YA Reads with Asian Leads!

One should never wait for the chance to read amazing books! Although May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I’ve read many a work by Asian authors throughout the year, for many a year. Here are some of my favorites! 

The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo

What could be worse than being volunteered to work a food truck all summer, missing out on an awesome international trip with their cool mom? Instead of luxury hotels and beaches, it’s sweating over a grill with the most annoying coworker in the world.

Enter Clara Shin. While running a joke prom campaign against a classmate she loves to needle, she goes big for the finale—a "Carrie" inspired prank. Then she gets into a brawl with Rose Carver, said classmate. And together they accidentally cause a fire in the school gym. 

Thus, the parents are called. For Clara, that means her dad Adrian. Her parents are divorced, and her mom is a globe-trotting influencer. Her dad is grounded, devoted to Clara and his food truck—the KoBra, named for his delicious Korean Brazilian fusion food. He proposes the girls learn how to get along by working the truck, with their pay going towards the school’s damages. Horribly, all the adults agree, and now Clara and Rose are stuck with each other. 

Neither Clara or Rose, described by Clara as a “long-lost Obama daughter,” take this gracefully. It’s hall monitor vs class clown energy. But you can only hate the person that’s got your back in a food truck for so long. Turns out, Clara kind of likes working with Rose. And a cute guy from another food truck, Hamlet Wong, makes her think hard work isn’t that bad. 

While her romance with Hamlet is cute, it’s Clara’s relationships with her dad and Rose that really get me. During her summer on the food truck, Clara starts to appreciate the kind of people they are, steady and willing to put their all in something. It makes Clara question the kind of person she wants to be. Someone hard to disappoint because low effort = low investment. Or someone willing to take a risk in letting people close and putting work into things that might not turn out well. 

Between all the realistic characters and truly deliciously described food—I went off to find quality take out right after I finished reading this—"The Way You Make Me Feel" makes you care about Clara. You’ll find yourself thinking about her long after you put the book down.  

Warcross by Marie Lu 

There’s a trope called 20 Minutes into the Future, where the setting isn’t exactly now, but it’s not far off. The future seems close. And the future reflected in Lu’s "Warcross," is startlingly close.  

In this world, Warcross is the most dominant video game. It utilizes advanced VR technology and is so ubiquitous in the culture, tournaments are global events and gambling on the game is common. And gambling is where our protagonist, Emika Chen, comes in. She’s a part-time waiter, bounty hunter, and hacker. 

Drowning under the debt her dead father left her, Emika makes her living on bounties and tips—not the steadiest income. But when the opportunity to snag a rare power-up during a Warcross tournament match appears, Emika exploits a glitch she discovered to get it. But instead of quietly getting away with an expensive item she can sell, she glitches into the match itself—causing an uproar.  

Hacking into Warcross is illegal. So, it’s not surprising that Emika is tracked down by Henka Games, the company that owns Warcross. But they inform her the creator of Warcross, Hideo Tanaka, is interested in speaking to her. Instead of legal action, it’s a flight to Japan ending in a job offer. Hideo isn’t concerned about Emika, because there’s a much bigger security risk threatening Warcross. And he wants Emika to investigate—under the guise of entering her into the tournament as a publicity stunt, one that will give her access to the elite world of high-ranking Warcross players. 

"Warcross" was published in 2017, and Lu had the idea before then. While I don’t usually discuss publication dates during reviews, here it’s interesting to note because of the subject matter. Lu envisioned a near future when gamers could be superstars and gaming tournaments could outshine the Olympics.

Six years later, competitive Fortnite players will compete in the 2023 Championship series for a prize pool of $10,000,000. Not only are international games the norm for elite gamers, but there is also pressure for the Olympics to include esports in its roster. And as an industry, video game revenue dipped slightly in 2022. It still made 184.4 billion. For perspective, the 2022 global box office made about 26 billion.

Lu clearly saw the heights gaming could reach, so it’s fair to think she saw its flaws as well. At its core, this is a story about privacy, security, and freedom. Fast-paced, clever, and exciting, this isn’t a novel to pass up—gamer or not. 

Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay 

We’ve had a slice-of-life coming of age, a near future sci-fi, and now, a book that is heartbreakingly present.  

Jason Reguero is a Filipino American raised in the states. He’s a graduating senior not thrilled about college, or his plan to study video game design. He feels disconnected from his life. Then he gets a jolt in the worst way—his cousin Jun has died.  

Jun and Jay corresponded for years through letters, until Jay let their correspondence lapse. Now, Jun is gone. And Jay’s dad refuses to elaborate on his death. Jay’s mom gives him a little more information, it was a drug overdose—and then the context. In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war still looms large. For anyone suspected of involvement with drugs, in any capacity—their deaths have been sanctioned by the government.  

Jun was so bright and compassionate, and at one point, the closest friend Jay ever had. He refuses to believe Jun died of an overdose. Then he gets an anonymous message online about Jun, confirming his suspicions. The message asks Jay to go to the Philippines, back to the country of his birth.  

With Spring Break around the corner, Jay convinces his parents to let him visit his family abroad. They agree under the condition he not talk about Jun. Jun’s parents don’t want him discussed—they didn’t even hold a funeral for him. Jay promises and knows he plans to find the truth about Jun regardless. That includes confronting Jun’s domineering father, Tito Maning, a police chief in Duterte’s regime. 

"Patron Saints of Nothing" revolves around the mystery of Jun’s death and the person Jun became, but it’s also about Jay’s relationship to his culture and his Filipino relatives. Throughout the book, Jay feels guilty for leaving Jun behind and for not being Filipino enough. He’s also frustrated at the injustices he sees and grieved whenever he thinks about Jun.  

But there are bright moments as well. Jay didn’t go to the Philippines to reconnect, but that’s what ends up happening. While his visit with uncle Tito is awful, his stay with his aunts is heartwarming. His investigation brings him closer to others and to his own culture. And during his stay, he comes to this realization: 

“It strikes me that I cannot claim this country’s serene coves and sun-soaked beaches without also claiming its poverty, its problems, its history. To say that any aspect of it is part of me is to say that all of it is part of me.” 

As a first generation kid myself, Jay’s story hit home. It’s part of the immigrant experience, to know your new home better than the one of your parents and to feel guilty about it. I wanted to tell Jay, knowing the language and the food and your family—sometimes it still doesn’t feel like enough. What matters is that Jay cares and he learns. 

His journey is a beautiful one, even as it reveals messy, painful truths. Ribay weaves together the joys of knowing your culture and your family, as well as the hurt that comes with it. Jun is at the heart of this story, and it’s a mark of skilled writing that Ribay brings clarity to a character who is dead, known only through letters and conversations. 

Much has been written about Duterte’s regime, and Ribay’s contribution is told through Jay. "Patron Saints of Nothing" is not an easy read, but it is a worthwhile one. I whole-heartedly recommend it.