TITLE: Arsenic and Adobo
AUTHOR: Mia P. Manansala
RELEASE DATE: May 4th, 2021
GENRE: Cozy Mystery
COVER ARTIST: Vi-An Nguyen
Format: digital review copy
Representation: Filipino American MC, Pakistani Muslim American side characters, Korean American side character, Mexican American side character, Japanese American side character, Black American side characters, LGBTQ+ (lesbian, bisexual, queer) side characters
Content + Trigger Warnings: murder, death, poisoning, evidence planting, police intimidation, police encounters, drug use, fatphobia, racism, physical assault, hospitals, domestic violence (implied), discussion of food
Rating: ★★★★ 3.5/5
DISCLAIMER: I received an Advanced Reader’s Copy of this book from the publisher and Caffeine Book Tours as part of my participation in their tour. Nevertheless, this review remains a reflection of my honest and unbiased opinions.
The first book in a new culinary cozy series full of sharp humor and delectable dishes—one that might just be killer…
When Lila Macapagal moves back home to recover from a horrible breakup, her life seems to be following all the typical rom-com tropes. She’s tasked with saving her Tita Rosie’s failing restaurant, and she has to deal with a group of matchmaking aunties who shower her with love and judgment. But when a notoriously nasty food critic (who happens to be her ex-boyfriend) drops dead moments after a confrontation with Lila, her life quickly swerves from a Nora Ephron romp to an Agatha Christie case.
With the cops treating her like she’s the one and only suspect, and the shady landlord looking to finally kick the Macapagal family out and resell the storefront, Lila’s left with no choice but to conduct her own investigation. Armed with the nosy auntie network, her barista best bud, and her trusted Dachshund, Longanisa, Lila takes on this tasty, twisted case and soon finds her own neck on the chopping block…
Hello friends! Welcome to my stop for the #ArsenicAdoboTour! I’m thrilled to have been chosen to participate in this tour, hosted by Caffeine Book Tours! As a Filipino American myself, I was super excited to read this debut novel by a Filipino American author. Since it’s uncommon that I get to read books as an Own Voices reviewer, I leapt at the opportunity to sign up for this tour. Thank you to Shealea and Caffeine Book Tours for organizing this tour and allowing me to be part of it! Click on the banner above to be directed to the tour schedule and check out all of the other fantastic reviews!
This was my first time reading a “cozy mystery,” so I admittedly wasn’t sure what the cozy to crime ratio was going to be like. While yes, it does involve murder, Arsenic and Adobo miraculously manages to balance warmth and comfort with creeping dread as the mystery unfolds. If the book’s adorable cover art wasn’t enough to tempt you to pick it up, here are five additional reasons to read Mia P. Manansala’s Arsenic and Adobo:
1. Strong Female Lead
“Just because I left doesn’t mean I was never there for my family. We all help in whatever way we can.”
From the very start, it quickly becomes clear that the fiercely determined and strong-willed Lila Macapagal is not someone to be trifled with. Lila’s passion and drive are proven many times over over the course of her quest to clear her name, through her kitchen experiments, and during her interactions with others in her life. Even still, it is not only independence and will power that make Lila strong. In Lila, Manansala creates a well-rounded and realistically flawed character who demonstrates that things like our bonds of friendship and family, having deep wells of love in our hearts, being able to recognize and own up when we are in the wrong, and culinary creativity can be strengths as well. Additionally, the book features an ensemble cast that includes a number of female characters who are fun, relatable, and strong in a variety of ways.
2. Food Focused
“My aunt expressed her love not through words of encouragement or affectionate embraces, but through food. Food was how she communicated. Food was how she found her place in the world.”
For others who enjoy food as much as I do, Arsenic and Adobo is a delightful tour through the eateries of Lila’s home town, Shady Palm. In the book, food plays an important part in propelling the plot, but is also (quite accurately, in my opinion) used as a way to form community, bring people together, and show care and individuality. Including different types of food is also a way that the book incorporates casual diversity into its cast. The book features an array of Filipino dishes that can serve as a wonderful introduction to those unfamiliar with the cuisine. The back of the book even includes a few recipes for anyone interested in giving them a try! I would advise against reading this book on an empty stomach because it may result in cravings. Personally, I have been longing for ube crinkles ever since reading it!
3. Ultimate Coziness
“I almost said ‘just friends,’ as if romantic partnership was superior to platonic friendship, but stopped myself. […] There was no hierarchy to love.”
You may be wondering how a murder mystery can possibly be described as “cozy.” I’ll be the first to confess that I had the same doubts prior to reading the novel. There are a few components that I believe contribute to the cozy vibes of this book, including: the descriptions of comfort food, the theme of family, and the close-knit community. Additionally, this can be considered less gritty than traditional mystery novels, which might be heavier and include more graphic violence. While naturally a story that involves someone’s untimely demise isn’t going to consist of entirely warm and fuzzy feelings, there is a surprising amount of coziness in Arsenic and Adobo. At least, a good deal more than I was expecting. For me, it was an excellent first foray into the genre.
4. Diaspora Blues
“Her insistence on me being a ‘real’ Filipino grated on me. As a second-generation member of a colonized country, born and raised in the Midwestern United States, what did that even mean?”
As a second and third generation Filipino American, I deeply appreciate that Arsenic and Adobo takes some time to explore the Filipino diaspora experience. Throughout the book, Lila’s independent, headstrong ways occasionally put her at odds with some of her older relatives. One amusing yet all too relatable example of this clash is how her Titas love to connect with each other through tsismis (often, coincidentally, about her) and constantly try to involve themselves in her personal life in ways that she might not appreciate. At the same time, Lila is grappling with the expectation of showing deference for one’s elders and the concept of utang na loob. Family duty and ties are a significant part of the culture, and this is something that Lila mulls over more than once. The internal dissonance from wanting to follow her dreams and carve her own path while also respecting her family and feeling indebted to them is an aspect of the book that really resonates with me. I feel that this is something many readers will be able to relate to on some level, whether or not they are part of the diaspora.
5. Representation Matters
“Even someone like me felt utang na loob, that impossible to quantify sense of indebted gratitude, to the people who’d raised me. But where was that magical line between selfishness and independence? Between my family and myself?”
While Manansala does not shy away from touching on the complicated emotions that can arise for members of the Filipino diaspora, she has also filled the book with joy and love. Many moments in the book (minus the murder) feel as though they are pulled from memories of my own family and our numerous gatherings with extended family, mirroring many familiar dynamics between relatives both blood and honorary. The book also depicts how important (and immense) Filipino extended families and community connections can be. There is something remarkable about reading a story that celebrates my culture in countless small ways that may not be obvious to every reader. For example, how the book depicts the way cooking and sharing food serves as a love language even when the words “I love you” are scarcely spoken aloud. Sometimes, “Did you eat yet?” can carry the same sentiment. It was also incredibly relatable for me that, even though Lila may have felt detached from her Filipino roots in some ways, food is something that connects her to it and her family. Lots of gratitude to Mia P. Manansala for writing this book, clearly from the heart and infused with heaps of the warmth I associate with my community.
And I’m not talking about the type of sausage! Another (albeit small) highlight of Arsenic and Adobo is Lila’s pet dachshund, cleverly named after a type of sweet, Filipino sausage. Given how much I love dogs, I’d really be remiss to end my review without mentioning the canine featured on the cover! Luckily, we can all rest assured that nothing bad will happen to Lila’s four-legged friend in this series.
Mia P. Manansala is a writer from Chicago who loves books, baking, and bad-ass women. She uses humor (and murder) to explore aspects of the Filipino diaspora, queerness, and her millennial love for pop culture.
She is the winner of the 2018 Hugh Holton Award, the 2018 Eleanor Taylor Bland Crime Fiction Writers of Color Award, the 2017 William F. Deeck – Malice Domestic Grant for Unpublished Writers, and the 2016 Mystery Writers of America/Helen McCloy Scholarship. She’s also a 2017 Pitch Wars alum and 2018-2019 mentor.
If you’ve tried Filipino food, what is your favorite dish? It’s such a difficult decision, but I love a good kare-kare and sinigang! Since food is an important part of my culture(s), there are many dishes that I would consider comfort foods, but two of my favorites are arroz caldo and udon. Do you have any go-to comfort foods? Let me know in the comments below!