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by Lysley Tenorio

Pub Date: July 7th, 2020
ISBN: 978-0-06-205957-4
Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

An undocumented Filipino American teenager struggles to make sense of his past in order to move into the future.

After spending nine months in the desert of Southern California, 19-year-old Excel Maxino ("like the spreadsheet") tries sneaking back into his old apartment via the fire escape but finds himself at the business end of a switchblade, wielded by his mother, Maxima. A former D-list star of Philippine action movies, Maxima welcomes Excel back with leftover Panda Express and doesn't ask any questions about his reappearance. Instead, she must get back to work scamming men on online dating sites to make ends meet. Though Excel doesn't volunteer the truth of his nine-month excursion, the chapters alternate between his present-day struggles to raise money and his misguided adventure to the desert oasis of Hello City, where he and his girlfriend, Sab, tried to make a life for themselves. This deceptively simple back-and-forth structure yields a rich cast of characters, who quickly populate the world and bring it to life. Gunter, a Serbian immigrant, rehires Excel at The Pie Who Loved Me, a children's pizzeria with an espionage theme, with hilarious and unfortunate results. Joker, the grandmaster who trained Maxima in martial arts, slips forbidden comic books to Excel before his unfortunate passing. While most interactions within this widening circle of relationships serve to advance the plot, a few of the roles feel a bit forced, as with Gunter's grandfather Zivko, who studies a dictionary at the pizzeria and slips words and phrases into Excel's lexicon. But the occasional diversion doesn't detract from the propulsive prose, captivating characters, and vital details of immigrant life, like the Tagalog phrase for undocumented Phillipinos, "TNT," which stands for tago ng tago: hiding and hiding.

A masterfully constructed story of identity and ambition and an authentic portrait of one unforgettable Filipino family.