Romantic Reads · stuff I read

The Wedding Party by Jasmine Guillory (The Wedding Date #3)

42599067Summary from Goodreads:
Maddie and Theo have two things in common:

1. Alexa is their best friend
2. They hate each other

After an “oops, we made a mistake” night together, neither one can stop thinking about the other. With Alexa’s wedding rapidly approaching, Maddie and Theo both share bridal party responsibilities that require more interaction with each other than they’re comfortable with. Underneath the sharp barbs they toss at each other is a simmering attraction that won’t fade. It builds until they find themselves sneaking off together to release some tension when Alexa isn’t looking.

But as with any engagement with a nemesis, there are unspoken rules that must be abided by. First and foremost, don’t fall in love.

Now you know why I had to get The Proposal finished ASAP – The Wedding Party galleys went live! LOL.

We met Maddie (Alexa’s best friend) and Theo (Alexa’s work husband) in The Wedding Date and they don’t like each other, even though they’re Alexa’s attendants at her wedding. It’s bit Pride and Prejudice – Theo thinks being a stylist is a waste, Maddie thinks Theo is a stuck-up snob. They have a little one-night stand at the beginning of The Wedding Party – and intend to never speak of it again – but since they have to interact because of “bridal party” duties they keep finding themselves alone together. Soon, Maddie and Theo are hanging out (I had a really bad pun here but I am going to spare you) outside of wedding duties.

4 stars overall: The beginning of the book felt rushed but I liked how Theo and Maddie found themselves caught in the trap of “we said this was a fling but how do we admit this is more” because God forbid you show anyone your softer bits or give ground first. I loved Maddie’s idea of creating a way to help low income women with style tips was aces and how she remembered what her mother went through as a single parent without a large income or support. I read this book while I was on vacation in San Francisco – it was really neat to be able to put the geography from the book together with the real streets and neighborhoods (and the climate – even though it was late May it sure as heck wasn’t very warm at night!).

5 great big stars for Alexa: She makes a big appearance here as Maddie and Theo’s bestie (and sets up the “I love you” scene SO WELL) and I ❤️ her.

Now, if having a great story for Maddie isn’t enough, Maddie’s awesome mom Vivian is going to get her own HEA in November! Christmas romance! In England! Royals!

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

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mini-review · Reading Diversely · stuff I read

Knitting the Fog by Claudia D. Hernández

43192004Summary from Goodreads:
Weaving together narrative essay and bilingual poetry, Claudia D. Hernández’s lyrical debut follows her tumultuous adolescence and fraught homecomings as she crisscrosses the American continent.

Seven-year-old Claudia wakes up one day to find her mother gone, having left for the United States to flee domestic abuse and pursue economic prosperity. Claudia and her two older sisters are taken in by their great aunt and their grandmother, their father no longer in the picture. Three years later, her mother returns for her daughters, and the family begins the month-long journey to El Norte. But in Los Angeles, Claudia has trouble assimilating: she doesn’t speak English, and her Spanish sticks out as “weird” in their primarily Mexican neighborhood. When her family returns to Guatemala years later, she is startled to find she no longer belongs there either.

A harrowing story told with the candid innocence of childhood, Hernández’s memoir depicts a complex self-portrait of the struggle and resilience inherent to immigration today.

Knitting the Fog is a moving memoir told through essays and poems about the author’s childhood in Guatemala and migrating to the US at the age of 10. It’s a very slice-of-life book, full of the details that a child remembers about playing with neighbors, the oddities of the neighborhood, and being raised by strong women. However, I found the balance of poetry-to-prose memoir made it tricky to read. In my opinion, the prose essays were the stronger of the two styles and could have been enlarged.

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

mini-review · stuff I read

Home Remedies by Xuan Juliana Wang

39025960._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
In twelve stunning stories of love, family, and identity, Xuan Juliana Wang’s debut collection captures the unheard voices of an emerging generation. Young, reckless, and catapulted toward uncertain futures, here is the new face of Chinese youth on a quest for every kind of freedom.

From a crowded apartment on Mott Street, where an immigrant family raises its first real Americans, to a pair of divers at the Beijing Olympics poised at the edge of success and self-discovery, Wang’s unforgettable characters – with their unusual careers, unconventional sex lives and fantastical technologies – share the bold hope that, no matter where they’ve come from, their lives too can be extraordinary.

Home Remedies is a wonderful collection of short stories about Chinese citizens in the “new” China, immigrants, Chinese Americans (first and second generation), family, love, ambition (or lack thereof), desire, and the way that life seems to spin out of our control. Beautiful sentences. Though some stories seem to just end, like we need a few more paragraphs to get a good conclusion. The beginnings are all fabulous; Wang really knows how to draw the reader in.

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

Austenesque · stuff I read

Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin

43124133Summary from Goodreads:
A modern-day Muslim Pride and Prejudice for a new generation of love.

Ayesha Shamsi has a lot going on. Her dreams of being a poet have been set aside for a teaching job so she can pay off her debts to her wealthy uncle. She lives with her boisterous Muslim family and is always being reminded that her flighty younger cousin, Hafsa, is close to rejecting her one hundredth marriage proposal. Though Ayesha is lonely, she doesn’t want an arranged marriage. Then she meets Khalid who is just as smart and handsome as he is conservative and judgmental. She is irritatingly attracted to someone who looks down on her choices and dresses like he belongs in the seventh century.

Ayesha is torn between how she feels about the straightforward Khalid and the unsettling new gossip she hears about his family. Looking into the rumors, she finds she has to deal with not only what she discovers about Khalid, but also the truth she realizes about herself.

I’d been hearing about Ayesha at Last since it published in Canada last year – a Pride and Prejudice retelling set in a Toronto Muslim community.

SOLD. Where could I buy this? (Ugh, I had to wait until it got picked up in the US and then read a galley.)

Poet Ayesha (our Lizzie Bennet character) is working as a substitute high school teacher in order to repay her uncle for saving her family/paying for school after they were forced to emigrate to Canada when her reported father was killed in India. She gets roped into helping plan a youth meeting at the local Muslim community center, first to assist her cousin Hafsa (the Lydia character) and then to pretend to be Hafsa when Hafsa clearly has other (read: non-boring and more likely to lead to a financially lucrative marriage) things to do. Computer programmer Khalid (come through, Fitzwilliam Darcy) is under a lot of pressure – his father died recently, his overbearing mother is on his back about getting married, and he just got a bigoted new boss at his job who is concern-trolling his choices as a man who practices a somewhat more conservative form of Islam (she lived in Saudi Arabia for six months….qu’elle horreur). But he makes time to help with the planning committee and so he meets “Hafsa.”

Turns out they’ve also met before, at a poetry-slam. Khalid got dragged to it by his coworker, a much-less devout man determined to shake up Khalid’s more-rigid world-view. Ayesha is there – she’s kind-of dragged to it by a friend but it’s also one of the only creative outlets she has – and they immediately don’t like each other. Khalid is appalled at the mixing of the sexes, the availability of alcohol, and the fact that this Muslim woman would get up in front of an audience and recite poetry. Ayesha has already had her patience tested by “veil-chasers” and she doesn’t have time for a conservative guy who acts like women have only one place and that’s inside the home. She recites a poem clearly meant to provoke Khalid, the result of which is that he starts to admire her despite himself.

Now that the two of them are thrown together on this planning committee, Khalid starts to fall for “Hafsa” despite the fact that she isn’t a “good Muslim girl”. Ayesha tolerates him, and perhaps comes to see him as a possible friend…or more. But when Khalid’s mother gets wind of their friendship, and a specter from Khalid’s past returns, everything starts to go off the rails.

The first twenty pages aside (read at lunch before grocery shopping) I INHALED this this book. Jalaluddin very cleverly kept the bones of Austen’s masterpiece, and a few well-placed near-quotes, and used it to tell a fresh story about appearances, religious intolerance, and how a culture changes over time. I really liked how Jalaluddin allowed Khalid to re-examine how he practices Islam but he never loses his faith or throws it away; opening up his practice allows him to see that he was closed-off to those he could help, like his sister or his office-mate. Plot-wise, there aren’t too many changes from the original – “Lizzie” and “Darcy” meet, have mutual disdain, he starts to like her, there’s some rejection, they start over, then “Lydia” throws a spanner in the whole works – but the change of setting and culture puts a new spin on the whole. Oh, and when Khalid’s boss gets her comeuppance….I almost stood up on my chair and cheered. There’s even Ayesha’s Shakespeare-quoting, ex-professor Nana and sharp-eyed Nani (who gives an amazing roti cooking lesson) as stand-ins for our beloved Uncle and Aunt Gardiner. A must-read this summer.

Ayesha at Last is out today in the US, complete with that beautiful cover.

Dear FTC: I read a digitally from the publisher via Edelweiss and I have a copy of the paper book waiting for me to purchase at work.

mini-review · Romantic Reads · stuff I read

Rebel by Beverly Jenkins (Women Who Dare #1)

38135735Summary from Goodreads:
The first novel in USA Today Bestselling Author Beverly Jenkins’ compelling new series follows a Northern woman south in the chaotic aftermath of the Civil War…

Valinda Lacey’s mission in the steamy heart of New Orleans is to help the newly emancipated community survive and flourish. But soon she discovers that here, freedom can also mean danger. When thugs destroy the school she has set up and then target her, Valinda runs for her life—and straight into the arms of Captain Drake LeVeq.

As an architect from an old New Orleans family, Drake has a deeply personal interest in rebuilding the city. Raised by strong women, he recognizes Valinda’s determination. And he can’t stop admiring—or wanting—her. But when Valinda’s father demands she return home to marry a man she doesn’t love, her daring rebellion draws Drake into an irresistible intrigue.

Sometimes you pick up a book thinking you’re going to get just a good romance but then the author presents you with a book that moves beyond genre, to give you a history lesson and a social kick in the pants as well. Ms. Bev’s new book Rebel does just that in a romance set in Reconstruction-era New Orleans between a New York City schoolteacher escaping a suffocating father and a man from a prominent Free Black family working to help those recently freed rebuild their lives. The romance between Val and Drake is sweet and sexy but this doesn’t make the book easy. Nothing was easy for free and freed people of color after the Civil War, from getting a job, to an education, to a fair wage, to even being able to seek justice because the systems were all still rigged in favor of Whites. Jenkins lays that all out on the page and includes names and dates of real (shitty) racist legislation passed by Congress and states and real activists working in the era. An absolutely outstanding novel to kick off the summer.

For those who have read other historicals from Jenkins, Raimond and Sable make an extended appearance here and you may also recognize a few names mentioned in passing.

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

Austenesque · Romantic Reads · stuff I read

Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors by Sonali Dev (The Rajes #1)

41154302Summary from Goodreads:
Award-winning author Sonali Dev launches a new series about the Rajes, an immigrant Indian family descended from royalty, who have built their lives in San Francisco…

It is a truth universally acknowledged that only in an overachieving Indian American family can a genius daughter be considered a black sheep.

Dr. Trisha Raje is San Francisco’s most acclaimed neurosurgeon. But that’s not enough for the Rajes, her influential immigrant family who’s achieved power by making its own non-negotiable rules:
· Never trust an outsider
· Never do anything to jeopardize your brother’s political aspirations
· And never, ever, defy your family
Trisha is guilty of breaking all three rules. But now she has a chance to redeem herself. So long as she doesn’t repeat old mistakes.

Up-and-coming chef DJ Caine has known people like Trisha before, people who judge him by his rough beginnings and place pedigree above character. He needs the lucrative job the Rajes offer, but he values his pride too much to indulge Trisha’s arrogance. And then he discovers that she’s the only surgeon who can save his sister’s life.

As the two clash, their assumptions crumble like the spun sugar on one of DJ’s stunning desserts. But before a future can be savored there’s a past to be reckoned with…
A family trying to build home in a new land.
A man who has never felt at home anywhere.
And a choice to be made between the two.

‘Tis a year of Austen re-tellings – Unmarriageable was out a little earlier this year (that I haven’t got to, yet, because I didn’t have a galley), Ayesha at Last is finally publishing States-side in June, an adaptation of Emma coming in August, and this month we have Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors.

In this version of Pride and Prejudice, we don’t have strict analogues for each original Austen character. Fitzwilliam Darcy is now Dr. Trisha Raje, a brilliant neurosurgeon and the younger child in a privileged Indian-American family. In undergrad she met and befriended Julia Wickham, who later almost destroyed the life and political career of Trisha’s brother Yash; Trisha has been on the outskirts of her family ever since. Feisty Lizzie is now DJ Caine (Darcy James, just to be tricky), a talented French-trained chef who moves to the Bay Area to support his sister Emma as she seeks treatment for a brain tumor that can only be removed by Trisha Raje. But removing the tumor will destroy Emma’s sight, the worst result for a visual artist. Trisha and DJ get off on the wrong foot at a Raje family ‘do he’s hired to cater and then Julia Wickham (in full hippie-white-lady-with-dreds mode) returns to town and lends an ear to Emma and DJ….

I had a little trouble getting into this book, which annoyed me as an Austen fan. I think it’s because Dev introduces SO MANY characters at once, so we’re trying to sort out who’s who and what they do and who has history, etc because it’s very expansive instead of insular. There are a lot of B-plots (Yash, older sister Nisha and her husband, Emma’s decision regarding surgery and her art, the cousin with visions who is the obvious Mary stand-in) that create a lot of extra stuff Trisha and DJ have to work around aside from the obvious “pride” and “prejudice” themes imported from the Austen original. But once I got past the first 40 pages (i.e. I put on my giant headphones in the airport terminal) and got a basic handle on who-was-who, I was able to sink right in. I really liked how Dev did a “remix” of the characters and shook everything up a bit (Julia Wickham is the only character who performs exactly the same function in this book as George Wickham does in the original).

There are two things I have issues with in this book. First, many characters in this book – Trisha first among them – violate HIPAA repeatedly and cavalierly. This is plainly irresponsible. Tangential to this is a lack of support from social work or patient advocacy for Emma (although this is what allows the Wickham character to get close to Emma and DJ, so plot bunny). Second, there is an explanation of what Julia Wickham did to Yash that draws from #metoo and gets part of it very wrong. [I’m going to do some minor spoiling – it’s not a secret that Original Wickham is a sexual predator and has a thing for teenagers so it stands to reason that Julia Wickham is a predator, too – but skip the rest of this paragraph if you want to stay un-spoiled.] Julia roofies Yash, among other things, and assaults him (this is the “incident” Trisha feels she is being punished for). When this is finally revealed to the reader, we are given the scene between Trisha and Yash talking it over from Trisha’s point-of-view – and Trisha thinks that if this came to light, that even if Yash was the victim it would set back progress women were making with #metoo (I’m paraphrasing). This is a misreading of #metoo – we don’t fight that fight just for women who are assaulted by men, but also for men assaulted by women, and so on. It’s a very tone-deaf couple of paragraphs.  Which is unfortunate because Sonali Dev gets so much of the classism, racism (DJ is biracial – Anglo-Indian and Rwandan – and he experiences racism from both his paternal family in London and from the police in the US), privilege, and misogyny right in setting her Pride and Prejudice in 2019 California.

But those things aside, I did like it a lot. An excellent vacation book to read in the airport/on the plane.

Appetite warning: This book will make you VERY hungry because DJ is an amazing chef. All food described in this book is drool-inducing.

Dear FTC: I had a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss but I also bought a paper copy after I came back from vacation.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas

42129087Summary from Goodreads:
Stories provide portals into other worlds, both real and imagined. The promise of escape draws people from all backgrounds to speculative fiction, but when people of color seek passageways into the fantastic, the doors are often barred. This problem lies not only with children’s publishing, but also with the television and film executives tasked with adapting these stories into a visual world. When characters of color do appear, they are often marginalized or subjected to violence, reinforcing for audiences that not all lives matter.

The Dark Fantastic is an engaging and provocative exploration of race in popular youth and young adult speculative fiction. Grounded in her experiences as YA novelist, fanfiction writer, and scholar of education, Thomas considers four black girl protagonists from some of the most popular stories of the early 21st century: Bonnie Bennett from the CW’s The Vampire Diaries, Rue from Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, Gwen from the BBC’s Merlin, and Angelina Johnson from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. Analyzing their narratives and audience reactions to them reveals how these characters mirror the violence against black and brown people in our own world.

In response, Thomas uncovers and builds upon a tradition of fantasy and radical imagination in Black feminism and Afrofuturism to reveal new possibilities. Through fanfiction and other modes of counter-storytelling, young people of color have reinvisioned fantastic worlds that reflect their own experiences, their own lives. As Thomas powerfully asserts, “we dark girls deserve more, because we are more.”

The Dark Fantastic is a very thought-provoking examination of race in media and young adult speculative fiction through the lens of the “Dark Fantastic” (spectacle, hesitation, violence, haunting, and emancipation). Thomas uses four key Black characters – Rue from The Hunger Games, Gwen from BBC’s Merlin, Bonnie from CW’s The Vampire Diaries, and Angelina Johnson from Harry Potter – to explore this cycle and how fan-fiction and counter-storytelling are changing these characters in the fandom. This monograph sits between popular lit-crit and academic theory so be ready for a more formal argument.

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

mini-review · sleuthing · stuff I read

Death by Dumpling by Vivien Chien (A Noodle Shop Mystery #1)

37535130Summary from Goodreads:
Welcome to the Ho-Lee Noodle House, where the Chinese food is to die for. . .

The last place Lana Lee thought she would ever end up is back at her family’s restaurant. But after a brutal break-up and a dramatic workplace walk-out, she figures that helping wait tables is her best option for putting her life back together. Even if that means having to put up with her mother, who is dead-set on finding her a husband.

Lana’s love life soon becomes yesterday’s news once the restaurant’s property manager, Mr. Feng, turns up dead—after a delivery of shrimp dumplings from Ho-Lee. But how could this have happened when everyone on staff knew about Mr. Feng’s severe, life-threatening shellfish allergy? Now, with the whole restaurant under suspicion for murder and the local media in a feeding frenzy—to say nothing of the gorgeous police detective who keeps turning up for take-out—it’s up to Lana to find out who is behind Feng’s killer order. . . before her own number is up.

I was building up a TBR of books to read on vacation and I was interested in a cozy mystery. Vivien Chen’s new series was recommended by a friend, so I picked up book 1 on my Nook.

Death by Dumpling is a sweet and funny cozy mystery set in a Chinese-American shopping center in central Ohio with a nosy protagonist (Lana Lee) who works at her family’s Chinese restaurant and inadvertently ends up delivering the murder weapon: shrimp dumplings (the victim had a known shellfish allergy, which the whole restaurant knew about, gasp!). There’s also a spunky roommate (this gal had grown up Harriet the Spy written all over her), a pushy mom, a lovable dad, way too many plausible suspects (I do love me a good Murder She Wrote or Midsomer Murders episode), and a cute pug named Kikko. And a cute, gruff detective who really wants Lana to mind her own business and tell him the truth. A little predictable and some of the characterizations were thin but a really fun read. I’ll probably check out book two to at least see where the relationship with the detective goes.

Dear FTC: I bought a copy of this book on my Nook.