“The Frangipani Tree Mystery” by Ovidia Yu

The Frangipani Tree MysteryChen Su Lin is “a bad-luck girl” in the eyes of her family in Singapore. Not only are both of her parents dead, but she walks with a limp, due to a bout of childhood polio. Now the 16-year-old’s uncle wants to marry her off, perhaps so she can become the second wife of a man who’s willing to overlook her faults thanks to a generous dowry. Su Lin, however, is determined to become a professional woman; all she needs is the money to pay for her training.

She seizes an opportunity to look after Dee-Dee, the 17-year-old daughter of Singapore’s English Governor, Sir Henry Palin, after the previous nanny died under suspicious circumstances. Dee-Dee may be a year older than Su Lin, but she is developmentally disabled, and needs constant care and attention. Sir Henry’s second wife, the unpleasant Mary Palin, certainly has no interest in looking after her stepdaughter herself, though sharing her home with an Asian girl strikes her as thoroughly disagreeable. (The dead nanny, Charity, was white.)

Since Charity may have been the victim of a homicide, Government House may not be a safe place for Su Lin, and the local Chief Inspector, Thomas LeFroy, is concerned that she may put herself in further danger due to her amateur sleuthing. But her position on the inside could provide him with vital information… as long as she stays out of harm’s way.

The Frangipani Tree Mystery is full of charm, with a clever and resourceful protagonist and a vividly-drawn setting. This is the sort of book which provides a pleasant escape into another world for a few hours, and I look forward to reading more of Su Lin’s adventures.

“The Bride Test” by Helen Hoang

The Bride TestTrấn Ngọc Mỹ works as a maid at a fancy hotel in Hồ Chí Minh City, Việt Nam, supporting her multigenerational family: her mother, grandmother and young daughter. Only 23, Mỹ got pregnant at a young age, and is raising her child as a single parent; Mỹ herself is the product of a brief fling between her mom and an American businessman, who had already left the country before her mother realized she was pregnant.

One day, a chance encounter with a prosperous-looking Vietnamese-American woman leads to a potentially life-changing offer. Cô Nga invites Mỹ to come to California for the summer to meet her youngest son, Khai, a shy accountant who is 26 and has never had a girlfriend. With three big family weddings about to take place, Cô Nga wants to make sure Khải attends the events with a date on his arm—and if it ultimately leads to his own marriage, so much the better: “I could give you a summer in America to see if you two fit. If you don’t, no problem, you go home.”

Mỹ is suspicious, and reluctant to leave her daughter, but hopes that a summer in America may provide her with a chance to find her long-lost father. She agrees to go, changing her name to the more Western-sounding Esme, after the character of Esmerelda in Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (her daughter’s choice). However, Khai is not happy to have a strange woman (even a beautiful one) showing up on his doorstep. He enjoys his highly-regimented life, and Esme seems intent on disrupting it in both large and small ways, from rearranging his bathroom drawers to making noodle soup for breakfast and attempting to tidy up his overgrown yard with the help of a meat cleaver.

Khai, who is autistic, is convinced he can’t fall in love and that his heart is made of stone. Esme, however, falls for Khai and accepts him for who he is. Khai eventually grows accustomed to, and even fond of, having her around, but will that be enough for Esme?

Helen Hoang based Esme on her real-life mother, a war refugee who came to the U.S. from Vietnam and eventually became a successful restaurant owner. Esme herself turns out to be an incredibly resourceful, hard-working and ambitious young woman who decides to use her time in California to educate and improve herself as much as possible. And I loved Khai’s relationship with his family members, particularly his big brother Quan, who is always looking out for him (and hopes he won’t let Esme get away). This is a big-hearted and captivating book that offers authentic and sympathetic portraits of characters we don’t often encounter in contemporary fiction.

“Kitchen Yarns” by Ann Hood and “The Library Book” by Susan Orlean

Kitchen YarnsA couple of years ago, Ann Hood was the subject of the New York Times’ “Vows” column, which reported on her wedding to the food writer Michael Ruhlman. The article made it clear that both of these divorced people had finally found true love, and their previous spouses simply didn’t measure up.

“I get the sense that from the moment I was born, I started knowing her,” said Ruhlman of Hood. “There is the platonic notion of love in which Plato postulated that one soul is separated from the other at birth and they each spend the rest of their lives searching for the other half. Well, if that’s true, then I’ve finally found the soul I’ve been searching for.” The article then went on to quote a lifelong friend of Ruhlman’s, who said that “in all the years I’ve known Michael, I’ve never seen him happier.”

It has to be awkward for an ex-spouse to see that sort of thing in the Newspaper of Record. It made sense, though, that Ann Hood would consent to have her wedding covered by the Times, since she’s never exactly been shy about discussing her personal life, from the tragic death of her daughter Grace to her first divorce (in the 1995 anthology Women on Divorce: A Bedside Companion).

Hood’s divorce does come up several times in her memoir Kitchen Yarns, which is rich in anecdotes about her life as reflected through the food she cooked and ate. From her mother’s meatball recipe and her grandmother’s Italian red sauce, to the Silver Palate Chicken Marbella recipe Hood cooked as a young single woman in New York, we learn about her life, loves and losses. When she’s struck with memories of her daughter, she reaches for comfort food, like a grilled cheese sandwich; exhausted from a trip, she concocts Italian rice and peas; to feed a crowd, she bakes tomato pies.

Ruhlman contributes a couple of recipes, but he plays a fairly small role in Kitchen Yarns. At several points, I felt that certain aspects of Hood’s life were being repeated over and over again—on page 221, she writes, “In 1978 I became a flight attendant for TWA,” something that had already been mentioned numerous times earlier in the book. The last page informed me that many of the essays in Kitchen Yarns had already been published elsewhere, so that explains why it doesn’t always seem like a cohesive whole, and why there’s not more content about her relationship with soul mate Ruhlman. Still, it’s a fun light read for anyone who enjoys the stories behind cherished family recipes. And I’m looking forward to tomato season so I can make that pie.

The Library BookIt’s rare that I read two nonfiction books in a row, but I received a notification that my copy of Susan Orlean’s The Library Book had come in at (where else) my local library. I love libraries. The first thing I did when I moved to my current town was get a library card. Like Orlean, I was an avid library user as a child. “The place was so bountiful,” she recalls of the suburban branch she frequented with her mother. “In the library I could have everything I wanted.”

That’s still a little miracle, isn’t it? And yet I am sometimes guilty of taking libraries for granted. A great way of deepening your appreciation is to read The Library Book, which is not just the story of the 1986 Los Angeles library fire which destroyed 400,000 books, but a story about libraries themselves, and all the ways they serve their communities. Almost every detour Orlean takes, from the way modern libraries must grapple with homeless people using the facilities, to how remote communities are served (Colombia has a donkey-powered “Biblioburro” service, in which the animals are outfitted with saddlebags of books), to literacy classes helping adults learn to read, could fill an entire volume. Each chapter begins with a list of three or four book titles, including their Dewey decimal classification, that gives a hint as to what the next few pages will contain. (How Everyday Products Make People Sick: Toxins at Home and in the Workplace, 615.9 B638, precedes a chapter that discusses health issues faced by the librarians who worked in the building post-fire.)

There’s also a true-crime element, since the case was never definitively solved, though a man named Harry Peak was accused of starting the fire. Orlean dives into Peak’s past, trying to unravel the shifting alibis he presented. He died several years ago, and the difficult nature of investigating arson means we’ll probably never know exactly what happened. “A fire can smolder slowly. The arsonist has plenty of time to walk away before anything seems amiss,” she writes. “Of all the major criminal offenses, arson is the least successfully prosecuted… An arsonist has a ninety-nine percent likelihood of getting away with the crime.” The old building was also a bit of a fire-trap, so it could have been caused completely by accident.

Happily, the Los Angeles main library is thriving today, and so are libraries in general, despite the occasional cries that they’re irrelevant in the age of the Internet. “A library is a good place to soften solitude; a place where you feel part of a conversation that has gone on for hundreds and hundreds of years even when you’re all alone,” writes Orlean. “The library is a whispering post. You don’t need to take a book off a shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen.” Orlean is certainly worth listening to, and The Library Book is a must-read for anyone who believes in the power of libraries.

“A Dangerous Collaboration” by Deanna Raybourn

A Dangerous CollaborationAs I wrote back in February, I started the Veronica Speedwell series as part of a project to read the six novels nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Mystery. (Walter Mosley’s Down the River Unto the Sea, which I haven’t yet gotten around to, won the prize.) A Dangerous Collaboration, the fourth Speedwell book and the sequel to the Edgar-nominated A Treacherous Curse, was released last month, and as I was finishing it, I was struck with a terrifying realization: had it not been for Raybourn’s Edgar nod, I may never have discovered this series. I enjoy historicals but I don’t really seek them out, and I’d never read any of the author’s work before she made it onto the prestigious shortlist.

The reason it hit me so hard is because with A Dangerous Collaboration, I’m prepared to state that this is now my favorite current mystery series. I love these books so much. There are undoubtedly plenty of other novels I would absolutely adore if I only knew they existed! I read 100 books a year searching for just this kind of feeling. (For what it’s worth, my book group recently read the first Speedwell novel, A Curious Beginning, at my suggestion, and several members stated that they were planning to read the others, so I’m busy spreading the good word about Veronica.)

In A Dangerous Collaboration, Veronica is persuaded by her colleague Stoker’s brother Tiberius to travel to a remote Cornish island, which happens to be the home of the Romilly Glasswing butterfly, previously thought extinct. As a lepidopterist, Veronica is thrilled at the thought of encountering a rare specimen. However, it turns out that her trip to St. Maddern’s Island will be fraught with peril.

They will be staying with Tiberius’ old friend Malcolm, and Tiberius persuades Veronica to pose as his fiancée—they’ll still be sleeping in separate rooms, but it won’t be quite as shocking for the unmarried woman to be traveling with a man. Then, as they’re about to board the boat to St. Maddern’s, they find that Stoker is coming along for the ride as well. There’s a lot of bad blood between the brothers, which adds an extra layer of drama.

Malcolm has invited Tiberius to come to his home—a castle, complete with hidden passageways and mysterious hiding places—to help him figure out what happened to his bride, Rosamund, who disappeared on their wedding day, three years earlier. Also present are Malcolm’s sister-in-law Helen and her son, and his sister Mertensia. Malcolm cannot move on with his life until he knows what became of Rosamund. Did she leave of her own volition, or did she meet with foul play?

“There’s not a square inch of this island that doesn’t hold a secret,” one of the villagers on St. Maddern’s, a self-described pellar witch, warns Veronica. “Rosamund Romilly does not rest easy. Take a care for yourself and any you love.”

When a seance held by Helen to summon Rosamund causes some strange events to occur, Veronica and Stoker are faced with a mystery that tests their scientific and highly logical outlooks. (Though anybody who thinks Veronica Speedwell is going to come away from such an event thinking “Well, ghosts must be real, then!” doesn’t know her very well.)

Toward the end of the book, there’s an emotional payoff so powerful that tears sprang to my eyes. While Deanna Raybourn may not have taken home the Edgar, she’s created a series worthy of a gold medal.

“The Department of Sensitive Crimes” by Alexander McCall Smith

The Department of Sensitive CrimesOccasionally, a book comes along that I feel uniquely well-qualified to review. Such is definitely the case with The Department of Sensitive Crimes, the first novel in Alexander McCall Smith’s new series featuring Swedish detective Ulf Varg. Not only have I been reading the author’s books for many years now, but because I was born in Sweden and have spent a lot of time there, I felt I would have a good sense for how authentically Swedish the characters and settings seem to be.

And the answer is… not very. The book is set in Malmö, which is located in southern Sweden, just across the Öresund Bridge from Copenhagen. I will admit that while I have crossed that bridge, I have never actually visited Malmö, but really, he could have chosen Karlstad or Mora or Göteborg and it wouldn’t have made much difference. There is a plot point that requires Varg to make a crucial discovery at a nude beach, and it is probably true that the province of Skåne has more beaches than other parts of the country. But otherwise, there’s no flavor of the city itself.

Curious about Zimbabwe-born Scotsman McCall Smith’s connections to Sweden, I found this article, which states that the author “has visited Sweden on numerous book tours” and is a big fan of Swedish crime shows. He calls his new series “Scandi-blanc,” the opposite of the Scandinavian noir of authors like Henning Mankell, Lars Kepler and Jo Nesbø. “The basic idea for doing Scandi-blanc came from the general enthusiasm that people have for the Scandinavian noir. I loved the idea of really deflating the body count aspect of crime fiction, where everything is so ghastly that people are chopping one another to bits… there are no bodies in these, [they’re] just really ridiculous. It’s all tongue-in-cheek, poking fun at these stock images of Scandinavian crime.”

Readers of McCall Smith’s Botswana-set No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency will be familiar with the kind of low-stakes crimes investigated by Varg and his colleagues in the Sensitive Crimes Department of the Malmö Criminal Investigation Authority. A man is stabbed in the back of the knee; there are mysterious goings-on at a resort hotel; a college student invents a boyfriend to get her friends to stop asking her about her love life, but when she decides to make him disappear, one of her roommates reports the matter to the police, who must then investigate the case of a missing person who doesn’t actually exist.

I only found one really glaring error: the aforementioned college student was raised by a single mother, who was not able to pursue higher education herself because “she simply could not afford to pay for several years of childcare” along with her studies. Sweden has had free or heavily subsidized childcare available since 1975, so that shouldn’t have been an issue for a girl born in the 1990s.

Avid readers of Scandinavian crime fiction may spot some references to other authors’ work, intentional or not: for instance, there’s already a famous Scandinavian detective named Varg, Norwegian author Gunnar Staalesen’s private eye Varg Veum. The Department of Sensitive Crimes is a bit like Copenhagen’s Department Q in Jussi Adler-Olsen’s series, and Skåne was where Henning Mankell set his Kurt Wallander mysteries.

Still, despite these nitpicks, I’d happily read another one of these gentle, comically absurd mysteries, and while Ulf Varg is no Martin Beck, he does have a melancholy, reflective side: “He thought of all the ways that so many people felt about life. Life was a matter of regret—how could it be anything else? We knew that we would lose the things we loved; we knew that sooner or later we would lose everything, and beyond that was a darkness, a state of non-being that we found hard to imagine, let alone accept.”

“Under a Dark Sky” by Lori Rader-Day

Under A Dark SkyIf you were to ask me to describe my ideal reading environment, I might picture a rainy Sunday afternoon, a mug of tea and a comfy couch. Or perhaps a deck chair next to a pool. Even a long flight, provided turbulence and screaming infants were kept to a minimum.

The opposite of those scenarios involves me spending all day trying fruitlessly to catch up on my never-ending workload, followed by a few hours moving and sorting boxes as I try to clear out a relative’s multiple storage units. At the end of the day, I collapse into bed, pick up a book, and feel my eyelids starting to droop almost immediately. That’s why it took me two weeks to finish Lori Rader-Day’s Under A Dark Sky, and the reason I suspect I can’t quite give this novel a fair shake. It’s almost 400 pages long, and it felt long, but is that just because I was reading it in such small increments, when I wasn’t at my best?

The book has a fascinating premise: Eden Wallace, a young widow from Chicago, arrives at a dark sky park (an area with no artificial lighting, allowing visitors to observe the night sky free from light pollution) in northern Michigan on what would have been her 10th anniversary. After her husband was killed in an accident, Eden developed a paralyzing fear of the dark. But she also came across some papers indicating that he’d been planning to take her to the park as an anniversary surprise. Sure, it seems like a terrible idea (sort of like someone who has an incapacitating tulip phobia deciding to visit Amsterdam in the spring), but she decides to go anyway, bringing along some high-wattage lightbulbs to help keep her room nice and bright.

She immediately discovers, to her dismay, that her husband had only rented one room in the park’s guest house, not the entire thing, so she’s going to be sharing the facilities with six annoying millennials who are having a reunion four years after they graduated from college. (Five, actually—the sixth woman is the new girlfriend of one of the alums.) Eden decides she has no interest in crashing their party, and plans to head home the next day. But when one of her fellow guests is murdered, she is forced to stick around until the culprit is found.

Rader-Day writes beautifully about grief and fear, but I feel like the novel could have been a little tighter and the killer’s motive a little clearer. Still, Under A Dark Sky did make me want to visit a dark sky preserve someday. The one in the book is based on the real-life Headlands Park in Mackinaw City, MI, and yes, it has a guest house, though anyone who reads this book will no doubt think twice before agreeing to share it with a group of strangers.

“Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune” by Roselle Lim

Natalie Tan's Book of Love and FortuneIn the world of Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune, a flock of ceramic bird figurines bursts into song; harsh words draw real blood; and tears crystallize, forming glittering piles, proving that “there was beauty to be found everywhere—even in sadness.” There’s more than a little magic in the San Francisco Chinatown setting of Roselle Lim’s novel. (As someone who lives in the area, perhaps the only thing that I totally couldn’t buy was the delicious smell of dumplings carrying all the way from Chinatown to the Mission; I only wish SOMA and the Tenderloin smelled that good.)

Natalie has been estranged from her agoraphobic mother for seven years, traveling the world and trying to pursue her dream of becoming a chef. Her mother had refused to support that dream, leading to their split. Natalie returns to Chinatown after her mother’s death—oddly, she died right after stepping outside for the first time in ages, and none of her friends and neighbors know why she finally chose to leave her apartment.

One of the things Natalie inherits is her laolao’s (grandmother) book of recipes, which seem to have mystical properties. Natalie wonders if she can bring the fractured, decaying neighborhood together again with her food, perhaps even opening the long-abandoned, decrepit restaurant where her laolao once cooked.

Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune has a wonderfully vivid Chinatown setting and lots of descriptions of food that will surely make your mouth water. I did find some of the plot twists a little too convenient (for instance, the discovery of her mother’s journals which pretty much answer every question Natalie had ever had), but overall, this is a fresh and fanciful novel, as long as you have an appetite for a few spoonfuls of magical realism.

Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune will be published on June 11, 2019. Thanks to Berkley Books for the advance copy (via NetGalley).