1.5 star, adult

Review: Portrait of a Thief by Grace D. Li

History is told by the conquerors. Across the Western world, museums display the spoils of war, of conquest, of colonialism: priceless pieces of art looted from other countries, kept even now. 

Will Chen plans to steal them back.

A senior at Harvard, Will fits comfortably in his carefully curated roles: a perfect student, an art history major and sometimes artist, the eldest son who has always been his parents’ American Dream. But when a mysterious Chinese benefactor reaches out with an impossible—and illegal—job offer, Will finds himself something else as well: the leader of a heist to steal back five priceless Chinese sculptures, looted from Beijing centuries ago. 

His crew is every heist archetype one can imag­ine—or at least, the closest he can get. A con artist: Irene Chen, a public policy major at Duke who can talk her way out of anything. A thief: Daniel Liang, a premed student with steady hands just as capable of lockpicking as suturing. A getaway driver: Lily Wu, an engineering major who races cars in her free time. A hacker: Alex Huang, an MIT dropout turned Silicon Valley software engineer. Each member of his crew has their own complicated relationship with China and the identity they’ve cultivated as Chinese Americans, but when Will asks, none of them can turn him down. 

Because if they succeed? They earn fifty million dollars—and a chance to make history. But if they fail, it will mean not just the loss of everything they’ve dreamed for themselves but yet another thwarted at­tempt to take back what colonialism has stolen.

Equal parts beautiful, thoughtful, and thrilling, Portrait of a Thiefis a cultural heist and an examination of Chinese American identity, as well as a necessary cri­tique of the lingering effects of colonialism.

Ocean’s Eleven meets The Farewell in Portrait of a Thief, a lush, lyrical heist novel inspired by the true story of Chinese art vanishing from Western museums; about diaspora, the colonization of art, and the complexity of the Chinese American identity.



This is probably the saddest review I have to write because I had such high expectations for Portrait of a Thief. While I know this book may not have been written with every audience in mind, I feel I am one of those this was meant to excite. I feel I am one of those whose thoughts should hopefully matter as I navigate the complex feelings this book has sprung out of me.

I am Chinese Canadian and this book about the diaspora of Chinese immigrants across the Western world is, well, me.

Like most of the characters we follow in this heist crew, I was born in a Western society with only parental roots tying me back to my mother country. Yet my own complex relationship with China is not quite what any of these students feel. While many have praised the different voices or feelings each character wrestled with for their reasons to take on a heist job for China, I personally feel they were mostly one-note and the same. All their internal conflict, and oh boy was the book full of the same conflict for each character, was about escaping their prison-like futures weighed down with expectations and familial responsibilities, and not quite belonging to either country.

I can see that. I witness it sometimes in myself when I’m overseas and a person in China can immediately guess I am not from there simply from the way I dress and behave even if I speak Chinese to them. I also know that no matter I was born in Canada, people will see me and I will always be ‘other’ in some way, no matter that my English is perfect. But I don’t think it’s so simplified in the same way for every child of immigrants in this diaspora to feel so lost that it leads to the risk of a lifetime. I mean, the book wouldn’t exist if they hadn’t all felt drawn to such a risk worth taking, but it was hard to swallow after the 50th chapter mentioning the internal conflict in some form as they continued to take risk after risk to the point beyond recklessness for a country that also wasn’t quite fully theirs either.

Out of the 5 protagonists, I resonated most closely with Alex. Note aside, she has the same name as one of my good friends so that was a fun thing to see in a book. But it makes me question a little why I connected with her the most. Is it because she’s the only one who is Cantonese with a background from Hong Kong?

This is another thing the book doesn’t do well in. My family is from Hong Kong and it has a very different, even more complex, relationship with China. It’s probably another reason why I was so torn with the internal conflict of these students because it’s never addressed although Alex is so very much here. Even with her last name written in this way, Huang instead of Wong, she could’ve just been another Mandarin-speaking student and I wouldn’t have known the difference if her Cantonese family wasn’t mentioned. Why is that? It makes me wonder why nothing more was ever specified. Why include it then at all? It adds to the similarity of all these students which don’t represent the vast diaspora of Chinese immigrants. And I speak this from experience.

The story could’ve been saved with the levity that complex heists and creative escape plans might have brought with it. Yet this book is very much focused only on the identity struggle of the protagonists and not so much on the actual risks they are taking. It made the story drag as the heists were more an afterthought than any focus at all. I wouldn’t have minded it, in fact, I was warned that was the case. But I needed the levity for my own heart’s struggle and it just wasn’t there. I could barely swallow several chapters at a time because it was so heavy, and each student’s grief over their future and their identity was so dominant. The chapters aren’t even long yet I felt every one last half a lifetime.

The interpersonal relationships between all of them were also lacking. There were no feelings that jumped out of the page beyond what the words were telling me to feel. Will felt something that perhaps was more than his usual affair with Lily, but I never understood why that was. What made their interaction more special? Was it because they were planning a heist together with the added adrenaline thrown into the mix? The sapphic relationship also felt thrown out of left field because I never understood how it grew to love when all we’ve ever been given was the hate. It wasn’t even enemies-to-lovers done well.

And now we circle back to how I feel at the end of all of this. Portrait of a Thief was one of my most anticipated books, one I predicted I would love so much. It physically hurts that it’s not the case because I thought this book was written for someone like me. On a subject that was important and meant to be seen. Maybe it’s all too personal to me which is why it didn’t work out. Maybe I have too many connections to the history, to the countries, to the struggle for it to have ever worked out.

I’m left with questions I can only reflect to myself as I read each characters’ own questions. Would I have risked it all for a country that doesn’t fully accept me either? Would doing something as big as taking back power in the form of art be enough to make me belong? I’m not sure the answer is ever easy or so simple to make. It doesn’t even have to relate to heists and art, but simply this question: what lengths would I go to to feel like I belong in the freedom of all that I am?

And the fact that these college students wrestled so much with their futures to want to run from it, and very great futures at that with the privilege of attending the greatest universities in America that only some of us can ever hope to achieve, made me wonder if there’s something off with me for never having such a thought cross my mind with the expectations placed on the eldest child of an immigrant family who left it all behind for a greater chance in a different country.

Yes, this review is very introspective, and it’s not the usual take I have for books. But this book was written for me in many ways that most books are not. And perhaps the pain of not liking it at all is only amplified for that very reason.

Overall Recommendation:

Honestly, I can’t write a good TL;DR for Portrait of a Thief. If you want to know my thoughts, please read the entirety of it because it’s way too complex to put into a pithy summary. This is my history, this is my identity, and this book wrecked in me in a way I didn’t expect it to.

1.5 star, YA

ARC Review: The Liars Beneath by Heather Van Fleet

After a tragic accident ends her best friend’s life, 17-year-old Becca Thompson succumbs to grief the only way she knows how: by wallowing in it. She’s a fragment of the person she once was-far too broken to enjoy the summer before her senior year. But when Ben McCain, her best friend’s older brother, returns home, Becca must face her new reality head on.

She isn’t interested in Ben’s games, especially since he abandoned his sister during the months leading up to her death. But when he begs for her help in uncovering the truth about what really happened the night of his sister’s death, Becca finds herself agreeing, hoping to clear up rumors swirling in the wake of her best friend’s accident.

An unhinged ex-boyfriend, secret bucket lists, and garage parties in the place Becca calls home soon lead her to the answers she’s so desperate to unveil. But nobody is being honest, not even Ben. And the closer Becca gets to the truth-and to Ben-the more danger seems to surround her.

Clearing her best friend’s name was all she wanted to do, but Becca is quickly realizing that the truth she craves might be uglier than the lies her best friend kept.



**The Liars Beneath comes out January 27, 2022**

Thank you Netgalley for this copy in exchange for an honest review.

TW: sexual assault/harassment

I’m such a sucker usually for mysterious deaths and a crush on the best friend’s older brother trope but nothing about this worked for me.

In a small farming town in Iowa, our protagonist Becca is struggling hard in the aftermath of her best friend, Rose’s, death. While she does not initially think there was any foul play involved, Rose’s older brother Ben comes barrelling in trying to stir things up in his search for what happened the night of Rose’s death.

This book focuses literally on 2 things and 2 things only: a romance between Becca and Ben, and the mystery of Rose’s demise. Unfortunately, neither were done very well.

Becca has always been around Ben before he left town to go study in college, a rather prestigious athlete trying to escape the chains of this small town and their negligent mother. But before he left, Becca had the BIGGEST crush on him that fizzled into hate upon the smallest miscommunication. So what if he rejected her in a small way when she was 15? It doesn’t then permit the very rude way she interacted with him from then on, only insulting him to his face (or behind his back, for that matter, to Rose). Ben, for his part, played along with this new way of interacting with her, but I very much feel this was all on Becca for starting this completely unnecessary change in their previously cordial relationship.

I don’t dislike enemies to lovers, but this was poorly done in my opinion. I found it super hard for me to believe that she could so easily fall for Ben when there were so many more important issues at hand. I can potentially see that maybe he was holding a candle for her during the years since, but I don’t think this was LOVE by any means. Telling me you “love” each other does not make me feel it anymore than if you did not say it at all.

The mystery is also hardly a mystery in any sense of the word. Rose’s secrets, and there were a number, starts to unearth as Ben and Becca investigate. I saw the “twist” a mile away with the few characters that were actually introduced into the story. I could hardly believe how much was given away in literal conversations between Rose and Becca in the flashback chapters, or in the way certain characters were introduced to us. The only surprising thing in this book was the ending, and that was a bit of a complicated mess.

While I won’t spoil anything about the end, I feel epilogues aren’t meant for wrapping everything up so neatly into a bow. I’m also conflicted because the ending of the previous chapter before the epilogue was a mess, so I suppose it would be better to conclude with a little extra present. Yet, there were almost too many details given that made it feel like nothing was left to understand about these characters. That they would not live on beyond the ending given them. I feel the best characters are the ones that have been written in a way that their lives could still be up to interesting things even after the last page of the book has been flipped.

All this to say, a book with a really unlikable protagonist makes it really hard to get through. Becca also proves to be not the smartest cookie in the jar. She at one point brought her parents’ handgun to a situation she felt may warrant some protection…only to say she did not know how to use it. Like, you’re literally bringing a weapon to a potentially dangerous situation. Do you know how easily someone (aka the dangerous person(s) you’re meeting) could take that weapon from you and then actually know how to use it…on YOU?

So with neither main element working out well for me and a protagonist I couldn’t stomach for long periods of time, I can only hand this book one note of positivity: at least it was a short read to get through.

Overall Recommendation:

The Liars Beneath was supposedly a mystery and an enemies to lover romance, but felt like neither really hit the mark. The protagonist was unlikable and her chemistry with Ben was not the most believable based on their actions and general amount of miscommunication. At most, it could only be a rather large crush on one another instead of intense love – please don’t tell me but show me. The mysterious circumstances surrounding her best friend’s death was very predictable, especially with the amount of information given in the flashback chapters. And with an ending that was both too wrapped up and oddly rushed to create a happily ever after, I just don’t think there’s enough going for this novel to warrant a higher rating or recommendation.

1.5 star, YA

ARC Review: All These Bodies by Kendare Blake

Sixteen bloodless bodies. Two teenagers. One impossible explanation.

Summer 1958—a string of murders plagues the Midwest. The victims are found in their cars and in their homes—even in their beds—their bodies drained, but with no blood anywhere. 

September 19- the Carlson family is slaughtered in their Minnesota farmhouse, and the case gets its first lead: 15-year-old Marie Catherine Hale is found at the scene. She is covered in blood from head to toe, and at first she’s mistaken for a survivor. But not a drop of the blood is hers.

Michael Jensen, son of the local sheriff, yearns to become a journalist and escape his small-town. He never imagined that the biggest story in the country would fall into his lap, or that he would be pulled into the investigation, when Marie decides that he is the only one she will confess to. 

As Marie recounts her version of the story, it falls to Michael to find the truth: What really happened the night that the Carlsons were killed? And how did one girl wind up in the middle of all these bodies?



**All These Bodies come out September 21, 2021**

Thank you Edelweiss and HarperCollins for this copy in exchange for an honest review

TW: extreme violence, potential abuse from a father figure

I’m as shocked as anyone that this is how it went for this book, but it just did not agree with me. All These Bodies is less of a thrilling mystery than it is an ill-conceived horror. With little plot that comes to the actual crimes themselves, it solely relies on the paranormal nature of these murders to create an air of suspense and thrill.

I came into this book thinking it would be a (rather gruesome) mystery. Unfortunately, it was less a mystery than a wild chase for a story from the girl left at the last crime scene.

Michael Jensen is a solid protagonist to follow. He has a good head on his shoulders and learned to deal with the consequences of being the sheriff’s son a long time ago. With his fascination for journalism and plain ol’ being in the wrong place at the wrong time, he is roped into the string of serial killings that has swept the few states around his hometown.

The girl, Marie, sees him once and is instantly fascinated. Maybe it’s because he is around her age, against the backdrop of lawyers and police officers that are insistent on her story. Or maybe, as Michael himself believes, it’s because he’s the only kind of person who would potentially believe the story that she has to tell.

If you’re looking for some supernatural criminal and are oddly excited to read about the ramifications of explaining such a thing to rational minded people, then you’re luck because this is the book for you! But if you’re not interested in these things, then I don’t know what you’re left with in this novel.

Was it creepy? Yes, I will admit that. Kendare Blake knows how to set the environment and write with vagueness around this mysterious killer. Did I think the paranormal aspect added to the story? No, not really. I would’ve thought it could be as interesting without a paranormal angle.

At the heart of this book, it is trying to challenge belief and how people see the world, but I find that the characters were either on one side or the other the whole time. They weren’t persuaded to think otherwise no matter what “truths” were uncovered during the investigation. Which left me feeling frustrated for Michael who is the only one on the fence with belief and is therefore isolated in his struggle to make sense of everything.

In fact, I was frustrated during most of this book. People can be so awful and hypocritical. The townspeople were upset at Michael and his family for keeping the “criminal girl” in their town for questioning and investigation, so they harassed the poor family incessantly, even those who were once considered friends. But when the investigation took a turn, they were the very first to say (in a super sexist manner) that they didn’t believe she could’ve committed such crimes because she was a girl. So not a lot of warm fuzzy feelings in this book at all.

I will contend at least that I blew through this book super quickly. It’s rather short and in a manner, I just wanted to get to the end to see how it would all turn out. Would Marie tell Michael the whole story for how she came to be in that house with the murdered family? Would we, as readers, fully believe what she has to say?

However, any warm fuzzies I hoped to gain from a good ending was also shattered. I am not adverse to open endings where much is left to one’s interpretation and scope of the imagination. But, this was more than just open-ended. It was abrupt and lacked closure. It was the precipice of a reckless choice. I half couldn’t believe it ended there, but then when I thought about the set up of this whole book with its supernatural aura, I suppose that’s the only kind of ending that would work. But this is a fair warning to you all that this is DEFINITELY not for everyone.

It definitely was not for me.

Overall Recommendation:

All These Bodies comes across as a true crime mystery in its synopsis but is most definitely classed as a paranormal horror. With a fascinating premise about a serial killer on the loose and a girl left behind at the last crime scene, I came into this book thinking one thing and leaving with something else entirely. While the protagonist, Michael, was rather enjoyable to follow (I totally agreed with most of his thoughts), everything else was a let down. From the lack of plot surrounding the crimes to the lack of closure in its ending, it was hard to invest in. What little I did invest emotionally, I was left with disappointment. This book isn’t for the faint of heart, or those with high expectations. But if you enjoy paranormal horrors, then I suppose you are the exact audience this novel is meant for.