house of koi by lilian li

Book Review: House of Koi by Lilian Li

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Wondering if House of Koi by Lilian Li is worth the reading effort? Here’s my full review to help you make up your mind!

House of Koi Review

I found out about House of Koi by Lilian Li through the Malaysian Bookstagram community and so I bought the book when I had the chance after months of being in a reading slump I have FINALLY started and finished House of Koi by Lilian Li.

This was not an easy review to write because the book left me with a mixed bag of emotions.

So, I might as well start with things I did like about House of Koi.

The first thing that stuck out to me that made me enjoy the book was the fact that I could relate to Mila’s struggles of not really knowing how to speak her native tongue, Chinese, as well as the Malaysian national language of Malay fluently.

Now, I have never gone to an international school but growing up, I only spoke English and I mean ONLY!

I couldn’t even speak Sarawakian and it was only when I was 7 years old did I learn to speak the language and even then I sounded like a lost Mat Salleh.

It was both embarrassing and excruciating for me to grow up not being able to fully understand or speak Malay. This went on up until I was in high school or Sekolah menengah.

Whilst I did get better by then, exams wise absolutely not, my mom had to send me to tuition class for Malay and I still get nightmares from the absolute stress of trying to write an essay in Malay in less than half an hour during my tuition class.


house of koi lilian li

Aside from Mila’s relatability, another aspect that I liked about House of Koi by Lilian Li was how the author portrayed Malaysia. Even though I am from East Malaysia and the book is set in West Malaysia, I could understand what the author is writing about.

Especially when the author described the hawker stalls and I literally can envision the scene and I thought to myself “Man, hawker stalls are the same anywhere huh”.

But the most relatable Malaysian experience the author write about was the broken locks on the school toilets. It was a pain that all Malaysian students would understand from the get-go.

Side note, talking about school toilets, my high school toilets had graffiti on them, and mind you the tea was piping hot. I could be doing my business in the toilet and still be up to date on who cheated on whom with who or who was an allegedly closeted lesbian/gay.

Long story short I was invested in the drama.

house of koi lilian li

Writing-wise I thought House of Koi was an easy read whereby the sentences and language used were quite straightforward.

Now we come to the parts I didn’t quite like from House of Koi by Lilian Li.

First thing was, how unlikeable Mila was as a person. My god! I was really trying to be empathetic and understanding towards her pain and struggle especially since her parents literally just dumped her at her grandmother’s house.

It sucks, I completely get it, she is a teenager feeling abandoned and confused, it’s completely normal to lash out.

But there were some parts in the book that I genuinely feel like Mila is too much, especially the part where she and Sean fight and she said some horrendous things.

By the way, Sean is Mila’s childhood friend whom she forgot but he is an integral character in this book.

I had hoped that when Mila did what she did and said what she said to Sean, there would be a GOOD redemption arc so at least she wouldn’t look like such a tart (I really want to say the curse word version of tart but Mila is 14 years old in the book and I am 29, so I have to contain myself).

Instead what I got at the end was quite confusing.

Confusing because how she wanted to apologize to Sean was to give a blasé apology and shortly after confess her feelings for him when it was obvious to the reader (as the book had Sean’s POV intermixed with Mila’s) that he does have feelings for her.

Okay, I will divulge exactly what happened between Sean and Mila which made me really dislike her.

house of koi lilian li spoiler

Mila lied to Sean saying she NEEDED to go to Penang because only the shop in Penang can fix her broken phone.

Once there, Sean was bamboozled into hanging out with Mila’s friends from her American international school, and turns out her phone wasn’t broken!

After a time, Sean says to Mila they need to go home as it was about to rain and tensions are high because Sean didn’t like that Mila lied and is pretending to be someone she is not for external validation and Mila doesn’t like how she is being called out by Sean.

This was when Mila took out the key from the ignition from Sean’s motorcycle MID-RIDE because SHE DIDN’T WANT TO LEAVE PENANG!


Mila’s an absolute psycho! People could have been seriously injured and any damages would have needed to be paid by Sean since it was him riding the bike and it’s his bike.

And she has the gall to call Sean atrocious things!

Seriously, Mila needs to touch some grass because girl you are delusional with your victim mentality.

house of koi lilian li

Hence, do you understand why a simple apology and consequent confession of feelings do not sit well with me?

Personally, I would like the author to show Mila is genuinely sorry not only to Sean but also to everybody else through her actions because truly some parts of the book Mila was really unkind.

Just because you had a shitty time doesn’t mean you get to be shitty to someone else.

Aside from Mila being unlikeable was the pacing for the latter half of the book. In all honesty, I liked the pacing for the first half of House of Koi.

I felt that whilst it’s relatively slow, it was building up Mila’s character, her budding relationship with her neighbor and childhood friend Sean as well as coming to terms with her current life away from everything she knows and is comfortable with.

I enjoyed that slow pacing but apparently, I spoke too soon because, in the latter half of House of Koi, the pacing was at breakneck speed I got whiplash.

The only thought I had was WTF just happened?

spoiler alert house of koi lilian li

Essentially, Mila’s grandmother fell and needed to go to the hospital but Mila didn’t want to call Jane (Mila’s cousin) and Sean as Mila had fought with them. Instead, Mila drove to the hospital and it was roughly around this time as well Mila started to recover her memories.

Her memories of her almost being kidnapped and it being her grandmother who saved her explain why Mila was never comfortable at her grandmother’s house due to the forgotten traumatic event.

Once, she regained this forgotten memory, Mila saw the error in her ways and decided to be a better granddaughter as well as apologize to Jane and Sean.

The ending ended with Mila’s parents coming home from Thailand and looking for Mila but she was outside with Sean.

Looks good on paper right?

It does actually but unfortunately, NOTHING was explained in further detail.

Like, who was trying to kidnap Mila and why?? Why only kidnap this one little girl? Was it a child kidnapping syndicate that was active at that time at Bukit Mertajam? Was it due to her family appearing wealthy thus kidnapping Mila for ransom money?

We would never know because it wasn’t explained.

Aside from that, with her parents coming home, how would things work? Are they coming home for just a short time? Are they coming home permanently? If so what would Mila’s schooling be like? Is she going back to Penang? Is she staying? Will Mila flip flop all over the place again between her Americanized self or her Malaysian self?

Again, no answer for that.

Mila SAYS she will be a better granddaughter but the book doesn’t show it and with her parents back, will she make good on her word?


I honestly don’t know what to feel after reading that ending or more specifically the latter half of House of Koi. I truly needed time to process and internalize and think about what the hell was going on.

To wrap up my review, I did enjoy reading House of Koi by Lilian Li but there were aspects that she can improve on.

Considering this was her debut novel, I say kudos on the effort and the fact that she did write a book and had it published, and that’s no easy feat.

There you have it folks, my thoughts on House of Koi by Lilian Li.

House of Koi Synopsis

Author: Lilian Li

Published: 2 December 2019

Publisher: New Degree Press

Rating: 3/5

House of Koi is about identity and learning that, sometimes, your future is waiting for you in your past.

The story follows Mila as she strives to reconcile the person she became in an effort to fit into her American international school with the young girl she was; the girl who spoke Mandarin and Malay with ease. Is it too late to embrace both parts of herself?

When Mila is sent to the top of the mountain to live with her grandmother for a year when her parents go away for business, she cannot avoid her native tongue, even if she does try. To make matters worse, Mila must now attend a local private school, and navigate a world she seems to barely understand.

Everyone keeps telling her that she should not forget her heritage, but this only takes her deeper inside herself. That is until she meets the “Fish Boy” from the bottom of the mountain. Together, they teach one another what the other is best at. However, every time Mila asks about the past, he refuses to answer. She resolves to find out what happened that caused her to be unable to look her grandmother squarely in the eye.

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