A book list by Onset & Rime.
We're closing out May with a new list of books to celebrate Asian authors and their stories. This list is a continuation of last year's 15 Books to Take You Beyond Asian Heritage Month, highlighting more authors and fresh stories, across a range of genres.
A Note: Content warnings have been provided where appropriate. Highlight the "invisible" text beside the content warning label to see. Content warnings are not value statements about the books or judgements about the inclusion of any particular content. They are there to give you a heads up on what to be prepared for so you can choose if and/or when a book is right for you.
1) DISORIENTATION by Elaine Hsieh Chou
“A Taiwanese American woman’s coming of consciousness ignites eye-opening revelations and chaos on a college campus”
From the publisher: “29-year-old PhD student Ingrid Yang is desperate to finish her dissertation on the late canonical poet, Xiao-Wen Chou, and never read about “Chinese-y” things again. But after four years of painstaking research, she has nothing but anxiety and stomach pain to show for her efforts. When she accidentally stumbles upon a strange and curious note in the Chou archives, she convinces herself it’s her ticket out of academic hell.
But Ingrid’s in much deeper than she thinks. Her clumsy exploits to unravel the note’s message lead to an explosive discovery, one that upends her entire life and the lives of those around her. With her trusty friend Eunice Kim by her side and her rival Vivian Vo hot on her tail, together they set off a rollercoaster of mishaps and misadventures, from campus protests and OTC drug hallucinations, to book burnings and a movement that stinks of “Yellow Peril” propaganda.
In the aftermath, nothing looks quite the same to Ingrid—including her gentle and doting fiancé, Stephen Greene. When he embarks on a book tour with the “super kawaii” Japanese author he’s translated, doubts and insecurities creep in. At the same time, she finds herself drawn to the cool and aloof Alex Kim (even though she swears he’s not her type). As the events Ingrid instigated keep spiraling, she’ll have to confront her sticky relationship to white men and white institutions—and most of all, herself.”
Content Warnings: physical and emotional abuse, racism, eugenics, sexism, ableism
2) THE SWIMMERS by Julie Otsuka
“... what happens to a group of obsessed recreational swimmers when a crack appears at the bottom of their local pool.”
From the publisher: “The swimmers are unknown to each other except through their private routines (slow lane, fast lane), and the solace each takes in their morning or afternoon laps. But when a crack appears at the bottom of the pool, they are cast out into an unforgiving world without comfort or relief.
One of these swimmers is Alice, who is slowly losing her memory. For Alice, the pool was a final stand against the darkness of her encroaching dementia. Without the fellowship of other swimmers and the routine of her daily laps she is plunged into dislocation and chaos, swept into memories of her childhood and the Japanese internment camp in which she spent the war. Narrated by Alice's daughter, who witnesses her stark and devastating decline, The Swimmers is a searing, intimate story of mothers and daughters, and the sorrows of implacable loss, written in spellbinding, incantatory prose.”
Content Warnings: xenophobia, forced institutionalization
3) ACCIDENTALLY ENGAGED by Farah Heron
“[A] romantic comedy featuring a Muslim woman who fakes an engagement to the boy next door in the hopes of winning a couples cooking contest.”
From the publisher: “Reena Manji doesn’t love her career, her single status, and most of all, her family inserting themselves into every detail of her life. But when caring for her precious sourdough starters, Reena can drown it all out. At least until her father moves his newest employee across the hall--with hopes that Reena will marry him.
But Nadim’s not like the other Muslim bachelors-du-jour that her parents have dug up. If the Captain America body and the British accent weren’t enough, the man appears to love eating her bread creations as much as she loves making them. She sure as hell would never marry a man who works for her father, but friendship with a neighbor is okay, right? And when Reena’s career takes a nosedive, Nadim happily agrees to fake an engagement so they can enter a couples video cooking contest to win the artisan bread course of her dreams.
As cooking at home together brings them closer, things turn physical, but Reena isn’t worried. She knows Nadim is keeping secrets, but it’s fine— secrets are always on the menu where her family is concerned. And her heart is protected… she’s not marrying the man. But even secrets kept for self preservation have a way of getting out, especially when meddling parents and gossiping families are involved.”
Genre(s): contemporary, rom com
Content Warnings: disordered eating (secondary character), racism
4) OLDER SISTER. NOT NECESSARILY RELATED by Jenny Heijun Wills
“A beautiful and haunting memoir of kinship and culture rediscovered.”
From the publisher: “Jenny Heijun Wills was born in Korea and adopted as an infant into a white family in small-town Canada. In her late twenties, she reconnected with her first family and returned to Seoul where she spent four months getting to know other adoptees, as well as her Korean mother, father, siblings, and extended family. At the guesthouse for transnational adoptees where she lived, alliances were troubled by violence and fraught with the trauma of separation and of cultural illiteracy. Unsurprisingly, heartbreakingly, Wills found that her nascent relationships with her family were similarly fraught.
Ten years later, Wills sustains close ties with her Korean family. Her Korean parents and her younger sister attended her wedding in Montreal, and that same sister now lives in Canada. Remarkably, meeting Jenny caused her birth parents to reunite after having been estranged since her adoption. Little by little, Jenny Heijun Wills is learning and relearning her stories and those of her biological kin, piecing together a fragmented life into something resembling a whole.
Delving into gender, class, racial, and ethnic complexities, as well as into the complex relationships between Korean women—sisters, mothers and daughters, grandmothers and grandchildren, aunts and nieces—Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related. describes in visceral, lyrical prose the painful ripple effects that follow a child's removal from a family, and the rewards that can flow from both struggle and forgiveness.”
Genre(s): non-fiction, memoir
Content Warnings: racism, transracial adoption, sexual assault
5) SACRED GAMES by Vikram Chandra
“Vikram Chandra's novel draws the reader deep into the life of Inspector Sartaj Singh—and into the criminal underworld of Ganesh Gaitonde, the most wanted gangster in India.”
From the publisher: “[Inspector] Sartaj, one of the very few Sikhs on the Mumbai police force, is used to being identified by his turban, beard and the sharp cut of his trousers. But "the silky Sikh" is now past forty, his marriage is over and his career prospects are on the slide. When Sartaj gets an anonymous tip-off as to the secret hide-out of the legendary boss of G-Company, he's determined that he'll be the one to collect the prize.”
Genre(s): mystery, thriller
Content Warnings: sexism, police corruption
6) AMERICA IS NOT THE HEART by Elaine Castillo
“Three generations of women from one immigrant family trying to reconcile the home they left behind with the life they're building in America.”
From the publisher: “How many lives can one person lead in a single lifetime? When Hero de Vera arrives in America, disowned by her parents in the Philippines, she's already on her third. Her uncle, Pol, who has offered her a fresh start and a place to stay in the Bay Area, knows not to ask about her past. And his younger wife, Paz, has learned enough about the might and secrecy of the De Vera family to keep her head down. Only their daughter, Roni, asks Hero why her hands seem to constantly ache.
Illuminating the violent political history of the Philippines in the 1980s and 1990s and the insular immigrant communities that spring up in the suburban United States with an uncanny ear for the unspoken intimacies and pain that get buried by the duties of everyday life and family ritual, Castillo delivers a powerful, increasingly relevant novel about the promise of the American dream and the unshakable power of the past. In a voice as immediate and startling as those of Junot Díaz and NoViolet Bulawayo, America Is Not the Heart is a sprawling, soulful telenovela of a debut novel. With exuberance, muscularity, and tenderness, here is a family saga; an origin story; a romance; a narrative of two nations and the people who leave home to grasp at another, sometimes turning back.”
Genre(s): historical fiction
Content Warnings: racism, homophobia, torture
7) FOUR TREASURES OF THE SKY by Jenny Tinghui Zhang
“[A] novel set against the backdrop of the Chinese Exclusion Act, about a Chinese girl fighting to claim her place in the 1880s American West”
From the publisher: “Daiyu never wanted to be like the tragic heroine for whom she was named, revered for her beauty and cursed with heartbreak. But when she is kidnapped and smuggled across an ocean from China to America, Daiyu must relinquish the home and future she imagined for herself. Over the years that follow, she is forced to keep reinventing herself to survive. From a calligraphy school, to a San Francisco brothel, to a shop tucked into the Idaho mountains, we follow Daiyu on a desperate quest to outrun the tragedy that chases her. As anti-Chinese sentiment sweeps across the country in a wave of unimaginable violence, Daiyu must draw on each of the selves she has been—including the ones she most wants to leave behind—in order to finally claim her own name and story.”
Genre(s): historical fiction
Content Warnings: sexual assault, racism, violence
8) HOW HIGH WE GO IN THE DARK by Sequoia Nagamatsu
“[Follow] a cast of intricately linked characters over hundreds of years as humanity struggles to rebuild itself in the aftermath of a climate plague.”
From the publisher: “Beginning in 2030, a grieving archeologist arrives in the Arctic Circle to continue the work of his recently deceased daughter at the Batagaika crater, where researchers are studying long-buried secrets now revealed in melting permafrost, including the perfectly preserved remains of a girl who appears to have died of an ancient virus.
Once unleashed, the Arctic Plague will reshape life on earth for generations to come, quickly traversing the globe, forcing humanity to devise a myriad of moving and inventive ways to embrace possibility in the face of tragedy. In a theme park designed for terminally ill children, a cynical employee falls in love with a mother desperate to hold on to her infected son. A heartbroken scientist searching for a cure finds a second chance at fatherhood when one of his test subjects—a pig—develops the capacity for human speech. A widowed painter and her teenaged granddaughter embark on a cosmic quest to locate a new home planet.
From funerary skyscrapers to hotels for the dead to interstellar starships, Sequoia Nagamatsu takes readers on a wildly original and compassionate journey, spanning continents, centuries, and even celestial bodies to tell a story about the resiliency of the human spirit, our infinite capacity to dream, and the connective threads that tie us all together in the universe.”
Genre(s): sci-fi, speculative fiction
Content Warnings: suicide, suicidal ideation
9) SIREN QUEEN by Nghi Vo
“[An] enthralling exploration of an outsider achieving stardom on her own terms, in a fantastical Hollywood where the monsters are real and the magic of the silver screen illuminates every page.”
From the Publisher: ““No maids, no funny talking, no fainting flowers.” Luli Wei is beautiful, talented, and desperate to be a star. Coming of age in pre-Code Hollywood, she knows how dangerous the movie business is and how limited the roles are for a Chinese American girl from Hungarian Hill—but she doesn’t care. She’d rather play a monster than a maid.
But in Luli’s world, the worst monsters in Hollywood are not the ones on screen. The studios want to own everything from her face to her name to the women she loves, and they run on a system of bargains made in blood and ancient magic, powered by the endless sacrifice of unlucky starlets like her. For those who do survive to earn their fame, success comes with a steep price. Luli is willing to do whatever it takes—even if that means becoming the monster herself.”
Genre(s): fantasy, historical fiction
Content Warnings: homophobia, racism, sexism, violence
10) THIS WOVEN KINGDOM by Tahereh Mafi
“Clashing empires, forbidden romance, and a long-forgotten queen destined to save her people”
From the publisher: “To all the world, Alizeh is a disposable servant, not the long-lost heir to an ancient Jinn kingdom forced to hide in plain sight.
The crown prince, Kamran, has heard the prophecies foretelling the death of his king. But he could never have imagined that the servant girl with the strange eyes, the girl he can’t put out of his mind, would one day soon uproot his kingdom—and the world.”
Genre(s): fantasy, young adult
Content Warnings: suicidal ideation
11) LOVE FROM A TO Z by S.K. Ali
“[An] unforgettable romance … following two teens who meet during a spring break trip.”
From the publisher: “A marvel: something you find amazing. Even ordinary-amazing. Like potatoes—because they make French fries happen. Like the perfect fries Adam and his mom used to make together.
An oddity: whatever gives you pause. Like the fact that there are hateful people in the world. Like Zayneb’s teacher, who won’t stop reminding the class how “bad” Muslims are.
But Zayneb, the only Muslim in class, isn’t bad. She’s angry. When she gets suspended for confronting her teacher, and he begins investigating her activist friends, Zayneb heads to her aunt’s house in Doha, Qatar, for an early start to spring break. Fueled by the guilt of getting her friends in trouble, she resolves to try out a newer, “nicer” version of herself in a place where no one knows her.
Then her path crosses with Adam’s.
Since he got diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in November, Adam’s stopped going to classes, intent, instead, on perfecting the making of things. Intent on keeping the memory of his mom alive for his little sister. Adam’s also intent on keeping his diagnosis a secret from his grieving father. Alone, Adam and Zayneb are playing roles for others, keeping their real thoughts locked away in their journals.
Until a marvel and an oddity occurs…
Marvel: Adam and Zayneb meeting.
Oddity: Adam and Zayneb meeting.”
Genre(s): young adult, romance, contemporary
Content Warnings: racism, islamophobia