Waterfall by Lisa T Bergen

Genre: YA historical
Secondary genre: romance/adventure
Format read: audiobook
Series: River of Time vol. 1
CW: violence
Rating: planchet-3

My mom and I do not have similar taste in books. Her favorite author is Nora Roberts. I would gleefully fire all of her books into space. I like reading creepy books with fierce women. My mom “doesn’t get it.” If it isn’t in the mass market romance section at Half Price books, she basically doesn’t read it.

So I was shocked when she recommended a book to me that was not only young adult, but not horrible.

I used to live in Italy (Florence) so I tend to be drawn toward books set in the country, especially in the 1500-1600s (Renaissance art was my area of study).

Gabie and her younger sister, Lia, get dragged after their mother, an archaeologist, to the hills outside of Sienna to study an Etruscan burial site. While hiding from Italian authorities bent on taking over the dig, Gabie is somehow sucked back in time to the 1300s, where she’s nearly murdered, then is rescued, kidnapped and mistaken for a spy all in one go. Meanwhile, she has no idea where Lia has disappeared to. Is she sill in present day? Has she also been pulled back in time and caught in the heat of battle? Or worse?

Determined to find her sister and get home, Gabie weaves lie after lie to avoid telling her captors-turned-hosts the truth, afraid of what the consequences might be, even if someone believes her. Though these lies, she becomes swept up in the messy politics of the time and era, disrupting treaties and arranged marriages in the process.

I thought this book was great fun from a history perspective, however I did find the romance predictable and I did not like Gabie’s love interest. In my notes, I nicknamed him “Gladiator Ken,” because through about half the book that’s how much personality he had. There were actually two other people I would have preferred to see her with that were not only more dimensional as characters but less…Controlling? Bossy? Misogynistic? Annoying? Take your pick.

I’m still on the fence on whether or not I want to read the next two books. I have them saved in my Overdrive wishlist, but haven’t checked them out yet. What do you think? Have you read them?

The Secret Sky by Atia Abawi

Genre: YA romance
Secondary genre: Islamic/Muslim
Format: audio
Rep: Muslim, Afghani
CW: child abuse, sexism, child death, murder, victim blaming, violence
Rating: planchet-5

This Muslim version of Romeo and Juliet is an intense read from start to finish. I think I listed to it over the course of two days, and while I tried to take a break, I just couldn’t–I had to know what happened next. It’s the definition of “Well, that escalated quickly.” It starts off so sweet, with Fatima reconnecting with her childhood friend, Samiullah. When they were kids, things were easy. But now that they’re in their teens, things are much more complex.

Set during the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the teens must not only determine what their feelings are for each other, but also how to handle them when they are from distinctly different classes and tribes, and the new regime won’t let them be together. Not only that, but their own families are determined to keep them apart. Fatima in particular, as the lower class and female in this equation, becomes the target of harassment and violence, even from her own mother.

It takes a lot of spoons to finish this book, no lie. But if you can manage it? It is so worth the read. If you need a spoiler, keep reading below the cut.

 

 

 


If “Afghani Romeo and Juliet” has you worried, it’s okay: No one commits suicide, and they get their HEA.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Genre: Classics
Secondary genre: historical romance
Format read: audiobook
CW: racist/antisemitic remarks, child abuse, ableism
Rating: planchet-5

It almost feels unfair for me to review this book, as it’s a re-read for me and one of my all time favorite books.

Jane came into my life at just the right moment, as books sometimes do, and it has shaped so much of my adult thinking and my writing. I related so much to poor little Jane, abused by her peers and her teachers, largely alone in the world even when surrounded by people.

As this is a classic, I will skip over the bulk of the plot summary, as it can be found literally anywhere online, including Google and Wikipedia.

However, this time was a little different, as I noticed more of the subtext. I’ve read this book so many times, but up till now it’s always been in my mostly white, mostly Christian hometown, and the last read through was about 3+ years ago.

This time, I noticed how many comments Jane and Rochester make, using comparisons to people of color or Jews (negatively)*. I also noticed how awful her cousin John is, which is not something I realized when I read the book the first time. But when I look back, I see that he shares many qualities with people who abused me when I was younger, so his judgmental, controlling nature was something I took for granted.

Still, I find that it’s a story of hope and independence. While it has its problems, it’s remarkably forward thinking for the period in which it was written. Not perfect by a long shot, but it still strikes a cord in my heart, and I will never let this book go.

 

*This is actually pretty fascinating because the book was written not so long after slavery was abolished in England and its colonies, and the pro-slavery camp started spreading all sorts of racist rumors to further their cause. For more information on this (including a fascinating discussion of whether or not Mrs. Rochester was mulato (mixed race), please see this series on youtube. Please note there is a fairly high rate of white appologists in this particular documentary.

American Panda by Gloria Chao

Genre: YA contemporary
Secondary genre: romance
Representation: OCD coding, East Asian (multiple, mostly Taiwanese)
Content warning: “tricky families”
Format read: ebook
Rating: planchet-5

Mei’s parents have a PLAN. After graduating early and attending MIT, she’s going to become a doctor, marry a nice Taiwanese boy, and have a bunch of kids.

At seventeen, Mei has played along for her entire life. It seemed like a good plan. Especially after her older brother was disowned. The last thing she wanted to do was let down her parents.

But as her first semester of pre-med drags on, it becomes clearer and clearer that she is not cut out for med school. She can’t even go into a public bathroom without the urge to spray everything in Lysol, or shake hands with someone without whipping out the hand sanitizer immediately afterward.

The fact that her crush is definitely not Taiwanese is just the cherry on top of a Mei-shaped sundae.

Torn between her loyalty to her family and her own desires, Mei must come to terms with not only her own feelings, but a pile of secrets, misinformation, and tradition her family has been sitting on for years.

For those of you not familiar, “tricky families” is a label used by psychologists to label families that work well on paper and look great from the outside, but cover loads of emotional and psychological abuse and neglect. Having been raised in a “tricky family,” I know the feeling all to well, though my situation was quite different. I highly recommend this book for anyone who comes from a similar background, or anyone who is looking for an emotional Asian-American led story, or a book focusing on the transition to college life.

The Bride Test by Helen Hoang

Genre: Adult contemporary romance
Representation: Vietnamese, mixed race, autism
Format read: audiobook
Series: The Kiss Quotient book 2
Rating: planchet-4

Khai is autistic.

To his Vietnamese family, this word doesn’t really mean much–autism isn’t much recognized in Vietnam. To them, he’s just…odd. But he’s family, so they accept him despite his foibles.

Except for one thing: Khai’s mother is convinced he needs a good wife. To that end, she travels back to her home country in order to arrange for a good, Vietnamese girl for him.

After interviewing dozens of wealthy, beautiful applicants and finding all of them wanting in the personality department, she finds her son’s perfect match in an unexpected place: a hotel bathroom. Tran Ngoc My is a hotel maid who spends most of her time scrubbing toilets. She has the routine down to a science–she’s very good at making sure everything is just so, and takes great satisfaction in a job well done.

Mrs. Diep makes her an offer she can’t refuse: $20,000 US to come to America for a summer and woo her son. If he doesn’t like her, she can go home at the end with no consequences. If he likes her, then she’ll have a husband by September.

There’s just one catch: My has a little girl waiting for her at home, and Khai makes it very clear he never wants children. Will the two of them be able to find common ground, despite their secrets?

I loved The Kiss Quotient and was super excited to pick up the next book in this series. While The Bride Test is set in the same world, it follows a different group of characters, though we do see some familiar faces from the first book.

I really, really liked My. I also really liked Khai (I think I mentioned in my review of the first book that I wanted a story from his perspective, and here we are!), but there were some questionable elements in this book. I thought the way Mrs. Diep behaved, both in trying to find a wife for her son without consulting him and then forcing them to live together for three months was completely unacceptable. I’m willing to chalk that up to cultural differences, since it was very clear that she was a caring woman, but it still made me angry. If I were Khai and someone just showed up on my doorstep like that, I’d blow a gasket.

I also had a problem with some of Khai’s anger issues. A lot of it comes from him genuinely not understanding My’s emotions or certain social situations or norms, but at one point he completely blows up at her in public and manhandles her, which was not okay, and I don’t think he ever apologizes for it, not really.

I would have also liked to see My look into autism more, to try to get a better understanding of what this foreign word means rather than blundering around blindly and walking on egg shells.

All in all, I did think it was a good follow up, though. I’d be happy to read a third book in the series if one was ever written, but I also really like that it’s 2 loosely connected independent volumes.

 

The Spark by Leanna Renee Hieber

Genre: Fantasy
Secondary genre: historical mystery
Format read: hard copy
Series: The Eterna Files vol .5
Positive rep: biracial, epilepsy
Rating: planchet-3

I’m sorry to say that this prequel novella did not live up to my expectations.

While I love The Eterna Files, after reading many of Hieber’s work (all of it, pretty much) I can safely say that her style is definitely suited more to longer works, as for me anything shorter than 300 pages has come out rather flat.

This short little book tells the story of one of the main characters in Eterna, Clarameeting her love interest, Louis–and then losing him, an even that–ahem–sparks the beginning of the series.

It’s a fluffy little meet-cute, but I just feel like it needed more. More of the falling in love, more of them together.

I wanted to see more of how Louis handles Clara’s seizures and her ability to see ghosts, more of their developing romance. I wanted more insight into their thoughts and more plot. I wanted to see more of Louis’s work at combining science with voodoo mysteries. While it still would have been a rather short book, I feel like this needed expanded to double or even triple the length.

It’s a fun read, but not really necessary for the rest of the series.

P.S. I Still Love You by Jenny Han

Genre: YA Contemporary
Format read: audiobook
Rep: POC (asian), mixed race
Series: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before vol. 2
Rating: planchet-3

After faking a relationship for several months in book one, Laura Jean and Peter are finally, officially, a couple.

However, their obstacles are not over yet. They have definitely succeeded in making Peter’s ex jealous–as evidenced when spreads a video of Peter and Laura Jean making out in a hot tub on a school trip. Despite their best efforts to get the video taken down, it keeps showing up in unsurprising places, leaving Laura Jean humiliated.

When she gets a response to her one missing letter from the previous semester, she rekindles a friendship she thought was gone forever. Peter, however, is jealous. Worse, he can’t understand why Laura Jean gets so angry when he spends so much time with his ex–and then lying about it.

With their fledgling relationship on the rocks, Laura Jean escapes into her volunteer work at a local retirement home, where the ladies are always happy to see her, offering advice on dealing with boys, and are more than willing to set her up with their grandsons.

When one of those grandsons shows up unexpectedly, sparks will definitely fly. But will they be romantic, or just friction?

The Laura Jean books are so cute and sweet. I do have a bit of a problem with some of the things in them–like the jealousy issues, and the fact that apparently Peter’s “best quality” is his face.

This book delves a lot into Laura Jean’s insecurities with sex and her attitudes about it. At times I think it got a bit obsessive, but maybe that’s just because I’m not sixteen. Personally, I think Laura Jean can do better than Peter, though he was very sweet in the way he tried to protect her in this book.

While this isn’t my favorite series, it does evoke some of the feelings I got from Fangirl, which is one of my favorite contemporaries of all time. I guess I have a soft spot for insecure teenage girls.

Somewhere Only We Know by Maurene Goo

Genre: YA Contemporary
Format read: hard copy
Content warning: extreme diets
Rep: POC (S. Korean), mental illness (anxiety)
Rating: planchet-4

Lucky is a K-Pop superstar, and she’s 48-hours from her career skyrocketing into entirely new territory: she’s about to debut on an American late-night now, an honor few Korean pop stars see. If all goes well, she’ll go from being one of the most popular solo artists in a tiny country to being an international hit.

But Lucky can’t manage the enthusiasm everyone else has for the show. She’s supposed to be grateful, but as she sits in her hotel room after another exhausting show, it occurs to her that as much as she loves singing and performing, her passion for being “Lucky”, the pink-haired, 5’10” phenomenon known for her thigh-high silver stiletto boots, has waned in the past several years. Everything is routine.

It starts out as a simple quest: a hamburger. Shouldn’t be too hard to find at 11pm in one of the busiest cities in the world, right? Lucky sneaks past her handlers and security and out onto the lively Hong Kong streets. But one thing she doesn’t account for are her anxiety and sleeping pills kicking in at just that moment, leaving her dazed and apparently drunk, sleeping on a bus.

Jack, a Korean-American photographer who has been living in Hong Kong since high school, finds Lucky passed out on said bus. He doesn’t recognize her at first, but can’t seem to leave the poor drunk girl wandering around in her hotel slippers alone. Afraid she’ll run into trouble, he tries to take her back to the hotel but instead ends up following her around the city as her drugged brain leads her from one shiny object to another.

When she finally passes out for good, he takes her back to his apartment so she can sleep off whatever is in her system. It’s then that Jack, who moonlights for a tabloid, realizes “Fern,” the drunk girl he picked up on a city bus, is really Lucky.

Both of them are looking for escape. Once their paths cross, adventure follows as Jack shows sheltered Lucky around the city he calls home.

I loved every single page of this book. It helps that I’m a big fan of K-pop myself, and there was a lot of the culture behind the media in just the first few pages: the expectations to be grateful, to work hard, to always be perfect, both in appearance and behavior.

If you were a fan of the Laura Jean series, this is a good step up, straddling the line between YA and New Adult (the romance is light and doesn’t go very far; I’m referring more to the age group NA is aimed at). If you’ve ever questioned your path in life, then this is a must-read.

 

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han

Genre: YA Contemporary
Format read: audiobook
Rep: POC (asian), mixed race
Rating: planchet-3

Wallflower Laura Jean can’t confess the way she feels to her crushes, so she writes letters to them instead. But when someone uncovers her secret love letters and mails them, it sends her into a tailspin. Not only have all of her old crushes gotten letters, but so has her current crush and neighbor, Josh. Even worse, Josh also happens to be her older sister’s recent ex.

To help save face and convince Josh she isn’t really interested in him–and maybe to convince herself, too–she and another letter recipient, Peter, decided to pretend they are a couple. Bonus points: Dating Laura Jean will really piss off his ex, Genevieve.

But the lie soon gets out of hand, and neither Laura Jean nor Peter can tell what’s real and what’s just the fantasy anymore.

I was late catching the train on this one. Honestly, I don’t regret it too much. I liked the movie, and though it was pretty cute. I’m a bit less keen on the book (I know, I know. *Ducks flying objects*).

While I loved Laura Jean’s voice, I’m not crazy about Josh or Peter. Josh is a cabbage–that is, a character that could be replaced with a cabbage, and no one would notice. He has very few opinions and the only time we see him express an actual emotion, it’s jealousy.

Peter is the obnoxious kind of boy that I avoided in high school, and the type of man that makes me roll  my eyes and leave the room. Even worse, the narrator for this one did a really annoying voice for him. It was completely in character, but so annoying to listen to. Honestly, I think Laura Jean could do better than both of them.

While the “falling for my fake boyfriend/girlfriend” trope is one of my favorites, I’m still only lukewarm on this book. I do want to finish the series, but it was still only about 3-3.5 stars for me.

The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang

Genre: Adult contemporary
Content warnings: Sexual harassment
Representation: SE Asian, mixed race, autism
Format read: audiobook
Rating: planchet-4

I have been wanting to read this book since before it came out. I finally got to sit down with it on my flight to Portland, and inhaled in about  hours. It was so good. 

This book follows Stella, an adult with low support autism (aka Asperger’s). She’s an economist with a great job. She’s not bad looking. But she has some odd habits and difficulty connecting with people that make it nearly impossible for her to get a date. And second dates are unheard of.

This is unfortunate because she would like to one day get married, and maybe even have children. But how can one do that what dates always end abruptly, and there’s never a follow up?

Taking the advice of a college, Stella decides that the only way she’s going to change anything is if she gets better at sex. That seems to be the sticking point with all of her experiences so far. Once they get to the bedroom, things rapidly go downhill.

But how does one improve at such a thing? Clearly, expert advice is in order.

Enter Michael. Half Vietnamese, he’s stunning, funny, a great cook–and he’s for rent.

Michael is a gigolo, driven by the economic hardship threatening his family–and his mother’s cancer treatments. Stella finds his profile online and quickly compiles a series of lesson plans she hopes he’ll help her with–everything from blow jobs to different positions.

But it quickly becomes clear that Stella’s meticulous plans aren’t suited for the job at hand. When things start to go faster than she hoped at their first meeting, she panics, completely locking up.

Eventually, Stella is able to alter her game plan, and hires Michael to be her “practice” boyfriend, to help her learn how to better connect with people, to relax in intimate situations, and maybe–possibly–even learn to enjoy sex. Or at least not suck at it.

The money is way too good for Michael to turn down, even though he feels guilty about the whole thing. The more he listens to Stella talk, the more he realizes that she’s not the problem–it’s the assholes she keeps dating. Reluctantly, he agrees. But only because of his mom. No, really. And maybe because he likes Stella and doesn’t want to see her hurt. But mostly it’s his mom.

This is a funny, sweet story that is not short on sexy romance. Usually romance/love scenes leave me completely cold in books (sorry, aro/ace over here), but I loved the relationship between Michael and Stella. They were good friends.They learned to adapt to each other.

I loved the autism rep in this book sooooo much. For me, Stella is highly relatable in the way she interacts with people. I really need to get my hands on the companion book, The Bride Test, now.