Death by Dumpling
by Vivien Chien
Book 1 of A Noodle Shop Mystery
Welcome to the Ho-Lee Noodle House, where the Chinese food is to die for. . .
The last place Lana Lee thought she would ever end up is back at her family’s restaurant. But after a brutal break-up and a dramatic workplace walk-out, she figures that a return to the Cleveland area to help wait tables is her best option for putting her life back together. Even if that means having to put up with her mother, who is dead-set on finding her a husband.
Lana’s love life soon becomes yesterday’s news once the restaurant’s property manager, Mr. Feng, turns up dead―after a delivery of shrimp dumplings from Ho-Lee. But how could this have happened when everyone on staff knew about Mr. Feng’s severe, life-threatening shellfish allergy? Now, with the whole restaurant under suspicion for murder and the local media in a feeding frenzy―to say nothing of the gorgeous police detective who keeps turning up for take-out―it’s up to Lana to find out who is behind Feng’s killer order. . . before her own number is up.
Here are a few things about a brief period in my own childhood that everyone might amuse themselves with:
My parents owned a restaurant for five years. It was one of my dad's dreams to be a restaurant owner. And while things didn't exactly pan out the way that either he or my mom had hoped, we were still in the business, even if only for a short time. My brothers and I had two functions: we were to either hang around in the back, watch TV and keep ourselves out of trouble, or in mine and my elder brother's case, we helped out by waiting tables, seating customers, or sitting at the cashier's counter to keep an eye on things.
We also spent a lot of time with prep work and clean-up: vacuuming during quiet hours; folding dinner napkins during free time; mopping the bathroom floors after hours; rolling eggrolls for the next day, chopping veggies; washing dishes; changing dirtied table clothes; refilling salt and pepper shakers... tasks were endless, but at the same time, kind of fun.
I mean, I was a pre-teen with a job when most of my friends just went to school. That's something, right?
So certainly, upon starting this book, I found some nostalgic feels coming out.
As a child, I came to the restaurant every day after school where my mother would keep me stowed away in the back room near her office. She had set up a makeshift living room of sorts with a TV and couch, even a small desk where I could do my schoolwork.
Aside from the couch bit, this actually describes those short five years of my life, almost to a 'T.' And also, I had my brothers to join me in front of the TV as well, or sitting around a corner table doing our homework. I imagine it may also describe a lot of other young Asian children's lives as well since I know a lot of Vietnamese restaurants and Chinese restaurants in town that are family owned. On top of that, I've seen the kids sitting off in an isolated corner in the dining room, at a table not made up for guests, doing their homework, or helping out by rolling silverware.
And yes, I do sometimes think back on those few years when I would be sitting in a corner, doing my homework, folding restaurant napkins or refilling salt and pepper shakers.
So I had a feeling that this book would be intriguing for me, even if not for the mystery or for the characters. And truth be told, when Lana had also dropped this quote:
Things to know about me: I'm half English, half Taiwanese, and no, I don't know karate. I'm definitely not good at math and I don't know how to spell your name in Chinese.
I had a distinct feeling I was going to like Lana and enjoy her story. I'm sure I've spent some time in my lifetime growing up answering some of those same questions from friends and acquaintances and classmates. I'm Cantonese, actually, and both of my parents are from the Canton region in China, even if some of my father's side of the family might have emigrated to Vietnam generations ago. Both of my parents were born in Vietnam, actually, but they're from a distinct population in Vietnam who are mostly made up of immigrants from Canton.
I remember constantly being pestered by classmates and friends about teaching them how to say something in Chinese. Specifically, they wanted to learn how to curse in Chinese, and how to say their name in Chinese. And the responses I had to give them on the latter, were that there are not true translations of Western names into Chinese--really, we just string together a few characters to create a phonetic likeness to what your Western name sounds like.
So no, I also do not really know how to spell your names in Chinese.
But back to the book now...
The truth is, I did indeed find myself enjoying this book, but not as much as my biased preference would have liked to enjoy this book. There were definitely a lot of glaring flaws in logic when it came to Lana and her sleuthing around with BFF, Megan. There was also a nagging feeling that this book is a little too Westernized, probably in an attempt not to feel confusing.
There were a couple instances in the book where some of the Moms talk to each other in either Cantonese or Hokkien. Even an instance here and there where Lana describes someone muttering something in Mandarin. I guess I would have liked to see more than just an off-hand instance of the languages being used; because in an Asian community as big as the one described in this book, I have a hard time believing that everyone speaks English almost 98% of the time to every other Chinese or Taiwanese person present. Even in my own household, the language you would hear is more of a 70% Cantonese and 30% English.
We often also mix the two within sentences. But it's never 98% English.
But now I'm nitpicking, and that's probably not fair to this book.
Because, in earnest, I really, really wanted to really love this book. I'm completely ecstatic that this book presents to us an Asian American protagonist, who's just an ordinary person living an ordinary life, with an extremely believable setting and cast of characters. This book is entirely relatable to me, because I live this life of being stuck between my very Asian parents, and my own American upbringing. If that makes any sense.
I'm entirely more American than my parents would like. But at the same time, I'm just as American as my parents hope for in order to live an easier life in America.
Lana is just as American as I am. She's an ordinary Asian American girl, living her life between cultures--and yet it all just feels completely natural. At the same time, she still has to abide by a lot of the Asian cultures she grew up learning in order to interact with the very Asian community she calls home.
And I'm not saying that I didn't like this book. I very much enjoyed it, between the setting, and even Lana's character (who really does remind me a lot of me when I was her age). Being stuck in limbo and trying to find herself while fending off her mother about doing something meaningful with her life. Being asked by every Asian relative and family friend why I don't have a boyfriend, and that I need to find one before I get too old to have babies.
On a side tangent: I really DID start getting annoyed with everyone who kept making it seem like Lana needed a boyfriend to be happy. Even her best friend started jumping on that bandwagon, wanting her to date or find someone new. I expect this from parents and parental figures--but coming from Megan was a bit more frustrating.
Because you don't need to be in a romantic relationship to be happy about your life. And constantly telling me that my life is not happy or not complete just because I don't have a significant other really, really irks me. AND it's insulting. How do you know what I want with my life to be happy? How do you know that I'm not happy being carefree and single?
Anyway, jumping OFF of my soap box before I get too off topic again...
Really one of the bigger things that bugged me about this book (aside from my above ranting) was Lana's means of investigating the murder of Mr. Feng. And I'm not sure if she was intentionally made to seem so amateur about it, because she is indeed an amateur sleuth. Her interrogation methods were way too obvious, and made me cringe, wondering how nobody got suspicious with her, or upset that she was asking so many questions. Everyone just straight up answered all of her questions. Her rapid-fire way of questioning people felt too brusque, so rather than seeming like she was cleverly trying to find out information from the people in the surrounding stores, she sounded exactly like she was interrogating a suspect in a closed room.
This aspect, I'm hoping will be improved upon in future installments.
I would have also liked more background on what happened to Lana to land her back at her parent's restaurant to begin with. We know that she broke up with a cheating boyfriend, and we know that she walked out of her place of work. We never get a clear picture of what exactly happened to make her walk out of her job and come home to work at the noodle shop. We never get to see much of Lana's ex-boyfriend to understand why everyone around her is so saddened by their break-up.
I'm also hoping that future installments might elaborate more on Detective Trudeau as a character. Because at this point, while he's not really the broody, jackass detective I'd been expecting... well, he's really just "Love Interest #1" with no personality. He does not stand out at all and I'm hard pressed to feel anything for any potential romance.
I DO, however, love the presence of Megan. I thought it was wonderful to give Lana a partner in crime as she goes around investigating the murder. And I loved that the girls had a moment wherein they realize that maybe they were in a little over their heads. At least that kind of keeps them from doing anything too stupid.
But otherwise, I'm quite interested in continuing this series. Like I said, there were a few quibbles--I know it looks more like I had LOTS to complain about--but considering I blasted through this book so quickly, I feel like it kept me quite hooked. Certainly there were more characters than I could really keep track of, and tons of red herrings that kept me guessing. And certainly the shoddy detective work by Lana and her BFF can be overlooked in this first book, simply as them being too green to know what they're doing.
I think I would like for the detective to have a bigger role in the next mystery if only to prove to me that there are cozy mysteries out there where the police force is NOT so incompetent that a couple of very green, very amateur wannabe PI's end up solving their case for them. But I suppose that's just how cozy mysteries are set up?
Other possible squares: New Release; Cozy Mystery; Amateur Sleuth; Terrifying Women; Murder Most Foul