A Mystery at Lili Villa by Arathi Menon

Enid Blyton’s Five Find-Outers meets Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew in this small-town mystery set against the beautiful backdrop of Kerala, India. For a desi kid, summer vacations are more than school holidays: they’re the perfect time for meeting up with distant family, delicious food, running wild while the elders napped in the afternoon, and having all the fun that the rest of the year can’t promise. Understandably, Tam cherishes the summers she spends with her extended family in the South Indian state, especially at Lili Villa—the family home where her cousins, Arj and Mira, would be waiting for her.

From the various names given to the many familiar faces they keep seeing everyday to the familial dynamics where the eldest children dominate any adventure by saving the most boring tasks for the younger ones, Menon does a great job of reflecting the desi viewpoint through a childish lens. Brave little kids, Tam, Arj, and Mira decide to uncover a robbery that took away Tam’s aunt’s jewellery; starting with just one clue: the hole in the roof, and a list of suspects consisting of everyone who recently had access to Lili Villa.

Children playing detective is not just cute but also a journey you wish to experience alongside them and the narration easily sets a younger tone that conveys the excitement of it all. Accompanied with the cultural influences—from food descriptions, like appams, dosas, and vadas, to busy marketplaces and fishing—this debut is easily a charming read.

★★★★☆

Buy A Mystery at Lili Villa: Amazon US | Bookshop US | Amazon IN

How To Win A Slime War by Mae Respicio

Filled with all the slimy fun and young feelings. Refreshing to see kid-entrepreneurs competing to sell more slime at their schools—reminds me of my own time at middle school, around fifteen years ago, when bracelet making was the trend and everyone was determined to get rich while selling cute jewellery made out of little beads. The comments on building new friendships, embracing one’s heritage, voicing out ideas, clearly conveying emotions, growth of a single dad, finding a passion, and cheering on dreams of doing business are worth appreciating.

★★★★☆

Buy How To Win A Slime War: Amazon US | Bookshop UK | Amazon IN

Like A Love Song by Gabriela Martins

Like a classic rom-com, this debut makes you grin and giddy. After a messy breakup, Nati, a Latina teen pop star, must rebuild her image and a fake boyfriend might be the way for her to reclaim her voice again. Predictable in the softest manner, this debut hosts a fluffy romance traversing the fake-dating trope and the scorching spotlight of fame.

As the love and the lovers charmingly grew, it was a delight to witness certain themes being effortlessly embedded within this fast-paced, sweet story. From an audience’s scrutiny to the pressures of a perfect social media depiction, and from the difficulty of navigating a Brazilian identity in an American industry to finding courage for honesty in a fan-based career, Like a Love Song beautifully incorporates socio-cultural facets into fame, friendships, and feelings.

★★★★☆

Buy Like a Love Song: Amazon US | Bookshop UK | Amazon IN

How To Survive a Modern-Day Fairy Tale by Elle Cruz

What do you do when a book has almost every cliche or trope you despise in literature? You try to coherently make a point out of the immense disappointment. First of all, yes, retellings are fun, but that doesn’t mean the male love interest has to be this perfect caricature who probably stepped out of those original fairy tales that remain problematic despite the so-called perfect characterisation. I know male protagonists written by female authors often lack realism but there’s only so much disbelief I can suspend for a romance I hope to enjoy. I mean, are we not tired of typical fictional men who love playing video games, are great at seducing the girl, have private jets, are workaholics and basically billionaires? I would be lying if I say they don’t sound charming but sadly, saturation triumphs here. Give me a mafia romance instead; at least his personality would then have some texture through everything that’s outright bad or morally grey. 

Secondly, I’m forced to wonder: are we calling every common trope a retelling nowadays to sound fancy? Sure, Cinderella has a swoony romance that transcends class and social hierarchies, but that doesn’t mean every romance treading the trope of ‘a plain, average girl meets a famous, rich guy’ can be called a retelling of that fairytale. Lastly, ambitious heroines with narrations that focus on their career are a win for me but when the romantic arc outweighs those aspirations, my inner feminist gets a little sad. Not that women can’t prioritise love over their passionate dreams, or seek both at the same time, but when you repeatedly talk about setting up a business and are nervous about taking a leap, I wish for you to think a minute longer before choosing ‘true love’. Especially when you have been judgemental towards female side characters who are housewives. 

Having said all of this, I did appreciate the theme of family and culture making a subtle impact on one’s priorities, the goodness of caring for the elders, and those comments from relatives that get too deep into your head. Of course, Claire, the heroine, managed to win points from me for her desire to pursue her passion for baking because yes to female entrepreneurs! But unfortunately, all the major tropes were too cheesy for me and when it’s all topped with instalove, I end up asking: how to survive reading this modern-day fairytale.

★★☆☆☆

Buy How to Survive a Modern-Day Fairy Tale: Amazon US | Bookshop UK | Amazon IN

Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin, Tr. Aneesa Abbas Higgins

There’s something about unnamed narrators, about cities on the edge of the world, about cold narratives told against a backdrop of seemingly unending winters, about shared dynamics that are more sentimentally competitive than expectedly empathetic, and about a translation that allows anyone to feel from something so confined to a region that I immediately fall for them. And Winter in Sokcho gave me all of it.

Short reads always have a lot unsaid, but rarely do they underdeliver and this winner of translated fiction for National Book Award ’21 proves that through its ruminations about food, art, bodies, and borders. This brief piece of fiction is one of those hazy dreams you get during the last lapse of your sleep—one that progresses like a long road trip but it’s only been an hour—and you suddenly wake up confined to beaches protected with barbed wire and a time when the sun doesn’t shine.

★★★★★

Buy Winter in Sokcho: Amazon US | Bookshop UK | Amazon IN

Which of these would you be adding to your TBR? 🌸

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