Category: Book Reviews

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

Shamrocks, Shillelaghs and Shenanigan’s – Released Erotic Shorts

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I was fortunate enough to participate in EOT Publications’ Shamrocks, Shillelaghs and Shenanigans: A St. Patrick Day’s Sexy Shorts Collection. As happens with these collaborations, after a specific period of time, the rights revert back to the author. As for my story, Dream of the Fae, I’m collecting together my short and novelette length paranormal romances for publication next year in a collection.

Below, you will find four of the released shorts, including their buy links. If you are interested in a quick, erotic morsel, these sexy shorts might be just what you’re looking for, regardless of the holiday.

shamrock's fourth

Amazon

Submissive Fiona Tay signed a contract with Mr. H. O’Brien. Little did she know there are three of them. She can handle one Dom or two. For three, she needs Luck. (m/f, m/f, m/f, mmm/f).

the night shift

Amazon

Devin McDiarmuid is on a mission. When a priceless family heirloom is accidentally donated to a famous library, she travels all the way to Dublin only to find it’s been lost. The library is like heaven, and she knows the book is somewhere inside. She is determined to find it herself, even if that means sneaking in after dark.

getting lucky

Amazon

A funny thing happens in Boston every March 17: everyone becomes Irish. The lasses shake their shamrocks. The lads party with their shillelaghs out. Liam, Jenna, and Max are up to some naughty shenanigans. Join them in Getting Lucky!

This book contains explicit sexual situations including male/male activities. If these things offend you, please do not download this book. All characters are of legal age and consent.

whiskey in a jar

Amazon

Jason is reluctant to catch up with his best friend, Luke, at a frat party of all places, especially with Luke’s annoying girlfriend, Sarah, tagging along. She was always coming on to him, even in front of Luke. But Sarah has plans that include both Luke and Jason, and this St. Patrick’s Day party is the perfect setting. She will just have to use all her charms to get Jason on board. (m/m/f)

Review – American Dreamer

 

 

American Dreamer by Adriana Herrera

  • Publisher: Carina Press; Original edition (March 4, 2019)
  • Publication Date: March 4, 2019
  • Sold by: Harlequin Digital Sales Corp.
  • Language: English

Amazon

Multicultural, Own Voices, M/M Romance, Latinx Lead

When I first saw the marketing push for American Dreamer, I was ecstatic. M/M Romance? Check. Interracial romance where the other half is a sexy librarian? Check.

Wait, Afro-Latino from the Dominican Republic? Are you kidding me? This is what I LIVE FOR! Throw all the check boxes away.

The level of personal anticipation that I experienced for the March 4th release of Adriana Herrera’s debut novel was nothing short of ridiculous.  I haven’t waited for a book in this way since, well, forever.

Nesto is wonderful. An immigrant from the Dominican Republic, you understand his priorities right from page one. He’s moving to Ithaca from NYC to launch his food truck, OuNYe Afro-Caribbean Food, with the help of his family and life-long friends (all of whom get their own novel). He has one goal – to become successful within six months or go home.  He enjoys the support of his people and possesses the willingness to put in the sweat and blood to make success happen. But Nesto’s x-ray focus wavers when Jude, an adorable librarian, arrives at his food truck to buy his scrumptious food.

The attraction between the two men is palpable. Nesto and Jude’s respective culture and sexuality are presented as a fact of life, something the author reinforces by making sure that the novel is populated by diverse characters as a matter of course, including several of Jude’s gay friend, and Carmen, his Dominican co-worker and best friend. Jude speaks Spanish and has lived in Central American, which lifts the onus on Nesto being solely responsible for teaching Jude the ins and outs of his culture.

Every aspect of this novel is respectful of the full humanity of each character. There is no stereotyping, no othering of anyone. The landscape of the novel is a reflection of a diverse world. The challenges Nesto and Jude confront are rooted in aspects of the character’s personality and the way they feel about intimate relationships. Nesto and Jude’s journey takes center stage, and it is such a refreshing take for a novel featuring an interracial couple.

As a daughter of Puerto Rican parents who relocated to the US with the same dreams as Nesto and his mother, I can identify with Nesto’s ambition and his mother’s pride as well as the pitfalls of being a brown person in a white world. As one who was also brought up in a fundamentalist faith that grew increasingly inconsistent with the way I viewed the world, I can also identify with the pain Jude experienced of not feeling fully accepted by those whose job it was to love him unconditionally. Herrera captures so many dynamics in this novel, which serves as equal parts romance, equal parts commentary on what it means to function, find love, and eventually flourish in a world that is not always willing to accommodate your existence.

Oh, and the food descriptions are divine! That absolutely has to be said.

This debut novel recieves an enthusiastic 5/5 stars.

 

 

Review – By the Currawong’s Call by Welton B. Marsland

by the currawongs call

By the Currawong’s Call by Welton B. Marsland

  • Publisher: Escape Publishing (November 1, 2017)
  • Publication Date: November 20, 2017
  • Sold by: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Language: English

Bisexual, Victorian Romance

Amazon

I was just coming off reading Holding the Man and missing the Australian setting when Marsland’s debut novel, By the Currawong’s Call came across my desk. Anglican priest, Matthew Ottenshaw, finds himself posted to the small town of Dinbratten, where he forms a deep friendship with Jonah Parks, the police sergeant in residence. This novel does something I love – it gives a chance for the relationship between the MCs to grow slowly before they give in to their romantic feelings, made doubly complicated by Matthew’s vocation and the historic period. It’s excellently written, just skirting the lyrical as the relationship between Matthew and Jonah escalates into something irrevocable.

copy of by the currawong's song

In addition, each character, even the minor characters, are distinctly drawn. The author takes advantage of the differences in dialect and vocabulary to mark each character. This is particularly effective between Matthew and Jonah, because Matthew is more formally educated than Jonah. Even without dialogue tags, there is no question who is speaking.

by the currawong's song 2 (1)

This novel commits only one forgivable misstep – it sometimes uses Jonah as a vehicle for promoting the modern attitudes towards what were then illegal, same-sex relationships. There is nothing wrong with this, but if I, as a reader, am consuming this genre, it had better be because I’ve sorted my feelings about queerness. On the strength of this assumption, it’s a bit like preaching to the choir. Oh, and that epilogue can go for the same reason.

Everything else in this novel is divine.

by the currawong's song (1)

Favorite quotes:

“You’d better decide quick-smart whether ya reckon I’m worth it, as well. Or else we should stop it all, right here.”

“The match flame illuminated the angles of his face. He was a god of myth, inhaling fire and sighing out incense.”

‘We are a wonder together,’ Matthew thought. ‘An absolute wonder.’

4.5/5 Stars. Great debut!

Note to writers:

  • Excellent example of using vocabulary and dialogue to sharpen characterization
  • Sex scenes escalate intimacy and are tied to the story and characters. Integral to the emotional arc.
  • Illustrates the pitfalls of using epilogues that do not enhance the story.
  • Powerful sense of place.

And the rating (drumroll)… A solid 4.5 out of 5 stars.

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Great debut novel!