A life of crime is not for everyone

By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asia Weekly

queen of tiles
By Hanna Alkaf
Salaam reads/Simon & Schuster Books, 2022

A year after the death of her best friend Trina Low, Najwa Bakri is entering her first Scrabble competition in hopes of healing and moving on with her life. Picking the same contest where Trina died might not be the best idea, but maybe Najwa isn’t quite ready to give it up just yet. Too bad the same can’t be said for Najwa’s other teenage competitors. With Scrabble Queen Trina leaving, the crown is up for grabs and the queue for the next monarch is long.

What starts out as a simple, albeit fiercely competitive, game quickly turns into something more when messages start popping up on Trina’s once dormant Instagram account. The cryptic messages indicate that Trina’s death isn’t straightforward and someone in the competition may have had something to do with it. As Najwa struggles to uncover who is behind the poles, and possibly Trina’s death, secrets are revealed as people begin to show their true colors.

“Queen” is a great mystery, filled with twists and turns that you might not see coming. Alkaf does a great job of dismissing readers with several characters who aren’t what they seem and could all be the culprit, whatever you want in a mystery.

Set against the backdrop of Malaysia’s competitive teenage Scrabble circuit, the story is filled with clever puns and clues in the form of Scrabble words that will leave you speechless. Alkaf’s attention to detail regarding how many points the words are worth and the strategy behind the game was nothing short of impressive. I don’t think I’ll ever look at the game the same way again.

In addition to the mystery, “Queen” is a story of mourning. There’s no one way to mourn the loss of a loved one and Alkaf shows it in Najwa and Trina’s friends and family. Everyone who was close to Trina handles her death differently, the same way everyone in real life handles death differently.

Four aunts and a wedding
By Jesse Q. Sutanto
Berkeley, 2022

Meddy Chan and his family are back and still just as chaotic. In this sequel to “Dial A for Aunties”, the Chans once again have a wedding in their future. But this time, instead of working on it, it’s Meddy’s own. As she prepares to marry her college sweetheart, Nathan, Meddy just wants her mother and three aunts to enjoy the experience, so they hire a Chinese-Indonesian family business, just like theirs, to s take care of things.

Meddy is hesitant at first, but once she meets wedding photographer, Staphanie — who reminds her of Meddy, right down to the misspelled name — she feels better about her wedding vendors. But the day before her wedding, Meddy overhears Staphanie discussing taking out a target and learns that her salespeople are real mafia and they’re using Meddy’s wedding as a cover to do business.

Enter Meddy’s mother and aunts, who refuse to let anything stand in her way of seeing her happily married. And as with this book’s predecessor, hilarity ensues as the five women take on the mob and try to stop a murder, all while getting Meddy off without a hitch. I cracked up at the illogical antics of older women—from the second aunt’s obsession with tai chi, to Meddy’s mother’s unwitting drug lord tendencies, to their competitiveness and bickering. But beneath the hilarity lies a group of women willing to do whatever it takes to be there for Meddy. And seeing Meddy – who finds herself constantly embarrassed by her loved ones – slowly realizes how beautiful it is.

“Four Aunties” also affects the Asian diaspora. Although Meddy and Nathan’s families may share a Chinese ancestry, that’s about all they share. These differences are particularly evident in Meddy’s mother and aunts, unsurprisingly, as they hilariously sweetly try to fit in with the local culture when they travel to England, where the wedding is taking place and where lives Nathan’s family, truly showing that all Asians are the same.

Portrait of a thief
By Grace D. Li
Small repair books, 2022

All over the Western world, museums display art from cultures around the world – the spoils of war, conquest and colonialism, looted from other lands – a fact that really bothers Harvard senior Will Chen. So when a mysterious Chinese benefactor contacts the art history professor with an interesting (and highly illegal) job offer – stealing five priceless Chinese sculptures looted from Beijing’s Old Summer Palace ago centuries – he can’t help but be intrigued, especially since the job pays $50 million.

The crew that Will puts together has every heist archetype you can think of. His sister Irene is their con man who can get away with anything. His best friend Daniel Liang, a safe-handed medical student, is their thief. Irene’s roommate Lily Wu, who races cars in her spare time, is their getaway driver. And Will’s friend, Alex Huang, an MIT dropout turned Silicon Valley software engineer, is their hacker.

Inspired by the true story of the disappearance of Chinese art from Western museums, “Portrait”, on the surface, is a heist novel. We see the team figuring out how to work together to get the job done (including watching the “Ocean’s Eleven” movies, which is a hilarious way to prepare to rob a museum). As students, they’re not even close to perfect, but that makes them easier to understand, showing readers that we too can potentially successfully steal priceless works of art.

But beyond the heist, Li does a great job of balancing this part of the story with themes of the diaspora, Chinese-American identity and all of its complexities, and the colonization of art. The story is told from the point of view of the five characters. They are all distinct and complex individuals. They’re messy and come with baggage – like many of us – and seeing their different backgrounds, their connections to China and their Chinese-American identities, and their reasons for accepting the job shows how all Asians – in this case, the Chinese – are not the same.

Samantha can be contacted at [email protected]

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