Book Review

The Maid by Nita Prose

The Maid by Nita Prose is a cozy mystery told from the perspective of Molly Gray, a hotel maid whose steady, routine life is turned upside-down after she discovers a dead guest in one of the rooms she cleans. Molly, an autistic-coded character who struggles to read social cues, facial expressions, and anything that isn’t meant to be taken literally, quickly becomes the prime suspect for the murder after a series of misunderstandings. With help from a cast of eccentric characters and charming proverbs from her recently deceased grandmother, it’s up to Molly to clear her name and clean up the hotel before it’s too late.

Book cover for The Maid by Nita Prose.

Most guests avoid touching maids, especially our hands. They associate us with other people’s grime—never their own.

Nita Prose, The Maid

Prose’s writing style brings a refreshing levity to heavy themes, and that easily makes The Maid one of my favorite new reads this year in particular. Molly is lonely and grieving—two emotions many of us have surely experienced in varying levels over the past year—but her voice is so genuine, too. You want to root for her because she’s just trying her best to be a good person and find joy where she can (even if it’s in cleaning up messes!), just like the rest of us.

The Maid also features an impressive array of characters: half are blatantly devious, and they cast just enough suspicion on the rest of the quirky bunch to really challenge readers, no matter who they might suspect committed the murder. And because Molly takes everyone she meets at face value while readers are compelled to dig beneath the surface, every interaction she has is twice as tricky to decipher. All I’ll say is every one of my guesses ended up not even close to correct. But that’s okay. The guessing is part of the fun!

However…the murder mystery actually isn’t the best part of this novel. It’s Molly! She is a wonderfully nuanced character, and I absolutely adore her. Molly sees the world differently than most people, and while it affects her daily life, it doesn’t stop her from functioning and isn’t her only defining quality. She evokes concern but is never pitied. She’s sweet, thoughtful, compassionate, and absolutely hilarious; she makes mistakes, gets angry, and is held accountable for her actions. If you enjoyed Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, come get your food! You’re going to love this novel, too.

Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.

Nita Prose, The Maid

Being seen is the most tender form of love, and by giving us a character like Molly who is so original and relatable, Prose calls out to those of us who might also feel invisible in certain aspects of our lives, who yearn to be seen. The Maid is a brilliant debut that reminds us it’s cool to be earnest, to take pride in a job well done, to love family and friends, and to live a good life—no matter how big or small. This is a must-read!

Thank you to NetGalley and Random House Publishing/Ballantine Books for sharing an advanced reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review

All’s Well by Mona Awad

All’s Well by Mona Awad is a contemporary horror-comedy with a dash of magical realism. It features Miranda Fitch, a college theater professor with debilitating chronic pain, who spends just as much time managing her pain as she does convincing people it’s real. In charge of directing the annual Shakespeare production at her college, she’s decided to produce All’s Well That Ends Well, in spite of a cast of mutinous students who want to put on Macbeth instead. It seems they might have their way and this, too, will be taken from her, until she drowns her sorrows at a bar where she meets three mysterious men and makes a Faustian bargain that appears to change the tides in her favor.

Book cover for All's Well by Mona Awad.

This is a problem play… Neither a tragedy nor a comedy, something in between. Something far more interesting.

Mona Awad, All’s Well

While All’s Well is readable and enjoyable on its own, I would suggest quickly perusing a summary of William Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well in order to enjoy some of the more subtle nuances in this novel. Scholars classify Shakespeare’s play as a “problem play” because it features several problematic themes and generally unpleasant characters. Furthermore, while it contains a formulaic “happy ending” like all his comedies, it is far from satisfying.

Awad masterfully adapts and subverts key moments from All’s Well That Ends Well. A particular favorite of mine is how she treats the bed trick: Shakespeare uses it to prove that in the dark, all women are alike to men. He also gives women that knowledge, which allows them to wield it like a weapon when necessary. In All’s Well, Miranda consistently confuses or imagines her new beau as though he were her ex-husband, and it similarly turns into an exercise to help her get what she wants. It’s not good or nice, but who said power or control was supposed to be either?

Miranda’s experiences with pain also highlight important social commentary about health care professionals doubting women know their own bodies and pain levels. However, because Miranda is so unlikeable, it’s difficult to feel sympathy for her plight. And that is the problem: Miranda has been managing her pain for so long that it is a part of her personality now. Of course she’s unpleasant when no one ever believes she’s in pain, doctors fail to help her, and people and systems appear to collude against her well-being. But I worry that the novel features so many other wild, twisted elements that this critical issue will be easy to forget for those who doubt or question its validity. That certainly proves Awad’s point, but selective ignorance does nothing to help move the conversation forward for real people.

I need to perform my little bit of pain for you so you’ll know I’m human? … A few pretty tears on my cheeks that you can brush away. Just a delicate little bit of ouch so you know there’s someone in there. So you don’t get too scared of me, am I right?” So you know I’m still a vulnerable thing. That I can be brought down if need be.

Mona Awad, All’s Well

As readers barrel towards the conclusion, the novel takes on a sublime, almost Shakespearean quality (rather appropriately). Unexpected magic twists plots beyond recognition and reverses fates without warning. Miranda seems to find easy solutions for some of her biggest problems, but they haunt her to the point of madness at certain points. It’s challenging to keep up with everything, and not even Awad’s engaging voice could stop me from wishing for an intermission. I was somehow both bored and overwhelmed a little over halfway through the novel because I was ready for the climax. The novel felt overwritten while Miranda was at the peak of her madness, and the denouement didn’t give me what I wanted. As much as I enjoyed the beginning of this book, I was confused and unsatisfied by the end. It seems lazy to argue that was by design, given All’s Well That Ends Well is a problem play. I shouldn’t be left feeling as though someone ripped out the last 20 pages of the book!

All’s Well is a creative, macabre romp unlike anything you’ve read before. At times readers are left feeling unmoored and a little anxious as they doubt whether they want to go where the plot will lead. They’ll question who they’re supposed to be rooting for, and if all can ever actually be well for Miranda. But that’s part of the fun: Awad takes Shakespeare’s problem play…and plays with the problems.

Thank you to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for sharing an advanced reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review

Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé

Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé is a terrifying young adult thriller that crosses Pretty Little Liars with Get Out. Chiamaka and Devon, the only two Black students at their private school, begin their senior years as prefects, putting them both in the running for valedictorian. But when Aces, an anonymous bully, starts to release damaging secrets about them both, they must figure out who’s targeting them before their bright futures are completely out of reach. It isn’t long before Chiamaka and Devon discover the conspiracy isn’t as simple as locating one random bully. Their entire high school perpetuates a system of racism built to tear them down.

Book cover for Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé.

I realized quite quickly that people hate being called racist more than they hate racism itself.

Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé, Ace of Spades

I have to be honest and say I groaned a bit at the Pretty Little Liars premise before I started reading Ace of Spades because what’s interesting about that? Beautiful people misbehaving at a fancy school with enough networks and funds to ensure continued success and wealth for all who walk those hallowed halls? Yawn. But I’ve never been more pleased to be proven wrong.

Àbíké-Íyímídé masterfully builds tension and suspense as Aces preys on her characters, slowly tearing them down, making readers just as anxious waiting on the next bombshell.And just when you think you’ve got it figured out, you realize the great mystery is you weren’t thinking big enough. This novel exists at the intersection of race, class, gender, and sexual politics, and it sheds light on the nefarious microaggressions society uses daily to plant seeds of doubt that make us question the existence of any of it. Protagonists Chiamaka and Devon are complex and interesting, and they’re so much more than they appear on the surface as Àbíké-Íyímídé carefully shows us the way each character has built themselves up over the years, and how a prickly disposition, an aloof personality, or something as simple as a hairstyle is actually armor. And it’s a good thing, too, because it turns out they needed it.

They treat my Black skin like a gun or a grenade or a knife that is dangerous and lethal, when really, it’s them. The guys at the top powering everything.

Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé, Ace of Spades

The most striking part of this novel is the doubt the protagonists experience, particularly when they guess quite early in the plot that institutional racism is at the heart of the conspiracy against them. Both Chiamaka and Devon dismiss the possibility immediately, given the reality of racism is so prevalent in their lives that it seems almost too obvious a threat to single out since it touches every part of their lives already. Chiamaka’s family is wealthy, yet she hides the parts of herself that highlight her Nigerian-Italian heritage in order to change herself into what she believes will get her ahead in a society with predetermined ideals for success and worth, while Devon strives to escape the parts of his upbringing and sexual identity that he believes will prevent him from achieving his dreams. Both characters have spent so much of their lives fighting to escape the pitfalls of systemic racism that they blamed themselves—their past actions, sexual preferences, and histories—before ever considering they were victims of a system built specifically to target people who look like them, who dare to be great.

Ace of Spades never shies away from how all-encompassing and rotten the system is at its very core, no matter how much the characters or even the readers may want to reject or deny that horror. That thought distortion is a product of the very system. And still, I found myself constantly taking a step back to wonder if every person and thing involved in the conspiracy was too much, but really, it’s not. The novel features an abundance of bad actors, like the truly insidious Ace of Spades campers and the Niveus students; some, like Belle and the legacy families, are guilty of continuing to reap benefits from established systems even though they recognize it’s wrong; and others, like Terrell, are pulled into these larger plots because other parts of the system (like health care) already hold them hostage. In spite of their varying levels of involvement, every character played a part in propping up the current systems that perpetuate harmful, outdated narratives. That only means everyone must work together to dismantle and rebuild institutions that perpetuate systemic racism so that they no longer disadvantage some people in order to elevate others.

I have to stop myself from apologizing—because what would I even be sorry for? Existing too loud?

Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé, Ace of Spades

When a novel includes an epilogue, I’m typically already done with the story and seldom feel the need for follow-up, but Ace of Spades surprised me here as well. Without spoiling the end, I’ll only say that I like how all the problems Chiamaka and Devon identified throughout the course of the novel did not simply vanish. One victory alone cannot so easily vanquish injustice and inequality kept alive by hardened roots that have been strangling our society for centuries.

Ace of Spades is an explosive debut from Àbíké-Íyímídé that uses the high school landscape as a model for the very institutions that continue to shape the world after graduation. If at times it seems sensational, that’s only because you’ve allowed yourself to forget it’s all real. It’s a quick read, both eye-opening and validating, and an excellent way to encourage discussions among young adult readers about the injustices of systemic racism and the importance of fighting against it.

Thank you to NetGalley and Feiwel & Friends for sharing an advanced reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review

Arsenic and Adobo by Mia P. Manansala

Arsenic and Adobo by Mia P. Manansala is a cozy mystery featuring Lila Macapagal, who’s just moved back home to put her life back together and help save her Tita Rosie’s Filipino restaurant. Navigating the drama she thought she’d left behind in her small town, as well as a revolving door of old flames, nosy relatives, and matchmaking aunties keeps her busy enough until an ex-boyfriend literally drops dead while eating food she serves him. With the police convinced she’s the prime suspect, Lila must leverage her network of family and friends in order to solve the murder mystery so that she can save herself and her family’s business.

Book cover for Arsenic and Adobo by Mia P. Manansala.

A “real” Filipino…As a second-generation member of a colonized country, born and raised in the Midwestern United States, what did that even mean?

Mia P. Manansala, Arsenic and Adobo

The premise of this novel is great! The execution? Not so much. This was my Book of the Month selection for April, so I especially wanted to love it. There were several problems that prevented me from enjoying this mystery, but three elements especially stood out: plot, characterization, and dialogue. (Okay, a secret fourth issue too: My edition goes back and forth between calling the murder victim Derek Winter and Derek Winters starting about halfway through the novel. Sloppy and annoying since I noticed it enough to stop reading about a handful of times. I don’t want to be in editor mode when reading a fully published novel.)

While I understand cozy mysteries are meant to be light, easy reads, I’d argue they still need to make sense. But so much of the plot in this novel just happens at random. Nothing seems natural. There is no flow. For instance, when Lila drops off something at the dentist, she goes there on a Sunday, expects it to be open, and it is simply because it’s narratively convenient, like the author just needed to tick something off a list of plot points, so she shoved it in where she could. And when Lila’s accused of assaulting someone and actually has an airtight alibi that could clear her of the crime, the police don’t bring it up because they find her to be a convenient scapegoat. What’s worse is Lila doesn’t even fight for that airtight alibi that is seriously airtight. It doesn’t even make sense! It’s a problem that shouldn’t even be a problem! I’ve heard of bumbling cops, but the ones in this book are so incredibly incompetent it literally gave me a headache.

No one seems appropriately spooked or somber about all the crime that takes place either. The police attempt to pin every murder and assault on Lila, and multiple people try to ruin her family’s business, yet she really doesn’t seem to be concerned enough about any of it. Stumbling upon a dead body actually slips her mind at one point, a murder victim’s family simply wanders away from the wake, and everyone is constantly more worried about hospitality or commenting on the quality of any food that happens to be around. It’s all so weird. No one’s actions make any sense. None of it is believable.

And I know Lila’s supposed to be sarcastic and somewhat glib, but that only comes across half the time. Other than when she can make herself be grateful for her family (but only until she figures out how to repay the bail money her family put up!), she’s rather boring and has no personality beyond her appreciation for Filipino cuisine and belief that every man in town has or had a crush on her. Lila’s backstory contains some interesting elements, but it’s only referenced to establish her as a character troubled enough to warrant suspicion from cops who are otherwise terrible at their jobs anyway.

In typical Filipino fashion, my aunt expressed her love not through words of encouragement or affectionate embraces, but through food.

Mia P. Manansala, Arsenic and Adobo

Also, people just don’t talk the way these characters do, and I think that’s largely because the novel needed a round of edits for show/tell issues. No one casually drops decades old history and family drama into fleeting conversations with random people all over town. And I know the amateur sleuthing in cozies is meant to be a little clumsy, but the dialogue with suspects was too redundant since everything was repeated back to Lila’s friends, family, or her lawyer. And I must point out that during one part of Lila’s investigation, someone witnesses two Japanese people having a conversation in Japanese, and he’s able to understand what’s communicated because he watches a lot of anime. I don’t care how much anime you watch. That’s not how that works!

Finally, all of Lila’s aunties and godmothers were difficult to tell apart, so I wish their personalities were more distinct. As a diaspora kid boasting my own network of aunties, I understand the importance of including this element in the novel, but again, the execution was off. I couldn’t bring myself to care about anyone other than Lila’s grandmother, and only because I’m not a total monster.

I was so excited for Arsenic and Adobo because the premise seemed promising and hilarious, but overall, it really, really missed the mark for me. I don’t want to feel like the author thinks I’m an idiot, whether it was intentional or not. After a while, it became a chore to read. I am curious to try the recipes at the back of the book, though. I enjoyed all the food porn, but a well-plotted book that doesn’t rely on so much suspension of disbelief could’ve included the same culinary adventures too.

Book Review

Counting Down with You by Tashie Bhuiyan

Counting Down with You by Tashie Bhuiyan is a can’t-miss young adult contemporary romance. When Karina Ahmed’s conservative parents visit Bangladesh for a month, she uses it as a chance to test their strict rules. She starts by tutoring Ace Clyde, resident bad boy. Her parents would disapprove of her being alone with a boy, and they’d frown on her wasting time with a non-STEM subject like English. But those are the least of her concerns when Ace tells everyone Karina’s his girlfriend! When her fake romance with Ace isn’t so fake anymore, Karina must decide if she wants to return to her sheltered existence at the end of the month or embrace the people, dreams, and ideals that spark the fire in her soul.

Book cover for Counting Down with You by Tashie Bhuiyan.

You’re pretending to date Ace Clyde? In exchange for books?

Tashie Bhuiyan, Counting Down with You

The romance between Karina and Ace is so endearing and sweet, and it subverts what you might expect to see from characters like them. In spite of her sheltered upbringing, Karina is a lionheart, so earnest and brave; and Ace, misunderstood for his bad boy reputation, is deeply thoughtful and has a gentle heart as large as his sweet tooth. It’s the romance you know you deserve, no matter your age—one where your partner sees you, where you meet each other in the middle, and help each other grow. The tenderness with which Bhuiyan builds their relationship is enthralling and invites readers to remember the magic of first love.

The wholesome heart of the novel rests with Dadu, Karina’s grandmother, a nurturing, open-minded influence who truly just wants Karina’s happiness. As enchanting as it’d be to have adorable Ace Clyde doting on me, I’d rather have Dadu’s unyielding support and truly unconditional love, particularly when I’m feeling insecure or anxious. She’s a comfort character if there ever was one, but Dadu also illustrates the importance of evolving traditions and expectations as the times change. Her cultural and religious beliefs are not anchors that weigh her down; instead, they function as a north star that guides her towards the right decisions to best care for her family. Her many conversations with Karina validate the way I lead my own life as a diaspora kid who will never quite fit into either of the cultures I claim as my own, so I must carve out my own path daily.

Bhuiyan’s careful attention to creating nuanced, fully realized side characters is a boon to her world building. Karina’s best friends, Nandini and Cora, could never be mistaken for one another, even though they’re rarely apart from one another when Karina interacts with them. Nandini is steady and pragmatic, often acting as the mother hen of the group, while Cora is a chaotic wildflower with major “let me at ‘em!” energy; their characterizations are informed by their respective cultures and identities. Together, they form a diverse girl gang you wish could be yours. Karina’s support network is unrivaled, but it is so necessary given the stress she experiences with her mental health and family dynamics.

I’m not a bad person for wanting a life different than what’s expected of me. I’m not a bad person for wanting to pursue something I love. I’m not a bad person for wanting. But I feel like I am.

Tashie Bhuiyan, Counting Down with You

Karina’s struggle to balance what she wants with what her parents want for her is the element of this novel that speaks to me most. To a certain extent, everyone can relate to this predicament, but it’s a particularly scarring experience in South Asian diaspora communities, where careers rooted in math/science are championed above all. English or literature, while important merely for their ability to tank a GPA just as well as any other subject, is often viewed as a hobby or side interest at best—certainly not a viable career option. But Karina’s deepest desire is to major in English, and she spends much of the novel conflicted over disappointing her parents or doing what she knows is best for her. Fretting over a college major might seem silly, but not when you consider the western world demands sixteen-year-olds map out the rest of their lives before they’ve even finished high school. Throw in the customs, norms, and parental expectations from a second culture, and you’ve got double the anxiety.    

Speaking of which, Karina occasionally suffers from anxiety attacks, and they don’t simply vanish when narratively convenient. During a particularly jarring episode, Karina runs out of class because she needs to physically distance herself from a situation that’s triggered her. She’s still figuring out the best techniques to help her manage her anxiety, and Ace and her friends are so patient and open to learning how to make the situation easier for her. It’s a wonderful example of how to support a friend who might be experiencing any of a number of mental health issues.

Being seen is the most tender form of love, and I see you. I do.

Tashie Bhuiyan, Counting Down with You

I relate to so much of this Own Voices story because it features a Muslim Bangladeshi-American character whose culture, family dynamics, food, language, religion, and worldview so closely mirror my own teenage experiences. Karina navigates a hybrid existence as a person who loves her Bangladeshi customs but was raised in a world full of American traditions. It’s so challenging at times to know which side of the divide is the right side to be on, depending on who you are and what you need. I even had that moment where I had to tell my parents STEM just wasn’t for me (I ended up getting a PhD in English literature, so it worked out!). The parallels between my life and Karina’s experiences still have me reeling, and for that reason alone, I need everyone to read this book. The Own Voices genre is just magic, y’all. I’m so glad it exists.

Counting Down with You is a striking debut novel that employs the fake dating trope to explore themes about family, culture, and self-actualization. It’s a quick read with memorable characters, witty banter, a unique mix of Bangladeshi cultural and family dynamics, and a dreamy teen romance that’s sure to brighten your day and melt your heart. You deserve to read this book. Make it happen!

Thank you to the author, Tashie Bhuiyan, for sharing an advanced reader copy of her book in exchange for an honest review.