Review | Are You Sara? by S.C. Lalli

AreYouSaraA Sara and a Sarah leave a bar and get into their respective Lyfts. Sara realizes their error when her car drops her off in a posh neighbourhood miles away from the much humbler neighbourhood of her basement apartment. She makes the trek home on foot, only to find police cars in front of her apartment, and cops examining Sarah’s dead body.

Who killed Sarah? Worse, even though Sarah was white and Sara is first generation Indian-American, they share the same build and hair colour, and would be easy to mistake for the other in the dark. Was Sara, a law student whose side hustles to pay for tuition weren’t quite all above-board, the actual target?

Are You Sara? is a fast-paced, twisty, and entertaining thriller. As much as I like to think its premise is far-fetched, I’m afraid I find it all too easy to imagine. As if taking ride-shares wasn’t a risky enough venture for any woman, now we have to worry that getting into the wrong one could prove fatal! Lalli did a great job developing the characters of both Sara and Sarah. This results in it being really easy for us to imagine either woman being the target of the crime, but it also means that even Sarah, whom we barely get to know before she gets killed, feels like a real person, one whose death we can genuinely regret.

The novel also explores some of the complex issues that women, and women of colour, have to deal with. We see both Sara and Sarah dealing with sexism and male entitlement, and with having their friends dismiss valid concerns, and we see Sara dealing with racism as a Brown woman pursuing a prestigious career.

Sara in particular is really skilled at getting people to open up to her and do what she wants them to, and I absolutely love how she uses this ability to turn others’ racism and sexism on its head. There’s a particularly masterful scene where Sara tries to negotiate a loan with a white male bank employee about her age. She senses immediately that he’s both attracted to, and intimidated by, her, so she deliberately downplays her accomplishments and lets him ogle her chest. It’s not quite a fully triumphant scene, because the guy was gross and unprofessional, and Sara shouldn’t have had to put herself in that position just to pay for school. But it’s a kind of code-switching I, at least, am familiar with, and I bet other readers are too. And there’s a kind of sweet satisfaction in seeing the guy’s behaviour through Sara’s eyes, and how easily she plays him to respond as she needs him to in order to get that loan.

One, admittedly minor, snag with the book for me was that Sara’s whole “I’m not really a ‘good Indian girl'” confession seemed a lot more dramatic than her actual actions warranted. She didn’t lead the quiet life her family expected, but on the whole, even her shadiest actions didn’t turn out to be all that bad. There’s a moment near the end where she gives the reader a hint of her future plans, and the narrative tone gave major gleeful villain vibes, but really, her big plans weren’t at all shady or even all that shocking. Mostly, it felt like a straight-A student gleefully confessing about how she smoked one joint or cut one class, and part of me wished Lalli had had a bit more fun with the dark side Sara keeps telling us she has.

Another, also admittedly minor, snag is that I wish I’d gotten to know Sarah a bit more. The relationships within her friend group were interesting and felt realistic; I especially love how she was helping her best friend get alone time with her crush, and it’s not because Sarah believed in their compatibility. Rather, Sarah knew her best friend deserved better, and she wanted her friend to get this dude out of her system so she can finally move on. I found it a pretty rational and thoughtful approach to her friend’s crush, and actually a kinda mature (or cynical?) idea given their youth. Still, that kind of detail made her an intriguing character to me, and I wish we’d seen a bit more of her as a person outside of her relationships. I almost wish she’d survived the attack so we could follow both women through the aftermath. Which is a testament to how well Lalli writes characters, and hooks readers into their stories.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading Are You Sara? It’s a page-turner, and I finished it in a single day, which is pretty significant considering how long it’s been taking me to read stuff these days. I highly recommend it!

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Thank you to Harper Collins Canada for an e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Epically Earnest, by Molly Horan

EpicallyEarnestBeyond a few nominal nods to character names and social standings, Epically Earnest bears little resemblance to the Oscar Wilde play that inspired it. Algie does share the rakishness and devilish wit of Wilde’s Algernon Moncrieff, and heroine Jane does share Jack Worthing’s origin story of being an abandoned baby. But all of Wilde’s madcap plot points, particularly the hilariously incredulous notion that both heroines in his play have such a love for the name Ernest, have been stripped away.

The result is a much less biting, much more, well, earnest and sincere young adult romance. Epically Earnest is delightfully unrestrained in the adorableness of its central love stories. Jane has nursed a secret crush on her best friend Algie’s cousin Gwen for years; with high school graduation just around the corner, she’s desperate to shed her sweaty palms and dorky witticisms and muster the courage to ask Gwen to prom. Everything about Algie turns Jane’s younger cousin Cecil into a heart-eyes emoji, yet Algie is notorious for wanting nothing more than a good time. At least until a mishap at a bowling alley reveals Cecil’s courage and heroism, and while Algie continues to speak of their dates as being all about fun, it’s pretty clear there’s more heart-eye-emoji stuff going on than Algie cares to admit.

Both couples are adorable; both romances are just really sweet. With such unabashed, fluffy joy throughout, I was surprised to see the author’s narrative restraint in detailing the big, splashy climax scene in Central Park, and the grand finale scene at prom. Part of me wishes she had gone all out in those scenes as well — I wanted to enjoy every last bit of giddy cheesiness from those moments. Yet another part of me is also glad that she did pull back when describing the spectacle — rather, the scenes focused on the emotions Jane experiences, and the ways in which her connection with Gwen deepens. If this were a movie, the spectacle around Jane and Gwen would turn fuzzy, and music would swell as the cameras zoomed in to focus on the characters. As an artistic choice, it’s smart, and a move that reminds us of the humans at the heart of these moments.

Horan also expands on the subplot about Jane’s parentage. While her counterpart in Wilde’s play, Jack, turns out to have a family history that plays right into the outlandishness of Wilde’s plot, and conveniently sets up Jack’s happy ending, Horan’s heroine Jane takes a much more thoughtful and realistic journey along this front. As a baby, Jane was found in a bag abandoned at a train station. The man who found her eventually adopted her, and then married a wonderful woman, so Jane got to grow up with a loving family. Still, she sometimes can’t help but wonder about her birth family, particularly when she gains Internet fame as Bag Baby Babe.

This subplot kicks off when Algie secretly sends a sample of Jane’s spit off for DNA testing, and the results reveal a potential cousin. Jane’s dilemma about whether or not to meet this cousin is momentous, as is the question of what to do with the knowledge if and when they actually do meet. I love where Horan takes this subplot, and how wonderfully the love and support of Jane’s family plays into it. On a side note, the moment when Algie tells Jane why he sent her spit off in the first place is probably my favourite scene in the entire novel; the surprising and unexpected depth of vulnerability of Algie’s true motivations tugged at my heartstrings, and made me want to give him a big hug.

Overall, Epically Earnest is a really sweet, feel good romance. Younger readers looking forward to their own proms may enjoy it even more than I did, but overall, this was a fun, fluffy way to spend a few hours.

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Thank you to Clarion Books for an e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | With Prejudice, by Robin Peguero

WithPrejudiceWith Prejudice is a complex legal thriller about a murder trial: Gabriel Soto is accused of murdering Melina Mora. Her hair is found in his home, traces of bleach stain his floors, and a witness says she saw them arguing at a bar the evening Melina was killed. Through the trial, various bits of evidence collide with the prejudices of the people involved, and Peguero takes us into the minds and hearts of witnesses, jury members, even the judge and lawyers. Deliberately, Gabriel’s mind remains obscured until the very end, leaving us to deliberate along with the jury whether or not Gabriel is indeed guilty of this crime.

The courtroom drama was fascinating. I loved seeing Sandy and Jordan butt heads, and I especially love Sandy’s strategic choice of the soft-spoken, rumpled Nate as her second chair. I would totally read a sequel starring Nate on a case. Peguero’s background as a prosecutor is evident, with the various legal details dropped in, and the way the reasoning behind the judge’s decisions are outlined.

However, i found the story much weaker outside the courtroom. The detours into the juries’ stories was confusing and often felt unnecessary. Peguero sometimes slips into a somewhat florid narration in these scenes, and with so many side characters who matter only for a chapter or two, it takes a while to figure out what’s going on and how it relates to the story. Worse, Peguero begins these chapters with the side character’s real name, and their lives outside the trial, only revealing them to be juror number one or whatnot after the detour into their past is over, which often leaves me wondering for most of the chapter why on earth I should care about this random person. These bits of their past are interesting insofar as they show their biases, but a late reveal in the novel makes so much of this part of it moot for the purposes of the main plot. Peguero also switches between the juror’s name and their number throughout the chapters, which just adds to the confusion.

The side stories about the lawyers and the judges are also underdeveloped. Sandy’s relationship with a reporter is interesting, but then it’s mostly shunted aside for the trial. Jordan’s depiction as a vain pretty-boy with a gorgeous wife holds promise, but we never (or maybe only briefly?) meet this wife or his family. And the second chairs — Nate, whom I found most fascinating as the quiet man who’s often underestimated, and Jordan’s second chair, a woman fresh out of law school who makes an intriguingly rookie mistake while examining a witness– aren’t even given back stories at all. The detective, Sterling, probably gets the most nuanced back story, if only because his biases are a bit harder to tease out, and when revealed, turn out to have complex reasons behind them. But in the mass of mini-glimpses into many characters’ lives, Sterling’s back story feels frustratingly underdeveloped.

Still, the courtroom drama kept me hooked, and I was ready to call this a fun, if a bit scattered at times, book. But I absolutely hated the ending, and the major reveal at around the 75% mark that led up to it. I’ll allow that the ending is (unfortunately) realistic, witnesses and evidence being as they are. I’ll also allow that Peguero set up the twist solidly — looking back, there’s no reason why things couldn’t have unfolded in that way, and Peguero used quite a few clever techniques to keep it under wraps. But as someone who was super invested in the trial and its outcome, I hated it. I didn’t get that thrill of “OMG I didn’t see that coming!” Rather, I felt cheated, and wish that things had turned out differently.

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Thanks to HBG Canada for an e-galley in exchange for an honest review.