The Bride Test (CBR11 #28)

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Earlier this year I read and fell hard for Helen Hoang’ debut The Kiss Quotient. I was taken with her non-traditional protagonists and immediately added her next book The Bride Test to my library request list for when it was released (May 2019). I’m glad that I did, I enjoyed this sophomore outing more than its predecessor.

The Bride Test expands the world Hoang created in The Kiss Quotient. Khai Diep is one of Michael’s cousins we met in The Kiss Quotient (his brother Quan also features and will be the focus of the third book in the series out next year) and the book open with his mother traveling to Vietnam and interviewing possible brides for him. Khai’s autism means that he processes emotions differently and following another cousin’s death in his teens he’s convinced that he is defective, doesn’t have the capacity to love and for that reason he steadfastly avoids relationships.

Khai’s mother finds Esme (the name she takes when she comes to the United States) working as a cleaner in the bathrooms of a swanky hotel in Ho Chi Minh City. A mixed-race woman from an incredibly poor background Esme thinks this is an opportunity she can’t pass up – it would be life changing for her grandmother, mother, and daughter (and herself although she doesn’t put much value in her own needs in the beginning). She decides to try to get Khai to fall for her, without fulling knowing what she is getting herself into. Khai is as honest with her as he can be, and she quickly falls for him, although each of their particular issues keep it from being easy. In fact, it all goes off the rails before it rights itself.

I’m not doing a great job of capturing the spirit of the book. Hoang does a much better job in her author’s note when she explains how these two characters ended up on the page in the first place. Initially, Esme was not the romantic heroine Hoang meant to write, she was supposed to be the also ran. Then, Esme took center stage in Hoang’s writing and she realized she had exactly the right person to talk to about both the character of Esme, but also what it is like to fall in love with and marry a man with autism. This and Hoang’s unpacking of how a neuroatypical brain in Khai (his reaction to solving his misunderstanding with Esme after their first night together was particularly well handled) made this book very, very good. Both characters are just the type off people you root for, a very loveable pair on the whole.


When Dimple Met Rishi (CBR11 #27)

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Well, that was adorably sweet. YA that falls into New Adult Romance isn’t normally my thing, the characters are just so young (but I don’t mind them in movie format? To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before was very enjoyable on Netflix but I still don’t care to pick up the book). I know most authors land their endings on HFN for just that reason, but while I’ve enjoyed books like Anna and the French Kiss I generally tend to stay away. But the description of When Dimple Met Rishi (and its adorable coffee-based cover art) pulled me in.

Dimple Shah has a plan: now that graduation is behind her, she’s more than ready for a break from her family, from her Mamma’s obsession with finding the “Ideal Indian Husband.” Dimple has her heart set on attending a summer program for aspiring web developers in San Francisco and convinces her parents to let her go and pay the fee, relieved that they seem to be more fully buying into her plans for her life starting with Stanford in the fall. Rishi Patel is headed to the same program, so when his parents tell him that his future wife will be there and he’ll have the chance to woo her, he is completely on board.  So much so that his hopeless romantic heart nearly ruins everything at his and Dimple’s meet cute. You see, Dimple has no idea who he is or that their parents have set them up.

The Shahs and Patels didn’t mean to start turning the wheels on this “suggested arrangement” so early in their children’s lives, but they seized an opportunity when they saw it. Rishi wants to be arranged, and knows that many people don’t understand his choice, and Dimple is one of them – running hard from what she feels are the heavy expectations of her family that don’t align with her goals for herself. But this is a romance book, so initial confusion and distrust turn to grudging friendship and then something much more all while they are competing hard to get Dimple’s app idea off the ground and in front of her idol by winning the contest.

I loved how this book dealt head on with its issues – classism, race relations, religion, familial expectation, social customs, women in STEM fields, and the dichotomy between pursuing your dreams or what you perceive to be the safe choice – while also being a very straightforward story about love and finding yourself at 18 once you are able to be on your own for the first time. Menon shows through her solid craft that it is possible to seamlessly do both. Her characters actually talk to each other (and not just her leads!) and get to know each other, and care deeply for who they discover themselves and the other to truly be. Dimple and Rishi have problems and lives that feel real.  The world and life that Menon creates for her characters is rich, detailed, and engrossing. You are with them at school, and in love, and in heartbreak. I was sad to see my time with them end.   

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Sylvia & Aki (CBR11 #16)

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Sometimes you read a book because you should. This is one of those books. I truly enjoy YA on the whole, but I have a tough time with Children’s or Middle Grades books. I can absolutely see their good qualities and how their intended audience would likely sink into them, but maybe I don’t enjoy them now because I didn’t read many of them when I was that age (I was a late reader and then I flew up to reading adult books in a few years).

But, there was a task on the Read Harder challenge and here we are.

I chose Sylvia & Aki because of its subjects – Japanese internment during WWII and the battle for educational equality. The book chronicles a true story, that of Aki’s family being forced to leave their home for the internment camps and Sylvia’s family who leases it. Conkling keeps the narrative accessible and her characters relatable, exactly as you would hope. It reads to my adult eyes as a bit preachy but maybe it wouldn’t sound that way to the 10-year-olds it is meant for. The book wraps up with an historically accurate happy ending and an afterword that explains the historical ramifications of the court case that Sylvia’s father filed to get her and her siblings into the local school instead of the barrio school and how it paved the way for Brown v Board of Education. It is a good book, but it is not unfortunately a book for me.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

We Are Okay (CBR11 #15)

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I struggled with this book for quite a while. For reasons I now don’t remember I believed this book to be a graphic novel and had filed it as such as a different task for Read Harder challenge than I eventually recorded it under. Then, once I began reading it for what it truly was, I found myself struggling through the chapters. Marin the protagonist is in such a low place, and Nina LaCour writes it so well that I felt myself being pulled under as I was already feeling a bit out of sorts. There were a few times I thought I might DNF the book, but the writing itself kept pulling me back in.

The story in We Are Okay is one of immense grief. We join events in progress, Marin is waiting for Mabel to come visit her at college over winter break. Marin hasn’t spoken to Mabel in nearly five months and is living a sort of half-life. There was something terrible that happened, or perhaps several terrible somethings and we are reading to find out what they were. The novel works back and forth between the previous summer and this Christmas and we slowly piece together Marin’s truth as she becomes more and more ready to say the words, even to herself.

This novel unpacks what it means to discover someone has kept an enormous secret from you, and how life’s transitions can both change us drastically while also reaffirming exactly who we are.  Nina LaCour created astonishing characters and a deep story that absolutely earned its Printz Award. As long as you are in the headspace for it, I suggest this one mightily for those of us who read YA.

The Kiss Quotient (CBR 11 #14)

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The Kiss Quotient has been hanging out in my TBR since Malin’s review last June and I was excited to read it this year fulfilling tasks for both Read Harder Challenge and the Reading Women Challenge. I’m glad I read it in the early part of the year and didn’t put it off any longer, it was a quick fun read and while it wasn’t perfectly executed it was certainly better than average and quite good indeed for a debut.

I have a soft spot for books where the author has workshopped them and thanks their writers group in the acknowledgements. I also have a soft spot for a work where the author has an idea – in this case a gender swapped Pretty Woman – and just needs a spark of inspiration to make it work. For Hoang, it was a bit of self-discovery (a later in life Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis) that unlocks for her the way in which her female protagonist can reasonably hire an escort. Stella would like to be in a relationship but her personal rhythms have not allowed her to have a successful sexual interaction with a man, and she decides a professional will be able to teach her what she needs to know, down to writing her own checklists as lesson plans.

I loved Stella, I loved how clearly Hoang writes her voice and how easily she inserts the reader into her mind’s eye. The novel hands back point of view between Stella and Michael, and while I felt Hoang does a good job of making them distinct, and making Michael both a very typical male lead in a romance (tall, television star handsome, martial arts practitioner, a freaking 8 pack) and decidedly not typical (the aforementioned sex worker side job, a traditionally “feminine” field of work, half-Vietnamese). But the strengths are really in delivering a neurodiverse experience understandable to those not on the spectrum.

The plot turns on the successful sexual relationship of Stella and Michael, so there’s quite a bit in there, but it is also a story working through power dynamics, self-worth, and responsibility. There were some things that drove me a bit batty, and they were focused around my least favorite trope of all time, a central conflict that can be resolved with an honest conversation. But, Michael’s mother and grandmother make up for most of the nonsense his character inflicts on Stella and the reader.

Hoang’s next book also features a neurodiverse character, Michael’s cousin. I’m very interested in seeing how that one reads later this year.

Read Harder Task 13: a book by or about a person who identifies as neurodiverse (both)

Read Women Task 18: a romance

The Proposal (CBR11 #11)

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Almost exactly a year ago I read Jasmine Guillory’s debut The Wedding Date. It was charming, had great characters, a plot with meat on its bones, and sexy bassline. In my review of that book I wished for a follow up with supporting character Carlos, and Guillory must have had as much fun writing him as I did reading him because her second book is focused on Carlos.

The Proposal* picks up six months after the end of The Wedding Date. We immediately meet the novel’s other main character, Nik, as she is experiencing a truly horrifying moment. Her casual boyfriend of 5 months has just proposed to her via Jumbotron at an L.A. Dodgers game. She refuses, terrible boyfriend storms off, and before a camera crew can get to her Carlos and his sister swoop in and rescue Nik with the “hey I haven’t seen you in so long” trick that women use to help other women in distress.

For a book that starts this way it could easily have been a much more somber affair. Guillory includes the tough stuff – what happens when a break-up goes badly and you are afraid, what happens when a previous relationship has hurt you in emotional ways that you haven’t quite dealt with yet – but lets them inform her love story, not overtake it. Guillory seems intent on talking about real issues in her books and heading down the same feminist path of the truly great romance writers working now. This book is even more diverse in its characters, which is such a pleasure to read.

While this one could be accused of committing the crime of instalove (I don’t actually think so even though the timeline is rather short, I believe wholeheartedly in two people in their thirties accidentally falling head over heels in love with each other in two months) it handles its other trope, friends to lovers, so well that it erases any concerns you may have. It does have a small handful of faults, but this story of two people learning if they can love, and let themselves be loved, when they have both decided they won’t love is pretty great.

*I really hope Guillory keeps naming her books after romantic comedy movies. I think its great.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society.

A Study in Scarlet Women (CBR10 #52 – CANNONBALL!)

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I had read quite a few reviews of this book, and still I don’t think I fully grasped what to expect. Back in January both yesknopemaybe and sistercoyote’s reviews of this book got me to add it to both my to read list, and found it a home on my Read Harder Challenge. My exact words were “Okay, that’s it, you all win. On the to read list it goes. I’m not even that big a Sherlock Holmes fan (hush, I know, I know.)” At the end of my reading experience I’m left feeling a little unfulfilled, I don’t know if it’s because I’ve never been a huge Sherlock Holmes fan (narfna is quietly sighing in a corner somewhere, I can feel it) or misplaced expectations, or first book in a series hiccups, but while I did eventually fall in deep like with Charlotte Holmes and her compatriots, it never really sang for me and I’m landing at 3.5 stars.

Like the Arthur Conan Doyle novels it grows from, A Study in Scarlet Women takes place in Victorian England. When we met them, the Holmes family is upper class and struggling to keep up financial appearances due to poor choices of the patriarch. Lady Holmes is therefore eager to get her eligible daughters wed. Unfortunately, her younger daughters have other agendas. Following a betrayal by her father, Charlotte enacts a plan to make herself independent by becoming a fallen (or scarlet) woman and, being caught in flagrante, is to be sent away. Instead she runs away and is living as a social pariah, trying to figure out how to earn her own living in London with no training, no references, and meager resources.

Initially I had a terrible time following some of the lengthy background we’re given. Charlotte Holmes, already under the guise of Sherlock Holmes, has helped solve crimes with Lord Ashburton working as an intermediary to bring information to and from Inspector Treadles. I could not for the life of me keep the timing straight, or initially keep Ingram separate from Roger Shrewsbury, which now seems silly to me as they were written very differently. We’re meant to be joining a plot already in action, but when Thomas took a step back for a large infodump of the Holmes’ past and laying out the relationships amongst the sisters I lost the thread of the “present”.

There was also much I enjoyed about the novel. The world Charlotte lives in is complex and finely drawn, we are introduced to various characters and locales and once Thomas gets going everything is beautifully distinct. Thomas uses three voices to tell the story of the scarlet women – we hear from Charlotte, her sister Livia (although I would have liked to hear from her more in the second half of the book), and Investigator Treadles. It was always clear which character is delivering the narrative, each with rich interior and exterior lives, and learning things about themselves and the world around them in all its splendor and dinginess. But, the parallel narrative of the deaths Treadles is investigating and the life Charlotte is hoping to build to have financial independence for herself and her sisters didn’t always line up, or feel equally strong.

It is unsurprising to me that it is the characters that shine and really drew me in. Charlotte, for all her massive intellect, observational, and deductive skills, is still quite a sheltered young woman. She makes youthful mistakes and doesn’t know everything and is in need of community. The eventually revealed Mrs. Watson is thus the perfect foil for Charlotte because she has life experience and self-awareness to bring to the table. It was this novel’s version of Watson that finally sold me on the book, and the way in which she was further woven into the structure of Charoltte’s life was artfully and gently done.

I’ve added the next in the series to my to read list. The book got stronger as it went, and that’s the kind of thing I’m always willing to reward.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society in the name of a fallen friend.