Audiobook Review: Tokyo Ever After by Emiko Jean

Title: Tokyo Ever After
Author: Emiko Jean
Narrator:  Ali Ahn
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: May 18, 2021
Print length: 336 pages
Audio length: 9 hours, 33 minutes
Genre: Young adult
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Izumi Tanaka has never really felt like she fit in—it isn’t easy being Japanese American in her small, mostly white, northern California town. Raised by a single mother, it’s always been Izumi—or Izzy, because “It’s easier this way”—and her mom against the world. But then Izzy discovers a clue to her previously unknown father’s identity… and he’s none other than the Crown Prince of Japan. Which means outspoken, irreverent Izzy is literally a princess.

In a whirlwind, Izzy travels to Japan to meet the father she never knew and discover the country she always dreamed of. But being a princess isn’t all ball gowns and tiaras. There are conniving cousins, a hungry press, a scowling but handsome bodyguard who just might be her soulmate, and thousands of years of tradition and customs to learn practically overnight.

Izzy soon finds herself caught between worlds, and between versions of herself—back home, she was never “American” enough, and in Japan, she must prove she’s “Japanese” enough. Will Izumi crumble under the weight of the crown, or will she live out her fairytale, happily ever after? 

If you’re a fan of The Princess Diaries, have I got a book for you!

In Tokyo Ever After, Japanese American high schooler Izumi stumbles across her long-lost father’s true identity — he’s none other than the (George Clooney-esque) Crown Prince of Japan! Raised by her single mother in a predominantly white small town in California, a place where Izzy always felt like something of an outsider, she suddenly finds herself whisked across the ocean to meet her father and be introduced to life as a member of the Japanese Imperial family.

Talk about whiplash.

Izzy’s casual, self-deprecating, none-too-serious approach to life does not help her succeed in Japan. Suddenly, her every move is scrutizined by the imperial-obsessed press. From her unscheduled airport bathroom break to her leggings and sweatshirt to her failure to wave to the crowd, Izumi is picked apart and criticized, literally from the moment she steps foot in her new country.

Nothing is easy. Her clothes, her manners, her gestures — all have to be replaced with behavior and looks befitting a princess. Not to mention the fact that despite being descended from Japanese immigrants to America, she grew up speaking English only, so language lessons are a must as well. And while Izumi’s father is warm and eager to get to know the daughter he never knew he had, certain members of the household are not thrilled by this new arrival, and will do anything to undermine her.

Tokyo Ever After is a delightful listen, with an entertaining mix of modern teen angst, humor, and texting with an entirely new culture and way of life. As Izumi learns more about Japan and life as a royal, so do we. The lessons and introduction to the imperial family are never dull or heavy handed; as Izumi experiences each new fascinating sight and taste and wonder, we readers/listeners get to experience it along with her.

Izumi herself is a wonderful character, not perfect by any means, but full of hope and willing to give this new twist in her life a real chance. She’s flawed (not a very good student, no compelling hobbies, not all that much going on in her life outside of her amazing set of friends — known affectionately as the AGG, the Asian Girl Gang), she’s not intentionally disobedient but has a hard time with the level of compliance required of young princesses, and she’s not entirely okay with putting up with slights for the sake of etiquette.

There’s a love interest, of course — the super attractive young Imperial Guard assigned to head Izumi’s security team. Akio is introduced as stiff and surly, but Izumi soon discovers the sensitive, poetry-loving soul hidden beneath that gruff (and muscled) exterior. A relationship between a princess and a commoner is not okay as far as Japanese tabloids are concerned, and when their budding romance is exposed, the plotline of the book comes to a head as Izumi must decided where she belongs and where her future lies.

The key themes of the book — family, fitting in, understanding identity, finding a way to belong without giving up who you are — are all well developed, but the writing never hits us over the head screaming important message here. Instead, through Izumi’s adventures and challenges, we’re along for the ride as her journey helps her find her own voice and figure out what matters, and how to stay true to herself while also welcoming tradition and family expectations.

The audiobook narration by Ali Ahn is just terrific. First off, it’s so much fun to hear the bits and pieces of Japanese dialogue, as well as Izumi’s attempts to learn the language. Also, the narrator’s voices for Izumi and her friends are really distinctive and well-done, giving each a shot of personality and conveying their humor, even while reading aloud their text exchanges.

Overall, Tokyo Ever After is a treat to read and listen to. The story is fun and upbeat, yet includes emotional connection and thoughtfulness too. Highly recommended.

The sequel to Tokyo Ever AfterTokyo Dreaming — is due out in May 2022, and honestly? It can’t come soon enough. I can’t wait to see what’s next for Izumi!

And finally… can we just take a minute to appreciate the gorgeousness of these covers??? These might be my favorites this year!

Book Review: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and SweetTalk about being late to the party. I’ve been hearing about this book for years (since its publication in 2009, to be more precise), and yet it never quite made it into my hands until this month. Thanks to an upcoming book club discussion, I’ve finally read Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet… and all I can say is, what took me so long?

This sad, sweet, and ultimately hopeful book is about love, friendship, family, and second chances. Centered around a shameful period in US history, Hotel is set at the height of anti-Japanese sentiment during World War II, as communities of Japanese Americans are forced from their homes and into internment camps. In 1942 Seattle, 12-year-old Chinese-American Henry Lee attends an all-white school, wearing the “I Am Chinese” button that his father forces on him to make sure everyone knows that Henry isn’t one of the enemy. Bullied and alone, Henry hates his new school until he meets the lovely, artistic new student, Keiko, daughter of a Japanese-American family. Henry and Keiko become fast friends, but Henry knows he’s breaking his father’s rules every moment he spends in Keiko’s company. When Keiko’s family is forced out in the evacuation of Japantown, Henry is bereft — but with the assistance of his musician friend Sheldon, he finds a way to stay connected with Keiko even in the distant and desolate camp to which she and her family are relocated.

Family is really at the heart of this slim book. Henry’s parents are so determined that he should be an American that he’s forbidden to speak Cantonese in their home — but since neither parent speaks English, the family spends years never really speaking to one another. Family loyalty is tested again and again, as Henry must choose between obedience to his parents — Chinese loyalists who are virulently anti-Japanese — and his need to help Keiko and her family. Keiko too must choose between the possibility of shelter and escape or staying with her parents and brother.

The time period of the books switches between the 1940s and the 1980s, when we see Henry as a recent widower with a cordial but distant relationship with his only child. When a trove of war-era items is found in a boarded-up old hotel in Japantown, Henry’s memories of Keiko are rekindled, and he begins a journey of rediscovery that starts to heal the rift between Henry and his son as well as presenting the possibility of recapturing a long lost love.

Through it all, these well-defined characters struggle for understanding and connection, forced apart by circumstances beyond their control, fighting to do what’s right, even when what’s right isn’t always clear. Loyalty, love, and friendship are all tested in different ways, and the recurring theme of jazz music nicely highlights the characters’ feelings and experiences.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a lovely book about a tragic piece of history. More than just a glimpse of the past, though, Hotel offers a glimpse into the hearts of its characters. Deeply affecting and full of period detail, this is a book that will be in my thoughts for quite some time to come.

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The details:

Title: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
Author: Jamie Ford
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: 2009
Length: 290 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased

Book Review: Garden of Stones by Sophie Littlefield

Book Review: Garden of Stones by Sophie Littlefield

gardenIn December 1941, 14-year-old Lucy Takeda is the cherished daughter of a well-to-do Japanese-American couple living in Los Angeles. Lucy’s father is a successful businessman. Her mother is an enigmatic beauty who turns heads whenever she walks down the street. Lucy lives a happy life with close friends, a good school, and a bright future, until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor spells the end of life as she once knew it.

Before long, Lucy’s father is dead of a heart attack, and she and her mother, as well as all of their friends and neighbors, are forced from their homes as a result of President Roosevelt’s executive order of 1942, which designated the entire Pacific coast as an exclusion zone and forced thousands of Japanese-Americans into internment camps. Lucy and her mother Miyako are sent to Manzanar, the roughly built camp in the Sierra foothills of California, where they are assigned a flimsy wooden barrack in which to live and where their world becomes restricted to one square mile crammed full of their fellow internees.

Compounding the difficulty for Lucy is her mother’s instability. While in today’s world, Miyako might have been treated and medicated, at Manzanar in those times, Miyako was simply viewed as difficult or unlikeable, rather than having her bipolar disorder recognized or accommodated. Miyako’s beauty, however, does not go unnoticed, and she is soon the recipient of unwelcome but unavoidable attention from the powerful men who run the camp. Events soon spiral out of control, and despite their efforts to protect one another, Lucy and Miyako’s time at Manzanar can only end in tragedy for both.

Garden of Stones is a story within a story, framed by events in 1978 in which Lucy’s daughter Patty seeks answers when Lucy’s long-secret past resurfaces unexpectedly. As Patty starts to dig through clues and finally gets her mother to open up, we see the events from the 1940s from Lucy’s perspective, providing an interesting contrast between Lucy’s outlook as a teen and as a middle-aged adult. Lucy’s life has not been easy, and although she has raised Patty to the best of her ability, by keeping her past a secret she has kept her daughter from ever truly knowing who she is and what she’s experienced.

I found myself quite moved by the tragedy of Lucy’s story, in which we witness a life shattered by war and prejudice, a young girl who had everything she cherished ripped away from her, and yet who somehow manages to survive into adulthood and provide a safe and loving home for her child. Garden of Stones presents two very different mother-daughter relationships, and poses some interesting questions: What does it mean for a mother to protect her daughter? Are extreme measures justifiable if taken out of love? Is pain inflicted out of love preferable to pain inflicted through cruelty? How does one survive after enduring loss after loss?

Author Sophie Littlefield explores this shameful chapter from America’s past with an unflinching eye. We see the devastation from Lucy’s perspective, as a child born and raised in the United States, who speaks not a word of Japanese, is suddenly branded as “other”. We witness the terror of the Japanese-American community in the days following Pearl Harbor, as families frantically burn any Japanese goods or relics in their homes so as not to be seen as sympathizers — or worse, as spies or conspirators. We see friends and neighbors close their doors, turn their backs, and otherwise abandon the people they’d lived alongside, as the Japanese-Americans are forced to sell off their belongings for a pittance before being exiled to the internment camps.

But the larger, historical context is not the only source of sorrow and terror in Lucy’s life, and it is her more personal story that truly gives Garden of Stones its emotional richness. Despite the hardships and privations at Manzanar, Lucy seeks out happiness and friendship, but the circumstances of camp life and her mother’s role in Manzanar serve again and again to bring Lucy pain and suffering.

While some of the more dramatic events of the story are fairly well signaled ahead of time, there are several very surprising turns of events that made me go back through the book and reread certain passages with a fresh eye. I found the Manzanar timeline much more compelling than the 1970s storyline, and yet Patty’s exploration of the past served as a very effective means of slowing unearthing the secrets of Lucy’s life and understanding how these secrets continue having an impact even into the next generation.

Sophie Littlefield has crafted a well-written, emotionally intense tale, full of rich detail and with several well-placed, shocking plot twists. Garden of Stones is a moving story of love between mothers and daughters, of the search for meaning despite the cruelties inflicted during a hard life, and of the many different roads toward hope and survival.

Review copy courtesy of Harlequin via Netgalley