Number One Chinese Restaurant, by Lillian Li*****

NumberOneChineseLillian Li’s debut novel , a tale of intra-family rivalry, intrigue, and torn loyalties is a barn burner; it captured my attention at the beginning, made me laugh out loud in the first chapter, and it never flagged. Many thanks go to Net Galley and Henry Holt Company, from whom I received a review copy in exchange for this honest review.  Don’t let yourself miss this one. This book will be available to the public Tuesday, June 19, 2018.

The book opens with bitter scheming on the part of Jimmy, one of two brothers that fall heir to the family restaurant after their father passes away.  Jimmy has waited for the old man to die so that he could run the restaurant his own way. The Duck House serves greasy, cheap Chinese food, and he is sure he can do better. He craves elegance, a superior menu with superior ingredients. He wants renown, and he doesn’t want his brother Johnny to have one thing to do with it.

Johnny’s in China. Johnny runs the business end of the restaurant, and he takes care of the front of the house. He’ll come back to Maryland in a heartbeat, though, when the Duck House burns down.

Li does a masterful job of introducing a large cast of characters and developing several of them; although at the outset the story appears to be primarily about the brothers, the camera pans out and we meet a host of others involved in one way or another with the restaurant. There are the Honduran workers that are referred to by the Chinese restaurant owners and their children as ‘the amigos’, and we see the way they are dismissed by those higher up, even when it is they that pull Jimmy from a burning building. There’s a bittersweet love triangle involving Nan and Ah-Jack, who work in the restaurant, and Michelle, Ah-Jack’s estranged wife, but it’s handled deftly and with such swift pacing and sterling character development that it never becomes a soap opera. Meanwhile Nan’s unhappy teenage son, Pat, pulls at her loyalties, and she is torn between him and Ah-Jack in a way that has to look familiar to almost every mother that sees it in one way or another. But the most fascinating character by far, hidden in the recesses of her home, is the sons’ widowed mother, Feng Fui, who serves as a powerful reminder not to underestimate senior citizens.

Li is one of the most exciting, entertaining new voices in fiction since the Y2K, and I can’t wait to see what she writes next. Gan bei!

Murder in Dragon City, by Qin Ming**

murderindragonIs there a killer on the loose in Dragon City, one that’s trailing body parts everywhere he goes?  I received my DRC in exchange for this honest review, thanks to Net Galley and Amazon Crossing.  This collection of stories l is written by a Chinese medical examiner, translated to English by Alex Woodend. I’m always up for something new, and so I took my galley and curled up. Unfortunately, this one just never gelled for me. I tried setting it aside, reading other things and coming back to it, hoping that with fresh eyes I would like it more than I had before; finally I had to face the fact that I couldn’t write a happy review and also be honest.

It happens.

Undoubtedly the strongest aspect of this story in my view is, as one might expect, the forensic detail and physical knowledge the author commands. But that can cut two ways, if you’ll pardon the expression. Some of us just love gore, and the more fleshy fingers or toes that land in sizzling oil, the more we eat it up.

On the other hand, some of us are completely grossed out by frequent, grisly findings, and this author put his thumb on my “ick” button and never took it off.

One other thing I like and that’s consistent is that Chinese cops that find corpses or find themselves in strange, scary situations don’t feel compelled to feign indifference. There’s no noir to be found here, just honest cops that yelp when they are scared and that dive when they hear a loud noise near a crime scene. The candor is refreshing and sometimes funny.

Obviously, each story has a different spin to it, but the tone overall is much the same.

I confess that the last time I studied Chinese government and culture was in the post-Mao period, before the largest Stalinist types of government fell apart; I don’t know what life is like for women these days in China. But the author never seems comfortable portraying women as people that are female. Women are featured and discussed as political bigwigs, servants, and technicians, but we never see them acting in concert with men or each other. There’s a clump of men, and then…there’s this woman. Sometimes. The woman is always featured as “other”. The male cops gather and discuss whether any woman would be ruthless enough to commit the crime in question, but by this point I was so green around the gills that I didn’t want to find out whodunit or why. I just wanted to be done, which I am.