Tuesday, 23 July 2019

#CBR11 Book 49: "If I Was Your Girl" by Meredith Russo

Page count: 272 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: Own Voices (the book is about a trans girl, written by a trans woman)

Official book description:
Amanda Hardy is the new girl in school. Like anyone else, all she wants is to make friends and fit in. But Amanda is keeping a secret, and she’s determined not to get too close to anyone.

But when she meets sweet, easygoing Grant, Amanda can’t help but start to let him into her life. As they spend more time together, she realizes just how much she is losing by guarding her heart. She finds herself yearning to share with Grant everything about herself, including her past. But Amanda’s terrified that once she tells him the truth, he won't be able to see past it. 

Because the secret that Amanda’s been keeping? It's that at her old school, she used to be Andrew. Will the truth cost Amanda her new life, and her new love?

Amanda is going to live with her father and trying to start fresh, after having been beaten up in her former home town. She misses her mother a lot and as she starts to make friends feels guilty that she cannot share the big secret of who she is, and used to be.

Amanda was born Andrew, but from an early age knew that she was trans. Amanda tried to commit suicide, but was lucky enough to receive help and counselling and eventually, transition treatment and surgery. The only way anyone is going to know that she was born a boy is if they see her original birth certificate, or if she tells them her secret.

Making close friends and falling in love when you cannot be entirely honest about who you are and where you came from must be very difficult, as this book explores. As Meredith Russo points out in her afterwards, the trans experience she writes about in this book is far from the reality for a lot of teens and older people out there. Amanda knows from an early age, she has no doubts about her identity. Her parents are, after some difficulties coping, very supportive. She can "pass for female" and has the expensive surgery to make her transition complete. This is not the case with many trans people out there.

I am a nearly forty year old cis-gendered straight woman. I know very little about the trans experience, for all that I now know several trans people. I do know that for all that Norway is incredibly progressive and accepting of lesbian and gay rights, it's fairly deplorable when it comes to the rights and treatment of trans people. While being trans is no longer classified as a mental illness (no, really), I know for a fact that there is a lot of fear and discrimination, and that our glorious universal health care system isn't all that easy to manoeuvre for trans individuals. It makes me deeply sad. 

For Pride Month, I wanted to make an effort to read diversely on the LGBTQIA spectrum. I cannot say that I've read a lot of books with trans characters before (Courtney Milan's Hold Me being a notable and excellent exception), but I'm trying to continue to grow and explore more. This book was good, but for all that I'm glad Amanda's experience was largely positive and she was met with love and support, the book's conflict seemed to resolve a bit too easily (and I'm not sure that quite so many people in rural America are that progressive and open-minded). 

Judging a book by its cover: I think this cover is simple, striking and lovely, and from what I gather from the author's acknowledgements, the model used for this photograph is also trans, which seems only right and fitting.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR11 Books 47-48: "Neanderthal Seeks Human" and "Neanderthal Marries Human" by Penny Reid

Total page count: 720 pages

#CBR11 Bingo: Reading the TBR (has been on my TBR list since 2015)

Neanderthal Seeks Human - 3.5 stars

There are three things you need to know about Janie Morris: 1) She is incapable of engaging in a conversation without volunteering TMTI (Too Much Trivial Information), especially when she is unnerved, 2) No one unnerves her more than Quinn Sullivan, and 3) She doesn't know how to knit.

After losing her boyfriend, apartment, and job in the same day, Janie Morris can't help wondering what new torment fate has in store. To her utter mortification, Quinn Sullivan- aka Sir McHotpants- witnesses it all then keeps turning up like a pair of shoes you lust after but can't afford. The last thing she expects is for Quinn- the focus of her slightly, albeit harmless, stalkerish tendencies- to make her an offer she can't refuse.

This box set has been on my shelf since early 2015. Since then, Penny Reid has published at least sixteen additional stories (I want to say novels, but think some of them may be novella length), so she's clearly rather prolific. I know that several of the kissing book set among the Cannonballers have read and reviewed several of her books, among them Mrs. Julien and Emmalita, but this is my first foray into Ms. Reid's writing.

As far as I can tell, this is Penny Reid's first book and I suspect some of the flaws in the writing can be chalked up to this. There's a lot to like about the book, but also quite a few things that annoyed me, both as I was reading the book, and have kept bugging me in the weeks since I finished the books.

I liked that Janie, for all that she was painfully socially awkward (not kidding, I full body cringed on occasion when reading about her), was extremely intelligent and very good at her job. I do like a good bit of competence porn, and the fact that she is so very skilled at her chosen profession helped alleviate some of the things that bugged the shit out of me about her.

I also really liked the heavy focus on friendship in the book, like the close and supportive community of the knitting group. Janie doesn't even do any kind of yarn crafts, be they knitting or crochet, but just hanging out with an awesome group of supportive ladies, talking about guys and other problems and drinking a lot of wine - they were all great. I also did like that while Janie doesn't do any crafting, Penny Reid's references to needles and various types of yarns suggest that she does. While the members of Janie's knitting group are important supporting characters, her most important support is obviously her BFF, Elizabeth, who lets Janie move in when she catches her boyfriend cheating on her AND loses her job, all on the same day. I probably liked Elizabeth more than I did Janie, overall.

Janie's pretty immediate and close friendship with her new colleague Steven was great, as well.

In the first book, I think there was more I disliked than actually liked. Janie's continued belief that she was some sort of hideous troll, despite all evidence to the contrary and all of her friends assuring her that this is not the case. I hate heroines who are clearly gorgeous, but refuse to believe it. That Janie would believe herself to be impossible to date because of her tendency to spout weird trivia at all times, and that she frequently also puts her foot in her mouth, figuratively speaking - that I could have believed. But thinking that she's some sort of uggo - just no! Generally, Janie spends far too much of the book being mean to herself. The "neanderthal" in the title of both books is how she refers to herself. You're never going to find lasting love until you learn to at least like yourself, lady.

Quinn is a little bit too much of an alphahole for me to really like him in this book. That he's impressed with Janie's intelligence speaks in his favour (but we've also already covered that she's a redheaded, hourglass-shaped bombshell, so he probably doesn't just like her for her brains), but some of the secrets he kept from her and the way he dealt with them when they came to light were not great.

Janie's judgement of Quinn's bachelor ways and the heavily implied slut-shaming of the women he used to hook up with also pissed me off. Sorry, "slamps", because apparently Janie needs to make up her own words when she's judgy of other women and their lifestyle choices. I got more annoyed every time that term was used. Janie's attitude is somewhat redeemed in the second book, when she not only has a conversation with one of Quinn's former lovers, but ends up helping this woman (and in the end, being helped in return), but in the first book, it was pretty dire. Women should be helping and building up each other up, not tearing one another down.

The plot in the first novel also goes all over the place. Why did we need the subplot with the Boston gangsters and Janie's sociopath sister? How is THAT the romance complication you present before getting the couple firmly together? I did like how the knitting group banded together to deal with the thugs, but it would have been a better and more realistic group without that interlude altogether.

Neanderthal Marries Human - 4 stars

There are three things you should know about Quinn Sullivan: 1) He is madly in love with Janie Morris, 2) He’s not above playing dirty to get what (or who) he wants, and 3) He doesn’t know how to knit.

After just five months of dating Janie, Quinn—former Wendell and unapologetic autocrat—is ready to propose marriage. In fact, he’s more than ready. If it were up to Quinn, he would efficiently propose, marry, and beget Janie with child all in the same day—thereby avoiding the drama and angst that accompanies the four stages of pre-matrimony: engagement, meeting the parents, bachelor/bachelorette party, and overblown, superfluous wedding day traditions. But Janie, much to Quinn’s dismay, tosses a wrench in his efficacious endeavors and challenges him to prove his devotion by going through the matrimonial motions, no matter how minute and mundane.

Will Quinn last until the wedding day? Or will he yield to his tyrant impulses?

Regardless, one thing is for certain, Quinn Sullivan will have to learn to expect the Spanish Inquisition (i.e. the unexpected) if he plans to have and keep Janie Morris as his wife.

This book is described as Knitting in the City 1.5 and cannot be read as a standalone, according to the author. It's a direct continuation of Neanderthal Seeks Human. In this book, we occasionally get the POV of Quinn, which gives us more insight into his way of thinking, and made me like him a lot more. The plot is also structured somewhat better, with fewer of the things I was unhappy about in the first book.

Quinn proposes to Janie after they've been together for five months and wants a short engagement. She argues that it's impossible for them to know whether they are going to be able to survive long term if their relationship hasn't gone through some of the stressful situations that people with longer engagements have. She agrees to a three month engagement on the condition that they have a massive wedding, where they put their relationship truly to the test with all manner of stressful wedding planning and family events, so they can be sure that they really ARE ready for "the better and worse" when they get to their wedding day.

As someone who had been with my now husband for eight years (engaged for a year and a half) before we finally got married, I cannot argue with Janie here. I'm sure there are people who find lasting love at more or less first sight, and who successfully stay together despite having a short courtship period. But knowing more about the person you've decided to live with and share your life with is a good idea.

Meeting the families comes with their own set of problems. Janie's not really in touch with either of her sisters (the youngest one is a hardened criminal who tried to blackmail Quinn in the final third of the first book), her mother is dead and her father seems entirely indifferent to her. Quinn is very close to his rather peculiar sister, but is entirely estranged with his parents after they blamed him for the death of his older brother back in the day. For all that she struggles in a lot of social situations, Janie manages to charm Quinn's parents and mend the rift between them rather well over the course of the story - that was possibly my favourite bit of the entire book.

I saw some people complain that the love scenes in the first book are fade to black. That is certainly not the case in the second book. Let's just say, I hope Quinn pays the staff of his private air plane a LOT for what they have to put up with.

Based on these two first books (that I have as a box set) and some of the reviews from trusted fellow romance readers, I will probably check out at least some of Reid's other romances. One of the benefits of being late in discovering a writer a lot of reviews have been written about already, is that I can be more picky in which books I choose to give my time and money to.

Judging the books by their covers: Both of these books claim to be "smart" romance. I genuinely don't know what supposedly makes these in any way smarter than other contemporary romances out there. By now, I see from Ms Reid's website that the books have gone through at least one cover redesign, but I kind of like the original covers, with the heroine's face on the first book and the couple (who seem to be kissing) on the second book blocked off with big hearts. It's just the right amount of cute and quirky, and made them stand out to me in a positive way.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday, 22 July 2019

#CBR11 Book 46: "The Lawrence Browne Affair" by Cat Sebastian

Page count: 336 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: Science! One of the protagonists is a scientist and his scientific experiments plays an important part throughout the story.

Official book description:
Lawrence Browne, the Earl of Radnor, is mad. At least, that’s what he and most of the village believes. A brilliant scientist, he hides himself away in his family’s crumbling estate, unwilling to venture into the outside world. When an annoyingly handsome man arrives at Penkellis, claiming to be Lawrence’s new secretary, his carefully planned world is turned upside down.

Georgie Turner has made his life pretending to be anyone but himself. A swindler and con man, he can slip into an identity faster than he can change clothes. But when his long-dead conscience resurrects and a dangerous associate is out for blood, Georgie escapes to the wilds of Cornwall. Pretending to be a secretary should be easy, but he doesn’t expect that the only madness he finds is the one he has for the gorgeous earl.

Challenging each other at every turn, the two men soon give into the desire that threatens to overwhelm them. But with one man convinced he is at the very brink of madness and the other hiding his real identity, only true love can make this an affair to remember.

Georgie Turner is the younger brother of Jack Turner from The Soldier's Scoundrel. He needs to get out of London in a hurry, as his underworld employer is none too pleased that he grew a conscience and refused to swindle the little old lady that was his mark. Jack's partner Oliver has recently received a letter from a concerned acquaintance, the vicar in the village near where the Earl of Radnor lives. There are concerns about the Earl's mental state, and the vicar would like it proven that the Earl is in fact not insane, like his father and brother were rumoured to be. The Earl has already scared away several secretaries and most of his household staff, so thanks to Jack and Oliver, Georgie knows there's a place in the Cornish countryside where he can hide out. As he arrives at the Earl's manor, which seems to have been left to fall into total ruin, he notes that he can always steal a number of valuables if he suddenly has to leave in a hurry.

Lawrence Browne, the current Earl of Radnor, just wants to be left in peace. He currently has only one maid and a housekeeper, and have them trained to leave his simple food on a tray outside his door. He knows he's likely to fall victim to the family madness sooner or later, but would prefer it if he manages to complete his latest invention before he goes stark raving mad. When his most recent secretary arrives, a very pretty man who doesn't behave anything like any of Lawrence's former secretaries, he's pretty sure he can scare the man off quickly enough with his wild temper, the state of the house and the sheer impossibility of getting his papers and affairs in order.

Of course, Georgie can't leave, unless he risk life and limb, so a temperamental nobleman is easy enough to deal with. While he may not have the education or qualifications a gentleman would have, he is intelligent, fastidious and very organised and simply cannot stand the mess that his new employer surrounds himself with. Besides, if he sorts through all the paperwork and tidies up the place, he might be able to ignore the obvious attraction between them.

Lawrence is not mad, but he does suffer from pretty crippling anxiety. Georgie figures this out pretty quickly and helps him find ways of coping. Working as a con man for most of his adult life has taught Georgie a little bit about a good many things, and it doesn't take him long to realise that the Earl of Radnor not only isn't insane, but he's really quite the unappreciated genius, who could be making a fortune of his brilliant inventions. Why Radnor has scared nearly all the serving staff and is letting his house literally crumble to pieces around him is more of a mystery.

Much of the book focuses on the interaction between Georgie and Lawrence, but there are a few other supporting characters who make the story more interesting as well. While there is instant attraction between the two men, they are also wary of each other and Lawrence has come to believe that his forbidden attraction to his own sex is one of the signs of his impending madness. It takes a while for him to get over his fears and what society has taught him about the evils of homosexuality, but in the meantime, he and Georgie can get to know each other better in other ways.

I think I liked this book even more than I did The Soldier's Scoundrel and I can see why Cat Sebastian has become so popular in romance reading circles so quickly. From what I can see, two of the supporting characters from this book will be the romantic pairing in the third novel, and I can't wait to see how that works out, as they seem about as unlikely a pairing as any I've seen.

Judging a book by its cover: While it's always nice to see two dudes on a historical romance cover (not something that happened until recently), the two guys on this cover look absolutely nothing like what either of our heroes within the pages of the book are described. At least this is a better cover than the one for The Soldier's Scoundrel. These two men at least look comfortable in each other's presence.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR11 Book 45: "Where the Mountain Meets the Moon" by Grace Lin

Page count: 260 pages
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: Far and Away (book set in fantasy version of historical China)

Official book description:
In the valley of Fruitless mountain, a young girl named Minli lives in a ramshackle hut with her parents. In the evenings, her father regales her with old folktales of the Jade Dragon and the Old Man on the Moon, who knows the answers to all of life's questions. Inspired by these stories, Minli sets off on an extraordinary journey to find the Old Man on the Moon to ask him how she can change her family's fortune. She encounters an assorted cast of characters and magical creatures along the way, including a dragon who accompanies her on her quest for the ultimate answer. 

This is an utterly lovely middle grade fantasy book, inspired by a lot of the Chinese folklore tales that Grace Lin herself read while growing up. The main story is about young Minli who leaves the only home she's ever known to try to find a way to ensure a better, richer life for her hard working and desperately poor parents. There are also countless stories within the story, that all link up in clever ways as the main story progresses. Minli's father tells her stories, people and creatures she encounter along her journey tell her stories - there are so many various tales that make up the whole of this delightful book.

As well as follow Minli on her quest to find the Old Man on the Moon, we see how her worried parents fare and think about her while she's gone. While Minli goes on a long and occasionally hazardous journey by herself, her mother is forced to go on an emotional journey of sorts, to figure out what role she may have played in her daughter's sudden disappearance (initially she wholeheartedly blames her husband and his "filling the girl's head with silliness and dreams"). It's not often we see those left behind while our hero or heroine goes off on their quest narrative, and as a parent myself now, I appreciated seeing how the parents kept trying to cope at home.

Minli has a difficult and often dangerous trip ahead of her, and meets many individuals along the way. There are dragons, mischievous monkeys, kind villagers, scrappy orphans, a king, a vengeful tiger spirit, just to name a few. As with Western fairy tales, being kind, polite, helpful and courteous will usually lead to good things for our protagonist, and one of the things I just really love about folklore are the similarities, for all that a lot of the finer details are different.

I very much enjoyed this book and as far as I can tell, Grace Lin has written a number of other books, both for young and middle grade readers. I can't wait to check out more of her stuff.

Judging a book by its cover: Grace Lin isn't just a very talented middle grade author, she's also an illustrator who makes the beautiful pictures that accompanies her writing throughout the story. On the cover of the book, we see our heroine, Minli, riding on the back of her loyal dragon friend. I also love the intricate top and bottom border of the cover, with a number of other little details from the story.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday, 21 July 2019

#CBR11 Book 44: "Ambition and Desire: The Dangerous Life of Josephine Bonaparte" by Kate Williams

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: True Story

From Goodreads:
Their love was legendary, their ambition flagrant and unashamed. Napoleon Bonaparte and his wife, Josephine, came to power during one of the most turbulent periods in the history of France. The story of the Corsican soldier’s incredible rise has been well documented. Now, in this spellbinding, luminous account, Kate Williams draws back the curtain on the woman who beguiled him: her humble origins, her exorbitant appetites, and the tragic turn of events that led to her undoing.

Born Marie-Jos├Ęphe-Rose de Tascher de La Pagerie on the Caribbean island of Martinique, the woman Napoleon would later call Josephine was the ultimate survivor. She endured a loveless marriage to a French aristocrat—executed during the Reign of Terror—then barely escaped the guillotine blade herself. Her near-death experience only fueled Josephine’s ambition and heightened her  determination to find a man who could finance and sustain her. Though no classic beauty, she quickly developed a reputation as one of the most desirable women on the continent.

In 1795, she met Napoleon. The attraction was mutual, immediate, and intense. Theirs was an often-tumultuous union, roiled by their pursuit of other lovers but intensely focused on power and success. Josephine was Napoleon’s perfect consort and the object of national fascination. Together they conquered Europe. Their extravagance was unprecedented, even by the standards of Versailles. But she could not produce an heir. Sexual obsession brought them together, but cold biological truth tore them apart.

I knew virtually nothing about Josephine Bonaparte before I read this book. I had no idea she was born in the Caribbean. I didn't know that she had been married and had a son and a daughter before she ever married Napoleon. I didn't know how unhappy her first marriage was, or how she had to keep adapting and changing everything about herself to survive the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror.

The woman who became known for her style and wit throughout Europe started out as illiterate, provincial and clumsy, but abandoned by her first husband, spent a lot of the time on her hands educating herself and learning how to be entertaining and pleasing, to both men and women. Once her husband died, the only way she was going to be able to support herself and her children was by acquiring a wealthy protector and she made sure she was a desirable mistress for increasingly more powerful men.

Napoleon Bonaparte was not a particularly impressive general by the time he first met the woman he would call Josephine, but unlike most women, who seemed utterly repulsed by him, she actually seemed interested in him when they conversed and listened intently and treated him well, so he became utterly obsessed with her. Did you know that before he became a successful general, Napoleon wanted to write romantic novels? Yup, Napoleon Bonaparte, the man who conquered most of Europe and took multiple battles to fully defeat - his early career was spent writing romance. I certainly had not expected to learn that.

Josephine clearly did not have an easy life, either before or after she shackled herself to Napoleon. I'm sure no one would be surprised to hear that he was a tyrant not just to his military troops, but also at home. In their early life together, he adored and was utterly obsessed with Josephine, much to the dismay of his utterly horrendous family (who were all greedy, scheming, odious, power hungry ingrates). Then it was proven conclusively that she'd had a lover when he was off conquering somewhere, and his rose-tinted view of his wife appears to have altered somewhat. He still wanted and needed her, but started taking mistresses of his own, while Josephine had to put up with it and coped with her sorrows by spending truly mind-boggling amounts of money.

Despite their rather tumultuous relationship, the couple seem to have genuinely loved one another. Sadly, due to the starvation and hardships Josephine went through during the Terror, she was incapable of having more children. She spent much of her time travelling to various spa resorts around Europe, trying all manner of treatments to conceive a child. Eventually, Napoleon's scheming relatives and his advisers managed to convince him that he had to divorce Josephine and marry another, so he could provide an heir to his empire.

Historical biographies can be rather dry and boring, but once I got past the rather slow section of Josephine's early life, I was pretty much hooked and kept picking up the book every chance I got. I got through this book in just under a week, which I hadn't expected. Again, it didn't surprise me that Napoleon was a horrible person whose views on consent were utterly non-existent, but it was fascinating to read about the woman he chose to spend much of his adult life with.

A lot of the time, I listen to historical biographies in audio, but this I read as an e-book. The Napoleonic era is a very popular setting for historical romance novels, but it was fascinating to discover more about one of the most famous actual romances of the period. I can happily recommend this book.

Judging a book by its cover: Josephine Bonaparte was not considered one of the beauties of her time, rather she was described as striking and handsome, and apparently had great charisma. Of course, when you are the empress of France, you have the opportunity to influence fashion trends to they flatter you as much as possible. If the portrait they've used for the cover is at all accurate, then I agree that Josephine wasn't exactly a stunning woman, but it's not like she was some hideous troll either.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Thursday, 18 July 2019

#CBR11 Book 43: "Red, White & Royal Blue" by Casey McQuiston

Page count: 432 pages
Rating: 5 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: I Love This

First Son Alex Claremont-Diaz is the closest thing to a prince this side of the Atlantic. With his intrepid sister and the Veep’s genius granddaughter, they’re the White House Trio, a beautiful millennial marketing strategy for his mother, President Ellen Claremont. International socialite duties do have downsides—namely, when photos of a confrontation with his longtime nemesis Prince Henry at a royal wedding leak to the tabloids and threaten American/British relations.

The plan for damage control: staging a fake friendship between the First Son and the Prince. Alex is busy enough handling his mother’s bloodthirsty opponents and his own political ambitions without an uptight royal slowing him down. But beneath Henry’s Prince Charming veneer, there’s a soft-hearted eccentric with a dry sense of humor and more than one ghost haunting him.

As President Claremont kicks off her reelection bid, Alex finds himself hurtling into a secret relationship with Henry that could derail the campaign and upend two nations. And Henry throws everything into question for Alex, an impulsive, charming guy who thought he knew everything: What is worth the sacrifice? How do you do all the good you can do? And, most importantly, how will history remember you?

What DIDN'T I love about this book? I honestly can't think of a thing. It's been a month and a half since I finished it, and I still think about it ALL the time. I've sent it to several of my friends to make them read it too, just so I'd have someone to gush about its awesomeness with. I know at least two of them have gifted friends and/or family members with copies of the book as well, so at least Casey McQuiston is doing good business out of my enthusiasm. Without a shadow of a doubt, this will be on my "Best of the Year" list come December. It would not surprise me if it ends up in the top three. There was no other book I had in my review backlog that more perfectly fit in the "I Love This" square than this book.

This book is funny, romantic and so affirming. Set in a slightly alternate world I think we all wish was real right now, Ellen Claremont from Texas won the Presidential election after Obama's final term. Her two half-Mexican kids are social media superstars. In the UK, there is still a Queen, but her name is Mary. There's no Prince Charles, only her daughter (who married a famous actor, who played James Bond in the 80s and tragically died of cancer a while back). The queen's eldest grandson is the heir to the throne. There is also Princess Beatrice, who wanted to become a rock star and got a little bit too carried away with cocaine. Then there's everyone's idea of Prince Charming, Henry, the youngest son. If Alex is the most eligible bachelor in the US, Henry is probably the most sought after in all of Europe. Except he has a secret - Henry is extremely and decidedly gay, and has been in love with Alex Claremont-Diaz since they first met at the Rio Olympics when they were in their early teens.

Alex both obsesses over and hates Henry at first, but after a rather monumental New Year's Eve at the White House and a very steamy kiss in the gardens, he's forced to re-evaluate everything he thought he knew about himself and his very confused feelings towards Henry.

Alex and Henry are both great protagonists. If there was one thing that could make this book EVEN better, it's if there had been POV chapters for Henry as well, especially because what we did get to see from his perspective (in his texts and e-mails) was lovely.

There is also a great supporting cast - Alex' sister June, his best friend Nora (the Vice President's brilliant granddaughter), Henry's sister Bea and his best friend Pez are all great. Alex is lucky enough to have three supportive parents. I liked how non-dramatic his parents divorce was and how well they deal with all his revelations (his Mum's powerpoint was both amazing and incredibly cringe-worthy ("Planned Parenthood sent leaflets! They used a bike messenger"). Nora might be the best friend a guy can have. Not sure if she was supposed to be on the spectrum, but her intense fascination for numbers possibly suggested it. Her reaction to Alex' big dramatic "Am I bi?" was hilarious and absolutely amazing and I cannot deny having re-read the scene and snickered several times.

I am frankly blown away by the fact that this is Casey McQuiston's first novel. As far as I can tell, this book is stand-alone, which I'm both relieved with, because I want it to exist as a perfect little nugget of its own, but also conflicted about because I want to see who end up being June, Nora, Bea and/or Pez' happy endings. Suffice to say, I'm going to internet stalk Ms. McQuiston and await her next book with bated breath.

Judging a book by its cover: See, I'm torn between thinking that the pepto bismol pink cover is a cute touch, and being worried that it's virulent pinkness is going to scare off potential readers who may miss out on this amazing reading experience just because they don't want to read something with a cover that colour. The little cartoon dudes seem like pretty good representations of Alex and Henry, though, that's good.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR11 Book 42: "The Bride Test" by Helen Hoang

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 4 stars

From Goodreads:
Khai Diep has no feelings. Well, he feels irritation when people move his things or contentment when ledgers balance down to the penny, but not big, important emotions—like grief. And love. He thinks he’s defective. His family knows better—that his autism means he just processes emotions differently. When he steadfastly avoids relationships, his mother takes matters into her own hands and returns to Vietnam to find him the perfect bride.

As a mixed-race girl living in the slums of Ho Chi Minh City, Esme Tran has always felt out of place. When the opportunity arises to come to America and meet a potential husband, she can’t turn it down, thinking this could be the break her family needs. Seducing Khai, however, doesn’t go as planned. Esme’s lessons in love seem to be working…but only on herself. She’s hopelessly smitten with a man who’s convinced he can never return her affection.

With Esme’s time in the United States dwindling, Khai is forced to understand he’s been wrong all along. And there’s more than one way to love. 

This novel has an unusual and interesting concept for a story. There is the autistic hero - which you don't see too often in romance. The only book I can remember reading with one was The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie, which I really didn't like much at all. Obviously, in Helen Hoang's previous novel, The Kiss Quotient, the heroine is on the autism spectrum. Khai, the hero of this book, is the cousin of Michael (the hero of The Kiss Quotient). 

It's very difficult for me to say how authentic Khai is as an example of someone on the autism spectrum, but since this is an #Ownvoices story, and the author became really huge with The Kiss Quotient, I cannot imagine she hasn't done her research properly. While Khai frequently struggles with social interaction, he's clearly not someone to really be pitied and he's clearly doing excellently business wise. One of the things I like about the book is that we never actually have it confirmed just how wealthy and successful Khai is, it's all just hinted at.

We also have an immigrant heroine, from a very poor background, in a situation that veers closely towards the arranged marriage trope. Esme (this is the Westernised name our heroine gives herself, because her favourite Disney movie is The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Her Vietnamese name is given as M. From now on I will refer to her as M/Esme.) works at a cleaner at a fancy hotel. She lives with her mother and grandmother, as well as her little girl, and everyone (except the child) has to work hard to make ends meet. The amount of money Khai's mother is willing to pay her, even if she never makes a match with her son, is staggering. M/Esme would be able to secure a much better life for her child and extended family, especially if she gets a job while in the States (which she insists on, as she doesn't want to be useless and a burden). M/Esme also has a vague hope of being able to track down her own father, who may or may not be connected with Stanford university in some way.

There are huge cultural and social differences between the main couple. The whole book is pretty much nothing but misunderstandings from either side. Yet while something like that could annoy the crap out of me in a different book, here it's entirely understandable, as the couple are separated by background, culture, language - one of them is neuro divergent, the other is desperately trying to rise above her lack of education and impoverished background. Early on, M/Esme lies and claims to have a background in accounting, because a successful, handsome man like Khai couldn't possibly come to love her if he knew she was just a hotel maid. She works diligently not just to learn English as perfectly as possible during her stay, but also starts taking evening classes to make the lie a reality.

M/Esme is the real star of this story, she's such a fierce, wonderful, determined heroine. Even when she's desperately poor, she has morals and while she keeps her daughter a secret from Khai's mother and Khai himself for much of the book, she feels so guilty about it. She also makes it clear early on that she is not a prostitute and that Khai needs to be a willing suitor, she's not going to lie and manipulate him, just because Khai's mother wants him to get married. It made me sad that M/Esme always took pretty much every misunderstanding between her and  Khai as criticism of her and her background, but also served to make her all the more determined to make something more of herself.

I would say that more important than the actual romance in this book is M/Esme's journey of self discovery. Her learning to appreciate her self worth, that even if she's a poor, uneducated single mother from a small Vietnamese village, she deserves respect, love and happiness. She works so hard to make herself something, setting an example for her daughter. The sections where she thinks about her little girl or talks to her over the phone, broke my heart a little bit.

Is it always going to be like this when I read or watch TV and movies now? Because I have a child of my own, I'm going to find stories of motherhood and especially mothers sacrificing for their children, so incredibly painful. M/Esme has recurring nightmares about her daughter's father (who has a rich wife) showing up and taking the little girl away from her. She really has no choice but to leave her daughter for a few months, but I still found it difficult to read about, in a way I can't remember feeling before I had a little boy of my own.

In the afterword, Ms. Hoang says this story is inspired by her mother, who came to America after the Vietnam war and worked tirelessly to create a future for herself, her family and her future children. I cannot imagine a better tribute to what sounds like a very impressive woman. Hoang also confesses that M/Esme wasn't initially meant to be the heroine, but the third in the love triangle who lost out, so to speak. I'm so glad she changed her mind and the story, because while Khai was perfectly fine, M/Esme is who made the entire book for me.

Of the two books Ms. Hoang has written so far, this is now my favourite. The next book in the series is going to be about Khai's non-neuro divergent brother, who plays an important supporting part in this one. I don't think Helen Hoang has proven herself worthy of my pre-order list yet, but if her third novel is as satisfying, she won't be far off.

Judging a book by its cover: There seems to be a trend at the moment for a lot of "mainstream" contemporary romance to be packaged with illustrated covers, which sometimes works better than others. It can sometimes come off as a bit too twee, but I really like this one. The warm yellow background, the woman intently studying. The whimsical aeroplanes and their trails across the page, with the most prominent making a heart-shape. It makes me happy to look at and that's not a bad thing at all.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.