Book Review

This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron

This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron is a young adult urban fantasy featuring Briseis, a teenager with the peculiar ability to grow flowers simply by touching seeds or plants. When her aunt dies and leaves Bri a mysterious estate in rural New York, she and her moms move there for the summer, away from the bustling concrete jungle that is Brooklyn. Surrounded by verdant forests and bucolic scenery full of plants and flowers for the first time in her life, Bri hopes to use this opportunity to learn more about herself and gain better control of her gift.

Book cover for This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron.

Whenever you hear a story about villainous women, you should ask who’s telling the story.

Kalynn Bayron, This Poison Heart

The premise of this novel—a poison garden, ancient magic, and a gothic home packed with secrets—is absolutely delicious, but I felt like I was constantly waiting for the plot to take off. Bri discovers an apothecary fully stocked with mysterious plants and a poison garden (inspired by the actual Poison Garden at England’s Alnwick Garden) hidden within her new home, and beyond Bri realizing her specialty is in handling poisonous plants, the plot seems to stall for a while here. I kept wondering what she would do with her powers, other than creating elixirs and growing ingredients for eccentric townsfolk who abruptly barge into her home requesting remedies only she can provide. The novel is heavy on exposition, and the awkward pacing made the first half a struggle to get through.

The charming if odd host of friends, family, and new acquaintances Bri makes is one of the best parts of this novel. In Brooklyn, Bri’s friends aren’t very understanding or kind towards her, and Bayron effectively illustrates how lonely it can feel to have bad friends. It’s so satisfying to experience Bri cultivate some real friendships as her story unfolds. Bloom where you’re planted? More like bloom where you’re transplanted.

Bayron subverts familiar, maybe even predictable metaphors and symbols associated with gardening and nature. This is especially noticeable in Bri’s close relationship with her parents; she’s adopted, and Bayron is especially thoughtful outlining Bri’s concerns about possibly hurting her mothers’ feelings in wanting to explore her biological family’s lineage to learn more about herself. I love that Bri’s bond with her mothers is so strong that even though she worries about hurting their feelings, she never actually tries to hide her curiosity about her ancestry or her desire to learn more about her heritage. The openness in their relationship is refreshing, and it’s so comforting that that angst is never true cause for any grief in her life.

History belongs to all of us.

Kalynn Bayron, This poison Heart

Bayron’s use of Greek mythology as a foundation for the magic surrounding Bri’s powers and bloodline is one of the most unique elements of this story, but it takes too long before its fully revealed to readers. Bri and her parents don’t even arrive at their summer residence until a quarter of the way through the book, and the process for Bri to stumble onto clues about her magic and heritage is too drawn out and convenient. I never quite understood why so many clues were hidden throughout the house if Bri’s biological family didn’t intend for her to discover those secrets. Perhaps they never anticipated she would be in the house, but then why were the clues there at all? There are so many questions and so few answers, though I should point out this novel’s the first in a series, so maybe this ambiguity is by design.

This Poison Heart puts a fresh new spin on the nature vs. nurture dialogue (quite literally where the plants are concerned!), and its strength is in the relationships Bri establishes, nurtures, and grows. While the mythology aspect is interesting, the info dumping was difficult to process, and the story at the end of this book left us with far more questions than answers. I can only hope the seedling that is this book will sprout into a series that is a bit more fully realized because I otherwise like the individual elements of this world.

Thank you to NetGalley and Bloomsbury for sharing an advanced reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review

Arsenic and Adobo by Mia P. Manansala

Arsenic and Adobo by Mia P. Manansala is a cozy mystery featuring Lila Macapagal, who’s just moved back home to put her life back together and help save her Tita Rosie’s Filipino restaurant. Navigating the drama she thought she’d left behind in her small town, as well as a revolving door of old flames, nosy relatives, and matchmaking aunties keeps her busy enough until an ex-boyfriend literally drops dead while eating food she serves him. With the police convinced she’s the prime suspect, Lila must leverage her network of family and friends in order to solve the murder mystery so that she can save herself and her family’s business.

Book cover for Arsenic and Adobo by Mia P. Manansala.

A “real” Filipino…As a second-generation member of a colonized country, born and raised in the Midwestern United States, what did that even mean?

Mia P. Manansala, Arsenic and Adobo

The premise of this novel is great! The execution? Not so much. This was my Book of the Month selection for April, so I especially wanted to love it. There were several problems that prevented me from enjoying this mystery, but three elements especially stood out: plot, characterization, and dialogue. (Okay, a secret fourth issue too: My edition goes back and forth between calling the murder victim Derek Winter and Derek Winters starting about halfway through the novel. Sloppy and annoying since I noticed it enough to stop reading about a handful of times. I don’t want to be in editor mode when reading a fully published novel.)

While I understand cozy mysteries are meant to be light, easy reads, I’d argue they still need to make sense. But so much of the plot in this novel just happens at random. Nothing seems natural. There is no flow. For instance, when Lila drops off something at the dentist, she goes there on a Sunday, expects it to be open, and it is simply because it’s narratively convenient, like the author just needed to tick something off a list of plot points, so she shoved it in where she could. And when Lila’s accused of assaulting someone and actually has an airtight alibi that could clear her of the crime, the police don’t bring it up because they find her to be a convenient scapegoat. What’s worse is Lila doesn’t even fight for that airtight alibi that is seriously airtight. It doesn’t even make sense! It’s a problem that shouldn’t even be a problem! I’ve heard of bumbling cops, but the ones in this book are so incredibly incompetent it literally gave me a headache.

No one seems appropriately spooked or somber about all the crime that takes place either. The police attempt to pin every murder and assault on Lila, and multiple people try to ruin her family’s business, yet she really doesn’t seem to be concerned enough about any of it. Stumbling upon a dead body actually slips her mind at one point, a murder victim’s family simply wanders away from the wake, and everyone is constantly more worried about hospitality or commenting on the quality of any food that happens to be around. It’s all so weird. No one’s actions make any sense. None of it is believable.

And I know Lila’s supposed to be sarcastic and somewhat glib, but that only comes across half the time. Other than when she can make herself be grateful for her family (but only until she figures out how to repay the bail money her family put up!), she’s rather boring and has no personality beyond her appreciation for Filipino cuisine and belief that every man in town has or had a crush on her. Lila’s backstory contains some interesting elements, but it’s only referenced to establish her as a character troubled enough to warrant suspicion from cops who are otherwise terrible at their jobs anyway.

In typical Filipino fashion, my aunt expressed her love not through words of encouragement or affectionate embraces, but through food.

Mia P. Manansala, Arsenic and Adobo

Also, people just don’t talk the way these characters do, and I think that’s largely because the novel needed a round of edits for show/tell issues. No one casually drops decades old history and family drama into fleeting conversations with random people all over town. And I know the amateur sleuthing in cozies is meant to be a little clumsy, but the dialogue with suspects was too redundant since everything was repeated back to Lila’s friends, family, or her lawyer. And I must point out that during one part of Lila’s investigation, someone witnesses two Japanese people having a conversation in Japanese, and he’s able to understand what’s communicated because he watches a lot of anime. I don’t care how much anime you watch. That’s not how that works!

Finally, all of Lila’s aunties and godmothers were difficult to tell apart, so I wish their personalities were more distinct. As a diaspora kid boasting my own network of aunties, I understand the importance of including this element in the novel, but again, the execution was off. I couldn’t bring myself to care about anyone other than Lila’s grandmother, and only because I’m not a total monster.

I was so excited for Arsenic and Adobo because the premise seemed promising and hilarious, but overall, it really, really missed the mark for me. I don’t want to feel like the author thinks I’m an idiot, whether it was intentional or not. After a while, it became a chore to read. I am curious to try the recipes at the back of the book, though. I enjoyed all the food porn, but a well-plotted book that doesn’t rely on so much suspension of disbelief could’ve included the same culinary adventures too.

Book Review

Counting Down with You by Tashie Bhuiyan

Counting Down with You by Tashie Bhuiyan is a can’t-miss young adult contemporary romance. When Karina Ahmed’s conservative parents visit Bangladesh for a month, she uses it as a chance to test their strict rules. She starts by tutoring Ace Clyde, resident bad boy. Her parents would disapprove of her being alone with a boy, and they’d frown on her wasting time with a non-STEM subject like English. But those are the least of her concerns when Ace tells everyone Karina’s his girlfriend! When her fake romance with Ace isn’t so fake anymore, Karina must decide if she wants to return to her sheltered existence at the end of the month or embrace the people, dreams, and ideals that spark the fire in her soul.

Book cover for Counting Down with You by Tashie Bhuiyan.

You’re pretending to date Ace Clyde? In exchange for books?

Tashie Bhuiyan, Counting Down with You

The romance between Karina and Ace is so endearing and sweet, and it subverts what you might expect to see from characters like them. In spite of her sheltered upbringing, Karina is a lionheart, so earnest and brave; and Ace, misunderstood for his bad boy reputation, is deeply thoughtful and has a gentle heart as large as his sweet tooth. It’s the romance you know you deserve, no matter your age—one where your partner sees you, where you meet each other in the middle, and help each other grow. The tenderness with which Bhuiyan builds their relationship is enthralling and invites readers to remember the magic of first love.

The wholesome heart of the novel rests with Dadu, Karina’s grandmother, a nurturing, open-minded influence who truly just wants Karina’s happiness. As enchanting as it’d be to have adorable Ace Clyde doting on me, I’d rather have Dadu’s unyielding support and truly unconditional love, particularly when I’m feeling insecure or anxious. She’s a comfort character if there ever was one, but Dadu also illustrates the importance of evolving traditions and expectations as the times change. Her cultural and religious beliefs are not anchors that weigh her down; instead, they function as a north star that guides her towards the right decisions to best care for her family. Her many conversations with Karina validate the way I lead my own life as a diaspora kid who will never quite fit into either of the cultures I claim as my own, so I must carve out my own path daily.

Bhuiyan’s careful attention to creating nuanced, fully realized side characters is a boon to her world building. Karina’s best friends, Nandini and Cora, could never be mistaken for one another, even though they’re rarely apart from one another when Karina interacts with them. Nandini is steady and pragmatic, often acting as the mother hen of the group, while Cora is a chaotic wildflower with major “let me at ‘em!” energy; their characterizations are informed by their respective cultures and identities. Together, they form a diverse girl gang you wish could be yours. Karina’s support network is unrivaled, but it is so necessary given the stress she experiences with her mental health and family dynamics.

I’m not a bad person for wanting a life different than what’s expected of me. I’m not a bad person for wanting to pursue something I love. I’m not a bad person for wanting. But I feel like I am.

Tashie Bhuiyan, Counting Down with You

Karina’s struggle to balance what she wants with what her parents want for her is the element of this novel that speaks to me most. To a certain extent, everyone can relate to this predicament, but it’s a particularly scarring experience in South Asian diaspora communities, where careers rooted in math/science are championed above all. English or literature, while important merely for their ability to tank a GPA just as well as any other subject, is often viewed as a hobby or side interest at best—certainly not a viable career option. But Karina’s deepest desire is to major in English, and she spends much of the novel conflicted over disappointing her parents or doing what she knows is best for her. Fretting over a college major might seem silly, but not when you consider the western world demands sixteen-year-olds map out the rest of their lives before they’ve even finished high school. Throw in the customs, norms, and parental expectations from a second culture, and you’ve got double the anxiety.    

Speaking of which, Karina occasionally suffers from anxiety attacks, and they don’t simply vanish when narratively convenient. During a particularly jarring episode, Karina runs out of class because she needs to physically distance herself from a situation that’s triggered her. She’s still figuring out the best techniques to help her manage her anxiety, and Ace and her friends are so patient and open to learning how to make the situation easier for her. It’s a wonderful example of how to support a friend who might be experiencing any of a number of mental health issues.

Being seen is the most tender form of love, and I see you. I do.

Tashie Bhuiyan, Counting Down with You

I relate to so much of this Own Voices story because it features a Muslim Bangladeshi-American character whose culture, family dynamics, food, language, religion, and worldview so closely mirror my own teenage experiences. Karina navigates a hybrid existence as a person who loves her Bangladeshi customs but was raised in a world full of American traditions. It’s so challenging at times to know which side of the divide is the right side to be on, depending on who you are and what you need. I even had that moment where I had to tell my parents STEM just wasn’t for me (I ended up getting a PhD in English literature, so it worked out!). The parallels between my life and Karina’s experiences still have me reeling, and for that reason alone, I need everyone to read this book. The Own Voices genre is just magic, y’all. I’m so glad it exists.

Counting Down with You is a striking debut novel that employs the fake dating trope to explore themes about family, culture, and self-actualization. It’s a quick read with memorable characters, witty banter, a unique mix of Bangladeshi cultural and family dynamics, and a dreamy teen romance that’s sure to brighten your day and melt your heart. You deserve to read this book. Make it happen!

Thank you to the author, Tashie Bhuiyan, for sharing an advanced reader copy of her book in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review

Folklorn by Angela Mi Young Hur

Folklorn by Angela Mi Young Hur uses magical realism to explore Korean mythology, cultural identity, mental health, and the enduring bonds of family. The novel opens with Elsa Park, a Korean-American experimental physicist conducting doctoral research on neutrinos (also known as ghost particles). She is confident in her studies, has no filter, and a prickly disposition, making her decidedly unlikable to those around her—yet an interesting character for readers to follow. Upon learning of her mother’s sudden passing, Elsa is forced to return home, where she begins a journey of self-discovery as she explores the Korean folktales her mother has left behind.

Book cover for Folklorn by Angela Mi Young Hur.

As if anybody wants to be told that their ability to endure is their greatest virtue. No wonder we get invasions and occupations, war and asshole husbands. What kind of stories, I wonder, do the white countries tell of themselves?

Angela Mi Young Hur, Folklorn

As far back as she can remember, Elsa’s mother has warned her that the women in their bloodline are doomed to live out the traumatic events outlined in a series of Korean folktales. Elsa constantly questions the abiding narratives that define cultural hegemony, so it’s in her nature to doubt her mother’s warnings; however, when she begins to see the supposedly imaginary friend she had as a child, Elsa interprets it as a portent of things to come and realizes there must be more to her mother’s stories. It’s either that, or she’s inherited her mother’s mental health issues, and the former is somehow easier to stomach than the latter, so she commits herself to researching the origins of her mother’s stories.

Folklorn is an especially nuanced examination of identity and race as they pertain to immigrants and diasporic communities. Elsa’s parents moved to America to make a better life for themselves, although they could not outrun the problems resulting from their own personal flaws. In addition to generational traumas, Elsa and her brother Chris struggle with the “model minority” myth, as well as “the freedom not to be grateful, indebted and beholden” like their immigrant parents. And Oskar, whom Elsa meets while learning about her mother’s folktales, is a Korean orphan adopted by Swedish parents and raised to ignore his race completely. Together, these seemingly disparate narratives provide a robust, decolonized illustration of the immigrant experience seldom seen in other novels.

We have full right to these stories of our ancestors, even more so because we are of the diaspora. These tales—like us—have traveled far across time and space, to be remade and understood in a new light.

Angela Mi Young Hur, Folklorn

The narrative structure in this book is difficult to follow as it jumps across time and space and struggles to straddle the line between academic book project and contemporary novel. The first of three parts, which consumes a little over 40% of the novel, was most challenging to read. Dense language and physics concepts attempt to teach readers about Elsa’s doctoral work while juxtaposing her passion for ghost particles with the Korean folktales that continue to haunt her. However, it’s simply too tedious for non-experts to digest while also attempting to establish other expository details at the beginning of the book. Elsa’s work is easiest to understand during a brief conversation she has with a cab driver, where she uses a metaphor about ice cream flavors to explain her research to an ordinary person. I would argue that’s all we need to know about it. Simply because Elsa is always thinking about her work does not mean we need to read about her thinking about her work, particularly because the more interesting aspects of Folklorn are about her family’s heritage and the mystery surrounding her mother’s stories.

Similarly, much of the dialogue about Korean myth, provenance, and book history in the third part of the novel is so heavily academic that it feels like a chore to read unless I’m getting a CV line for my efforts. I like a well-researched novel just as much as anyone else, but many parts of Folklorn read more like a scholarly publication (or conversations and correspondence about one). I repeatedly became impatient with the plot and pacing while Elsa and Oskar waxed poetic about their research.

Expats complain about leaving phantom lives behind, the other life unlived. Immigrants are too busy surviving to whine about forsaken selves. But now repatriated—I’m even more ghostly.

Angela Mi Young Hur, Folklorn

Execution of the magical realism in this novel is disorienting, but I’m beginning to think that’s by design. The Korean folktales are real insofar as they’re stories with histories that span across centuries, but Elsa’s spiraling mental state paired with ill-advised efforts to self-medicate left me confused as to how we ought to perceive her visions. Sometimes I’d be halfway into one of her hallucinations before I realized what was happening. In retrospect, I wonder if the point was to illustrate just how unsettling and frustrating the experience is for Elsa. It is this ambiguity that makes the novel’s conclusion strangely wistful yet satisfying.

As an Asian-American academic with immigrant parents in a diaspora community, I related strongly to much of the experiences Elsa describes, and I particularly enjoyed learning about her family in the portions of the novel that highlight her past and her time with her brother. I also appreciate that Folklorn tackles the ambitious task of unpacking the many aftereffects of colonialism that continue to impact Asian diaspora communities. However, I wish the novel focused less on Elsa’s academic personality so that this important story could be a little more accessible for readers.

Thank you to NetGalley and Erewhon Books for sharing an advanced reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review

Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers

Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers opens with 28-year-old Dr. Grace Porter celebrating her PhD in astronomy with a girls’ trip to Las Vegas, which ends with Grace drunkenly marrying Yuki, a woman she meets that night. The dreamy, lyrical prose describing her wife and the way Grace feels when she’s with her instantly makes clear this isn’t an embarrassing mistake to be undone as quickly as possible. This is a new beginning for Grace, a swerve from her otherwise carefully planned life. It sets her on a path to figuring out if she actually wants the idealized visions of success she’s felt compelled to pursue all her life.

Book cover for Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers

She is afraid of being a brown, gold, bee-honey lesbian in an academic industry all too willing to overlook the parts of her that don’t make sense to them.

Morgan Rogers, Honey Girl

Yuki, who hosts a late-night radio show for “lonely creatures” when she’s not busy waitressing, leans into everything Grace has been conditioned to believe works against her pursuit of success. These two characters work remarkably well as foils to one another. Yuki helps reveal to Grace what she’ll lose if she continues sacrificing personal relationships and mental health in order to grasp at professional opportunities that aren’t promised. She teaches Grace it’s okay to toss the entire script and redefine what’s best for her. And Grace grounds Yuki, who’s constantly getting lost in fleeting adventures from her listeners as she searches wearily for a home in her very own story. It is such a delight to witness these fully realized characters learn how to weave their lives together and grow into better people as a result.

The monster motif—particularly persistent in Yuki’s radio shows about actual supernatural creatures—is most striking when Rogers employs it as a metaphor in Grace’s struggle to find belonging. It is only in refusing to be the monster in her own story—the element that won’t fit or conform—that empowers Grace to start prioritizing herself by attending therapy to be better present in her own life. This part of the novel is messy and emotional and often difficult to read, but learning to be kind to yourself—to be your best self—is hard work.

She will not let them spin her into a scary story, a thing whispered about and cast aside.

Morgan Rogers, Honey Girl

Grace’s parents—her father, especially—cement the idea that you’re never too old for a coming-of-age. Colonel, her ex-military father, might initially remind readers of toxic parental figures who’re immovable forces against progress and growth. But he eventually reveals his own struggles and anxieties, making his point-of-view more understandable. Grace’s relationship with Colonel is complicated and nuanced; they’re rarely on the same page as she begins to explore what will make her happy, but Rogers never makes him Grace’s enemy. Grace’s upbringing is different from her father’s, which causes much of the strife in their relationship, but ultimately, they both want Grace’s happiness. It’s worth noting, however, that were it not for the importance Rogers places on communication between all her characters, Grace and Colonel might never have moved past their misunderstandings. Of course, communication only works when both sides are willing to engage.

At its core, Honey Girl is largely a novel about queer friendships and found family. Grace and Yuki each boast a quirky cast of warm, caring companions who offer support, witty banter, and sage advice as they strive to build a life together. The characters who orbit Grace and Yuki also have their own romances and dramas, making their social lives especially immersive and comforting for readers.

I knew the field was going to be difficult to navigate, but I thought if I pushed long enough and hard enough, it would just bend to my will…But what if I was right to step away? What if I make my own career, instead of going after the most prestigious job? What if the best job is the one that makes me happy and satisfied?

Morgan Rogers, Honey Girl

As a woman of color who’s also earned a PhD, I love this novel for how it so precisely gives voice to the anxiety and existential dread that comes with attempting to balance what is expected of me personally and culturally alongside the urgency of what I yearn to achieve professionally within an institutional model that relies on outdated narratives and histories to define value in a system that doubts and excludes me at its ivory tower core.

Rogers does the important work of shining a light on this tension by broaching difficult topics that don’t always have easy answers. And she gifts us with Grace, who chooses to invest in herself when she comes to terms with the reality that is an academic system that will only suffer for its inability to make room for her at present.

Honey Girl refuses to endorse systems that demand contorting yourself into something unrecognizable and uncomfortable to fit within boxes you don’t even want. It champions self-care as the path towards self-empowerment; it highlights the value of finding your tribe and being a good friend. Finally, it reminds us that happiness and success are subjective concepts defined only as broadly as we allow.