By Samantha Pak
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Under Lock & Skeleton Key
By Gigi Pandian
Minotaur Books, 2022
After an accident that nearly takes her life and destroys her career, stage magician Tempest Raj leaves Las Vegas for her hometown in California. While finding comfort in her grandfather’s Indian home cooking, she needs to figure out her next step. What Tempest doesn’t want to do is work for her dad’s company, Secret Staircase Construction, which specializes in transforming their clients’ homes with sliding bookcases, hidden reading nooks, intricate locks, and more.
One day, when Tempest visits her dad’s latest renovation project, her former stage double is discovered dead inside a wall that’s supposed to have been sealed for more than a century. Worried that she was the actual target, Tempest needs to solve a seemingly impossible crime before the killer finds her and finishes the job. The deeper she delves into the mystery, the more Tempest wonders if the Raj family curse that’s plagued her family for generations (which she’s never believed in before) is real.
One of my favorite things about this story is the family (biological and found) that surrounds Tempest. From her open-hearted father (who will do anything to keep Tempest safe) and caring grandparents, to her mystery-loving best friend and well-meaning but sometimes clueless ex-boyfriend, they all support Tempest and each other, even when things aren’t great between them—something we can all be reminded of.
“Under Lock & Skeleton Key,” the first in a new cozy mystery series, has many of the tropes of the genre: the protagonist going back home after a big life change, reconnecting with a former friend, and (often reluctantly) getting involved in the family business. And what I’m excited about in regards to this series is the aforementioned family business. Pandian does a great job describing the type of construction work Tempest’s father creates—as well as magic tricks via Tempest’s expertise—that will have readers (at least this one) wanting to add a little whimsy to their homes.
She is a Haunting
By Trang Thanh Tran
Bloomsbury YA, 2023
When Jade Nguyen arrives in Vietnam to visit her estranged father, it’s with one goal—survive the next five weeks and pretend to be a happy family as Ba restores a French colonial house. That way, she can get the money he promised so she can pay for college in the fall.
Unfortunately, the house has other plans. From the sleep paralysis she experiences night after night, to the bug body parts showing up everywhere, Jade knows something isn’t right. And then there’s the ghost bride who visits her at night with one warning: Don’t eat.
Jade’s father and sister, Lily, don’t believe there’s anything wrong with the house, but Jade—with the help of her new friend Florence (who just might be more than a friend)—is determined to prove strange things are happening.
“Haunting” is a ghost story, with all the creepiness you’d expect (I don’t recommend reading this before bed, unless that’s your thing). Tran does a great job of weaving the history of how the house became haunted with the history of colonialism in Vietnam. While it’s heartbreaking and angering to read about how the French and others treated the locals in the past, it’s also heartening to read Jade’s response to learning all of this. The scene in which this comes to a head is my favorite of the whole book.
In addition, this is a story about a broken family trying to piece itself back together. Jade’s relationship with her father is fraught and as we learn more about the events that led him to leave their family, readers will be torn between wanting the two to reconcile and wanting Jade to cut her father completely out of her life. I appreciated this because it’s realistic. Life is messy and relationships are complicated—they can’t be magically fixed over the course of a few weeks.
The Double Life of Benson Yu
By Kevin Chong
Atria Books, 2023
Twelve-year-old Benny lives in a Chinatown housing project with his ailing grandmother. When his poh-poh is hospitalized, he manages to survive on his own for a while until a social worker comes snooping. Then, with no other family around, Benny is reluctantly taken in by Constantine, his strange neighbor who believes he’s the reincarnation of a medieval samurai. Soon, the two form an unlikely bond—at least that’s the story Benson Yu is trying to write.
But as Benson tries to write a fictionalized version of his fraught upbringing in 1980s Chinatown, the darker elements from his childhood begin to crop up. Benson quickly loses control of the narrative and is forced to confront the demons he’s spent his whole adult life avoiding.
I’ll admit, “Benson Yu” was a bit of a confusing read at first as we jump between Benny and Constantine’s story, to present day with Benson. But once I understood what was happening, I really enjoyed the metafiction element of the story, which reminded me of Charles Yu’s “Interior Chinatown.”
Benny, Constantine, and Benson are all complex and multifaceted. Chong does a great job creating characters you want to root for, even if they aren’t always likable—not an easy feat. I also appreciated the complicated relationships they had with each other as characters in a story and the writer who created them.
This story includes some very dark and difficult topics, including child abuse and neglect, as well as suicidal ideation. And while Chong mostly just alludes to them, there is one scene that may be triggering, so read with caution if you know this might affect you. He does include a content warning at the beginning of the book, which is appreciated.