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

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Review: Snapped

Snapped Snapped by Alexa Martin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There are several different things going on here and some definitely work better than others. First and foremost, Snapped is an unusually candid portrait of a biracial woman coming to terms with the internalized anti-black attitudes she swallowed while growing up in a white family and predominantly white community. And the toxic folly of the color blind philosophy she was steeped in for so long. Author Alexa Martin knows this territory from the inside out— this aspect of the story is very personal for her— and she writes Elliot incredibly specifically and well.

As a result of Martin’s insight, Elle is infuriating at times but she’s also very real. Some Black people raised the way she was go out of their way to deny racism as a form of self protection and protection for the families that raised them. That’s a serious phenomenon and I haven’t seen that laid out so clearly in romance before in a story that acknowledges how messed up that is. It’s humane but honest.

That said, there were some things I didn’t get about Elliot—parts of the portrayal that undermined the strengths Elliot was supposed to have. She’s supposed to be good with people but doesn’t think that Quinton might have a really good reason for keeping his father out of his movement and his foundation? People have complicated relationships with their family for many very good reasons and yet she assumes he’s just ungrateful or petulant. That’s a silly way to generate more conflict. Even worse, Elliot has watched and studied football all her life and prides herself in being at least sensible to really blatant racism even if she doesn’t see racism as ubiquitous, but doesn’t understand that the league has discriminated against black quarterbacks, and isn't familiar with the racist stereotypes about Black athletes and how they influence who gets to play what position in the league. This might just be an awkward and unintended consequence of using Elliot as a proxy when the author wants to educate readers about a point, but it's a pretty big part of NFL history. Elliott's ignorance strains both credulity and threatens her credibility, tipping her turning a blind eye to race to the absurd.

Apart from these points, the other ways that Elliot has swallowed micro and macro racial aggression in order to get along generally tracked. Snapped is also a romance and that works too even if the burn is very slow. Elliot’s love interest Quinton is a fictionalized Colin Kaepernick type character with a secret, very personal motivation for his activism. He’s fighting for better and more equitable treatment of Black athletes and veteran, retired football players struggling with the devastating health effects of the brutal sport they play. Elliot and Quinton are thrown together when Elliot is tasked by the team owner with channeling his protest into more socially acceptable forms that reflect well on the team. I liked Quinton as a romantic hero, but the portrayal of the movement politics he’s engaged in is by far the weakest link, especially at the climax which goes off the rails and is far too simplistic and ahistorical about how change is made. Overall Snapped tells a difficult and meaningful story about a woman coming to terms with her family and identity imperfectly but well. For me it was well worth the time and consideration.

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Saturday, November 21, 2020

Review: The Prophets

The Prophets The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of my favorite parts of a heartbreaking but thoroughly beautiful book.

“They thought we was something dirty, but it won’t nothing like that at all. It was easy, really. He the only one who understand me without me saying a word. Can tell what I thinking just by where I looking—or not looking. So when he took my hand . . . the first time anybody or anything ever touch me so, everything in my head wanna say naw, but nothing in my body let me.”

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Saturday, October 10, 2020

Girl, Woman, Other. Chapter 2: Her Warring Thoughts

Book cover of Girl Woman Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Chapter 2: Carole, Bummi, and LaTisha.

Fictional Carole's story caught me by surprise with its sort of duality—how it contained two things at war with each other in the same space— her privileged adult life with a pretty happy ending, loving mother and genuinely loving husband on one hand, and the violations she's endured, big and small, as an adult and as a child, and how hard she works to expunge thoughts that don't fit the life/ narrative she's built or simply don't serve her in it.

Like, for example, this section in which Carole is psyching herself up for an early morning meeting with a "new client based in Hong Kong whose net worth is multiple times the GDP of the world's poorest countries" but "can't help remembering all the little hurts":


   she can’t help thinking about the customs officers who pull her over when she’s jetting the world looking as brief-cased and be-suited as all the other business people sailing through customs – un-harassed

   oh to be one of the privileged of this world who take it for granted that it’s their right to surf the globe unhindered, unsuspected, respected

   damn, damn, damn, as the escalator goes up, up, up

   c’mon, delete all negative thoughts, Carole, release the past and look to the future with positivity and the lightness of a child unencumbered by emotional baggage

   life is an adventure to be embraced with an open mind and loving heart 


Also, that last sentence reminds me of another nice detail revealed just prior to this quote, that Carole's bookshelves are stacked with motivational books "ordered from America." She vows that the meeting will be "fan-bloody-tastic!" Just as the books say— "if you project a powerful person, you will attract respect." 

She's retrained her mind with these self-help books. Or she's trying to. But it seems like a constant fight to keep reality at bay. Carole's story isn't as dramatic as some of the others in Girl, Woman, Other, and she isn't always entirely sympathetic. But she seemed really human to me and not just because of her name. ;)

Please note: All book links to Amazon on this site are affiliate ones. If you buy a book through those links, I will make a small amount of money on that sale, which comes out of the company’s profits. It does not change the cost of your purchase.

Sunday, October 04, 2020

Review: Girl, Woman, Other

Girl, Woman, Other Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I truly loved it. I couldn't stop reading and stayed up late, then got up early to finish. The only challenge in writing a review is that my highlights aren't as useful as they usually are because I highlighted way too much (literally hundreds of paragraphs), seemingly almost everything because every line has meaning. For example, this passage on the indelible Amma:

Amma was shorter, with African hips and thighs perfect slave girl material one director told her when she walked into an audition for a play about Emancipation whereupon she walked right back out again

Girl, Woman, Other is many things: a brilliant social novel, heavy on well-observed, sharp societal commentary, but organically so, and never weighed down by it. Very specific in its characterizations and voice. A tapestry in verse. An engrossing, often witty, ensemble drama about Black British women of different backgrounds, sexuality, and social strata with some surprising formal anomalies like no periods and little capitalization. Those formal elements are partly responsible for creating Girl, Woman, Other's wonderful sense of lyricism. They also effectively mimic trains of thought and conversation. Eventually, though, they easily fade into the background.

One passage I loved in the first section, partly because it made me laugh, was when Yazz, the daughter of Amma, now a playwright/theatre director, and Roland, a professor/public intellectual, was mentally running through how she had won an argument with her Dad, taking him down a notch by questioning lofty position as "the country's first Professor of Modern Life." I enjoyed Yazz's loving intergenerational warfare with people who are used to being/thinking of themselves as the avant garde.

Dad didn’t reply
he wasn’t expecting this, the student outwitting the master (grasshopper rocks!)
I mean, how on earth can you be a Professor of Modern Life when your terms of reference are all male, and actually all-white (even when you’re not, she refrained from adding),

And I was moved by the interplay between Yazz and her uni friend Waris, who's from Somalia, which appears shortly after that, and the conversation with her white working class friend Courtney about relative privilege and context, which is an interesting counterpart to Yazz's triumph over Roland:

Yazz doesn’t know what to say, when did Court read Roxane Gay – who’s amaaaazing?
was this a student outwitting the master moment? #whitegirltrumpsblackgirl

Funny, poignant, ironic. Brilliant.

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Sunday, September 13, 2020

Review: The Art of Theft

The Art of Theft The Art of Theft by Sherry Thomas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am a huge fan of the Lady Sherlock series. The way that Sherry Thomas weaves together an emotionally affecting and socially realistic mystery with solidly feminist sensibilities and social commentary is impressive and gratifying. With the first book especially, I felt the kind of well-being I get from books that feed my political and literary/aesthetic sensibilities at the same time. This, I keep thinking, is what political art and entertainment should feel like. Organic. Not didactic, but powerful. Showing, not just telling, but bold.

So I’ve loved this series for several reasons, but especially:
* The deft conceptualization of Lady Sherlock: Charlotte Holmes is a great character because she is challenging in a way that’s true to Sherlock Holmes, but appropriately adapted for the character’s different social position as a young gentlewoman, someone raised in privilege but wholly without power and so desperate for it she's willing to ruin herself to get it. Thomas does a great job of reinterpreting what it would mean to be someone like Sherlock, a genius, but also a woman in a sexist society, how one would have to navigate that differently than any other version of the Sherlock Holmes character. She reminds me a bit of the lead character in The Kiss Quotient —an analytical genius who is socially awkward, though not necessarily on the spectrum and living at a time before anyone ever heard of autism or Asperger’s Syndrome. But she does still have relatable desires even if she doesn’t need companionship in the same way as someone more neurologically typical.
* Charlotte’s relationship with Lord Ingram.
* The complexity of the female characters overall, especially Olivia who suffers from terrible social anxiety but is a talented writer and Mrs. Watson, a former actress/former mistress.
* Olivia’s relationship and potential career as a novelist and Sherlock Holmes documentarian.
* Both sisters’ relationships with Mrs. Watson, who’s also on the periphery of respectable society.

That said, on book three, The Hollow of Fear, I realized that I was starting to lose some steam as reader as stasis set in with regard to character development and relationship growth. With each book, the mysteries grow more grand and complex, while the characters barely change at all. The Art of a Theft is the fourth installment and that feeling has only strengthened. This time the mystery is very high stakes; it centers on a black mail scheme involving an international crime syndicate and a power struggle between India and British Colonial power. Meanwhile, our main characters are barely advancing at all. It seems like they’re wading through molasses and I’m stuck with them.

A reviewer on Goodreads remarked that the repeated references to Charlotte's dieting and restricted eating made her cringe. I can understand that, especially in light of her atypical personality and disregard for social convention, the way her size is referenced seems overdone. There is a practical component as Charlotte has noted, however, to her concerns about eating and appearance. She isn’t a wealthy woman; she doesn’t have the budget for a new wardrobe so exceeding a certain size would be a problem, and being considered conventionally attractive is an asset as she recognizes. But the refrain is a bit more prominent than I’d expect.

I find myself getting impatient with several aspects of the series as it unfolds: Charlotte’s self-deprecating mentions of approaching "maximum tolerable chins" is one. Her sister Olivia’s constant anxiety about anything new or different is another with little self-examination is another. Frankly she's making me nervous. Most concerning, the relationship between Charlotte and Lord Ingram is really kind of a mess, and not in an intriguing way.

Compared to book three, in the Art of Theft, the relationship between Charlotte and Lord Ingram may even be in retreat. The situation doesn't seem promising in relation to a happy ever after, but I'm not sure I’m still fully invested in that. Charlotte strikes me as someone who might truly not have conventional HEA type romantic desires if there was space to explore that. I’m not sure what her romantic and sexual identity might be to put it in modern terms. I’d like to hear more about what Charlotte secretly yearns for in her relationship with Ingram, what she misses living a celibate/single life, rather than just reading about what she doesn’t want from him when he engages the topic. It’s a very reactive situation for a dynamic woman.

Collectively, for me these elements symbolize a broader issue. Of course human beings are like this. They get stuck. They repeat the same frustrating behaviors day after day after year. But I’m having trouble discerning which attitudes and behaviors are learned, reflecting social pressure, and which stem from the individuals' true desires. How do I root for them when I don’t know what they actually want?

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Sunday, September 06, 2020

Review: Accidentally Engaged

Accidentally Engaged Accidentally Engaged by Farah Heron
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a confession. I love food and romance but I don’t necessarily love foodie romance. Accidentally Engaged, however, was a joy to read. Some of the beats will feel really familiar— in particular the unwanted arranged or facilitated marriage that becomes a steamy love match— but it’s well executed and there are some unique details. Nadim and Reena fit for many reasons, not the least of which is their shared tensions and passions, the need to balance familial loyalty and rebellion, and their passionate love of food.

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Thursday, August 27, 2020

Review: Better Than People

Better Than People Better Than People by Roan Parrish
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When animal loving Jack breaks his leg and can no longer take his pets for the exercise they need, Simon, a man who craves four legged companionship, comes to the rescue. Soon they discover they have more in common than their love of pets. Simon and Jack are just the sweetest, softest and most heart warming pair you could spend an evening with, but both have real issues to work out. Simon has debilitating social anxiety, and Jack is an artist who no longer creates art and is having trouble sleeping in the wake of a work partner’s betrayal. But these two get along like a house on fire almost from the start. Together they work through some of their heaviest baggage, though the narrative makes clear that it's not a matter of trying to "fix" anyone. They love each other completely not in spite of any perceived faults, and they mourn each others' pain without trying to change who they are. There’s angst in the story, but overall there was fairly little stress for me in reading it, because these people are very good to each other, and they have loved ones who are good to them as well. The writing is emotional and evocative and beautifully done. This was exactly the steamy and emotional comfort read I craved.

One of my favorite scenes comes near the end. IT'S A SPOILER:
“Are you crying?” Simon said, instantly attentive. “What’s wrong?”
Jack shook his head.
“I’m so fucking in love with you.” He wiped his cheeks. “So when do you think you might wanna—”
“Now. I live here now.” He turned around the room, addressing the animals. “Pack! I live here now!”

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Friday, August 14, 2020

Review: The Cowboy Says I Do

The Cowboy Says I Do The Cowboy Says I Do by Dylann Crush
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had the distinct pleasure of reviewing The Cowboy Says I do, Come Home to Deep River, and Paradise Cove for BookPage: https://bookpage.com/features/25476-s...

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Review: A Cowboy to Remember

A Cowboy to Remember A Cowboy to Remember by Rebekah Weatherspoon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Rebekah Weatherspoon kicks off her new Black cowboy series with an inventive new take on the Sleeping beauty myth. A Cowboy to Remember blends small town romance, modern fairy tale, and second chance romance. The beauty in this case is Evie, a famous reality TV princess, her prince is a Black rancher from Charming, California, and of course, the witch is a ruthless and resentful reality show competitor. That all tracks. When Evie loses her memory after a terrible fall that is far from accidential, she returns to her chldhood home to recover, and childhood lovers fall for each other all over again.

I liked these characters, their family and friends, and their relationship a lot. The connection is honest and open, and I love the way these two people communicate with each other. The one issue I have is with the way Evie’s memory or lack of memory gets used as a wedge in her relationship with Zach. I’m generally a big fan of second chance romance when the circumstances that separated the lovers are beyond their control. In this case, though, it’s complicated. There is a lot of external interference and pressure, but Prince Charming also commits a whole host of errors.. Because Evie doesn’t remember anything from her past for the vast majority of the book, they don’t really get time to grapple with those past differences. So the relationship they forge is lovely and open and honest, but then it gets discounted and blown apart towards the end.

To me that structure was frustrating. It’s not the amnesia storyline that is the problem. It’s the execution of it— the almost completely all or nothing nature of the memory loss until a switch is flipped—that prevents them from working through what went wrong. Evie’s memory ultimately becomes a a device for delivering this one really dark moment when she finally has to reckon with the past

That issue aside, consider me thoroughly charmed. The bench of chararcter is deep, and this 21st century, media-savvy sleeping beauty retelling is a great foundation for a series. I’m really looking forward to the next one.
3.5 to 4 stars.

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Sunday, July 26, 2020

Review: It Had to Be You

It Had to Be You It Had to Be You by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Love in the Time of Slick Willy, the Juice and the Donald.
This one was quite a throwback. Since this summer I've been making a conscious effort to better understand the genre I've been so engrossed by recently by reading some of the best known books in the romance canon, and It Had to Be You came highly recommended. It's one of Eloisa James's favorite books and appears on many best of all time lists. But reading It Had to Be You was an unsettling, frustrating experience for me. This pioneering, popular and well-received sports romance was published in 1994, the year of Nicole Brown-Simpson’s death, and former football superstar O.J. Simpson’s ill-fated low speed chase/attempt to evade arrest for killing her. It was also the second year of the Clinton presidency, two years before Monica Lewinsky burst into public consciousness, and, perhaps most important, just a few years after “Backlash” told of a powerful postfeminist reactionary political wave sweeping across America. That’s all to say it was a heady time, right on the cusp of some sort of transition in gender and racial politics.

So I should have been prepared for what a contemporary romance set in the testosterone heavy world of the NFL might look like in that time. It shouldn’t have been a huge surprise that the sexual politics made my head spin. And yet it still threw me for a bit— the gender dynamics aren’t pretty. Neither progressive nor fully reactionary, just deeply unsettling. It was an unsettling time. For all that’s wrong with 2019, this book made me incredibly happy that it’s not 1994 and that I could leave that world by closing the book. When I think about reading It Had to Be You I'm reminded of that terrible, scornful, old-school, Victorian set down— that someone is no better than they should be, meaning they're lacking but that's to be expected because of who they are or where they come from. This novel made me think its gender politics were awful and yet possibly realistic for the time, in other words, no better than they should be. The gender dynamics between the characters are too muddled and confused to be truly enlightening or thought-provoking, but they are unsettling. So maybe that's as it ought to be. Intentional or not, it was a terribly unsatisfying and muddled time for women. It Had to Be You certainly reflects that.

The heroine, Phoebe Somerville, is an heiress, a buxom “bimbo”, secretly celibate sex-bomb, and a kind and intelligent woman who craves the love she never had growing up. She’s also a rape survivor, who’s suffering from a great deal of trauma and tries to use her body and her sexuality as armor and as a tool of manipulation in every aspect of her life even as she feels ashamed of her body and uncomfortable and insecure about her sexuality.

When Phoebe inherits (with conditions of course) an NFL team from her horribly abusive, recently deceased father, she amps up the overt, outrageous sexuality and downplays her intelligence as she enters a new workplace dominated by men. She thinks she’s adapting to the way the world sees her and using her body and looks to her advantage, and it appears that we are supposed to understand that this is a workable strategy, but it’s also clear throughout that this strategy causes her great pain. It makes her hate herself and puts her continually at odds with her employees, other businesspeople, and her potential love interest who is also a colleague.

Is Phoebe's false sexual flamboyance and bravado a source of strength, shame, or success? Or all three? More to the point, why is this her only professional strategem? Phoebe’s choices are cringe-inducing. I found it very hard to keep reading at times. But then I questioned myself. Am I slut shaming this heroine, am I being prudish? Possibly. But I *really* don’t think so.

So the question remains: Why are bare cleavage and the sexual manipulation of men the predominant way that Phoebe uses her talents in business dealings until the very end? While she’s at it why does she not on her own at least learn something about the industry independently rather than solely relying on her burgeoning relationships with the men in her organization? And, above all, if it’s a smart strategy why is it such a continual source of pain? The workplace plot lines strained my belief in the character and the narrative as a whole.

In contrast, the love story and Phoebe’s reawakening after sexual trauma are handled incredibly well. The connection between Phoebe and Dan and how their physical relationship progresses is believable, specific, not at all cliched. Their relationship hinges on consent and trust as much as chemistry, and Phillips handles it beautifully.

It is hard to write a novel that is both sexy and gritty about social reality in that particular historical moment while avoiding being particularly political or preachy. That's a hard needle to thread with the social forces, hard choices, and traps women faced in a still hostile working world in the wake of the women’s movement. Phoebe is trying to succeed in, not just survive, an unjust situation and system. That is inherently political. It Had to Be You seems to want to be on the side of gender equality but in a not idealistic, not too orthodox, not too feminist way.

But the problem with the way Phoebe's written transcends gender politics. It's more fundamental than that. People say and do disrespectful, humiliating things to Phoebe; Phoebe says and does humiliating things to herself. And that lasts pretty much throughout the book in terms of her professional persona even though she grows in her personal life. Self-objectification and playing dumb are her favorite business strategies. And that's the contradiction I couldn't quite believe. Quirks and imperfection are human. Phoebe is human and therefore an imperfect heroine. Plus, all women struggle with self definition in a world that values and condemns female sexuality, but I'm unconvinced that she would choose to be imperfect in this particularly sexually exploitative, self-sabotaging way for this long in her professional life. I don’t buy that it would have gotten her the positive results she’d need to want to stick to that strategy for well over a decade. These choices make the book no better than it should be.

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Review: Nobody's Baby But Mine

Nobody's Baby But Mine Nobody's Baby But Mine by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This is the second novel that I’ve read by contemporary romance legend Susan Elizabeth Phillips, and I’m finding it even harder to tolerate than the last. The first book in the series was frustrating because it felt twisted and unrealistic in how it depicted/distorted sexism in the workplace. This book might be worse. It portrays offenses against bodily autonomy and consent in a flippant ways— as though it's bad form but nothing one should hold a real grudge over. It enrages me not because it's “politically incorrect,” which appears to be Susan Elizabeth’s brand—she even uses the term in the text, and the story centers on a baby-hungry career woman who manipulates a celebrity athlete into impregnating her (how edgy). That’s bad enough, but the real issue is that she heaps abuse on this man. Making her a heroine after that manages to be aggressively anti-feminist (a woman wanting to have a baby on her own is portrayed as crazy, misguided and selfish).

Jane, the putative heroine of sorts, is a socially awkward physicist and former child scientific prodigy with a ticking biological clock, Cal the hero/victim an aging NFL quarterback. She decides to have a baby with him by any means necessary, consent be damned. The central premise, a woman chooses a man to father her child based on his perceived lack of intelligence is ridiculously condescending. Jane, condescends to her lover. The book condescends to its readers and women who've apparently lost their way in the modern world.

The way Jane goes about it also makes the sexual acts themselves into abuse. Jane coerces Cal while he repeatedly rebuffs her advances. And when he tries to engage her in the act so that it’s more mutual and enjoyable, she rebuffs him, making the sex humiliating for him. Even though that’s not her aim, that is clearly the effect. It doesn’t matter that she is just protecting herself. She’s using him as a tool and that is the definition of exploitation. This could be a negative case study in moral philosophy.

This made me think about a moral reasoning class I took as an undergraduate. What stood out most was Kant's concept of the categorical imperative.
Kant's formulation of humanity, the second section of the Categorical Imperative, states that as an end in itself humans are required never to treat others merely as a means to an end, but always, additionally, as ends in themselves.

This entire premise is that Jane uses Cal Bonner as a means to an end, which is bad enough, but even as she is doing that she does nothing to minimize the harm she inflicts on him. That’s why this drives me crazy. She says she’s driven to do this by wanting a baby so badly, and the fact that the baby needs to have genes that run counter to her own for its own good, so that the child won’t suffer the outsider status and social isolation she did. No matter how faulty that logic is at least it’s genuine. But she could still have tried to find someone to participate in this of their own free will.

Making matters far worse, it wouldn’t cost her anything but her own neuroses to treat Cal as a full human being during the process. And that, the sexual humiliation and insult she heaps on Cal during their two initial encounters plus the harm she does him by making him feel he’s potentially doing harm to her during the acts, that’s gratuitous. This is not a trivial harm. And yet somehow she’s still ultimately painted as a cute and quirky heroine.

This is not cute. Forced reproduction isn't funny. In another novel, this would be the key act that defines the villain (see Long Shot for one example).

The fact that I really haven't seen any critique of the forced procreation and sexual humiliation in this book compounds my disturbance with this book. As a feminist (and as a human being), my concern about someone being denied bodily autonomy is not something I take on and throw off at will depending on the identity of the victim.

The bottom line? Nobody’s Baby But Mine makes Jane into a heroine, abuser and the object of scorn at the same time. Why take a social phenomenon— career woman wants to have a baby on her own— and distort is this far from reality in this ugly a way? Is it just because that makes for good conflict and conflict means drama, equals compelling storytelling? Or is there an attempt to discredit the social phenomenon? Or do they just not see it that way? Does women doing grotesque things to men really not seem grotesque to Phillips and her fans?

Other issue: Casual racism. Not a fan!
When she learns Cal isn't the dim bulb she assumed he was just because he's an athlete, Jane worried their child will be freakishly smart and not fit in like she did growing up. Her solution: She’s going to move to a "primitive" part of Africa to keep her child away from people. Seriously:
She couldn’t let that happen. She’d die before she’d permit her child to suffer as she’d suffered. She’d move away! She’d take the baby to Africa, some remote and primitive part of the continent. She’d educate the child herself so that her precious little one would never know the cruelty of other children.

Because of course there are no people who count in "remote and primitive" Africa. That's it. I'm done here.

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Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Review: Heart and Hand

Heart and Hand Heart and Hand by Rebel Carter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Heart and Hand by Rebel Carter is a lot of fun and a little confounding. It's a quick read, kind of crazy interracial romance set in the old West twenty years after the civil war. Rather than straight historical romance I'd say we need a more specific subcategory to appreciate this book. It's not quite alt-history as it doesn't delve into alternate events so call it historical fantasy maybe. Not fantasy in the sense of things that defy the laws of nature but rather the story is grounded in a social reality that strongly defies the American history we know.

First, our feisty heroine Julie is a light brown-skinned biracial New York socialite/heiress descended from the blissfully happy marriage of American aristocracy and Spanish royalty on one side and enslaved people on the other. There are hints of friction about that but not much. Her racial background is generally (though not entirely-- it's confusing at times) inconsequential to her social standing in this version of New York society:
By all accounts, Julie and Julian were happy, well-respected, and considered the cream of society by the social pages. It was hard for them not to be with their striking looks: all tawny skin, dark eyes, high cheekbones, and curly dark hair.

Nonetheless, Julie yearns for freedom and independence. In her brother’s words:
You’re a few heads removed from the Spanish throne. How much more free should you like to be, Julie Anne?”

So Julie has her debut in New York society but decides it's not for her and instead becomes a mail order bride to two men in Montana (Forrest and Will). No one back home knows about the polyamory part, but given her family’s exalted social stature, her move west is a really big deal nonetheless:

Her departure had been an absolute circus. New Yorkers of all walks of life, employ, and station eagerly speculated as to why the Baptiste heiress had chosen to trade a life of luxury and comfort for the frontier.

This only underscores the alt-historical unrealty of the narrative. Again, Julie’s race doesn’t play into it. This is like a Vanderbilt eloping to Wyoming with a rancher.

The three get married in a lawful wedding attended and supported by the whole town, and Julie takes both her husbands' last names. Racism is just really not a thing at work there in Montana as well. The key issue is that Julie has two hubbies. And honestly almost everyone is alright with that too.

The anachronisms don't end there, but the surprising thing for me was I really didn't care. The characters are compelling and incredibly sweet. Will and Forrest have distinctive personalities and relationships with Julie and a lovely bond with each other. Even the grumpy one, Will, is a cinnamon roll at heart. I like the way they love her. And there's just enough internal tension and angst over the unusual nature of the triad within the relationship to make it interesting.

Realism aside, there are other elements though that could have been stronger. Julie's work as a teacher and relationship with her students is a little sketchy/shaky despite the enthusiasm she expresses about it at the start— it’s one of the reasons she wanted this life so that seems like an oversight or shortcut. More importantly, one thing I'd say for writers if you're going to make people fall in love through letters, show your work! We readers love a good epistolary romance. And the letters are what sells it—I want to see the relationship develop and what made them fall in love long distance. There's just a single instance of that here. I wanted more.

The biggest issue though is Julie’s romantic rival for one of the men. It definitely enhances the drama and difficulty for the newly marrieds, but there are aspects of the characterization that are troubling in a problematic rather than juicy way.

Overall, despite or more likely because it’s divorced from reality, Heart and Hand is a very surprising, very fun read if you're open to it. It worked for me. I have rarely wanted to talk about a book I consider a light read as much as I wanted to talk about this one.

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Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Review: Conventionally Yours

Conventionally Yours Conventionally Yours by Annabeth Albert
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really like this sweet and tender, slow burn new adult contemporary. In Conventionally Yours, Annabeth Albert breathes new life into the opposites attract and forced proximity tropes by placing them within the very fun and deeply weird gamer culture.

When their teammates drop out due to emergencies, a geeky, never been kissed virgin gamer ends up on a cross-country road trip with a sweet, popular competitor. Alden is neurodivergent, anxious and sheltered. Conrad is big and handsome like a Disney prince, but his shiny exterior masks a very tender and vulnerable side and troubled family history. They start as intense rivals, near enemies in fact, and to the author’s credit, their awkwardness together lasts a realistically long time. Intimacy develops slowly and naturally so that when Alden and Conrad do finally get together, it's deeply satisfying and well earned.

One thing to note: this is more of a dramedy than a romcom. The humor is gentle rather than laugh out loud, and the emotions run deep. These are sweet, soft boys falling in love for the first time, and it's lovely. That said, one of this book's greatest strengths is that it is so deeply dorky. We get an insiders view of competitive table top gaming, and it's a completely convincing, adorkable world. There are dragons and mage frogs and scrolls and cosplay-- the gamer geek speak runs thick.

One of my favorite examples:
His gif was one of a big dinosaur eating leaves. Herbivore food? Too healthy for me ;) See you then, I replied, my soul lighter than I would have thought possible. Just having him to share this with made a huge difference, his little tips and texts powering me through two more games. I warned him about saving scrolls versus fire demons, and he reminded me to be patient with ogres.

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Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Review: Queen Move

Queen Move Queen Move by Kennedy Ryan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In romance, fated mates is a label conferred on couples whose pairing is written in the stars or nature or somewhere in the supernatural. It exists outside of logic and rationality. It’s a pairing that was simply meant to be. They complete each other and no one else will do. Traditionally, fated mates are something that only happens in paranormal romance or fantasy (see Romance 101: Fated Mates by Amanda Diehl). But in Kennedy Ryan’s Queen Move, a story about childhood best friends turned lovers, I believed that true love was this couple's destiny from the start.

Queen Move is contemporary romance, and technically there’s nothing supernatural about it— there’s nary a witch, vamp, or shapeshifter in sight. But the connection between the two main characters is its own kind of magic. Kimba and Ezra were born on the same day. They're neighbors and their mothers are close friends, so it makes sense that they’re be practically inseparable. As babies they bathe together and play together when they’re young and at the ripe old age of six, when Ezra learns about what marriage is, they marry each other in a back yard ceremony.

Their connection is the sweetest thing ever. No one else in the world really exists when these two are together. But that all crashes down and the connection is severed at age 13 when their families are torn apart by a mysterious fight no one will explain. Ezra’s family moves away and they both eventually get on with their lives and lose touch.

Two decades later, Ezra is living in Atlanta when Kimba returns home for a family event, and they reunite. It’s immediately clear that the connection that was severed so abruptly when they were teens never quite went away. But their lives are no longer simple. Ezra has been in a long term (albeit troubled and on the cusp of separation) relationship for a decade and is raising a wonderful son whom he adores with his partner. Kimba has an incredible career as a political consultant and a health issue that’s causing her to reevaluate some choices.

It’s a great setup. Ezra and Kimba are fated mates kept apart by circumstances out of their control long ago and now again. Both are public people under a fair amount of scrutiny. They have people relying on them, and their situation is messy. There are about a million ways that scenario could go very wrong, but Kennedy Ryan is the mistress of swoonily romantic, angsty, socially conscious romance with high heat. And Queen Move sets yet another high water mark for that type of romance.

What I love most about Kimba and Ezra is that their connection is multifaceted. There’s the magic— they’re the kids born on the same day who imprinted on each other like cubs before they even knew what love was. Kimba feels that keenly: “I can’t help but think when we were born on the same day, when we were made together our path was set…” And Ezra feels very much the same. And it’s lovely. But there are also concrete tangible reasons that these two people work well together as adults. I never doubted it that they fit and would make each others’ lives better. For one thing, they share values— they’ve both dedicated their lives to fighting for social justice in different ways— and they have an intellection connection and mutual respect.

There’s a lot of angst here, but none of it is about whether their love is true. They are soul mates. That’s a given. And yet, somehow, the stakes and the tension remain high. Ryan is afraid to make hard choices and she gives this couple some real hurdles to overcome. It’s never forced. It just feels real.

Beyond that, what pulls it all together is Kennedy Ryan's writing. She writes gorgeous, sometimes poetic, sentences bursting with passion. Kimba:
“Daddy used to say don’t waste time on things that don’t set you on fire inside, and I haven’t. Every campaign, every election, each candidate—I’ve believed in. I believed that putting that person in power advanced one of my convictions.” She bites her bottom lip. “I felt the same about people. I didn’t want to waste time on anyone who didn’t set me on fire inside. And there have been people I liked, people I enjoyed sex with, but no one I wanted to build a life with. That’s why I never committed. No one ever set me on fire inside.” She looks over at me, her eyes telling me before her words do. “Until now. You set me on fire inside, Ezra Stern.”

“You set me on fire inside, Ezra Stern.” It’s a simple sentence but wow it’s just beautiful in that context. And also lovely that Kimba makes the connection between the people and the causes that set her on fire. This is the essence of what makes Ryan’s novels, Queen Move in particular, so special. She weaves the personal and the political together seamlessly and beautifully.

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Saturday, May 23, 2020

Review: American Sweethearts

American Sweethearts American Sweethearts by Adriana Herrera
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Full review at @The_Book_Queen blog: bit.ly/2wTRxcb

American Sweethearts is the soul-stirring and deeply satisfying fourth and final installment in Adriana Herrera’s award-winning Dreamers series, which centers on a tight group of Afro-Caribbean friends finding love and living their own version of the American dream in New York. All the protagonists of these books are Caribbean immigrants or the children of immigrants. All are striving and hustling to forge their own path. Though these characters face challenges stemming from or in some way related to race and their immigrant identity, that identity is also a constant source of pride and joy. The cultures of Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Haiti are all represented and celebrated in some way in these books. The fourth book steadfastly upholds this and all the traditions that make this stunning series stand out including indelible characters, incredible found family, and a social justice center leavened by blazing heat and humor.

This time the story centers on Priscilla and Juan Pablo, former childhood sweethearts who’ve been in a volatile, love-hate, off and on relationship since they were teenagers in the Bronx. They’re now in their mid-thirties. Two decades is a long time to be feuding with someone you love, and Priscilla in particular, is more than tired of the struggle. In her words, Juan Pablo has been, and when the story opens likely still is, a “fuckboy.” The last time they got together less than a year ago left some deep scars and not a small amount of hostility. Readers of the earlier books can attest to that tension. The sparks, however, are also very much still in force.

This final chapter in the Dreamers series focuses on how these two people, who have never really fallen out of love, find their way back together despite those two decades of drama, pain and mistrust, but it’s also the story of how one of those characters, Priscilla, navigates a life-altering reevaluation of her life’s work and future path. That multilayered setup is one of the book’s greatest strengths. This is truly grown-folks business in the best sense of the term, and that’s not that prevalent in romance.

More here: bit.ly/2wTRxcb

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Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Review: Not the Girl You Marry

Not the Girl You Marry Not the Girl You Marry by Andie J. Christopher
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

My initial feeling was that I might too close to this one—I have a long-standing academic interest in and opinions about how interracial relationships are portrayed in fiction and why it matters. And why so many of these depictions are incredibly problematic. That’s why I’ve stewed about this for months without comment. But that feels too much like cowardice. So here’s a quick rundown of what I thought and felt in reading this book.

From my perspective, the story skimmed the surface of the challenges faced by mixed race individuals and interracial couples, presenting the most basic takes on issues that we’ve now read about everywhere from the New York Times to a plethora of magazines and every day discussions on social media as though they were revelations. I struggled to write this review because I know this is an own voices story. But own voices isn’t and should not be a free pass on criticism. While the issues around identity and belonging seem to be heartfelt and personal (as discussed in the author’s note), the way they’re presented here, the story they’re wrapped up in, doesn’t have the depth to do those issues justice. Instead, the protagonist, a biracial woman struggling with her sense of belonging, sexuality and self-worth, veers close to centuries-old stereotypes about about race and what it means to be black. Without ever using the language, in her own head, the main character basically characterizes herself as a tragic mulatto, a character of mixed racial parentage, who fits in nowhere, who’s rejected by both black and white, and whose race is their downfall.

To take one example, the paragraph that first tipped me off that this was probably Not the Book I Should Read:

“Because they were never looking for a girlfriend, especially not her as a girlfriend. That didn’t hurt anymore. It didn’t. She’d accepted that she was just not the kind of girl men romanced. With her ethnically ambiguous looks, bawdy sense of humor, and filthy mind, men wanted to have sex with her. And then—once they realized that she wasn’t entirely domesticated—they wanted her to disappear.”

That’s my problem with this book in a nutshell. First there’s the strangely old-school tragic mulatto narrative and the self pity that comes with it. Plus the fact that this book seems to take place in an alternate reality, one in which multiculturalism isn't a marketable concept capitalism thrives on, and multiracial identity isn't privileged for its relative proximity to whiteness, and as though that hasn’t been the most acceptable form of blackness in popular culture (see Mixed Race Hollywood for more on that).

Then there’s also the fact that this paragraph is written as though it represents the character’s own thoughts, but the language and sentiments are recognizable as cliche but unrecognizable as the way real people think and speak about themselves in their own words. ”With her ethnically ambiguous looks” is an awfully awkward, stilted way to phrase this idea in one’s own head. “Bawdy sense of humor”? Bawdy, really? Who thinks in those terms?

There’s also a part where the protagonist’s black ex-boyfriend and his mom were horrified to find out she’s biracial. She thinks that also makes her not the girl you marry for bougie black people.

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Saturday, February 08, 2020

Review: Rebel Hard

Rebel Hard Rebel Hard by Nalini Singh
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Love him. Love her. Love the way he loves her.

I keep finding myself returning to this book again and again. There are so many good things here. Absolutely lovely hero. I love him. Love her. Love the way he loves her. Lots of Pride and Prejudice references but they’re smart and organic to the story rather than gratuitous. I also love the fact that Indian culture in New Zealand is absolutely central to the story and it’s rendered in wonderfully specific detail. This is by far the most nuanced portrayal of arranged marriage I’ve seen and I’ve read quite a few of late (Ayesha At Last, When Dimple Met Rishi, There's Something About Sweetie).

One of the best things about this narrative is that the setup creates ample room for realistic, relatable conflict and growth. A formal introduction is coordinated by Nayna and Raj's families, but the relationship—its pace, intimacy, power dynamics— is all them, and that’s essential to its success. Nayna is the consummate good girl, and she’s tired of it. She’s an ambitious, well-educated, sexually inexperienced professional woman in her late twenties, and frustrated with the constraints of the role. She adores her family but is tired of always doing their bidding. Raj is a traditional guy with a rocky early childhood who wants a strong, traditional family for himself. This does not seem like an auspicious foundation for a relationship. But Raj expands his conception of what a happy family life requires because he understands that a strong marriage requires a happy wife and for the wife he wants that means freedom and equality within the relationship. For Nayna, there’s nothing sexier than a man who listens, respects and responds to her needs.

Favorite quote:
“You love her as my Nayna deserves to be loved. Don’t lose faith in your own ability to grow.” Raj stared down at the seamed lines of her face, feeling the sense of tightness around his chest snap. “Midnight walks and shared secrets?” Aji’s smile was luminous. “See? You understand.” She opened the back door. “Love grows when it is tended.”

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Thursday, January 30, 2020

Review: Tweet Cute

Tweet Cute Tweet Cute by Emma Lord
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As befits the title and cover art, in Tweet Cute, two smart, attractive and socially insecure Manhattan teens meet cute online. In the real world, Jack and Pepper don’t like each other very much. Yet they have an easy rapport on the social networking app that's exclusively for and by kids from their school. With the freedom and sense of security that comes from anonymity, Jack and Pepper find that they a lot in common: both feel like outsiders in their swanky Upper East Side private school; both have a snarky sense of humor; and they both harbor a disdain of the more entitled classmates who have more family money than intellectual heft.

Unfortunately, as social media/ marketing whizzes who, unbeknownst to each other, use Twitter to boost their families’ fast food businesses, they’re also competitors. The premise is fine, but there’s an inherent challenge in a book that hinges on the wit and creativity of its protagonists: the text itself has to have original things to say and say them well. Novels about poets for example fall flat when the poetry disappoints.

In Tweet Cute, the art is texts and tweets. The conflict between Pepper and Jack arises from a critical tweet by Jack about Pepper’s family account, a tweet that’s supposed to be so sharp it gets shared by a pop star, and goes viral. Rather than bask in his moment of twitter fame, Jack’s immediately consumed by worry that he’s going to be grounded for his impudence. The Tweet in question though is basic, rather than edgy: Pepper tweet brags about a new menu item at her family’s burger chain; Jack screenshots it with the comment “Sure Jan,” making fun of the larger company for being a copycat. As Twitter fights go, that’s as mild as it gets. So neither its virality nor the anxiety it inspires make much sense, and therefore the tension between the two feels pretty overblown and low stakes. I've seen Gen Z tweet. It gets a little wilder and funnier than this!

That said, when you're young and sheltered, and experiencing the stirrings of first love, everything is amplified. It's wonderful that Jack and Pepper have that space. The Manhattan Pepper and Jack live in is essentially a wholesome, G-rated version of the one depicted in Gossip Girl with some of the sweetness of Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I've Loved Before . Sometimes that’s just the escape we’re looking for as readers. Even though the conflict is tepid, the characters are interesting and really, refreshingly sweet. They care about each other, their families and their futures. There are subplots about realistic concerns like bullying, sibling rivalry, academic stress, business ethics, and divorce. The plot gets a bit more complex with time, and I grew more invested in them as things progressed. While Tweet Cute may not be the kind of YA novel that holds a ton of crossover potential, it could and should appeal to its true, hopefully less jaded, intended audience. At least least I hope so!

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Saturday, January 04, 2020

Review: Band Sinister

Band Sinister Band Sinister by K.J. Charles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Band Sinister was without a doubt one of the best books I read in 2019. I love it for many reasons: sweetness of the central romance, the rich, multidimensional, diverse found family that surround them, the spot on homage to Heyer, Venetia in particular. But one of the strongest elements has to be K.J. Charles's facility with and economy of language and how she uses language to build character.

For example, when a close friend wonders about the main character's judgment in getting involved with a seemingly conventional younger man, the friend says:
"You were going to tell us about how and why you’ve talked a strait-laced bundle of rustic nerves into bed.”

Six words: "straight-laced bundle of rustic nerves." A small thing. But it's just the right turn of phrase. Captures Guy. Captures how the others, Philip’s friends see Guy. Captures their dilemma, the gap between them. Perfection.
That's just one tiny example; the whole thing is a joy. But a smart one full of insight as well as kindness. And quite a bit of heat. Charles is also really good at that.

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