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

The Family Chao by Lan Samantha Chang (Audio Book – Fiction)

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

Fine Chao Restaurant in Haven, Wisconsin, serves mouthwatering Chinese food to the local Chinese American community. While the jacket blurb promises us the dead body of the patriarch and all around not-very-nice-guy, this doesn’t appear until roughly half way through the book. In the meantime, we are introduced to his three sons (Dagou, the brash head chef; Ming, a financial success overcome with self-hatred; and James, home from college for Christmas) along with Katherine, a stubborn but no longer wanted fiancee, and an entire community struggling to define itself in an environment that is not exactly hostile, but isn’t exactly welcoming either.

I listened to this on audio so had more trouble taking notes and identifying quotes. The writing is very good — with an excellent vocabulary and the ability to tease out individual personalities and issues for each of the distinct characters (even the dog!). The racially based and often insidious experiences of each character was felt and reacted to differently for a more subtle and (IMHO) realistic portrayal. I found the book deeply interesting, but not nearly as comic as the marketing blurb suggested. I’m honestly confused about why it is billed as a comedy (I have a hard time laughing at other people’s problems unless they themselves are making a joke of it). I also found it less tense than I expected (which is a plus, as who needs more tension in their life?). I was impressed that the book didn’t resolve in anything even approaching a formulaic way — another big plus!

In summary — definitely worth reading, more family drama than mystery, stereotype busting, and full of character depth.

Thank you to RB Media and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on February 11th, 2022.