Review | Sunshine Nails, by Mai Nguyen

SunshineNailsSunshine Nails is a moving and lighthearted story about a Vietnamese-Canadian family in danger of losing their nail salon when a flashy American chain salon moves into their neighbourhood. I loved meeting the Tran family, and their story of their rather rustic Nails Nails Nails going up against the much pricier and glossier Take Ten is sadly all too realistic.

One salon entertains customers with Judge Judy on a TV screen; the other offers WiFi, flower petal pedicures, and elegant cocktails. Much as we cheer for the Trans to win, we know community support can only do so much, particularly in a neighbourhood like the Junction in Toronto, where gentrification has already sunk its tendrils into all sorts of nooks and crannies. Then the Trans’ landlord jacks up their rent to almost double the amount, and a developer is set to demolish a nearby heritage building for office and condo spaces. The Tran family is at the heart of this story, but in many ways, so is the city of Toronto, and part of the fun of reading this is recognizing all the Toronto landmarks Nguyen mentions.

At the heart of it all are the various members of the Tran family: Phil and Debbie, who came to Canada by boat with only the jade ring Debbie tucked behind her upper lip to make her too ugly for pirates to capture; their daughter Jessica, who escaped her family’s nail salon for a glamorous career in LA, only to return when she lost both her job and fiance; their son Dustin, who works ridiculous amounts of overtime at the tech company, only for his charismatic boss to consistently deny him a raise; and their niece Thuy, who immigrated to Canada with dreams of becoming a nurse, but works at the family nail salon out of a sense of duty.

Phil and Debbie go to extreme lengths to save their salon and their family. I love how loving their marriage is, and how respectful they are of each other, and I especially love how the author manages to convey this when neither character is demonstrative with their feelings. There’s a fantastic scene where they have sex, and it begins with an adorable will they/won’t they dialogue that’s clearly become a ritual over the years. Afterwards, Phil tells Debbie she looks beautiful, and she responds by asking if he remembered to take the bitter melon out of the tamarind juice. It’s a perfectly incongruous response that says so much more about their years together than a sweet nothing ever could. And even when they do things later in the story that disappoint the other, the bond between them is still so clearly unshakeable that I can just tell: this marriage will last, no matter what.

Jessica and Dustin go through their own character arcs, basically of learning to appreciate their family, their family’s business, and the neighbourhood they call home. Jessica’s story arc is somewhat more developed; Dustin’s sudden activism against gentrification doesn’t quite tie into the main nail salon plot as neatly as Jessica’s taking a job at the salon does. And for Jessica in particular, the direction her story took is both heartwarming and uplifting; she’s a big reason the story ends on a note of hope that the legacy Phil and Debbie have built over the past twenty years will live on in the next generation.

But for me, the highlight among the next generation’s stories is that of Thuy. She’s the immigrant cousin who postponed her dreams to support her family — both those in Canada who gave her a home, and those back in Vietnam, who’ve pinned their hopes for a better home on her. Unlike Jessica and Dustin, Thuy didn’t have the luxury of shaping her own destiny in Canada; her life here is very much dependent on her aunt and uncle, and she doesn’t quite feel she has the same right that her cousins do to push back. The scene where her friends from ESL class invite her to watch a movie with them is both relatable and heartbreaking. Her excitement at finally making friends is palpable, and I especially love the detail that she’s glad the movie they selected is an action film, because those are easy enough to follow even if you’re still learning the language. Yet when her uncle Phil calls because they need her at the nail salon, there isn’t even a question of whether or not she could say no.

In so many ways, she’s also the superstar among their employees, yet she’s also the most overlooked. She’s their most skilled nail tech, the go-to for fancy designs, yet it’s only when Jessica gets good reviews online that Phil and Debbie find something to gush about. When Phil needs to cut wages so he can afford the rent, Thuy is the only one who doesn’t complain, yet her cooperation is immediately minimized by a reminder that she lives with her aunt and uncle rent-free. Thuy’s is the story that most found a place in my heart, and when she finally makes a momentous decision for her own benefit, I was cheering her on all the way.

Overall, this is a touching story of family, immigration, and the struggles of keeping both your and your family’s dreams alive. Kudos to the author for writing such a heartfelt and emotional story with such a light touch. This is an easy read despite the deep emotions it evokes, and definitely a highlight for summer reading.


Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada and Word on the Street Toronto for an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Event Recap | Raincoast Books TBR Preview Fall 2023

The second I saw that Travis Baldree was going to be at Raincoast Books’ TBR Preview for Fall, I immediately clicked on the link to register. His first book, Legends and Lattes, has been on my TBR ever since I first heard it described as a “cozy fantasy,” and I was eager for the chance to hear the author speak about his upcoming book, Bookshops and Bonedust.

Baldree’s books were my first time to hear the term “cozy fantasy,” and already I love the concept. I enjoy fantasy fiction, but I’m not always in the mood for the serious epics in many fantasy novels. Over the past year, especially, I’ve found myself gravitating more towards more comedic fantasy fare like the Dungeons and Dragons movie and The Legend of Vox Machina with the occasional Critical Role one-shot videos.

So the notion of a “cozy fantasy” appealed to me, and the idea of a battle-scarred orc retiring to open up a coffee shop (Legends and Lattes) seemed especially appealing. In the Q&A at the event, Travis shared that he’d written these books during “the deep, dark heart of COVID.” He wrote the fantasy as cozy because the world was already so dire that he wasn’t interested in writing a story about another world also in dire straits.

Bookshops and Bonedust is a prequel, but both books can be read as stand-alones. In Bookshops and Bonedust, the orc Viv is injured in battle, and her group leaves her in a sleepy beach town to recuperate. There she meets Fern, a foul-mouthed bookshop proprietor whom Travis says is his favourite character, and a different kind of adventure begins.

I’m excited to meet both Viv and Fern, but I’m also especially excited to meet Pot Roast, a half-pug, half-snowy owl who is Fern’s shop pet. Even better, Travis says he does plan to return to this world, at least for a book or two more, because he has some discarded stories that he still likes and thinks can be worked into this world. So if I do end up liking this, I’ll have more books to look forward to.

During the Q&A, I asked if Travis would like to see this as a movie or animated series, and if so, who would he cast. For an animated series, he said there’s already lots of cozy fantasy being made by Japanese animation studios, and says he could imagine it being like a Studio Ghibli movie. For a live action, he suggested Gwendolyn Christie as Viv. And as much as I love Studio Ghibli and think an animated version of this would be charming, I absolutely want Gwendolyn Christie as a cozy fantasy lead now, and will definitely be imagining her as I read these books!

Beyond Bookshops and Bonedust, other books I’m excited for are:

  • Gwen and Art Are Not In Love by Lex Croucher – queer, medieval rom com YA – Lord Arthur and Princess Gwendoline are engaged to be married, except Gwen has a huge crush on the kingdom’s only lady knight, Bridget, and Arthur becomes interested in Gwen’s brother.
  • Roaming by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki – I love the Tamaki cousins’ work, and books they collaborate on are especially awesome. This one features a trio of college friends exploring NYC in 2009.
  • 10 Things that Never Happened by Alexis Hall – fake amnesia leads to real romance – Sam is on his way to a meeting with his boss Jonathan, when he trips and bumps his head. Thing is, Sam knows Jonathan plans to fire him at that meeting, and so feigns amnesia to hold on to his job a bit longer. And then, somehow, Jonathan turns out to have a softer side to him, and they fall in love? It’s a hilariously zany start to a romance, and I, for one, am all in!
  • The God of High School, Volume 1 by Yongje Park – This story about a high school student / Taekwondo specialist who enters a fighting tournament where the winner “can have ANYTHING” they want, sounds like a lot of fun! I’m also really glad Raincoast is adding manga to its distribution catalogue!

And books I’ll be recommending to friends:

  • Bloodguard by Cecy Robson – a New Adult fantasy romance pitched as Gladiator meets Dungeons and Dragons. But it mostly caught my eye because of the gorgeous book design: the limited first print edition features red spray-painted edges with stencilled ivy. I have an artsy friend who loves the colour red, and honestly, I’m giving them a heads up about this purely for aesthetic reasons.
  • The Memory Thieves by Dhonielle Clayton – a middle-grade fantasy about a magic school in the sky. I have a friend who loves middle-grade fantasies and stories about magic schools, so this is totally their catnip.
  • Beyond the Story: 10-Year Record of BTS – There aren’t much details out yet, but I have a friend who’s a major BTS fan, so I definitely gave them a heads up on this book, coming out in July!
  • Assistant to the Villain by Hannah Nicole Maehrer – a romance between an Evil Villain and his sunshine assistant. Sending a note about this to a friend who ships Draco/Hermione!

Check out the full Raincoast Books TBR Preview Fall 2023 list HERE.


Thank you to Raincoast Books for inviting me to this TBR Preview! I’m excited to dive into the e-galleys you’ve shared!

Event Recap | Word on the Street Festival 2023

It’s a beautiful, sunshine-y, summery day for an outdoor festival! Word on the Street is a Toronto classic I sorely missed during the pandemic. Its return last year was a highlight of my gradual return to normal life, and this year makes it officially back to being one of my favourite annual traditions.

Quick note: the festival doesn’t go all the way to Museum subway station this year; rather, it starts at Queens Park and follows the crescent up to Wellesley, with a small side arm by Grosvenor Street. I got off at the correct subway station only because the media booth was close to College, but I overhead a few other attendees laughing about how they got off at Museum station and were confused about the lack of bookish booths.

Lots of bookish and theatre swag at the festival this year. I was especially grateful for the cardboard fans from Mirvish and the Toronto Public Library union. Plus, check out this awesome Fabio card from Happily Ever After Books!

Meeting author June Hur was definitely a highlight for this year’s festival. Turns out she used to work at the Toronto Public Library, and she was at the TPL worker union’s booth giving away signed copies of her book The Red Palace. If you love Korean history and murder mysteries, I highly recommend checking this book out! It was one of my top 10 books in 2021, and I wrote a gushing review of it for Quill and Quire.

Just in front of the TPL union’s booth is that of the Royal Ontario Museum, and I couldn’t resist taking a photo of their absolutely adorable baby T.rex banner. Seriously, I would be a goner if I saw that creature in the wild. And not just because they’re such a deadly predator, but because I’d be so smitten by their cuteness that their parent may be right behind me before I even realize I’m in danger! Anyway, for anyone who likes museums, there’s a raffle for a free ROM membership, copies of A Field Guide to the Trees of Ontario for sale, and also ROM staff with objects you can touch and learn about.

I was also thrilled to see Happily Ever After Books back at the festival this year. They’re a bookstore dedicated specifically to romance books, which makes them exactly the kind of store I’d love to spend hours browsing in. They don’t have a physical storefront and focus mainly on online sales, so it’s always a bonus to see one of their pop-ups. Probably no surprise, their booth was often crowded, and I echo another customer’s wish that they had a bigger booth, because I definitely wanted more.

Somehow, I managed to control myself to buying only two books from Happily Ever After: The Make-Up Test (nerdy medieval lit romance? yes please!) and Behind the Scenes (because I absolutely loved the author’s other book Satisfaction Guaranteed). Bonus: the store owner, Jenny, has an incredible memory for faces, and recognized me from last year’s festival!

I also want to shout-out Word on the Street’s incredible media relations team. Their booth had coffee and tea for bloggers, bookstagrammers, and media outlets, as well as some fun bookmarks and ARCs. All of us got a copy of The Witch is Back and a choice of two other books. I selected Sunshine Nails and A Death at the Party, but it wasn’t an easy choice! The other books on the table also looked great, and if the blogger just before me hadn’t snapped up the final copy of Lisa See’s Lady Tan’s Circle of Women, I would’ve had a much harder time deciding.

The children’s area was a beautifully whimsical space called The Fantastical Book Garden. You entered through a storybook and exited through a beautiful illustration. And inside are book flowers. I didn’t look closely at all of them, but one flower featured Chris Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. Kudos to whomever on the festival team designed this space. It felt like stepping into another world, and I especially love how it’s framed as a Fantastical Book Garden rather than just “The Kids Zone,” or some such. As an adult with no kids, I likely would’ve walked right past a Kids Zone, but this design invited people of all ages to experience the magic for ourselves.

I also always enjoy the Mirvish booth, and this year had a definite Harry Potter theme. There was a figure-eight railroad with the Hogwarts Express, buttons for each of the houses, and a poster of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child signed by the cast!

Also pictured is a Dundurn Press tote, which I won at the publisher’s spin-the-wheel game. It’s apparently the biggest of the prizes they have available, which makes me extra happy I won, and I especially love that the tote even has a side pocket with a button.

Another bookish treat was the Toronto Public Library Bookmobile. I didn’t go in, because my backpack was pretty bulky with books at this point and the bookmobile didn’t look very spacious. But bookmobiles make me think of small towns and children’s books, and it was a nice cozy touch in the heart of the city. I also won a pen at their spin-the-wheel game, which is perfect, because I go through pens pretty quickly.

Books I loved seeing: the Nguyen Kids series by Linda Trinh at the Annick Press booth. I reviewed the first book, The Secret of the Jade Bangle, for Quill and Quire, and absolutely loved it. And it was great to see Maria Ressa’s How to Stand Up to a Dictator at the Another Story Bookshop booth. Maria Ressa is a Nobel Peace Prize winner and an award-winning journalist from the Phillippines. She tirelessly speaks truth to power against authoritarian Philippine governments, and I very much admire her work and her courage.

Other highlights were a Soapbox Science area by Toronto Metropolitan University. I can’t remember what this particular scientist was talking about, but I overheard another telling folks how X-rays worked. Also, how awesome is Poesy? You could sit with one of their poets and they would compose a poem for you on the spot!

And finally, the highlight of any outdoor festival — the junk food! The corn on the cob and potato twists are my classic go-to’s at any festival. The Choco Churros looks so yummy I’m sorely tempted to come back tomorrow just so I could give it a try. Also, as someone who’s trying to reduce my meat intake, I’m beyond thrilled that this festival had a booth just for veggie hotdogs. I didn’t get a chance to look at their menu, but I’m curious if they actually offer a variety of options. (Fingers crossed!)


Thanks to the Word of the Street Festival for inviting me and my blog to be part of the fun!