From Little Tokyo, With Love – Book Review

Celebrated author Sarah Kuhn reinvents the modern fairy tale in From Little Tokyo, with Love, an intensely personal yet hilarious novel of a girl whose search for a storybook ending takes her to unexpected places in both her beloved LA neighborhood and her own guarded heart.

Here’s the summary…

If Rika’s life seems like the beginning of a familiar fairy tale–being an orphan with two bossy cousins and working away in her aunts’ business–she would be the first to reject that foolish notion. After all, she loves her family (even if her cousins were named after Disney characters), and with her biracial background, amazing judo skills and red-hot temper, she doesn’t quite fit the princess mold.

All that changes the instant she locks eyes with Grace Kimura, America’s reigning rom-com sweetheart, during the Nikkei Week Festival. From there, Rika embarks on a madcap adventure of hope and happiness–searching for clues about her long-lost mother, exploring Little Tokyo’s hidden treasures with a cute actor, and maybe…finally finding a sense of belonging.

But fairy tales are fiction and the real world isn’t so kind. Rika knows she’s setting herself up for disappointment, because happy endings don’t happen to girls like her. Should she walk away before she gets in even deeper, or let herself be swept away?

As readers we’re looking for truth, and this authenticity, which is vital in fiction today, makes Sarah Kuhn’s voice as strong and relevant as any other. So, I’m happy to say Sarah’s back with the lighthearted but pertinent From Little Tokyo, with Love, an #ownvoices fictionalized story infused with a fairy-tale flavor that hits all the right notes and doesn’t miss a beat.

To say this book’s primary theme is self-discovery seems a little too on the nose, but it happens to be true, and even says as much in the promotional language. But self-discovery is a destination, and if you subscribe to that then From Little Tokyo, with Love is first and foremost a journey book.

Adopted and raised by her aunts after her mother goes missing, Rika is a half-white Japanese American living in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles. Being part of a tight-knit community that has had to historically rally behind each other in face of a racist white America, you’d think they’d be more kind to their own. That’s not necessarily the case here as being a “half breed” earns Rika dirty looks and snide comments from the full-bred Japanese community, a community that, once again, you’d think would embrace her out of self-preservation. But if anything is true it’s that no community is a monolith and Sarah, never one to shy away from difficult topics, infuses From Little Tokyo, with Love not only with inter-community bigotry, but homophobia, classism, abandonment, and much more.

For Rika’s part, she’s never once considered herself an outsider. Different? Sure. But existing outside the community she knows inside and out? Never. We know that racism is never clear and is always blind, otherwise the locals would see Rika’s love of Judo and obsession with the nure-onna, two very Japanese things, as honoring her culture, one that she deeply loves and respects. She even works at the family-owned Japanese restaurant for god’s sake, the Katsu That (great name by the way). To them however, Rika is different and will always be different no matter how she acts, dresses, or where she works. As the book goes on, we realize other forms of discrimination are in play, but we’ll keep a lid on that for the purposes of this review.

You want your main characters to be three dimensional and Rika is most definitely that, and minus that nagging feeling about Grace Kimura, she is confident-ish and mostly self-assured. And there’s a lot to her that I’m sure many readers will find relatable, whether it’s her temper, being bi-racial, abandonment, etc. I found her to be a fully formed character right out of the gate, minus a mother of course, and whether a happy ending is in the cards or not, you’ll want it just as badly as she does.

With its fairy-tale aesthetic, the word “love” in the title, and a not so furtive front cover, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that romance is definitely on the menu. In this case, the normally steady and deep-seated Rika gets weak in the knees for Filipino/Chinese actor Hank Chen and his immaculate beautifulness. A clumsy encounter gets the ball rolling for these two but as the journey unfolds, they find that they have much more in common than just physical attributes. Usually, a speedy romance is something I don’t enjoy but, in this case, since it’s really a B-plot, it’s more than practical to get Rika and Henry off the starting blocks and on their adventurous way. Besides, forming a bond, an attachment through pursuit, is a great way to provide a foundation for a long-lasting relationship. You want it so that regardless of the outcome, these two have found a connection that goes beyond induvial pursuits. Does Sarah make it so? I won’t say.

Kuhn rounds out the cast well, from forces of nature Aunt Suzy and Auntie Och, princess cousins Belle and Rory, to the underused Judo buddy Eliza, the book is filled with fun characters who for the most part are given opportunities to show their stuff. But the award for best supporting actor definitely goes the Little Tokyo, and the city of Los Angeles. Throughout the book you’re going to hear a lot about the city itself as Sarah uses her home court advantage, waving the homer flag high and mighty as Rika, Henry, and the rest make their way around the city’s many locales.

Sarah’s fondness of her hometown mixed with her gift of storytelling, are perfectly suited for fairy-tale motif this book promotes. She’s able to take a contemporary story in a real-world setting and make it feel magical, make it feel like an ethereal land full of awe and wonder, a place where dreams come true. But most, if not all fairy tales have villains and From Little Tokyo, with Love is no exception. The less I say here the better, but antagonism can take many forms and Sarah uses this concept to create opposition to Rika’s pursuits and wanton desires of happiness quite effectively.

So, what’s the bottom line here?

Sarah always finds that sweet spot between blithe and thoughtful, infusing her writing with the four steps of problem solving, the first being recognizing that there is one, all while telling amiable stories. She doesn’t grandstand however or make known a political agenda with regards to some of the issues raised in the book, other than pointing out that they exist. For example, it’s not Sarah’s job to fix racism, that’s on the racists, she’s just here to creatively and fastidiously call them out on it.

She’s a modern storyteller with a tremendous eye for detail and a wonderful sense of the world around her. She’s genuine in that she truly wants to tell a good story, while at the same time, making us aware that any social commentary infused is meant to make the character’s world a better place. And if that should happen to make our world a more harmonious experience at the same time, all the better.

But she’s first and foremost a storyteller, and a damn good one at that. And while this is a non-spoiler review, I will say this about the book’s third act, Sarah could never be accused of having an aversion to happy endings…

…and thank god for that.

From Little Tokyo, with Love is available now, click HERE to order a copy today!