3.5 star, YA

Review: A Taste for Love by Jennifer Yen

For fans of Jenny Han, Jane Austen, and The Great British Baking ShowA Taste for Love, is a delicious rom com about first love, familial expectations, and making the perfect bao.

To her friends, high school senior Liza Yang is nearly perfect. Smart, kind, and pretty, she dreams big and never shies away from a challenge. But to her mom, Liza is anything but. Compared to her older sister Jeannie, Liza is stubborn, rebellious, and worst of all, determined to push back against all of Mrs. Yang’s traditional values, especially when it comes to dating.

The one thing mother and daughter do agree on is their love of baking. Mrs. Yang is the owner of Houston’s popular Yin & Yang Bakery. With college just around the corner, Liza agrees to help out at the bakery’s annual junior competition to prove to her mom that she’s more than her rebellious tendencies once and for all. But when Liza arrives on the first day of the bake-off, she realizes there’s a catch: all of the contestants are young Asian American men her mother has handpicked for Liza to date.

The bachelorette situation Liza has found herself in is made even worse when she happens to be grudgingly attracted to one of the contestants; the stoic, impenetrable, annoyingly hot James Wong. As she battles against her feelings for James, and for her mother’s approval, Liza begins to realize there’s no tried and true recipe for love.

I’ve been diving deep into all the different Asian own-voices YA books this month and A Taste for Love had a lot of promise. Young baker Liza just wanted to do something she liked without all the pressures that come from her tiger mom. Thankfully, her parents own a bakery-restaurant which is hugely successful in their city where Liza can explore her own new recipes, until a new bakery franchise chain opens up nearby.

But besides the food elements (which are a lovely highlight to this novel), there’s the romance department in the form of a rude boy who, of course, is hot but seems to have no manners at all! And he keeps popping up everywhere Liza likes to frequent with her friends. This has been characterized as a Pride & Prejudice inspired romance, but friends, I’m just not feeling it. Sure, James (aka rude boy) has some work to do in his communication department, but the “tension” isn’t wholly unique to the fabulous Jane Austen novel and the romance just didn’t hit me very hard.

I will just stop you right here if you’re all coming here for the romance. It might be enough for some people, but after reading so many fabulous romances in YA fantasy or contemporary, I just have a higher standard for love – or even its smaller cousin, attraction – and I’m not sure this had what I was looking for. It could just be a me thing, so don’t let that deter you completely, but I’ll be honest it didn’t do it for me.

Where I did really enjoy the plot was the baking element. Oh, and the whole Bachelorette thing going on with the baking competition hosted by Liza’s mom. What Liza thought was a regular year for their annual competition turned out to be a nightmare in the making when she finds only male contestants all vying for the private baking sessions with her as one of the prizes. Of course, what makes it more nightmarish is the fact that many of these males were spurred on by their own tiger moms hoping to make a good match.

I will pause here for a sec as well. First, THANK GOD my Asian mother is nothing like this. While I empathize with kids who do have mothers that lean heavily towards this traditional side of “you must date other Asian kids only” and “I want to control so many aspects of your life” mentality, does it kind of hurt sometimes in another way that all these own-voices stories have these kinds of moms? Yes, a little bit. While it is VERY true for a number of first generation immigrant families to North America, I wish it wasn’t the only depiction I’ve been seeing in these YA books because it repeatedly puts out there this image of us. Maybe these were the authors’ experiences and I would never invalidate them, but just to put it out there, it’s not the cases for all of us thankfully and I wouldn’t want this to be the only stereotype received from Asian families.

Back to the baking! I love the competition aspect and the challenges set forth in each stage. I just wish it was more of a focus. This literally took place almost halfway through the novel and I was getting ANTSY wondering when it would start. It delivered in fun, romantic entanglements (so many of these boys were definitely not here for the baking, obviously), and a bit of suspense as we find someone’s been trying to sabotage the competition.

Asian cuisine took centre stage in the competition but also elsewhere in the book. From delicious dishes Liza’s dad made in their restaurant to the numerous times Liza and her friends just hung out at their favourite boba place, I love the seamless integration of common Asian foods that I too enjoy. While the Yang family is Taiwanese, I think there’s a lot of commonality in the family dynamics and some of the food that crosses all Asian cultures, and I loved seeing parts of me and how I see the world in here.

While I didn’t feel the romance between Liza and James as much as I would have liked, this book honoured the food side of the story that I think others can really enjoy, whether this is new to you or feeling like you’re right at home. I’m glad there are more books coming out like a A Taste for Love, and if you take some of the caveats I listed above in mind, it could be a great contemporary to add to your TBR today.

Overall Recommendation:

A Taste for Love delivers a story of Asian food and a side of romance. Having been arranged sneakily by her mother, Liza’s family’s annual baking competition has turned itself into a sort of dating competition for Liza, including a certain rude boy that Liza cannot stop thinking about (or bumping into in the city, apparently). The competition was definitely the highlight, but unfortunately starts about halfway through the book. Meanwhile, the romance develops earlier on but I just did not feel its intensity to be invested in their relationship. Add in the stress of having a tiger mom who would go to such cunning lengths to set up her daughter and I find myself half amused and half annoyed that we have yet again another Asian mom who has such a cultural disconnect with her daughter. But that’s just me being salty. Overall, it’s an enjoyable book, if a little slow at times, but ultimately maybe a little too cookie-cutter to stand out among other contemporaries in YA.

3 star, YA

Review: Made in Korea by Sarah Suk

Frankly in Love meets Shark Tank in this feel-good romantic comedy about two entrepreneurial Korean American teens who butt heads—and maybe fall in love—while running competing Korean beauty businesses at their high school.

There’s nothing Valerie Kwon loves more than making a good sale. Together with her cousin Charlie, they run V&C K-BEAUTY, their school’s most successful student-run enterprise. With each sale, Valerie gets closer to taking her beloved and adventurous halmeoni to her dream city, Paris.

Enter the new kid in class, Wes Jung, who is determined to pursue music after graduation despite his parents’ major disapproval. When his classmates clamor to buy the K-pop branded beauty products his mom gave him to “make new friends,” he sees an opportunity—one that may be the key to help him pay for the music school tuition he knows his parents won’t cover…

What he doesn’t realize, though, is that he is now V&C K-BEAUTY’s biggest competitor.

Stakes are high as Valerie and Wes try to outsell each other, make the most money, and take the throne for the best business in school—all while trying to resist the undeniable spark that’s crackling between them. From hiring spies to all-or-nothing bets, the competition is much more than either of them bargained for.

But one thing is clear: only one Korean business can come out on top.

With more Asian own voices stories coming out in YA lately, I knew Made in Korea had to be on my list to read. While I enjoyed the Korean elements throughout, from k-pop to Korean beauty products and Asian family dynamics, it doesn’t stand out among the other contenders I’ve been reading. What does make it interesting is the business aspect of running student businesses in school.

Valerie and her cousin Charlie have been the top student-run business for the last few years. Having an inside person (Charlie’s dad who lives in Korea) send them shipments of Korean beauty products allows them to sell to students who are craving the latest trend that’s hard to get in North America. I liked this idea a lot, and it’s especially relatable as I personally like Asian beauty products myself. V&C K-BEAUTY was therefore a fun concept to follow along for Valerie.

Enter the competition, Wes. Starting high school in senior year is rough but he unwittingly puts himself in competition with Valerie when he starts selling k-pop merch from a group called Crown Tiger in order to make friends. While I’m not super into k-pop myself, I know many people who are and it’s no joke how far people will go for anything related to the stars they love and admire.

Each of them have their reasons for wanting to sell as much product as possible. Valerie dreams of taking her grandmother,whom she’s very close to, on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Paris before she cannot go due to health reasons. She wants to prove to her tiger mom that she’s capable like her older sister who she’s always being compared to. Talk about Asian weariness when I read this. While it’s true for many friends and their parents I know, it makes me sometimes a little sad that it’s such a thing so many people have to go through in their families.

Wes, on the other hand, wants to save up moneyto attend music school. It’s his dream but his parents just don’t understand. As is the Asian way, they hope he would pursue a professional degree and take courses in science. So he needs to find it himself in order to even apply.

Both have such great reasons for what they need the money for. But poor communication keeps them at odds. A bet to give the other all of their savings from the year only makes it worse. They know they can only get enough money if they also attain the money the other business earned in the year. I couldn’t decide who I thought needed or deserved it more.

Personally I liked Wes more. Valerie put so much of her identity in her business to prove her self worth that she was willing to do things that were frankly shocking and rude. She saw people as customers or non-customers, and while she grows through this ordeal, I just didn’t like her as much as a person even when I sympathized with her situation.

The romance wasn’t as believable as I would have liked it. They weren’t exactly enemies but their poor communication just made things worse a lot of the time. Sure, I believe there’s attraction but I just didn’t root for them as a couple.

The best part of this story really was the resolution and growth that took place when they each confronted their families about the reasons why they wanted to earn the money. I liked that the author didn’t resolve everything into a perfect bow because families are more complicated than that but it gives hope that things can change with time and a bit of open mindedness.

All this is to say that Made in Korea had its unique elements, namely the business selling competition going on between our protagonists, and I loved the Korean references and culture seen throughout (like everyone’s huge love for bingsu!). I just wasn’t too invested in Wes and Valerie’s romantic relationship but I’m so here for everything else.

Overall Recommendation:

Made in Korea was a decent debut featuring Korean culture and influence. With rival Korean beauty student-businesses facing off their senior year, Valerie and Wes each fight for the best sales to achieve their dreams that feel so out of reach. I empathized with them, I wanted to hug them through the ordeals they faced with family, and I wished I had such student businesses in my high school. But as a romantic couple? I couldn’t feel it as deeply as I had hoped between Wes and Valerie but this story still wraps up a lot of wonderful concepts of family, self-worth and the experiences that shape us to still be a worthy book to add to your TBR, especially if you’re looking for more Asian own voices novels. I hope to see more from Sarah Suk one day.

4 star, YA

Review: The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna

Series: Deathless #1

Sixteen-year-old Deka lives in fear and anticipation of the blood ceremony that will determine whether she will become a member of her village. Already different from everyone else because of her unnatural intuition, Deka prays for red blood so she can finally feel like she belongs.

But on the day of the ceremony, her blood runs gold, the color of impurity–and Deka knows she will face a consequence worse than death.

Then a mysterious woman comes to her with a choice: stay in the village and submit to her fate, or leave to fight for the emperor in an army of girls just like her. They are called alaki–near-immortals with rare gifts. And they are the only ones who can stop the empire’s greatest threat.

Knowing the dangers that lie ahead yet yearning for acceptance, Deka decides to leave the only life she’s ever known. But as she journeys to the capital to train for the biggest battle of her life, she will discover that the great walled city holds many surprises. Nothing and no one are quite what they seem to be–not even Deka herself.

This one has been floating around the YA sphere even before it published recently and I can see where all the hype is coming from for it is very well deserved. The Gilded Ones is a female-empowering story that show girls are not only worth more than a subservient role in a patriarchal society, but they are strong and will fight until another day to survive.

Deka was raised in the Northern area of the kingdom although her appearance resembles that of her mother, a Southerner. Already deemed different in this way alone, she’d always wanted to fit in. The Ritual of Purity for every girl come of age would determine if they were pure or impure based on the colour of their blood. Deka was determined to fit in and finally be approved by her village. Of course, nothing goes as planned right?

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