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!

All the Good Parts, by Loretta Nyhan*****

allthegoodpartsThere are times when a novel is more than the sum of its parts, and this is one of those times. Loretta Nyhan combines strong character development, our changing social mores, and sassy, kick-ass word smithery and this is the result. Thank you Net Galley and you too, Lake Union Publishing, for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review. The title is available today, hot off the presses.

Leona is 39 years old, taking online classes, working part time as a home health aide, and living in her sister and brother-in-law’s basement. She is unchallenged by any real ambition until her doctor—an old school friend—tells her that if she wants to have a baby, she’d better get to it before her eggs are dead. So now Leona—‘Lee’ to her family—is ready to get preggers and pop out a child. Let’s do it!

Leona is the woman I want to grab by the elbow and drag into the kitchen so I can tell her some hard truths. Instead, her sister Carly does it for me. Everything Carly says makes complete sense. She points out to Leona that she is so passive that even the baby idea is not her own; it was her doctor’s. Leona drifts through life letting people tell her what to do, and is that any way to raise a kid?

In addition, since Leona is not dating, she needs a sperm donor. The sperm bank and intro fertilization is crazy-expensive; she really only knows four possible donors. There’s an elderly patient growing accustomed to his status as a double amputee, but although he offers, it would be so unprofessional to take him up on it! There’s an online study-buddy that she hasn’t even met in the flesh; there’s her niece’s tutor, a very bright, handsome homeless man who’s actually even more passive than Leona; and there’s Paul, the son of the patient who dislikes her and fires her.

My, my, my.

This dandy little book is full of interesting philosophical questions and home truths that pop in and out of the narrative and dialogue like fireflies, blinking here and there without slowing anything down or stopping too long in any one place. And in some places, it’s drop-dead funny.  Nyhan uses deft, clever prose to move both the story and the protagonist forward, and in doing so she creates a very visceral, tangible protagonist. I don’t always like Leona, but I do always believe her.

I’ve never liked the category “chick lit”, because women read books featuring men—sometimes men only—and there’s no special category for that, so in the best world, men should want to read this book too. But in the world we have now, this will sell primarily to women. But whoever you are, you should get this book and read it. I have seldom enjoyed a DRC so much; it was my go-to book when I didn’t feel like reading another mystery or delving into George Washington’s past.  I would read something else out of duty, and then turn to this one as my reward. And I was sorry when it ended.

Recommended without reservation to anyone with a pulse.

Glitter and Glue, by Kelly Corrigan*****

GLITTERANDGLUE

Whoops, nearly forgot! Thank you, thank you to Ballantine Books and the First Reads program at Goodreads for permitting me to read this book free and in advance!

This isn’t Corrigan’s first book, and it shows. At first it appears to be light, fluffy material, a beach read. The confidential one-gal-to-another tone may create the illusion that we’re going to sit down over a cup of coffee and have a little chat, just us, and the book.

It goes deeper than this, though. The complexity of relationship between mother and daughter is not a new topic, but Corrigan is a strong writer, and she makes it feel new. She recounts how she had saved her money so that she could leave home to find out who she was, following college graduation. She needed to go out into the world to do that, she explained to her mother, who thought she should do something more practical with her nest egg.

In Australia, Corrigan runs low on money, and she finds herself signing on as a temporary nanny. The dad has just been widowed, and his 5 and 7 year old children are smarting from the loss. Reminders of “Mum” and mortality seem to be everywhere. And Corrigan, who is for better or worse playing the role of surrogate mother, finds herself channeling her mother. Everywhere she goes, her mother is still in her head. I recognize some of the truisms and turns of phrase from my own mother, though I am about a decade older than Corrigan. And gradually, Corrigan comes to realize that what her mother had said before was true: her father, who always praised her and was always positive, but didn’t deal with any of the details of raising her or disciplining her, was the glitter. Her mother was the glue.

Later she comes to realize that there is not one woman inside each woman, but dozens of them: the mother who has always seemed a trifle harsh, undemonstrative, curt, and (my word) anal at home is “a hoot” at the office. Everyone finds her hilarious there. She isn’t trying to be anyone’s role model, so she cuts loose. What a revelation!

Two favorite moments: toward the beginning when she is a “classic” snoop while babysitting. Whoa, I totally did that, and my friends did too! We used the house phone where we were babysitting to call each other up and announce our findings! Funny. Another favorite was toward the end, when the author, fuming a bit at home in San Francisco because she has been back home to her folks many times, but her mother hasn’t visited her, is told by a friend that she needs to invite her mother. “Maybe she thinks you don’t care.” Again, hell yes! My own mother instilled in me the notion that once your kids are grown, you don’t push yourself at them, sure as hell don’t drop in on them. I have been inside my own son’s house just once, and last summer he made an ironic remark about it. Hey, I was waiting for the invitation! Last thing any mom wants is for her kid to pull back the curtains and hiss to whoever is present, “Oh crap. It’s my mom.” *cringe!*

Ultimately, Corrigan experiences the role reversal that inevitably must come, and she becomes her mother’s glue when she falls ill. Her father is still the glitter.

I end a lot of reviews by saying that the reader shouldn’t pay full cover price, but consider reading it if your library or used book store has it. Not so this time. If you love an accessible yet intelligently written memoir as much as I do, cut loose and buy this when it’s released. If not for yourself, read it for your family. You’re bound closer than you may think.