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

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.