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.

3.5 star, adult

Review: A River Enchanted by Rebecca Ross

Series: Elements of Cadence #1

House of Earth and Blood meets The Witch’s Heart in Rebecca Ross’s brilliant first adult fantasy, set on the magical isle of Cadence where two childhood enemies must team up to discover why girls are going missing from their clan.

Jack Tamerlaine hasn’t stepped foot on Cadence in ten long years, content to study music at the mainland university. But when young girls start disappearing from the isle, Jack is summoned home to help find them. Enchantments run deep on Cadence: gossip is carried by the wind, plaid shawls can be as strong as armor, and the smallest cut of a knife can instill fathomless fear. The capricious spirits that rule the isle by fire, water, earth, and wind find mirth in the lives of the humans who call the land home. Adaira, heiress of the east and Jack’s childhood enemy, knows the spirits only answer to a bard’s music, and she hopes Jack can draw them forth by song, enticing them to return the missing girls.

As Jack and Adaira reluctantly work together, they find they make better allies than rivals as their partnership turns into something more. But with each passing song, it becomes apparent the trouble with the spirits is far more sinister than they first expected, and an older, darker secret about Cadence lurks beneath the surface, threatening to undo them all.

With unforgettable characters, a fast-paced plot, and compelling world building, A River Enchanted is a stirring story of duty, love, and the power of true partnership, and marks Rebecca Ross’s brilliant entry on the adult fantasy stage.



If I could use one word to describe A River Enchanted, it would be this: folklore. Cue the Taylor Swift music, please.

Although the synopsis makes it sound like there are only 2 protagonists, in reality, we follow 4 individuals pretty equally. This is Rebecca Ross’ foray into adult literature and I wasn’t sure at first what to expect from that. I love her YA fantasies so I hoped it would still be in the same vein but perhaps with different themes.

And boy, it was an interesting read indeed. I will quickly break down a couple of my thoughts that overall led to my rating.

Writing style

Fortunately for me, the writing was just the way I remember it being in Rebecca’s YA novels, so if you fell in love with her writing in her past titles, this one’s still got it and more.

The prose was so descriptive and lush that it really brought forth this magical isle full of different spirits and the people who inhabit it. You can also tell that the author did her research because the language she uses, especially certain vocabulary, is definitely not what we would regularly in modern times. It fit the feel of the world, something separate from what we know here and now, and reminiscent of the Scottish wilds.

In this way, I was really drawn into the story and the characters, which is what I will talk about next.

MCs and their unique characterizations

From the 2 MCs I thought we would follow, it became 4, and I loved it even more that way. Jack and Adaira were childhood rivals and that tension was still somewhat there upon Jack’s return to the isle after a decade away on the mainland. These two are in their early twenties but I can see the influence of the YA tropes in their story. They felt younger and worried more about their relationship and their future in the clan.

On the other hand, Torin and Sidra (in their later twenties or early thirties I believe) really made the story fit into the adult genre more. I actually loved their romance more than Jack and Adaira’s. They wed it seemed out of convenience when Torin’s first wife died, but it didn’t necessarily mean there was love between them. Their worries focused on Torin’s young daughter with his first wife, a particularly important worry as the isle has been losing their young girls recently, a point I’ll get back to later.

While I’m normally a HUGE lover of all the teen tropes and coming of age stories, I rather enjoyed the other themes drawn into the book because we have a range of protagonists. Each voice was unique as each individual struggled with different things. Jack never belonged on the isle, even more so after his absence for so long, and he fought his insecurities all the time. Adaira had the weight of the clan on her shoulders as the heiress, and fought to do what was right by them at even her own personal cost.

Torin struggled to keep his family a priority while also sacrificing so much of himself to keep the entire clan safe from their rival clan across the border. There was a lot of guilt hanging over him and it was an interesting exploration. Lastly, Sidra was probably my favourite character and brought the struggle of faith to the forefront as it seemed the spirits she believed in her whole life, especially for her healing abilities, were letting her down with the loss of each girl.

When I think of adult books, I still want to know the characters instead of just stereotypes. I definitely feel Rebecca carries this in her writing regardless of genre and I’m so grateful for that.

Plot and its downfalls

So why wasn’t this a 5 star read like the last book I read from Rebecca Ross?

Simple. It really ends up at the plot. This is a fantasy book and they’re generally plot-driven. Preferably, the best kinds are balanced with plot and character, and the character component in this book I have already extolled as great.

The plot wasn’t complex, although I did enjoy the mysteries surrounding the missing girls. I loved the world building, don’t get me wrong, and I never felt like a load of information dump was placed on me at any time. Everything felt organic.

It just came about really slow. Essentially, Jack and Adaira attempt maybe 3 things to get a lead on who was stealing the girls, but it’s split apart by a lot of talking. Of course, this lends to the character building but it just didn’t move things along very well.

Likewise, Torin does a lot of searching the entire lands but all it leads to is more questions and some off-shoot tidbits that MAY lead somewhere in the next book. Can a girl just ask for a little more speed?

That’s not to say that the entire plot was bad. It definitely wasn’t, don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong about a simple main plot line. I did like the “twists” that came about near the end with secrets starting to unfold. I’m super excited for book 2 to come out to see where it all goes, but as a book within itself, I feel the plot may lose people at times as our 4 MCs meander their way to solving the mystery.

Overall Recommendation:

A River Enchanted marks an excellent adult fantasy debut for Rebecca Ross with its lush storytelling and world building that draws you into this magical isle filled with spirits living among the inhabitants. I was definitely not disappointed to see such amazing characterizations of not 2, but in fact 4, protagonists as they navigate the disappearance of several young girls from their clan. It’s part mystery and part folklore awe that drives you to continue reading, although the pacing was rather slow for a good portion of it. If you can stick through the slower bits, which on the other hand allows for excellent character building, this story delivers a fascinating tale of rival clans, magic that harnesses the spirits, and relationships running deeper than blood.

5 star, adult

Review: Stuck With You by Ali Hazelwood

Series: The STEMinist novellas #2

Nothing like a little rivalry between scientists to take love to the next level.

Mara, Sadie, and Hannah are friends first, scientists always. Though their fields of study might take them to different corners of the world, they can all agree on this universal truth: when it comes to love and science, opposites attract and rivals make you burn…

Logically, Sadie knows that civil engineers are supposed to build bridges. However, as a woman of STEM she also understands that variables can change, and when you are stuck for hours in a tiny New York elevator with the man who broke your heart, you earn the right to burn that brawny, blond bridge to the ground. Erik can apologize all he wants, but to quote her rebel leader—she’d just as soon kiss a Wookiee.

Not even the most sophisticated of Sadie’s superstitious rituals could have predicted such a disastrous reunion. But while she refuses to acknowledge the siren call of Erik’s steely forearms or the way his voice softens when he offers her his sweater, Sadie can’t help but wonder if there might be more layers to her cold-hearted nemesis than meet the eye. Maybe, possibly, even burned bridges can still be crossed….



For the fact that this is a novella, Stuck With You packs on the chemistry and heat right from the start, once again showing that it isn’t about the length of a novel but the talent of the author to draw us into a story and the lives of its characters.

As always, I’m super invested in these women in STEM stories. Definitely would love to see more romance books featuring such smart and independent protagonists.

Sadie was a firecracker with her oddly specific superstitious rituals for good luck before interviews and her love for engineering in a workforce still dominated by men. I adored her voice, and the narrator on the audiobook did a superb job creating that excitement I vividly picture at Sadie’s passion for what she does. Which brings us to her love-hate relationship with Erik. She brings the passion so that also transfers to things (or PEOPLE) she passionately dislikes.

I liked the format of the story going back and forth between present day wherein she’s trapped in the elevator with the last person she wants to see, and the past explaining how she and Erik met. It keeps us guessing what went down between them when it seemed they really clicked initially. This made the pace go really well and never drag the story too long – if novellas can feel long.

Erik epitomized the kind of male love interests that people love. Stoic, strong, a bit brooding (or maybe because he didn’t speak all that much), and clearly misunderstood. Something clearly wasn’t adding up the more we learned of the past between Erik and Sadie.

And while it’s great to love characters individually, I will have to say that Erik and Sadie together just had sparks flying. Whew, how was that elevator not starting to move again when it could be fueled by their tension and electricity?? Their dynamic rivaled Ali Hazelwood’s debut duo from The Love Hypothesis. Perhaps it’s the grumpy-sunshine character combo but anyhow, this made the story. The angst is real, the miscommunication is probably in there somewhere and not too difficult to figure out near the end, and you just know how they make up for such communication breakdown is gonna be awesome.

And by awesome I mean chemically reactive!

If you haven’t hopped onto the Ali Hazelwood train, I would recommend you do. You can start anywhere with this novella series without ruining the other stories, but I definitely liked Sadie’s story the most so far.

Overall Recommendation:

Stuck With You is the classic forced proximity story that draws together two people with an extreme love-hate relationship. What do you get when you put 2 engineers together in an unmoving elevator late on a Friday evening? A combustive story detailing the mishaps of their initial meeting/attempts at romance and perhaps some steamy ways of making up for what happened. Sadie and Erik’s story may contain those common romance tropes but they’re what make the story so attractive. What makes the rest of it so good is the compelling storytelling all credited to Ali’s amazing writing. Definitely worth the pick up for such a short book.