A Pho Love Story by Loan Le & Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet by Laekan Zea Kemp (#BookReview #WWWWednesday)

Thank you to Libro.fm for my audiobook copies of A Pho Love Story by Loan Le and Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet by Laekan Zea Kemp.

Thank you to Harper Books for my ARCs of The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers and Tor Books for the ARC of She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chen.

Finally, thank you to Wesleyan Press for my finish copies of She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chen copy of The Age of Phyllis by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers

We’ve almost made it over the hump of another week, bookish peeps. I hope you all’s week is going well!

I’m coming to you with my weekly check-in of what I’m reading and a few mini book reviews for WWW Wednesday.

WWW Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Sam @ Taking On A World of Words and ask readers to answer the following questions:

  1. What did you read last?
  2. What are you currently reading?
  3. What will you read next?

What did you read last?

The theme for this week’s mini review wrap-up is foody books and characters who cook.

Books about characters who cook are my all-time favorite type of reads. Coming from a family that enjoys food and trying new recipes, reading about characters that share this passion is always enjoyable.

Food is not only an extension of one’s culture, but it also gives the authors the ability to express a character’s identity and to have them work through complex topics without weighing their book down too much.

A Pho Love Story

For example, Loan Le does a great job expressing his characters’ desires and showing the tension between the rival families in A Pho Love Story through the Vietnamese culture.

Book cover of A Pho Love Story by Loan Le

Bao Nguyen and Linh Mai are teenagers whose parents both run rival pho restaurants on the same street that are struggling. Both characters are set to graduate from high school soon and struggle to figure out their lives’ path. 

Bao is unsure what his “thing” is and worries that time is running out to figure his next step out. On the other hand, Linh loves art and secretly dreams of being an artist like her aunt. However, she gets her dreams crushed trying to live up to the expectations of her parents, who immigrated to the U.S. during the Vietnam War. It’s not until the pair are sent on assignment for their school’s newspaper to review local restaurants that they can realize their individual dreams, sort out their feelings for each other, and unearth why their parents hate each other so much.

Initially, I went into this book expecting a Vietnamese Romeo & Juliet. However, the story hinges less on being a romance built around teenager angst and instead hinges upon the theme of self-discovery and combating the expectations of being born a first-generation child to parents who have migrated from another country. Through Le’s description of the food, readers can see the Ngyuens and Mais’ pride in their food preparation. Each family honors the pho dish in their preparation and its role in their immigration tale.

My favorite part of the story is the “reconnaissance missions” Bao’s father takes the family to collect intel on other restaurants in the area. In these scenes, Le pays particular attention to detail for how Bao’s father studies the menu, orders their meal, and then evaluates each dish. Le also shows Linh’s parents meticulously preparing to leave for work at their restaurants in detail each night, which shows how labor-intensive the food service industry is. These scenes also show how the Ngyuens and Mais take the utmost pride in their dishes and ability to use their cultural dishes to provide for their children.

If you’re a foodie and love hearing about family secrets and food preparation, read this book! However, have a snack next to you. Le’s descriptions of food in this book were so descriptive and lush that I found myself getting hungry just listening to the audiobook.

The same advice goes for Zea Kemp’s book, Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet; snacks are a must!

Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet

Where Le’s story is PG/PG-13, Zea Kemp’s book is a bit more mature since it deals with mental illness, self-harm, abandonment, and violence.

Zea Kemp’s book revolves around Penelope Prado and Xander Amaro, who are young adults of Mexican heritage working at Penelope’s father’s restaurant, Nacho’s Tacos. Penelope dreams of working with her father to improve their family restaurant’s menu. Her father, however, has other dreams for her. To him and his wife, having a a college-educated daughter is much more important. So, when they learn that Penelope has been lying about being registered for nursing school and attending classes, they flip, and Penelope is pushed out on her own to discover her dreams.

As for Xander, he dreams of having someone like Penelope’s parents to dote on him and look after him. Abandoned by his father as a child in Mexico, Xander was forced to make the trek to America on his own. He now lives with his paternal grandfather and secretly longs to know what became of his father all those years ago when he left Xander and his mom behind to immigrate to America. For Xander, as an undocumented immigrant, working at Nacho’s is one of the few times where he feels as if he is a part of a loving family and not going it alone. Unfortunately, for Penelope and Xander, things take a turn for the worse when Nacho’s is threatened by the local loan shark.

Like Le, Zea Kemp uses food in her novel to show the depths of community and tradition in her story and build Nacho’s Tacos into a community staple. 

Book cover for Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet by Laekan Zea Kemp

Nacho’s provide a meal and protection for its community and acts as a source of comfort and family for Penelope, Xander, and other characters. In this way, Zea Kemp does a good job of tending to her novel’s setting and building it into its own character that compliments Penelope and Xander’s desires without having the happenings of the restaurant overshadow these two characters’ development.

For instance, Penelope’s love for cooking and baking is strong because she uses this hobby as a lifeline when she experiences mental health issues. Zea Kemp’s positioning of Penelope in the restaurant reveals her character traits little by little. Here, readers will get to see Penelope explore the question of what happens when your proximity to community changes and your only coping mechanism/safe space is torn away from you. 

On the other hand, Xander is forced into understanding how to build community ties for the first time in his life after being abandoned for so long. His growth as a character hinges on learning how to embrace a new way of life as he becomes a part of the restaurant family and finds his place in his new community.

While A Pho Love Story is a somewhat sweet and simple YA novel with some family drama thrown in, Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet is a novel that feels very “New Adult” without the possessive love story. Penelope and Xander do have a sweet romance that gradually builds, but it is not the main point of the story. Instead, finding and holding onto community is at the center of Zea Kemp’s book. Be warned, though, this novel deals with several difficult topics, such as depression, self-harm, anxiety, loss of a parent, and police brutality, amongst other things. Due to this, I’d say read it at your own peril.

What are you currently reading?

Just like last week, I’m still reading the poetry collection, The Age of Phyllis, for the #SealeyChallenge and the novel, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois, both of which are by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers. If you haven’t already picked up Jeffers’ novel, it came out yesterday. I would definitely recommend picking up a copy!

I’ve also been reading are Hana Khan Carries On by Uzma Jalaluddin.

book cover of Hana Khan Carries On by Uzma Jalaluddin

I previously reviewed Jalaluddin’s 2018 book, Ayesha at Last, as one of my top books of 2020, and Hana Khan Carries On is right up there with its hijinks and laugh-out-loud moments. Jaluddin’s writing is fun to read because she gives readers an eye to Muslim culture without having her books feel like “guidebooks” on Muslim living. Instead, these characters just exist and struggle to find love, job fulfilment, and keep their families together just like everyone else around them.

Hana, for example, is a woman who wants to break into broadcast journalism while also helping her mom and sister who run the restaurant, Three Sisters Biryani Poutine. As a hobby, Hana runs a podcast while also working at the local radio station and fighting off a shiesty coworker and a white feminist boss who’s fluent in microaggressions in the workplace. 

The one bright spot is that Hana has a mystery listener who she chats within the comment section and occasionally flirts with. Things change when she seeks the mystery guy’s help in finding the approaching opening of a rival Halal restaurant owned by the infuriating Aydin and his cranky father. 

I highly recommend Jalludin’s novel.

What will you read next?

Of course, you all already know that I’m a mood reader, so I don’t have a clue what I’ll read next. More than likely, I will be continuing Jeffers and Jalludin’s novels and trying to finish She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chen.

If you all have any recommendations, drop them in the comment section or just tell me what you’re currently reading!

Don’t forget to like, comment, share, and subscribe! #AllTheThings

#BookTour Game of the Gods by Paolo Maurensig #BookReview

Game of the Gods’ by Paolo Maurensig

Thank you to @RandomTTours, @WorldEdBooks, and @NetGalley for the advanced readers copy of Game of the Gods by Paolo Maurensig and translated by Anne Milano Appel.

If you’re a lover of Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit (the novel of the same name by Walter Tevis) or chess, I have a novel for you! 

Set in 1930s India under British rule comes the story of chess master Malik Mir Sultan Khan. Forgotten by the world but renowned for his chess acumen, Sultan Khan is a historical figure that Paolo Maurensig reimagines from the notebooks of a fictional reporter at the Washington Post. The author fills in Sultan Khan’s life’s details using “what if” scenarios and the scraps he finds from the chess player’s history.

Photo of Malik Mir Sultan Khan

As a reader, this story was engrossing from a plot perspective. Maurensig introduced us to the character, Sultan Khan, at the end of his life, and from there, the author starts off the chess champion’s story. Going from a young village boy with humble beginnings to becoming Asia’s most renowned chess champion of his time makes the character a formidable subject. Yet, when Maurensig delved into his plotline about a blind heiress and the potential that Sultan Khan was believed to have been the woman’s killer, I tuned out.

For me, the depiction of Sultan Khan in such a stereotypical role being framed for being capable of this type of action seemed steeped in his “Otherness” as an Indian. The passivity of Sultan Khan’s character also detracted from how I interacted with the book. While reading, I felt as if this character was passive about his existence and experiences as others were moving him around. I wanted to see him become more assertive when it came to deciding his fate. Thus, while this book had masterful writing, I would have liked to see a different outcome for Sultan Khan than Maurensig provided. 

Sultan Khan playing chess

In real life, according to The Oxford Companion to Chess, Sultan Khan was a chess player that became one of the world’s top ten best chess players regardless of not being able to read or write and never learning any openings for himself since he could not study chess hooks without those skills. He was known as a “positional player” and worked best as a middle-player. Sultan Khan was deemed a “genius” by José Raúl Capablanca, a major chess prodigy of his time. Yet, as Maurensig wrote, the chess player suffered from malaria and frequent cold and throat infections during his Europe tour.

Netflix poster for The Queen’s Gambit

In 1933, Sultan Khan went back to India due to being summoned home by Sir Umar, his benefactor. At that time, Sultan Khan was given a small farmstead by Sir Umar near his birthplace in Punjab, where he spent the rest of his life. Sultan Khan’s children were quoted as saying that he wanted them to do something “more useful with their lives” than playing chess, like him. After playing his last chess game in 1935, Sultan Khan disappeared from the chess world and later died of tuberculosis.

For lovers of suspense novels and mysteries, Game of the Gods is a short read if taken as pure fiction, and the bent toward Orientalism is ignored. However, if you are looking just to pass the time, I would suggest watching “The Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix.