CLUBHOUSE: Review: “Sugar and Vice” by Melissa Yi

OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.

Sugar and Vice – Hope’s Seven Deadly Sins 2: Gluttony – by Melissa Yi

Publisher: Olo Books in Association with Windtree Press, 2024.

Cover art: by Design for Writers


What do you do when the first mukbang you willingly participate in goes terribly wrong?


One of the problems in writing a mystery, or any sort of fiction, is that there are only so many plots, only so many variations of “boy meets girl” and “Who done it?” No matter what the setting, mystery plots are often of a timeless, near immortal nature that could take place anywhere, be it Edwardian London or aboard a space station. Which is great, if you love the genre and want more of the same old same old. I have the complete Sherlock Holmes. I enjoy a Sherlock Holmes pastiche. Nothing wrong with that.

But how delightful it is when an original take on a genre comes along. How do writers accomplish this? One method is to introduce a hero with an uncommon quirk or phobia. Or perhaps an over-the-top villain with a wry sense of humour whose “stand-up” act is fresh and compelling. Or a truly exotic setting you know little about, such as Uxmal, or Ulan Bator, or Squamish.

What works best in terms of originality, I think, is an ambience that is contemporary and relevant. Melissa Yi is superb in crafting a social setting reflecting current trends and obsessions that is nevertheless firmly grounded in the glorious human tradition of shenanigans motivated by uncontrollable instincts and emotions. Throw in an eye for telling detail and occasional touches of morbid gallows-humour (Melissa Yi is a practicing physician), and the result is a lively, original read, the very opposite of same old same old, that holds your attention page after page and won’t let go.

The action begins and is centred around what appears to be a unique event of the author’s invention, namely a combined Dragon Boat Race and Food Festival taking place at the Lachine Canal in Montreal. Both elements are sponsored by a powerful corporation which excels in exploiting consumers, especially in light of social media manipulation techniques and technology that are state of the art. Unless you’ve been living under a rock you know that is absolutely one of the biggest problems facing society today.

Even more startling, the Dragon Boat Race and the Food Festival, or at least the mukbang aspect of the latter, are not just window dressing in order to establish an intriguing setting. They are also seething cauldrons of repressed emotion and ambition absolutely vital to the plot arc. In my opinion, this is a heck of a good technique to utilise for the beginning of a book. Might as well start off with a bang, hey? Or, in this case, with a mukbang.

And what, you may ask, is a mukbang?

“Mukbang comes from the Korean word muk-ja, which means ‘let’s eat,’ and bang-song, or ‘broadcast.'”

At a mukbang (which apparently is a thing) people pay to watch online or in person famous models and/or other celebrities eat exquisitely prepared meals. Those chowing down are judged on their apparent appreciation of the food and whether not their response generates a frisson among those watching. Personally, I don’t see the appeal, but just as some people like watching Nascar races or hotdog-eating contests, I guess there are connoisseurs of mukbangs.

Thing is Hope Sze, the central protagonist, like the author an ethnic Chinese practicing doctor, is inveigled into participating in the mukbang. Normally she wouldn’t dream of doing such a thing, but her ex-boyfriend, whom she still loves, talks her into doing it. She’s quite conflicted about giving in so easily. She feels like a fool. Meanwhile, her ongoing tension is further enhanced by a revelation from a colleague that someone attending the festival is going to die. She doesn’t know whom and feels helpless while awaiting events. All in all, a miserable way to enjoy a public event.

Why does she give credence to her friend’s warning? As revealed in the first novel in the series, “The Shapes of Wrath” which I reviewed in my 6th February 2023 column, paranormal reality runs parallel with mundane reality so it’s no surprise her friend has the ability to converse with the dead who, by the way, courts do not recognise as legitimate witnesses. Be that as it may, the dead tend to be remarkably perceptive and consequently any warnings they issue should never be ignored. Hence Hope’s inability to relax and enjoy the festival.

Hope, at least, is a true innocent. Everyone else participating in the mukbang has a hidden agenda. This makes for lots and lots of additional tension. Fair to say the description of the mukbang is a parody of “reality” TV shows like “Big Brother” where “genuine” people interreact in absurd ways designed to entertain. A modern form of soap opera, really, presented as “real life documentary.” Of course, part of the entertainment are the viewers reacting as if they were flies on the wall in the real world. This also applies to the live audience of this particular mukbang.

Turns out the contestants are quite serious, dead serious, even deadly serious. Interesting stuff happens, a particularly loathsome participant influencing events, and a member of the audience goes wild drumming up an idiotic conspiracy theory on the spot to explain everything. Does the audience buy into it? Some find her credible to the point of demanding instant justice, as if they had always wanted to be part of a lynch mob. Needless to say, Hope now finds it even more difficult to relax. The fact that she is both Chinese and a doctor now works against her.

In just a few short chapters Melissa YI has elevated the threat potential by incorporating contemporary trends like mukbangs, anti-Asian bashing, sophisticated electronic monitoring, belief in paranormal powers, artificial media constructs generating pointless emotions, evil influencers, lunatic conspiracy theories, bottomless gullibility, ruthless manipulation of public opinion, and mindless followers who worship the biggest idiots they can find. In short, all the aspects of modern society we so love and cherish and are so proud to be a part of. A very effective method of focusing a mystery plot into something fresh and contemporary.

Then the scene switches to the Dragon Boat Race, and once again, Hope is “drafted” into participating against her will. This is not an arbitrary development in that she has multiple legitimate medical connections with a particular team who are eager for her to fill in for an unexpectedly absent teammate. More stuff happens. Everything gets more and more complicated. Hope’s personal life on the verge of exploding. More villains than you expected. Individuals, the public, the city in peril. The kind of day everyone should have stayed in bed. Loads of fun, in other words, at least from the reader’s point of view.


The book is something of a miracle, a mystery with all the traditional trimmings, such as endless revelations that only deepen the conundrum at hand, combined with a flowing stream of satirical insight into contemporary social idiosyncrasies and moronic behaviour-advocacy that all adds up to an original and highly entertaining read both thought provoking and hilarious. It takes a lot of talent to write lightheartedly yet convincingly about serious matters, but Melissa Yi has talent in abundance. “Sugar and Vice” will make you think, make you chuckle, and maybe just maybe, think twice before entering any sort of contest. I like this book. A lot. Amusing and relevant. Highly recommended.

Find it at:  < Sugar and Vice >





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