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.

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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.

Review of “There’s Something About Sweetie” (Dimple and Rishi #2) by Sandhya Menon

Menon, Sandhya. There’s Something About Sweetie. New York: Simon Pulse, 2019.

Hardcover | $18.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1534416789 | 378 pages | YA Contemporary Romance

5 stars

I was so excited to hear that Sandhya Menon was returning to the Dimple and Rishi-verse with this book, even if I wasn’t sure where she would take the world next, since it didn’t seem (at first) like there were characters with loose ends. And while I expected it to be great, since I really enjoyed Menon’s past two books, nothing really prepared me for how personally connected I’d feel with There’s Something About Sweetie. And that was because of the beautiful characterization of Sweetie herself.

As the world grapples with fat shaming, authors have tried to address it, to some extent in their books and to a greater extent in recent months on social media, to somewhat polarizing results (see: the debate surrounding Kristan Higgins’ 2018 release, Good Luck With That). But I feel like with this one, while Sweetie’s characterization still may not please everyone, I personally felt it was a wonderful depiction of body positivity, amid the wider societal stereotyping of fat people, unfortunately perpetuated in this one largely by Sweetie’s own mother. But I love that she has this confidence in herself and what she is capable of, leading to her willingness to confront any challenge, especially when it comes to showing her skill as a runner. While my own experience as a fat person is very different from hers, it’s nice to have a story that is life affirming and promoting self-love.

Despite more or less liking Ashish in his previous appearance, he didn’t immediately strike me as that compelling on meeting him again, in comparison to Sweetie, given that he’s presented at first as the standard jock character. But I liked that exploration of his character, going deeper into the fact that he was always made to feel less than Rishi, which I admit was my thought about him prior to getting know him. But there is so much that makes him the perfect counterpart for Sweetie. While their shared love for sports is a given, I love that he sees her as beautiful from the beginning, even if he isn’t sure at first about their relationship becoming something serious, since he’s still recovering from a breakup. And, like with Dimple and Rishi, I liked seeing how they each provided some sense of closure to their respective inner conflicts, with each of them being able to see and love the other for who they are, even if it’s implied that their families wish they could be someone else, or something different.

This book is absolutely amazing, and I’m so glad to see a book that, along with dealing with cultural issues of Indian American families, also tackles body image in such a refreshing and positive way. This is definitely recommended reading for uplifting fat representation.

Review of “Their Perfect Melody” (Matched to Perfection #3) by Priscilla Oliveras

Oliveras, Priscilla. Their Perfect Melody. New York: Zebra/Kensington, 2018.

Mass Market Paperback | $4.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1420144307 | 328 pages | Contemporary Romance

5 stars

Priscilla Oliveras is one of the new authors who I absolutely came to adore last year, so it’s a shame I left Their Perfect Melody, her last release in her Matched to Perfection series, unread for so long. But I’m so happy to be back in her world again, following compelling family-oriented Latinx characters.

I really did not expect Lili to end up where she is now, based on the prior two books, since she always felt like something of a wild-card to me, with nothing really defining her outside the fact that she’s a part of this close-knit family. But it’s clear that experiences that took place in the years since the last two books ended have impacted her, and this conveyed well, and I really liked seeing how that translated into her growth into the victim’s advocate she is at the present time.

And she meets her match in Diego, a police officer, who shares her passion not only for helping others, but also helps to reignite the love of music that has lain dormant inside her for years. They have such a great relationship, and while it’s not without its bumps in the road, especially as Diego’s family situation isn’t nearly as idyllic as that of the Fernandez sisters’, ultimately, there is hope there too.

Oliveras handles some heavy issues with sensitivity, perfectly balancing those topics with the more lighthearted moments. And this is a can’t-miss contemporary romance for those who love multicultural romances focused on family and full of heart.

Review of “Shadow of the Fox” (Shadow of the Fox #1) by Julie Kagawa

Kagawa, Julie. Shadow of the Fox. Toronto, Ontario: HarlequinTeen, 2018.

Hardcover | $19.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1335145161 | 409 pages | YA Fantasy

4 stars

Shadow of the Fox was recommended to me a while back, but I never got around to it at the time, and finally decided to give a go. My conclusion is that, while it does suffer from some structural and personal preference things that do lead me to mark it down a bit, it is a fairly solid story.

I felt incredibly silly once I got several chapters into this book, and realized that not only was there the occasional chapter from a secondary character, Suki (written in third person), but there were also two first person narrators, Yumeko and Tatsumi. I partly blame myself for being dense and not noticing, especially in the initial chapters, but it’s just something I find super jarring, particularly when there’s no indicator the narrator changes at the beginning of the chapter, and while it does follow a reasonably predictable rhythm that I picked up on after a while, it was annoying to have to figure out who was who, and only knowing for sure once they were together and each referred to the other person consistently. Your mileage may vary on this, but I’m going to b e the dissenting voice and say that, especially if Suki grows more important in future books, this could easily have been written entirely in third person, to make it less confusing. Or chapter headers could have also helped. Granted, other people seem to have no issue with this style, so it could just be me.

The characters themselves, once I got over that problem, were intriguing to me, with the occasional glimpses of Suki and her plight serving an awful mistress being something I’m hoping we get more of in the next two books. And while initially Yumeko and Tatsumi fall into familiar cliches, those being the naive damsel and the emotionally closed-off hero, they both still had depth that made them feel real beyond that, and I think Yumeko is one of those heroines who, despite not being super kickass like some of the other YA heroines of late, actually does try her best in her own way, and ends up making an impact.

I also love how Kagawa infused her world with Japanese influences, with it being most obvious in part one’s world building, although it continues throughout the book. It feels so rich with lore, and I felt like I learned a lot about aspects of my heritage that I didn’t really know about before (or care to seek out through other means).

This is a solid, if slightly predictable, YA fantasy, although that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable for what it is. And I would definitely recommend it to other fans, with the warning about the weird narrative choices to those like me who aren’t huge fans of it.

Review of “Ayesha at Last” by Uzma Jalaluddin

Jalaluddin, Uzma. Ayesha at Last. 2018. New York: Berkley, 2019.

Paperback | $16.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1984802798 | 351 pages | Contemporary Romance

5 stars

Ayesha at Last is yet another Pride and Prejudice retelling published in 2019, but it is by far my favorite of the three, with both its subtle take on the Austen classic and the way it chooses to handle the issues it does, including arranged marriage, workplace discrimination, and characters defining their identity within a Muslim community in Toronto.

I love that this take allowed for a fresh and unique conflict between the two main characters, and one that led to me learn a lot more about Muslims and the differences in their belief systems that exist. And I found it interesting the way Jalaluddin played with reader expectations, having Khalid, the one raised in Toronto, being more conservative and adopting the very traditional look for the majority of the novel, as well as believing his mother knows what is best, including in marriage, while Ayesha, who lived in India before immigrating following her father’s death, is also religious, but has more progressive ideas, including about marriage.

And while the Elizabeth/Darcy parallels are there, what with them clashing, yet having feelings for each other, and especially that memorable awkward proposal scene (fixed with an adorable letter!), this is one of the ways in which Jalaluddin makes the characters and their relationship truly her own, and I love that.

The other characters also were incredibly fun, the villains being the exception to this, and I like how there was just as much focus on the importance of family in spite of everything as there was on the relationship. I did really want more Zareena, as the hints given about how she fell in love with Iqram were so beautiful, and he doesn’t even appear on the page? That’s a crime.

I really enjoyed this book, and I enjoyed the positive and nuanced perspective that it presents about Muslim and South Asian people/communities, especially when there isn’t a ton of other media (and definitely not many other romances) that are doing the same thing. I would recommend it to all rom-com fans, whether you’re familiar with Pride and Prejudice or not.

Review of “Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors” (The Rajes #1) by Sonali Dev

Dev, Sonali. Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors. New York: William Morrow, 2019.

Paperback | $15.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062839053 | 487 pages | Contemporary Romnance

2.5-ish (light 3) stars

Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors excited me, because while I had already come to like, and in some cases, even love Sonali Dev’s writing, I was also curious to see what she would do with this concept of a gender-swapped Pride and Prejudice.

And in that regard, she more or less made it work, stripping the story back to the bare-bones themes and some broader plot elements, as well as sticking in a reference or two. DJ (standing for Darcy James xD) makes a great homage to Elizabeth, having worked his way up from nothing to become a chef, while working to care for his sister, who has a brain tumor. Trisha Raje, a bit of a looser homage to Darcy, is the black sheep of a prominent Indian American family and a neurosurgeon working on Emma’s care.

I love how things progressed from the meet-disaster where they both (of course) make assumptions about each other, to coming to work together on Emma’s care, to things developing beyond that.

This story has much more going on that just the romance, however, and I had mixed feelings about the rest of it. While I did like some of Trisha’s family members, like her siblings and such, I wasn’t a big fan of the way her parents treated her, especially her father, and felt like it could have been addressed much better.

But one of my biggest complaints stems from the translation and execution of a big plot point in the latter half of P&P, and one of the few that really makes an appearance. The premise of the story begins with Yash, Trisha’s brother, beginning a campaign for political office in California, and this leads to some secrets from his past involving a former friend of Trisha’s to be delved into, and it turns out he was essentially sexually assaulted by said “friend.” I feel like it would have been fine if it deviated into hushing this girl up to prevent shame, due to perhaps not being believed, or due to the deepened stigma of being a male victim of sexual assault in general, especially one in his position. But instead, we got this delightful passage:

“Julia Wickham could destroy him and he knew it. No one would care that he’d been the victim, not in today’s climate. The worst part was that if he did get justice, if people did believe him, it could set the progress women were making back a hundred years. He would never want that.” (Dev, 377)

I first saw this passage pointed out in another review on Goodreads and couldn’t believe it, but sure enough, I soon found the passage for myself. And, no, that’s not how feminism or the #MeToo movement is meant to work (extremists aside)!. You literally have cases like the one between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, where evidence is coming out that proves the exact opposite of what is claimed in this abhorrent passage, and I would think truly compassionate women (and people in general) would both see that men can be victims and women perpetrators of both domestic and sexual violence, without it supposedly “setting women back.”

Unfortunately, this is a case of one misused ingredient ruining the entire formula to an extent for me (to use a food reference, because it’s a major part of this book). As I do like Dev’s writing, I may still check out the other books in the series as they come out, since she has stated her plans to loosely adapt other Austen novels.

Given my feelings about the way sexual assault was discussed, I don’t think I would recommend this to anyone, or if I did, it would be to fans of multicultural romance, with a caveat that there is an incredibly off-color moment which could shape your perceptions of the whole.

Review of “The Key to Happily Ever After” by Tif Marcelo

Marcelo, Tif. The Key to Happily Ever After. New York: Gallery Books, 2019.

Paperback | $16.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1501197581 | 314 pages | Women’s Fiction/Chick Lit

2.5 stars

I really wanted to love The Key to Happily Ever After, since not only did it offer great rep for a population that is not often seen in romantic fiction, it also was a story about the relationship between sisters, which is something that really intrigued me.

And, in principle, the setup is great, The one flaw with it is not giving the middle sister, Jane, the spotlight, feeding into the “overlooked middle child” stereotype, but I did feel like there was an effort made to establish the bonds these sisters had with one another in this unique situation of running a wedding shop.

However, I wasn’t truly invested in the story or the characters where it mattered. It felt more like meandering through a sequence of events that I didn’t care about with characters that did not overly engage me. I didn’t care about these apparent romantic entanglements the sisters got involved in, or care when things went south, or feel like there was some kind of payoff to there being any kind of “happily ever after” (romantic or otherwise). I’m aware this could be more of a “me” thing than anything else, but I just didn’t feel like there was a ton going for it, aside from the brilliant cultural elements.

This is a book that I don’t think I would personally recommend to anyone, but that is just my opinion, and take it with a grain of salt. I do feel like the things it does well, as I said before, are the Filipino representation, and the basic setup for the family element, so if you are interested in those things, you may enjoy it more than I did.

Review of “The Bride Test” (The Kiss Quotient #2) by Helen Hoang

Hoang, Helen. The Bride Test. New York: Jove, 2019.

Paperback | $15.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0451490827 | 300 pages | Contemporary Romance

5 stars

I started The Bride Test, feeling both excited and uncertain: the premise sounded awesome and I love Helen Hoang’s style, but I wasn’t sure anything could quite live up to the instantly relatable Stella and the surprisingly supportibe Michael in The Kiss Quotient. And while it did take a little longer to acquaint myself with these characters, I ended up loving them just as much, if not more, given the realness and depth to the story.

Esme as a character is one that breaks new ground for what we think of as a romance heroine in an romance novel published in the U.S. and this is something Hoang discusses to an extent in her author’s note. I love how she went from using Esme as a side character/rival to challenging the notions of what makes a believable heroine, which is at the center of so much discourse on diversity in romance today. She comes from less-than-perfect origins, but epitomizes the ideal of the American Dream of the immigrant coming over to America and finding a way to thrive. And the fact that Hoang was inspired by her mother’s experience made this all the more beautiful.

Khai as a character took a little longer to grow on me. I did admire that Hoang managed to navigate writing the experience of a male character with autism, given the differences in how it manifests depending on gender, but I did not immediately find him endearing. However, he grew on me over the course of the book, due to the fact that, in spite of him appearing somewhat closed-off and professing to be incapable of feeling, he does feel and express emotion in his own way, and that made me first appreciate him more, then fall in love with him along with Esme. Not to mention, his relationships with his family are adorable, especially in moments where Quan (and at one point Michael) help him navigate the world of love and sex.

This is definitely a must-read for anyone who loves a great diverse contemporary romance, although I would encourage even those who don’t typically read the genre to try it as well. Hoang once again crafts a wonderful story, full of humor heat, and heart, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Review of “Unmarriageable” by Soniah Kamal

Kamal, Soniah. Unmarriageable. New York: Ballantine Books, 2019.

Hardcover | $27.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1524799717 | 342 pages | Contemporary/Multicultural/Austen Retelling

5 stars

Unmarriageable captures the perfect balance when it comes to an Austen retelling of conveying the underlying themes in a way that remains recognizable, but also providing something new that means it’s not only worth reading, but it also feels like the author truly got to play with it and make it their own. And the result is not only entertaining, but also incredibly educational and eye-opening.

Kamal goes into the parallels she saw between 19th century English society and modern Pakistani society in her author’s note, thus serving as the inspiration for this book. And it was fascinating to look at some of the double standards and contradictions of Pakistani society, especially concerning women’s education and the way marriage for women by a certain age was stressed much more than for men, and even more hauntingly, with recent news closer to home, the issues concerning sexual freedom and reproductive rights, and even how wealth and privilege gives people more options in that regard.

And even more so than these underlying themes, I love how Kamal translated the characters and their vibrant personalities into this retelling, and even further developed some of the character arcs. I loved the further development as Alys as a feminist in particular, challenging the idea that marriage, particularly marriage without love, is the only option for women, as opposed to having a career. But on the flip side, I was also moved by Sherry and how she managed to get a happy ending in her own way, despite pursuing an arranged marriage.

This is definitely a must-read for Austen fans, especially those who are looking for a new perspective on Pride and Prejudice.