Review | Love, Chai, and Other Four Letter Words (Chai Masala Club 1), by Annika Sharma

LoveChaiCoverLove, Chai, and Other Four Letter Words is a moving, emotional romance about family, friendship, and some of the very real challenges that can occur in interracial relationships. Kiran is an Indian immigrant who moved to New York to create more financial stability for herself and her parents back in India. Her sister was kicked out of the family for marrying someone of a different caste, and Kiran’s parents would never approve of her dating a white guy. Nash is a white guy and a psychologist from a small town, who’s dealing with the trauma of his mom’s drug addiction and death.

First: as an immigrant from the Philippines, I absolutely, positively LOVE that this romance stars an Asian immigrant. Most of the contemporary romances I seem to find that feature Asian-American main characters seem to feature ones that were born and raised in North America; most of their inter-family conflict deals with navigating their relationship with more traditional immigrant parents. The struggles of an Asian immigrant in North America is totally different, and by making Kiran’s family super traditional and from a small village, Annika Sharma has brought a very specific blend of immigrant millennial experiences to the spotlight. With the caveat that I’m not Indian, nor is my background as rural or traditional as Kiran’s, I loved how very real and nuanced her family conflicts were. I loved the interplay between the conflict over traditional vs modern approaches to love, and the genuine, deep-seated love Kiran, her sister, and their parents actually do feel for each other, even when they may not admit it.

Nash is the kind of wounded hero you just want to hug. I love how his childhood experiences led to his career choices, and passion for helping children and teens whose parents are also dealing with addiction. I love how he comes to recognize his privileges both as a white man and as an American, and how he continues to fight for Kiran even when he doesn’t fully understand the context behind her situation. Their chemistry at times felt more friendly than romantic to me, but I was very much behind this pairing, and rooting for their happily ever after.

I also really liked the resolution to the conflict. It was realistic, and it took into account all the messiness of life that Kiran and Nash will still have to contend with long after the big romantic gesture. All of that muted the celebratory finale a bit, but in a good way, because it also made Kiran and Nash’s future happiness feel believable.

Kiran’s friends, the eponymous Chai Masala Club, are all fascinating. Sharma does a good job of introducing them to us in a way that just whets my appetite to find out how their journeys to romance will eventually turn out.

A minor quibble I had was a couple of moments that just felt a tad Eurocentric in tone. One was when Kiran’s uncle made a joke about India being smelly, and another was when Kiran observes people in Delhi looking at a white person “in awe at his pale skin.” The second passage in particular chafed at me. Curiosity, I can get behind, but as much as I recognize colourism exists in Asian societies, awe seems a bit much, particularly for a big city like Delhi. I recognize I’m nitpicking over two fairly throwaway passages in the novel, but I was so into the entire thing throughout that these moments took me out of it for a bit.

Overall, I absolutely loved this book, and I look forward to reading more from this author.

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Thank you to Raincoast Books for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | A Dash of Death, by Michelle Hillen Klump

ADashOfDeathA Dash of Death is a solid cozy mystery. It starts at a party where reporter Samantha Warren, reeling over a bad breakup, is serving up the homemade bitters she’d made as party favours for her (now-cancelled) wedding. Unfortunately, one of the guests dies after ingesting oleander from one of the cocktails, and his estranged wife, Gabby, sues Samantha for damages.

It’s a classic set up for a cozy mystery, and I liked Samantha as a character. Much of her character arc focuses on her learning to become more confident in trusting her instincts, and I love how her love life, her career, and the current mystery, all play into that growth. I also like how she figures out how to turn her personal and professional disasters into viable next steps for her career, and I thought her journey into embracing her interest in mixology felt relatable.

The mystery itself felt a bit of a stretch at times, not so much because of the suspects or the reveal, but because I couldn’t quite understand why Samantha was so emotionally involved in the case. While she did start out as a prime suspect, the police switched their suspicions to Gabby fairly early on, and much of Samantha’s investigation is because she wants to prove Gabby’s innocence. Partly, she feels sorry for Gabby’s teenage daughter, and partly, she also gets a good vibe from Gabby and doesn’t think she could be a killer. The thing is, they initially met when Gabby tried to sue Samantha, so Gabby’s a major reason that Samantha’s involved in this mess in the first place. So while I can understand that Samantha believes Gabby is innocent, I don’t get why she’s so determined to prove it, even when it means risking her own neck.

Apart from that, the author did a good job of providing us with multiple red herrings and viable other suspects. The big reveal felt a bit anti-climactic, mostly because I thought some of the other suspects had more compelling backstories, but I didn’t guess the bad guy’s identity or motive at all, which was good.

The romantic subplot is cute, and I thought the love interest seemed sweet. That part of the story didn’t quite hook me as strongly as it could have, though, mostly because so much of this novel seems to set up a love triangle between Samantha, her ex, and the new guy, and while I appreciate the author delving into Samantha’s complex and unresolved feelings about her ex, the love triangle itself never quite felt believable. So I look forward to see how the romance subplot expands in later books.

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Thank you to Crooked Lane Books for an e-galley in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Denial, by Beverley McLachlin

DenialCoverI love legal thrillers — John Grisham was my entry into adult novels — so when I saw that a former Chief Justice of Canada had written one, I was eager to check it out.

Criminal defense lawyer Jilly Truitt is hired to defend Vera Quentin, a woman accused of killing her chronically ill mother. Vera’s mom is on record as having requested medically assisted death from her daughter multiple times, and the general consensus is that Vera finally gave in. Vera’s husband thinks she should just go for a plea deal, but Vera refuses to confess to the crime.

As a legal thriller, Denial is a solid novel. The court case at the core of the story was interesting, and the author’s experience in the courtroom offers interesting glimpses into how court cases unfold in Canada. I also like the insights into lawyers’ strategies, and how moments that, to my layperson brain, seemed fairly innocuous, may actually impact legal matters. The mystery itself was also nice and twisty. The reveals, as they unfolded, took me by surprise, and it was nice to look back at the end, and see events with the truth in mind.

That being said, I found the writing a bit dry, and as much as I liked the glimpses into the Canadian legal system during the courtroom scenes, the book never quite hooked me. Part of it was that there was too much going on beyond the main story, but little room to establish the emotional heft necessary to make these subplots mean anything. I was honestly surprised to find out that this was only the second novel in the Jilly Truitt series, since these subplots and their respective payoffs all felt like the culmination of multiple novels’ worth of build-up.

We get a glimpse of some of the other cases that Jilly’s working on, and how they intersect with her personal life in some significant ways. There are also some truly dramatic moments that would create lasting impact on Jilly’s life. But while I understood on an intellectual level why these storylines are urgent, they never quite pulled me in. Which is a shame, because I think there’s rich material in the storyline about Jilly’s second chance romance, and also in the drama between her and the prosecutor, which is tangentially connected to a past story about her biological father. There was also a subplot about a criminal Jilly defended, and a young woman in danger, which keeps Jilly up at night, and also intersects tangentially with the central case because of its timing. All of this has the potential to be fascinating, but the execution fell flat for me.

With the central case, I also found the focus on denial to be somewhat tiresome after a while. Jilly muses several times about the possibility that Vera is in denial about having killed her mom, but that felt thin to me. Why jump through so many psychological hoops to come up with the possibility that Vera’s in deep denial, when there are other, easier, and more logical conclusions to draw? While I can appreciate that Jilly’s job does require her to jump through all those mental hoops, it just felt implausible, and it was a struggle to keep suspending disbelief just to stay in sync with the Jilly’s mindset. All to say — denial as a motif felt like a stretch to me, and having it come up so often felt forced.

Denial unfortunately fell flat for me, but I did enjoy the glimpse into the Canadian legal system, and Canadian courtrooms. And like I said, I didn’t predict the big reveal behind the crime, and, while I wish the novel had delved a bit more into the complexity of the ethics around medical assistance in dying, I liked that it tackled such a complex topic in the first place.

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Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an e-galley in exchange for an honest review.