Review of “Tell Me How You Really Feel” by Aminah Mae Safi

Safi, Aminah Mae. Tell Me How You Really Feel. New York: Feiwel and Friends, 2019.

Hardcover | $17.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1250299482 | 312 pages | YA Contemporary Romance

4 stars

Tell Me How You Really Feel is pure fun, queer rom-com goodness. The two protagonists are charming, and I couldn’t help but root for them as they went from not really getting each other to falling in love.

Sana’s a great character, and while I’m sure there are others that I haven’t read about yet, it’s nice to see a cheerleader in fiction who also have a strong academic focus, breaking the stereotype of so many high school movies. I could empathize with her struggle to decide what her future plans were, and how it was so entrenched in the sacrifices both her parents and grandparents made for her.

Rachel’s character growth is great as well, and I really liked seeing her opinions about her film being challenged by Sana’s perspective, even though her film teacher is encouraging her to stay on the same path she originally intended.

I did feel like I wanted a bit more exploration of the “why” they supposedly didn’t like each other. It’s mentioned once or twice in-text, but I feel like the backstory with Sana originally asking Rachel out got more attention in the blurb, and is all but ignored in the book itself, in favor of the other things they don’t have in common. While I don’t agree with some that this isn’t a strong enough case of enemies-to-lovers (especially since some people’s idea of the trope crosses into the point of no redemption for me), I just feel like that one facet should have been more fleshed out.

This is a great read with a great f/f romance. I recommend it to other lovers of sweet YA romances.

Review of “A House of Rage and Sorrow” (The Celestial Trilogy #2) by Sangu Mandanna

Mandanna, Sangu. A House of Rage and Sorrow. New York: Sky Pony Press, 2019.

Hardcover | $17.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1510733794 | 248 pages | YA Science Fiction

5 stars

It’s beginning to feel increasingly rare that we have second books in trilogies that not only deliver, but actually exceed their predecessor in terms of quality as opposed to falling into the dreaded “second-book syndrome.” But A House of Rage and Sorrow is one of the few exceptions to this trend, actually functioning as a second book in terms of both building on the first and building anticipation for the third, without feeling too much like filler.

And one of the technical things that made it better was that the connection between characters were made more clear with a character guide, while still leaving room for suspense, as the lack of one left me feeling a bit confused with book one. And since these can feel a little info-dump-y, I love the stylistic choice to convey it through the voice of Titania the warship, who also gets a few chapters from her perspective. She’s my favorite character from book one, so I enjoyed seeing her utilized in such a fun and creative way.

I also enjoyed getting a much more intense look at the relationships between characters this time around. As the title implies, there is a lot of “rage and sorrow,” and the fact that it’s centered around family and politics makes it all the more heightened. I could sympathize so much with Esmae’s rage, especially toward her brother following the events at the end of the lat book, and the way things come to a head in this one.

I enjoyed this sequel, with all its twists and turns, and can’t wait to see how it’ll all come together in book 3. I would recommend this to fans ofYA SFF with great world-building and complex family-centered politics.

Review of “A Spark of White Fire” (The Celestial Trilogy #1) by Sangu Mandanna

Mandanna, Sangu. A Spark of White Fire. New York: Sky Pony Press, 2018.

Hardcover | $17.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1510733787 | 311 pages | YA Science Fiction

4 stars

I first heard about Sangu Mandanna and A Spark of White Fire somewhat recently on Twitter when she spoke about her own experience with non-Indian people imposing their beliefs of her culture when reviewing her book, a common struggle for authors of color writing ownvoices stories. And despite not knowing much about the Mahabharata prior to reading the book, I loved the idea of a new take on Indian mythology in space.

And this book more or less delivers. While I did feel like the cast and its connections is a bit hard to follow at times, and I would have liked a family tree or some sort of character guide to keep them all straight, yet the relationships that were conveyed and how they evolve over the course of the book, and were conveyed very well.

And Esmae is a great protagonist as well. I loved seeing the conflicts through her eyes, and how she had to constantly negotiate the competing loyalties in this tense atmosphere.

And overall, it just does some cool things with its mix of sci-fi and fantasy, like the amusing sentient spaceship, as well as the wonderful world-building, steeped in cultural significance. This is a wonderful beginning to a great SFF trilogy, and one I’d recommend to other lovers of YA SFF.

Review of “The Right Swipe” (Modern Love #1) by Alisha Rai

Rail, Alisha. The Right Swipe. New York: Avon Books, 2019.

Paperback | $14.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062878090 | 386 pages | Contemporary Romance

4.5 stars

I was a bit unsure going into The Right Swipe, in part because I didn’t know how Alisha Rai could follow up such an epic series like the Forbidden Hearts, which made my Top 10 2018 favorites lists. And while the setup for the series does mean the focus is less on family, there is still just as much emotional depth to pack a punch here, even if the beginning does start off feeling a bit too rom-com-esque.

Rhi’s (I am calling her by her nickname as opposed to her full name due to an association of trauma with her full name, discussed in the book) arc is absolutely wonderful. I loved her from the outset, being a woman working in a male-dominated field, and the way she talks about making her company not just more welcoming to women, but to members of marginalized groups, from people of color to members of the LGBTQ+ community. And when the deeper significance was revealed in her past with her boss at her previous company, my heart truly broke for her and how she felt she couldn’t get close to another man beyond a casual hookup again. And the discussion of the reality that finding someone who is drastically different and does love her instead of take advantage of her is helpful in letting her trust again, but doesn’t erase that trauma, is also wonderful and a leap forward in representation of mental health in romance, which still largely clings to troubling tropes in that regard.

Samson is also amazing, and doesn’t lack for emotional complexity either. I love how the legacies of his father and uncle shaped him, and the exploration of how doing the right thing ended up bringing him shame in his career, as well as the deeper issue of mental health in professional sports.

This book is absolutely wonderful, and while it’s definitely not as “spicy” as Rai’s previous works (something I did actually find a tad lacking, which is funny, given my tendency toward “sweeter” books), it’s still full of heart, and is a great extension of the world Rai built with her prior series (complete with cameos and references to prior characters, although you do not have to have read those books to understand this one). I would recommend it to lovers of contemporary romances.

Review of “The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan” by Sherry Thomas

Thomas, Sherry. The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan. New York: Tu Books, 2019.

Hardcover | $19.95 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1620148044 | 348 pages | YA Historical Fiction

4 stars

I was incredibly excited for The Magnolia Sword, in part because Mulan is one of my favorite Disney Princesses, for all the reasons listed in this video and more, and because I loved hearing about the unique journey Sherry Thomas went on finding out about the original tale and the time period in which it’s believed to be set in, which went beyond even her scope of knowledge as a Chinese immigrant, which she documented during the writing process on social media, also touching on briefly in her author’s note.

And ultimately, her work pays off, sending readers on a similar journey to hers with these book as she presents a story not inspired not only by the “original” Mulan, but also capturing the era of fifth century China in all of its political complexity in an easily digestible way that also pays respect to the historical period, while also making it very much her own with her sensuous and evocative writing style.

I loved delving into Mulan as a character and her place in relation to the familial and gender politics, which play a role in the story. It’s great to see her as a genuinely good fighter from the start, in keeping with the original, yet she also feels like a real person with real flaws, which makes her easy to root for.

While the romance wasn’t the main element, I found myself rather underwhelmed by the “princeling” character. His “secrets” do leave an impact for the broader story, but I just didn’t care for him as a romantic interest, and as much as I love a good romance, I think it would be great for Mulan, of all folktale characters, to end up alone in certain iterations…or at least give her a more interesting love interest, if you must have romance.

This is a wonderful retelling of Mulan, for the most part, and one I recommend to all Mulan fans, whether their entry point was the Disney movie, the original retelling, or something else.

Review of “The Marriage Clock” by Zara Raheem

Raheem, Zara. The Marriage Clock. New York: William Morrow, 2019.

Paperback | $15.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062877925 | 342 pages | Women’s Fiction/Chick Lit

5 stars

The Marriage Clock is one of the the best books I’ve read in a while, and as Susan Elizabeth Philips promised I would in the blurb feature on the cover, I ended up gobbling this up more or less in one sitting.

I found Leila’s struggles relatable, as while I’m not South Asian or Muslim, I did recently have a tense conversation with some members about my family about why I’m not married, and mentioning the possibility of arranged marriage, which I scoffed at. I also know what it’s like to be told your expectations are too high, and that maybe I’m not giving myself a chance to meet the right person, even if the circumstances aren’t identical.

As such, I enjoyed seeing her growth as she comes to decide what she really wants, even amid some of the intense cultural expectations. And I appreciate that Raheem imbues a lot of humor into a story tackling such intense topics like double standards for men and women, a clash of cultural ideals, and the reasons both for and against arranged marriage discussed by various characters in the novel.

On that note, there are so many characters that I would love to see more of, given that they all feel so fleshed out. The main one is Tania, who is experiencing the difficulty of dating after divorcing her hand-picked husband. Given that things don’t end on as optimistic a note for her, I’d love to see her story and some commentary on the injustice in the way South Asian women in her situation are treated in their communities.

This is a wonderful debut book, approaching some very relevant topics with a lighthearted touch. I would recommend this to all fans of rom-coms or Bollywood movies.

Review of “Descedant of the Crane” by Joan He

He, Joan. Descendant of the Crane. Chicago: Albert Whitman & Company, 2019.

Hardcover | $17.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0807515518 | 401 pages | YA Fantasy

4 stars

Descendant of the Crane was one of my anticipated books of the year, and I am glad to say that, while it has some issues with the pacing, it is worth the hype it received.

While there are some familiar elements here, like the naive heroine thrust into leadership by a parent’s death and a somewhat awkward attempt at pushing for a romantic arc, there is still a lot here that stands out, like the political thriller feel that generates throughout the book as the mystery around what could have happened to Hessina’s father unfolds. I love how He creates this sense of uncertainty with both the reader and Hessina not sure of who is trustworthy, even while Hessina is meant to be adjusting to her new role.

If there is any true downside, it’s that the revelations come out at the end, but it doesn’t wrap up in a way that feels satisfying, despite the author’s claim that it’s a “standalone with the potential for companion books.” However, as these companion books appear to only exist conceptually at the moment, I’m still excited to see where He does with these characters and this world, and to check out any other writing projects from this promising new author.

I recommend this to people who love a politically motivated fantasy that, in spite of having a slow build, has a great resolution.

Review of “Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune” by Roselle Lim

Lim, Roselle. Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune. New York: Berkley, 2019.

Paperback | $16.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1984803252 | 299 pages | Women’s Fiction/Magical Realism

3 stars

I find myself a bit conflicted upon finishing Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune. On the one hand, I really liked the exploration of the complex family dynamics in a Chinese family, and how, through three generations of women, each was fraught with discord between mother and daughter.

And I really enjoyed Natalie’s growing understanding of her mother’s mental health, especially what it means in the context of Asian traditions, where mental health care and Western medicine in general often isn’t given much consideration, with their preference toward more holistic methods like acupuncture.

And given the book’s title, there are many inclusions of recipes from Natalie’s grandmother’s recipe book, along with other lush descriptions of various dishes, leaving me salivating. While I don’t cook myself, I felt the urge to make copies of some of these for further reference, as they all sound amazing.

But the despite the lush food descriptions and the engaging family drama, complete with a climactic “I-am-your-father”-esque (but more bittersweet than dramatic) reveal, there was just something missing that kept me from fully engaging in the story. Perhaps it was the heroine…I just wasn’t fully invested in her life as a person, other than in connection with her mother and grandmother, who were far more interesting, even though they never appear in the flesh.

This one was a bit of a miss for me, but I still found it a good read to take in the elements I did enjoy. And anyone who loves multicultural family dramas with a generous helping of food porn should give this one a try as well, to see if it works better for them.

Review of “The Doctor’s Secret” (Copper Point Medical #1) by Heidi Cullinan

Cullinan, Heidi. The Doctor’s Secret. Tallahassee, FL: Dreamspinner Press, 2019.

Mass Market Paperback | $7.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1641081009 | 337 pages | Contemporary Romance

4 stars

Heidi Cullinan was recommended to me back when I read another m/m contemporary and was looking for similar books, and while I didn’t have high hopes of finding anything, it so happened the library was purchasing a copy of The Doctor’s Secret, and I was immediately drawn to the hospital setting and the Asian hero.

And while I can’t say for certain if the depiction of the medical profession was done well (although a quick perusal of other reviews indicates that, it was, as well as the acknowledgment that she clearly relied on her husband for a lot of medical information), I really enjoyed the usage of culture, both in defining Hong-wei as a character and forming a bonding point for him with Simon. While I did feel like their relationship moved bizarrely fast from attraction to “I love you, I want to spend my life with you,” I found their bond quite sweet, especially once I reached the end.

I also liked that, while the issue of being LGBTQ+ in itself isn’t a problem in this fictional town, with the series clearly set up to have several LGBTQ+ characters, it subtly highlights the issue of them having to keep their relationship a secret in a different way, due to the fact that they work together, and the hospital has a policy against co-workers dating. It’s a very interesting concept to work with, especially in the era of #MeToo, with new awareness around the treatment of workplace relationships in romance, especially between people in unequal positions as Hong-wei and Simon are, and I feel like it was well-executed.

I really enjoyed this one, and will hopefully read the others in the series. I recommend this to anyone looking for a fun, yet heartwarming LGBTQ+ read.

Review of “A Prince on Paper” (Reluctant Royals #3) by Alyssa Cole

Cole, Alyssa. A Prince on Paper. New York: Avon Books, 2019.

Mass Market Paperback | $7.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062685582 | 377 pages | Contemporary Romance

3 stars

A Prince on Paper has a lot of great ideas, but it is one of those books where it feels like the ideas all got jumbled up in execution. I found the setup appealing, with its setup that feels just slightly reminiscent of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle (whether that was Cole’s intent is uncertain, since the characters first made appeared in book one of the series, A Princess in Theory, which came out in 2017, and was likely in development for a while prior).

And the characters themselves are very likable and complex. Nya is dealing with a lot with her father in prison following his traitorous actions in A Princess in Theory, and Johan, behind his playboy facade, is deeply concerned about his younger brother and also dealt with loss in his past due to his mother’s death.

However, while the two of them being thrown together provided amusement at first, I found my investment in their potential as a couple flagging as the story grew more and more confusing. Ultimately, I found myself skimming more than actually reading, because the romance, especially once it hit the Big Misunderstanding, did not feel well executed.

However, I really appreciated the subplot surrounding Johan’s sibling, Lukas coming out as non-binary, and especially the discussion around the issue of proper pronouns not just in English but in other languages too, as well as promoting awareness and compassion for non-binary people. I hope that, given that Cole has announced plans for a spinoff series set in the same world, that that means Lukas will get their own book.

In summary, this book seems to have the same issue that the other two novels in the series had, of being poor executions of promising ideas, as well as trying to do a little too much, to the point of neglecting to make the central romance convincing, a problem which did not plague the novellas, due to their shorter length. However, this series is still fun and has great characters (the strongest part of the series overall), and I would still recommend them to those looking for diverse and fun contemporaries.