Category: Book Reviews

Review – Our Souls at Night

Our Souls at Night

 

  • Publisher: Vintage (May 26, 2015)
  • Publication Date: May 26, 2015
  • Sold by: Random House LLC
  • Language: English

 

Amazon

From the publisher:

In the familiar setting of Holt, Colorado, home to all of Kent Haruf’s inimitable fiction, Addie Moore pays an unexpected visit to a neighbor, Louis Waters. Her husband died years ago, as did his wife, and in such a small town they naturally have known of each other for decades; in fact, Addie was quite fond of Louis’s wife. His daughter lives hours away, her son even farther, and Addie and Louis have long been living alone in empty houses, the nights so terribly lonely, especially with no one to talk with. But maybe that could change? As Addie and Louis come to know each other better–their pleasures and their difficulties–a beautiful story of second chances unfolds, making Our Souls at Night the perfect final installment to this beloved writer’s enduring contribution to American literature.

Review:

I made up my mind I’m not going to pay attention to what people think. I’ve done that too long—all my life. I’m not going to live that way anymore.

I’ve been a fan of Kent Haruf’s writing ever since I read Plainsong when I lived in Germany many years ago. Maybe it was the dreary winters, the constant busyness of a young, stay at home mother juxtaposed with the loneliness of being an expat in a foreign country, but his novels spoke to my state of mind at the time. It is no coincidence that this was my Raymond Carver/Denis Johnson period. I was drawn to writers who stripped their prose bare, their streamlined narrative full of subtext. Like the low skies and barren landscapes of a cold day in Erlangen, the emotional life of the novel lay below the surface of pragmatic prose and simple sentence structures.

I’m clearly in another place in my readings these days, so that this reading was pregnant with nostalgia. Not unlike Addie and Louis who, also designing a pragmatic solution to the solitude of their late years, launch into an affair of companionship and memory, where their comfort in each other is simultaneously the excitement of a newly discovered experience coupled with the familiarity of a life, if not shared, at least experienced along parallel lines that only rarely converged on the peripheries.

Addie and Louis are widow and widower to others, respectively. Their age means they are now supporting actors in the lives of their loved ones – Addie’s son and grandson and Louis’s daughter. Addie, unable to sleep at night, proposes a solution to their loneliness by inviting Louis to sleep next to her. She tells him it isn’t about sex, but about getting through the night. After some hesitation, Louis agrees, embarking on a relationship that surprises their neighbors and dismays their children.

I do love this physical world. I love this physical life with you. And the air and the country. The backyard, the gravel in the back alley. The grass. The cool nights. Lying in bed talking with you in the dark.

This idea that the ability to care and nurture others is not exhausted with age is a prominent one in this novel, exemplified by the Addie and Louis, but also further explored in Addie and Louis’s relationship with her grandson, Jamie. Abandoned by his mother and left with a father overwhelmed by the failure of both his marriage and his business, Jamie is left with Addie until his family life is sorted out. Many of the insights into helping Jamie come from Louis as they established a mini family unit of lonely people who find comfort and belonging with each other.

Who would have thought at this time in our lives that we’d still have something like this. That it turns out we’re not finished with changes and excitements. And not all dried up in body and spirit.

There are simply not enough stories about deep relationships, much less love, between older couples. Though we live in progressive societies, the infantilization of the elderly is very common, as if the desire for connection, for the excitement of knowing a new person deeply bears an expiration date.  I enjoyed the development of Addie and Louis’s intimacy. Being of a certain age and knowing each other, at least superficially, for so long, there is a kind of short-hand to their intimacy that is paralleled in the paired-down narration.

I just want to live simply and pay attention to what’s happening each day.

Addie and Louis’s connection is firmly rooted in the natural world. Very little in the way of religious sentimentality is present in the novel. Even Louis’s ideas of the afterlife harken to the Romantic belief in man’s connection to nature (I’ve come to believe in some kind of afterlife. A return to our true selves, a spirit self. We’re just in this physical body till we go back to spirit). Many of their shared experiences take place during excursions to the mountains or camping in the woods, experiences that include Jamie.  Haruf equates human connection with nature, placing this need on par with the most fundamental needs of human survival.

People need each other, not in a superficial way. We can spend an entire lifetime creating fragile bonds that turn brittle and dried up by habit or neglect. Haruf’s novel shows us that we not only need to connect, but that we are capable of this communion long into the twilight of our lives.

 

 

 

 

Review – Arctic Wild

arctic wild

  • Publisher: Carina Press; Original edition (June 3, 2019)
  • Publication Date: June 3, 2019
  • Sold by: Harlequin Digital Sales Corp.
  • Language: English

Amazon

From the publisher:

Hotshot attorney Reuben Graham has finally agreed to take a vacation, when his plane suddenly plunges into the Alaskan wilderness.

Just his luck.

But his frustrations have only begun as he finds himself stranded with the injured, and superhot, pilot, a man who’s endearingly sociable—and much too young for Reuben to be wanting him this badly.

As the sole provider for his sisters and ailing father, Tobias Kooly is devastated to learn his injuries will prevent him from working or even making it back home. So when Reuben insists on giving him a place to recover, not even Toby’s pride can make him refuse. He’s never been tempted by a silver fox before, but something about Reuben is impossible to resist.

Recuperating in Reuben’s care is the last thing Toby expected, yet the closer they become, the more incredibly right it feels, prompting workaholic Reuben to question the life he’s been living. But when the pressure Toby’s under starts closing in, both men will have to decide if there’s room in their hearts for a love they never saw coming.

Review:

I clicked on this novel in Net Galley for one superficial reason – I liked the cover. The series is set in Alaska and I’m a sucker for mountains and the wilderness, being an avid outdoors person myself.

Arctic Wild features two leads who are opposites in every way – Ruben Graham is a much older, successful lawyer who reluctantly goes on an Alaskan vacation after the couple who’d booked the trip with him bail at the last minute. He’s an intense workaholic, out of touch with his teenage daughter who just wants to a solid internet connection and a few hours of peace to get some documents read. Regarding the quest for internet and a few hours of peace, I can totally empathize.

Toby Kooley is a tour guide whose laid-back, social personality hides the burden of being the sole provider for his family. He is intrigued by Ruben’s intensity but, because of his work, he doesn’t pursue right away the spark of heat between them.

The romance between the two leads develops very slowly, accelerating after they experience a plane crash together in which Toby is seriously wounded. Ruben, out of a desire to be close to his daughter and a sense of duty towards Toby, takes a sabbatical from his work to care for Toby while he heals from his injuries.

I enjoyed the central love story of the novel. Often, I feel like mm romances tend to have less of a buildup and rush directly into the sex. This romance was a slow burn, where Ruben and Toby grow to genuinely enjoy each other’s company, becoming friends after the crash, and finally, acknowledging their attraction to become lovers. There is a bit of the frustrated love trope, where the leads think their romance cannot last beyond a certain expiration date and struggle to avoid investing emotionally in the relationship to minimize the pain of certain separation.

The descriptions of the Alaskan wilderness were pleasurable. I particularly appreciated the realistic reminders of the limits of living near the arctic circle – cold winters and short days. I love an idealized setting as much as the next reader, but I respect an author who does their research to provide as much verisimilitude as possible about the place they’re describing.

There were times when I found Toby to be a bit too limited in his thinking and it made me impatient with him. A lot had to do with his financial duress resulting from his inability to work. But his father also contributed to this idea that he should handle his own business, not ask for help and bear the weight of total financial responsibility without complaint. This expectation of excessive self-reliance hampers Toby’s ability to see his way to a long-lasting relationship with Ruben and while it made the father unlikable, it went a long way towards understanding Toby’s behavior.

Toby’s father and sister’s resistance to Ruben was a bit baffling to me. I understand a wariness of outsiders, but I found their concerns to be bordering on the paranoid. Without enough clarity from the narrative as to why they were so hell-bent on disliking Ruben, despite his wealth, selflessness and obvious feelings for Toby, it felt like a plot device dropped into the narrative to generate external conflict. On the other hand, Ruben’s teenage daughter, Amelia was very well drawn character and furthered Ruben’s development during their interactions.

Overall, it was a well-earned and satisfying love story featuring characters I mostly rooted for. The setting is wonderful and the path to intimacy felt authentic.  I have a soft spot for the slow burn and that was the case here. The writing was very pared down, as is often the case with contemporary romances, but it made for an easy read.

4 out of 5 stars.

 

 

Review – Red, White & Royal Blue

rw&b

  • Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin (May 14, 2019)
  • Publication Date: May 14, 2019
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Language: English

From the publisher:

When his mother became President, Alex Claremont-Diaz was promptly cast as the American equivalent of a young royal. Handsome, charismatic, genius—his image is pure millennial-marketing gold for the White House. There’s only one problem: Alex has a beef with the actual prince, Henry, across the pond. And when the tabloids get hold of a photo involving an Alex-Henry altercation, U.S./British relations take a turn for the worse.

Heads of family, state, and other handlers devise a plan for damage control: staging a truce between the two rivals. What at first begins as a fake, Instragramable friendship grows deeper, and more dangerous, than either Alex or Henry could have imagined. Soon Alex finds himself hurtling into a secret romance with a surprisingly unstuffy Henry that could derail the campaign and upend two nations and begs the question: Can love save the world after all? Where do we find the courage, and the power, to be the people we are meant to be? And how can we learn to let our true colors shine through? Casey McQuiston’s Red, White & Royal Blue proves: true love isn’t always diplomatic.

Review:

RW&RB is brilliant. One of the reasons I treasure this book is because it is one of the few modern LGBQTA+ romances that demonstrates an awareness of the history of the LGBQTA+ movement. To a degree, that makes sense. After all, romance is the genre of escapism and hope. Talking about the AIDS crisis or Stonewall or Compton’s Cafeteria Riot might not make for escapist reading. However, given the political environment of the novel and both Alex’s and Henry’s roles in their families and respective governments, history and politics form a central preoccupation. The main characters are the sons of world leaders. Therefore, their romance, as it grows, has the power to alter history and our main characters know this, a fact encapsulated in Alex’s phrase, “History, huh?”

But there’s more to it, right? Because LGBQTA+ people have had to contend with more than just violence and intolerance. We’ve had to deal with outright historical erasure. It becomes a major theme of the novel. Alex and Henry are constantly analyzing their place in history, especially given the consequences of their growing love for each other. The moment they both embrace the fact that they will occupy a glaring spot in the history of both countries, it is both epic and humbling for both characters. One of the most powerful moments is Alex speaking in a press conference and he tells his audience, “I am the First Son of the United States, and I’m bisexual. History will remember us.” A constant theme, McQuiston’s answer to historical erasure is to place the First Son of the United States and the Crown Prince of England on a world stage and in love and dare history to ignore them.

The book is also a coming out narrative. Alex comes to terms with his bisexuality as he falls ever deeper in love with Henry. There is forced exposure of the main character’s sexuality – if this is a trigger for a reader, be forewarned that it plays a central role in the plot. But the writer handles this deftly, and the responses by the different parties involved (Alex’s mother, his sister and best friend, Henry’s family and, finally, the public) are internally consistent for the novel but also realistic on a larger scale. McQuiston paints an optimistic world where some people are ogres about the revelation of Alex and Henry’s romance but most are cheering for them and take courage from their love. Essentially, all the right people are on their side, including the British and American public. America comes off a bit better in this novel than it does in real life.

Let’s talk romance a minute. There is a wonderful mashup of tropes in this novel: enemies-to-friends, fake relationships here and even forbidden love as Alex and Henry work to find reasons to see each other. The emails between them are a work of art on their own. McQuiston models their communications on the love letters of famous people throughout history. I have a collection of letters somewhere on my hard drive that I once collected by Virginia Woolf, Alexander Hamilton and Simon Beauvoir, among others and it was thrilling to see some of these show up in the letters between Alex and Henry. Their love and longing is palpable and is one of the highlights of the novel. I could read a book based on their letters alone and be happy. Alex goes from brusque American braggadocio to poetically waxing about his love for Henry and Henry’s responses are positively literary. The wit and banter is hip and clever but when they talk about love, the words smoulder on the page.

And the love scenes – if you are an aspiring writer, each love scene is worth studying as an exemplar of how to write love scenes rooted in strong characterization. They are a splendid combination of sexual desire, emotional intensity and delicacy – truly some of the best love scenes I’ve ever read.

Favorite Quotes:

Thinking about history makes me wonder how I’ll fit into it one day, I guess. And you too. I kinda wish people still wrote like that. History, huh? Bet we could make some.

But the truth is, also, simply this: love is indomitable.

Should I tell you that when we’re apart, your body comes back to me in dreams? That when I sleep, I see you, the dip of your waist, the freckle above your hip, and when I wake up in the morning, it feels like I’ve just been with you, the phantom touch of your hand on the back of my neck fresh and not imagined? That I can feel your skin against mine, and it makes every bone in my body ache? That, for a few moments, I can hold my breath and be back there with you, in a dream, in a thousand rooms, nowhere at all?

You are a delinquent and a plague. Please come.

Never tell me the odds.

An enthusiastic 5-star read.

Review: The Bride Test

TBT

 

  • Publisher: Berkley (May 7, 2019)
  • Publication Date: May 7, 2019
  • Sold by: Penguin Group (USA) LLC
  • Language: English

I read The Kiss Quotient last summer and was delighted with Stella Lane’s character. She has Asperger’s Syndrome and Hoang does an exceptional job of giving us a glimpse of how Stella processes the world. I’m a massive fan of unconventional female leads and Stella reminded me of Eleonor Oliphant in Eleonor Oliphant is Competely Fine (another excellent read).

In The Bride Test, she gives us Khai Diep, an autistic male lead. His mother, desperate over the fact that he doesn’t date, goes to Vietnam to get him the perfect wife. The title refers to the test she devises to help her select a suitable bride for her son, a test Esmeralda Tran, a hotel maid, easily passes. For the sake of her mother, grandmother and daughter, Esme accepts the proposal to go to America with the purpose of persuading Khai to marry her before the end of the summer. Instead of simply seducing Khai, she falls in love with him as well and the novel hinges on whether Khai can divest himself of the idea that he doesn’t have feelings to admit he loves Esme, too.

If you read all the reviews, you will get a sense of why this book is so successful – dual POVs with distinct character voices; a swoon-worthy male lead who is kind, considerate, intelligent, a bit clueless and utterly unaware of his worth; a resilient female lead to understands her value and is willing to fight for her future and the future of her daughter.

The Bride Test Instagram 2

But this book impacted me for other reasons, as well. Khai’s autism isn’t really acknowledged by his family. Therefore, to some degree, he is left to his own resources to interpret for himself what his unique way of processing the world means. Having years of experience teaching children, I’ve learned that if we as adults don’t define in clear terms what makes an exceptional child unique, whether they have autism, Asperger’s or giftedness, they will rationalize for themselves what makes them different and many times, they don’t choose the best explanation.

Khai believes he is simply incapable of love and grief and comes to the conclusion that he is bad when he fails to respond the way others do to the death of his best friend, Andy. This conditions his behavior for years, until Esme comes along and proves otherwise.  But the point I’m making is this: if Khai’s autism had been addressed in a way that made clear to him and his family that he simply has a different way of processing stimuli and emotions, he might not have drawn the conclusion that he was bad. Hoang nails the power of these mistaken self-beliefs and how they can negatively impact our lives, simply because the adults left the explanation of a complex dynamic in the hands of a child instead of acknowledging the thing directly.  Khai’s journey of self understanding and acceptance makes me love him a thousand times more.

The Bride Test Instagram 1

The Bride Test also contains elements of the immigrant narrative. Hoang explains in the author’s note how Esme moved from being a peripheral character to the main love interest in the novel. Hoang derived her inspiration for Esme’s character from her mother, and used the writing of this book as an opportunity to get to know her own mother’s immigration story. This made an impression on me. As a first generation Puerto Rican, born and raised in the United States, I will never know what it’s like to pick up your family, leave a way of life to come a country where you don’t speak the language, armed only with hope and a dream.  I lived in Europe for many years but I had a good job, knew the languages and had the expectation of returning home some day.

Stories like Hoang’s mother, Esme or my grandparents are completely different. We come to understand these experiences by becoming familiar with our parent’s histories. There’s so much in Esme’s determination and spirit that I recognized from the stories of my parents and grandparents, what they did to go from being barely literate farm workers to entrepreneurs to having children who went on to go to college and beyond.  That’s why I was rooting for Esme, independent of her relationship with Khai.

Romances like these are why I love this genre so much.

5 enthusiastic stars.

 

Review – In Case You Forgot

INYF.jpg

  • Publisher: Bold Strokes Books (June 11, 2019)
  • Publication Date: June 11, 2019
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC
  • Language: English

Amazon

When I first read the description of this novel on Netgalley, I was genuinely excited. It hits a lot of my soft spots – #ownvoices writers, m/m romance, socially aware, complex characters and diverse leads. I am particularly enjoying the number of romances being published that are either diverse or engage in social issues. I want novels like these to be successful and try to support them every way I can.

This is how I approached In Case You Forgot by Frederick Smith and Chaz Lamar. Told in the first person present, the story althernates POVs between Zaire and Kenney. Each chapter title ties in with the main title to complete an aphorism. For example, ICYF: Be Honest, ICYF: Leave on Read, and so on, implying that each chapter should serve as a lesson reinforcing the aphorism presented. It’s a clever way of organizing the novel and provides thematic structure to each chapter.

We meet our first main character, Zaire, in chapter one when he asks his huband, Mario, for a divorce. This act sets off Zaire’s search for self-realization as he recognizes the need to be free of his partner in order to find the fulfillment he seeks. In contrast, Kenny Kane is not the agent of his own change in the beginning. When we meet him, he is at his mother’s funeral, where his on-again/off-again boyfriend, Brandon-Malik, breaks up with him by text. It’s an act that haunts Kenny throughout the entire novel and, while it is clear Brandon-Malik is not an ideal partner, Kenny spends the better part of the novel pining after him.

And here is where we get to the crux of my struggle with this novel. On Amazon, this novel is categorized as African American Romance Fiction and LGBT Romance. Therefore I went in, fully expecting a romance read, complete with a meet-cute, beats, declaration, resolution including an HEA/HFN. Instead, the main characters don’t even meet until about 30% through the narrative and spend the better part of the book apart. Because of the expectations, I kept trying to read this novel as a romance and grew frustrated with it.

This is not an indie publication, therefore I hold the publisher responsible for the miscategorization. I’m certain I would have enjoyed the novel much more if I had gone into it expecting an LGBT fiction read without the expectation of romance. Realizing the dissonance between genre and content, I reread the book in an attempt to reframe the narrative in my mind and give it a chance to be successful.

Apart from that, the novel is enjoyable on its own terms. It serves as tableau of black youth trying to find connection and love in West Hollywood, complete with all the racial, social, and personal challenges that implies. Zaire and Kenny’s struggles feel very relateable and there’s a hipness to the characters that I find refreshing.

The point of view was a bit of a struggle for me. I normally don’t favor any one viewpoint over another – whatever works for a novel works for me. However, the first person point of view reminds me of the YA genre, in particular when paired with the present tense. As a reference point, The Hunger Games trilogy is told in this very specific pov/tense. It lends immediacy and intensity to the narrative but it’s hard to pull off if the internal dialogue isn’t rich and engaging. In ICYF, there were times where the transition from internal dialogue to action was jerky and took me out of the reading.

What really works in this novel is the worldbuilding. The setting and supporting characters provide a convincing backdrop against which the characters grow. When I ignored the flaws in narration, I was able to enjoy the realistic character arcs of  Zaire and Kenny overcoming their respective struggles to arrive at a place where they are doing what they like to do and are satisfied with the outcome of their lives. As I stated earlier, this journey felt real to me. If I had read it that way from the beginning, I would have gotten more out of it. While there are romantic elements, this novel would be better marketed as straight fiction. Knowing this in advance will allow reader to better manage their expectations and choices.

4 out of 5 stars

ARC provided by Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Review – How to Bang a Billionaire/How to Blow It With a Billionaire

HTBABHTBIWAB

  • Publisher: Forever Yours
  • Publication Date: April 16, 2017, December 12, 2017
  • Sold by: Hachette Book Group
  • Language: English

Amazon

How to Bang a Billionaire/How to Blow It with a Billionaire       

Note: This is a review of both books together. Might be a bit spoilery. Definitely long-winded.

I’d been putting off reading both novels since I found out about them because the third novel is scheduled for release in September and I wanted to read them all at once. Especially with a writer like Hall, you get so much out of reading his series all the way through.  But I broke down and, while the books were amazing, I’ll now have to wait the entire summer for the third installment. That is the not-so-fun-part

On the surface, this series functions as a rebuttal to 50 Shades of Grey.  It takes the larger beats of that series and reworks them into a completely different story that, in the most simplistic terms, fixes most of what was wrong with James’ series. All the ick factors that characterized 50 Shades, from the poor writing and ridiculous depiction of BDSM to the worrisome message it sends about romance and abuse, are demolished and replaced with, like, good stuff in Hall’s novel. And it works.

In Book 1, we meet Arden, a young but resolutely un-virginal, soon-to-be Oxford graduate who will probably just barely pass his classes. However, he is sharp, witty, and bookish, but not in an academic way. He is positively gleeful in the pursuit of his sexual pleasure. When his friend, Nik, comes down with laryngitis, he takes over for him to man the telephones for an alumni fundraiser. This is when he speaks to Caspian Hart for the first time.  A reclusive, incredibly successful billionaire, the attraction is instantaneous. Caspian surprises Arden by meeting him at the fundraising dinner later that week. The chemistry hinted at in their telephone call explodes in person and it is off the charts.

Instagram quote Bk1

Arden is understandably lost as he approaches the end of his schooling but he is full of joy and intelligence. I’ve only read this series and the Spires series so I might be talking out of my ass but I always believed that Ash in Glitterland was the smartest of Hall’s creations. However, Arden possesses a wittiness and cultural withitness that makes his character literally sparkle on the page. It’s no wonder Caspian is so taken by him.

About Caspian.

Caspian is mysterious, wealthy, handsome, and ruthless, with an edge of cruelty. The mystery of Caspian Hart is sustained by using Arden as the first-person narrator. We discover Caspian as he does, and trust me, there is a lot to excavate there, especially as more is revealed about his backstory in Book 2. Basic forms of intimacy are an issue with him and many times, when he speaks, he sounds almost robotic. While he is clearly attracted to Arden, he tries to resist the attraction at first and, when he no longer can, arranges a short-term arrangement wherein Arden is put up in an apartment, his bills and expenses paid for, all in exchange for a sexual relationship with Caspian. Arden, and the reader, quickly suss out that Caspian has dominant tendencies he is not comfortable with, even though he has a willing partner in Arden.

Instagram quote Bk2

One thing I like about these books is that Arden rightfully frames their sexual preferences as healthy kinks, whereas Caspian sees those impulses as deviant and dangerous. This was one of the great (among many) failures of 50 Shades – the idea that Christian Grey was a dominant because of his sexual coercion as a boy, a condition that he needed to be cured of, whereas Caspian has, along the way, been manipulated to believe that these tendencies are unnatural and it is Arden tries his hardest to liberate him of that misperception.  In fact, sex in all its forms is depicted positively and isn’t used as a deviant crutch to manufacture false conflict. There is conflict around Caspian’s discomfort with his kink but it isn’t the kink itself that’s portrayed negatively. It’s one of many instances in which Hall inverts the roles and dynamics found in 50 Shades and the results are much more effective.

There’s so much to work with in this series. The first installment leaves the reader with a satisfactory ending, while the second ends with a heart wrenching cliff hanger. As a reader, you are rooting for this couple but each of them contribute to tensions in the relationship. Caspian’s are obvious – he is just this side of fucked up. And Arden can be impatient with Caspian, pushing him at times when he would do well to slow down.

Caspian is mesmerizing when he lets his guard down. He may have ruthless tendencies, but there is something vulnerable, painful and loveable about him. There were several instances where I kept saying, “Ardy, baby – Run, don’t walk, away from that man!” I spent much of both novels in fear for Arden because I knew Caspian had the power to hurt him deeply. When Caspian inevitably does, I truly ached for him. However, Arden, grows in personal power throughout the novels until he comes into his own in book two. Watching that development is one of the best things about this series.

And Hall’s writing? Besides the craft stuff, at which he is a master, and his use of language, which is pure poetry, he can, in one page, go from invoking Harold Bloom to Mace Windu and it’s so thrilling to see someone so intellectually nimble at work. It’s scary.  And intimidating. And downright humbling.

Now, the hardest part for me as a reader is to get through this summer before the last installment comes out.

Of course, both books are 5-star reads

PS – I couldn’t stop listening to Energia by Camila, which reminds me of Arden in the preview chapter for book 3. If you do decide to spear your soul by reading the preview of How to Belong to a Billionaire at the end of the book 2, this song is the perfect accompaniment.

Review – Matched to Perfection Series

  • Publisher: Zebra Shout
  • Publication Dates: September 26, 2017, March 27, 2018, November 27, 2018
  • Sold by: Penguin Random House Publisher Services
  • Language: English

Hispanic American Literature/Fiction; Women’s Fiction, Contemporary Romance, Latinx

I had long looked forward to reading a novel by Priscilla Oliveras, not only because I’d read so many positive things about her work, but also because she writes about our shared Puerto Rican culture, which I was sure I’d enjoy. When I stumbled on the Matched to Perfection series and noticed it was complete, it was like hitting the jackpot.

Each book is centered on one of the three Fernandez sisters. They are as different from each other as any set siblings can be. Yazmine (Yaz), the oldest, is a dancer who has performed on Broadway and currently run’s Mrs. Hanson’s Dance Academy in the Chicago suburb of Oakton. She possesses a powerful sense of personal and familial responsibility, a quality that makes it hard for her to understand what she really wants. Rosa, controlled and sometimes too well-behaved for her own good, is a librarian who is just finishing school and has a job already lined up at the local Catholic school, if one moment of abandon doesn’t derail all her plans. And Lilí is a party girl who settles into her work as a counselor for a domestic violence center and struggles to be taken seriously by her own family. Artist, bookworm, social justice warrior – I love that Oliveras diversifies the strengths, talents, and therefore, potential conflicts of each sister.

Yazmine’s conflict in book one has to do with reconciling her father’s desires for success with those of her own. This perception of what she thinks she should want for herself and her career informs her relationship with Tomas, a single father whose ex-wife chooses her professional ambition over her family. Maria, his daughter, is a truly enchanting creation, As one of Yaz’s dance students, she is the reason Yaz and Tomás enter each other’s sphere. Tomás is an ambitious advertising executive in his own right, struggling to play a meaningful role in his daughter’s life. The resolution of this disparity of ambitions on the part of both Yaz and Tomás forms the primary conflict which of the novel.

His Perfect Partner

Rosa’s book revolves around her unresolved crush for Jeremy Taylor, a close family friend. Little does she know, Jeremy pines for her also. This intense attraction leads to a moment of abandon, resulting in unintended consequences that force both of them to examine what they truly want out of a romantic relationship. Here, the backdrop of the family’s Catholicism plays an important role in augmenting the tension and stakes of the relationship. Much of the conflict is internal, with one obvious and enormous external conflict that nearly eclipses every other one. Neither Rosa nor Jeremy are quite sure of the other’s true intentions or feelings.

Her Perfect Affair

Finally, Lilí’s book features the very real conflict generated by the mutual attraction between her and Diego Reyes, a Chicago police officer. Diego at first thinks Lilí is a disconnected, rich social justice warrior, while Lilí is hesitant about entering into a relationship with a police officer, after having experienced a failed one in the past. For this couple, their greatest challenge is one of achieving emotional intimacy through honesty and admitting vulnerability, especially on the part of Diego, who hides so much of himself. His challenge is to break down the emotional walls he’s created to protect himself and others, while Lilí struggles to be understood.

Their Perfect Melody

I was absolutely thrilled that both books one and three features two latinx leads. A lot of romances I’ve read so far have featured interracial couples, which I actually love. There are many opportunities for conflict at the level of culture and language and make a novel interesting. However, there is something very refreshing about watching two latinx characters negotiate the pitfalls of their budding relationship without the added angst of cultural conflict.

Book two has an interracial pairing. However, the writer does not resort to the easy fallback of emphasizing Rosa and Jeremy’s differences. Jeremy has spent so many years in close proximity to the Fernandez clan as a close friend that he is a defacto part of the group. The othering of the latinx culture in this novel is sidestepped. This universe belongs to the Fernandez family and everyone operates in that status quo.

Olivera also doesn’t shy away from problems that are part of even the best possible life – the care of an elderly parent, the dangers of public service and the destruction caused by domestic violence. But the books don’t get carried away by these tough topics. Each one is confronted and overcome, making the HEA all the more sweeter in the end.

Olivera’s ouvre (I like the word!) appeals to me because, as a fellow Puerto Rican, I caught on quickly to the cultural shorthand she uses to describe the space in which the Fernandez sisters to live and fall in love. I understood the food, the mini-expressions in Spanish, the superstitions and cultural beliefs. There is a common refrain from book one, familiar primero or family first, that resonates throughout the novels and makes sense to me. When Lilí, in book three, prays to both her parents for guidance, it is a second-nature, authentic gesture I recognize from my own experience.

Music plays a major role in the novels, also. In book one, the beloved patriarch, Rey, has spent his life playing with a band and frequently jams in the makeshift studio in his basement. As in many Hispanic families, music forms the back drop of nearly every social gathering or important event. The motif of music comes full circle in the character of Diego, who plays the guitar and sings, becoming the music man Lilí has always been looking for.

Music and dancing are accompanied by descriptions of wonderful Puerto Rican cuisine. The three sisters cook together, reminding me of the comforts and pleasures of my family’s kitchen when my grandmother, mother, aunts descended en mass to make pasteles or other complicated dishes while the men roasted pork and played dominos in the backyard, the children always underfoot.

This series was a true pleasure to read. Oliveras is a master of emotional beats and pacing. Because these books are relatively low heat, the onus of the emotional payoff rests heavily on the relationship between the characters and the work they have to do to obtain a happy ending. That is not to say there isn’t sexual tension, and in fact, the books grow progressively steamier, but when it is resolved, it is done off the page.

Romantic, full of rich characters and cultural details, this series provides the joy of full immersion. Pair it with a warm blanket, a glass of wine and a bowl of asopao for the perfect book weekend.

His Perfect Partner – 5/5 Stars

Her Perfect Affair – 4.5/5 Stars

Their Perfect Melody – 5/5 Stars