A Review of Skin Deep from Mystery Scene

Grateful to Mystery Scene for a super kind review!

First in a promising new series, Sung J. Woo’s Skin Deep introduces Siobhan O’Brien—a 40-year-old Korean American adopted in infancy by an Irish father and a Nordic mother. For the past two years, the laid-off newspaper reporter has been apprenticing under Ed Baker, a private detective in the upstate New York town of Athena. Now that she finally has her PI license, Siobhan is eager to assume more professional responsibility—but when Ed dies of a heart attack and bequeaths her the agency, she suffers a crisis of confidence. Siobhan strongly considers liquidating the business’s meager assets and starting over, but then her dead best friend’s little sister, Josie Sykes, shows up at the office. Two weeks ago, the dean of Llewellyn—a formerly single-sex liberal arts college in nearby Selene, New York—called to advise Josie that her adopted 18-year-old daughter, Penelope Hae Jun Sykes, was taking a leave of absence. Josie has since been unable to contact Penny, and is deeply concerned for her welfare—especially given that the girl has a serious medical condition. Siobhan agrees to assist, enrolling as a continuing education student at Llewellyn to provide cover. Her investigation reveals a newly coed campus full of furious feminists, a suspiciously robust police presence, and a tight-lipped college president who has ties to a yoga retreat with cult-like roots. A diverse cast replete with vividly sketched characters—the majority of them female—elevate this fun take on the classic PI novel. Siobhan is a snarky, smart, and refreshingly relatable narrator whose burgeoning romance with a widowed lawyer adds to the tale’s emotional complexity without detracting from its central puzzle. Snappy dialogue complements the breezy plot, which, like Siobhan, never takes itself too seriously. Kinsey Millhone fans, this one’s for you.

Katrina Niidas Holm / Mystery Scene (https://www.mysteryscenemag.com/component/content/article/26-reviews/books/6934-skin-deep-2)

Starred Library Journal Review of Skin Deep

Check out the nice review of Skin Deep from Library Journal!

Despite her Asian features, her father really is Irish, her mother Norwegian. Her name is Siobhan O’Brien, never mind everyone’s surprise when trying to gauge the incongruity between her face and that moniker. Short answer: Siobhan is a Korean-born, upstate New York–raised transracial adoptee. At 40, she’s just inherited a private investigation agency since her boss of two years has suddenly dropped dead (of natural causes). The business has enough banked to last three months, or she could sell and net a comfy $20,000-ish. Inexperience aside, she chooses to stay open, and her first case turns out to be a doozy: to reunite her late best friend’s younger sister with her missing teenage daughter, Siobhan will need to infiltrate a radical womyn’s group at a nearby college, agree to trespassing, check into a yoga center, get poisoned by mushrooms, avoid a multinational billionaire’s posse, and, in between, maybe even risk falling in love.

VERDICT: With just the right mix of clever twists, endearing charm, looming threats, and contemporary issues (identity, privilege, cultural appropriation, the ugliest parts of the beauty trade), literary novelist Woo (Love Love) debuts quite the absorbing new mystery series, hopefully with multiple volumes to come.

Reviewed by Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon, Washington, DC , Jun 12, 2020

Library Journal – https://www.libraryjournal.com/?reviewDetail=skin-deep

Kirkus Review of Skin Deep

The second review is in, and it’s also good!

Woo strikes out in a wholly new direction with this soft-boiled debut mystery about a private eye’s search for a frenemy’s missing daughter.

On the day she’s celebrating her second anniversary with the Ed Baker Investigative Agency, Korean American adoptee Siobhan O’Brien, nee Kim Shee-Bong, finds her boss unexpectedly dead, leaving her the sole proprietor of a business worth maybe $20,000 on a good day. Will Siobhan, an ex-reporter of 40, shut the place down? Not if pushy Josie Sykes, the younger sister of Siobhan’s late friend Marlene, has anything to say about it. Josie’s daughter, Penelope Hae Jun Sykes, who, like Siobhan, was adopted, has vanished from Llewellyn College, where she was a first-year student. The members of the Womyn of Llewellyn, who took her in and maybe did a number on her, insist that she’s fled the emotional abuse of her overbearing mother and that they don’t have to answer to her. Siobhan, who interviewed Llewellyn president Vera Wheeler shortly after her appointment, finds that an awful lot has changed on campus in the five years since. Wheeler seems determined to admit no one but beauty queens and make over the college into a temple of state-of-the-art cosmetology. Her plans have put her at odds with the Krishna Center in nearby Hawthorne, New York, where Penny’s allegedly hunkered down—or maybe, as Siobhan gradually learns when she goes undercover at Llewellyn and Krishna as a reporter, they haven’t after all. Woo’s vision of the Stepford College is logistically shaky but metaphorically resonant.

The prize is a heroine who’s by turns wide-eyed, gravely amused, susceptible, and plenty cool enough for an encore.

Kirkus Reviews – https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/sung-j-woo/skin-deep-woo/

Less, by Andrew Sean Greer

I did not know who Andrew Sean Greer was until I heard he’d won this year’s Pulitzer prize for fiction, and I continued to not know him and his sixth novel Less until I heard him read an excerpt in the New Yorker Radio Hour.  That was it; I was sold.  That short story was about Arthur Less, a nonfamous writer invited to Turin, Italy, by a minor literary prize, and it ran from one hilarious moment to the next.  Greer is one of these incredibly blessed people who just write funny.  Like how he describes the airplane lunch: “Tuscan chicken (whose ravishing name reveals itself, like an internet lover, to be mere chicken and mashed potatoes)”.

There are two things about Less that bear mentioning on a craft level (because they are absolutely crafty in the best sense of the word):

1) Greer sprinkles flashbacks judiciously throughout this novel, and he’s quite deft in the way he sneaks them in.  Example: in the last chapter, there’s this part: “…he sees a few people waiting on the dock, and among them — he recognizes her through her clear umbrella — is his mother.”  It’s not his mother, of course; rather, it’s a woman who is wearing a very similar scarf.  But this moment of misrecognition gives the reader the perfect way into this memory.

2) This novel is narrated by an unnamed character, one who acts in an omniscient manner about 95% of the time, but then there are these startling confessional first-person moments.  It’s so smart — Greer gets to have his cake and eat it, too, because he has the flexibility to play god and go wherever he wants, whenever he wants, and yet he also preserves the closeness of the first-person narrator when he wants to deliver an extra helping of heart.

This is just a wonderful novel, gentle and loving and funny and sad.  Unlike many literary novels, things actually happen in this book, lots of things, tons of things.  It is, after all, a travelogue of sorts, with Less jumping from country to country, continent to continent, to avoid his former lover’s wedding and his impending 50th birthday, so there’s serious propulsion in the narrative.

The writer Greer reminded me most was another favorite of mine, Brian Morton.  Fans of Starting Out in the Evening or A Window Across the River will find a great friend in Less.  I can’t wait to read the rest of Greer’s fiction.

Something Good in Goodreads

I came across a review of Love Love in Goodreads…and it’s very kind and thoughtful.  The writer is a guy named Larry who not only read my novel but was inspired enough to write something about it.  He’s got a blog and has reviewed many other books and movies (his review of Inside Out is so closely aligned with my own view that I almost feel like I wrote it!), so check it out.

Larry’s review in Goodreads | Blog

sou

Review of Love Love in KoreAm Journal, My First Piece for KoreAm, and a Major Bummer

The lovely folks at KoreAm Journal have reviewed Love Love, and it’s an incisive piece.  Thank you, KoreAm.

Below is the first essay I ever wrote for KoreAm Journal, dating all the way back to March 2008.  On the cover were Harold and Kumar, John Cho and Kal Penn, from their second movie.

I’m not mentioning this just for nostalgia’s sake — it’s because I just heard from the editor-in-chief that the magazine and the website has changed owners and is now facing an uncertain future.  As of now, August/September 2015 is the final issue.  I sure hope this is not the case — that they will find a way to keep going, but we all know how tough it is to run a magazine nowadays.  I wish the editors and writers the best of luck.  I’d like to especially thank Suevon Lee and Julie Ha, who polished my prose and shepherded my columns every step of the way.

The Virgins, by Pamela Erens

virgins

The Virgins, by Pamela Erens

I’m on a roll here, folks.  A week ago, I finished reading Wendy Lee’s Across a Green Ocean, the first published novel I read this year.  And now here I am, merely a week later, with another notch on my belt.  I’m almost two years too late, as Pamela Erens‘s The Virgins came out August 2013, but I’ll say it again: better late than never.  (I think that might be the phrase that goes on my tombstone.)

Firstly, let me say I know Pamela personally to a very slight degree; we have friends in common so we’ve met during family-related/neighborly celebrations.  And I was at one of her book parties when The Virgins came out.  “I can’t wait to read it!” I’m fairly certain I said (lied).  I’m sorry, Pamela — I’m just really, really slow.

Have I apologized enough?  Probably not.  But it’s time to move on.  It’s time to read this book, everyone.  This very sexy book, and I’m not just throwing that word around.  This novel is seriously, incredibly sexy.  Like you’ll blush as you read it.  I know I did, several times, and I don’t blush easily.  If you are squeamish about reading about people having sex, teenagers in particular, what the hell is wrong with you?  Sorry.  I meant to write, “then this book isn’t for you.”  (But seriously, what is wrong with you?)

A side (though I feel like this post has been just one big side so far): for those people who read trashy romance novels or whatever the hell it is that E.L. James writes (from the bits I’ve glanced, I wish I hadn’t), you should give The Virgins a shot, because then you wouldn’t feel so guilty about reading terribly written novels about sex.  Pamela composes gorgeous, sustained sentences that I guarantee will get you hot under the collar.  Her sentences will also make you feel.  Sometimes they’ll make you sad.  Sometimes they’ll make you laugh.  But you will very much feel (even against your will, sometimes) the tortured, elated, breathless, dangerous lives of these students at Auburn Academy, a boarding school that made me glad my parents were poor and could not have sent me to such an institution.

The Virgins is also a very well-crafted book with wholly unexpected twists and turns, but the best kind that make terrible tragic sense when all’s said and done.  It’s a fast read, and full of literary flair.  Just the very POV that Pamela chose is kind of remarkable (neither of the leads but an insider-wannabe outsider who voyeuristically and imaginatively narrates the novel).  If you enjoy The Virgins, then I’d very much recommend her first novel, The Understory, which also features a male narrator with some serious problems, one of which is unrequited love, a theme that I now declare has emerged in the Erens oeuvre (I feel very grown up now, having used that fancypants word).  I’ve read that one, too, and like The Virgins, it is equally devastating and disturbing.

By the way, something else that was kinda-sorta disturbing — the lead male in this novel is a Korean-American kid named Seung.  That’s just one letter away from my own name!  And I’m Korean, too!  Though in this novel, his pronunciation is different (“the past tense to sing“), so no worries, totally different guy.  I’ve actually told people something similar when they ask how I say my name — “the past participle of the verb to sing.”  (I’ve since learned that some people don’t know the past participle tense, so I’ve retired this phrase…)

One last thing — James Salter is an author often mentioned in reference to The Virgins.  I presume Pamela also honors him by naming one of Auburn’s teachers Mr. Salter.  In case you haven’t heard, Salter passed away on June 19.  Here’s a beautiful obituary in Grantland by one of my favorite writers.

Pamela Erens
The Virgins

288pp
August 2013/Tin House Books

Across a Green Ocean, by Wendy Lee

Across a Green Ocean, by Wendy Lee

Across a Green Ocean, by Wendy Lee

As shameful as this is to admit, Wendy Lee’s Across a Green Ocean is the first published novel I’ve read this year.  Yes, it is almost the end June.  Yes, I am supposedly a writer of fiction.  So half of the year has come and gone and I’ve read a total of ONE book!

Well, better one than none, right?  At least that’s what I’m telling myself.  And I’m so glad the one book I have read is Wendy’s.  Wendy and I are NYU MFA compatriots, though I never actually knew her while she was attending the program.  But we’ve become friends since, and I’m happy to let readers know there’s a fine novel waiting for them.

Susan Choi wrote in her blurb for Across a Green Ocean that “the past is always present, and the present is never quite what it seems,” and this is really quite the apt descriptor for this novel.  The primary power of Across a Green Ocean is derived from remembrance, as the three main characters, mother (Ling), daughter (Emily), and son (Michael), delve deeply into their past through flashbacks to come to decisions and realizations about their intertwining lives after the passing of Han, the patriarch of the family.  The novel spans both time (decades in memory) and space (USA and China), and Wendy does a marvelous job of keeping this complicated narrative machine running smoothly.  There’s a lot of moving parts here plotwise, and varying POV techniques, too, as the Michael section is written in the present tense while the Ling and Emily sections are in the more traditional past tense.

I think this was a very ingenious move by Wendy, to put Michael’s sections in the present, because he is the one who has to carry the toughest load.  He spends the bulk of the novel in a remote part of China, so we as readers have the most difficult time being in his shoes.  By employing the present tense, we feel so much closer to the action.  Everything Michael is encountering is happening now, and the immediacy is very much felt.  Bravo!

I’m not going to spend much time discussing the plot, as a quick click to Amazon will give you all you need (and will also give you the great opportunity to buy the book!).  One thing I found very funny is that Across a Green Ocean and my forthcoming novel, Love Love, share some odd plot similarities:

  • a family story starring brother and sister
  • the brother goes somewhere else to find himself
  • a letter from the past is the driving factor for this search

Weird, right?  Not quite Twilight-Zone level weirdness, but weird nonetheless.  Oh, and these are both our second novels.  Must be something in the water.

Wendy Lee
Across a Green Ocean
288pp
February 2015/Kensington

J. Robert Lennon’s See You in Paradise

Ilogo don’t write book reviews often — in fact, I’m lucky to write one a year.  But there’s one author I’ve reviewed more than once, and that is J. Robert Lennon.  If you haven’t checked out his latest, please do.  You’ll be thoroughly entertained.

From the always wonderful Fiction Writers Review.

See-You-in-Paradise-feature-image

 

See You in Paradise: Stories, by J. Robert Lennon

“Lennon not only balances the mundane with the fantastic, but makes the fantastic feel mundane in the context of this world”: Sung J. Woo on Robert J. Lennon’s new collection, See You in Paradise.

Maybe it’s strange for a reviewer of a collection of short stories to say that he is not a fan of short story collections, but I want you to know where I’m coming from. Don’t get me wrong—I love short stories. I love their intense focus, their fleeting brevity, an entire world contained and expressed in a few thousand words. What I don’t like is reading one after another by the same author, because I get tired of hearing the same voice over and over again. Also, reading another short story after having just finished one can feel like climbing a new mountain, because I have to get acquainted with another set of characters, and the setting is different, and so is the situation, and I miss those people from before…can’t they just come back and give me a break, please?

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