Words Worth Noting

Favorite Quotes

"Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait point. French. Pascal. The heart has its reasons, whereof reason knows nothing."— Madeleine L'Engle

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Review: The Worst Best Man

The Worst Best Man The Worst Best Man by Mia Sosa
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I requested, read and reviewed an advance copy of this book within a few days. First I was eager, one might even say thirsty for it. Then I was hooked. Mia Sosa's The Worst Best Man is a fun multicultural romantic comedy with an opening that grabs you, an authentic voice, and a compelling enemies to lovers plot that hinges on the main characters’ forced close proximity.

Three years ago, Carolina Santos (Lina) was all but left at the altar by a runaway groom so cowardly that he left word with his little brother instead of breaking things off himself. Now though, life is looking up for our heroine. She's got a growing business, and the opportunity of a lifetime appears to be within reach. Lina’s work as a wedding planner has attracted the notice of the new CEO of one of D.C.’s best hotels who invites her to pitch/compete for a dream job as their new director of weddings. It’s an enticing prospect— lucrative compensation, creative flexibility and access to resources— but there is one catch. Going for it will force her into a close working relationship with her ex-fiancĂ©’s brother Max, whose consulting firm is the company’s primary marketing partner. Lina is a professional, and she’s over her ex, but she’s not quite comfortable working with the brother she thinks played an influential role in their breakup.

As one might expect, tension and shenanigans follow. It’s immediately clear that Max and Lina have great chemistry both in and outside of the office, but their relationship is further complicated by cultural difference. Max is the kind of guy who has always known privilege—straight, white, good-looking and from a well-off family. Apart from living in the shadow of his older sibling, the world, for the most part, is Max's oyster. Lina’s situation is not that. She’s well-educated and has a wonderful family, but as a child of immigrants and an Afro-Latinx woman, she’s used to having her behavior and emotional expression policed. As a result, Lina has trained herself to keep her feelings on a tight leash:

My tone of voice is exactly as it should be: calm and even. In truth, I regularly monitor my daily emotional output the way some people track their daily caloric intake, and since my mother and I just shared a few teary-eyed minutes together, I’m either fresh out of feelings or close to exceeding today’s quota.

Part of this self-scrutiny is in Lina’s individual DNA, but we can also tell from what’s floating around in her head that this is learned behavior-- that it's about how she'll be judged in light of her race, class and gender. Max doesn’t understand, but readers like myself can probably relate.

Since Max doesn't quite grasp how these things have shaped Lina's experience, choices and her reticence to jump into a relationship with him, that adds to their challenge. It’s bad for them (at first), but it does make for an entertaining love story. Max, unlike his brother, has both the good taste to appreciate Lina and the strength of character to navigate a difficult situation. Both main characters are multi-dimensional, the forced proximity context makes sense, and the result is compelling and original.

Mia Sosa is a skilled social observer and she pays close attention to Lina’s family and cultural background, which enriches the story a great deal. She also has a great sense of humor as an author, and she does a good job of balancing the angst with the laughs. The bits where we observe Lina in her element are hilarious. For example:

Many a wedding has been destroyed by the effects of an open bar. My skin still crawls when I remember the groom who removed his new partner’s underwear instead of her garter. Gah.

Stories that hinge on forced proximity don’t always work for me. They can feel overly contrived and the closeness unnecessary. But this scenario and Lina and Max's collaboration made sense to me. I’d go through a lot for a life-changing opportunity in my field.

The one thing I struggled with was how Lina’s conflicting feelings negatively affected her professional conduct at times whereas Max seemed to find a constructive balance. Lina is at cross purposes for much of the book. She wants to shut Max out of the pitch development process, but clearly that won’t help her get the job. She wants to make him suffer for possibly thinking she wasn't good enough for his brother. Overall, she’s just in a more precarious situation, and yet I wanted her to be more of a hero of the story. I wanted her eyes on the prize. I wanted her to shine. And I wanted her to be emotionally open to this risky relationship. There's a double bind for you! That might be unfair. I’m still struggling with that and the question of whether I’m expecting too much of her because she's a female protagonist (as readers often do) given the structural constraints I've already acknowledged. Either way, the fact that this book caused me to ask those questions and think about them at length is a triumph, and reading The Worst Best Man was a pleasure.

Tropes and themes: Interracial romance; Forced proximity; Enemies to lovers.

I was lucky and very grateful to receive an advance review copy of this book through Edelweiss+. My opinions are my own.

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Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Review: An Unseen Attraction

An Unseen Attraction An Unseen Attraction by K.J. Charles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An Unseen Attraction is the first installment in the fantastic, engrossing Sins of the Cities series by K.J. Charles. Though these three closely interconnected books center on a deadly interfamilial feud over succession to an earldom and one of England’s greatest fortunes, this novel centers two working-class heroes who are wonderfully sweet and loveably flawed.

In addition to an engrossing central mystery, which unfolds over the course of the series, each book focuses on a different relationship. The intrigue is compelling even though the build-up and middle installments of the trilogy are stronger than the finale, which seems a little forced/rushed. In An Unseen Attraction, however, the action and romance are perfectly paced. Charles deftly introduces the family and other key players, but she primarily focuses on Clem, a bastard, biracial second son of an Earl and an upper servant of Indian heritage. After growing up mostly on the margins of this illustrious family, when the story opens, Clem is running a boarding house in London owned by his half brother, the Earl of Moreton. The arrangement suits the handsome, Anglo-Indian Clement just fine. Clem is sweet and good and intelligent, but has what we would now recognize as information processing issues, and that undermines his confidence. Those challenges give many people, his family especially, an excuse to underestimate and abuse him even more than they already would because of his ethnicity and illegitimacy. Running the boardinghouse allows Clem to use his strengths, his fastidiousness, patience, sensitivity and emotional intelligence, and maintain some semblance of independence. It also puts Clem in a position to meet and cultivate a slow burning but steamy relationship with a boarder, Rowley Green, a man who understands and fully appreciates him.

The one catch is that the house comes with a permanent and difficult tenant, who is somehow connected to and protected by his older brother. Clem has orders to see that the reverend always has a place there rent free and feels satisfied about it. Not long into the book, however, bad things start to happen around the dissolute reverend. His room is ransacked and though no valuables seem to be missing, he’s in a real upset over it. Not long after that things get far worse. These events threaten the stability that Clem has worked so hard to establish in his precarious position. His tenant is hiding something, and Clem’s brother also seems to be hiding something as well. It may be obvious to Clem’s new friend Rowley (and possibly to readers as well) that there is more to the relationship between the Earl and the clergyman than the brother is disclosing, but the secret is not easily guessed.

Beyond the bare bones of the narrative, what really matters here is the specificity and care Charles takes with setting--the finely drawn detail around Victorian culture and the natural and built environment of London-- and, above all, character. Clem and Rowley are indelible and vivid protagonists. They aren't aristocrats or hyper-masculine heroes, and that is a relief. They are ordinary, kind, fallible men made extraordinary in their connection, care and commitment to each other in the face of societal sanction. For Rowley it's simple: '“I’d like to make you happy,” Rowley said softly. “However that might be done.”' That is no small thing to Clem, a man used to either being overlooked or appreciated for his looks and little else: “Rowley, there are lots of people who think I’m worth looking at. Not so many who think I’m worth listening to. Not like you.”
Their love isn't showy. It can't be given their context. But in K. J. Charles's hands, it's undeniable and, in its own quiet way, profound:
I love you. Such small words to make such a huge change. Not the kind of change other people had, with a wedding in fine clothes and people cheering, but a change that would do very nicely for the two of them. Mr. Talleyfer and his lodger, privately and unobtrusively domestic, left to themselves. It was very close to Rowley’s idea of paradise.

Well, it's almost paradise. For the remainder of the series, we learn more and more about what the connection is between Clem's brother and the troublesome former reverend, and why it’s worth blackmailing and murdering people over. The underlying conflict spawns a sprawling but cohesive and mostly comprehensible mystery involving murder, legitimacy, inheritance and class and racial conflict. It’s really very good. An Unseen Attraction is an excellent introduction to a trio of books that I believe constitute a minor masterpiece (I'm not sure I've used that word before)— thoughtful and convincing both on the romantic and suspense elements.

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Review: Get a Life, Chloe Brown

Get a Life, Chloe Brown Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It was clear the minute I started to read. Get a Life Chloe Brown is a different romance novel. And I was thirsty for it—I’ve read a lot of disappointing books of late.

The premise is original; the main character, a wealthy and sheltered young Black British woman who is intelligent, genuinely witty and is living with chronic health problems, has a not so near death experience and decides to radically change her life for the better. Chloe Brown doesn't look or sound like any I've seen before. Her challenges go way beyond the typical negative self talk and stubborn miscommunication I’m used to; and the writing stands out too. It’s vivid, full of rich, specific detail, crisp, and quotable. I found myself frequently nodding and highlighting passages in appreciation. Like this one:
“Slowly, slowly, she sank to the ground. Put her clammy palms against the cool tiles. Breathed in. Breathed out. Breathed in.

Breathed out, her whisper like cracking glass, “If I had died today, what would my eulogy say?” This mind-blowing bore had zero friends, hadn’t traveled in a decade despite plenty of opportunity, liked to code on the weekends, and never did anything that wasn’t scheduled in her planner. Don’t cry for her; she’s in a better place now. Even Heaven can’t be that dull.”

It got better from there. The thing I admire the most is that this book doesn’t just tell the reader how special Chloe is; it shows you. As in the passage above, Chloe’s interior monologue is funny, her voice unique. Another example, from a pivotal point early on:
“Her moment of communion with the universe rudely interrupted, Chloe hauled herself into a sitting position. Strangely, she was now feeling much better. Perhaps because she had recognized and accepted the universe’s message. It was time, clearly, to get a life.”

That sold me. Definitely recommend.

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