What do you get when you mix one accidental murder with four Asian aunties? A review of Dial A for Aunties by Jesse Q. Sutanto

My phone sits on a wicker basket with the cover of Dial A for Aunties by Jesse Q. Sutanto. Next to it is my Nikon DSLR camera and lens cap.

First off, thank you to Berkley and NetGalley for a free eARC in exchange for an honest review. I really am not a romance reader by any means, but when I first heard of Dial A for Aunties, I just knew I had to pick it up! I was not only so excited for a chance to read a debut by Chinese-Indonesian author Jesse Q. Sutanto, but I was also so excited by its hilarious, outrageous description.

Quick synopsis: This story follows the misadventures of Meddy, a photographer who works with her mom and three aunts in their wedding service company. When she accidentally kills her date on a blind date gone wrong, the four aunties must figure out to help Meddy cover her tracks, all while working the biggest wedding of their careers at an upscale Californian hotel for a wildly rich family (think of the book/movie Crazy Rich Asians –that rich). Meanwhile, a run-in with Meddy’s old flame may put their chances at covering this crime at risk.

Part romance, and part contemporary fiction, this book had me quite literally laughing out loud! Meddy and her aunties had me cracking up, while also totally rooting for them despite an accidental murder. And while the story was often lighthearted and funny, it did touch on some more serious topics, such as Meddy’s mom and aunties’ immigration experience. The thing I probably connected with the most was Meddy’s identity struggles she faced growing up with her Chinese-Indonesian family who immigrated to the U.S., while she was raised there. While my family experience was definitely different than hers, I could empathize with her feelings of feeling on the outside at times when it comes to racial identity.

Additionally, I loved Meddy’s journey of self-discovery. She was such a relatable leading lady, and I definitely recognized a bit of myself in her as she tries to discover herself and do what makes her happiest, not just what makes her mom/aunties happy. But I so admired how she cares so deeply for her family, and they obviously feel the same about her — enough to cover up an accidental murder!

I thought the romance element to this book was so sweet (fans of steamy romances, beware — this one is definitely sweet, not steamy). It was a big part of the book, but not overwhelmingly so, as I think the themes of family and self acceptance were much more prominent. But the romance was a wonderful addition to this zany, wildly surprising adventure. It read like a rom-com and touched on coming into your own while recognizing the importance of family. And of course, it was so wonderful to see a lead who looks like me!

This book’s pub day is April 27th. I totally recommend giving this wonderful debut a read!

My Friday five — five books by Asian American writers that I love

A stack of books by writers of Asian descent. Five are featured prominently, including Trick Mirror, Anna K, Three Souls, Interior Chinatown, and The Night Tiger.

As a book blogger and reviewer, I have always felt that we as readers have a responsibility to make sure the texts we’re reading are reflective of the greater community around — and that includes reading books by diverse writers whose lived experiences are different than your own. And as a Chinese American adoptee, I’ve worked really hard to read books by not only Chinese American writers, but various writers of Asian descent. It’s been important in figuring out my own racial identity. It’s also been key in helping me break down the internalized racism I’ve been carrying around my whole life, especially that all Asians are the same. While no amount of book stacks are going to stop racism, I do think books provide an awesome opportunity to learn more about yourself and others while gaining a greater sense of empathy for everyone.

So to honor my Asian American heritage and in light of the recent attacks in Atlanta, Georgia, that left the whole Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) and Asian diaspora community really in shock and awe at the horror of racism, I wanted to feature the five books by Asian American writers that are especially close to my heart.

While this list is far from comprehensive and certainly isn’t going to the solve the issue of stopping Asian hate, I wanted the chance to feature books that mean a lot to me and would make great additions to anyone looking to learn about the wide range of Asian experiences — we aren’t a monolith!!

Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino. This collection of essays was not only well written, but full of sharp observations and criticisms of life in the United States. Her essays about womanhood — especially as an Asian American woman and woman of color — really hit home with me.

The Night Tiger by Yangzse Choo. This is probably the first book I read by an Asian American writer after school — meaning, one of the first books by a writer of Asian descent that I chose on my own to read. And it was life changing! I loved seeing a character who looked like me but wasn’t delegated to some stupid stereotype, and I found the characters and plotline to be complex, magical, and lyrical.

Anna K by Jenny Lee. This book was flat out fun — and it’s one I wish I had had as a young adult! Anna K, the main character, is bold, smart, compassionate, and caring, and her romance with Count Vronsky is so steamy. Until that point, I hadn’t read a romance with not one but several Asian leads who were, again, not stereotyped or just side characters!

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu. I devoured this satire in one day because it hit so real. Using Hollywood as the backdrop to explore the inherent racism and stereotyping of Asians in media (and real life), this book’s lesson was so powerful and still has stuck with me almost a year later — to be more, and not let any stereotype hold you back.

Three Souls by Janie Chang. Chang is one of my favorite writers of historical fantasy — I’ve read two of her three novels, and each one has been so captivating, and also taught me about a period of China’s history that was unfamiliar to me. Her debut novel was also so thought provoking, making me as a reader think about regrets and what I’d do differently if given the choice.

What are you favorite books by writers of Asian descent or in the AAPI or Asian diaspora community? Let me know in the comments below or on Instagram!

25 books for 25 years!

Today is my birthday! To be honest, between quarantine, working from home, and just the general busyness of life, it’s kind of snuck up on me. But 25 is a big year! A whole quarter of a century. And while year no. 24 wasn’t the easiest, it was filled with so many incredible blessings. I married the love of my life, moved back to my hometown of Cincinnati, continued with a career in journalism that I love, started up both my bookstagram and blog, so much more. So in honor of year no. 25, here are the 25 books (in no particular order) that really shaped who I am as a person, from all walks of life.

  • The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. Out of all the books I was made to read in school growing up, this is the one that spoke to me the most and helped encourage me to both major in English lit and pursue a journalism career. It discusses the importance of stories in telling the truth, both real stories and fictional — what a powerful theme for any book lover!
  • The Shack by William Paul Young. This book broke my heart but then helped it heal all over again. It’s a powerful book about God that reminded me of the power of forgiveness.
  • The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo. This is probably the first book I read post-college by an Asian writer. I loved reading a book that featured characters who looked like me, and it really sparked my desire to learn more about my Chinese culture (and Asian culture in general) through fiction.
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle. This book just spoke to my imagination as a kid — it’s such a deep, thoughtful read that even as an adult, I still find some new lesson to cherish.
  • The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. I picked up this book on an amazing trip to New York City at its popular The Strand bookstore. I read it in just a couple of days and it just hit my emotional core. Haig really knows how to speak about mental health in a way that resonated deeply with me. And a bit of a brag moment — my review of this book got me featured on Good Morning America!
  • Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu. This is one of the funniest, sharpest satires I’ve read, but it also really made me feel heard as an Asian America. Using Hollywood as a backdrop to express the microaggressions and flat out racism that many Asian Americans face, this story has a beautiful message that it’s okay to crave more for yourself than what society may make you feel like you deserve — it’s okay to want and be more.
  • City of Thieves by David Benioff. This is just one of those stories that is an all-around joy to read! It’s got a bit of everything — laughter, friendship, just enough violence, humor, romance, and some solid sex jokes — that made it such an enjoyable book. Reading this book is just a lovely reminder of why books are great!
  • Recursion by Blake Crouch. This mind-bending story was my first major foray into science fiction. It definitely helped spark a love of the genre that I’m continuing to explore to this day!
  • The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. This sparked my love of mysteries as a 6th grader when it was required reading. I remember reading the entire book in one sitting, which may have gotten me in trouble in class when I accidentally let out some spoilers!
  • Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein. I absolutely love poetry — I took many a poetry class in college. But the first poems I really fell in love with were Shel Silverstein’s collection. They were just so sharp and funny and made me enjoy the English language so much for how creative it allowed people to be!
  • This Tender Land by William Kent Kreuger. This tale is exactly what the title suggests — absolutely tender. I’ve always been a sucker for coming of age tales, and I found this one to be so touching. It is at once an odyssey of sorts and also a story of four orphans just trying to find what home really means.
  • The House in the Cerulean Sea by T. J. Klune. This is one of those just perfect, feel-good, lovely stories that touches your soul. I read it as the pandemic/quarantine really picked up, and it just filled my heart with such warmth and TLC — who wouldn’t love reading about a home full of magical children?!
  • The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab. How could I not include the story that my sweet pup Addie is named after?! Addie LaRue is an incredible character, so resourceful, brave, and clever, yet so relatable in her desire to be seen, loved, and remembered. I also loved how this story was a historical fiction, romance, and fantasy all at once — it takes a talented writer to create a genre-bending story of this level. You can check out my full review of it here.
  • The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. I read this story first during my senior year of high school. It was one of the first modern literary fiction pieces I had read, and I loved the alternating points of view between all of the women in the family and how much it taught me about faith, family, and womanhood.
  • The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. Ah, such a classic. My mom encouraged me to pick these up as a kid, and I’m so glad she did! This was certainly my favorite of the entire series. I adored the adventures of the four Pevensie children and the wonderful lessons it taught about love, bravery, family, friendship, and goodness.
  • Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. This was one of the first truly “adult” fantasies I had picked up. Of course, I had read a lot of ones that were geared more toward children or young adults, but I fell in love with Gaiman’s atmospheric writing, as he created this underworld that mirrored the above-world of London. It was super dark but also had the most classical elements of a good fantasy, including awesome world-building, a surprising hero, and creepy bad guys.
  • Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare. Of course I couldn’t make it through this entire list without including at least one Shakespeare play! This lesser-known play of his is one of his most thought-provoking, in my opinion, and covers such an array of feminist-related issues. Plus, I focused on it for my senior capstone in Brit Lit, so I definitely am a bit biased toward this one!
  • The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins. This is just one of those outright wild books that I absolutely adore, but if you asked me why, I couldn’t totally pinpoint it. Hawkins’ apocalypse story is just so original, humorous, and outrageous that I couldn’t put it down! I’ve read it twice and it was even better the second time.
  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. This powerful YA book is probably the book that resonated with me the most when it came to the Black Lives Matter movement and why it is so important, tackling heavy topics like racism and police brutality in a way that was so real yet with grace, honesty, and truth. I listened to the audio book version, and the narrator Bahni Turpin was fabulous, bringing so much emotion to the characters and story.
  • Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour. I just read this book earlier in 2021, but it is one that I am positive will stick with me for a long, long time. I loved how it discussed race and made me feel so heard as a POC — and while it seems like it was directed mostly at BIPOC, the dedication is to anyone who has ever felt less than, which I believe is a universal feeling any reader can relate to. You can read my full review of it here.
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. This story brings back such fond memories of my childhood — my mom read Dahl’s classic to me before bed each night. As an adult, I definitely think my love of fantasy comes from stories such as his, and Dahl truly is the king of capturing childhood whimsy.
  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. I finished this book while sitting lakeside and remember having a full-on cry fest right in front of all of the other vacationers at the campsite we were staying at. This WWII-era story told from the point of view of Death is such a heartbreaking, yet hope-filled novel. While it’s geared toward children, I can say with surety that adults have so much to gain from it — after all, I was 21 when I first read it!
  • The Tempest by William Shakespeare. Before I got to the end of the list, I had to include just one more Shakespeare piece. This one is filled with magic, romance, a shipwreck, and adventure — as one of Shakespeare’s final plays, this one just helped bring so much closure to my career as an English major.
  • The Dinner List by Rebecca Serle. One of my closest friends — who also happens to be a major reader herself — lent me this book while I was in graduate school at Syracuse University. I can definitely point it out as the story that helped get me back into reading just for fun! It’s such a creative concept centered around the idea of “If you could eat dinner with any five people, dead or alive, who would it be?” that brought me to tears at the end thinking about life, loss, and love.
  • The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. And as my last pick on this list, I had to give one of my favorite writers a feature. The Night Circus is one of the most magical tales I’ve ever read, and I try to pick it up again every few years just to read Morgenstern’s fabulous writing. I’m not sure how to describe it, but her use of imagery is so powerful and when I read her debut, I felt like I was tucked inside the pages of this novel alongside each character!

My top five favorite romances to read this Valentine’s Day

My dog Addie stands next to a stack of my favorite romances.

So a necessary disclaimer: I am not a huge romance reader! That is, I do enjoy a good romance on occasion — sometimes I’m just in the mood for a lighthearted rom-com or a steam-fest that’ll help me leave my stress behind. And let’s just face it. I just love love! So in honor of Valentine’s Day quickly approaching, here are my top five favorite romances (in no particular order) that feature swoon-worthy leading characters; great chemistry; and are delightful or downright steamy.

Well Met by Jen Deluca. Hopefully by now it’s no surprise that I am a HUGE Shakespeare nerd — so when I first came across this romance that centered around a small town’s Renaissance festival, I knew I was in for a good one! I loved Emily and Simon’s chemistry (a tad of the enemy-to-lover trope, except not worn and exhausted!) and the small town vibes. Emily especially was such a relatable character, just trying to figure herself out. And, of course, how could I not love the many references to Shakespeare conspiracies?!

Red, White, & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston. When I first picked it up, I thought the idea of an American political family/British royal romance seemed outlandish, but Alex (son of the first female president) and Prince Henry (son of British royals) were absolutely swoon worthy! Both were so relatable and down to earth despite being famous young adults. I enjoyed watching them both fall in love in a classic, yet never weary feigned-friendship-turned-romance, all while trying to figure themselves out. This book was an absolute joy to read and probably my favorite read of January 2020!

One to Watch by Kate Stayman-London. Calling all Bachelor/Bachelorette fans! This was such a fresh take on the idea of stereotypical television dating shows. Bea, a plus-size, body-positive fashion and beauty blogger, was a stellar leading lady and so relatable, likable, and full of heart. I loved getting to see her take on the men, battle the criticisms that women face about their looks/weight, learn to step out of her comfort zone, and maybe even fall in love. Most importantly, I wouldn’t be doing this story justice if I didn’t mention how well it brought racial and sexual identity to the forefront, without feeling forced — each character was fully realized and so genuine. Now, if only the actual Bachelor franchise would take a note!

Anna K by Jenny Lee. A modern retelling of Leo Tolstoy’s classic Anna Karenina, this story follows the titular Anna K and her relationship with Count Vronsky. Jenny Lee did an incredible job writing an engaging, steamy romance full of nods to the original Tolstoy classic, that read like a television drama akin to Gossip Girl. But the thing I adored most was the Asian representation. As an Asian American myself, I loved finally seeing a leading lady who looked like me but wasn’t delegated to some side character or uninteresting stereotype.

Beach Read by Emily Henry. Last but not least, Beach Read was a romance that totally captured my heart, written by another Cincinnati dweller. This was definitely a bookstagram-made-me-do-it, as I’m not typically a romance reader. But I found this story to be super substantive. Gus and January worked so well together, and I enjoyed their witty banter and the way they challenged each other. While much of the story focused on their budding enemy-turned-lover relationship, I found January’s personal journey of self-discovery and forgiveness most intriguing. Beach Read is a romance, but it’s also much more – its about how people move on, discover themselves, forgive one another, and step out of their comfort zones and possibly falling in love.

What are you favorite romance reads? Tell me in the comments or let me know on Instagram!