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"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, 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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