4 star, YA

ARC Review: Our Crooked Hearts by Melissa Albert

THE SUBURBS, RIGHT NOW . . .

Seventeen-year-old Ivy’s summer break kicks off with an accident, a punishment, and a mystery: a stranger whose appearance in the middle of the road, in the middle of the night, heralds a string of increasingly unsettling events. As the days pass, Ivy grapples with eerie offerings, corroded memories, and a secret she’s always known—that there’s more to her mother than meets the eye.

THE CITY, BACK THEN . . .

Dana has always been perceptive. And the summer she turns sixteen, with the help of her best friend and an ambitious older girl, her gifts bloom into a heady fling with the supernatural, set in a city of magical possibilities and secret mystics. As the trio’s aspirations darken, they find themselves speeding toward a violent breaking point.

Years after it began, Ivy and Dana’s shared story will come down to a reckoning among a daughter, a mother, and the dark forces they never should’ve messed with.



**Our Crooked Hearts comes out June 28, 2022**

Thank you Flatiron Books for this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Chilling, gripping and full of familial drama, Our Crooked Hearts blew through all my expectations and I couldn’t put it down.

At the heart of this story is the bond between Ivy and her mother. Which isn’t a very good one as Ivy knows Dana is keeping something big from her (and the rest of the family). Although the synopsis suggests it’s evenly split between Ivy and the flashbacks to Dana’s childhood, it doesn’t really start off that way.

We get a lot of chapters about Ivy’s current life in the suburbs. All is well…that is, until she encounters a strange woman in the middle of the road late at night who may have more than a passing curiosity about Ivy. The story dives into this really quick, which I thoroughly appreciate, and sets the tone for the following strange events to come.

Once Dana’s flashbacks start coming, it provides great context to us, the omniscient reader, about what she’s hiding from the family – and perhaps how this stranger in the present day is related to what once happened. I’m normally not the biggest fan of two alternative POVs in different timelines as one is normally stronger than the other and I would much prefer to stick with the one I like. However, I found myself not begrudgingly reading Dana’s POV but also coming to like those chapters too. They filled in gaps we’re still piecing together, but the anticipation for figuring out how everything related was oddly satisfying.

I had the privilege of hearing Melissa speak about the writing process for this book and I fully understand how the story needed to be told from both Ivy and Dana’s POVs. It might’ve started off as Ivy’s story, but humanizing Dana instead of making her the enemy in Ivy’s eyes shows the complexity of humans, not just the black and white we sometimes get depending on whose perspective you’re told.

This book is also full of magic. It’s not very specific to any witchcraft practiced in modern society but a little bit of everything. Melissa did her research and it showed. The end result was an eerie tale that highlighted the price one pays when they meddle with forces they do not understand.

The pacing was excellent and the time really flies by as you switch from Ivy to Dana and back again. The underlying mystery, the strange events occurring present day and the secrets unfolding were the perfect balance to drive momentum to the climax. The one thing I will add is that I had hoped for more resolution in Ivy and Dana’s relationship. While we get a lot of information about them separately in their individual POVs, there’s not a lot of interaction between them and I feel that could’ve been explored a little more.

If you’ve read any book by Melissa Albert before, you already should know she’s a masterful storyteller, but if you’re new, then you’re in for a treat. Our Crooked Hearts presents a perfect story in the dark with plenty of magic, mayhem and mystery. You should definitely grab this one when it comes out!

Overall Recommendation:

Our Crooked Hearts is a fast-paced tale with a supernatural mystery that may tie to a family’s past. Excellently told in two alternative timelines featuring mother and daughter, I found myself loving both POVs as they blend the perfect story together, each adding pivotal information as we race to solve the present day’s strange occurrences before something terrible happens. Melissa Albert’s latest novel is another showcase of her amazing storytelling. Trust me, it will grip you in its hold until the end.

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.

4 star, YA

ARC Review: This Place is Still Beautiful by XiXi Tian

Two sisters. A shocking racist incident. The summer that will change both of their lives forever. 

Despite having had near-identical upbringings, sisters Annalie and Margaret agree on only one thing: that they have nothing in common. Nineteen-year-old Margaret is driven, ambitious, and keenly aware of social justice issues. She couldn’t wait to leave their oppressive small-town home and take flight in New York. Meanwhile sweet, popular, seventeen-year-old Annalie couldn’t think of anything worse – she loves their town, and feels safe coasting along in its confines.

That is, until she arrives home one day to find a gut-punching racial slur painted on their garage door.

Outraged, Margaret flies home, expecting to find her family up in arms. Instead, she’s amazed to hear they want to forget about it. Their mom is worried about what it might stir up, and Annalie just wants to have a ‘normal’ summer – which Margaret is determined to ruin, apparently.

Back under each other’s skins, things between Margaret and Annalie get steadily worse – and not even the distraction of first love (for Annalie), or lost love (for Margaret) can bring them together.

Until finally, a crushing secret threatens to tear them apart forever.



**This Place is Still Beautiful comes out June 7, 2022**

Thank you Edelweiss and the publisher for this copy in exchange for an honest review.

There’s so much I can say about This Place is Still Beautiful but I’m not sure my rambling will do it justice. This is such a gorgeous story about sisterhood and dealing with racism in different ways as an Asian growing up in America.

Older sister Margaret and Annalie are half Chinese living in a town with very few visible minorities. Near the start of the story, we jump right into the heart of the plot: someone wrote a horrible racist slur on their home. That then brings the question that both sisters have to digest and wrestle with for the rest of the story – what would you do in the aftermath of such a brutal and directed attack from people who could be your neighbors, friends or coworkers?

The girls go about it in two different ways, which I very much appreciate the author taking the time to explore. Annalie wants to forget and move on from the whole incident, and I, as an Asian Canadian, feel that would be a big struggle for me too if this were to happen to me. Obviously one would want to seek justice and retribution for such a wrong done to them. But it’s another thing to be the face in the fight against racism.

And that’s exactly what Margaret does. She fights for what’s been done to their family, moving back home even though she had left town for college. While Annalie feels her sister is victimizing them, Margaret is taking control of a situation that wasn’t their choice to spread awareness and teach others this is NOT acceptable.

Reading this, it makes me reflect a lot too. Which sister would I be more like? I definitely liked Margaret’s side a lot more, especially when both Annalie and their mother wanted to pretend nothing happened and to not pursue more because no one would do anything about it. However, I understood why they would feel that way and it’s not such an easy answer if I were in their shoes.

While this aspect on racism I felt was fleshed out very well, there’s more to this story than just this. It’s really all about the sisterhood and family dynamic. Margaret and Annalie’s relationship is so fraught with tension and the inability to understand one another from their opposing viewpoints and personalities. To add to this dynamic is the typical Asian mother, but one who had to raise her daughters alone when her white husband walked out and left them all many years ago. The racism plot line surely takes up most of the story, but what connects it all is this deep exploration of family in an Asian household.

I also really loved the romance brewing in the background for Margaret and Annalie to kind of give some lighter reprieve around the heavier topics. Rajiv’s relationship with Margaret was my favourite. There was history there in this second chance love trope and I loved how it re-grew and matured in some way through the hardships she was facing.

I wasn’t sure going into this book how I’d feel reading about Asian hate and racism. It felt a little too close to home and personal, especially with the rise of anti-Asian views in the aftermath of the pandemic. But like XiXi mentioned in her author’s note, we may not intend to talk about it yet perhaps it’s exactly what we need to do instead of avoiding the very real problem at hand.

So that’s what I’m doing here. Please go read this book. It’s more than I anticipated and it’s worth reading regardless if you’re Asian or not.

Overall Recommendation:

This Place is Still Beautiful demonstrates how good storytelling can create such powerful messages that stays with readers. In the aftermath of an anti-Asian attack, sisters Annalie and Margaret explore what it means to be victims of racism as Asian women. I loved the honest struggle and reflection of what I’m sure Asians do feel and face unfortunately in today’s society at times. The interweaving of their specific family dynamic made the story all the more compelling as they individually and collectively grapple with the harm one action can leave behind. It’s a must read for sure.