By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
Queen of the Tiles
By Hanna Alkaf
Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster Books, 2022
A year after the death of her best friend Trina Low, Najwa Bakri enters her first Scrabble competition in the hopes of healing and moving on with her life. Choosing the same contest where Trina died may not be the best idea—but maybe, Najwa’s not quite ready to give her up just yet. Too bad the same can’t be said about Najwa’s fellow teen competitors. With Scrabble Queen Trina gone, the crown is up for grabs and the line for the next monarch is long.
What starts out as just a game—albeit an extremely competitive one—soon turns into something more when posts start appearing on Trina’s formerly inactive Instagram account. The cryptic messages point to Trina’s death being less than straightforward—and that someone at the competition may have had something to do with it. As Najwa works to find out who’s behind the posts, and possibly Trina’s death, secrets are revealed as people start to show their true colors.
“Queen” is a great mystery, filled with red herrings and twists you may not see coming. Alkaf does a great job of throwing readers off with several characters who are not what they seem and could all be the culprit—which is what you want in a mystery.
Set against the backdrop of Malaysia’s teen Scrabble competition circuit, the story is filled with clever wordplay and clues in the form of Scrabble words that will boggle the mind. Alkaf’s attention to detail regarding how many points words are worth and the strategy behind the game was nothing short of impressive. I don’t think I’ll ever look at the game the same way.
In addition to the mystery, “Queen” is a story about grief. There is no one way to grieve the loss of a loved one and Alkaf shows this in Najwa and Trina’s friends and family. Everyone who was close to Trina handles her death differently—the same way everyone in real life deals with death differently.
Four Aunties and a Wedding
By Jesse Q. Sutanto
Meddy Chan and her family are back and as chaotic as ever. In this sequel to “Dial A for Aunties,” the Chans once again have a wedding in their future. But this time, instead of working it, it’s Meddy’s own. As she prepares to marry her college sweetheart, Nathan, Meddy just wants her mom and three aunts to enjoy the experience, so they hire a Chinese-Indonesian family-run business, just like theirs, to take care of things.
Meddy is hesitant at first, but once she meets the wedding photographer, Staphanie—who reminds Meddy of herself, right down to the misspelled name—she feels better about her wedding vendors. But the night before her wedding, Meddy overhears Staphanie discussing taking out a target and learns that her vendors are actual mafia and they’re using Meddy’s wedding as a cover to do business.
Enter Meddy’s mom and aunties, who refuse to let anything get in the way of seeing her happily married. And as with this book’s predecessor, hilarity ensues as the five women take on the mafia and try to stop a murder, all while getting Meddy hitched without a hitch. The older women’s illogical antics had me cracking up—from Second Aunt’s obsession with tai chi, to Meddy’s mother’s unwitting drug lord tendencies, to their competitiveness and bickering. But beneath the hilarity is a group of women willing to do whatever it takes to be there for Meddy. And seeing Meddy—who finds herself constantly embarrassed by her relatives—slowly realize this is beautiful.
“Four Aunties” also touches on the Asian diaspora. While Meddy’s and Nathan’s families may share a Chinese background, that’s about all they share. These differences are particularly highlighted in—not surprisingly—Meddy’s mom and aunties as they sweetly and hilariously try to fit in with the local culture when they go to England, where the wedding is held and where Nathan’s family lives, truly showing that not all Asians are the same.
Portrait of a Thief
By Grace D. Li
Tiny Reparations Books, 2022
All around the Western world, museums display the art of cultures from across the globe—the spoils of war, conquest and colonialism, looted from other countries—a fact that really bothers Harvard senior Will Chen. So when a mysterious Chinese benefactor contacts the art history major with an interesting (and highly illegal) job offer—steal back five priceless Chinese sculptures looted from Beijing’s Old Summer Palace centuries ago—he can’t help but be intrigued, especially since the job pays $50 million.
The crew Will puts together has every heist archetype you can think of. His sister Irene is their con artist who can talk her way out of anything. His best friend Daniel Liang, a premed student with steady hands, is their thief. Irene’s roommate Lily Wu, who races cars in her free time, is their getaway driver. And Will’s friend Alex Huang, MIT dropout-turned Silicon Valley software engineer, is their hacker.
Inspired by the true story of Chinese art disappearing from Western museums, “Portrait,” on the surface, is a heist novel. We see the crew figure out how to work together to get the job done (including watching the “Ocean’s Eleven” films, which is a hilarious way to prep to rob a museum). As college students, they’re not even close to flawless, but that makes it more relatable—showing readers that we too can potentially, successfully steal priceless artwork.
But beyond the heist, Li does a great job of balancing that part of the story with themes of diaspora, the Chinese American identity and all of its complexities, and the colonization of art. The story is told from all five characters’ perspectives. They’re all distinct, complex individuals. They’re messy and come with baggage—like many of us do—and seeing their different backgrounds, their relationships with China and their Chinese American identities, and reasons for taking the job highlights how not every Asian—in this case Chinese—person is the same.
Samantha can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.