By Samantha Pak
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
By Vivien Chien
St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 2023
As manager of her family’s restaurant, Ho-Lee Noodle House, Lana Lee is headed to Irvine, California for a restaurant convention, with her older sister Anna May along for the ride. With plans to stay at their Aunt Grace’s rental house, the trip seems to be exactly what the sisters need.
Their journalist aunt even surprises them with a fancy cocktail party, hosted for freelance journalists in Southern California. But things quickly go south when Aunt Grace’s friend plunges from the rooftop of the hotel, where the event is held. On top of that, the woman turns out to be a journalist Lana witnessed getting into a fight with a fortune cookie vendor earlier at the convention. So while the police initially rule the death as an accident, Aunt Grace doesn’t buy it and asks Lana—with her penchant for solving murders—to investigate and find the truth.
In this latest installment of Chien’s Noodle Shop mystery series, we see Lana in a new environment. I enjoyed the change of scenery and seeing Lana doing her thing in unfamiliar territory. And here, without her best friends or detective boyfriend, Lana doesn’t have her usual partners. But she does have a willing Aunt Grace and reluctant Anna May.
One thing I love about the series is seeing characters grow, change, and evolve. And “Misfortune Cookie” is no different. It was fun to see Lana and Anna May more or less forced to work together to solve the case. Up to this point, Anna May has been a pretty minor character in the series as the two sisters aren’t very close. To Lana, she’s the perfect Asian daughter Lana could never live up to. But here, we see Anna May struggle as she’s dealing with a broken heart. We also see how deeply she cares for Lana and often worries about her younger sister getting into dangerous situations—which goes to show that you don’t have to have a lot of things in common with someone to love them.
These Violent Delights
By Chloe Gong
Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2020
It’s 1926 and Shanghai is a city divided. A blood feud between two gangs—the Scarlet Gang and the White Flowers—rages on, leaving the city in a state of constant violence and chaos. And in the middle of it all are the two gangs’ heirs, Juliette Cai of the Scarlet Gang and Roma Montagov of the White Flowers. Despite being sworn enemies, the two share a secret neither family knows about: a history of first loves and betrayal.
But then, a new threat falls upon the city. An illness has taken over Shanghai that is causing people to go mad and claw at their own throats until they die. As the contagion, madness, or possibly, monster, takes over and gangsters on both sides—as well as everyday civilians—lose their lives, Juliette and Roma realize the only way to save their city is to put aside the guns and grudges (for the time being, at least) and work together.
“Violent Delights” is a great retelling of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” From the rivaling families, to Juliette and Roma trying to keep their connection a secret, it has all the hallmarks of the star-crossed lovers’ story. But Gong also does a great job of balancing their relationship with the bigger picture of what’s happening throughout the city. Readers will want to see the couple resolve their issues (really, they just need to sit down and have an actual conversation about what they’re actually feeling—but obviously, that would cut the story short), just as much as they want to find out who or what is behind the madness.
I also appreciate that the story is told from multiple characters’ perspectives—beyond Juliette and Roma. I enjoyed getting glimpses into their lives and seeing how these characters (friends and relatives of our central couple) view what’s going on in the city, their thoughts on the blood feud, what might be happening between Juliette and Roma, and more.
By Mai Nguyen
Atria Books, 2023
Meet the Trans: Parents Debbie and Phil. They own and run Sunshine Nails, a no-frills nail salon in Toronto that’s just getting by. Meanwhile, their daughter Jessica has just moved home after a bad breakup and losing her job. Their son Dustin has been working at the same job for five years, without receiving a single raise. And then there’s their niece Thuy, who recently emigrated from Vietnam and works in the salon to send money back to her family.
So, things aren’t going great for the Tran family. And when a fancy new chain salon opens across the street, they’re all shook. On top of that, their landlord is jacking up their rent—and the Trans just might lose their business. In hopes of surviving, they devise plans to drum up more business and bring in more money, with varying degrees of success. As a result, certain family members resort to morally ambiguous (and in some cases, illegal) avenues.
“Sunshine Nails” gives readers a glimpse into the world of nail salons and takes place about a year after The New York Times published an expose on the nail industry that led to a lot of great reforms, but also to a lot of discrimination against Asian-owned nail salons. Nguyen, whose family owned a nail salon, gives readers a glimpse into this world we haven’t often seen—from members of the Tran family eavesdropping on clients’ conversations, to the satisfaction they feel from making someone happy after a manicure or pedicure.
Funny because of the shenanigans, but sweet to see the lengths the Trans are willing to go to save their livelihood—and by extension, their family—the story jumps from the different members’ perspectives. It was great to see how everyone feels about what is happening to them and in some cases, their justifications for their sometimes shady behavior. No one is perfect and everyone is dealing with their own issues—just like all of us in real life.