July 2018, 336 pages, Corvus, £2.48 (ex Amazon Whispersync)
Scrolling through twitter, I read about an author who is gathering praised for diversifying romance. Helen Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient is a love story with an autistic heroine and Vietnamese American hero. It engages sharply with issues about disability and social norms without compromising on heat and drama. Always grumbling about how there is a lack of representation and people of colour in romance, I don’t make as much effort as I should to seek out alternative stories. Hoang proves that our much loved formula-genre is ever more enhanced with voices that are usually excluded.
I’m not sure why romance is dominated by the white boy meets girl scenario, the answer lies somewhere uncomfortable and complicated. The stigma that the romance genre carries, in general, makes it hard for those within the industry to criticise it at all. But I’m glad there are authors shaking things up while keeping what we love best: lurve.
Hoang was recently diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, previously known as Asberger’s Syndrome. The creation of her heroine, Stella Lane, was modeled close to her personal journey with autism. Stella is a successful economist, but struggles with social situations especially reading social cues and is very sensitive to sensory disturbances, such as loud noise. This makes dating a nightmare. Feeling great pressure from her parents to find a husband she decides to be practical and hires an escort to teach her how to be the perfect girlfriend. Enter Michael, a very good looking guy down on his luck and facing bankruptcy. He has resorted to escorting to make ends meet. When he meets Stella, he realises that she is no ordinary client. What she is proposing sounds ridiculous and dangerous, but he finds himself tempted just to spend more time with her. This is where the reader gets hooked into their unique dynamic.
The teacher-student-contract plot does of course crop up all the time, and it’s one of my favourites (Educating Caroline by Patricia Cabot). However, Hoang introduces a new spin to this reverse ‘Pretty Woman’ story, by dealing with ideas of cultural differences, social expectations and class. Nothing too heavy.
I listened to this on audiobook- my first time listening to romance. Quite an experience! Mostly exciting, but I do not recommend tuning in when you are in crowded places. Sometimes the dialogue felt very slow moving at times, but I’m not sure whether that was from the narrator or writing. Overall, this is a wonderful read that paves a promising future for the industry.
If you want to weep, laugh, melt and cry out in anguish during the chilly months, then One Day in December is your perfect fix, an ideal Christmas romance for fans of Richard Curtis tearjerkers. It not only deals with the sentimental and cosy parts that love-stories should tick off, but the infernal frustration and rage involved. This debut novel proves that fate can be both cruel and wondrous.
I do genuinely believe in love at first sight, or a certain connection that two people can have which is almost instant. You have to believe in this theory, even a tiny bit, to enjoy the story. Two strangers, Laurie and Jack, glance at each other through a misty bus window and experience just that. Everybody knows how buses can get during the winter; jam-packed, foggy and cough-fumed. For Laurie, all of this evaporates for one second of life-altering, mysterious magic. Then it’s gone as her bus drives away. She spends a whole year searching for ‘bus-boy’ only to be introduced to him as her best-friend’s new boyfriend. She convinces herself the whole concept of Jack as her instant soul mate is insane and gets on with life. And life certainly barges through, another point this novel conveys successfully. Through new careers, holidays, illnesses and even marriage, time slips by ruthlessly. The only way to claim moments is to be fearless and take chances. Ten years can be filled with everything and nothing.
We have all been a Laurie; out of uni and trying to figure out how to be independent. She is sweet, passionate and realistic. I have just watched the Bridget Jones double dose of lunatic and heart-warming tumbles. The films came out when I was too young to understand all the jokes grown-up girls and mums were making around me. One Day… reads like a homage to the great Bridget. It has the same hilarious manic narration but navigates a style of its own. It does well in keeping a reader’s attention through the spirals of diverting events. The language was at times quite dated, perhaps a generation behind. Overall, it was a pleasure to have been part of Laurie’s and Jack’s beautiful journey, which truly left me in awe about life’s magic moments.
Many thanks to Georgia Taylor at Penguin General for my copy xxx
Published by Piatkus Books, 31st July 2018, 384 pages, £5.99
Born to be Wilde begins beautifully, as all of Eloisa James’ novels, perfect for early morning commutes and lazy Sunday noons. It instantly claims you from the first few sentences and fills you with that warm, soothing glow you expect from a classic regency romance.
Lavinia Gray, friend of the scandalous Wildes clan who we were introduced to in Wilde in Love, is in trouble. The money has gone and her mother has committed crimes. In a fit of desperation she turns to Parth Sterling, unofficial Wilde member, bosom pal of her friends’ husbands and self-made rich bachelor. Despite being the one who has always irritated her, prickled her with his comments about her frivolity, caused her to retaliate with childish taunts, she asks for his hand in marriage. But he turns her down. That is what she expected anyway. Why would sensible, serious Parth want her anyway? And she doesn’t want a man who lacks understanding, compassionate and respect. As she comes to terms with her rejection, she realises how hurt she was. However, her proposal was not born out of love… or was it?
Parth has already chosen a perfect bride for himself. Someone who ticks all the boxes and is as practical as he is. When he learns part of Lavinia’s problems, he volunteers to find her a husband, the best candidate being a Prince. But he also finds it hard to get her proposal out of his head. When Lavinia realises she can earn money by doing what she loves best, she grows in confidence. Parth is able to understand her interests more, and the longer they spend time together on his ‘matchmaking’ trials, he realises that practicality is no match for what he has been denying for years.
I loved how the two MCs gradually accepted their feelings for each other. A deliciously stubborn coupling who bicker, clash heatedly and are drawn together like magnets. My favourite scene was a reckless rain-soaked one. Typical but quite necessary. We also follow Lavinia’s journey to earn independence and save her mother, learning about 18th fashion and addiction on the way. However, the narrative struggled to keep my interest towards the end and falls a little flat towards the final fifty pages. Still waiting for the best of the series.
Many thanks to Little, Brown/Piatkus for my copy xxx
To be published on 5th April 2018, Viking Penguin, 400 pages, £5.75
Courage. Grief. Passion. It always amazes me how Dinah Jefferies can create characters with such immense inner strength and intense vulnerability. Every year I wait to get lost in the sensory and emotional explosion of her writing. The Sapphire Widow is set in Ceylon during the 1930s. Louisa is a young wife besotted with her charming, handsome and charismatic husband Elliot. She is convinced they have the perfect marriage, but still struggles with their inability to have children and Elliot’s reckless behaviour. After the shock of his sudden death, strange mysteries and terrible secrets are revealed, exposing a side of her husband she had never known or truly acknowledged.
This novel was a real journey. Amongst the utterly gorgeous descriptions of the everyday scenes, sights and smells of Ceylon, Jefferies unravels a compelling tale of heart-break and betrayal. The reader slips effortlessly into Louisa’s routine, her inner thoughts, needs and anxieties. We are gently eased into a story about marital issues, which at first appear typical, but are soon revealed to be tiny cracks towards a dark mesh of secrets. After news of Elliot’s sudden death, Louisa discovers each of these with thrilling fast-paced succession. Whilst she struggles to process the consequences of Elliot’s behaviour, the reader tries to catch up with the baffling and dangerous turn of events. We then follow Louisa’s attempts to pick up the pieces, find some sort of resolve and move on with admirable composure. Jefferies writes about grief with tenderness and delicacy.
There is a small but stable set of secondary characters lending both uplifting support and grating antagonism. Louisa’s path runs into Leo, an owner to a Cinnamon plantation where Elliot spent much of his time. Silent, steely and sensitive, Leo is blatantly Elliot’s opposite. Her attraction to him is immediate but troubling. Is it her vulnerable need for companionship or the start of a bond stronger than her whole marriage? As she tries to negotiate her feelings, there is no doubt that she depends on Leo, who is the only link to one of Elliot’s mysterious legacies. A really absorbing read.
Many thanks to Penguin for my review. Can’t wait for another story soon…
A great read, but unfortunately not the most powerful of Katie McGarry stories. Walk The Edge still remains for me the most intense and romantic. Say You’ll… is about a privileged but stifled governor’s daughter and an alleged convict on a government rehab scheme. Drix was convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. The time he spent away was still a reality check for the reckless lifestyle he led and when he was chosen to take part in the governor’s ‘Second Chance’ program, it seemed like an opportunity to get his act together concerning school and family. The program aims to keep young offenders from returning to crime and reintegrate back into society, as well as providing publicity for the governor’s campaign trail. His daughter, Elle faces constant pressure to be the perfect politician’s daughter, in the way she acts, looks and creepily who she might be dating. Everything is planned, cultivated and controlled. This leaves little room for exploring her identity and interests, especially if she has been raised to do what she is best at rather than what makes her happy.
The whiff of Drix and Elle’s instant attraction is caught immediately by Elle’s parents, who make it clear that Drix is completely off the radar; especially if it indicates her father’s program being tainted with bias. Likewise, Drix is fully aware that getting involved with the governor’s daughter, a man who has given him the only lifeline he has had in many years, is the worst first step he can make.
I really wanted to be swept up in this story. There is plenty of feisty flirting, but the dialogue carried on longer than it needed. There was a lot of sentimental and motivational talk, but repeated and continued rather than amounting to action. This novel taps into many interesting topics such as controlled and abusive relationships, double standards in politics and rehabilitation programs. There is also the mystery of who actually committed the crime, resulting in an action packed struggle at the end. However, I just didn’t latch on as I normally would for a McGarry instalment, maybe just needed more punch and heat rather than emotion. I will of course keep reading and I can’t wait for the story, be it in this series or a Thunder Road (please!) one.
Published Nov 2017, Bastei Entertainment, 278 pages, £4.31
A sizzling new adult novel that got sparks flying between the MCs pretty much from the first page. I kindly received a copy from the publishers after the cover caught my eye on twitter. I wasn’t expecting anything unique, just a familiar plot of love-in-denial and dramatic spins. It mostly delivered and made a nice transitional read between more serious texts. If you are experiencing an endless winter season, it is an ideal book to crawl away with and escape under the sheets.
I think there is something seductive about new experiences in plot, following a character who moves to a new town and meets new people. Allie runs away from her domineering parents to start college and begin a new life. The only available apartment left, however, is owned by the most intolerable, arrogant and insensitive (but of course incredibly attractive) guy. Determined to suck it up, she agrees to move in with Kaden and grudgingly accepts his outrageous ‘rules’, one being never to talk about her ‘girl problems’. But of course, with each day the beast reveals snippets of his vulnerability and painful memories. Just as they begin to connect, their past lives seep back in causing mayhem and destruction.
There is some clumsy narration where the story lacks subtlety, and certain scenes were a little crass for me, which is the case for many contemporary NA, especially college based ones. The characters are not the most memorable, but the pacing and build-up of heat between them is well done. Their friends add a comedic touch to the story. A tiny bit of lag during the bonding moments, but this picks up towards the second half of the book. Simple, direct and satisfying.
Many thanks Bastei for my copy.
For more live-in romances I would recommend Japanese high school drama ‘Good Morning Call’ on Netflix. And For new starts, Nicholas Spark’s Safe Haven.
Published by Piatkus, 31st October 2017, 416 pages, £8.99
Eloisa James returns with another heart-hugging and racy romp perfect for this season. As days darken and leaf strewn streets beckon us into the sanctuary of a warm reading nook, this book is ideal for curling up and warming the soul, with of course some pulse quickening moments.
It’s the first in a new series (although it never really matters which part of a romance series you begin with), set in the Georgian period and is an idol story. Lord Alaric Wilde returns to England from years of exploring and writing to find out he has become something of a sensation, with leagues of women devouring his books and plastering their bedroom walls with his handsome face. Confused by all the attention he retreats to his father’s castle to reunite with his family only to find a host of their guests fawning over his every movement. The one who isn’t the least bit interested (of course) is a young woman called Willa Ffynche. Spirited and witty, Willa is unfazed by his reputation and is frankly indifferent to him.
The fact that it’s a simple plot set in one location with a small circle of characters, is a testament to the author, who kept me reading into the night. The obstacles keep on piling. Alaric has to convince Willa that his interest in her, whilst other women are throwing themselves at him, is not because she is another unmarked territory to conquer. Willa, composed and sensible, finds it increasingly difficult to ignore the mere heat of his presence. James is skilled at creating tension without dialogue, just with the characters being in the same space. Even if Willa does succumb to her attraction, marriage with Alaric, who is followed eagerly by every newspaper, is the last thing that she wants if she is to have a peaceful life. James expertly drops moments of recognition and satisfaction, building towards a blissful ending with a note of suspense. She also throws in memorable quirks such as a delusional missionary and an intelligent skunk that helps save the day.
Published by May 2013, Harlequin Teen, 456 pages, £3.49
I thoroughly enjoyed this. Before embarking on an 11 hour flight across the world, I knew I needed a Katie McGarry. Everything she writes somehow both soothes and excites me. Pushing the Limits, the first in this series was great, full of crackling chemistry and drama. I would recommend reading this book first as it contains the characters’ history, which isn’t completely essential, but boosts the engagement.
This story follows Beth, another girl from the wrong side of town (Check out Red At Night). All she has known since she was a child was to protect her mother from everything.. drugs, a violent boyfriend and prison. Growing up with unsavoury characters, she has learnt to be tough as nails and sharp as a whip in order to survive. Her character jumped out at me with her dialogue ringing out loud and clear. Her vulnerability and strength also felt raw.
As problems spiral out of control, Beth is forced to move away with her uncle who makes it his mission to reform her. Scared for her mother, separated from her best friends and attending the local ‘hick’ high school, she experiences her worst nightmare. Despite this, she finds herself drawn to the most stereo-typical guy she should avoid, golden boy jock Ryan. He is your average High School Musical star, but with baseball and a bit more muscle. On track to play pro, the cracks in his perfect life start to inch further into the book; a domineering father, a depressed mother and an estranged brother. What starts off as a dare to ask out scary skater girl, leads to deep attraction and mutual understanding. This romance started off quite slow with a lot of back tracking, which made the book longer than necessary. I was impressed with the shift in Ryan’s character, who started off as an macho airhead.
Beth and Ryan have to face a lot of courage to make their relationship a reality. They have to face abilities that have been suppressed or forgotten. For Beth it’s trust, while for Ryan it’s rebellion.
This is an outstanding debut novel, young adult story and a contemporary peep hole into the thorny topic of race in America. I loved every word of it and slowed down my reading pace to stall its ending. It’s also a very ‘now’ book, like Melissa de la Cruz’s Something in Between which is about immigration and identity in the eyes of a high schooler, published just before Trump’s rise to power. I was half way through ‘The Hate…’ when I heard news of the Charlottesville rally. However, that doesn’t mean it should be read just because of its current-ness. What strikes the reader is the stubborn timelessness of prejudice and corrupted politics. There is however, a sense of hope that change is still possible, even if it’s slow and painful.
Sixteen-year-old Starr witnesses her childhood friend being shot by a police officer for no real reason. And just like that her life is turned upside down. Raised in a rundown community, known for crime and gang warfare, she attends a private school on the privileged side of town. After the incident, Starr is exposed to the harsh division of her two worlds. As the case builds up and goes public, injustices and ugliness are dragged to the fore. Attitudes remain infuriatingly fixed, refusing to budge. As the sole witness, the pressure and responsibility rests upon Starr’s young shoulder to set the score.
‘The Hate U Give’ also stands for THUG, which is taken from the rapper Tupac’s lyrics: ‘Thug life: the hate you give to infants f*** everybody’, a nod to the author’s musical past. The seed of hate fosters fear and even more hate, like an endless circle with no progress for anyone. Starr is made to realise how she had succumbed to acting and talking different at her school. The fear of being stereo-typed as ‘ghetto’ or ‘angry black girl’, caused her to iron out her identity. This is something I understood as an ‘ethnic minority’- the desire to down play your race and to blend in.
Despite the seriousness of the topics, Thomas manages to keep the novel strictly teen with talk about fashion and sports, as well as a cute romance. Most of the plot is centred around an exciting build-up as the readers wait to see whether Starr will speak out. However, there were some slow parts which I believe is intended as relief from the heavy subjects.
Published by St. Martin’s Press, September 2013, 481 pages, £1.19
What started as a light-hearted story about a young woman’s first days at Uni quickly evolved as a thoughtful tale about mental health. Do not be fooled by the cutesy cover. While it is upbeat and quirky, it moves into darker corners of everyday life.
Cath lives and breathes fandom. She and her twin sister Wren devoured a children’s fantasy series called Simon Snow. They wrote wreathes of fanfiction, hung out in forums and went to late night book releases. Their obsession grew at the same time their mother had left them. In that sense it was not so much a craze but a way to cope. For Cath, it was not only the option to live in someone else’s world, but to have their words become yours. In writing fanfiction, she ensured that the story that comforted her during the painful separation, never ends. This is a notion that really hit home. Cath takes comfort-zone to a whole new level.
As the sisters head off to college, Wren is keen to become independent and live apart. So Cath is faced with a terrifying new life, away from a once inseparable twin and a father who also never fully recovered from the family trauma. We soon realize that this is more than your usual freshmen jitters. Cath has trouble engaging with new environments and people, preferring to almost starve than ask where the food hall is. A big bulk of the novel focuses on how she navigates through this, with the help of some zesty characters and a cute farm boy. This is when the plot slows a little, but the author easily maintains a constant liveliness to the story.
Cath is a very sweet character and I imagine she speaks to many types of ‘fangirls’. We all understand how special certain books are, their characters, worlds and most importantly their words. We root for Cath to grow in confidence and independence, not so she can cast away her past but so she can finally create her own stories.