By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
“The Way You Make Me Feel”
By Maureen Goo
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018
Clara Shin doesn’t take life too seriously. For her, it’s all about pranks and disrupting the status quo. But when one of her pranks goes too far, her dad forces her to spend her summer working on his food truck, the KoBra (named for his Korean and Brazilian upbringing) — alongside her nemesis Rose Carver.
So — there goes her plans to visit her mom in Tulum, Mexico.
But as the summer goes on, Clara finds herself actually becoming friends with Rose. There’s also Hamlet, the boy who works at a coffee stand at one of their food truck stops, who might have a crush on her and who she just might be crushing on as well. And maybe, just maybe, she’s beginning to care about the KoBra.
“The Way You Make Me Feel” is a coming-of-age story about a young woman who has spent her entire life in the shallow end but is suddenly thrust into the deep end.
Clara is a strong and independent character who goes through the very relatable process of figuring out who she is as a person. She’s not perfect. She can be self-centered and impulsive and doesn’t always think things through, while also considering the consequences. However, we see her grow up over the course of the summer as she builds new relationships, reexamines old ones — and strengthens some while maybe letting go of others.
Goo also does a great job with creating well-rounded secondary characters — from the anxious, type-A Rose to the sweet and earnest Hamlet to Clara’s teenage-punk-turned-businessman father, Adrian. The relationships Clara has with these three characters are the focal point of the story. Her relationship with her father is especially touching as the two experience some major growing pains. There are some definite tear-jerking moments that will have readers appreciating the parental figures in their lives and what these figures have done for them.
“Dim Sum of All Fears: A Noodle Shop Mystery”
By Vivien Chien
St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 2018
It’s only been a few months since Lana Lee solved the mystery of who killed Mr. Feng, the owner of the Asia Village, the shopping plaza where her family’s Chinese restaurant is located. The memories of being held at gunpoint by the murderer are still with her. But new murder waits for no one, and she is back on the case after the couple running the store next door to the Ho-Lee Noodle House are found dead in their store.
And before her maybe-boyfriend, detective Adam Trudeau, can tell her to stay out of it, Lana is chasing down leads at the local casino, knee-deep in the dead husband’s ex-wives (yes, plural) and in the middle of the couple’s family drama. It’s starting to look like their deaths weren’t the straightforward murder–suicide it was staged to look like.
On top of all that, Lana’s parents take off for Taiwan, leaving her in charge of the restaurant — much to both her and sister Anna May’s dismay.
Chien is at it again in this second installment of her “Noodle Shop Mystery” series.
Her character Lana is still trying to figure out her life, thinking that working at the restaurant is just temporary (but we know that’s probably not true). It doesn’t happen overnight, and things are slow going for Lana, which is a more realistic picture of what it can be like to try to get your life back together. She’s not perfect but she’s trying, and readers can see she is putting her heart into everything she does — whether it’s running the restaurant in her parents’ absence or trying to solve her friends’ murders.
Chien also continues developing the characters in Lana’s life — Adam, Anna May, her roommate Megan, her unofficial aunties of Asia Village, and Ho-Lee’s chef Peter and his almost love interest Kimmy Tran. Together, they create a strong support system for Lana, and it’s clear they have her back for when times get tough.
“Number One Chinese Restaurant”
By Lillian Li
Henry Holt and Co., 2018
Welcome to the Beijing Duck House in Rockville, Md, a go-to place for hunger pains and celebrations. It is a world of servers and kitchen staff — some who have worked there for decades, others who have been there for less than a month.
Everyone within the restaurant has a story — from owner Jimmy Han, who has hopes of leaving his father’s restaurant for a fancier one, to his older brother, Johnny, who has drifted apart from his teenage daughter, Annie.
Then there are Nan and Ah-Jack, who are considering taking the next step in their friendship, as well as Nan’s son Pat, who is constantly in and out of trouble.
Then Pat and Annie, in a spot of boredom, find themselves in the middle of a dangerous game that implicates them in a Duck House tragedy.
Told from the points of views of various characters, “Number One” is a story that takes readers beyond the dining room and kitchen of a family-run restaurant. Li gives us a glimpse into their lives after they leave the Duck House.
She explores the different relationships in life including that between parents and their children, friends, lovers, and siblings. The characters are imperfect, complex, and multifaceted, going through their own ups and downs — making them that much more relatable to readers and that much easier for us to root for them.
In addition to the detailed peak into the characters’ lives, Li also gives readers a taste of what it can be like working in a restaurant. She does a great job of capturing the fast pace of the food industry. Whether it’s the details of how to run an efficient kitchen or how to make your basic fried rice, the details will make readers think more about the hosts, hostesses, and servers they encounter the next time they go out to eat.
Samantha Pak can be reached at email@example.com.