Sunday 7 April 2024

MY NEW BOOK REVIEW: VERA WONG'S Unsolicited Advice for Murderers . . . by Jesse Sutanto (published in 2023 by Harper Collins)

I found this novel in the book section of my local Sainsbury's, thought the cover was eye catching and the title interesting, flicked through and read a few paragraphs, liked what I was reading and bought a copy, despite having never heard of the author before. And as soon as I started reading it, I was hooked. And that hook was VERA WONG.

Vera runs a most unusual teahouse called VERA WONG'S WORLD FAMOUS TEAHOUSE in Chinatown, San Francisco, although it's far from being world famous. It's dingy, uninviting and claustrophobic, with grubby windows and just one customer: ALEX, an elderly Chinese man with a wife suffering from dementia.

What Vera doesn't know about tea isn't worth knowing. A cabinet containing one hundred and eighty-eight drawers full of high quality tea imported from China completely covers one wall, and everyone who samples her tea agree that Vera makes a mean cup of tea. But Vera's original customers have either moved away or died and she doesn't have the money to modernise the place. In fact, it runs at a loss and Vera has been covering the bills out of her savings, which have dwindled to almost nothing.

But Vera is one hell of a determined woman, with an unshakeable belief in herself and her abilities. Pig-headed, stubborn, judgemental and unable to take no for an answer are just a few of her many qualities.

Still very active at the age of sixty, she takes a brisk walk every morning and then bombards her son, TILLY, with messages e.g. complaining that he sleeps for too long and reminding him to eat. Quite clearly she's disappointed with his lack of contact with her, and she is obviously a very lonely woman.  

But that all changes one morning when she descends from her also small and dingy flat above the shop to find a dead body in the middle of her teahouse. 

That dead body is a young man called MARSHALL. The police don't suspect foul play, but Vera is convinced that he was murdered and so decides to find the murderer by herself. In her opinion, the police are way too incompetent to solve the crime themselves, and Vera is nothing if not self-opinionated. She even unashamedly hides vital evidence from the police. 

That very same day four people arrive at her teahouse, all of whom are connected to Marshall in their own, very different, ways. There's RIKI, a young man who claims to be a reporter; SANA, a nervous young woman; JULIA, Marshall's wife and mother of his young daughter; and OLIVER, Marshall's twin brother.

What becomes very clear is that Marshall was not a nice person, and each of the four visitors had every reason to murder him, but which one is the murderer? Vera befriends them all and then ruthlessly prises out the truth that each one has been desperately hiding from her. And so the story unfolds as the four interact not just with Vera but also with each other. 

Vera keeps notes recording her discoveries and speculations, and I'm going to share with you an excerpt of her notes which reveal something of the way that Vera thinks and also gives a flavour of Sutanto's writing style, which is one of the reasons why I absolutely adore this novel:-


Victim: Marshall Chen, 29

Cause of death: Unknown

Suspicious signs:

1. Bruise on left cheek (someone punch him??)

2. Scratches on right cheek (someone scratch him!?)

3. Holding a flash drive (WHAT IS INSIDE?! Maybe nuclear code? Is he spy? (KGB?)

4. His fingers swollen. Everything swollen. Like me in third trimester.

5. He has baggie full of DRUGS. You see? Must be a bad person. This is not Hollywood, why is he carrying drugs around?

So scary! EXCITING! I am helpless old lady. What to do? Is my duty to find killer before killer go on rampage. Killer will come back for flash drive. I will identify killer and catch him her them!

Vera also has another weapon in her vast array of tactics. FOOD. Copious amounts of Chinese food, of course, and absolutely mouth watering. She feeds not only her new friends but also the police, arriving at their headquarters armed with a multitude of her home made dishes to tempt the officers into divulging facts about the case. They know that they should send her packing but really, that food is just so darn good.

Of course, Vera does eventually discover the murderer and, for me, it was a big surprise but totally making sense. And all the loose ends involving her four main suspects are neatly resolved, leaving me, the reader, feeling exceedingly happy.

So what is it about Vera that I like so much, given her brutal honesty irrespective of who she's talking to? Well, it's just that . . . her brutal honesty. She says exactly what she's thinking, which is so refreshing, and something I wish I could do more but am often just too polite to do so. Vera is certainly not polite but she has a very big heart. She might annoy the hell out of everyone but she's a lot of fun to be around and there is that glorious food and those perfect cups of tea.

All the other characters are also well-rounded and likeable. So much so that I wondered how Vera would respond (and how I would respond) when she eventually does solve the case. She may be satisfied that she has been right all along but does she regret her discovery?

I've given you the bare bones of the plot and characters, with just a smidgen of spoilers included, so it's up to you, if you so wish, to buy a copy and enjoy the read, probably laughing out loud as you do so. 

My opinion of this novel? 



Jesse Sutanto is a young (and stunningly beautiful) Chinese-Indonesian writer based in Jakarta, who has already published nine novels for adults, young adults and middle grade readers. Most of her characters are Chinese and she has an astute understanding of the clash of ideas, expectations and behaviour between the older and younger generations within Chinese families. Which makes for fascinating reading.

But here's the strange thing. Because I so loved Vera Wong's Unsolicited Advice for Murderers, I bought two more of her novels and was surprisingly unimpressed. (This is where my brutal honesty kicks in, which is a must for all writers and if it isn't then it should be.)

The first novel was Dial A For Aunties, published in 2021. It won the 2021 Comedy Women in Print Prize and has been optioned for a film by Netflix, so obviously a lot of people enjoyed reading it. But not me. I found the story ridiculous and the main characters irritating. Those aunties didn't even have names but were referred to as numbers so it became a tad confusing.

The second novel was I Haven't Done With You Yet, published in 2023. This was told mainly as narrative with way too much telling and way too little showing. I found the plot exceedingly slow and boring, and I didn't like the main characters.

So how come a writer can produce a brilliant novel like Vera Wong's Unsolicited Advice for Murderers  but doesn't sustain that brilliance in her other novels? I usually finish a novel even if I'm not particularly engaged with it but expecting it will improve, but I had to put these two aside, unfinished. Life really is too short to waste.

Perhaps Sutanto has been experimenting with styles, because the three novels I've mentioned are very different in style, or because she has published to many novels within a short time frame so quality has been sacrificed. Or perhaps I'm just too picky but I'm just telling it as I see it. But the one novel of hers that I love, I really love.


Maggie Knutson is a published author, reporter and blogger. Her humorous animal fantasy novel WALKIES and the sequel, THE GREAT ADVENTURE, are soon to be published. If anyone has ever read a really funny animal adventure novel, will you please pass on the title and author so I can assess the competition !!!