mini-review · Romantic Reads · stuff I read

Rafe: A Buff Male Nanny by Rebekah Weatherspoon (Loose Ends #1)

42900442._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
All Dr. Sloan Copeland needed was someone to watch her kids. What she found was the man of her dreams…

After a nasty divorce and a thousand mile move, Dr. Sloan Copeland and her twin daughters are finally getting the hang of their new life in Los Angeles. When their live-in nanny bails with no warning, Sloan is left scrambling to find a competent caretaker to wrangle her smart, sensitive girls. Nothing less will do.

Enter Rafe Whitcomb. He’s all of those things, not to mention good-natured and one heck of a whiz in the kitchen. He’s also tall, and handsome, and bearded, and ripped, and tatted, wrist to neck.

It doesn’t take long for the Copelands to invite Rafe into their home. Just as quickly, both Sloan and Rafe find themselves succumbing to a heady mutual attraction, neither of them wants to deny. With every minute they spend under the same roof, this working mom can’t help but wonder if Rafe can handle all her needs…

Rafe is a solid “what if Chris Hemsworth was a ginger with way more tattoos and also real good with kids” fantasy where a genius cardiac surgeon (single mom with twins) needs a nanny in an emergency and this real tall hot bearded dude with excellent references happens to be available. And then they realize very quickly that they’re attracted to each other, like attracted to each other. Then have amazing sex when neither of them have kid duty. Loved it. Plus Rafe’s family is so awesome.

Picked up my copy at The Ripped Bodice almost exactly one year ago and had Rebekah sign it for me because she just happened to be working 💖

Dear FTC: This copy is fucking mine.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Bride Test by Helen Hoang (The Kiss Quotient #2)

39338454._SY475_Summary 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.

It’s taken multiple attempts to get through The Bride Test. It was very hard to get past how Khai, who has autism spectrum disorder, is treated by his family – as someone who needs to be “fixed” (I think his brother Quan and cousin Michael, who was the hero of The Kiss Quotient, might be the only two close family members who don’t treat Khai like that). And the way his mom decides to “fix” him is to get him a bride from Vietnam. It’s really, really awkward and not in a good way. I liked Khai and Esme a lot as characters, particularly how Esme is so determined to get herself and her daughter a better life, but a lot of the stuff around them was hard to read.

Dear FTC: I had a galley but it expired so I had to buy a copy.

Romantic Reads · stuff I read

Girl Gone Viral by Alisha Rai (Modern Love #2)

44148565Summary from Goodreads:
In Alisha Rai’s second novel in her Modern Love series, a live-tweet event goes viral for a camera-shy ex-model, shoving her into the spotlight—and into the arms of the bodyguard she’d been pining for.

OMG! Wouldn’t it be adorable if he’s her soulmate???

I don’t see any wedding rings [eyes emoji]

Breaking: #CafeBae and #CuteCafeGirl went to the bathroom AT THE SAME TIME!!!

One minute, Katrina King’s enjoying an innocent conversation with a hot guy at a coffee shop; the next, a stranger has live-tweeted the entire episode with a romantic meet-cute spin and #CafeBae is the new hashtag-du-jour. The problem? Katrina craves a low-profile life, and going viral threatens the peaceful world she’s painstakingly built. Besides, #CafeBae isn’t the man she’s hungry for…

He’s got a [peach emoji] to die for.

With the internet on the hunt for the identity of #CuteCafeGirl, Jas Singh, bodyguard, friend, and possessor of the most beautiful eyebrows Katrina’s ever seen, comes to the rescue and whisks her away to his family’s home. Alone in a remote setting with the object of her affections? It’s a recipe for romance. But after a long dating dry spell, Katrina isn’t sure she can trust her instincts when it comes to love—even if Jas’ every look says he wants to be more than just her bodyguard…

Welcome to The Bodyguard: Extreme Pining Edition.

Seriously, this book needs a Whitney Houston soundtrack.

Girl Gone Viral is a very (very) slow-burn romance with much mutual pining between a woman with severe anxiety/panic disorder (with maybe a little agoraphobia/PTSD) and her bodyguard/head of security (who is ex-military and definitely has PTSD). So much pining. All the pining – and that possibly awkward she’s-been-his-boss-for-years thing. Kat and Jas are two of the nicest, sweetest cinnamon-rolliest people (even though Jas could probably break you in half) who totally deserve each other. What I really liked in this book is that Rai gave them each some personal issues that couldn’t be solved by talking about their feelings and tackling the #cafebae issue. Kat has an awful, awful dad while an incident from Jas’s military past comes back to haunt him. That makes their romance very true-to-life. You don’t get to deal with one issue at a time, you have to juggle it all at once, the good and the bad.

Now, if you’ve read a lot of Rai’s previous books, Girl Gone Viral has a much lower “steam” level by comparison. No sexytimes until about 60% through the book and even those are much less in-depth, shall we say. It fits with Kat and Jas, though. They’re sweet and thoughtful and very private characters. They are not Livy and Nicholas from Hate to Want You, secretly hooking up once a year for ten years and having raw, can’t-get-you-out-of-my-system sex, or even Jackson and Sadia from Wrong to Need You who are also “extreme pining edition” but real dirty-talkers. If you like shagging early and often in your romances, be prepared this one’s going to be mild.

Girl Gone Viral is out today!

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read

Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong

52845775._SX318_SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
A ruthlessly honest, emotionally charged exploration of the psychological condition of being Asian American, by an award-winning poet and essayist

Asian Americans inhabit a purgatorial status: neither white enough nor black enough, unmentioned in most conversations about racial identity. In the popular imagination, Asian Americans are all high-achieving professionals. But in reality, this is the most economically divided group in the country, a tenuous alliance of people with roots from South Asia to East Asia to the Pacific Islands, from tech millionaires to service industry laborers. How do we speak honestly about the Asian American condition—if such a thing exists?

Poet and essayist Cathy Park Hong fearlessly and provocatively confronts this thorny subject, blending memoir, cultural criticism, and history to expose the truth of racialized consciousness in America. Binding these essays together is Hong’s theory of “minor feelings.” As the daughter of Korean immigrants, Cathy Park Hong grew up steeped in shame, suspicion, and melancholy. She would later understand that these “minor feelings” occur when American optimism contradicts your own reality—when you believe the lies you’re told about your own racial identity.

With sly humor and a poet’s searching mind, Hong uses her own story as a portal into a deeper examination of racial consciousness in America today. This intimate and devastating book traces her relationship to the English language, to shame and depression, to poetry and artmaking, and to family and female friendship. A radically honest work of art, Minor Feelings forms a portrait of one Asian American psyche—and of a writer’s search to both uncover and speak the truth.

I had Minor Feelings on my list of 2020 to-reads but when I saw Alexander Chee raving about it I bumped it up my reading queue. He’d never steer anyone wrong.

Hong’s book is a thought-provoking and provocative collection of essays concentrating on the lived experience of being Asian-American in America. Hong is a Korean-American poet, so much of her life experience centers around being a child of successful Korean immigrants in a majority-white neighborhood and education system (Hong attended Oberlin for her undergrad). Those experiences are her jumping off point to examine microaggressions, language, the pressures of being the “good” immigrants, expectations of gratitude, and a beautiful, haunting essay that walks the line of biography and true crime about artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, an author and artist who was murdered in the early 1980s.

A must-read for 2020.

 

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read

Children of the Land by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo

44890027Summary from Goodreads:
This unforgettable memoir from a prize-winning poet about growing up undocumented in the United States recounts the sorrows and joys of a family torn apart by draconian policies and chronicles one young man’s attempt to build a future in a nation that denies his existence.

“You were not a ghost even though an entire country was scared of you. No one in this story was a ghost. This was not a story.”

When Marcelo Hernandez Castillo was five years old and his family was preparing to cross the border between Mexico and the United States, he suffered temporary, stress-induced blindness. Castillo regained his vision, but quickly understood that he had to move into a threshold of invisibility before settling in California with his parents and siblings. Thus began a new life of hiding in plain sight and of paying extraordinarily careful attention at all times for fear of being truly seen. Before Castillo was one of the most celebrated poets of a generation, he was a boy who perfected his English in the hopes that he might never seem extraordinary.

With beauty, grace, and honesty, Castillo recounts his and his family’s encounters with a system that treats them as criminals for seeking safe, ordinary lives. He writes of the Sunday afternoon when he opened the door to an ICE officer who had one hand on his holster, of the hours he spent making a fake social security card so that he could work to support his family, of his father’s deportation and the decade that he spent waiting to return to his wife and children only to be denied reentry, and of his mother’s heartbreaking decision to leave her children and grandchildren so that she could be reunited with her estranged husband and retire from a life of hard labor.

Children of the Land distills the trauma of displacement, illuminates the human lives behind the headlines and serves as a stunning meditation on what it means to be a man and a citizen.

I was trying to read Children of the Land at the same time I was listening to The Devil’s Highway and had to pause because I was unfortunately mixing up the two books (they aren’t the same at all except for being the stories of migrants to the US, but my brain kept swapping details between them).

It is a very poetic memoir about a poet’s childhood in the US as an undocumented immigrant contrasted with the lives of his parents and grandparents who each crossed the US border several times. There were a few sections where I think the form Castillo used muddied the story he was trying to tell but overall it is a powerful story about a family looking for a better life, the experience of being undocumented (including the experience of graduate school) then given the chance to apply for a green card, and the terror of his mother’s experience in asking for asylum at the US border in 2016. A necessary book for 2020.

Content warning: there are some depictions of domestic violence on the page.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

stuff I read

Real Life by Brandon Taylor

46263943Summary from Goodreads:
Named one of the most anticipated books of the year by Entertainment Weekly, Harper’s Bazaar, BuzzFeed, and more.

A novel of startling intimacy, violence, and mercy among friends in a Midwestern university town, from an electric new voice.

Almost everything about Wallace is at odds with the Midwestern university town where he is working uneasily toward a biochem degree. An introverted young man from Alabama, black and queer, he has left behind his family without escaping the long shadows of his childhood. For reasons of self-preservation, Wallace has enforced a wary distance even within his own circle of friends—some dating each other, some dating women, some feigning straightness. But over the course of a late-summer weekend, a series of confrontations with colleagues, and an unexpected encounter with an ostensibly straight, white classmate, conspire to fracture his defenses while exposing long-hidden currents of hostility and desire within their community.

Real Life is a novel of profound and lacerating power, a story that asks if it’s ever really possible to overcome our private wounds, and at what cost.

About four or five (six? what is time?) years ago, someone RT’d a reaction gif of Pride and Prejudice (from the miniseries) into my Twitter feed. It was clever and spot on, from a guy named Brandon who was a biochem grad student. He had a whole string of gifs from a live-Tweet of the miniseries so I hit the follow button. I have never regretted it as Brandon shared more and more of his writing, beautiful short stories and personal essays, and his quietly sarcastic humor with us on Twitter and in various literary publications. After he moved to my town for the MFA program in writing, our paths crossed often on campus and at literary events. And I’m absolutely floored by Brandon’s debut novel Real Life. (I’m not surprised, since he’s so damn talented and has a heck of a work ethic, but the book is still a stunner.)

Real Life is a campus novel about a character who is always on the periphery of campus novels – a gay, black, and broke young man named Wallace in a prestigious biochemistry program at a very (very) white Midwestern university. This is not funny like Lucky Jim or navel-gaze-y like The Marriage Plot or Stoner. This is about one weekend in Wallace’s career in graduate school. Three days. One choice (accepting an invitation to hang at the lake with friends after his summer project goes wrong and he just doesn’t have the spoons to restart it that evening) that is the first domino in a chain of many to fall and lead him to the ultimate decision: should he stay in his graduate program and endure all manners of microaggressions and macroaggressions and continue to work doggedly toward his PhD or should he leave and take a chance on the unknown? Underlying all of Wallace’s actions is the knowledge that his estranged father died several weeks ago; no matter how much Wallace might try to keep the past buried safely in the past it bubbles up to confront him.

Wallace’s story is lovely, quiet, and so very, very real (Brandon always says he writes domestic realism and he isn’t wrong). Wallace is the kind of character who feels conditioned to keep an even keel and keep himself to himself, no matter how angry or happy or sad he might feel on the inside, because if he does drop the facade and express emotion he’s immediately smacked down for it. He’s picked on for his “deficiencies” – an absolutely maddening term and one I’ve heard used by faculty in the past to describe students from less-privileged (i.e. often code for “black”) backgrounds – and snidely dismissed by his adviser. His keep-your-head-down-and-work-hard ethic is thrown back at him as arrogant. Even though these events might seem like high drama, Brandon’s prose has such a calm beauty in his description. Even a description of breeding and plating nematodes has such beauty that we are hit with dismay when it’s revealed the plates are colonized by fungi, ruining the project. But it all feels so intimate, so quiet, particularly an extraordinary stream-of-consciousness chapter where Wallace narrates his childhood history to a lover (hook-up? lover? Booty-call isn’t right, either). Such a beautiful character study.

*Edit to add: at Brandon’s reading at Prairie Lights on Wednesday, he mentioned that some white reviewers see this novel as “raw” (or various similar descriptors) which…definitely not Wallace. I might concede rawness when it comes to showing the racist and homophobic micro and macroaggressions from his friends and colleagues, including one really awful scene where a fellow graduate student (and I absolutely despise this character) uses the n- and f- words before accusing him of misogyny. Brandon isn’t interested in coating their treatment of Wallace in politeness, to make white people feel better. There’s no window-dressing or walking-back to soften these characters. It feels raw because the “nice” and “who mean well” has been removed from the Nice White People Who Mean Well. They’re presented in all their ickiness.

I’m a bit worried I am not doing Real Life justice in my review. Sometimes, you finish a book and just sit in wonder. This book speaks to me on many levels and on other levels I know I have missed nuances. As a nice, white, straight, middle-aged lady, there are corners and layers in Wallace’s story that I will never uncover, no matter how hard I try because I just don’t have the experience or background to see them. To make up for this, allow me to link to three incredible reviews of Real Life, all by men who are both black and queer: Michael Arceneaux in Time, Jeremy O. Harris in The New York Times, and MJ Franklin also in the Times.

Real Life is an early contender for one of my best books of 2020 (and 2020 publishing is bananas, y’all). Please, please buy it, read it, recommend it for your library to purchase. Meanwhile, I’ll be waiting on pins and needles for Brandon’s short story collection, Filthy Animals. Real Life is available everywhere in the US today!

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss and will be buying a copy at Brandon’s reading tomorrow. Also, he’s a friend, so take that as you will.

 

Reading Diversely · Romantic Reads · stuff I read

Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert (The Brown Sisters #1)

43884209Summary from Goodreads:
Chloe Brown is a chronically ill computer geek with a goal, a plan, and a list. After almost—but not quite—dying, she’s come up with seven directives to help her “Get a Life”, and she’s already completed the first: finally moving out of her glamorous family’s mansion. The next items?

• Enjoy a drunken night out.
• Ride a motorcycle.
• Go camping.
• Have meaningless but thoroughly enjoyable sex.
• Travel the world with nothing but hand luggage.
• And… do something bad.

But it’s not easy being bad, even when you’ve written step-by-step guidelines on how to do it correctly. What Chloe needs is a teacher, and she knows just the man for the job.

Redford ‘Red’ Morgan is a handyman with tattoos, a motorcycle, and more sex appeal than ten-thousand Hollywood heartthrobs. He’s also an artist who paints at night and hides his work in the light of day, which Chloe knows because she spies on him occasionally. Just the teeniest, tiniest bit.

But when she enlists Red in her mission to rebel, she learns things about him that no spy session could teach her. Like why he clearly resents Chloe’s wealthy background. And why he never shows his art to anyone. And what really lies beneath his rough exterior…

Do you want a mad-sexy romance between a sarcastic programmer/web designer with chronic pain syndromes and a motorcycle-riding, secret artist building superintendent set in Nottingham? Where both main characters have some emotional garbage in their pasts they have to deal with in very real-world, adult ways? Plus a very sweet cat?

You do. You so do. Get a Life, Chloe Brown starts when the titular Chloe is almost run-over by a drunk driver. Like, the car misses her by three feet. In the life-flashing-past-her-eyes moment she imagines the eulogy at her funeral, which boils down to she never did anything and possibly might have a more exciting life as a dead person. Ouch. So she decides to make some changes. First off: get her own place (family is great, but they might be contributing to the problem). Second: make a list of exciting tasks.

So Chloe moves into an apartment complex managed by Red Morgan who is sexy and fit, with gorgeous ginger hair, and Chloe is immediately attracted to him (he paints at night without his shirt on, not that Chloe is spying on him or anything….she totally isn’t! Ok, fine. She is.). But he apparently doesn’t like her. (Incorrect: he is very attracted to her, too, but his ex-girlfriend was a moneyed, emotionally abusive piece of trash and Chloe sounds like money, therefore, he thinks Chloe is not for him.) When Chloe tries to rescue a cat stuck in a tree – overexerting herself, which sets off her fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue – Red comes to her rescue. And they slowly start to learn about each other. Soon Red is helping Chloe with her list.

Get a Life, Chloe Brown is a wonderful one-sitting read!!!! I hadn’t got around to reading my galley when it came out in November but it was Valentine’s Day and Dani’s book comes out this summer so I plopped myself down and DEVOURED Chloe’s book. (It’s Red’s book, too, but you know.) It’s such a rom-com, with a great “meet-cute” and funny sisters and scenes that just make you smile with joy, but Hibbert makes her characters very real. Chloe has a “real” body, rather than an imagined ideal figure, with a physical illness that isn’t often represented in fiction and one that has contributed to the walls she has built around her heart. Red is an absolute sweetheart but he has been the victim of an abusive manipulator; his confidence and ability to trust has to be rebuilt and he starts figuring out how to do this as a result of his relationship with Chloe. They both make mistakes that require considerable acts of trust to overcome. That makes the resolution of their story that much sweeter.

Chloe and Red are funny and sexy and sweet and very honest and if someone doesn’t option this book to adapt it as a movie and fill it with sexy British people (and a cat) this timeline has no soul. I personally vote for Tom Hardy – sexy man who can play a bit of rough – and, although this wouldn’t work IRL because Chloe is in her late 20s (I think), Marianne Jean-Baptiste can deliver perfect sarcasm that would be spot-on for that character. Although I think Tom is too old, too, given Red’s age in the book so WHO KNOWS! DREAM CASTING FOR EVERYONE! (Also putting forward a vote for Letitia Wright to play Chloe’s youngest sister Eve, because she can totally pull that character off and then get her own love story in book/movie three.)

CW: description of mental abuse of a character in the past and its aftermath, but very well-handled

Dear FTC: I read my copy of this book on my Nook because I didn’t get to my galley before it expired.

audiobooks · mini-review · Overdue Reads · Read My Own Damn Books · Reading Diversely · stuff I read

The Devil’s Highway: A True Story by Luis Alberto Urrea

13646449._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
In this work of grave beauty and searing power – one of the most widely praised pieces of investigative reporting to appear in recent years – we follow twenty-six men who in May 2001 attempted to cross the Mexican border into the desert of southern Arizona, through the deadly region known as the Devil’s Highway, a desert so harsh and desolate that even the Border Patrol is afraid to travel through it, a place that for hundreds of years has stolen men’s souls and swallowed their blood. Only twelve men made it out.

I’ve had a copy of The Devil’s Highway for years, ever since I heard Luis Alberto Urrea speak at his award reception for the Paul Engle Prize at the Iowa City Book Festival in 2014. I slipped out at the end of his speech to buy a copy and have him sign it. But I just never got around to reading it. But I was recently goaded to re-evaluate my reading about border stories, border policy, and Latinx/non-white Hispanic authors because American Dirt was selected for all sorts of stuff this spring, including the Barnes and Noble Book Club (I’ll get into this in a later post since I can’t get out of reading that book, which rankles because I had decided that I didn’t want to read it but I can’t just fob the group off on someone else so will have to suck it up, grrr). When I checked to see what audiobooks were currently available in the ICPL Libby/Overdrive service, I got incredibly lucky to see that The Devil’s Highway was available to download immediately.

The Devil’s Highway is a poetic recounting of the tragedy that occurred in 2001 when 26 men attempted to cross into the United States via the Devil’s Highway near Yuma, Arizona – only 12 survived. This a book that falls very much in the vein of In Cold Blood in the ways that Urrea sets a scene and keeps the narrative thread of the book moving (particularly in the last sections) but unlike Capote deals very much in facts and only reconstructs what he was unable to verify such as “Mike F.” (the Border Patrol officer who found the walkers who was unable to be interviewed at the time) and some of the thoughts and actions of the walkers who died in the Devil’s Highway. This is a very haunting and heartbreaking tale. There are no easy answers and no easy solutions.

In addition, Urrea narrates this audiobook. It is such a treat. He is an excellent storyteller and speaker. I highly recommend the audiobook if that’s available to you.

Dear FTC: I have a signed paperback copy and borrowed the audiobook from the library’s Libby/Overdrive service.