Review: Arsenic and Adobo by Mia P. Manansala

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…

Title: Arsenic and Adobo
Author: Mia M. Manansala
Genre: Adult, Cozy Mystery, Mystery/Thriller, Contemporary
Targeted Age Range: Adult
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
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:  ★★★★☆

We all know I love a good mystery, which is why it will probably surprise some of you that I am not a big reader of cozy mysteries. As odd as this sounds when talking about a book that involves a multiple murder invesitagtions, there were so many moments of Arsenic and Adobo where I felt like I was being wrapped up in a hug.

The mystery was fun and interesting. It was definitely a central point of the story (as it should be) but there was a great balance between the mystery and the other aspects of the story. I thought that the truth unfolded really nicely, and once everything was revealed it had the “ah, I see how that previous thing mentioned fit into everything!” moment which I think is the mark of a good mystery. This, in the absolute best way, reminded me of a Hallmark mystery. It was exciting and interesting, not too out there and had that nice small town/homey aspect to it. I could absolutely see this turned into a made for tv movie and I would watch it eagerly! It really was a cozy mystery! 

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that brought up more memories from my childhood than Arsenic and Adobo. I mentioned this in my blog post about Where Dreams Descend, but as a Filipino-American woman, growing up I never really saw myself represented in the media, so it always brings me so much joy to read Filipino stories. Many of the things that Lila has felt or gone through I could relate to, and the family dynamics reminded me a lot of my own experience.

Lila was a wonderful main character. In my opinion, she was a great example of a strong female character. She was determined and strong-willed, while also being self-sacrificing and caring. She is also flawed. She can be a bit quick to anger and rely too heavily on sarcasm which her family does not always love (I can relate). She can be a bit single-minded, which leads to her sometimes forgetting about others, and she tends to shy away from difficult conversations. All of these things made her feel like a real person and made me like her even more. 

Lila also deals with what it means to be a modern woman with family members who have very traditional views. She often is at odds with her older relatives because of her independent ways, as they expect certain things of her that she does not necessarily agree with. In general, this is a very typical struggle when dealing with older generations, but from my own experience I’ve noticed it’s also very prominent in Asian culture. Arsenic and Adobo definitely touches on the diaspora that many children and grandchildren of immigrants can feel. 

“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?”

I’m a third generation Filipino-American, so I have also struggled with feeling somewhat out of place because there’s a part of your culture that, no matter how hard you try, you just don’t relate to because you were born in the US. Being born in the U.S. doesn’t make me any less Filipino, just as it doesn’t make Lila any less, but it’s definitely something that many people have dealt with and it’s nice to see it being more openly discussed. 

I loved the sense of family that this book had. It was nice that although Lila was an only child, she had a large extended family of aunties and cousins. I particularly loved that many of her aunties were in fact, not related to her, but instead were close friends who are more like family. I have a lot of those, so I found that very relatable.

Family is so important to Filipino culture, and Manansala definitely goes into that. Family duty specifically is incredibly important and throughout the book you see Lila deal with what exactly that means for her while being true to her wants and needs. It can be very tricky to find a healthy balance between the two, in fact it’s something I struggle with myself, and I really enjoyed seeing how Lila dealt with things. I think in the end she’s able to find a good balance and I’m looking forward to seeing how it plays out in the next book. 

“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.”

I may be biased, but Filipino food is so delicious and full of flavor, and always made with love, so it’s not a surprise that some of my favorite parts of the book involve food. There were references to some of my favorite Filipino dishes, such as lumpia (I used to love making it with my grandma), and adobo (a staple in all Filipino households) and then there were dishes that I hadn’t had before like pandesal, almondigas, and embutido that all sounded delicious and I’d love to have. Lila’s creations also sounded so wonderful! I would try them all and I’m so excited that there are some recipes at the end of the book! I’ll absolutely be trying out the ube cookies.

For many people, cooking and feeding others is a love language, and that’s especially true in Filipino culture. It absolutely was for my grandmother. I remember as a kid, going to visit she’d ask us if we were hungry and we’d reply and tell her that we just ate, and she would say, “oh just have a little snack” and then put out a full lunch feast. It’s how she expressed love, and it’s how Lila’s Tita Rosie expresses her love as well. In fact, Rosie reminded me a lot of my grandma (her name was Rose). Rosie is caring, loving, generous and hardworking. I really loved her and I was so eager for the mystery to be solved because I wanted her restaurant to be back up and running so that she could share her food with the community. 

There were other little things that reminded me so much of my upbringing that really made me laugh. Like when Lila would bring up “Brown People Time”, which in my family was always just called “Filipino Time” which basically means that you arrive at least an hour after the agreed upon meeting time. I couldn’t help but smile when Lila mentioned that unlike other Filipiino people she’s not into basketball. Pretty much everyone in my family liked playing/watching basketball when I was a kid, and I did too but I was always much more into soccer so that made me laugh. The scene that takes place after church where her grandmother and aunt brought food and everyone was gathered eating snacks and talking reminded me of going to church with my grandma when I was a kid. Little things like that helped me feel so connected to this book and that was really special. 

Arsenic and Adobo made me laugh and smile as I put on my sleuthing hat to do some mystery solving while also making me feel connected to my heritage in a way that not many other books – if any – have ever made me feel. I look forward to the next book in the series as well as whatever else author Mia P. Manansala has in store! 

Links for Arsenic and Adobo: Goodreads | TheStoryGraph | Bookshop | IndieBound

Mia P. Manansala (MAH-nahn-sah-lah) (she/her) is a writer and book coach 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 2018-2020 mentor.

A lover of all things geeky, Mia spends her days procrastibaking, playing JRPGs and dating sims, reading cozy mysteries, and cuddling her dogs Gumiho, Max Power, and Bayley Banks (bonus points if you get all the references).

Her debut novel, ARSENIC AND ADOBO, came out May 4, 2021 with Berkley/Penguin Random House and is the first in the Tita Rosie’s Kitchen Mystery series.

Find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram: @MPMtheWriter

Follow Mia: Website | Twitter | Instagram

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