Review | Dava Shastri’s Last Day, by Kirthana Ramisetti 

DavaShastriWhen wealthy philanthropist Dava Shastri learns she has terminal cancer, she decides to die by medically assisted suicide. She plans the procedure for the holidays, when she’ll be surrounded by her children and grandchildren at her remote island home during a snowstorm. She also leaks the news of her death early, so she can see for herself how much good her foundation has done for the world.

Unfortunately, the news is instead dominated by rumours of a long-ago affair with a musician who’d written a song dedicated to her. As Dava faces her final hours, and her children and grandchildren are forced to grapple with their complex feelings around her death and their respective futures, all of them must also deal with the rumours that have surfaced, and with secrets Dava has kept hidden all her life.

There’s much to love about this novel. Dava is a formidable woman — inspired by Rockefeller’s biography, and determined never to be defined as the wife of a powerful man, she tells her husband Arvid straight-up that she aims to take over the world, and she needs a husband who’s satisfied with taking on the role of wife. Arvid readily agrees to let his career take a backseat to hers, and to take a larger role in caring for the kids and the household, and so Dava launches a powerful business empire with charitable foundations that give grants to emerging musicians and to grassroots non-profits that do good for their communities. The story is set in the 2040s, which puts Dava’s flashbacks at our present day, and honestly, if Dava were real, I could see myself reading her business books or signing up for her Masterclass. She’s a badass woman and an inspiration. Any young woman would be lucky to have such a mentor, and the thought of a South Asian woman — especially a dark-skinned one who was once mistaken for her lighter-skinned children’s nanny — reaching such heights in present-day America is absolutely mind-blowing. Yes please, may it be so.

Like many powerful figures, however, Dava is somewhat less successful in her relationships with her children. Some of the most moving, most heartbreaking moments in the novel are the contrasts between Dava’s realizations of where she fell short as a mother — for example, her therapist observing that Dava thinks of her children more as employees than as family — and the beautiful bits of loving memories that sprinkle through — for example, the “free happiness” of Dava and her youngest son singing together in the kitchen. Alongside her children’s resentment at being semi-forced into continuing Dava’s businesses for their careers, is the heart-wrenching realization by Dava herself that she displayed more warmth towards a young woman she’s mentoring whom she’d met as an adult, than towards the young men and women she’d raised from birth.

A more traditional novel would have set the story after Dava’s death. It would also be heartfelt, in that the various children would still have to deal with the loss of their mother, and the fallout of the rumours surrounding her death. But I think it also would have been more lighthearted, and more tied to the soap opera-ish hook of long-held family secrets now come to light.

Ramisetti chooses to set her story in the hours leading up to Dava’s death, and in so doing, casts a pallor of melancholy over the entire affair. This is a beautiful, well-crafted book, but by no means an easy one. I would highly recommend NOT reading it during a vacation or a holiday when you just want to relax. The Shastri-Persson family grapples with inescapable grief the entire time they’re together on Beatrix Island, and the reader has to work through this grief right alongside them. The novel gets slow at times — despite the big mysteries Dava’s family tries to solve about her past, most of the answers are fairly easy to guess for the reader, and as a result, some of the flashbacks and present-day conversations just feel too drawn out.

That being said, the novel really hits its stride maybe about two-thirds of the way through, when Sandi, Dava’s newest daughter-in-law, takes the grandchildren to Dava’s room to spend her final night with her. Dava offers each grandchild — including Sandi as a stand-in for the future grandchild still in her womb — the chance to ask her just one question, which she’ll answer honestly on the condition that the answers never leave the room. Thanks to this plot device, we finally get the truth about the musician and other details related to the alleged affair, but more importantly, the plot device also allows Dava to open up to her grandchildren in a way she’d never quite managed with her own children. It’s a beautiful, cathartic, and heart-wrenching series of chapters that lead us, inevitably, to the end. The scene where Dava takes her last meal, and the grandchildren and children try to find just the right soundtrack for the occasion, just about brought me to tears.

Dava Shastri’s Last Day starts off slow, but it builds up to being an absolute tearjerker of a novel. I’m not sure how I feel about it overall — I think parts could have been tightened, and some repetitions could have been cut out. And ultimately, I just find it too depressing a read to want to put myself through it again. Still, Ramisetti succeeds in creating a memorable character in Dava Shastri, and in taking readers along on a truly emotional ride.

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Thank you to Grand Central Publishing for an e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Top 10 Books of 2021

Business Books

This was a good year for me professionally, and while I must have read more management books this year than I ever have since business school, these are the ones I found most useful.

1. The Making of a Manager by Julie Zhou

Straightforward, accessible, and entertaining, I highly recommend this book for any first-time managers. The illustrations at the beginning of each chapter, featuring anthropomorphic animals navigating various management situations, are particularly helpful, and have earned this a permanent spot on my shelves.

2. Getting Past No by William Ury

Probably a classic by now, this was recommended to me by a lawyer friend, and I found it super helpful. I like how broadly applicable the content is — Ury doesn’t focus on how to get the best business deal, nor on how to build long-term business relationships. Rather, he crafts a modern-day Art of War, with strategies and tactics that can be used in everything from negotiating business deals to navigating everyday conversations.

Romances

3. Hana Khan Carries On by Uzma Jalaluddin

I’ve gushed about this book before, and I’ll continue gushing about it for years to come. Now optioned for film by Mindy Kaling, this laugh-out-loud-hilarious rom com has lots of heart, incredible side characters, and loads of biryani poutine. Its central romance — You’ve Got Mail with competing halal restaurants in Scarborough — sparkles with wit and charm, yet it’s the entirety of Hana’s world that’ll draw you right in. (Full review)

4. Satisfaction Guaranteed by Karelia Stetz-Waters

Opposites attract happens to be one of my favourite romance tropes, and Cade and Selena will have you falling in love from their very first meet-cute. The romance is sexy and feel-good, and I absolutely love how central consent is to their relationship. Personal highlight: Selena convinces a reluctant Cade to take a motorcycle ride with her, and then takes the time to teach Cade non-verbal signals to let her, as the driver, know whether to slow down or speed up. It’s a simple metaphor that carries beautifully into the bedroom, and other aspects of their relationship, and I was just falling in love right alongside them the entire time. (Full review)

5. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen (BBC Audio adaptation with Felicity Jones, Benedict Cumberbatch, and David Tennant)

The story itself is all right, but the voice acting is phenomenal! Listening to Benedict Cumberbatch flirt Austen-style made my walks especially fun, and kicked off a months-long interest in borrowing as many BBC Audio adaptations as I could from my library. A quick note that this is an abridged radio play rather than the full audiobook. I personally liked that it was only 2.5 hours long, as it was the perfect length for a walk and a couple of errands, and, well, Benedict Cumberbatch. But heads up if it’s the full Austen novel you want.

Mysteries

6. The Red Palace by June Hur

A palace nurse and a police inspector team up to solve a series of murders in 1758 Joseon. The mystery is compelling, the romance light and absolutely adorable, and the glimpse into Korean history super fascinating. I hadn’t known of Crown Prince Sado until this book, and reading up on the history gave the events in the story so much more meaning.

7. Arsenic and Adobo by Mia P. Manansala

I love cozy mysteries, cooking, and contemporary Filipino stories, so this book was very much an immediate buy for me. The series lead and the mystery itself are just all right, but the food descriptions are mouthwateringly delicious, and the sexy, super sweet men vying for Lila’s heart make me long for a Netflix adaptation! I also love how steeped the story is in Filipino details, from the group of titas (aunties) to the barrel men figurines in Tita Rosie’s kitchen. One personal snag: we definitely need more of Lila’s dog Longganisa in these stories!

8. The Time for Murder is Meow by T.C. LoTiempo

I love cats, so any mystery that features them (fortunately there are a lot within the cozy genre) immediately catches my eye. This book won my heart partly because of how well it developed its animal characters: Purrday and Kahlua are vivid characters in their own right, and the stuff they do is hilariously relatable. Even better though is that the human characters are also super compelling: I love Shell and Gary, with their complicated backstory and reluctant teamwork, and I can’t wait for more of their adventures! (Full review)

Thrillers

9. Dial A for Aunties by Jesse Q. Sutanto

We all know Asian aunties are awesome, but would yours cover up a(n accidental) murder for you? More madcap comedy than nail-biting thriller, this was an absolute delight, from page one all the way to the very end. It’s absolutely, ridiculously absurd, so leave your disbelief at the door, and turn yourself over completely to enjoying the ride. More importantly, beyond the humour, this novel is also very much full of heart. Meddy Chan and her aunties are all ride-or-die for each other, and as odd as it may be to think about a book with a murderous cover-up, this is a really sweet and heartwarming family novel. (Full review)

10. The Wife Upstairs by Rachel Hawkins

It’s hard to make a Jane Eyre retelling stand out, but with this book, Hawkins succeeds in creating a truly contemporary thriller that stands on its own while still managing to incorporate multiple shout-outs to the original. This re-telling leans into the class divide amongst the characters, setting the tale in a wealthy gated community where residents “slum it” in a coffeeshop mere blocks away, but clutch their pearls when they see Jane taking their dogs so far from home. Both Jane and Bea (nee Bertha) are clever, calculating schemers, and Eddie (Rochester) is a worthy opponent, with a subtle but definite undertone of darkness beneath his genteel demeanour. It’s sheer fun watching the players as they circle each other’s orbits, and plot out their next moves.

Review | Everyday Witch Tarot Mini, by Deborah Blake, art by Elisabeth Alba

tarot box on a hand

I was looking to expand my tarot card collection with a deck that’ll be easy to carry around for whenever I’m suddenly in the mood for a reading. I came across the Everyday Witch Tarot mini deck on the publisher website, and as you can see in the photo, it’s small enough to fit perfectly in my hand. The size does make it a bit of a challenge to shuffle the cards — to be fair, this is the first mini deck I’ve tried, so I can’t compare — but the convenience is well worth it.

I absolutely love Elisabeth Alba’s artwork. The deck does not come with a guidebook, so heads up for folks who are new to tarot, but the images themselves are so beautifully evocative that you can almost come up with a full reading even without being familiar with tarot interpretations. (That being said, I find that looking up the various meanings of each card does help deepen the reading, and I personally love the Biddy Tarot website for that.)

The cards feature illustrations of witches, and the images do indeed convey a sense of magic, but overall, I also found the images very grounded in reality. While there is the presence of the esoteric, Alba’s illustrations depict the magic of everyday life, with the witches enjoying non-magical activities like doing yoga or enjoying a day at the beach. This enhanced my emotional connection to the cards, and help make the spreads come to life for me. 

Below, I display some of my personal favourites from the deck: 

FavouriteCardsEmotions

First, as a cat lover, how gorgeous is the back of these cards (middle image in the above)?! The black cat is adorable, the witch hat and broomstick heightens the magical mood, and starry night sky in the background adds a lovely touch of whimsy.

Vibrant Emotions

The Three of Cups and The World caught my eye because of the sheer exuberance in the illustrations. I love that the Three of Cups features a trio of older women celebrating life and friendship. And The World conveys such a feeling of peace and joy. I love how the witch welcomes the breeze as the wind lifts the hat off her head; her billowing hair and carefree smile reflect pure joy, maybe even triumph, as she takes a moment for herself on the sandy shore.

FavouriteCardsAnimals

Animal Companions

I love that all the cards feature cats joining the witches. There’s a gorgeous card where a witch and her cat are both surrounded by enemies wielding wands, and the image just emphasizes how much these cats aren’t just animals randomly in the shots, but also the witches’ familiars.

I selected these four cards (Judgement, Page of Wands, Eight of Cups, and Strength) in particular because of how they depict that witch-familiar bond. In Judgement, a witch plays a jaunty tune while the cat beside her happily chases a butterfly. In Page of Wands, an orange cat beckons the witch to follow them down a winding path. In Eight of Cups, a witch walks away from a table stacked with cups, and her cat faithfully follows by her side. And how beautiful is the image depicting strength? A witch has clearly gained a lion’s trust and affection — he calmly licks her hand while a black cat watches with pride.

 

FavouriteCardsChoices

Choices and Possibilities

And finally, how gorgeous are these cards for The Fool and Seven of Cups?! I love all the possibilities illustrated amongst the cups in the Seven of Cups card, and this sense that the witch is exploring all the options before her. And The Fool is just hilariously awesome, of course. With her eyes closed, she seems blissfully oblivious as she steps off the edge of a cliff. Yet you see the broom between her legs, and know she’s not about to fall; rather, she’s going to take a wild flight into the unknown.

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Thank you to Thomas Allen for a copy of this tarot deck in exchange for an honest review.