Review & Blog Tour: Jade Fire Gold by June C.L. Tan

I grew up on wuxia and xianxia dramas. From the little that I remember of my adolescence, I recall watching these Vietnamese-dubbed dramas with my mom, marveling over the grand adventures of martial heroes with magic and found family and martial arts in ancient China–The Legend of the Condor Heroes and Handsome Siblings are two of the most memorable for me.

Reading Jade Fire Gold gave me all those nostalgic feelings from my childhood. There’s ancient Chinese folklore woven into the world-building, forbidden magic in the hands of our heroine, a slow-burn romance that gave Zutara vibes (any Avatar the Last Airbender fans here?), a journey through desert and sea, and some heart-racing action. While there are some issues with pacing, this is a great debut for fans of YA Asian-inspired fantasy.

Huge thank you to HarperTeen and Caffeine Book Tours for providing me an Advanced Reader’s Copy to review for the book tour!

Synopsis

In an empire on the brink of war…

Ahn is no one, with no past and no family.

Altan is a lost heir, his future stolen away as a child.

When they meet, Altan sees in Ahn a path to reclaiming the throne. Ahn sees a way to finally unlock her past and understand her arcane magical abilities.

But they may have to pay a far deadlier price than either could have imagined.

Ferocious action, shadowy intrigue, and a captivating romance collide in June CL Tan’s debut, a stunning homage to the Xianxia novel with a tender, beating heart, perfect for fans of The Bone Witch and We Hunt the Flame.

What it’s about:

Jade Fire Gold follows Ahn, a girl with a powerful and forbidden magic that can change the fate of an empire on the cusp of war, and Altan, a fugitive prince on a path of vengeance, seeking to reclaim the Dragon Throne as the rightful heir. Their destinies are intertwined, but there’s a price for everything.

My thoughts:

The Chinese folklore and mythos, immersive world-building, and wuxia/xianxia themes were my favorite aspects of the book. It really brought the world to life and painted the characters and settings in such vivid colors. Since the romance was pitched as Zuko and Katara-esque (from AtLA), I have to talk about it (I’ve been Zutara shipper since I was in high school). Altan definitely feels like Zuko in this story! From his whole tragic past to exiled prince to reclaiming the throne narrative. His relationship with Ahn is enemies to lovers on paper, but there’s not a great deal of tension and I found it to be a rather sweet romance! They’re more like reluctant allies. I even adored the side characters–Tang Wei was my favorite. The found family dynamic is forever my favorite underrated trope.

I must admit, the pacing was a bit jarring at times, but it didn’t detract from the story too much and I’m excited to see how things may unfold in the sequel (there’s going to be a sequel, right?!). After that epilogue, I’m crossing my fingers!

We all carry burdens and joys of our past. Only those who chose to be blind to themselves forget what once existed and what continues to exist inside.

Jade Fire Gold

Content warnings:

Self-harm (gouging, eye horror; non-graphic), child abuse (physical, verbal, emotional manipulation/gaslighting), parent death (implied, off-page), character deaths, mentions and descriptions of fantasy/magical violence (blood, war, political violence), mentions and descriptions of physical symptoms that might be triggering to those with emetophobia, alcohol consumption.

About the Author

June CL Tan grew up in Singapore where she was raised on a diet of classic books and wuxia movies, caffeine and congee. After obtaining three degrees, she decided she had enough of academia. Thankfully, those degrees were somewhat related to telling stories and now, she resides in New York City, writing under the watchful eye of her crafty cat. Jade Fire Gold is her debut novel.

A Discussion around She Who Became the Sun & the Importance of Visibility in the Marketing of LGBTQ+ Books

If you’re familiar with my bookstagram or blog, you might know that Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun is one of my favorite reads this year. I recommend it often simply because I love it. It’s a book about destiny and ambition, war and vengeance, and at the heart of the story is a nuanced exploration of gender identity. 

I’ve never put much thought into how the book was marketed, but I recently had a conversation with someone who thought the LGBTQ+ advertisement of the book was “kind of manipulative and off putting”. 

I was bewildered. The two relationships in the book are afab (assigned female at birth) with a woman, and amab (assigned male at birth) with a man. Gender and sexuality are significant aspects of the story, so it was difficult to fathom how the LGBTQ+ marketing of a book about genderqueer characters was manipulative.

Here’s the thing–they never read the book. They argued that the synopsis didn’t give the impression that the book was LGBT, therefore the LGBT advertisement was a manipulative gimmick used by publishers to reach the bestsellers lists. 

Although we were unable to see eye to eye, the conversation made me examine the consumer perception of how books are advertised, and I wanted to emphasize the importance of visibility in the marketing of LBGTQ+ books, as well as open the discussion to the rest of the book community. I’ll address the points they made and offer my own thoughts.


1. Books have to have “gimmicks” for publishers to advertise or it doesn’t go to the top of the bestsellers list.

The two examples they used as “gimmicks” were the LGBT advertisement of SWBtS and the autism representation of an unnamed author’s books. 

The identities of characters are not gimmicks. Marketing a book for having LGBTQ+ rep or autism rep is not a “gimmick” that magically gets the book to the top of the NYT bestsellers. These are central themes of the stories, and oftentimes a reflection of the author’s own experiences. Books SHOULD be marketed with their Own Voices identity. Why would such a significant part of the book be left out?

Not to mention, reducing all the efforts of an author’s achievement to just advertising “gimmicks’’ is unfair and unfounded. Imagine months upon months, years upon years of hard work, pouring their heart out into these stories, only for their success to be minimalized as an advertising trick. Don’t get me wrong, a great marketing campaign can certainly get a book a lot of exposure, but there’s so much more to it. 

2. Publishers are just using this “advertising gimmick” to chase the LGBT audience.

Is it to chase an audience or is it for the intended audience to find these books? If you are queer, writing about queer characters, who do want your book to be read by? Many queer readers want to read queer stories; queer trials and tribulations, queer joy and triumphs. Authors want to share these stories. Publishers are accurately marketing these books so that they can be found.

I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve seen people say they wish things were more explicitly marketed as queer so that it would be easier to find. This reminds me of an incident a webcomic creator had with someone telling them to exclude identity and orientation when promoting their story. 

In the words of LySandra Vuong, the creator of the webtoon COVENANT, “how will queer ppl find my story if i dont tell them its queer”.

3. “Not a fan of such labels…people are just people regardless of designation or other issues. I mean everyone has issues.”

Yes. Everyone has issues, but the issues LGBTQ+ people face are not the same issues that straight cisgender people face. She Who Became the Sun is about gender dysphoria. It also deals with internalized homophobia and self-hatred that stems from the disconnect between body and gender identity. Just because these issues don’t directly affect you, doesn’t mean they’re not important narratives. 

4. “There have been great books about LGBT and autism and other representation for ages. And none of the publishers bothered to point it out. LGBT is not exactly new.”

LGBT is certainly not new, but historically, literature with LGBT themes have faced backlash, bans, and censorship. Writers have faced persecution. This might explain why publishers weren’t as open in explicitly marketing those books in the past. In 2016, The American Library Association noted that half of the most challenged books in the United States had LGBTQ+ content. (ALA)

The publishing landscape is finally evolving to be more inclusive in the books that are published and the advertising of those books, but there’s still a long way to go. We should be pushing for progress, not dwelling in past practices. 

5. Advertising SWBtS as LGBT is “very targeted advertising on the part of the publisher when I’m sure the author had a story they just wanted to tell.” 

Shelley was kind enough to share her thoughts on how SWBtS was advertised and the story she wanted to tell:

“We want to tell a story, and we also want that story to reach the audience we were speaking to when we wrote it…She Who Became the Sun is a queer work—its central theme is a queering of history—and I wrote it for a queer audience. Sure, it might be read outside of that core audience, but the queer audience is the one that’s going to understand it best. And it’s the only audience I personally care about.”

“The pitch for my book was always “a queer reimagining of the rise to power of the founding emperor of the Ming dynasty.” And (part of) the reason I chose Tor over other publishers is because I knew they ‘got’ its queerness. I knew they weren’t going to try to market my book as a feminist retelling without mentioning the queerness. The marketing allowed my book to find its true audience, and that’s what was most important. And if it turns out that there’s a vibrant queer audience that happens to be hungry to see themselves in fiction, and that enthusiasm sends queer-marketed books to the top of the charts (which I don’t think is as straightforward as that, but that’s a separate issue)—well, it’s about time that queer books got their moment in the sunlight after barely existing for the entire lifetime of modern publishing.”


Now, more than ever, we should be celebrating LBGTQ+ stories and voices. These books deserve to be visibly marketed so that they can be seen and heard, so hungry readers can find them and see themselves in books. 

Thank you to everyone who replied to my story on Instagram to talk about SWBtS with me, and to Tiffany (QuillTreeFox) for reading over this and giving valuable feedback! Of course, a special thank you to Shelley for sharing her own process and experience as well.

My dms are always open over on bookstagram if anyone wants to discuss more about this!

“It’s about time that queer books got their moment in the sunlight after barely existing for the entire lifetime of modern publishing.”

Shelley Parker-Chan

Spooky Season TBR 🎃🦇👻

My favorite season is here–not just autumn, but the spooky season. I have a tradition of watching all the spine-tingling, terror-inducing movies I can leading up to Halloween to get into the spirits, and this year, I wanted to add books to that! I’ve compiled a rather ambitious spooky season TBR full of eerie horrors, suspenseful thrillers, and murder mysteries to indulge in October. Bring on the dread and the unease, the disquiet and apprehension to your reading lists!


There’s Someone Inside Your House

My favorite subgenre of horror is definitely the slasher variety–there’s something far more terrifying about a human wrecking havoc than a paranormal entity, perhaps because there’s a sense of realism. That being said, I’ve been eyeing this YA slasher for quite some time! Pitched as Scream meets YA, There’s Someone Inside Your House was recently adapted by Netflix (releasing October 6th). I’ll be reading for book before I watch the movie!

Makani Young thought she’d left her dark past behind her in Hawaii, settling in with her grandmother in landlocked Nebraska. She’s found new friends and has even started to fall for mysterious outsider Ollie Larsson. But her past isn’t far behind.

Then, one by one, the students of Osborne Hugh begin to die in a series of gruesome murders, each with increasingly grotesque flair. As the terror grows closer and her feelings for Ollie intensify, Makani is forced to confront her own dark secrets.


House of Hollow

Look at how stunning this cover is. Was I swayed by the cover before even reading the synopsis? Maybe. This one blends horror and fantasy, with elements of magical realism. Horror never looked so pretty.

Seventeen-year-old Iris Hollow has always been strange. Something happened to her and her two older sisters when they were children, something they can’t quite remember but that left each of them with an identical half-moon scar at the base of their throats.

Iris has spent most of her teenage years trying to avoid the weirdness that sticks to her like tar. But when her eldest sister, Grey, goes missing under suspicious circumstances, Iris learns just how weird her life can get: horned men start shadowing her, a corpse falls out of her sister’s ceiling, and ugly, impossible memories start to twist their way to the forefront of her mind.

As Iris retraces Grey’s last known footsteps and follows the increasingly bizarre trail of breadcrumbs she left behind, it becomes apparent that the only way to save her sister is to decipher the mystery of what happened to them as children.

The closer Iris gets to the truth, the closer she comes to understanding that the answer is dark and dangerous – and that Grey has been keeping a terrible secret from her for years.


Home Before Dark

This might be the only horror novel I’ve seen garner a lot of love on bookstagram. I’ve never read any of Sager’s books, though his mysteries and thrillers seem to be a hit. I’m eager to delve into this story about haunted houses and ghostly encounters.

What was it like? Living in that house.

Maggie Holt is used to such questions. Twenty-five years ago, she and her parents, Ewan and Jess, moved into Baneberry Hall, a rambling Victorian estate in the Vermont woods. They spent three weeks there before fleeing in the dead of night, an ordeal Ewan later recounted in a nonfiction book called House of Horrors. His tale of ghostly happenings and encounters with malevolent spirits became a worldwide phenomenon, rivaling The Amityville Horror in popularity—and skepticism.

Today, Maggie is a restorer of old homes and too young to remember any of the events mentioned in her father’s book. But she also doesn’t believe a word of it. Ghosts, after all, don’t exist. When Maggie inherits Baneberry Hall after her father’s death, she returns to renovate the place to prepare it for sale. But her homecoming is anything but warm. People from the past, chronicled in House of Horrors, lurk in the shadows. And locals aren’t thrilled that their small town has been made infamous thanks to Maggie’s father.

Even more unnerving is Baneberry Hall itself—a place filled with relics from another era that hint at a history of dark deeds. As Maggie experiences strange occurrences straight out of her father’s book, she starts to believe that what he wrote was more fact than fiction.


The Forest of Stolen Girls

Look, I don’t just buy books based on covers, I swear! But a pretty cover is certainly hard to resist. Forest of Stolen Girls has been on my list since the beginning of the year (I’ve mentioned it in my 10 Books by Asian Authors to Read in 2021 post). This is a historical murder mystery about vanishing girls set during 1400s Korea–how cool is that?

Hwani’s family has never been the same since she and her younger sister went missing and were later found unconscious in the forest, near a gruesome crime scene. The only thing they remember: Their captor wore a painted-white mask.

To escape the haunting memories of this incident, the family flees their hometown. Years later, Detective Min—Hwani’s father—learns that thirteen girls have recently disappeared under similar circumstances, and so he returns to their hometown to investigate… only to vanish as well.

Determined to find her father and solve the case that tore their family apart, Hwani returns home to pick up the trail. As she digs into the secrets of the small village—and reconnects with her now estranged sister—Hwani comes to realize that the answer lies within her own buried memories of what happened in the forest all those years ago.


You Love Me

Ah, Joe. Our favorite psychopath returns in the third installment of the You series and what can I say other than I can never get enough of these books? Psychological thrillers are one of my favorite subgenres and no one does it quite like Kepnes.

Joe is done with the cities. He’s done with the muck and the posers, done with Love. Now, he’s saying hello to nature, to simple pleasures on a cozy island in the Pacific Northwest. For the first time in a long time, he can just breathe.

He gets a job at the local library—he does know a thing or two about books—and that’s where he meets her: Mary Kay DiMarco. Librarian. Joe won’t meddle; he will not obsess. He’ll win her the old-fashioned way: by providing a shoulder to cry on, a helping hand. Over time, they’ll both heal their wounds and begin their happily ever after in this sleepy town.

The trouble is, Mary Kay already has a life. She’s a mother. She’s a friend. She’s busy.

True love can only triumph if both people are willing to make room for the real thing. Joe cleared his decks. He’s ready. And hopefully, with his encouragement and undying support, Mary Kay will do the right thing and make room for him. 


The Final Girl Support Group

What happens to the remaining survivors of slasher flicks after the credit rolls? I love the unique premise of this one. It deals with the aftermath and trauma of surviving a horrifying massacre…but it’s not quite over yet. Gives major horror sequel vibes.

In horror movies, the final girl is the one who’s left standing when the credits roll. The one who fought back, defeated the killer, and avenged her friends. The one who emerges bloodied but victorious. But after the sirens fade and the audience moves on, what happens to her?

Lynnette Tarkington is a real-life final girl who survived a massacre twenty-two years ago, and it has defined every day of her life since. And she’s not alone. For more than a decade she’s been meeting with five other actual final girls and their therapist in a support group for those who survived the unthinkable, putting their lives back together, piece by piece. That is until one of the women misses a meeting and Lynnette’s worst fears are realized–someone knows about the group and is determined to take their lives apart again, piece by piece.

But the thing about these final girls is that they have each other now, and no matter how bad the odds, how dark the night, how sharp the knife, they will never, ever give up.


The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

Agatha Christie meets Groundhog Day. Imagine having to relive the day of a murder again and again, but each time waking up in a different body. I’d go crazy trying to solve the murder, but let’s see how our narrator fares!

Aiden Bishop knows the rules. Evelyn Hardcastle will die every day until he can identify her killer and break the cycle. But every time the day begins again, Aiden wakes up in the body of a different guest at Blackheath Manor. And some of his hosts are more helpful than others. With a locked room mystery that Agatha Christie would envy, Stuart Turton unfurls a breakneck novel of intrigue and suspense.

For fans of Claire North, and Kate Atkinson, The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a breathlessly addictive mystery that follows one man’s race against time to find a killer, with an astonishing time-turning twist that means nothing and no one are quite what they seem.


Gideon the Ninth

We need more necromancers in fantasy. Raise the dead! I’ve seen a lot of great things about this series, and the spooky season felt like the perfect time to read the first book.

The Emperor needs necromancers.

The Ninth Necromancer needs a swordswoman.

Gideon has a sword, some dirty magazines, and no more time for undead bullshit.

Brought up by unfriendly, ossifying nuns, ancient retainers, and countless skeletons, Gideon is ready to abandon a life of servitude and an afterlife as a reanimated corpse. She packs up her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and prepares to launch her daring escape. But her childhood nemesis won’t set her free without a service.

Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House and bone witch extraordinaire, has been summoned into action. The Emperor has invited the heirs to each of his loyal Houses to a deadly trial of wits and skill. If Harrowhark succeeds she will become an immortal, all-powerful servant of the Resurrection, but no necromancer can ascend without their cavalier. Without Gideon’s sword, Harrow will fail, and the Ninth House will die.

Of course, some things are better left dead.


What’s on your spooky season TBR?

SABC: Summer Reading Bingo Wrap-Up ☀️

August was the first month I made a monthly TBR in quite some time–I’m typically more of a mood reader, but I wanted to join in on the fun with Subtle Asian’s Book Club’s Summer Reading Bingo. It was a great time to tackle the books that had been sitting on my TBR for far too long, as well as pick up some more recent releases that I’d been meaning to read. I ended up reading a total of 7 books/web comics–making it one of my better reading months this year. Here’s a wrap-up of all my August reads!


A book set by the water: The Ones We’re Meant to Find

It hurts me to say this, considering how much I enjoyed Joan He’s previous book (Descendant of the Crane), but I’m on the fence about this one. On one hand, it’s one of the most beautiful covers I’ve ever seen, and I think the concept is very interesting, but on the other hand, I was pretty confused for the majority of the book, and I was lukewarm about the open ending. I think sci-fi might just not be my cup of tea, sadly. Nonetheless, I’m excited for whatever Joan He writes next!

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️


Read a webtoon, manga, or graphic novel: Wind Breaker

This webcomic has been on my TBR for too long! It was trending in the webcomic community on TikTok and with all the amazing edits, I decided to finally read it. But it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing (or should I say biking). I wasn’t a fan of the art in the earlier chapters and it took nearly 100 chapters for the story to grow on me–but I’d say it’s worth it! I love the current art and I’m very much invested in the characters now.

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️.5


A book less than 300 pages: Solo Leveling vol 2

If you didn’t already know, I’m obsessed with Solo Leveling and I’m collecting the english volumes as they release. Volume 2 recently came out so I went ahead and picked up a copy and reread it (this is my third reread). I loved it! I think the english translation is excellent and the art is wonderful as always. You can find my review for the series here: Why You Should Read Solo Leveling.

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️🌟


A book recommended by a SABC member: Loveboat, Taipei

Another one I was on the fence about. This was recommended by Tiffany from SABC and it’s been on my TBR for quite some time as well! I appreciated the themes this book tackled (mental health, racism, being a first gen American) and I thought the overall message of the story was great, but there were also aspects that didn’t work for me, including the over-the-top drama, cheating, and *drumroll* love triangle (sorry I hate love triangles).

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️


A book with an illustrated cover: XOXO by Axie Oh

I adored this one! It gave me all the giddy, lighthearted romance k-drama feels and it’s such a fun read. If you like k-drama and k-pop, definitely check this one out. It put the biggest smile on my face! You can find my review here.

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️


A book set during the summer: So We Meet Again

This is my favorite Suzanne Park book yet! I loved the family dynamic and how Park presented the relationship between immigrant parents and daughter, and I felt like Jess was relatable in many ways in her hopes and fears. If you’re looking for a heartwarming and uplifting read, look no further. Bonus if you’re a foodie!! Full review here.

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️


Read during sunrise or sunset: The Flower Dances and the Wind Sings

I’ve been loving this webcomic, hence squeezing in a couple chapters at sunrise before I go to work. It’s FULL of angst and misunderstandings, and deals with heavy topics like postpartum depression and child neglect–essentially, the story is about a mother’s regret. It’s a terribly sad story with beautiful art, and we know how much I love the emotional havoc of tragic stories (or maybe you don’t, but now you do).

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️


Bingo! All in all, it was a pretty good reading month for me! What was your favorite read in August?

Review: XOXO by Axie Oh

Have you ever wanted to read a book that felt like a K-drama? Well look no further because I found the perfect book! XOXO encompasses everything I love about romance K-dramas—the feel-good vibes, the humor, the heartwarming romance, and the emphasis on family and friendships. In just a little over 300 pages, Axie Oh made me feel like I binge-watched an entire season of an incredibly sweet and lighthearted K-drama.

What it’s about:

At her uncle’s Karaoke bar, cello prodigy Jenny meets a handsome stranger who takes her on a spontaneous night of adventure—then he disappears without a word. Three months later, Jenny and her mom moves to South Korea to take care of her ailing grandma. There, her paths cross again with the mysterious stranger at the elite performing arts academy she’s enrolled in. He just so happens to be a member of XOXO, one of the biggest k-pop bands in the world…and he’s forbidden from dating.

What I loved:

This book was a pure delight. It’s full of heart and humor—and very reminiscent of the fluffy romantic K-dramas I used to watch (these days I’m obsessed with the thriller/melodrama variety). It reminded me why I love romcom K-dramas so much: they make me feel good.

The forbidden romance between Jenny and Jaewoo; prodigy cellist and k-pop idol, was adorable: the thrill of sneaking around, the Seoul adventures, the soft kisses beneath the twinkling stars. I loved it. I don’t listen to a whole lot of k-pop but this book had me pulling up those aesthetic hour-long k-indie playlists on Youtube to play in the background (I’ll have a playlist below)! The friendships and bromances in this story was SO wholesome. I’m begging for a spin-off. Sori was my favorite and I’d love to see more of her (with Nathaniel)!

“If cellists have fan clubs, Jenny, I want to join yours.”

Read XOXO if you like:

  • Lighthearted k-dramas
  • K-pop and idols
  • Forbidden romance
  • Korean culture
  • Heartwarming YA romances
  • Books that lift your spirits

Biggest thank you to Subtle Asian Book Club and Epic Reads for this copy!!


Do you watch K-drama? Or listen to K-pop? Share some of your favorite shows + songs!

Most Anticipated Fall 2021 Book Releases

Autumn is right around the corner. With the seasonal shift comes many things I love: the ochre and vermilion foliage, the brisk morning air, the cozy sweaters—but most importantly, I’m excited for all the upcoming book releases! From debuts to prequels to highly anticipated sequels, here are 10 Fall releases to put on your radar.

September

Not Here to be Liked by Michelle Quach

Why you should read it: Rivals to lovers, intersectional feminism, Asian American rep. I’m also in LOVE with the illustrated cover!

Eliza Quan is the perfect candidate for editor in chief of her school paper. That is, until ex-jock Len DiMartile decides on a whim to run against her. Suddenly her vast qualifications mean squat because inexperienced Len—who is tall, handsome, and male—just seems more like a leader.

When Eliza’s frustration spills out in a viral essay, she finds herself inspiring a feminist movement she never meant to start, caught between those who believe she’s a gender equality champion and others who think she’s simply crying misogyny.

Amid this growing tension, the school asks Eliza and Len to work side by side to demonstrate civility. But as they get to know one another, Eliza feels increasingly trapped by a horrifying realization—she just might be falling for the face of the patriarchy himself.


The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood

Why you should read it: Fake dating, women in science, academic romcom premise.

As a third-year Ph.D. candidate, Olive Smith doesn’t believe in lasting romantic relationships–but her best friend does, and that’s what got her into this situation. Convincing Anh that Olive is dating and well on her way to a happily ever after was always going to take more than hand-wavy Jedi mind tricks: Scientists require proof. So, like any self-respecting biologist, Olive panics and kisses the first man she sees.

That man is none other than Adam Carlsen, a young hotshot professor–and well-known ass. Which is why Olive is positively floored when Stanford’s reigning lab tyrant agrees to keep her charade a secret and be her fake boyfriend. But when a big science conference goes haywire, putting Olive’s career on the Bunsen burner, Adam surprises her again with his unyielding support and even more unyielding…six-pack abs.

Suddenly their little experiment feels dangerously close to combustion. And Olive discovers that the only thing more complicated than a hypothesis on love is putting her own heart under the microscope.


Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

Why you should read it: Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid’s Tale in a polyamorous reimagining of China’s only female emperor. You read that right—polyamorous! In YA!

The boys of Huaxia dream of pairing up with girls to pilot Chrysalises, giant transforming robots that can battle the mecha aliens that lurk beyond the Great Wall. It doesn’t matter that the girls often die from the mental strain.

When 18-year-old Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, it’s to assassinate the ace male pilot responsible for her sister’s death. But she gets her vengeance in a way nobody expected—she kills him through the psychic link between pilots and emerges from the cockpit unscathed. She is labeled an Iron Widow, a much-feared and much-silenced kind of female pilot who can sacrifice boys to power up Chrysalises instead.​

To tame her unnerving yet invaluable mental strength, she is paired up with Li Shimin, the strongest and most controversial male pilot in Huaxia​. But now that Zetian has had a taste of power, she will not cower so easily. She will miss no opportunity to leverage their combined might and infamy to survive attempt after attempt on her life, until she can figure out exactly why the pilot system works in its misogynist way—and stop more girls from being sacrificed.


October

Jade Fire Gold by June CL Tan

Why you should read it: Chinese mythology, an epic slow-burn romance, and ZUTARA vibes. Are there any AtLA fans here? Because I finally get to relive all my Zutara feels.

In an empire on the brink of war . . .

Ahn is no one, with no past and no family.

Altan is a lost heir, his future stolen away as a child.

When they meet, Altan sees in Ahn a path to reclaiming the throne. Ahn sees a way to finally unlock her past and understand her arcane magical abilities.

But they may have to pay a far deadlier price than either could have imagined.

Ferocious action, shadowy intrigue, and a captivating romance collide in June CL Tan’s debut, a stunning homage to the Xianxia novel with a tender, beating heart, perfect for fans of The Bone Witch and We Hunt the Flame.


Vespertine by Margaret Rogerson

Why you should read it: Restless spirits of the dead, aroace rep, gothic fantasy vibes.

The dead of Loraille do not rest.

Artemisia is training to be a Gray Sister, a nun who cleanses the bodies of the deceased so that their souls can pass on; otherwise, they will rise as spirits with a ravenous hunger for the living. She would rather deal with the dead than the living, who trade whispers about her scarred hands and troubled past.

When her convent is attacked by possessed soldiers, Artemisia defends it by awakening an ancient spirit bound to a saint’s relic. It is a revenant, a malevolent being that threatens to possess her the moment she drops her guard. Wielding its extraordinary power almost consumes her—but death has come to Loraille, and only a vespertine, a priestess trained to wield a high relic, has any chance of stopping it. With all knowledge of vespertines lost to time, Artemisia turns to the last remaining expert for help: the revenant itself.

As she unravels a sinister mystery of saints, secrets, and dark magic, her bond with the revenant grows. And when a hidden evil begins to surface, she discovers that facing this enemy might require her to betray everything she has been taught to believe—if the revenant doesn’t betray her first.


A Shadow in the Ember by Jennifer L Armentrout

Why you should read it: Prequel to the Blood and Ash series—loosely inspired by Hades and Persephone myth but without the kidnapping.

Born shrouded in the veil of the Primals, a Maiden as the Fates promised, Seraphena Mierel’s future has never been hers. Chosen before birth to uphold the desperate deal her ancestor struck to save his people, Sera must leave behind her life and offer herself to the Primal of Death as his Consort.   

However, Sera’s real destiny is the most closely guarded secret in all of Lasania—she’s not the well protected Maiden but an assassin with one mission—one target. Make the Primal of Death fall in love, become his weakness, and then…end him. If she fails, she dooms her kingdom to a slow demise at the hands of the Rot. 

Sera has always known what she is. Chosen. Consort. Assassin. Weapon. A specter never fully formed yet drenched in blood. A monster. Until him. Until the Primal of Death’s unexpected words and deeds chase away the darkness gathering inside her. And his seductive touch ignites a passion she’s never allowed herself to feel and cannot feel for him. But Sera has never had a choice. Either way, her life is forfeit—it always has been, as she has been forever touched by Life and Death. 


The Keeper of Night by Kylie Lee Baker

Why you should read it: Japanese mythology (Shinigami and Yokai), historical fantasy set in 1890s Japan, biracial rep (Japanese + British).

Death is her destiny.

Half British Reaper, half Japanese Shinigami, Ren Scarborough has been collecting souls in the London streets for centuries. Expected to obey the harsh hierarchy of the Reapers who despise her, Ren conceals her emotions and avoids her tormentors as best she can.

When her failure to control her Shinigami abilities drives Ren out of London, she flees to Japan to seek the acceptance she’s never gotten from her fellow Reapers. Accompanied by her younger brother, the only being on earth to care for her, Ren enters the Japanese underworld to serve the Goddess of Death… only to learn that here, too, she must prove herself worthy. Determined to earn respect, Ren accepts an impossible task—find and eliminate three dangerous Yokai demons—and learns how far she’ll go to claim her place at Death’s side. 


Archangel’s Light by Nalini Singh

Why you should read it: The highly anticipated Bluebell book from Nalini Singh’s legendary Guild Hunter series! A love story half a millennium in the making. I am very likely to cry while reading this.

Illium and Aodhan. Aodhan and Illium. For centuries they’ve been inseparable: the best of friends, closer than brothers, companions of the heart. But that was before—before darkness befell Aodhan and shattered him, body, mind, and soul. Now, at long last, Aodhan is healing, but his new-found strength and independence may come at a devastating cost—his relationship with Illium.

As they serve side by side in China, a territory yet marked by the evil of its former archangel, the secret it holds nightmarish beyond imagining, things come to an explosive decision point. Illium and Aodhan must either walk away from the relationship that has defined them—or step forward into a future that promises a bond infinitely precious in the life of an immortal…but that demands a terrifying vulnerability from two badly bruised hearts. 


November

Our Violent Ends by Chloe Gong

Why you should read it: Sequel to These Violent Delights, one of my favorite reads last year! I’m actually terrified to read this, considering the fact that it’s inspired by Romeo and Juliet, and we all know how that ended…

The year is 1927, and Shanghai teeters on the edge of revolution.

After sacrificing her relationship with Roma to protect him from the blood feud, Juliette has been a girl on the warpath. One wrong move, and her cousin will step in to usurp her place as the Scarlet Gang’s heir. The only way to save the boy she loves from the wrath of the Scarlets is to have him want her dead for murdering his best friend in cold blood. If Juliette were actually guilty of the crime Roma believes she committed, his rejection might sting less.

Roma is still reeling from Marshall’s death, and his cousin Benedikt will barely speak to him. Roma knows it’s his fault for letting the ruthless Juliette back into his life, and he’s determined to set things right—even if that means killing the girl he hates and loves with equal measure.

Then a new monstrous danger emerges in the city, and though secrets keep them apart, Juliette must secure Roma’s cooperation if they are to end this threat once and for all. Shanghai is already at a boiling point: The Nationalists are marching in, whispers of civil war brew louder every day, and gangster rule faces complete annihilation. Roma and Juliette must put aside their differences to combat monsters and politics, but they aren’t prepared for the biggest threat of all: protecting their hearts from each other.


All of Us Villains by Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman

Why you should read it: A dark tale of ambition and magic + a tournament to the death. Hunger Games vibes but make it darker.

You Fell In Love With The Victors of The Hunger Games.
Now Prepare To Meet The Villains of The Blood Veil.

After the publication of a salacious tell-all book, the remote city of Ilvernath is thrust into worldwide spotlight. Tourists, protesters, and reporters flock to its spellshops and ruins to witness an ancient curse unfold: every generation, seven families name a champion among them to compete in a tournament to the death. The winner awards their family exclusive control over the city’s high magick supply, the most powerful resource in the world.

In the past, the villainous Lowes have won nearly every tournament, and their champion is prepared to continue his family’s reign. But this year, thanks to the influence of their newfound notoriety, each of the champions has a means to win. Or better yet–a chance to rewrite their story.

But this is a story that must be penned in blood.


Are any of these books on your tbr? What are you most excited for this fall?

Review: So We Meet Again by Suzanne Park

This is my favorite book by Suzanne Park yet. It’s more women’s fiction than romance (though there is a very sweet romantic subplot), and rightfully marketed this time! I loved the family dynamic and how the relationship between immigrant parents and daughter was written. It was relatable in many ways, and Jess’ character resonated deeply with me. If you’re looking for a heartwarming and uplifting read, look no further. Bonus if you’re a foodie!

Thank you to Avon Books for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review!

What it’s about:

After investment banker Jessie Kim is laid off for her supposed lack of leadership qualities, she returns to her hometown Tennessee, moving back in with her parents to figure out what her next move will be. To make matters worse, she runs into her childhood nemesis, Daniel Choi, a charming lawyer who seems to have it all. Determined to turn things around, she decides to revive her old Korean cooking Youtube channel. Her spitfire mother makes an uninvited appearance on the very first livestream—and it goes viral.

What I loved:

The mother-daughter relationship. The family dynamic was hands down my favorite aspect of the book, more specifically, the relationship between Jess and her mother. It reminded me a lot of my relationship with my own mother, especially since my mother is also an immigrant with strong views. At the surface it may seem like they have a combative relationship, but it’s a bond full of love. My mom also used to drive me crazy! But I knew it was because she wanted the best for me, as did Jess’ mom. She’s afraid of being a disappointment to her parents, but they really just want her to be happy. Jess is relatable in many ways in her hopes and fears.

Highlighting sexism + workplace inequality. This books highlights how many women and minorities are treated in male-dominated fields. These relevant issues are addressed in a realistic way. Right from the beginning, Jess is not only passed off for a promotion after all her hard work, but she’s laid off. To add insult to injury, three executives she worked directly with make racist and sexist remarks, calling her the “Asian worker-bee type”, and saying she was overpaid for a “female associate”, among other things. Park emphasizes the value we put on ourselves and the importance of knowing our worth.

Korean food. If you’re a foodie this book is going to leave your mouth watering! There’s also an Umma-approved quick kimchi fried rice recipe at the end which I certainly plan on trying myself!


Since Jess’ cooking Youtube is a big part of this book, I thought I’d share some of my favorite cooking channels that I often visit for recipes!

Maangchi: My go-to channel for Korean dishes! I was immediately reminded of Maangchi when I read So We Meet Again. It’s very wholesome and the dishes are delicious—there are also vegetarian friendly ones!
Cooking Tree: The most aesthetically pleasing baking channel ever. I love watching these videos but I’m terrible at recreating these works of art haha.
HidaMari Cooking: Aesthetics + ASMR. Watching these videos is a pure delight!

Do you have a favorite cooking channel on Youtube? Share it below so I can check it out!

New to Manga? Start here!

Last week I received a message from someone new to manga asking for recommendations, so I wanted to share my selection for anyone else interested and looking for a place to start! I grew up on manga—Fruits Basket, Rurouni Kenshin, and Death Note were my introductions to the vast world of Japanese illustrated storytelling. I spent the summers of my childhood in the library, where I had countless manga at my fingertips, and I still read manga to this day (though they tend to be far darker now). In this list, I’ll share both perennial classics and modern best sellers, with a variety of genres for you to explore! But first…

What is manga?

Manga are essentially comics or graphic novels from Japan. They’re typically printed in black and white and serialized in manga magazines before the chapters are collected and printed into individual volumes. Just like fiction, manga has a wide range of genres and target demographics but with their own terms. The ones you might see often are:

Shonen: Aimed at YA boys, oftentimes featuring a young male protagonist with plenty of action and an emphasis on friendship or found family. Think of YA fantasy like the Percy Jackson series. Examples – Naruto, My Hero Academia, Dragon Ball Z.

Shojo: Aimed at YA girls, usually with a female lead and themes of romance, friendship, and self-discovery. Think of YA romance like TATBILB. Examples: Fruits Basket, Nana, Kaichou wa Maid-Sama.

Seinen: Targets a more mature audience, typically more graphic or violent in nature with psychological themes. There are exceptions of course in romance and comedy. Examples – Ghost in the Shell, Beserk, Vagabond.


If you like romance:

Fruits Basket by Natsuki Takay

I have to start the list with the beloved Fruits Basket by Natsuki Takaya, the very first manga I read when I was young and a romance classic!

A family with an ancient curse…and the girl who will change their lives forever…

Tohru Honda was an orphan with no place to go until the mysterious Sohma family offered her a place to call home. Now her ordinary high school life is turned upside down as she’s introduced to the Sohma’s world of magical curses and family secrets.

  • slice of life + romcom
  • the most lovable cast of characters
  • comedic relief while dealing with heavier themes of emotional hardship
  • sunshine heroine + (initially) grumpy hero

Horimiya by HERO, Daisuke Hagiwara 

Although admired at school for her amiability and academic prowess, high school student Kyouko Hori has been hiding another side of her. With her parents often away from home due to work, Hori has to look after her younger brother and do the housework, leaving no chance to socialize away from school.

Meanwhile, Izumi Miyamura is seen as a brooding, glasses-wearing otaku. However, in reality, he is a gentle person inept at studying. By sheer chance, Hori and Miyamura cross paths outside of school—neither looking as the other expects. These seemingly polar opposites become friends, sharing with each other a side they have never shown to anyone else.

  • high school romcom
  • lighthearted/full of fluff
  • opposites attract
  • fast developing romance

Wotakoi: Love is Hard for an Otaku by Fujita

Narumi and Hirotaka are, by all appearances, a power couple. They’re young, good-looking professionals. But they have secrets from everyone but each other: They’re serious geeks! Narumi is a fujoshi, and Hirotaka’s a hardcore gamer. The awkward, romantic comedy manga about geeks in love that inspired the new anime! 

  • office romcom + slice of life
  • geek culture (gaming + otaku)
  • relatable characters
  • all around feel-good story

If you like sports:

Haikyuu!! by Haruichi Furudate

The whistle blows. The ball is up. A dig. A set. A spike.

The “Little Giant,” standing at only 170 cm, overcomes the towering net and the wall of blockers. The awe-inspired Shouyou Hinata looks on at the ace’s crow-like figure. Determined to reach great heights like the Little Giant, small-statured Hinata finally manages to form a team in his last year of junior high school, and enters his first volleyball tournament. However, his team is utterly defeated in their first game against the powerhouse school Kitagawa Daiichi, led by the genius, but oppressive setter dubbed the “King of the Court,” Tobio Kageyama.

Hinata enrolls into Karasuno High School seeking to take revenge against Kageyama in an official high school match and to follow in the Little Giant’s footsteps—but his plans are ruined when he opens the gymnasium door to find Kageyama as one of his teammates.

Now, Hinata must establish himself on the team and work alongside the problematic Kageyama to overcome his shortcomings and to fulfill his dream of making it to the top of the high school volleyball world.

  • sports + comedy + coming of age
  • wholesome friendships and rivalries
  • an amazing cast of multidimensional characters
  • plenty of moments that made me laugh and also moments that pulled at my heartstrings
  • uplifting & motivating!!

If you like action:

Jujustu Kaisen by Gege Akutami

Hidden in plain sight, an age-old conflict rages on. Supernatural monsters known as “Curses” terrorize humanity from the shadows, and powerful humans known as “Jujutsu” sorcerers use mystical arts to exterminate them. When high school student Yuuji Itadori finds a dried-up finger of the legendary Curse Sukuna Ryoumen, he suddenly finds himself joining this bloody conflict.

Attacked by a Curse attracted to the finger’s power, Yuuji makes a reckless decision to protect himself, gaining the power to combat Curses in the process but also unwittingly unleashing the malicious Sukuna into the world once more. Though Yuuji can control and confine Sukuna to his own body, the Jujutsu world classifies Yuuji as a dangerous, high-level Curse who must be exterminated.

  • my absolute favorite shonen manga (and anime) this year
  • dark contemporary fantasy
  • female shonen characters done right!!
  • has me in an emotional chokehold
  • subverts shonen norms of the older big 3
  • PAIN

Chainsaw Man by Tatsuki Fujimoto 

Denji was a small-time devil hunter just trying to survive in a harsh world. After being killed on a job, he is revived by his pet devil-dog Pochita and becomes something new and dangerous. He’s a simple man with simple dreams, drowning under a mountain of debt. But his sad life gets turned upside down one day when he’s betrayed by someone he trusts. Now with the power of a devil inside him, Denji’s become a whole new man—Chainsaw Man!

  • dark comedy + horror
  • when I say dark I mean very dark—this manga is brutal
  • initially absurd but there’s a much deeper plot
  • the most jaw-dropping plot twist in recent memory
  • warning for gore and body horror

Death Note by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata 

Ryuk, a god of death, drops his Death Note into the human world for personal pleasure. In Japan, prodigious high school student Light Yagami stumbles upon it. Inside the notebook, he finds a chilling message: those whose names are written in it shall die. Its nonsensical nature amuses Light; but when he tests its power by writing the name of a criminal in it, they suddenly meet their demise.

Realizing the Death Note’s vast potential, Light commences a series of nefarious murders under the pseudonym “Kira,” vowing to cleanse the world of corrupt individuals and create a perfect society where crime ceases to exist. However, the police quickly catch on, and they enlist the help of L—a mastermind detective—to uncover the culprit.

  • one of the first manga I read that got me into the medium
  • brilliant plot and execution
  • epic battle of wits with high stakes
  • just *chef’s kiss*

If you like comedy:

Spy X Family by Tatsuya Endo

For the agent known as “Twilight,” no order is too tall if it is for the sake of peace. Operating as Westalis’ master spy, Twilight works tirelessly to prevent extremists from sparking a war with neighboring country Ostania. For his latest mission, he must investigate Ostanian politician Donovan Desmond by infiltrating his son’s school: the prestigious Eden Academy. Thus, the agent faces the most difficult task of his career: get married, have a child, and play family.

Twilight quickly adopts the unassuming orphan Anya to play the role of a six-year-old daughter and prospective Eden Academy student. For a wife, he comes across Yor Briar, an absent-minded office worker who needs a pretend partner of her own to impress her friends. However, he is not the only one with a hidden nature. Yor moonlights as the lethal assassin “Thorn Princess.” For her, marrying Loid creates the perfect cover. Meanwhile, Anya is not the ordinary girl she appears to be; she is an esper, the product of secret experiments that allow her to read minds. Although she uncovers their true identities, Anya is thrilled that her new parents are cool secret agents! She would never tell them, of course. That would ruin the fun.

  • a spy + an assassin + a telepath
  • wholesome and HILARIOUS
  • marriage of convenience + found family
  • Mr & Mrs Smith-vibes but way more fun and exciting
  • my favorite manga in 2020!! a pure delight

The Way of the Househusband by Kousuke Oono

“Immortal Tatsu,” the legendary yakuza who single-handedly defeated a rival gang with a lead pipe, is a name known to strike fear in both hardened police officers and vicious criminals. Soon after his sudden disappearance, he resurfaces with a slight change in profession. Now equipped with an apron, Tatsu has given up violence and is trying to make an honest living as a house husband.

While adapting to mundane household tasks, Tatsu finds that being a house husband has its own challenges, from the battlefield known as supermarket sales to failures in the kitchen. Despite living peacefully, misunderstandings seem to follow him left and right. The Way of the Househusband follows the daily life of the comically serious ex-yakuza as he leaves behind his dangerous previous life to become a stay-at-home husband.

  • episodic comedy + slice of life
  • will actually make you laugh
  • dismantles gender roles
  • strangely endearing (he’s a domesticated ex-gangster being a house husband)

If you like fairy tales:

The Girl from the Other Side by Nagabe

Long ago, there was a god of light and a god of darkness. While those devoted to the god of light experienced happiness and good fortune, the god of darkness would play tricks on the people and steal their joy. And so, as the legend goes, the god of light decided to punish him by turning him into a monster. Enraged by this, the god of darkness wielded his punishment as a curse in order to inflict suffering upon others. Because of his actions, he was banished to the Outside, where he and his monstrous children are to remain for eternity, while those from the Inside must never come in contact with someone from the Outside, lest they be cursed with a hideous form.

A little girl named Shiva, an Insider, is found by an Outsider she comes to know as Sensei. Though they cannot touch, Sensei cares for Shiva as best he can, and together they live a moderately happy life. But soon, Shiva not only finds herself in danger from the Outside, but from her own kind as well.

  • dark fairy tale vibes: a young human and her guardian monster
  • whimsical, ethereal fantasy
  • an immersive work of art

If you’re looking for something specific (tropes, themes, etc.), let me know! I’d be happy to give more recommendations tailored to your reading preferences.

Have you read any of these before? What’s your favorite manga?

🎧 10 Audiobooks on Spotify + How to Find More

Did you know that Spotify had audiobooks? I recently discovered this and it felt like a game-changer! I’ve always wanted to incorporate more audiobooks into my monthly reading and as a frequent user of Spotify, this was perfect―all my music, podcasts, and audiobooks in one app. I can listen while I’m working out, cooking, cleaning, etc. Multitaskers rejoice!

Neon Gods was the very first one I stumbled upon after seeing a tweet from the author Katee Robert. I posted it in my story on bookstagram and got quite a few replies from people who were just as surprised as I was that audiobooks were available on Spotify for free! I scoured through a bunch of playlists to compile a list of various genres, from YA fantasy to romcom. Without further ado, here are 10 audiobooks on Spotify that you can start listening to now!

Neon Gods by Katee Robert

Society darling Persephone Dimitriou plans to flee the ultra-modern city of Olympus and start over far from the backstabbing politics of the Thirteen Houses. But all that’s ripped away when her mother ambushes her with an engagement to Zeus, the dangerous power behind their glittering city’s dark facade. 

With no options left, Persephone flees to the forbidden undercity and makes a devil’s bargain with a man she once believed a myth…a man who awakens her to a world she never knew existed. 

Descendant of the Crane by Joan He

Princess Hesina of Yan has always been eager to shirk the responsibilities of the crown, but when her beloved father is murdered, she’s thrust into power, suddenly the queen of an unstable kingdom. Determined to find her father’s killer, Hesina does something desperate: she engages the aid of a soothsayer—a treasonous act, punishable by death… because in Yan, magic was outlawed centuries ago.

In this shimmering Chinese-inspired fantasy, debut author Joan He introduces a determined and vulnerable young heroine struggling to do right in a world brimming with deception.

Wicked As You Wish by Rin Chupeco

Many years ago, the magical Kingdom of Avalon was left encased in ice when the Snow Queen waged war. Its former citizens are now refugees in a world mostly devoid of magic. Which is why the crown prince and his protectors are stuck in…Arizona.

A new hope for their abandoned homeland reignites when a famous creature of legend, the Firebird, appears for the first time in decades. Alex and Tala must unite with a ragtag group of new friends to journey back to Avalon for a showdown that will change the world as they know it.

We Are the Fire by Sam Taylor

In the cold, treacherous land of Vesimaa, children are stolen from their families by a cruel emperor, forced to undergo a horrific transformative procedure, and serve in the army as magical fire-wielding soldiers. Pran and Oksana―both taken from their homeland at a young age―only have each other to hold onto in this heartless place.

When they discover the emperor has a new, more terrible mission than ever for their kind, Pran and Oksana vow to escape his tyranny once and for all. But their methods and ideals differ drastically, driving a wedge between them. Worse still, they both soon find that the only way to defeat the monsters that subjugated them may be to become monsters themselves.

All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater

Any visitor to Bicho Raro, Colorado is likely to find a landscape of dark saints, forbidden love, scientific dreams, miracle-mad owls, estranged affections, one or two orphans, and a sky full of watchful desert stars.

At the heart of this place you will find the Soria family, who all have the ability to perform unusual miracles. And at the heart of this family are three cousins longing to change its future. They are all looking for a miracle. But the miracles of Bicho Raro are never quite what you expect.

The Bird and the Sword by Amy Harmon

The day my mother was killed, she told my father I wouldn’t speak again, and she told him if I died, he would die too. Then she predicted the king would trade his soul and lose his son to the sky. My father has a claim to the throne, and he is waiting in the shadows for all of my mother’s words to come to pass. He wants desperately to be king, and I just want to be free.

But freedom will require escape, and I’m a prisoner of my mother’s curse and my father’s greed. I can’t speak or make a sound, and I can’t wield a sword or beguile a king. In a land purged of enchantment, love might be the only magic left, and who could ever love…a bird?

You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson

Liz Lighty has always believed she’s too black, too poor, too awkward to shine in her small, rich, prom-obsessed midwestern town. But it’s okay―Liz has a plan that will get her out of Campbell, Indiana, forever: attend the uber-elite Pennington College, play in their world-famous orchestra, and become a doctor.

But when the financial aid she was counting on unexpectedly falls through, Liz’s plans come crashing down . . . until she’s reminded of her school’s scholarship for prom king and queen. There’s nothing Liz wants to do less than endure a gauntlet of social media trolls, catty competitors, and humiliating public events, but despite her devastating fear of the spotlight she’s willing to do whatever it takes to get to Pennington.

The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai

The Mountains Sing tells an enveloping, multigenerational tale of the Tran family, set against the backdrop of the Viet Nam War. Tran Dieu Lan, who was born in 1920, was forced to flee her family farm with her six children during the Land Reform as the Communist government rose in the North. Years later in Hà Noi, her young granddaughter, Hương, comes of age as her parents and uncles head off down the Ho Chí Minh Trail to fight in a conflict that will tear not just her beloved country but her family apart.

All Stirred Up by Brianne Moore

Susan Napier’s family once lived on the success of the high-end restaurants founded by her late grandfather. But bad luck and worse management has brought the business to the edge of financial ruin. Now it’s up to Susan to save the last remaining restaurant: Elliot’s, the flagship in Edinburgh.

But what awaits Susan in the charming city of Auld Reekie is more than she bargained for. Chris Baker, her grandfather’s former protégé―and her ex-boyfriend―is also heading to the Scottish capital.

The Roommate Agreement by Emma Hart

Let your homeless best friend stay with you, he said. Being roommates will be fun, he said. It’s only temporary, he said. He never said I’d fall for him.

You know what isn’t ‘temporary?’ The endless stream of dirty socks in my bathroom and empty food packets under the sofa—and don’t even get me started on the hot guys who take over my living room every Sunday to watch sports. I can’t take anymore.

So I propose a roommate agreement.

How do you find audiobooks on Spotify?

Even though audiobooks don’t have its own category, they’re relatively simple to find. If you’re looking for a specific title, you can search for it like you’d search for a song or a podcast. Otherwise, you’ll have to sift through playlists for something that piques your interest.

  1. Look up ‘audiobooks’ in the search bar.
  2. Scroll down to ‘playlists’ and select ‘see all’.
  3. Here you’ll find plenty of lists, usually categorized by genre or series to go through. lismio: discover audiobooks is also a great profile to follow for audiobooks sorted by genre!

I expect Spotify to continue expanding into the audiobook market so I’m sure more audiobooks will be available in the near future!

Review: She Who Became the Sun by Shelly Parker-Chan

I’m not a masochist by any means, but my favorite books tend to hurt. As much as I love a happy ending (they’re a must in romance), bittersweet endings are far more impactful, far more memorable to me. They linger in my mind, consuming that liminal subconscious space between sleep and awake. Emotionally compelling books with a vaguely tragic undertone just hits different.

You might’ve seen the Mulan meets The Song of Achilles pitch but I’d like to add one more title to that: The Poppy War. Much like The Poppy War, this book destroyed me, and I loved it. Tragedies and triumphs and all. I love the feeling of being so invested in a character that their grief and pain causes in visceral reaction in me. It’s the mark of masterful writing. And that’s exactly what this book is: a masterpiece.

ARC provided by Tor Books in exchange for an honest review!

She Who Became the Sun is a reimagining of the rise of the Ming Dynasty’s founding emperor. It follows a peasant girl who was destined for nothing, but had the innate, unfaltering ambition for greatness and glory—a fate that belonged to her dead brother. Zhu takes his identity and joins a monastery to survive, and there begins her journey from monk, to warlord, to a king who would be remembered for thousands of years to come.

❝I’m going to be great. And not a minor greatness, but the kind of greatness that people remember for a hundred generations. The kind that’s underwritten by Heaven itself.

Zhu might just be my favorite protagonist this year. She’s an anti-heroine whose sheer determination and desire for greatness overrode her own fate. The parallel between her literal hunger from starvation in the beginning to her metaphorical hunger to claim a destiny that wasn’t hers was so fantastically done. Her desperation was palpable, and she was willing to do whatever it took to survive because nothingness was the most terrifying thing she could imagine; worse than all the pain she’d endured. She’s not a heroic character by any means, in fact, she does some terrible things in her rise to power (without remorse might I add), but it’s fitting for the narrative. I really loved her character arc; how cunning and astute she became in a quiet, unassuming way, with an underlying propensity for ruthlessness.

❝Keep looking at the moon, little brother. It will be better that way. And when you’re reborn centuries from now, make sure to listen for my name. The whole world will know it.

Mood board by @fang.

The story is also told from the perspective of the opposite side of the war; Ouyang, the feared general of the Mongol army. Just thinking about his story makes my chest ache. Like Zhu, Ouyang is no stranger to suffering. His father tried to rebel against the Mongols and failed, leading to the execution and punishment of his entire family. He was the only one spared; a boy weeping in the blood of his family. Mercy came in the form of mutilation.

Thus began his singular path of revenge, his own determination to fulfill his filial duty, and the tragedy of his fate written in the stars. One rages against their fate, and the other accept the shackles of destiny. Zhu and Ouyang are irreversibly connected even though they’re enemies, fighting with different motivations. I couldn’t help but root for both of them, even though I knew that only one could truly rise triumphant.

Ouyang’s relationship with Esen is reminiscent of The Song of Achilles. It’s beautiful in the most painful way. The internal conflict and the yearning, the self-hatred and the tenderness. Esen had always tried to protect Ouyang, keeping him by his side as his general, but he was the son of the man who executed Ouyang’s family, and Ouyang was on the path of destruction down to the bitter end. I’ll admit that I teared up towards the end.

❝Her eyes slid over General Ouyang’s shoulder and met the stares of his ghosts. She had wondered, before, what bound them to him. But it was the opposite: he bound himself to them. That was his tragedy. Not being born to a terrible fate, but not being able to let it go.

She Who Became the Sun is epic in every way; the ambitions of our anti-heroine Zhu, the incredible world building, the nuanced exploration of gender identity, the themes of war and vengeance and fate. Emotional devastation aside, I finished this book feeling awed by how intense, how powerful the story was. I went into this book with the feeling that it’d become one of my favorite reads this year and I was not disappointed. Expect to see this historical fantasy debut in my Top Reads of 2021 round up at the end of the year.

Mulan meets The Song of Achilles in Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun, a bold, queer, and lyrical reimagining of the rise of the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty from an amazing new voice in literary fantasy.

In 1345, China lies under harsh Mongol rule. For the starving peasants of the Central Plains, greatness is something found only in stories. When the Zhu family’s eighth-born son, Zhu Chongba, is given a fate of greatness, everyone is mystified as to how it will come to pass. The fate of nothingness received by the family’s clever and capable second daughter, on the other hand, is only as expected.

When a bandit attack orphans the two children, though, it is Zhu Chongba who succumbs to despair and dies. Desperate to escape her own fated death, the girl uses her brother’s identity to enter a monastery as a young male novice. There, propelled by her burning desire to survive, Zhu learns she is capable of doing whatever it takes, no matter how callous, to stay hidden from her fate.

Review: The Maidens by Alex Michaelides

I’m a simple reader. When I see a dark academia book, I know I have to read it. I’m rather fond of the aesthetic of pretentious scholars and their often tragic pursuit of knowledge. Classics and philosophy, moral ambiguity and murder—they go together well.

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History can be considered the pioneer of this sub-genre, and surely enough it’s one of the most memorable books I’ve ever read despite its flaws. I’m always searching for new books in the same vein but they’re few and far between, so when I stumbled upon The Maidens, I was elated by the similar themes. However, my expectations may have been a little too high. While I loved the concept of a secret society with ties to Greek mythology and a murder mystery set in an atmospheric, illustrious university, the execution left me wanting more.

Review overview of The Maidens by Alex Michaelides, including title, genre, rating, cover, and a quote.

The Maidens by Alex Michaelides is a psychological thriller that follows a psychotherapist who returns to Cambridge, her alma mater, when her niece’s friend murdered. Mariana is there to comfort her niece, but there’s something troubling about the seemingly idyllic campus, and soon, the murder case becomes an obsession. She’s certain the charismatic Greek Tragedy professor is the killer, and she’s willing to risk everything to prove it.

❝After all, everyone’s entitled to be the hero of their own story. So I must be permitted to be the hero of mine. Even though I’m not. I’m the villain.

The Maidens by Alex Michaelides

What worked:

I loved the concept of the story. There’s a secret society called The Maidens made up of a special group of female students. One member is brutally murdered, and then not long after, another body is found. There’s something sinister hiding beneath the surface of such a prestigious university. Throw in a psychotherapist who becomes fixated on unraveling the secrets of this cult-like group and we have a great set up for a murder mystery—an incredibly atmospheric one. It’s dark and creepy; with so much tension and suspense brimming from every page.

The bountiful Greek tragedies woven into the story was a delight. I love ancient mythos and the tale of Persephone is one of my favorites. It’s referenced throughout the book, and it’s symbolic to Mariana’s journey as well. The goddess Persephone was often referred to as Kore, an epithet that translates to ‘the maiden’. It was her original name before she became the queen of the underworld.

What didn’t work for me:

The main character just wasn’t very interesting to me. She’s supposedly a brilliant therapist but she makes so many questionable decisions throughout the book and seems to only be dictated by emotions. She wasn’t exactly qualified to be involved in a murder case. Not to mention the conflict of interest in the investigation. There was definitely some missing logic and I couldn’t help but feel exasperated. I don’t mind reading about frustrating characters or even unlikable ones, as long as they’re compelling, but Mariana was lacking in that department.

Another thing was the ending, which I won’t spoil, but I was disappointed. I had a vague suspicion so I wasn’t completely caught off guard by the big reveal. I just found it to be unsatisfying.

Final thoughts:

The Maidens is a fast-paced, highly atmospheric psychological thriller with a darkly alluring concept but a weak execution. I didn’t love it nor did I hate it, and I wasn’t very impressed either. I’d recommend it with caution. If you like mystery thrillers with themes of Greek mythology, then give this one a try, but don’t expect the depth of The Secret History.

The Maidens by Alex Michaelides

Edward Fosca is a murderer. Of this Mariana is certain. But Fosca is untouchable. A handsome and charismatic Greek Tragedy professor at Cambridge University, Fosca is adored by staff and students alike—particularly by the members of a secret society of female students known as The Maidens.

Mariana Andros is a brilliant but troubled group therapist who becomes fixated on The Maidens when one member, a friend of Mariana’s niece Zoe, is found murdered in Cambridge.

When another body is found, Mariana’s obsession with proving Fosca’s guilt spirals out of control, threatening to destroy her credibility as well as her closest relationships. But Mariana is determined to stop this killer, even if it costs her everything—including her own life.

Fresh Strawberry Milk With 3 Ingredients

Summer is in full swing and I wanted to share my favorite drink to start the day with: fresh strawberry milk. All you need are 3 ingredients! It’s easy to make and so delicious with chunky bits of fruit. It’s also perfect for picnics! I stumbled upon this while watching Korean cafe videos and I knew I had to try it myself. Now I have a jar of homemade strawberry syrup in the fridge every week. It’s better than the strawberry milk you buy at the grocery store because there’s no artificial flavoring. 100% real ingredients here! Try it out yourself and see why this refreshing, flavorful drink is so popular in Korea.

Ingredients

✧ Half punnet of strawberries

✧ Milk of your choice

✧ 5 tsp. of sugar

All the work in this recipe lies in a quick preparation. I spend 5-10 minutes in the evening prepping the strawberries to leave in the fridge overnight so I can have a glass of fresh strawberry milk in the morning.

Instructions

  1. Wash and hull half a punnet of strawberries (approximately 1/2 lbs). This should be enough to fill a 16 oz. mason jar.
  2. Dice the strawberries so that it’s small enough to easily fit through a boba straw. I like to be able to eat the bits and pieces of fruit so mine are pretty chunky, but if you prefer a puree, you can mash or blend it as well. Fill up your mason jar.
  3. Add 5 tsp of sugar and shake (or stir if you have a puree) well. I recommend refrigerating it overnight so that the sugar can pull out all the strawberries’ juices. It’s like making macerated strawberries. You’ll get more syrup compared to leaving it for an hour or two.
  4. Voila! You now have fresh strawberry syrup with chunky bits. This recipe yields 2 to 3 drinks depending on your syrup to milk ratio. My preferred ratio is 1/3 strawberry syrup and 2/3 milk, but sometimes I split it evenly. Enjoy!

Notes

Make sure both the strawberry syrup and milk are chilled before you mix them to avoid curdling.

The syrup can be stored in an airtight jar or bottle in your refrigerator for 2-3 days.

If you decided to give this recipe a try, let me know how you like it (or tag me) over on Instagram at @tender.curiosity! I’d love to hear your thoughts.