The Heart Principle by Helen Hoang (Fiction / Romance)

Plot: 4/5 Characters: 5/5 Writing: 4/5

Anna Sun — musical prodigy and dutiful daughter. Her carefully constructed facade starts to crack as the pressure gives her complete musician block and her long-term boyfriend suggests they see other people for fun. Then she gets an even bigger surprise — her (secret) therapist tells her she may be on the autism spectrum. And suddenly, everything begins to make sense. Quan Diep has fully recovered from cancer but can’t quite come to terms with the scars it left behind. When Anna and Quan meet on a hookup site they intend to have a one night stand only — but that one night keeps going wrong so they have to have another. And another. Until maybe “one night stand” isn’t the right word for what they are doing.

This is a deeply reflective novel that masquerades (well!) as a steamy romance. What I like about Hoang’s books (this is the third and the first two are also great) is that her characters spend as much time learning about themselves and how to fit into the world as they do about seeking a relationship. Also — no shopping and the relationships that develop are supportive and loving as well as physically intense. I love the process Anna goes through to understand her diagnosis, how it explains aspects of her personality that she hadn’t understood before and — most importantly — how she can move forward in the face of disbelief and unintended but deeply felt censure from her family.

There has been a spate of popular novels about people on the spectrum (eg Eleanor Oliphant, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time) but I find those entertaining rather than enlightening. These book help me understand from the inside. For me (not a professional!) what we currently label high functioning autism is more about a different brain organization than a disability and one that I often find makes more sense than the “normal”. In the current world of social manipulation and personal branding, I find the direct, literal and honest engagement depicted quite refreshing. [As an aside, I loved this description of “neurotypicals” (the “normals” I referred to) from a spectrum group: “Neurotypical syndrome is a neurobiological disorder characterised by preoccupation with social concerns, delusions of superiority, and obsession with conformity… Neurotypical individuals often assume that their experience of the world is either the only one, or the only correct one…NT is believed to be genetic in origin. Autopsies have shown the brain of the neurotypical is typically smaller than that of an autistic individual and may have overdeveloped areas related to social behaviour.” Makes you think!

If you’re looking for a romance, a positive story about relationships, or are interested in the personal development of an unusual woman who is learning about herself, you will enjoy this book.

Thank you to Berkley Publishing group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 31st, 2021.

Atomic Love by Jennie Fields (Historical Fiction / Romance)

Writing: 2/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 3/5

Historical fiction in the post WWII era — espionage, a love triangle, a strong and imtelligent female lead. The author endorsements are impressive — Ann Patchett, Delia Owens, Rebecca Wells, B.A. Shapiro … I was drawn in because our heroine — Rosalind Porter — is a physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project with Enrico Fermi himself.

In truth, this book is a Romance. The characters are tropes — strong powerful tropes that appeal to a lot of people — but with no fresh insights or depth. A strong, capable, heroine who has doubts about her capabilities because she has been betrayed by the man she loved, torn between the now contrite betrayer and another man who is damaged both physically and emotionally by his war experiences and yet who is capable of a great love that only she can supply. Add in a national emergency and evil Russians. Stir. It’s exciting but not new.

I found the writing to be heavy handed and a little trashy. The male / female stereotypes annoyed me. This is one of those historical fiction novels where the characters — especially the women — have modern sensibilities even while struggling with historical problems. And Rosalind’s constant “love of science” doesn’t actually get a lot of airplay — we don’t hear much about her previous work or what scientific puzzle is appealing to her now.

If you love romantic historical thrillers, this book is for you! If you are looking for in-depth characters and some insightful commentary about strong women who were able to achieve something in a difficult time — meh.

Thank you to Penguin Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 18th, 2020.

Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan (Fiction)

Thank you to Doubleday books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 30th, 2020.

Writing: 4 Plot: 2 Characters: 3.5
Kevin Kwan’s new book has all of the humor, wit, social satire, and Conspicuous Consumption we’ve come to expect from his previous work (the Crazy Rich Asian trilogy). In this book, Lucie (our heroine) is bi-racial with an American Asian mother and a blue blood (read wealthy and WASPy) father, now deceased. Here the over-the-top behavior is ascribed more to the “new money” elements, both Asian and WASP, and there is plenty of snootiness and social climbing to go around. If you’re the kind of person who loves reading about couture clothing, palace like accommodations, and extravagant parties, you’ll hang on every word. I skim those parts because it’s not my thing — I like Kwan’s books because of the over-the-top plots and weirdly engaging characters.

And that was the problem with this book for me. It is a rewrite of A Room with a View — which happens to be one of my favorite movies (I confess I have not read the book, but Kwan’s book is a definite rewrite of the movie). And I mean a real — though not advertised — rewrite. The names are the same: Lucie Churchill (was Lucie Honeychurch); George Zao (was George Emerson); Auden Beebe (for the Reverend Beebe), etc. This is not a problem — there have been many, many, rewrites of classic (I can think of four rewrites of Pride and Prejudice off the top of my head) but in this case I loved the plot but already knew what was going to happen! And I couldn’t help but picture Julian Sands every time “George” appeared. Also, while the plot was A Room with a View and the ambiance was Kwan’s signature over-the-top style, he added a slender theme of racism against Lucie — her perception that she was always “a little China doll” to her white relatives and that her brother, who looked more Caucasian, had white privilege she was denied. It is very hard to feel any sympathy for someone who has that much money, is beautiful, and has never been denied anything due to her race — so that fell pretty flat for me.

Overall entertaining and a quick, fun read, but for me, the zaniness and surprises of his previous stories were missing and the name dropping fell on my fashion-deaf ears so I was left with some endearing characters and an ultra-exclusive travelogue for the Isle of Capri.

500 Miles From You by Jenny Colgan (Chick Lit)

This is just one of those happy, sweet, books that buoys my spirits. The fact that all the action takes place in London and a Scottish village near Loch Ness (two of my favorite locations on the planet) doesn’t hurt a bit. OK — also I am a Jenny Colgan fan, so no surprise that I enjoyed this one.

Kind of a cross between “The Holiday” and “84 Charing Cross Road,” two Nurse Practitioner Liaisons switch jobs and houses for a three month period — Lissa Westcott leaving London for Kirrinfief, Scotland while Cormac MacPherson heads to London. Having never met, they get to know each other via daily email check ins and … you can guess the rest. Very nicely done — the perspective of the stranger learning the ropes in a foreign place (I’m sorry, but Scotland wins every time) — made me hunger to visit (a little difficult right now as we have to wonder when we will ever be able to travel again). Some lovely descriptions of nature, tight knit communities, friendship, and the excitement of learning something new. Very sweet ending.

Thank you to William Morrow Paperbacks and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 9th, 2020.

Backpacking Book Review #3

The end of the backpacking trip was a little surprising.  Slipping down a sandy friction pitch I was pushed over by the pack and landed right on my face — specifically my poor nose — on a flat but very hard rock.  Did not even realize that this was possible.  Don’t think I’ll include a photo because really — you don’t want to see it!  But no broken teeth or nose, just some very strange bruising and a better attitude to scampering down friction pitches in the future …

Meant to Be Yours by Susan Mallery

Thank you to Harlequin and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 22nd, 2019.

Hunky Vietnam Vet Jasper (who is not as “broken” as he thinks) is freshly returned from his book tour. A successful action adventure writer, he wants to finish off one series so he can start another but is flummoxed by his utter inability to write women. Enter Renee Grothen — wedding planning extraordinaire — who herself has given up on men after some very bad experiences. And guess where they both live? Happily Inc — a (fictional) wedding destination town with a real Disneyland flair. We learn this all in the first few pages and we know how it’s going to end — but the journey is fantastic.

I really don’t care for the romance genre but I read everything Susan Mallery writes. Her characters are interesting and nuanced (yes — sexy as well) and the plots are twisty and fun with captivating side stories. To start with, Renee works on theme weddings, and although I am personally not into decorations, weddings, etc, I loved hearing about the “Dallas Cowboys,” Nutcracker, and Apple themed weddings, just to name a few. Add to that a town that features an animal preserve, a horse ranch run by the adopted daughter of the King of El Bahar, and a woman who can actually sense what animals are thinking — and you have all the ingredients of a pretty engaging story. Some extremely well-written and steamy sex scenes as well. This is not a “cozy romance” — the attraction between our two is palpable rather than polite.

Fun read!

The Bride Test by Helen Hoang (Romance)

Writing: 3/4 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 3/5

(Note: I’m not a romance reader but I agreed to review this book because I am endlessly fascinated with Austistic brains and the people who house them).

An erotically charged, utterly non-traditional, romance novel. Diệp Khăi is a successful, Vietnamese-American accountant, with his own business in Sunnyvale. He was also diagnosed with Autism and decided long ago that his “Stone Heart” and “inability to feel emotions” disqualified him from having romantic relationships. His grandchildren-desiring mother (Cô Nga), however, is not willing to give up. Unbeknownst to Khăi, she travels to Việtnam to find him a bride.

Esme Tran (Việtnamese name — Trán Ngọc Mỹ) cleans bathrooms in a nice hotel in Hơ Chi Minh city. While resting between disappointing bride interviews in the ladies’ lounge, Nga finds what she is looking for in the attractive, diligent, and polite Esme. Esme has a few secrets of her own — she has a five-year old fatherless daughter, and longs to find her own father — an American named “Phil” who went to UC Berkeley over 20 years ago. Esme accepts Nga’s offer — a job and a visa for the summer and a chance to convince the reluctant Khăi that he wants to marry her.

Well-written, with alternating chapters offering alternating character insights in addition to steamy prose. In an interview, the author revealed her own recent Autism diagnosis and the evolution of the Esme character based on her own mother’s immigration to U.S. As a side note, I enjoyed all the Vietnamese names written in the full alphabet and made the (somewhat difficult) effort to include them here. It’s a beautiful looking language which I admit to knowing nothing about. If you’re interested, scan the Wikipedia article here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnamese_alphabet.

Thank you to Berkley Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 7th, 2019.

Good Riddance by Elinor Lipman

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on Feb 5, 2019

Writing: 3 Plot: 3 Characters: 3.5

Daphne Maritch inherits one thing from her recently deceased mother: a 1968 High School Yearbook with regularly updated snarky marginalia. Newly divorced and living in a postage-stamp sized apartment in New York City, she tosses the tome and focusses on her “recovery project” — a course in chocolate making. However, thoroughly obnoxious neighbor, Geneva Wisenkorn, has another plan. Purporting to be documentary film maker (her main claim to fame is a Matzoh docudrama), Geneva has latched on to the yearbook (procured through dumpster-diving) as her path to fame and fortune. Thoroughly horrified, Daphne spends the book alternating between the shocking discoveries unearthed and trying to keep those discoveries quiet. She is helped by her father — whose move to New York fulfills a life long dream — and hunky across-the-hall neighbor, Jeremy, who plays a small part in the successful series Riverdale.

Entertaining and reasonably well-written with great humor. The plot is a little thin, and the characters are a little too stereotyped for my taste. We find out at the end that it’s really a (happy) love story though it doesn’t read that way from the start. I would have been a little happier if our heroine found something she actually wanted to do with her life rather than just find a boyfriend … but that was not to be.

The Matchmaker’s List by Sonya Lalli

Thanks to NetGalley and Berkeley Publishing Group for an advance reader copy in exchange for my honest opinion. Book to be released on Jan. 22, 2019.

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 4/5

Women’s fiction pairing romcom humor with a smart, capable, protagonist. Complex themes with authentic resolutions. Multi-cultural and sexual diversity interest.

29 year-old Raina Anand is under constant pressure from her beloved Nani to get married. Her best friend is about the tie the knot and the close knit Indian community in her Toronto suburb is all geared up to help her follow suit. However, Raina is keeping a shameful secret — she is still in love with the man she left (in another country) 2 years ago. In order to protect this secret, she allows her Nani to believe she is gay — with broad and surprising consequences.

This is not your typical romcom. There are no firemen, no Fabios flexing muscles, and no ditzy but lovable blondes prepared to make some man very happy. The story continually veers off into unexpected territory and allows the main character to experience real emotional growth while trying to find her way in the world. Opening on Raina’s 29th birthday, the narrative carries through to her 30th, interspersed with reverse-order flashbacks to previous memorable birthdays. Her family is not typical (is anyone’s?). Half Indian, half caucasian, she was raised by her grandparents and only rarely saw her mother who bore her when only 16. But even this is not exactly as it seems — there is depth and nuance in this story.

There is a strong theme of sexual orientation diversity — portrayed in an interesting way because while our first person narrative protagonist is not gay herself, this “small” white lie highlights the clash of tradition and modernism simmering beneath the surface of her small, tight-knit, community.

Fun, witty, writing. Well structured with good messages about diversity, values, and the danger of letting shame drive you into making bad decisions.