The Right Swipe by Alisha Rai

The Right Swipe book coverOkay, so it took me a little longer than a week or two to get to this. Life is very busy at the moment. Regardless, I was looking forward to reading this one as I’ve enjoyed Rai’s other books. It didn’t disappoint. Another book with a strong heroine and a sympathetic hero.

Rhiannon runs one of America’s major dating apps. She is a pretty hard person for a variety of reasons. She’s been burned pretty bad by love, in a way that also impacted her career, so it was double-devastating. But she’s come out of it a Winner. After a hookup that was supposed to lead to a second date but instead led to her being ghosted, she’s shocked to see the contemptible ghoster himself at a large dating app conference. She vows to not give him the time of day, but then finds out he’s the unofficial face of Matchmaker, an old dating site that Rhiannon is interested in buying. Then she ends up having to share an interview spot with him.

For his part, Samson does have a very good reason for ghosting her. He tried to get in touch with her after the fact, but she’d blocked him already. So he’s excited to see her at the conference. One of his roles with Matchmaker is to “find true love” through the site by means of going on several (filmed and aired) dates with matches the site suggests. He’s not just a public face for the site, but he’s also the owner’s nephew, so he has more than a passing interest in things going well. After a terrible date, where he makes a total fool of himself, he convinces Rhiannon to do a little dating lesson series with him, also filmed. The premise is that as the owner of Crush, she knows something about dating and can teach Samson.

Their chemistry is as good as it was during their hookup and Samson does manage to tell Rhiannon why he ghosted her. She is tempted to forgive him but still isn’t ready to risk her heart. Still, they decide to have a temporary casual relationship that goes very well. Then Rhiannon gets an opportunity to make an offer for Matchmaker, along with several other potential buyers. They all have to go to Samson’s aunt’s house to make their competing offers over a couple days. Rhiannon ends up writing Samson off after making an assumption about something during the bidding process and that constitutes the dark moment that tears them apart.

There’s a lot to love about this book: characters of color, genuinely strong women, a believable nice guy, a healthy dose of feminist sensibilities, the pull on heartstrings. It’s also pretty hot, like you’d expect from Rai. The main characters were complicated and relatable. I did feel like Rhiannon overacted a teeny tiny bit regarding the assumption she made about Samson when they were at his aunt’s house. I mean, she’s set up as pretty damaged so it’s not inconceivable. But still, when they got past it, I was happy.

Overall, this is a good one for fans of steamy contemporary, especially if you like something a little different from the standard white characters. Fans of Rai will especially love it.

The Bride Test by Helen Hoang

The Bride Test book coverThis is a followup to Hoang’s first book, The Kiss Quotient, which I liked and reviewed. The Bride Test feature’s Khai, the cousin of Michael from The Kiss Quotient. Khai’s the other character from that book who’s on the autism spectrum.

I liked Esme, the heroine, from the beginning—she’s hardworking and unpretentious, unlike all the other women Khai’s mother is trying to pick from to be his future bride. That’s the setup—she’s gone to Vietnam to find a wife for him, unbeknownst to him. Esme’s cleaning the hotel bathroom across from the room Khai’s mom has reserved for interviewing the candidates. After not finding anyone, she “interviews” Esme and finds her suitable. Esme’s current life isn’t amazing and she thinks that if she could get to America, she’d have a greater chance of making it that way. So she agrees to a trial run over the summer and leaves behind her mom, grandma, and young daughter. (I have to say that if I hadn’t known it was real, I would have been screaming, “No! Don’t do it! It’s a trap!” But that’s the comfort of reading a romance—nothing truly awful happens, at least not to the main characters in the course of the novel.)

I have to admit that Khai was harder to like. Now, I’m sure this is partly to do with the fact that I couldn’t really connect with him emotionally, perhaps due to his slightly stunted (but not entirely absent) emotions. But as the story proceeded, I found him more sympathetic. And by the end it was clear that he had grown at least a little (though it did take some time).

Khai’s mom moves Esme into Khai’s house with little warning, basically. She does explain the situation to him and he vows to stay away from whoever this girl is. But of course, once he sees her, she’s beautiful and he can’t stop thinking about her. For her part, Esme likes Khai despite his often odd behavior. She works in Khai’s mom’s restaurant and starts taking adult education classes. That storyline actually becomes important later, which I appreciated. Esme turns out to have a lot more to her than anyone (including Khai’s mom) expected.

If you liked the first book, you’ll probably like this one. As a side note, if you like reading about weddings, you’ll like it, as well—Khai and Esme go to a bunch. If you like heroes you have to warm up to, and admirable heroines, you should give it a try.

A Princess in Theory (Reluctant Royals #1) by Alyssa Cole

A Princess in Theory book coverI reviewed A Duke by Default—the first in this series—a couple months ago, and now I’ve read the first. It was great to get to know Portia as she was Before, since in Duke we learned she was trying to improve herself, but we never saw exactly from what. This book shows us what Ledi has to put up with in Portia. Not that that’s the focus of the book, but the dark moment is sort of enabled by Portia (though of course it’s the hero’s fault).

Ledi is a grad student in epidemiology who works very hard (probably harder than everyone around her since she’s both female and black…). Because she was a foster kid after her parents died when she was very young, she has no family and no money. So she also has to work as a waitress to bring in some cash. She’s been getting these stupid scam emails from someone named Likotsi from Thesolo, a supposed small country in Africa, that insist she return to Thesolo and take her rightful place as the prince’s wife.

Thabiso is the prince in the email and he and Thesolo are as real as can be. He’s kind of an ass in the beginning, with his personal assistant, Likotsi (writer of the emails), sort of acting as his conscience. He’s not evil or anything extreme, but he’s absolutely rich and entitled. When he finds Ledi at work, he spontaneously decides to take the place of a new hire she is supposed to train, in order to get to know her a little. Anyone who’s ever worked in a restaurant will know that this won’t go well (a guy who’s never lifted a finger serving people… yeah, right). It goes even worse than you’d expect, which makes for even better reading. So then he moves into the apartment across from her (Likotsi rightly points out that this is stalkery behavior, but he doesn’t care).

With him across the hall from her, he gradually breaks down her defenses and they become friends and more than friends until everything comes crashing down, leaving Ledi feeling like the biggest fool and Thabiso like a real asshole (deserved).

Ledi is an awesome character—I love how hardworking she is, but more importantly she’s very smart. Of course she has trust issues, since she aged out of the foster system without being adopted. So this is her primary growth—learning to trust people. Thabiso’s not a bad guy, even in the beginning, but especially by the end. He’s been enlightened about how real people live and he realizes how badly he damaged Ledi by lying to her for so long.

The only little quibble I had with the book was that when Thabiso convinces Ledi to go to Thesolo with the promise of an epidemiology practicum, I don’t think she would have gone without Portia knowing about it because I don’t think she’d trust him to not be tricking her into going. A small thing.

Anyway, I really enjoyed this book. Cole’s a great writer and she actually has real knowledge about science—enough to make authentic references to Ledi’s work and even crack a joke here and there. Good stuff.

Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors by Sonali Dev

Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors book coverI don’t think you can be a fan of romance and not also love Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (like I even needed to name the author, right?). Dev’s new standalone novel gives a big nod to that novel, without being at all derivative. First off, Dev switches the roles—in her novel, Trisha, the heroine, is the “snob” while DJ is the one she disses early on.

Trisha is a talented neurosurgeon who has to deliver very mixed news to a patient named Emma—she can remove the tumor that will save Emma’s life but not without causing her to lose her sight. This is devastating enough, but Emma’s also a visual artist, making it doubly bad. Trisha’s got an overbearing family who she feels like has shunned her (especially her father) because of something that happened a long time before. Her brother is running for a political office in California and the whole family is focused on supporting him, and Trisha is trying to get back in her family’s good graces. She attends an event at her parents’ house, where she encounters the event chef and manages to insult him.

DJ can’t believe he actually overhears this woman referring to him as “the hired help.” He’s a highly-trained (and Paris-trained, at that) chef who’s just back in San Francisco because his little sister is facing brain cancer. He doesn’t expect to see the woman again, so he and Trisha are both shocked to run into each other in Emma’s hospital room.

Unsurprisingly, they clash despite each being very attracted to the other. DJ keeps his attraction pretty under control, but Trisha struggles a bit more, constantly putting her foot in her mouth and insulting him over and over again. Then she spontaneously decides to admit her attraction to DJ, which goes over very, very badly. (It’s a great scene that perfectly captures the awkwardness and feeling of the parallel scene in Austen’s book.) And there’s a baddie named Julia Wickham who worms her way into DJ’s world, nearly disrupting everything.

The sexual tension between Trisha and DJ is great. And Dev is a talented writer, with her strong dialogue and descriptions. There was one thing that bugged me, though, that I feel like mentioning. The way Trisha’s family dealt with the situation with Julia and what she did—which isn’t revealed until later in the book—made me uncomfortable. There’s even a line about how releasing the details would set women’s rights back a hundred years—I didn’t agree with that at all. It was actually pretty messed up and Julia was clearly the bad guy there. However this line comes from one of the characters, and I don’t have to agree with everything they say or do.

Anyway, there is quite a bit going on in Trisha’s life. DJ’s busy too, but most of his non-Trisha time is spent with Emma, who also is Trisha’s concern. So this is definitely Trisha’s book. It’s also her most “American” book, with very little time spent in India (all of it’s in flashbacks, too). Still, if you’ve liked Dev’s other books or you enjoy reading about complex family dynamics, you’ll probably like this one, too.

The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory

The Proposal book coverI was looking forward to reading this book, Guillory’s next after The Wedding Date. This one also features a black heroine, but this time the hero is Latino.

I really liked the overall story here—Nik (short for Nikole) is proposed to on the Jumbotron at a Dodgers game by her boyfriend of just a few months, who she doesn’t even like that much. In front of everyone, she turns him down. Then she’s rescued by Carlos and his sister and from there Nik and Carlos develop a relationship. I liked both of the characters and found them somewhat relatable. She’s a successful freelance writer and he’s a pediatrician. The other characters in the book were also good. Nik has two close friends and her ex (the proposer) is an amusing total loser. Carlos has a friend but his family is huge in his life.

Despite all that, I didn’t love the book. It wasn’t bad by any means and I never considered not finishing it, but some of the dialogue fell flat for me. Some of the humor did as well—I did think there were funny parts in the book but I got the feeling I didn’t find them as funny as I was supposed to. Also, in the beginning, they were each unsure if the other liked them despite what I considered blatant signs that they did, which irked me. I just feel like this book was pushed out a little before it was ready. In my humble opinion.

Despite how I felt, many people will probably enjoy this book. And it’s definitely great to see some brown characters hitting the mainstream. In this case neither of the main characters is white, which is definitely cool.

The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang

The Kiss Quotient book coverThe Kiss Quotient is an unusual romance with its heroine being on the autism spectrum and a hero who’s half Swedish and half Vietnamese (though culturally more Vietnamese-American since his Swedish father is out of the picture and his entire extended family is through his mom). So double bonus points for diversity. But does it work?

Yep, it does. They’re both great characters, though Stella’s my favorite. The premise is that Stella’s mom is pressuring her to get married and start having kids since she’s at the ripe old age of thirty (I hate biology). Stella isn’t opposed to the idea of kids, but relationships terrify her. She has mild touch aversion and sex is nothing but torture for her. But she decides her mom is right and the only way she can possibly have a relationship is if she gets better at sex. She needs practice. So she hires an escort. Obviously.

Okay, ignoring the fact that I don’t think it’s that easy to hire one who will assume sleeping with you is the primary purpose (though maybe it is—I wouldn’t know), this is a great premise. So Stella finds Michael and she explains her situation, which weirds him out at first, but then he goes along with it. Still, he’s baffled that she can’t just find a guy the normal way because she’s beautiful. But things don’t go well on their first practice session because Stella freezes up.

Michael usually has a limit of one night with a client, but he ultimately agrees to more lessons with Stella because he’s worried about how other escorts might treat her. They might not be as gentle and understanding as he is. Because although he doesn’t know she’s on the spectrum, he instinctively senses how to deal with her due to have an autistic cousin.

Michael breaks more of his own rules with her and soon enough they’re in an actual practice relationship because that made more sense to both of them in terms of useful lessons. She meets his family and that doesn’t go well at all due to her lack of social awareness and certain other concerns she has (it’s one of those things that’s funny and sad at the same time).

The problem is that each of them knows this is practice and even though they’ve fallen for each other, they assume everything’s fake (except their own feelings, of course). Stella knows Michael will not want her when he finds out she’s autistic and he is convinced that she won’t want him when he founds out what a douche his father is (assuming she’ll guess he’ll end up being the same).

The resolution is interesting and satisfying to watch as the book is well-plotted. The characters are complex and surprise you at times, but in ways that make sense. There is quite a bit of steam (this is the point of the practice, after all), but most of the encounters go awry in ways that are again a little funny and a little sad. It’s just that you know Stella is into it but her issues keep her from letting go. Fortunately, Michael’s a good guy. And ultimately, things do get better.

Overall, I really liked this book. It’s great to see the kind of characters that don’t populate many romances presented as real, complex people. I’m looking forward to Hoang’s next book.

A Bogie in the Boat (Linx & Bogie Mysteries #2) by Elizabeth Hunter

A Bogie in the Boat book coverElizabeth Hunter was one of the keynote speakers at Emerald City Writers Conference a couple weeks ago. I posted previously a little about her speech, which I enjoyed, but now I’m going to review the free book we all got from her (yay, free book!). A Bogie in the Boat is the second in a series that’s not really a romance, thought there is a romance in it. (I’m still including it here because Hunter does write romance, too.) Linx is a young urban artist in the LA area (she does large murals and got in trouble in the past for graffiti). She also is a medium and has one ghost named Frank attached to her, a detective who was killed on the job in the 1950s. Her mom and grandma (nan) are both also mediums. Otherwise everything’s normal. So that’s the basic world setup.

In this book, a neighbor discovers a dead body and comes to tell Linx’s nan about it, but she’s out so Linx herself goes to see the body and call the police. This is how she ends up with another ghost attached to her, something that hasn’t happened before. It’s always just been Frank. She doesn’t particularly want this new ghost, who doesn’t remember how he died, so now she has to help solve his murder. Enter (the living) Detective Lee, who turns out to be a very attractive Korean-American guy with impressive arms. Intrigue and mild romance ensue.

I should mention that Linx’s best friend is Raul, whose grandmother is Haitian if I remember correctly. Hunter was brought to the conference this year (theme: diversity) because her books are full of people of color, just like they should be when they’re set in LA. Of course, this isn’t an issue book by any means—it’s just a fun little novella about a crime-solving medium/artist in a realistic setting.

I enjoyed it and will be looking for Hunter’s other books.

Dr. Strange Beard (Winston Brothers #5) by Penny Reid

Dr. Strange Beard book coverAt 26, Roscoe Winston is the youngest of the Winston clan and a vet(erinarian) in Nashville. We’ve also seen him to be a bit of a flirt in previous books. We come to learn why he’s that way, and how he’d had his heart broken in high school by Simone Payton.

Simone’s a cool chick—she’s currently working as an undercover FBI agent even though that’s not really her calling (which is in a research lab). It’s a temporary assignment. There’s been a string of murders in East Tennessee that the FBI knows are being perpetrated by the president of the biker club the Winstons’ father is in. The fact that Simone’s from there gets her assigned to the case. She’s working at the diner her mom runs in Green Valley. Simone is focused on her career and believes that the whole idea of love is stupid. She doesn’t like feelings and never has. But unfortunately for her feelings, her assignment brings her in contact with Roscoe.

Roscoe, for his part, isn’t happy to see her because she rejected him in high school after they’d been best friends forever, and the memories still pain him. He has a fantastic memory, so he relives the whole rejection any time he sees her. And he keeps seeing her pop up inexplicably everywhere he goes.

What Roscoe doesn’t know is that she’s trying to protect him and break the case at the same time. He’s become important because his father wants to talk to him for some reason. And Simone can’t let that just happen without inserting herself.

Dr. Strange Beard does start off a little slow, I have to admit. Simone in particular was hard to get into because she’s very logical and tries to deny emotion. But by a quarter in, it started to pick up more and then got good—and Simone is great. Roscoe’s sweet and different from his brothers. The book leans a bit toward romantic suspense, especially in the second half, which isn’t surprising given Simone’s profession. The build-up with the suspense delivers with an emotional and riveting grand finale in the diner.

My recommendation is pretty much the same as it is for all of Reid’s books: read it if you’re a fan or if you like quirky and smart heroines.

Hate to Want You (Forbidden Hearts #1) by Alisha Rai

Hate to Want You book coverHate to Want You is a complex novel with a bucketful of family secrets.

The grandfathers of Olivia (Livvy) Kane and Nicholas Chandler were best friends and started a grocery store together that became very successful. Livvy’s was even in a Japanese internment camp during WW II and Nicholas’s didn’t take advantage of that situation. They continued managing it once he was back out.

Livvy and Nicholas grew up together and dated for years, all until a tragic and fatal car accident involving Livvy’s father and Nicholas’s mother. Then, somehow (how was never entirely clear to me), Nicholas’s father bought/cheated the Kanes out of their share of the company. After that, Nicholas and Livvy broke up. They each have a different story about how that went down, however. Livvy left town afterward and hasn’t been back except for a couple exceptions.

It’s been about a decade since the accident and Livvy is back in town. Nicholas goes to visit her at the tattoo parlor she works at in the opening scene. This is breaking all their rules. They’ve been seeing each other once a year (on Livvy’s birthday) for casual sex and Livvy skipped the last one. The sexual tension between them is off the charts the second they’re together. This isn’t a good thing for either of them, really, and just highlights the unhealthy approach they’ve taken to their relationship. Neither of them has really gotten over the other but each of them has reasons to stay away. But with them back in the same town it’s hard to keep them apart. They try to keep it casual, but that’s as unhealthy as it was over the past decade. There’s a lot of work for them to do before they can be together in a meaningful way.

There are many things that set this book apart from other second chance romances. First, one of the characters isn’t white and this is totally normalized, doesn’t even come up as worthy of mentioning. I think the only thing that made it certain to me was the mention of the internment camp. Second, Livvy (and probably her mother) has clinical depression. The way Rai dealt with this was nice—very realistic. She addresses the fact that it’s always there, but the severity of the current state can vary depending on certain triggers. Nicholas also has his own issues even though they’re not as significant as Livvy’s. He’s very closed off mostly because of the way his father has always treated him. He has to learn to overcome that before he and Livvy can really go anywhere. Still before and after that, there’s plenty of sexytimes for the reader to enjoy.

Another thing that sets this book apart is that we get a healthy dose of Rai’s feminist observation:

The world was unkind to women. It was devastating to women who didn’t believe in themselves.

and

The quickest way to get a dude to stop hitting on you was to say you’re with another guy, because men respect other men more than they respect a woman saying no.

If you enjoy complicated romances between characters with lots of painful history, this one might just be for you.

Let Us Dream by Alyssa Cole

Let Us Dream book coverLet Us Dream is another slim but packed novel like Cole’s Let It Shine—and it’s equally good. This one’s set 50 years earlier, in 1917 Harlem. The heroine is Bertha Hines, a cabaret owner who has a secret that keeps her constantly nervous and a past that keeps her fairly buttoned-up. Amir Chowdhury is a Muslim Indian in the U.S. illegally, trying to make his way.

Bertha isn’t satisfied with the status quo at all and is trying to participate in the suffragette movement, but the white women who run it aren’t welcoming to a black woman cabaret owner (ostensibly because of her career choice, but probably really because of her race). So instead she educates her employees on politics and encourages them to advocate for the vote for women among their male clientele.

Amir is an experienced cook, but his options are limited because of his status, so he ends up washing dishes at Bertha’s establishment. They butt heads early on. However, they find they each have something the other needs—Bertha can teach him about American politics and he can teach her how to dance more authentically (she does an Indian-inspired dance for the club). Working closely together brings their simmering attraction to the forefront. And when Amir and Bertha help one of Bertha’s employees give birth, they bond over the moment and realize there really is something between them.

But it’s not easy. Bertha’s got the police wanting to shut her down and Amir’s illegal—and they’re not even the same race. That last point was an interesting one for me—could they even marry (or were the laws written solely to protect the “purity “—ugh—of whites?)? Because nowadays, they could marry and Amir could come in legally (I mean, it would take some work, but could be done). But I wasn’t sure how it would work back then. Cole doesn’t even go there, but it didn’t stop me from wondering.

There are some fairly heartbreaking moments, like when Amir sees a white man outside the club and instinctively calls him “sir.”

He cringed at how the honorific slipped out. Why should he call some White man lounging in an alley like an urchin “sir”? The only power that the man held over him was the color of his skin, but that was all that was necessary in America, it seemed. Back home, too, now.

Overall, this is a nice book. Not too steamy but full of interesting historical details in another period you don’t see much (especially in romance). If you liked Let It Shine, definitely check this one out, or if you’re just curious about a different time.

Let It Shine by Alyssa Cole

Let It Shine book coverLet It Shine is a slim book, coming in at a little over 100 pages, but it doesn’t feel short. I mean that in the good way—it’s complex and substantive and I really enjoyed it.

Sofronia Wallis—Sofie for short—is a young black college student in Virginia during the heart of the Civil Rights movement in 1961. Cole does a fantastic job of painting a realistic and detailed picture of the movement with just a few spare details. She makes it personal. Sofie’s a good church-going girl who always does what she’s supposed to do. But she’s finding this role stifling: “…when people described her, they used words like nice and quiet and docile as if they spoke of the cows on Harris Withers’ farm instead of a young woman.” But that’s all about to change as she finds herself in the cause.

Ivan Friedman’s family escaped Europe just before WWII, although many of his extended family members did not survive the Holocaust. He’s in an odd position. The U.S. is still anti-Semitic in a lot of ways (though the book doesn’t go much into that), but he’s still white, which puts him in a better position than Sofie. In fact, when they were young, Sofie’s mother worked for his mother and he and Sofie were good friends who played together. That came to an abrupt end when the kids were twelve because Sofie’s mother suddenly died (of an aneurysm) while trying to save Ivan from some bullies.

They haven’t seen each other in the six years since then when they run into each other at a protestor’s organizing meeting (the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, SNCC). When they meet, it’s clear that what used to be a childhood friendship has turned into a very adult attraction. But it’s not as if they can just start dating or even hanging out, as at at time such a relationship was not only socially frowned upon, it was actually illegal in the South until 1967 (there’s even an ugly word for it that I want to pretend I never learned).

However, this is a romance so you know they’re going to figure out a way. But it sure isn’t going to be easy, and neither will be the individual paths they choose. All of which makes for a very engaging read.

If you want a good book with a few bites of heat set in a period you rarely see in romance novels, this one’s definitely for you.

It’s Your Move, Wordfreak! by Falguni Kothari

It's Your Move, Wordfreak! book coverI stumbled across It’s Your Move, Wordfreak! on a list of Indian romances. The book has a lot going for it. It’s a cute premise—Alisha and Aryan meet online playing Scrabble. They really hit it off and decide to go on a semi-blind date. Alisha’s a smart and successful divorce lawyer who’s a little commitment-phobic due to her own parents’ failed marriage. Aryan’s a hot man-about-town who also happens to be a wildly successful architect.

The characters are interesting and likable enough. It’s all a nice setup for the story, but I think the fact that the date is the opening scene is a critical problem. For one, we don’t get to see any of the original courtship, which is a shame. We know from later that their online chats were witty and at times risqué. It would have been fun to see this. Then, the date itself goes very well. She meets his family and they love her. He meets hers and they love him. Etc. There’s basically no conflict at all until about halfway through the book. The seeds of later conflict are set in the first half, sure (Aryan has issues with his father and Alisha has a difficult client). But everything goes swimmingly until a sudden breakup. That’s where things finally really get started.

Once that happened, the book got more compelling because it finally felt like things were happening. (Reading it was kind of an interesting lesson in plotting. Even though lots of ”stuff” happened in the first half, it didn’t feel that way because of the lack of conflict.) The subplots are interesting and get resolved nicely. As I mentioned, the characters are good—they’re compelling and believable and I definitely rooted for them once things started going wrong.

I did have to make some allowances for cultural differences, especially because one of the subplots has to do with domestic violence, and it’s just not handled the same way it would be in the US. Something happens to Alisha at one point and Aryan’s and the others’ reactions were hard for me to stomach. His ultimate response was to sort out the problem with old-fashioned testosterone-fueled violence, with some Indian bribery thrown in for good measure. Still, the novel stayed fairly cute as that was somewhat glossed over.

In summary, this book could easily appeal to fans for English romance set in India (Mumbai to be specific). Just beware a slow start.

Queens of Geek by Jen Wilde

Queens of Geek book coverQueens of Geek is technically a YA romance, not something I usually review here (generally they’re too tame, but I made an exception because it was what I read this week and the characters are all eighteen so it could be considered New Adult, which I would review here). So.

As the title implies, there are some serious geek themes in this book. First of all, it’s set at “SupaCon,” a fictional ComicCon, that’s in San Diego, I think. It’s about three best friends from Melbourne, Australia making the journey to the US for the first time. It’s narrated by the two women, Charlie and Taylor.

Charlie’s an upcoming movie star with a popular video blog. Her parents are from China, though her race has no relevance to the story from what I could see. It just makes everything more realistic, as Australia is diverse, too. Charlie also has pink hair and is bi, though her last relationship was with her male co-star, making it a very public one. The breakup was painful and also public and she’s a little gun-shy now. She has a crush on another up-and-coming star, Alyssa, who’s also going to be at SupaCon.

Although Taylor is one of Charlie’s best friends, they aren’t very alike—Taylor is shy and anxiety-riddled. She’s also on the spectrum, having been diagnosed with Asperger’s only a few months earlier. But she’s hoping to step a bit out of her comfort zone at SupaCon, even if she doesn’t know how. She doesn’t have a lot of confidence in general, but especially body confidence because she’s not some stereotypical sexy mama. She’s a little “curvy.” She credits Charlie with helping her to avoid falling down the well of self-loathing.

The third friend is Jamie, who also happens to be the guy Taylor’s been in love with for ages. Not that she’s going to say anything, because she doesn’t want to ruin their friendship, which she values dearly. The friends all plan to move to LA in the fall. Taylor and Jamie have applied to UCLA and Charlie is moving there for her career.

A lot of reviewers have admired this book for its positive messages about women and girls. Throughout the book, they support, protect, and help each other out. And it is great, since a lot of books show a more negative view of female relationships. At times, I did think the book got so caught in all the good it was trying to do that the story itself suffered. Nothing ever got too dire—things mostly went at least okay for the characters.

Also, I have to mention that this book has some of the best two-way communication I’ve ever seen, even between Taylor and Jamie. Much of the dialogue could be sample conversations in a self-help book about how to communicate effectively. People say what they feel and what they mean and they actually understand each other. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I noticed it.

Charlie and Taylor are both good characters, though I think Taylor is a little more complex and developed than Charlie. This is probably because her anxiety is explored in great depth. Jamie isn’t as developed as the other two, which I thought was a bit of a shame. I’d liked to have seen more of him. He’s also Hispanic and originally from Seattle but we don’t get much of him except to see how supportive he is of Taylor.

For those who live in geekdom, this book’s a dream. There are so many pop culture references that you’ll have to appreciate it. I’m not as in the mix as I used to be, but even I got a lot of the references. Overall, this was an enjoyable read with a lot of positive representation of things that frequently get a pass in the romance world. Still, it was light and fun.

A Distant Heart by Sonali Dev

A Distant Heart book coverI enjoyed Dev’s first three books and was looking forward to this one. It features two minor (but important) characters from A Change of Heart, so I was excited to see their story.

Kimi was confined to a sterile room for most of her childhood. As a result, she doesn’t really have friends—except for the boy who clean bird crap off the side of the house. Rahul lost his father at fourteen and became the man of the house. Kimi’s father is a wealthy ex-Bollywood star and because Rahul’s father died protecting him, he tries to help Rahul’s family out. But Rahul is stubborn and doesn’t like the handouts, so he does work around Kimi’s house (”The Mansion,” as he calls it). 

Their friendship develops over time and although Kimi is clearly in love with him, he’s holding back for some reason. She doesn’t know why and it frustrates her. When the book opens, Kimi has recently had a heart transplant—and professed her love for Rahul and been shot down. But for some reason, a particularly vile gangster who ran a black market of organs from people he had killed has it out for her. As Rahul is a police officer, he ends up protecting her and they get out of Dodge. There’s more to it than escape, but I won’t give that away. Still, it forces them to be together even though Kimi told him to stay away after he rejected her. 

This one is more or less a romantic suspense. But I’m not sure it’s all the way there, partially because of Dev’s chosen narrative style. It’s a little different from her others because it relies much more heavily on flashback in order to show the development of Kimi and Rahul’s early friendship. That may be the reason that the book was slow to get going for me. I read her others fairly quickly, but I was only doing a chapter or two a night with this one until I got about a quarter in. But then it picked up.

Anyone who’s read the others, particularly A Change of Heart, will enjoy this one. You don’t have to have read her others, but I think you’d get more out of it if you have. 

The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory

Wedding Date book coverThere’s been a fair bit of hype about The Wedding Date. So I went into it wondering if the book would live up to it. I think it does.

The main reason the book was so hyped up is that it features a black heroine and white hero. They’re definitely not the first multiracial couple to people romances, but this is the book that sort of broke through. Probably because it’s good (though I’ve read other good ones too—chalk it up to luck). And it addresses the race issue directly but doesn’t hit you over the head with it. The issues are sort of subtle and cleverly integrated with the plot. Also, I should mention that there aren’t that many romances featuring black heroines, regardless of the race of the hero. So seeing a book like this going mainstream is exciting. I hope it’s the beginning of a trend because I love reading about different kinds of people.

Alexa is chief of staff to Berkeley’s mayor and she has a lofty goal at the beginning of the book: to get a new program for at-risk youth going. She’s got to first convince the mayor and even after that, she’ll have to deal with the council of mostly privileged people. Drew’s goal at the beginning of the book is more mundane: survive the wedding of his ex-girlfriend and work buddy. Awkward. And he’s even in the wedding. Alexa and Drew meet when they get stuck in an elevator at the hotel the wedding party is staying in. Alexa’s heading up to visit her sister with a snack haul, and she and Drew teasingly fight over her cheese and crackers. By the time the power comes back on, Alexa is going to be Drew’s date for the wedding since his bailed.

Their chemistry’s great and it goes where you’d think it might (and good for Alexa—she was due). Neither of them has any intention of making this a long-term thing, but they start up a long-distance relationship anyway, flying back and forth (he’s in LA). Initially they spend time only with each other, but the longer it goes on, the more entrenched in each other’s lives they get. Eventually, Alexa goes to party with Drew at one of his ex-girlfriend’s houses. Alexa, who is “curvaceous,” is intimidated by all the beautiful, thin white women (who are also mostly blonde). I loved that part because I could so relate—I’ve never been one of the beautiful people either.

Race comes up several other times in the course of their relationship. First off, she asks Drew if she’ll be the only black person at the wedding. It hadn’t even occurred to him. Later, she cracks a joke about coffee and skin color and Drew reacts like a lot of white people would—he’s awkward and apologetic. The most significant moment is when they’re discussing the program she’s trying to get started in Berkeley. She has to school Drew on why it’s different when brown kids get up to the same shenanigans white kids get away with, with maybe a slap on the wrist. Not so for the brown kids. Another thing Drew just hadn’t thought of. It’s clear that he’s a good guy at heart, just kind of oblivious of the privilege his whiteness (and maleness and money) has granted him throughout life. The way we know he’s decent is that he listens to Alexa when she explains these things to him, rather than getting defensive. So there’s a lot of serious stuff in there, but there are also plenty of funny and light moments, too.

There was one thing that I found a little lacking in the book: the love scenes. They were basically nonexistent. Well, that’s not quite true—but there were few details. We get a little of the foreplay, but then we get told more or less what happens between one sentence and another. I’m used to a play-by-play. And I miss that because I actually think what they do in the bedroom (or wherever) really does matter to the story. But plenty of people will be more than satisfied with what’s there.

So, if you want a nice contemporary with an interesting storyline involving two smart and successful people, you’ve got it in The Wedding Date.