Maya Fleischmann

“I’d hate to live in a world where we tell people what they should and shouldn’t write based on the color of their skin.” R.F. Kuang, the award-winning, bestselling author of Babel and the Poppy War series, fans the discourse on diversity, racism and the “right” to tell certain stories with her novel Yellowface, a thought-provoking first-person narrative of a plagiarist.

June Hayward is a struggling 27-year-old straight white author, and as the novel begins, she’s getting drinks with Athena Liu, her Asian American friend whom she’s known since college, to celebrate yet another of Athena’s huge literary successes. However, when the picture-perfect Athena ends up dead, envious June makes a decision that leads her to stardom—and damnation. June edits her dead friend’s manuscript, a cultural saga set in China, and presents it as her own work under a pseudonym that uses her middle name, Song, as her surname.

Despite a few readers’ protestations of possible cultural appropriation, the book is a huge success, and June Song embraces her soaring status in the publishing world. But the questions around June’s authenticity and ethnicity keep getting louder, as more and more anonymous social media accounts wonder if June has the right to pen a story about Chinese culture. June’s followers revolt, and her star plummets. 

Kuang hooks readers from the first chapter with June’s preoccupation with Athena and the life-altering choice to steal her frenemy’s manuscript. June’s theft makes her an immediate antagonist, and her delusional entitlement makes her a compelling unreliable narrator. But exactly how unreliable is June? Kuang casts a light on this question with her adroit representation of June’s disloyal social media following, which lurches from commendation to castigation, and of a publishing world committed only to financial success. 

“I know what you’re thinking. Thief. Plagiarizer. And perhaps, because all bad things must be racially motivated, Racist. Hear me out. It’s not so awful as it sounds,” June assures the reader. Poignant and provocative, Yellowface is an in-your-face satirical novel with layered commentary on discrimination, social media and creative freedom. Kuang allows for numerous sides of our society’s heated conversations about cultural (mis)appropriation and censorship, and examines how judgment is so often clouded by perception rather than shaped by truths. This is a riveting read for fans of Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu, Year of the Tiger by Alice Wong and George Orwell’s 1984

Poignant and provocative, Yellowface is an in-your-face satirical novel with layered commentary on discrimination, social media and creative freedom.

Canadian Chinese lawyer Ariadne “Ari” Hui feels unappreciated, undermined and misunderstood at work. Despite her dedication and strong work ethic, her hopes to be instrumental in a big case are dashed by a new hire who happens to be white—just like the rest of her co-workers. But her work strife is briefly forgotten when she returns home to find an unfamiliar man sleeping on her sofa. The handsome stranger turns out to be Choi Jihoon, her roommate’s charming cousin who is visiting from Seoul, South Korea. Ari is initially resistant to spending time with him, but Jihoon’s joyful approach to life helps liberate her from her stifling beliefs about work and life. The cool, reserved Ari finds herself melting—until she discovers what Jihoon does for a living.

Lily Chu’s sweet, entertaining The Comeback will have readers rooting for the two very different characters at its heart. Ari is consistently relatable, and her efforts to be a good daughter and fulfill her father’s desire for her to have a successful career are laudable. While the portrayal of the racial politics of Ari’s workplace can be didactic at times, Chu does effectively highlight the variety of cultural misconceptions and insensitivities that plague Ari, such as when people assume that because she is Chinese, she should speak Chinese, or that, at the very least, her parents should have an accent. The mysterious Jihoon is equally intriguing as he skulks around Toronto with Ari before revealing his secret. It’s clear that both lack a firm sense of self, and their individual journeys to understand what they truly want make for a gratifying read. 

The story’s eventual foray into dazzling Seoul adds to the appeal, with Chu credibly portraying the trendy costumes, enigmatic personalities and huge fan bases of K-pop stars. She balances out the dazzle of this world by also showing how its denizens must commit to hourslong rehearsals, give up their autonomy and endure a distinct lack of privacy. 

Filled with tender moments, The Comeback will delight fans of rom-coms like Last Tang Standing and Crazy Rich Asians.

Filled with tender moments, The Comeback will delight fans of rom-coms like Last Tang Standing and Crazy Rich Asians.

Lady Tan’s Circle of Women is an immersive tale about an elite woman who becomes a physician in spite of societal restrictions during China’s Ming Dynasty.

From a young age, Tan Yunxian understands her place in the world as a “proper Confucian woman”: “When a girl, obey your father; when a wife, obey your husband; when a widow, obey your son.” However, after Yunxian goes to live with her grandparents, her grandmother introduces her to hereditary medicine, especially related to women’s illnesses. Yunxian also meets beautiful Meiling, a midwife in training. Meiling becomes Yunxian’s only friend and gives her a glimpse of the world outside the confines of her privileged life. 

Despite Yunxian’s knowledge and desire to learn about medicine, she cannot escape gendered societal expectations. After getting married, her controlling and traditional mother-in-law bans her from helping the women in her new clan. She is also forbidden from seeing Meiling.

Lisa See’s spellbinding historical novel, inspired by Miscellaneous Records of a Female Doctor by the real-life Tan Yunxian, vividly depicts 15th-century China with artfully woven details, rich characters and descriptive language. See captures a world of propriety and cruelty as she ruminates on the disparity between the lives of men and women, and how women—no matter their class—are treated as possessions of the men around them. But through her strong-willed characters, See also emphasizes how women can act as the anchors of society.

Yunxian is immediately likable, with a palpable commitment to persevering amid struggles and taking care of both herself and the circle of women that depend on her. Yunxian describes the world around her—the practice of foot binding, the marriage of girls at a young age and the duties expected of women—with a balanced, objective tone, one befitting a physician who must observe and diagnose. Yunxian’s shrewdness, a reflection of her grandmother’s interpretation of a Chinese aphorism (“Be a hidden dragon. Do not act.”), helps her strike that delicate balance between conforming to a woman’s role and pursuing her personal goals. 

Poetic maxims about life are smoothly incorporated into the narrative, imbuing Lady Tan’s Circle of Women with an element of mysticism, while references to medicinal formulas and theories reflect the cultural beliefs of 15th-century China, many of which are still practiced today. For fans of historical fiction, this is an emotional and illuminating epic.

Lisa See’s spellbinding historical novel, inspired by the true story of a female physician, vividly depicts 15th-century China with artfully woven details, rich characters and descriptive language.

A Love Catastrophe is a delightfully heartfelt rom-com with much ado about cats (and some ado about dogs). 

Newly hired NHL data analyst Miles Thorn has his hands full. His mother is in the hospital, and her cat, Prince Francis, is acting up. Enter the indomitable Kitty Hart, aka the Kitty Whisperer, the optimistic owner of a cat care and training service with a robust social media following. Although Kitty is irked by dog lover Miles’ scornful attitude toward cats, she still finds him quite fetching. And although Miles is a bit bewildered by Kitty’s boundless devotion to and adoration of the felines she works with, he still wishes he hadn’t been so rude when he first met her. As Miles and Kitty attempt to overcome a bad first impression and curb Prince Francis’ destructive behavior, will Kitty’s charms work on Miles as well as the cat?

Author Helena Hunting amusingly sets up the initial division between the sunny Kitty and the overwhelmed and grumpy Miles. He’s not quite in the territory of misanthropes like Fredrik Backman’s Ove; rather, Miles is understandably (and often charmingly) cranky due to his circumstances. Kitty’s sunny and loving disposition, even when she is strict with naughty cats, makes her immediately likable, while Miles’ attempts to be less aggravated by his mother and Prince Francis are endearing.

While there are plentiful cute moments between Miles and Kitty, especially in their disagreements about their preferred species, both are also working through complex family relationships and painful past experiences. Hunting perfectly balances levity and heartwarming sincerity to create a purr-fectly sweet, uplifting and playful romance.

A Love Catastrophe is a purr-fectly sweet romance between a sunny catsitter and a grumpy data analyst.
Feature by

In a great book, building complexity into characters and evoking places both near and far is the job of the author. But in an audiobook, an impeccable performance can make these elements shine, so choosing the right narrator—or narrators—is of the highest importance. The narrators of these four audiobooks imbue their stories with real magic, allowing us to appreciate the commonality of our emotions even across a diversity of experiences.

Hijab Butch Blues

In her memoir in essays, Hijab Butch Blues (7.5 hours), author Lamya H shares her incredible story of growing up a queer person with a devout Muslim faith. Each chapter of the book is titled after a surah of the Quran and explores a key figure in Islamic scripture alongside moments in the author’s own life. Her story begins at 14 years old, when she found kinship in the Quranic story of Maryam, a virgin mother who very well may have been a lesbian. 

Narrator Ashraf Shirazi brings palpable sincerity and youthful energy to sections set in college and after the author’s immigration to the United States. Both author and narrator have used pseudonyms; for Lamya H, the reasons are obviously privacy and safety. The reasons may be similar for Shirazi, or perhaps her anonymity is a nod of respect to the author’s choice—bittersweet as it is, for a memoir about the perseverance to discover your identity.

Lamya H reflects on what was gained and what was lost by writing her debut memoir under a pseudonym.

The Faraway World

Patricia Engel, author of Infinite Country, sets the 10 short stories in her collection, The Faraway World (7 hours), in the not-so-faraway worlds of New York City, Cuba and Colombia. The stories and their multifarious characters are voiced by a cast composed primarily of bilingual Latinx narrators, including the author. Their performances project glimmers of light, irony and warmth into haunting stories that tread into such dark topics as kidnapping, sexual assault and bizarre familial relationships. Due to the nature of some stories, there are scenes that listeners may find disturbing. The grit of these realities will get in your eyes—and ears.

The World and All That It Holds

Bosnian American novelist Aleksandar Hemon’s The World and All That It Holds (11.5 hours) conjures up the personal odyssey of a Jewish man, Rafael Pinto, beginning with the shot that started World War I and led to his relationship with Osman, a Muslim soldier in his unit. The audiobook is performed in epic fashion by Bosnian actor Aleksandar Mikic, whose accents and syntax embody the many people Rafael meets as he journeys from Sarajevo to Shanghai in his quest to escape war and persecution. Quiet, poetic descriptions of his relationship with Osman are particularly striking. When the two men steal kisses from each other, Mikic’s timing and tone bring out the paradoxical balance of bleakness and brightness in life’s little moments.

Read our starred review of the print edition of The World and All That It Holds.

 Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice for Murderers

Chinese Indonesian author Jesse Q. Sutanto (Dial A for Aunties) serves up a sleuthing Chinese mother and her suspects in Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice for Murderers (10.5 hours), a thoroughly charming murder mystery set in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Vera Wong Zhuzhu is struggling to maintain a relationship with her uninvolved son and keep her teahouse afloat. She may be lonely, but she likes to watch the TV show “CSI” and—internet savvy as she is—frequently looks things up on “the Google.” All this comes in handy when she discovers a dead body in her teahouse, along with four murder suspects.

Eunice Wong, a Juilliard-trained Chinese Canadian voice actor, delivers a repertoire of delicious voices to celebrate the patchwork of cultures and personalities in this thoroughly moving, heartwarming story about finding friendship and creating family.

Read our starred review of the print edition of Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice for Murderers.

Four audiobooks reveal how the right narrator can transform an excellent book into an even more absorbing listening experience.

Nishanth Injam’s perceptive and penetrating debut collection, The Best Possible Experience, offers a quietly powerful look at a fundamental human desire—for a sense of home, a place to belong—through an intriguing cast of characters from the Indian diaspora. Of the 11 stories, only two have been previously published: “The Math of Living” in VQR and Best Debut Short Stories 2021, and “Come With Me” in The Georgia Review and Best American Magazine Writing 2022.

In the touching title story, the formidable bus driver Mr. Lourenco does his best to instill optimism in his son despite societal prejudices. Mr. Lourenco’s strategies to provide opportunities for his son are creative, albeit sometimes questionable. In “The Immigrant,” Aditya follows a “simple” plan to earn a master’s degree from an American school and find a good job to pay for a lung transplant for his mother. In restrained yet dramatic fashion, Injam reveals how this strategy gets complicated.

A journey home takes a turn in “The Bus,” in which the story’s unnamed protagonist, a “techie” who works at a Bank of America call center in the bustling Indian city of Bengaluru, procures a ticket on a luxury bus, complete with a toilet and air conditioning. It’s the weekend of Diwali, but the trip to his village is anything but festive, as things soon spiral into a Stephen King-esque nightmare. “Summers of Waiting” is a gentle yet ominous odyssey through memory as Sita races home from the U.S. to see the grandfather who raised her. 

There are affecting observations on Indian and American cultures in “Lunch at Paddy’s,” in which Paddy is thrilled that his 12-year-old son has invited a school friend home for lunch but is consumed with worry about what to serve and how to act around a white boy. And in “The Protocol,” Gautham has paid a Black woman to marry him, and as he nervously prepares for his green card interview, he discovers his increasing affinity for her. 

Injam compares and contrasts his many characters, their situations and experiences—specifically, what constitutes home for them and how they cope. Masterful descriptions convey their heart-rending memories and hard-hitting emotions. An enlightening collection full of cultural and societal insights, The Best Possible Experience is a must for readers who loved Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Samanta Schweblin’s Seven Empty Houses.

The Best Possible Experience is a must for readers who loved Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Samanta Schweblin’s Seven Empty Houses.

There’s a conversational charm to Jamie Loftus’ narration of her book, Raw Dog (9.5 hours), in which she shares the results of her travels around the United States, one hot dog at a time.

The history of the hot dog is rich and filled with surprises, from its European roots as wienerschnitzel to its iconic status at Coney Island and baseball games. Loftus gives advance warning about the book’s discussion of slaughterhouses and how hot dogs are made, but even with such unsavory topics, there’s something terribly irresistible about her narration, which is often incredibly funny. In addition to offering a unique glimpse at the hot dog’s impact on Americana, Loftus provides much food for thought about the people and places that have contributed to its ability to transcend socioeconomic levels, as its appeal ranges from affordable meal to gourmet delicacy. 

This is an ideal listen for those who enjoy the frank food truths of Mark Bittman’s Animal, Vegetable, Junk and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation.

Read our review of the print edition of Raw Dog.

Even when discussing unsavory hot dog-related topics, there’s something irresistible about Jamie Loftus’ narration, which is often incredibly funny.

Narrator Carlotta Brentan performs an engrossing story of marital mind games in the audiobook of Adam Sternbergh’s taut thriller The Eden Test (10.5 hours). Daisy, an actor with questionable intentions, wants to save her marriage, so she surprises her husband, Craig, with a couple’s retreat. But the Eden Test isn’t just a getaway; it’s a marriage therapy program that promises “Seven Days, Seven Questions, Forever Changed.” Brentan solidly captures Craig’s vacillating feelings about Daisy as he heads out to meet her at a remote, idyllic cabin in upstate New York, all the while considering how to make time for his mistress. As secrets surface, Brentan’s narration takes on a certain breathlessness, which helps to sustain the story’s edginess all the way through to its tidy finale.

Read our review of the print edition of The Eden Test.

Carlotta Brentan narrates Adam Sternbergh’s thriller with a certain breathlessness, which helps to sustain the story’s edginess.

Edoardo Ballerini’s magnetic performance draws out the beauty and darkness of places and people in Return to Valetto (9 hours), Dominic Smith’s elegant multigenerational family saga set in the splendor of the Italian countryside.

After a two-year absence from Europe, where he studied Italy’s vanishing villages and towns, writer and historian Hugh Fisher returns to Valetto, Italy, for six months. This time, he’s focusing on family matters: namely visiting his aunts and 99-year-old grandmother and tending to the cottage left to him by his late mother, who died a year earlier. With an impeccable Italian accent, Ballerini portrays the tense dynamics as family members bicker over the cottage. After a squatter claims Fisher’s grandfather left it to her family in exchange for sheltering him during World War II, Ballerini’s adroit narration conveys subtle changes in the family that occur as the ensuing investigations unearth troubling secrets involving Hugh’s mother. The smooth effortlessness of Ballerini’s narration immerses readers in this tumultuous family history set against the backdrop of Valetto’s changing landscape.

Read our starred review of the print edition of Return to Valetto.

The smooth effortlessness of Edoardo Ballerini’s narration immerses readers in this tumultuous family history set against the backdrop of a changing Italian village.

Author, bird enthusiast and advocate Jennifer Ackerman (The Bird Way) reveals intriguing discoveries about owls in What an Owl Knows (9 hours), as well as how and why they are important. Owls have graced international mythology, art and literature. Now science shows how increasing our understanding of these birds impacts human life and even technology. Studies of how owls’ vision and hearing interact can have implications for human medicine, and studies of their feathers can influence the development of stealth aircraft. Ackerman’s fondness for and fascination with owls is clear in her narration, which is filled with softness and enthusiastic admiration as she describes her observations and interactions with the owls she has encountered in her travels. Ornithologists of all levels are sure to delight in Ackerman’s research and reflections in this book.

Read our starred review of the print edition of What an Owl Knows.

Ornithologists of all levels are sure to delight in What an Owl Knows.

“Solitude is tolerable, even enjoyable at times. But when you realise that you’ve given your life to someone, yet you know nothing but his name? That kind of solitude is loneliness. That’s what kills you.”

In An Yu’s ethereal Ghost Music, a woman’s grip on her suffocating life loosens as she is drawn into a surreal world of secrets and ghostly experiences where her deep yearnings can finally resurface and transform her.

Thirty-year-old Song Yan has devoted the past three years to her husband, Bowen. She has also made room in her life for his disgruntled mother, who is recently widowed and now lives with them in their Beijing apartment. Although Song Yan traded her career as a concert pianist to be a dutiful wife, Bowen is more interested in his job as a BMW executive than in having children.

The disquiet between Song Yan and her mother-in-law is temporarily quelled by the mysterious weekly delivery of prized mushrooms, which the women cook together. However, Song Yan becomes increasingly frustrated with and disconnected from Bowen after she learns some information about his past. She turns her attention toward investigating who sent the mushrooms, which leads her down the proverbial rabbit hole to Bai Yu, a famous pianist who vanished a decade earlier. In the process, Song Yan rediscovers an aspect of herself that was also on the verge of disappearing.

Ghost Music, like Yu’s first novel, Braised Pork, is beautifully metaphoric and insightful. Song Yan’s first-person narrative reveals the full richness of her mind and senses, which have been stifled by her fear of shame and the disregard of her husband and mother-in-law. Throughout this haunting social commentary, Yu’s lyrical language and atmospheric descriptions bring out the contrast between Song Yan’s oppressive, superficial reality and the hypnotic world where she converses with fungi. Fans of literary novels with a supernatural edge, such as Jamie Ford’s The Many Daughters of Afong Moy, take note.

In An Yu’s ethereal Ghost Music, a woman’s grip on her suffocating life loosens as she is drawn into a surreal world of unspoken secrets and ghostly experiences.

Actor Constance Wu (known for her lauded roles in “Fresh Off the Boat,” Crazy Rich Asians and Hustlers) narrates her thoughtful and revealing memoir in essays with an endearing blend of passion and playfulness. 

Throughout her career, Wu has learned that life is a series of scenes that shape us; we don’t shape the scenes. She shares memories of people and events that have influenced who she is, including humorous and heartwarming tales of her parents’ assimilation into American culture, humbling mistakes she’s made in love and work, an unexpectedly touching goodbye to her black Toyota Prius and insightful commentary on technology, American culture and Asian diaspora.

Evocative, provocative and always heartfelt, Making a Scene (8 hours) is worthy of an encore. It’s a great match for fans of Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H Mart.

Evocative, provocative and always heartfelt, Constance Wu’s Making a Scene is worthy of an encore.

A sweet and touching portrayal of friendship, heartbreak and healing, The Key to My Heart by Lia Louis is a poignant romance with astute observations about life after loss.

It’s been two years since her husband, Russ, died, and 32-year-old Natalie Fincher is still grieving. She’s lost her passion for the dreamy cottage she lives in, and she’s lost the chance to be part of the musical she wrote. She finds comfort talking to her friend Shauna, a motherly figure who owns a coffee shop at London’s St. Pancras railway station where Natalie has been playing the public piano. Although she is not interested in dating, Natalie placates her best friends, who are desperate to reignite her love life, by approaching handsome, good-natured Tom during a night out and asking him to pretend they’re starting a fling. Tom quickly becomes a friend, and when someone starts leaving Natalie sheet music in the piano bench, he attempts to help her find her anonymous music angel. 

Louis (Eight Perfect Hours) portrays life transitions with tender credibility. She immerses readers in Natalie’s past with well-placed memories of her life with Russ, which are triggered in the present by constant bittersweet reminders, such as their cottage that she still lives in. Natalie is a likable protagonist, trying to balance her grief and self-doubt with the expectations of her friends and family. Some of the repartee between Natalie and her best friends, especially about her sex life, can feel overly sophomorish and superficial, especially given the depth of Natalie’s first-person narration. But it also highlights her friends’ uncertainty and discomfort with addressing Natalie’s loss—and their own eventual growth. 

The Key to My Heart is an enticing and moving portrayal of the heart’s power to heal after the loss of a loved one. 

The Key to My Heart by Lia Louis is a poignant romance with astute observations about life after the loss.

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our newsletter to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Trending Features