By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
Iced in Paradise: A Leilani Santiago Hawai’i Mystery
By Naomi Hirahara
Prospect Park Books, 2019
After a few years in Seattle, Leilani Santiago is back in her birthplace on the Hawaiian island of Kaua’i. She’s helping out with the family business, a shave ice shack, as her mother has fallen ill.
One day, when she goes into work, she stumbles across a dead body. If that weren’t bad enough, the body belongs to a young pro surfer her estranged father had been coaching. And due to a recent argument, Leilani’s father becomes the No. 1 suspect. So Leilani sets off to find the real killer.
All the while, she has to help take care of her mother, younger sisters and grandmother, as well as run the shave ice shack. She’s also working on keeping her long-distance relationship with her boyfriend in Seattle alive.
Needless to say, there’s a lot going on for Leilani.
“Paradise” is a fun mystery with enough twists and turns to keep readers (at least this one) guessing until the very end. Hirahara does a great job of planting clues throughout the story so while you may be surprised with who the killer is, it makes sense.
In addition, maybe more so, “Paradise” is a story about family and community.
Now that she’s back on the island, Leilani works to figure out her place in the family and among people she has known her entire life. Readers get a glimpse into a tight-knit community in which everyone knows each other (which may or may not be a good thing) and looks out for one another.
Hirahara also gives readers a glimpse into the multicultural world that is Hawaii. Leilani’s family is a mix of Japanese, Filipino, and white, with different members favoring one side more than the other. And while this may get second looks on the mainland, on the island, it’s quite common and not a big deal. This serves to show readers that it doesn’t matter what anyone’s background is: family is family.
Wonton Terror: A Noodle Shop Mystery
By Vivien Chien
St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 2019
Lana Lee is back on the case and this time, things are off to an explosive start.
On the first evening of Cleveland’s Asian Night Market, Wonton on Wheels, a food truck run by her parents’ old friends, blows up at the end of the night, leaving one man dead. Lana narrowly misses getting caught up in the flames as her family’s restaurant, Ho-Lee Noodle House’s own food truck was parked nearby.
And even though her boyfriend, Det. Adam Trudeau, has been planning a birthday trip for the two of them, Lana once again puts on her amateur sleuth hat to figure out who is behind the explosion.
And if that weren’t enough, Lana’s aunt Grace—her mother’s sister—is in town, kicking up the family drama by several notches.
With this being her fourth mystery in her Noodle Shop series, Chien continues to build strong, multi-faceted characters. And not just with Lana. At this point, readers have gotten to know recurring characters, from Lana’s lawyer-to-be-sister, Anna May, to the various shopkeepers and business owners at the Asia Village shopping plaza, to the Mahjong Matrons who frequent her family’s restaurant.
In addition to the mystery, “Wonton” also focuses on sisterhood—mainly with the appearance of Lana’s aunt Grace. Lana and her sister’s bickering and arguing are nothing compared to their mother and aunt’s. The two older women can turn even the simplest conversation into an all-out war of words. As much fun as this was to read, it also made me grateful that my relationship with my own sister is not as volatile.
Chien also highlights the role friendships play in our lives. As Lana digs deeper into the mystery, she learns more about her mother’s friendship with Sandra, the widow of the man killed in the explosion. We see that even though people may drift apart over the years, it doesn’t mean they stopped caring about each other.
Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune
By Roselle Lim
When Natalie Tan’s mother dies, she returns home to San Francisco’s Chinatown for the first time in seven years.
The two hadn’t spoken since Natalie left for culinary school against her mother’s wishes. Upon her arrival, Natalie is shocked to see the old neighborhood fading, with families moving away and businesses failing. An even bigger surprise, Natalie learns she has inherited her grandmother’s restaurant.
Before she gets the restaurant up and running, the neighborhood seer tells Natalie she must cook three recipes from her grandmother’s cookbook to help her struggling neighbors. Only then will the restaurant succeed. Natalie is initially hesitant to help as she resents her neighbors for leaving her alone to take care of her agoraphobic mother when she was a child. But soon, she realizes that maybe they were there for her the whole time.
“Natalie Tan” is a story about going home and finding where you belong—with a touch of magical realism. While her homecoming is difficult at first and not everyone is happy to see Natalie—blaming her for her mother’s death and thinking she should have stayed home to take care of her—attitudes begin to shift as her neighbors realize she is home to stay.
Natalie is a strong and flawed character who works to come to terms with the fact that the last time she saw her mother was on less-than-good terms. She works to make up for this by pouring everything she has into the restaurant.
In addition, Lim gives readers a plethora of characters from the neighborhood, filled with their own quirks and idiosyncrasies—from the ever-bickering Mr. and Mrs. Chiu, to angry Old Wu, to Mr. Kuk Wah and his trusty erhu. Readers will get to know them and root for their success and the neighborhood they inhabit.