By Samantha Pak
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Homicide and Halo-Halo
By Mia P. Manansala
It’s summer, Lila Macapagal’s least favorite season, and things are heating up, but only in the literal, seasonal sense. Because despite two eligible bachelors vying for her attention and a new cafe just about to open, Lila can’t seem to bring herself to take the next steps to move forward in her life—not after the unpleasant incident at her aunt’s Filipino restaurant, Tita Rosie’s Kitchen, only a few months ago.
On top of that, the town of Shady Palms is bringing back the Miss Teen Shady Palms Beauty Pageant, which Lila won many years ago (and remains a wedge between her and her cousin-slash-rival, Bernadette). But when the head judge is murdered and Bernadette becomes the main suspect, the two cousins are forced to put aside their differences to solve the case.
Like any good cozy mystery series, Manansala’s follows an amateur detective as they solve mystery after mystery (typically involving murder). This is the second installment in her Tita Rosie’s Kitchen Mystery series and one thing I especially appreciated is seeing how affected Lila is from the confrontation in the first book that almost resulted in her and her best friend’s deaths. Lila is clearly dealing with some form of PTSD, but she spends much of “Halo-Halo” refusing to face it, telling everyone she’s “fine,” when she’s clearly not. This grounds her story in some sense of reality—because as much as I love cozy mysteries, I always thought many of these protagonists dealt with seeing so much death and murder in their lives too easily. Manansala addresses this, as well as other mental health issues in BIPOC communities (including Lila’s refusal to discuss her parents’ deaths, which happened when she was a young child), in this book, which is something we need to be talking more about.
And just like in the first installment, “Halo-Halo” is filled with delicious-sounding food and drinks that will have readers’ mouths watering. Manansala once again introduces readers to a number of Filipino dishes (recipes included) that will have you itching to try.
The Family Chao
By Lan Samantha Chang
W. W. Norton & Company, 2022
For 35 years, the residents of Haven, Wisconsin have been dining at the Fine Chao, content to just enjoy the restaurant’s Americanized Chinese food and ignore any less-than-flattering whispers about the Chao family. It doesn’t matter whether or not Big Leo Chao is honest, or if his wife Winnie is happy—the food is good and their three sons earned scholarships to respectable colleges. But when the three brothers reunite in Haven, family secrets are revealed and resentments bubble to the top.
And soon, their father, Leo, is found dead, presumed murdered, and suddenly, everyone in town is paying extra attention to his three sons. The trial that follows brings to light potential motives for all three brothers: Dagou, the eldest and the restaurant’s reckless head chef trying to step out of his father’s shadow; middle brother Ming, who is financially successful but personally tortured (and a self-hating Asian); and gentle James, the youngest, who’s currently in college, but more than a little lost. As the spotlight shines brighter on their family—and the family dog meets an unexpected fate—the three brothers are forced to reckon with Leo’s legacy and what it means for them.
Told from multiple characters’ points of views, “Family Chao” is at once a family drama, murder mystery, and courtroom trial drama. Chang does a great job of balancing all of these elements in her story. As readers, we see the inner workings of all the characters, their feelings toward others, personal motivations, and more. At some points, you’ll just want to yell at everyone to just talk to each other—because that would fix so many things. But obviously, that would take away the drama, humor, and suspense from the story.
I also enjoyed all the twists and surprises in this story. As soon as you suspect one thing, Chang changes course and the plot goes in another direction, keeping readers guessing about who actually killed Leo until the end.
A Quitter’s Paradise
By Elysha Chang
SJP Lit, 2023
Eleanor Liu is doing just fine. True, she’s keeping secrets from her husband. Sure, she quit her PhD program and is now conducting unauthorized research on illegitimately procured mice. And yes, Eleanor still has yet to go through her mother’s things, months after her death. But sure, Eleanor is fine.
In her attempts to avoid, not just her mother’s death, but almost all of the realities of her life at the moment, Eleanor finds herself tumbling down a path that will force her to confront her present—no matter how much she doesn’t want to. This avoidance leads to bad decision after bad decision, with often humorous results, but also threatens everything Eleanor has worked to build.
Alternating between Eleanor’s present life and flashbacks to her family’s life while growing up, we see how her family’s history in Taiwan has impacted and influenced Eleanor’s life to this day. From long-held secrets, to the grief she’s been avoiding in the wake of her mother’s death, Eleanor soon learns that the best way to deal with something (if not the easiest) is to just face it head-on, even if it may break her in the process.
Eleanor is a great character. She’s complicated, messy, and makes mistakes she doesn’t always learn from. This all makes her entertaining to read, but I will admit that if I knew her in real life, these traits would drive me crazy. Maybe because she behaves how many of us would in her situations—like we don’t really know what we’re doing—and it all hits a bit close to home.
While Chang focuses on Eleanor’s story, she also introduces us to the other members of the Liu family. And from her immigrant parents Jing and Rita, to her rebellious sister Narisa, they are all equally intriguing. I would be particularly interested in reading about Narisa’s story.