Review: All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung

Title: All You Can Ever Know
Author: Nicole Chung
Rating: ★★★★
Summary: After being born severely premature, Nicole Chung was placed up for adoption by her birth parents and raised by a white family in a sheltered Oregon town, her adoption a comforting story of familial sacrifice and God’s will. But as she grew up—facing prejudice her adoptive family couldn’t see, finding her identity as an Asian American and as a writer, becoming ever more curious about where she came from—Chung wondered if the comforting adoption story she’d been told all her life was the whole truth. With warmth, candor, and startling insight, All You Can Ever Know is a profound, moving chronicle of surprising connections and the repercussions of unearthing painful family secrets.


When I was young, my family’s view of adoption as identity trump card—more powerful than blood, or appearance, or the bigotry I encountered—made it nearly impossible to imagine, let alone talk about, a future reunion with my birth family. I always understood that my parents didn’t want me to search. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say I understood that they didn’t want me to want to search. I was enough for them, and they wanted to be enough for me.

All You Can Ever Know is one of those books you see and think “why?” Why does this person think that their story is worth telling? And why should I care? Nicole Chung was not a name with which I was familiar before reading her debut memoir, but I’m happy to have stumbled onto her work. Her book is a beautifully written exploration of life as a Korean-American adoptee; as an only-child discovering her past, a young woman her future, and a soon-to-be mother her place.

Chung splits the book into four loose parts—childhood, pregnancy, post-partum, and after—but each weaves around and through the others, connecting in multiple spots and inching the story back toward itself. What Chung learns about her birth family answers as many questions as it poses, the information confirming and validating her adolescent self-doubt as much as it creates more “what ifs?” over which she obsesses.

Chung cannot speak to everyone who’s ever been adopted (nor should she), but her doubts and fears and emotional yearning are universal. Who hasn’t felt out of place among their peers? Hasn’t wished for a different family or a different life? There are no easy answers in this book, but I enjoyed the malleability of it all, the idea that even Chung herself didn’t write this to really solve anything. She may have started on a journey to find her birth parents, but that’s not where the book stops. All You Can Ever Know is a meditation on identity, on family, and on self. It’s powerful, vulnerable, and sad, but also funny and warm, too.

In the very last line of the book, Chung says, “Let’s start at the beginning.” Although it’s meant literally, I know the meaning is two-fold. Because endings always lead to other beginnings, and each new beginning always makes its way to an eventual end.

Review: Fake It Till You Break It by Jenn P. Nguyen

Title: Fake It Till You Break It
Author: Jenn P. Nguyen
Rating: ★
Summary: Mia and Jake have known each other their whole lives, and their mothers are convinced that they’d be the perfect couple—if only they could stand to be in the same room. After yet another attempt to push them together, Jake and Mia decide they’ve had enough, hatching a plan to get their moms off their backs—permanently. All they have to do is pretend to date and then stage the worst breakup of all time. The only problem? Maybe they don’t hate each other as much as they once thought...


Note: an eARC of this title was acquired via NetGalley.

So, here’s the thing: I didn’t enjoy Fake It Till You Break It. Like, at all. Since signing up for the Year of the Asian reading challenge, finding books written by Asian or Asian-American authors is always at the back of my mind. To see that there was a young adult contemporary romance featuring a Korean-American main character and written by (to the best of my knowledge) an Asian-American author seemed like a double-score. That bright pink cover? Gimme. Fake dating? Absolutely.

Unfortunately, Jenn P. Nguyen’s story was just very meh the whole way through. It wasn’t so much poorly written as juvenile and in need of some solid editing. I found myself rolling my eyes through most of the book, wishing for substance amid the paper-thin character-building and barely-there plot. On top of the “twelve-year-old’s idea of what it must be like to be a high-school junior and in love” vibe, the story felt very much like a connect-the-dots attempt to include as many tropes and caricatures as possible.

I should have probably DNF’d once I realized that I didn’t care at all about either Jake or Mia, the book’s main characters, or buy into their reasons for fake dating. I should have definitely DNF’d when I realized their chemistry was lacking that certain je ne sais quoi every romance needs. Nguyen was never successful in selling Mia and Jake as “enemies,” Mia’s crush on a fellow drama-geek was clearly there to add unnecessary romantic strife, and Jake’s “fued” (hated? apathy?) toward his brother didn’t fit well, either. On top of it all, Jake and Mia’s mothers were pushy as hell, and their behavior toward their children was borderline problematic; for them to literally say—after the two plus hours I spent reading—”Get together. Don’t get together. To be honest, we don’t really care anymore” just made me want to throw my iPad in frustration.

I’m happy that other readers enjoyed Fake It Till You Break It, but to me, the book was a complete dud. I probably should have just read To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.

Review: Internment by Samira Ahmed

Title: Internment
Author: Samira Ahmed
Rating: ★★★★
Summary: Set in a horrifying near-future United States, seventeen-year-old Layla Amin and her parents are forced into an internment camp for Muslim American citizens. With the help of newly made friends, her boyfriend on the outside, and an unexpected alliance within, Layla begins a journey to fight for freedom, leading a revolution against the camp’s Director and his guards. Heart-racing and emotional, Internment challenges readers to fight complicit silence that exists in our society today.


When fascism comes to America, it will come draped in the flag. You don’t need to be a student of history to see how nationalism, disguised as patriotism, can take hold of a country, justifying terrible and cruel acts. You only need to turn on the news.

I don’t know that I really enjoyed Internment—more that I experienced it. On one hand, the plot feels like true dystopic fiction, a horrendous what if? spiraling out of a real-world event. But on the other, it reads like an inevitability, the disastrous result of one too many bad choices, the culmination of a timeline from which we can no longer turn back.

We’re introduced to main character Layla after a Muslim registry and Exclusion Laws have already taken effect, but the action quickly accelerates as her family is forcibly removed from their home, tattooed with an ID number, and transported to a “rehabilitation” camp across the desert. The allusions to Japanese internment are frank and unsettling, Samira Ahmed forcing her readers to truly look at all the horrible shit America has done to its citizens in the name of nationalism. It should come as no surprise, then, that Internment was very hard to read, but it is important that I did, and that you do, too. “What’s that thing people always say about history?” Layla asks. “Unless we know our history, we’re doomed to repeat it? Never forget? Isn’t that the lesson? But we always forget,” she reminds us. “Forgetting is in the American grain.”

One of the first things that Layla mentions is how her life is broken up into “Then and Now,” but most of the Thens—the election, the Nazi march on DC, and the Muslim ban—mirror real-world events, so what’s to say that my reaction to those wouldn’t also mirror my reactions to the other Thens—the registry, book burnings, and Exclusion Laws— that ultimately led to Layla’s internment? One of the reasons why this book was so difficult to read was because Ahmed held up a mirror and made me look at myself, forced me to question how I would react to similar circumstances. I kept asking, would I be able to endure like Layla? Protest like her? Resist?

The short answer? No, I don’t think so.

Layla shows extreme fortitude in Internment, and I don’t know that I could do it as well as her, or even at all. About halfway through the book, Layla’s dad tells her, “don’t attract attention. Fade into the crowd. Stay as anonymous as possible. That’s how we’ll survive.” But Layla doesn’t want survival—she wants life. In acknowledging that “there’s no limit to the horrible things we do to one another,” she still understands that “human beings are capable of so many wondrous things.” It’s that hope, that ability to see beauty in the most brutal circumstances, that I admire most of all.

In her author’s note, Ahmed mentions, “I feel a lot of anger. But I believe in hope. I believe that the things that are wrong with America can be fixed by Americans. I believe that being good is what can make us great.” Reading Internment made me feel a lot of anger, but it also gave me hope. What more could I ask of a novel?

Review: Woman World by Aminder Dhaliwal

Title: Woman World
Author: Aminder Dhaliwal
Rating: ★★★★
Summary: When a birth defect wipes out the planet’s entire population of men, Woman World rises out of society’s ashes. This infectiously funny comic follows the rebuilding process, tracking a group of women who have rallied together under the flag of “Beyonce’s Thighs.” Only Grandma remembers the distant past, a civilization of segway-riding mall cops, Blockbuster movie rental shops, and “That’s What She Said” jokes. Incorporating feminist philosophical concerns into a series of perfectly-paced strips, Woman World skewers perceived notions of femininity and contemporary cultural icons into a meditation on unrequited love, anxiety, and that whole “survival of humanity” thing.


Woman World is a highly original tale of what happens after global catastrophe, wherein biological men don’t survive (for…reasons) and women band together and create the most utopic, inclusive post-apocalyptic vision I have ever read. (Aminder Dhaliwal makes it very clear that all genders, sizes, races, and abilities are welcome, both in Woman World the society and Woman World the book. One of the main characters has a leg prosthetic! Another has double-mastectomy scarring! There are trans individuals! A monochromatic rainbow of skin colors! Fat ladies! Thin ladies! Pubic hair!)

Although I sped through the book—and laughed out loud at jokes that only a critique on gender norms can bring to the surface—I still wanted more. I went into Woman World thinking it was going to be a narrative graphic novel, but it’s more of a vaguely linear collection of panels that very slowly move the story forward. (If I had known Dhaliwal originally posted this on Instagram, would that notion have changed?) Some of the panels more fully flesh out the broader world while others are individual character studies, but most of the book consists of humorous asides that serve to poke fun at the patriarchy with which readers (and Grandma) will most identify. (Like how bad-ass women are with respect to their own pain or a book-spanning joke on Paul Blart Mall Cop.)

Woman World is a very short read and, although almost every installment can stand on its own, the collection as a whole is just so darn cute and wonderfully refreshing that you’d be remiss to pass it over. 

Year of the Asian Reading Challenge: Sign-Up Post

I am so very excited to officially sign up for the Year of the Asian Reading Challenge, hosted by CW at The Quiet Pond (who also made all of the lovely graphics), Lily at Sprinkles of Dreams, Shealea at Shut up Shealea, and Vicky at Vicky Who Reads!

This year, I’m aiming for the Philippine tarsier level (1-10 books) because I am a molasses-slow reader.

I’ll be updating a challenge page throughout the year with my progress as well as tagging any appropriate reviews.

Happy reading, y’all!

Review: Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen

Title: Here and Now and Then
Author: Mike Chen
Rating: ★½
Summary: Kin Stewart is an everyday family man trying to keep the spark in his marriage and struggling to connect with his teenage daughter. But his current life is a far cry from his previous career as a time-traveling secret agent. Stranded in suburban San Francisco since the 1990s, Kin has kept his past hidden until the afternoon his “rescue” team arrives—eighteen years too late. Their mission is to return Kin to his proper timeline in 2142: where he’s only been gone weeks, not years, and a family he can’t remember is waiting for him. Torn between two lives, Kin is desperate for a way to stay connected to both. But when his best efforts threaten his daughter’s very existence, it’ll take one final trip across time to save her—even if it means breaking all the rules of time travel in the process.


Note: an eARC of this title was acquired via NetGalley & Edelweiss+.

I’ve been sitting on this review for a week or so, but I cannot figure out what to write. Like, Here and Now and Then was a book? And I read it?? Time travel stories are some of my absolute favorites to experience, but after I finished this one, I realized that there were a lot of things that happened but nothing that really grabbed me or made me feel truly invested in the narrative. Everyone feels like silhouettes of themselves, reduced to fictional stereotypes in a paint-by-numbers sci-fi romp.

I can tell that Mike Chen spent a lot of time thinking about the story—especially how time travel would work—but the prologue introducing Kin was too brief for me to really empathize with him getting stranded in 1996. And then the next time we meet him, in 2014, feels like another blip on the way to the real story: Kin being forced to return to 2142 and subsequently trying to figure out a way “back to his daughter”. (I won’t write how he accomplishes this, but I literally said out loud “Oh, that’s not what I thought would happen but okay sure” after reading it.) But once he’s back in his proper timeline, Kin is able to “process both eras clearly and cleanly,” the huge barrier providing tension to the previous chapters magically removed. Kin also talks a big game of having to choose between Heather, his wife in 2014, and Penny, his fiancee in 2142—but he never has to, not really. The choice ultimately becomes Penny or his daughter, but he doesn’t have to choose between them, either, getting to have both with little conflict. Everything just kind of… works out.

It’s not that Here and Now and Then wasn’t good, it’s that it wasn’t for me (even though I really wanted it to be). Chen’s characters are stilted outlines without much filler, the plot moves forward but doesn’t feel like it goes anywhere, and every scene is so full of extraneous stuff that you don’t notice how ultimately bland and empty the book is until you finish. With too much focus on the how instead of the why, the story, unfortunately, becomes forgettable, one of those books you’ll close with a “hmm” and then never open again.