Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice for Murderers by Jesse Q. Suntano

A sixty-something widow, Vera Wong, who owns a tea shop in San Francisco’s Chinatown, lives alone in an upstairs apartment. Lively, quirky, and a connoisseur of tea, she has few customers. Even her own son distances himself from her.

One morning Vera comes down to her shop and discovers the body of a dead young male lying on the floor, clutching a flash drive in his outstretched hand. After swiping the flash drive, she calls the police, who insist it was a drug overdose.

Vera considers it a murder and proceeds to investigate on her own. All of a sudden, she begins to receive visitors, which includes the dead man’s wife, his young daughter, his twin brother, and several other individuals. They all seem to have secrets of their own. A lonely Vera befriends them all, creating a close-knit family, as it were.

Just then, a second break-in occurs. Not only is her precious stock of tea dumped on the floor, ruined, but also the place is no longer habitable. Who is the culprit? Could it be one of Vera’s new friends? What could she do now?

In this light-hearted whodunnit with a YA feel, Wong runs the show. She makes friends easily with a diverse set of individuals, which no small task. What also enchants the reader are the descriptions of food and tea she serves. The story might not satisfy fans of serious mystery novels but, as light reading, it’ll surely win some hearts.

A Disappearance in Fiji by Nilima Rao

In this historical novel, set in Fiji in 1914, we meet Sergeant Akal Singh of the Fijian Constabulary. A 25-year-old Sikh, born and raised in India, he has recently been transferred from Hong Kong. Furthermore, Singh has something to prove, given that he made an error in his judgement in his previous position.

In Fiji, he’s given the responsibility of investigating the disappearance of an indentured Indian woman named Kunti. A married woman with a daughter, Kunti labors as a coolie at a sugar plantation. No one knows where she could be missing.

The investigation proves to be an eye opener. Singh laments the miserable living conditions of the plantation workers. Malnourishment is common, which adversely affects the health of pregnant women. It is also common for the white masters to force themselves on the plantation women workers, who must suffer in silence.

As he goes to meet the higher-ups to question them, Singh is often treated like another coolie. Yet he persists.

The mystery part is not unduly complex, but Fiji, an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean, which is not often featured in a book, draws interest.

Author Rao, who describes herself as a Fijian Indian Australian spent time in Fiji, digging into the archives to research this book. These historical details enhance the story. However, more physical descriptions of these islands would have been welcome.

The best feature of this book is Singh, the imperfect policeman who manages to overcome his fears and stand up to the enormous challenges he faces. The reader hopes to meet him again in a sequel, should this become a mystery series.

My Thali: A Simple Indian Kitchen by Joe Thottungal

In India, thali simply refers to a round tray, commonly made of stainless steel. It also refers to a style of dining. A thali is a sumptuous meal, composed of a set of carefully chosen dishes, both vegetarian and nonvegetarian, each placed in an identical bowl, accompanied by rice and flat bread, and served on a thali platter. Thali meals vary widely depending on the region of India.

In My Thali, Joe Thottungal, who is a chef, author, and restaurateur living in Ottawa, Canada, serves up 85 recipes. Whether served on a thali tray or not, these recipes can be combined for a full meal or be presented as standalone dishes. The recipes come from Chef Joe’s home state of Kerala, located on India’s Malabar Coast, bordering the Arabian Sea.

An extensive coastline and the tradition of fishing explains why seafood is celebrated in this region. Some seafood recipe examples are Shrimp Coconut Masala (“soft shrimp and crunchy slivers of coconut in a thick masala”) and Lobster Moilee (moilee referring to a luxurious sauce).

Vegetarians needn’t feel left out. Chef Joe suggests swapping in tofu for the seafood.

Vegetables star in many of the recipes. Vegetable Uppumavu, a simple breakfast dish made with semolina and vegetables is believed to have “staying power;” Asparagus Thoran, a stir-fry using Kerala flavors such as that of fresh coconut, is inviting; and the kid-friendly Meatball Curry is a comfort preparation that can be made ahead. Note: Freshly grated coconut, a commonly used ingredient, may be hard to find in some parts of the U.S. A frozen version may be purchased in Indian or Asian stores.

Kerala is the land of rice and as such you can find recipes for Jeera Rice, or cumin rice, and Lemon Rice, both easy to prepare. A chapter is dedicated to condiments, which can add heat to a dish or cool the palate. Heirloom Tomato Chutney is a recipe to attempt in a season when such tomatoes are in abundance.

Overall, Chef Joe emphasizes balancing flavors and textures, while ensuring colorfulness and nutritional quality. The idea here is to prepare a well-balanced meal, in the true spirit of the thali tradition.

Ghost Girl, Banana by Wiz Wharton

This debut novel by Wiz Wharton is told from the viewpoints of a mother and her daughter, who exist in different time periods, their complicated stories occupying separate chapters. The author explores issues such as sibling rivalry and belonging and what’s most precious in one’s life.

Sook-Yin’s story starts in Kowloon in 1966. She travels to London to study nursing, only to fail in her endeavor. An eventual marriage to an Englishman produces two daughters, but little happiness.

We meet her daughter, Lily, in London in 1997, a biracial woman who barely gets along with her sister Maya. An enigmatic letter, informing Lily of an inheritance, sends her unexpectedly traveling to Hong Kong. This is the period when the U.K. will hand over Hong Kong to China. Issues of identity loom large in the minds of Hong Kong residents.

“My whole time in Hong Kong had been like this,” Lily muses. “Reassessing what I’d taken as fact, rewriting the story of my past — but like Reggie’s jigsaw, there were still missing pieces.”

Soon Lily is engulfed by the political tensions around her. Despite that, she busies herself, trying to solve the mystery of Sook-Yin’s later years and the circumstance of her death, in this well written family drama.

Bharti Kirchner’s ninth novel, ‘Murder at Jaipur: A Maya Mallick Mystery,’ was released in June 2023. She can be reached at [email protected]

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