Review | Counterfeit, by Kirstin Chen

CounterfeitA pair of Chinese-American women team up to launch a manufacturing and distribution business for counterfeit luxury handbags. Counterfeit is a highly entertaining crime caper novel, filled with complex get-rich schemes, shady mob-like bosses, and a pair of anti-heroines who would fit right in with Thelma and Louise and the women of Oceans 8. I want the Netflix adaptation of this novel, and even though Ava Wong and Winnie Fang are in their 30s, I’m totally already fan casting Sandra Oh and Michelle Yeoh in this buddy dramedy. How incredible would that movie or mini-series be?!

Former corporate lawyer, wife of a wealthy doctor, and mother of a son about to begin pre-school, Ava is a fairly typical, slightly bored, suburbanite. When her old college roommate, Winnie, reappears in her life with an invitation to join her lucrative counterfeit handbag business, Ava declines at first. Until a fight leads her husband to freeze her credit cards while Ava’s in China, and smuggling counterfeit handbags seems much more appealing than admitting to her gossipy relatives that she needs help.

We learn all this from Ava herself, who, when the novel begins, is in an interrogation room telling a police detective how she managed to get roped into Winnie’s criminal enterprise. Winnie’s the mastermind whom the detective is after, yet she has gone MIA, leaving Ava behind to face the consequences. As the story unfolds, we see the scheme get more elaborate and ambitious, and the story is just an absolute delight of a crime caper romp.

I absolutely love how much Chen reclaims, challenges and subverts Asian and Asian American stereotypes, not just by presenting more nuanced depictions, but also by having her characters use these stereotypes to their advantage. For example, the stereotype of Asian women being meek, submissive, and, well, harmless, plays a key role in the success of Ava and Winnie’s tactics. In one subtle yet brilliant moment, Ava walks into a department store to request a refund on a (counterfeit) luxury handbag, and immediately heads to the white saleswoman instead of the Asian one. A story Ava tells the detective about the factory in China they use to manufacture the counterfeit bags — cramped, humid, with a net at the top of the staircase blocking the elderly workers from escaping — plays into stereotypes as well, as does Ava’s absolute horror as a woman who’d been born and raised in America, Asian heritage notwithstanding. Ava’s story includes an encounter with a tween girl with missing fingers who works at that factory, and the way that detail is subverted later in the novel is just masterfully executed.

Even the scheme at the core of this novel — counterfeit luxury goods! — is itself an industry very much associated with China. Winnie’s scheme is both realistic (in this case, there’s truth to the perception), and a sly wink at anyone who may think it’s too on-the-nose to be believable. Of all the cons they could have pulled, counterfeit handbags are probably the most obvious choice, and that makes the satire particularly incisive and effective.

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

Review | Never Coming Home, by Hannah Mary McKinnon

NeverComingHomeCoverNever Coming Home is a domestic thriller told from the perspective of the villain. Its anti-hero Lucas Forester hired someone to kill his multi-millionaire wife, so Lucas can get her money. The novel begins a month after Michelle was kidnapped, and the ransom drop was botched. Outwardly, Lucas plays the part of loving, desperately anxious husband to a T; inwardly, he continues his plans to get not just Michelle’s wealth, but her entire family’s. All seems well, until someone sends him a package in the mail that makes him realize someone may be on to his role in Michelle’s death.

The novel starts off a bit slow, but solid. McKinnon draws us gradually into Lucas’ story: his impoverished upbringing, his disabled father who requires expensive 24/7 care, and the plan that eventually led to Michelle’s murder. The external threat of someone finding out his secret begins as a trickle at first, a couple of notes that Lucas worries about but mostly just dismisses. But then the story picks up with the reappearance of someone dangerous from Lucas’ past, and the second half of the novel was a full-out thrill ride of a page turner that I zipped through within hours.

My one big snag with this novel is the ending, which was just… ugh. [I’ll keep this as vague as I can to avoid spoilers, but feel free to skip to the next paragraph if you want to avoid the risk of any potential hints at all.] The identity of the letter writing mastermind was fairly easy to guess, if only because they were so deliberately off Lucas’ list of suspects, despite having clear motive. Their identity was a solid choice, but the big reveal itself, as well as the other revelations that came to light, just felt, well, almost cartoonish. I admit I didn’t see any of the other revelations coming, so the author did a good job in keeping those a surprise. I also think that, if the story had been framed differently, perhaps from a different character’s perspective, the big reveal might have even felt incredibly satisfying. But it just fell flat for me, even kinda cringe-worthy. And while the final scene delivered some degree of justice — and genuine kudos for the genuinely hilarious final line — it felt a bit too much for me. Mostly, I feel like the ending was supposed to evoke a sense of triumph, of evil getting their just desserts, yet I got no such satisfaction, and the glee with which these scenes were depicted just left a sour note for me.

Authors generally treat anti-heroes like Lucas in one of two ways: one is the Dexter route, where the author leans heavily into the character’s villainous nature, yet makes them so charismatic and brilliant that you can’t help but cheer them on even when it makes you uncomfortable to do so. And the other is the route McKinnon chooses, where she humanizes her protagonist and actively makes us sympathize with him. In Lucas’ case, beyond his sob story background, there’s also a very strong sense that he’s nowhere near as brilliant or competent as he thinks he is. He zeroes in on two or three obvious suspects for the letter-writing, yet fails to consider other, not quite obvious but still visible, potential points of danger. He’s smart enough to use burner phones and recognize warning signs, yet not quite smart enough to install security cameras. And when the big reveal happens, he fails to see the true extent of the danger even when the letter writer basically tells him so. As a murderer, Lucas is in way over his head almost from the very beginning, and despite all his crimes, by the big reveal, I just felt sorry for him.

Part of me likes that McKinnon takes this unusual approach to the domestic thriller genre — we rarely see the story play out from the perspective of a man who kills his wife. In many ways, I also like what she did with Lucas’ character, how she humanized a killer without leaning into the Dexter Morgan trope. But another part of me wishes certain things were handled differently: either the story ended differently, or Lucas seemed like a more competent combatant, or even that we got a more balanced and complex view into Michelle’s character. We get a very strong sense of why we should root for Lucas, but much less of an idea, beyond the obvious general morality of it all, why we should care for Michelle and for her murderer to be brought to justice. The story felt unbalanced, and while the ending felt realistic enough, it also felt over-the-top in its handling, and a bit of a sour note to end the story on.

TW: hint of animal cruelty, but it turns out to be a red herring (the dog is fine)

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Thanks to Harper Collins Canada for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Mistakes Were Made, by Meryl Wilsner

MistakesWereMadeMistakes Were Made was scorching hot! The sparks between Cassie and Erin were off the charts. The sex scenes were lots of fun, and I also really loved the sweet moments like how they cooked together over FaceTime. Both heroines were also really well-developed characters; I enjoyed getting to know them both, and quickly got invested in cheering them on towards their happily ever after.

I’m not usually a fan of age gap romances, and the best friend’s parent trope usually squicks me out. But I found the f/f dynamic actually made these tropes more enjoyable for me here, I guess because there’s less (to me) of a power imbalance? It also helped that Parker seemed really young/immature, and Cassie did seem older, so the age gap between Cassie and Erin didn’t feel as large. I also liked how Cassie sometimes “mothered” Erin as much as the other way around, like how she helped Erin relax about the holiday party.

My one gripe was with how easily/smoothly the main external conflict was resolved. A lot of the drama around that seemed to have been fixed off-screen. While that was nice in terms of the characters getting their happily ever after, and while the way the author did it was technically believable, to the point that I kinda guessed the way it was heading, it was still a letdown. I wish it had actually played out onscreen, and explored a bit more, because that conflict was too significant for hand-waving.

Still, overall, I really enjoyed this novel, and liked how the author handled the age gap/best friend’s parent trope. I’m definitely curious about the other romances she’s written!

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Thanks to St Martin’s Press for an e-galley in exchange for an honest review.