Sunday 18 December 2016

#CBR8 Book 120: "Hold Me" by Courtney Milan

Page count: 303 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Maria Lopez runs a small niche blog where she imagines apocalyptic disaster scenarios and uses her comprehensive knowledge of science to figure out how to best try to avoid said scenarios. While it used to be just a hobby, and the blog wasn't widely read, recently it's getting a lot more visitors, and Maria has started getting actual job offers. She has kept her real identity closely guarded, so none of the people offering to hire her know that she's a woman, working towards her actuary degree. Maria doesn't really have a lot of friends or family around to support her. There's her roommate Tina, who is also her best friend, there's Angela, who's sometimes more of a chore than a support to Maria, there's her brother and there's her grandmother. She's cautious both professionally and emotionally, because she's been badly hurt in the past.

Jay na Thalang is utterly driven, and he knows he's a genius at what he does. He works hard, never slows down and expects the same kind of all-consuming passion for science from all those who work under him as well. He has a strained relationship with his parents, due to a tragedy in their past, and he barely has any friends, as they never seem to stick around once they realise he barely has time for them. Maria's brother is one of the few people who has still stuck around, and he tries to set Maria and Jay up. It is an absolute disaster. Jay misunderstands why Maria is initially there, and has judged her and found her a frivolous airhead before she has a chance to even speak much. While they both find the other physically attractive, it's pretty much hate at first sight.

What neither Maria nor Jay know, is that they already know each other. Jay is a huge fan of Maria's apocalypse blog, and they've been exchanging messages for nearly a year. Messages that have gone from polite conversation to develop into friendship and possibly even something more. These conversations, where both are hidden behind Internet user names, continue to get more flirtatious, even as Jay and Maria keep running into each other in real life and fanning the flames of their animosity towards one another. Are they ever going to discover the truth?

This is a romance novel. Of course they are going to find out! I was very worried about how Courtney Milan was going to handle it, because in the hands of a lesser author, this situation would be drawn-out and painful and involve lies and added complication. I needn't have worried. In her normal inimitable fashion, Ms. Milan defuses the situation quickly, and while Jay initially considers lying to Maria, once he realises who she really is, he instead confesses exactly who he is to her online, and how he know who she is. He does this, knowing that their many hateful exchanges over the past months may mean that Maria never wants to see him again. He nonetheless doesn't want to lie to her.

Courtney Milan has shown herself to be quite progressive in the past, with both lesbian and homosexual supporting characters in several of her historical novels. She's had inter-racial romances, and several of her heroines have had a scientific background. In this book, the heroine is a Latina trans woman, and the fact that she is trans is never made into a huge issue. The hero is a half-Chinese, half-Thai bisexual man, where again, it's not really made into a big deal that he used to have a boyfriend, now he doesn't. Milan clearly knows a lot about the sort of discrimination and treatment women in the STEM fields face and many of these issues are addressed over the course of this book.

Jay doesn't believe himself to be a sexist, judgemental jerk. He's a big believer in what intelligent and driven women can do, after all, his mother is one of the CEOs of massive tech company Cyclone (think Apple). Yet in his early encounters with Maria, he dismisses her intelligence immediately, because she likes to wear high heels, makeup and dress in pretty clothes. Because she has interests outside of science and likes to talk to her brother about pop culture and entertainment, she can't possibly have valid thoughts or theories science or more serious topics. Through several encounters, Maria makes him see that he is, in fact, very wrong in the way he treats women, even his female grad students, whom he claims to respect and treat equally to his male ones. Jay is deeply unpleasant in the early parts of this book. Frankly, Maria is also quite unpleasant right back at him. Those parts were hard to read and is the main reason why I'm deducting half a star from the rating of this book. Also because I thought the family drama surrounding Jay was a bit contrived, and I find it very strange that it hadn't been resolved way before this book started.

In his defence, even as he desperately wants to dismiss Maria as an airhead, Jay does listen to what she tells him and he does take a long hard look at himself and is unhappy with what he sees. He is already on his way to becoming a less misogynistic, judgemental person when he connects the various dots that have been slowly revealed in the conversations with his online BFF and they all point to Maria. If Jay hadn't taken active efforts to change, he wouldn't begin to be good enough for Maria, who is pretty amazing, even though she has hang-ups and abandonment issues galore.

As well as mostly writing extremely satisfying romances, be they historical or contemporary (there are, sadly, exceptions, I'm looking at you, Once Upon a Marquess and Talk Sweetly to Me), Milan is very good about establishing a believable and enjoyable supporting cast in all of her books. In some of the stories, I like the side characters more than the actual couple. In this book, she introduces us to the somewhat difficult Angela, one of Maria's former room mates, who doesn't seem to be as socially aware as she probably should be, and whose prize science project is a glow in the dark shark. On Milan's website, it is clear that Angela is the heroine in an upcoming novel in the series, and I very much look forward to that. We also get to see Tina and Blake from Trade Me from a new point of view, as well as Blake's foul-mouthed and formidable father, Adam. Maria's relationships with both her brother and her grandmother are very touching and the way her grandmother supported Maria, when her parents couldn't, was one of the many things that brought tears to my eyes while I read the book.

Courtney Milan is more often great than not, and this is one of her really good ones. She features very progressive characters without making their gender identities or sexual preferences in any way a massive part of the story, which is probably the best way to make sure that it becomes more accepted in the mainstream. That is not to say that this is not an important book. Luckily, it's also a very enjoyable and well-written book. For a list of recommendations to Milan's best works, do check out my fellow romance enthusiast, Mrs. Julien's blog.

Judging a book by its cover: I have in vain tried to find out whether the female cover model is actually trans, or whether they just found a Latina woman and figured it was good enough. Considering how progressive Milan, both in her writing and online, I would think she will have tried her best to actually get a trans woman to portray Maria. It's would be such an important step for trans visibility. Is this how I pictured the characters? Not really, but I don't mind, and compared to many of the edited wedding dress photos of Milan's historicals, it's a perfectly nice cover.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read. 

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