Catching up on all my reviews for Asian Lit Bingo is a much bigger undertaking than I had anticipated and is in fact a continuing process, though I don’t regret reading any of these books — regardless of how much I enjoyed the overall story experience, I learned a lot about different Asian and hyphenated-Asian (i.e., Asian-American, Asian-Australian, etc.) experiences different from my own. Each set of characters has unique struggles and dreams, illustrating the importance of diversity in publishing and of giving #ownvoices authors the opportunity to tell their stories as no one else can.
Without further ado, here are some books with Asian main characters, written by Asian authors, which have stuck with me and which I think more people should check out for themselves.
Book links in this post include affiliate links, which means that if you click through and buy a book I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. [Full disclaimers here.]
The Land of Forgotten Girls by Erin Entrada Kelly
Soledad has always been able to escape into the stories she creates. Just like her mother always could. And Soledad has needed that escape more than ever in the five years since her mother and sister died and her father moved Sol and her youngest sister from the Philippines to Louisiana. Then he left, and all Sol and Ming have now is their evil stepmother, Vea. Sol has protected Ming all this time, but then Ming begins to believe that Auntie Jove—their mythical, world-traveling aunt—is really going to come rescue them. Have Sol’s stories done more harm than good? Can she protect Ming from this impossible hope?
Genre(s): MG, Contemporary
Representation: Filipino immigrant MC & family, Latinx best friend, Chinese immigrant secondary characters
Content warnings: racism, physical & verbal child abuse, child neglect, physical & verbal bullying
Published March 1, 2016 by Greenwillow Books
Having grown up listening to stories from my parents, I adored the little fantasies mentioned throughout: from Auntie Jove to the Sister Princesses narrative, they balance out the bleakness of other parts of the narrative. They’re cute little moments, reminding you that as much as Sol has had to grow up fast to take care of her little sister, she’s still just a kid herself. And although she’s twelve years old, this book doesn’t pull punches. Morality isn’t black and white; Sol and Manny aren’t perfect kids (in fact, they do some objectively not-great things, like shoplifting and bullying other kids); Vea isn’t a comic-book villainess. There’s growth and development as the book goes on, in a very natural progression rather than a contrived “this story should probably contain some paradigm / worldview shifts” way.
And considering the main plot is one that I suspect quite a few readers will be able to relate to (whether they are themselves immigrants like the sisters, or their parents or grandparents were but they still don’t quite feel like they belong), it’s so important that it’s handled so sensitively and sympathetically. It’s not all good and it’s not all bad, and the same is true of the characters and every situation they find themselves in; above all, though, it’s a story that reminds you to be kind.
The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani
It’s 1947, and India, newly independent of British rule, has been separated into two countries: Pakistan and India. The divide has created much tension between Hindus and Muslims, and hundreds of thousands are killed crossing borders.
Half-Muslim, half-Hindu twelve-year-old Nisha doesn’t know where she belongs, or what her country is anymore. When Papa decides it’s too dangerous to stay in what is now Pakistan, Nisha and her family become refugees and embark first by train but later on foot to reach her new home. The journey is long, difficult, and dangerous, and after losing her mother as a baby, Nisha can’t imagine losing her homeland, too. But even if her country has been ripped apart, Nisha still believes in the possibility of putting herself back together.
Genre(s): MG, Historical
Representation: half-Hindu half-Muslim Indian MC & family; dyslexic secondary character (brother), Muslim secondary character, Hindu & Muslim minor characters, possible selective mutism (or social anxiety)
Content warnings: racism & religious persecution, violence, pre-narrative death of parent (in childbirth)
Published March 6, 2018 by Dial Books
Seeing the world through the eyes of a child (because despite how grown-up Nisha professes herself to be, there are several scenes that emphasize how naive and innocent she is) is always such a wonder-filled experience. The smell and color and texture of spices in the mortal and pestle, the sound of her brother yelling at play, the fear and confusion when violence erupts — it’s all so vivid and you can experience it all alongside her. My mouth watered with all the cooking scenes (by the way, there’s a glossary in the back for those unfamiliar with Indian cuisine and vocabulary); my heart pounded when things went sideways for their family. And I really felt Nisha’s frustration at not being to express herself; although there’s no official diagnosis of social anxiety or selective mutism, there are several scenes where Nisha struggles to speak out loud to anyone other than her brother: an apt representation of the powerlessness some young people feel in the face of adult authority and external circumstances.
The story itself can be split into a few distinct sections with some transition in between, which makes it easy to follow and balances out the complex themes which are more implicit than explained. This isn’t bad, just different from what I usually read. But I did enjoy reading it.
Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee
Welcome to Andover, where superpowers are common, but internships are complicated. Just ask high school nobody, Jessica Tran. Despite her heroic lineage, Jess is resigned to a life without superpowers and is merely looking to beef up her college applications when she stumbles upon the perfect (paid!) internship — only it turns out to be for the town’s most heinous supervillain. On the upside, she gets to work with her longtime secret crush, Abby, whom Jess thinks may have a secret of her own. Then theres the budding attraction to her fellow intern, the mysterious “M,” who never seems to be in the same place as Abby. But what starts as a fun way to spite her superhero parents takes a sudden and dangerous turn when she uncovers a plot larger than heroes and villains altogether.
Genre(s): YA, Sci-Fi, Superheroes
Representation: multiethnic Asian-American (Chinese/Vietnamese) bisexual MC, Black transgender secondary character, Latinx secondary character, F/F relationship
Published September 8, 2016 by Duet Books
This was fun! The writing and plot are a little more simplistic than I like, but the reveals/twists are very satisfying (predictable, but well-executed). And I love the casual diversity; it’s a little on the heavy-handed side with some explicit conversations about pronouns, but otherwise it’s pretty matter-of-fact (and for a 2016 release, you could even call it ahead of its time). Each of the characters is so precious, I want to wrap them up in blankets and make the world safe and nice for them even though I know they can take care of themselves and each other.
I can definitely see why everyone lauds this series — I couldn’t put it down, and as I was writing this review I had actually already started the second book!
A Hero Born by Jin Yong, translated by Anna Holmwood
A fantastical generational saga and kung fu epic, A Hero Born is the classic novel of its time, stretching from the Song Empire (China 1200 AD) to the appearance of a warlord whose name will endure for eternity: Genghis Khan. Filled with an extraordinary cast of characters, A Hero Born is a tale of fantasy and wonder, love and passion, treachery and war, betrayal and brotherhood.
After his father, a Song patriot, was murdered, Guo Jing and his mother fled to the plains and joined Ghengis Khan and his people. Loyal, humble and driven, he learned all he could from the warlord and his army in hopes of one day joining them in their cause. But what Guo Jing doesn’t know is that he’s destined to battle an opponent that will challenge him in every way imaginable and with a connection to his past that no one envisioned.
With the help and guidance of his shifus, The Seven Heroes of the South, Guo Jing returns to China to face his foe and carry out his destiny. But in a land divided by treachery and war, betrayal and ambition, he’ll have to put his courage and knowledge to the test to survive.
Genre(s): Adult, Historical, Wuxia (“Martial Heroes”)
Representation: Chinese main characters, Mongolian secondary characters
Published September 17, 2019 by St. Martin’s Press
I won this book through a Goodreads giveaway and received an Advance Review Copy from St. Martin’s Press. This does not affect my rating or opinions.
Translation is a difficult art, so while I would have done a few things differently (such as standardizing the translation / transliteration of character names) overall Holmwood has done a pretty good job of making this Eastern cultural touchstone accessible to a Western audience.
To be quite honest, I found the narrative structure slightly monotonous: a predictable cycle of battles (both of martial arts and, to some extent, of strategy) and training and travel. This is likely just a question of preference, since I personally am not all that interested in martial arts-type anime movies, nor do I tend to favor books that emphasize action above all else. But I know plenty of people who like fighting anime and action-packed books, so I can see the objective appeal of this narrative.
This book took me quite a while to get through — partly because it was just long, but also partly because of the aspects I’ve mentioned above. As someone who typically gets through books fairly quickly, I was a little put off; but as I started to pick up on the nuances of the characters and the subtleties of the worldbuilding I found myself more and more engaged in the story and invested in the characters.
Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert
Danny Cheng has always known his parents have secrets. But when he discovers a taped-up box in his father’s closet filled with old letters and a file on a powerful Silicon Valley family, he realizes there’s much more to his family’s past than he ever imagined. Danny has been an artist for as long as he can remember and it seems his path is set, with a scholarship to RISD and his family’s blessing to pursue the career he’s always dreamed of. Still, contemplating a future without his best friend, Harry Wong, by his side makes Danny feel a panic he can barely put into words. Harry and Danny’s lives are deeply intertwined and as they approach the one-year anniversary of a tragedy that shook their friend group to its core, Danny can’t stop asking himself if Harry is truly in love with his girlfriend, Regina Chan. When Danny digs deeper into his parents’ past, he uncovers a secret that disturbs the foundations of his family history and the carefully constructed façade his parents have maintained begins to crumble. With everything he loves in danger of being stripped away, Danny must face the ghosts of the past in order to build a future that belongs to him.
Genre(s): YA, Contemporary
Representation: gay Chinese-American MC, Taiwanese-American best friends, parent with anxiety (panic attacks)
Content warnings: racism, on-page witnessed panic attack, off-page secondary character death, suicide, depression, on-page car crash
Published April 10, 2018 by Disney Hyperion
This book epitomizes the power of “quiet” books: where the stakes are more (inter)personal than global or societal but still important. Although Danny’s family situation is certainly not one that most readers will immediately relate to — his secret family history is pretty dark and complex; I don’t consider myself an easily fazed reader, but I was definitely taken aback at each successive reveal — the coming-of-age themes are still universal, as are the contemplations of mental health, morality, loneliness, hope, family, and more.
Because the story is set in the Silicon Valley, the background cast is pretty diverse; in particular there are a lot of Asian and Asian-American characters, representing multiple versions of what it’s like to be Asian(-American) in America. On top of that, mental health is discussed fairly extensively and extremely sensitively: multiple characters have mental health conditions (and it’s far more nuanced than “oh, you know, all teenagers have depression and anxiety these days”) which manifest in different symptoms and lifestyle impacts. There isn’t always a diagnosis, and sometimes it’s matter of fact — like Danny’s casual comment that he’s not attracted to girls — and taken together the representation in this book is just phenomenal.
Interestingly, although this book does have extensive passages contemplating “life, the universe, and everything” (whether it’s scenes where Danny explains his drawing process, or reflects on the nature of loneliness) which I normally don’t like, they’re well balanced: mixed in with “action” scenes, and varied in length. Some readers may find it over the top, because there’s definitely a lot — I swear I’ve highlighted at least half this ebook — but I personally found it extremely poignant.
The Astrologer’s Daughter by Rebecca Lim
Avicenna Crowe’s mother, Joanne, is an astrologer with uncanny predictive powers and a history of being stalked. Now she is missing.
The police are called, but they’re not asking the right questions. Like why Joanne lied about her past, and what she saw in her stars that made her so afraid.
But Avicenna has inherited her mother’s gift. Finding an unlikely ally in the brooding Simon Thorn, she begins to piece together the mystery. And when she uncovers a link between Joanne’s disappearance and a cold-case murder, Avicenna is led deep into the city’s dark and seedy underbelly, unaware how far she is placing her own life in danger.
Genre(s): YA, Mystery, Contemporary
Representation: biracial (Caucasian / Chinese) MC, Chinese minor characters
Content warnings: racism, ableism, mentions of rape and murder, mentioned physical abuse, mentioned drug abuse, parent on life support
Published July 9, 2014 by Text Publishing
I went into this without any real expectations and found myself pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Keeping an open mind was really important: although astrology plays a significant part in the narrative, you don’t have to believe in it yourself to hope that Avicenna finds her mother (through whatever works), or connect emotionally with Simon. The characters are likable enough, though I do wish they were a little more developed. By which I mean they all had complex backstories, but I didn’t get as strong of an impression of their distinct personalities and motives (beyond the obvious). It’s not that they’re flat or unrelatable, but personally I didn’t find them very memorable apart from Avicenna’s name.
Most of the major developments were ones that I saw coming, but their execution was still suspenseful — my heart was literally pounding when I got to the story’s climax — and therefore still satisfying. I really appreciated Avicenna’s respect for the authorities; although she does have some of that teenage “I know my mother and her work best, I don’t want to fully leave the investigation in their hands” she doesn’t immediately decide that they don’t stand a chance … and she does call for backup (whether it’s Wurbik, her police “liaison,” or her classmate / rival Simon) when she doesn’t feel safe or needs someone to talk to, which is a level of maturity many YA protagonists lack.
So although I wouldn’t consider this a favorite, it’s definitely an engaging read that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to those who are interested in mystery and astrology.