Tuesday, 9 June 2015

A Nose For Trouble: Ovidia Yu’s Singapore Sleuth

My first book review in months - almost a year, really. Whew! Finally, we're getting back in business. And I've fulfilled an obligation (though I had to ditch another one; Murakami's is not my kind of thing, after all).

...Feels good, albeit a bit rushed, as I'd only finished reading both novels last Saturday and hammered out a draft on Sunday. And, whoops, forgot I was reviewing two novels at the last paragraph - but meant to wrap a word in double quotes to make it more general.

Another thing to note: Ovidia Yu's first Aunty Lee novel is good, and the second is great. Not just because of volume, either. But I had to keep the word count low to avoid giving too much away. I was initially apprehensive - another Miss Marple/Southeast Asian kind of thing? Thankfully, I wasn't disappointed.

A great couple of novels to jump-start my flagging book review count. Let's keep it up!

A nose for trouble: Ovidia Yu's Singapore sleuth

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 09 June 2015

I was passed a couple of "crime novels with a twist" some time back, and nearly forgot about them. After all, what crime novel doesn't have a twist?

These novels promised something else: a crime-solving Peranakan aunty from Singapore, who runs a small café and, when she's not being sam pat (nosy) about scandals, fraud and mysterious deaths, ends up investigating some of them.

Though much watered down, my Peranakan side was piqued by the notion.

Aunty Lee's kitchen, now serving mystery, mayhem and murder - with
a side of acar, sambal and maybe ayam pongteh

Singaporean author and playwright Ovidia Yu unleashed Aunty Lee's Delights upon us in 2013, followed by Aunty Lee's Deadly Specials about a year later.

And each time, we are reminded that the protagonist, Rosie Lee, owns and runs Aunty Lee's Delights, a café at Binjai Park, less than five minutes' walk from Dunearn Road; she makes good traditional Peranakan food with modern equipment; she's a small, precise lady whose fair, plump kebaya-clad form smiles from her jars of Aunty Lee's Amazing Achar and Aunty Lee's Shiok Sambal; and her fashion sense can sometimes be a little off.

Among other things. Because so many things can happen in a year and we can lose track.

We also meet Nina Balignasay, Rosie's Filipina domestic helper. A former nurse and the Watson to Rosie's Holmes, Nina's powers of observation were heightened by living with Aunty Lee for years — as one would when one's employer tends to be a boh kia si (recklessly fearless) kaypoh (busybody) with a nose for trouble (gao chui soo) and fake organic food.

The first instalment saw Aunty Lee investigate two missing persons' cases, after one of them fails to turn up for a food and wine tasting do at her establishment. The other is a sister of a family friend, so it becomes personal when the body is found.

In Aunty Lee's Deadly Specials, the shoe's on the other foot as she becomes a suspect in the deaths of two people, apparently due to her ayam buah keluak. Buah keluak, the seeds from the kepayang tree, naturally contain cyanide and have to be treated before consumption. To repair her reputation, she sniffs around and uncovers a potential scandal involving the illegal trade in human organs.

Anyone who's had to deal with nosy aunties will be familiar with Rosie Lee — and the rambling narrative that sort of mirrors how her mind works. When it's not what the other characters are thinking, it's about what Rosie is thinking — and there's a lot.

From what's right and wrong about Singapore and its society (a reference to a Singapore mega church drew a guffaw) to how timing is important when eating a freshly-made curry puff (hers, preferably) — and picking a spouse. Plus, of course, some occasional Peranakan food porn that will make outstation Peranakan homesick.

I'm sure there are better ways to draw out the suspense before the gloved hand drops the pistol butt, so to speak.

Still, once all that is out of the way, the novels are quite enjoyable, especially the interactions between Aunty Lee and Nina — better than Holmes-Watson. But I think these tend to overshadow members of the supporting cast, more of whom we'll probably get to see in future instalments.

Rosie's circumstances also lend another dimension to the stories. She married into money, but isn't ostentatious about it like some other tai tais (ladies of leisure).

Too bad this does not placate her stepson's wife, who feels Rosie's fairly successful culinary enterprise-slash-hobby is whittling down her husband's inheritance (also hers) and has repeatedly attempted to force Rosie to retire and close shop.

And for all her wit, wiles and homely wisdom, deep down she's an old widow who turned to cooking, catering for parties and sleuthing to distract herself from thoughts about mortality and her man.

But does she have to put her late husband's portrait everywhere — and talk to it? That's kind of creepy.

A recognisable and relatable local heroine, plus (so far) plausible scenarios and no auta (far-fetched/unbelievable) situations or action scenes makes Aunty Lee's "delights" piquant palatable fare you can sink your teeth into — and maybe ask for seconds later.

Ovidia Yu is scheduled to appear at the 2015 Cooler Lumpur Festival at Publika, Solaris Dutamas, happening from June 12-14. Coming soon: Aunty Lee's Chilled Vengeance, probably in several months.

Aunty Lee’s Delights
Ovidia Yu
William Morrow
264 pages
ISBN: 978-0-06-222715-7

Aunty Lee’s Deadly Specials
Ovidia Yu
William Morrow
360 pages
ISBN: 978-0-06-233832-7


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