The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang (Audio experience)

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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.

XXX

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The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

 

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Published by Walker, April 2017, 436 pages, £2.00

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.

We need more books like this.

BLOG TOUR: Before The Rains by Dinah Jefferies

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Published by Penguin UK, 23rd February 2017, 416 pages, £7.99 

3 stars

I am an avid follower of Dinah Jefferies, thanks to The Tea Planter’s Wife and even more so after the beautiful The Silk Merchant’s Daughter. Before the Rains is another installment about a plucky young woman overcoming personal struggles during the tumultuous period of her exotic setting and, of course, getting swept by a complicated romance.

Its 1930, Rajputana, India,  Eliza Fraser is a young widow and aspiring photojournalist with the first big job of what she had been told was an impossible career. She is sent on behalf of the English Government to an Indian princely state to capture images of the royal family, the first ever English woman to enter its impenetrable palace walls. Having lived in India as a young girl, she has a soulful connection to the country which only blossoms when she meets Jay, the Prince’s handsome and distant brother. Eliza enters the palace carrying her unresolved problems related to her father’s death in India, consuming guilt over her husband’s death and the alcoholic mother she left in England. Meeting Jay, who begins by being attractively disagreeable, helps her uncover mysteries of her past but throws her into a buffer position, having to navigate between England’s controlling grip and the might of Indian monarchy.

I wasn’t absorbed in this story as much as I was with Silk Merchant, the premise was not as heart-poundingly gripping for me. There is no question that the author delivers another vivid time portal, a VR version of prose. She captivates the reader’s senses with stunningly rich descriptions that read smoothly rather than in dense clumps. For about a week, I was in 1930s India, walking the shadowy halls of the palace with Eliza and smelling cardamon or riding into the dusty landscapes with Jay.

Yet the main structure of the plot was predictable but not in a comforting and satisfying way. The way events unfolded were far-fetched and felt more like the author connecting loose dots to summon meaning about fate and destiny. Some of the other characters felt like soap-opera stereotypes- the evil royal advisor, the long lost sibling. The relationship between Eliza and Jay had its sweeping and heady moments, but its whole appeal was of a forbidden romance guarded by race and ancient laws, hardly something memorable and absorbing.

Many thanks to Penguin for my review copy, eagery awaiting another Dinah Jefferies world xxx

 

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Chasing the Stars by Malorie Blackman

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Published by Penguin, April 21st 2016, 496 pages, £5.99

3.5 Stars

Ever since I read a positive review in Guardian Books a few months ago, I had wanted to get my hands on a copy.  A teen spin on Othello set in space really it hit the right note. It had a tall order, so I was curious to see if it lived up to the challenge.

Unfortunately, the beginning almost put me off. Why oh why does the Asian friend have to be a plant geek?? And the dated slang made me cringe- ‘fit’, ‘out of order’. To the non-Brits, I had heard these words when I was in high-school, ten years ago. And the universal post-apocalyptic greeting was ‘Nihao’ which I found unoriginal and slightly offensive. I know it was meant to be profound but we get it the Chinese might be taking over... But thankfully there wasn’t too much of this and the cliche character didn’t feature very often, so I was able to ignore him. I concentrated on the rest of the book which I turned out to be quite thrilling and thought-provoking.

Olivia and her twin brother Aidan have lost their family from a deadly virus and are travelling alone back to Earth. They spot some people in a zone controlled by the Mazon, a cruel and violent species who are determined to destroy anything foreign, especially humans. This is the first time Olivia has had any contact with other people for three lonely years. She is determined to help them, despite Aidan’s caution. But when they join her ship, things get uncontrollably sticky. For one thing they were running away from Earth and ‘The Authority’ which is its supreme ruler and refuse to explain anything. This suggests that there all may not be as it seems for the home Olivia is returning to. Despite Olivia’s help, a few members fail to recognise her as captain because of her being a teenage girl. As they are still within Mazon territory, they have to work together until the threat passes. But throughout the journey, members mysteriously die. Blackman kept me guessing the whole time who the murderer was. I love a good whodunnit.

Olivia instantly develops a bond with Nathan, the son of their leader. Their relationship may have happened a little fast, but I found it convincing and warming. I was quite surprised at how steamy the scenes were, so it is only suited for older teens and above. Aidan becomes naturally jealous of them, but there is something odd about him as well- something else I wanted to get to the bottom of. I really admired Olivia’s character. She is someone who places integrity as a priority, reacts quickly to disaster and is strong in resisting discrimination. Nathan is more of a standard love interest who is handsome, athletic and passionate.

There are many compelling conflicts all leading to the issue of prejudice and equality: the Mazon and their racial hatred, the Authority and its class system, the ageism and sexism towards Olivia. Blackman cleverly plots these topics into a slightly cheesy teen romance, transforming it into a novel essentially about what it means to be human.

This worked as a stand alone novel, but I really hope there is a sequel.

Something in Between by Melissa de la Cruz

 

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Awesome!

Published by Harlequin Teen, 4th Oct 2016, 384 pages, £7.99 

4.5 stars

Fellow bloggers will agree with me that this book has come at perfect time. Immigration is now the capital I-word that is boiling up a lot of tensions and unease. Here in the UK, it was one of the main issues that pushed for Brexit and I can’t even begin to imagine the madness of #TrumpAmerica. I think its great to have a YA novel that tackles this issue, helps young readers understand and relate. Because technically we are the future- just saying. Melissa de la Cruz writes about her own experiences growing up in America as a Filipino. I really felt she covered all the complexities and antagonisms of being multi-racial with touching depths.

Jasmine de los Santos has worked hard. She’s captain of the cheer-leading team, volunteers twice a week, has top grades and won a full scholarship to the college. This is everything she has dreamed of, the reason she cancelled all those plans with friends, didn’t have time for boys- everything that would make her parents proud. They have sacrificed so much, worked menial jobs to build a new life in America for their children, and this was how she would prove to them that’s its all been worth it. But when she tells them the news, instead of being joyful, they acted grim.

It turns out that they are living in California illegally, and so her life spirals through her finger tips. She might get deported, let alone not be able to go to college. I really felt for her and there were some teary moments. Jasmine goes through many levels of anger, sadness, fear, guilt, injustice and confusion. She questions her identity and what it means to be American. She starts to rebel a little, go to the parties she always turned down and meets a boy along the way. Royce Blakely is handsome, confident and kind. However, he is also the son of a senator who is passing a law that makes it even harder for her family to get citizenship. Their worlds collide with exhilarating but painful outcomes.

As her family struggle to fight for belonging through a twisty plot, things become tougher but also more motivating. Racism begins to seep into her life, but is combated by the great love and support from her family, friends and the new people she has met during this period. The author punctuates the intensity of the context with light and funny moments, such as typical teenage musings and flirty texts. At times, Jasmine did seem too annoyingly perfect, in a Rory from Gilmore Girls case. But I didn’t think this for very long. Her character has a lot of integrity and strength that is to be admired.

I can see readers who might look at Jasmine’s example and ask why she should have the scholarship if she’s not ‘really’ American and deprive someone else of the chance? Jasmine calls California her home, she shares the same values of law-abiding citizens, believes in the American Dream that you can be anybody you want to be if you just work hard enough. The only thing she doesn’t have is a piece of paper confirming this. As Jasmine ends with a kick-ass valedictorian speech, she urges not just her peers, but the reader to look beyond what papers, offices and people say about you. The only person who knows you is you. I make it sound corny, but the book is not- well its a little bit mushy but in a satisfying way.

I really related to this book, being the daughter of immigrants myself. I wish there are more books like this, especially from Asian perspectives. I totally got Jasmine’s confusion, worried about how her friends might think of her, the pressure to be both races but not quite managing it, just ending up as something in the middle. I’m glad this has been published, and hopefully it would help sway opinions about race and immigration.

Many thanks to Cara from HQ Stories for my copy

xxx

About the Author

Melissa de la Cruz is the author of many best-selling novels, including the Blue Bloods series; the Au Pairs series; the Ashleys series; and Angels on Sunset Boulevard. She is also a frequent contributor to Glamour, Marie Claire, Teen Vogue, and Cosmopolitan. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter, and is hard at work on her next book.

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