I feel well versed in.”

“She frowns. ‘I don’t know why you’re offended. Gold-diggers are our nation’s hardest workers; do you know how much effort goes into pretending to give a shit about some guy for his money? A lot. Hoes are Britain’s unsung heroes.”

“It’s about what love is. Which is trust, commitment, empathy, and respect. It means really giving a shit about the other person.”

“I’m late, arriving halfway through, and he’s speaking Fante, which when spoken quickly is like trying to catch bubbles before they pop.”

“I cut the conversation off there because the way I see it, apologies only benefit the beggar. They get a clear conscience, and I get a sequence of hollow words incapable of changing anything.”

“Okay,” she says, and for a word that is often spelled with only two letters, she makes each syllable work hard. I slightly hate her.”

“I think when working in white spaces we can feel programmed to not rock the boat; like, we got a foot in the door and we should try to keep that door closed behind us. Which means you begin assigning any and all problematic issues to just being a part of the job….”

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on February 7th, 2023.

Cora’s Kitchen by Kimberly Garrett Brown (Historical / Literary / Multicultural Fiction)

Plot: 4/5 Characters: 5/5 Writing: 4/5 Enjoyment: 5/5

In 1928, Harlem librarian Cora James writes a letter to Langston Hughes whose poetry has inspired her. In ongoing correspondence, he supports her confessed desire to write and offers advice and commentary on her writing attempts.

There are more story elements including a surprising friendship with a white woman and a dangerous encounter, but for me the real story is about Cora’s awakening to the concept of having her own dreams and desires — beyond the expectations of being a wife and mother, a Black woman, and a good Christian. I absolutely loved and was startled by her own recognition of the limitations placed on her by societal and familial norms that she hadn’t even been aware of herself.

As part of the story she reads literature — Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, W.E.B Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, Miss Esale Fauset’s There is Confusion, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Nella Larsen’s Quicksand — and each informs her developing desire to express more than she knew she had in her to express. It is thoughtful, inspiring, and fascinating. Her reactions to works of literature are individual. She doesn’t like Amos and Andy or the characters in a prize winning Zora Neale Hurston story because she feels they make colored people look like fools. And she doesn’t want to write the standard colored woman story — growing up poor and oppressed in the South etc. She says, “We have been through so much as a people, but we have endured. I guess that’s why I think racism and oppression shouldn’t be our only focus. There are other stories to tell.” And in the end, when forced to choose, she makes what I found to be a surprising (and I was surprised that I was surprised by this) choice to identify more with the womanhood of her characters, rather than their Blackness). She explains it much better than I can, so I’ll let you read the story.

I loved this book and read it in a single sitting (OK — I was on a long plane flight BUT I had plenty of other books available on the kindle!).

Just a couple of quotes to let you see how Cora’s mind works:
“But most books written by colored authors are about race one way or another. And though I know it’s important to talk about, I’m tired of that being the focus all the time. There are other things in life that are just as important. Dreams. Desires. But maybe that’s too much to ask of a book.”

“But I wish Miss Larsen spent more time exploring Helga Crane’s desire for individuality and beauty, rather than her struggle as a mulatto woman trying to figure out where she belongs. Then maybe the novel would have spoken more to the workings of a colored woman’s mind.”

Thank you to Inanna Publications and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 20th, 2022.

All That’s Left Unsaid by Tracey Lien (Audio Book — Literary / Multicultural Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 3.5/5

Ky Tran comes back to the violent, drug ridden, largely Vietnamese / Chinese Sydney suburb of Cabramatta when her relatively nerdy, honor student, brother is brutally murdered at a post graduation party. The witnesses won’t talk, the police don’t care, and her parents haven’t the language skills or the will to pursue the matter. Ky tackles the witnesses — most of whom she knows — unable to let the matter rest. The novel structure fills in background, the story each witness reluctantly lets out, and the real story each remembers about while curating what comes out of their mouth. The path of disclosure winds towards a confrontation with Minnie — the best friend Ky hasn’t spoken to in years.

The writing is good and the main reader for the audio book is excellent (I did not love the two minor readers but they only appear once each for a relatively short time). I appreciated the in-depth descriptions of different approaches taken by members of a refugee community trying to make a life in a new country that doesn’t necessarily want them. Insightful commentary on loyalty, friendship, family, justice, and the concept of “being good.”

Thank you to Harper Audio and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 13th, 2022.