Monday, December 27, 2021

November & December Reading Notes

Image Copyrighted by Candice Hern I realized a week before Diwali, the Indian festival of lights, that Diwali was next week and I had a children's picture book on Diwali. I hurriedly emailed my editor and asked that if I could have the review to her by that evening, would she pretty please cherry on top print it in the newspaper next week? She was immensely kind and said she would squeeze it on to the paper. And she did!

I am really enjoying doing author interviews. Here are the ones for November and December: interview with Sarah MacLean and interview with Cat Sebastian. I also interviewed a picture book author, Rajani LaRocca, Lucy Parker, and Marguerite Kaye earlier this year. In the new year, I plan to interview a prominent Asian American author, which will be challenging because I'll be stepping out of my realm of expertise with that piece into the world of K-pop!

HERE is the list of my best romance novels for this year.

On to the reviews for November and December...

Love at First Spite by Anna E. Collins
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is a debut fast-paced novel set in Seattle. The opening scene has an unforgettable image of the heroine in a paintball-splattered white wedding gown. She's just been dumped, weeks before the wedding. But instead of wallowing in grief, she decides on detailed revenge against her ex. She buys a plot of land next to her ex's house and plans on ruining his peace and view by building a monstrosity, peopled with loud people. Only the stick-up-his-backside architect at her firm agrees to design her this house. There are plenty of laughs in this book and some outlandish doings in the heroine's "hastily decided upon but refined upon at leisure" plan. [CW: Meniere’s disease, an inner-ear disorder]

The Fastest Way to Fall by Denise Williams
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This a story of someone falling in love with a person who helps them feel strong and want to be stronger. This is not a story about weight loss or a paradigm shift to find love, but about learning to love who you are. He is the CEO of FitMe Fitness, a hugely popular, individualized, body positive lifestyle app. Through its clever matching algorithm, FitMe teams up each client with a professional coach who helps them meet their goals. She is a curvy woman whose goals are to jump out of a plane and to look and feel good naked. She refuses to allow being fat to define her. She teams up with a coworker to write immensely popular, dueling blog posts for the lifestyle magazine she works for about the entire fitness experience with two competing apps, FitMe and HottrYou. [CW: eating disorder, fatphobia, one instance of disordered eating and over-exercising putting someone in the hospital]. [My review is here.]

Someone Perfect by Mary Balogh
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: This is Balogh’s last novel in her fabulous Westcott series. The story is about two people, coming from very disparate backgrounds, who connect at an unanticipated and deeply emotional level. It is a master class in trust and fairness and honesty. How do you trust uninhibitedly, even in the face of opposing, seemingly true, facts? What does it mean to continually strive to bring light and joy to the other’s soul? Heart-to-heart, frank conversations is how their relationship develops, even when he proposes to her, and she refuses, and then he warns her he is planning to propose to her again. Their relationship is bracketed by the two proposals. [My review is here.]

Somewhere Above It All by Holli Fawcett Clayton
Category: Contemporary Romance Adventure
Comments: This is a debut book on grief and the indomitable courage it takes to come to terms with it. Even scaling Tanzania’s 19,341-foot treacherous Mount Kilimanjaro feels easier for the heroine. Writing with an assured hand, the author charts the emotional landscape as well as physical landscape with deep sensitivity and poignant detail. Ravaged by grief at the death of her dream of married life by the suicide of her opioid-addicted husband, the heroine is determined to put herself first after many years of despair. She is resolute in doing something that she could’ve never imagined herself doing—a grueling climb up to the oxygen-deprived Roof of Africa, Kilimanjaro. He is lead counsel for a pharmaceutical company and a rugged outdoorsman. He is grieving the suicide of his beloved older brother, who was also his best friend. Challenging the mountain is a way for him to get a grip on his grief. Leaving the past behind isn't easy for either of them. Yet, the mountain brings them closer together. This is not strictly a romance, more a heroine's journey, but the romance is a huge sub-plot. [My review is here.]

Once Upon a Winter's Eve by Tessa Dare
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: Dare's Spindle Cove series is touted by fans as her best, so I decided to dip my toes into Dare's writing with this novella. Her writing style is reminiscent of the old Julia Quinn novels: frothy, fun, with modern sensibilities, requiring large dollops of suspension of disbelief, but ultimately, satisfying and entertaining. Like Quinn, Dare quickly became very popular with readers, and now is a huge name in romance. Her Twitter presence has also garnered her more fans. I remember when she was a fledgling aspiring author. We were on the same Eloisa James message board and participated in a writing contest by Avon, possibly, the only contest they did. Many of today's current authors participated in that contest and were on that message board, including Courtney Milan, Jackie Barbosa, Manda Collins, Elyssa Patrick, and so many more. Many known readers and bloggers were also there. I don't know where Eloisa James found the time to manage her teaching career, her book career, and a message board, not to mention house and family. She did have some help from an author's assistant and a research assistant, but still, she made her presence felt on the board, and she was generous with her advice. I loved that board.

Spindle Cove is a place for bluestockings, spinsters, and those women with unusual interests. The heroine in this book is a talented linguist, speaking six languages fluently with the knowledge of others. She had been thwarted in love by her childhood friend who'd made love to her and departed England's shores with a curt note and no further communication. Now at the Christmas Ball a stranger crashes at her feet speaking a Celtic language that only she can decipher. As the night wears on, she realizes that he is a spy and her long, lost lover. What is she to do? Aid him or turn him in?

Royally Ever After: The Jilting of Lord Rothwick by Loretta Chase
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: As with all Chases, the minute you start her book, you sink into familiar Regency milieu of cultural and societal norms as established in the traditional Regencies. This short story is an oldie but a real goodie. He has been refused by her. For him, it is destitution with the baggage of his father's debts, the estate, and all the dependents upon his shoulders. For her, it is the heartache of loss of love. She loves him; she assumes he doesn't love her; but he does love her. The story takes place in the course of a day. The backstory is that they met when he decided that she was rich enough to tow him back from River Tick, so he started paying serious court to her, in the process defeating all her other suitors to win her hand. In the process, they both fall in love with each other, but each is certain their feelings are not returned. The story in the present is how they discover their feelings. Beautifully written!

The Earl Who Sees Her Beauty by Marguerite Kaye
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: Another author whose books feel true to the historical feel of the traditional Regencies I enjoy. And this one is beautifully written like the Chase above. She was heavily scarred as a young child diagonally across her back and diagonally across one cheek from forehead to mouth. She is considered an abomination by one and all, and she lurks in the shadows, covering her face with her hair and wearing a wide-brimmed bonnet and, sometimes, even a veil. She is mechanically brilliant and built a number of improvements in the former earl's house. The new earl wants nothing to do with the earldom; in fact, he wants to divest himself of all his responsibilities, sell everything, and donate the monies. When he spies her, he is struck by her beauty and she, by his. He truly always only sees her and the scars as part of her, not as obscuring a nondescript face, but as part of who she is. He accepts her wholly. The backstory to the earl is set in Greece and unusual. Impeccable research by Kaye and superlative writing. [I have to say that my fulsome praise is not coerced by my friendship with her by any way, but there you have the information anyway.]

Two Houses by Suleena Bibra
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Bibra’s debut is an immensely fun enemies-to-lovers story of two auctioneers at rival art auction houses in New York. One of the best books of this month. My full review is on Booklist.

Christmas in Rose Bend by Naima Simone
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: In this book, prolific author Simone returns to the small, charming Massachusetts town of Rose Bend, the close-knit Dennison family, and their Kinsale Inn. A little less hyperbole, fewer pop culture references, and deeper emotional analysis would’ve made for a more powerful book. My full review is on Booklist.

Lizzie & Dante by Mary Bly AKA Eloisa James
Category: Mainstream Fiction
Comments: Like the kiss of a butterfly’s wings on a flower, Mary Bly has written this book with such tenderness. So much of the story mirrors Bly’s lived experience as a Shakespearean professor at Fordham University in New York, marrying an Italian man, and suffering the pain and indignity and fear of cancer. [CW: disordered eating, cancer, dying, death, funeral] This is not a romance, despite the title, but the novel has a large romance sub-plot. This novel is about Lizzie deciding how to live given her diagnosis of terminal cancer. Should she give up? Should she try one more round of experimental treatment? Should she do it for the men in her life? For herself? This book is all about asking deep, searching questions and discovering for herself who she wants to be. A beautiful, beautiful book. [My review is here.]

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich
Category: Literary Fiction
Comments: This is the best book I read this year. It won a Pulitzer prize, and I can see why. Erdrich brings her Native American heritage to bear in crafting a story where no detail is spurious, no emotion extraneous. It is based on an Indian (Erdrich uses this word) reservation and the driving force is the white government's desire to evict the residents and bring settlers in. The poverty on the reservation is horrifying and the lives lived are so desperate and so out-of-step with the rest of American culture and society. And yet, the beauty and dignity in the Native American culture and beliefs are not to be found elsewhere in the larger America.

According to this WaPo review: "Erdrich read a cache of letters written in the middle of the 20th century by her grandfather Patrick Gourneau. He had been chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Advisory Committee during the tribe’s modern-day fight for survival. The threat at that time was legal but as potentially disastrous as earlier assaults: In 1953, the U.S. House passed a resolution declaring that a number of tribes should be rapidly “freed from Federal supervision.” Beneath that glorious promise of emancipation lurked the government’s true plan: the unilateral abrogation of treaties, the wholesale termination of tribes’ rights and the abandonment of Native Americans already impoverished by centuries of genocidal policies. Reminded of that dark era and her grandfather's heroic role in saving the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota, Erdrich knew she had found the inspiration for her next book."

Mangoes, Mischief, and Tales of Friendship by Chitra Soundar, illustrated by Uma Krishnaswamy
Category: Children's Chapter Book
Comments: Replete with humor and drama, this book is a collection of short stories reminiscent of stories of the 16th century Mughal Emperor Akbar and his advisor and confidant Birbal. The protagonists are two 10-year-old mischievous and precocious boys who courageously use their intellect to solve tricky problems in the king's court. The book is divided into two previously published smaller books: A Dollop of Ghee and a Pot of Wisdom and A Jar of Pickles and a Pinch of Justice. Each book has four stories of the boys' adventures in meting out justice and reprimands when the king is busy tending to other matters of his kingdom. [My review is here.]

Binny's Diwali by Thrity Umrigar, illustrated by Nidhi Chanani
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: Bright fairy lights, warm oil lamps, colorful powder designs, new clothes, sparkling jewelry, delicious sweets, savory snacks, and firecrackers...all make the season of Diwali a joyous occasion. While the multiday festival has Hindu religious notes, it is also a secular cultural celebration in which Indians of all faiths participate. Diwali, known as the Festival of Lights, celebrates the victory of good over evil, of hope over darkness. It is a reminder to observants to be good, kind, and brave. There are many legends associated with Diwali with roots deep into Indian mythology of thousands of years ago. Binny’s Diwali celebrates an Indian American girl’s desire to share her culture with her classmates, none of whom know about this festival. [My review is here.]

Category: Children's Picture & Board Books
Comments: A comfortable chair. A warm fire. Hot chocolate. Cuddles. And the perfect book. Here are stories perfect for cozy reading over the holidays. [My reviews are here.]
Sheepish (Wolf Under Cover) by Helen Yoon
The Smile Shop by Satoshi Kitamura
If I Were a Tree by Andrea Zimmerman, illustrated by Jing Jing Tsong
David Jumps In by Alan Woo, illustrated by Katty Maurey
From Maybe to Forever: An Adoption Story by M.L. Gold and N.V. Fong, illustrated by Jess Hong
The Little One by Kiyo Tanaka, translated by David Boyd
Baby Raccoon illustrated by Yu-Hsuan Huan
Baby Fox illustrated by Yu-Hsuan Huan
Paper Peek: Animals by Chihiro Takeuchi
I Can Be Anything: Guessing Game Book by Shinsuke Yoshitake

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Review: Lizzie & Dante by Mary Bly

Like the kiss of a butterfly’s wings on a flower, Mary Bly has written Lizzie & Dante with such tenderness. So much of the story mirrors Bly’s lived experience as a Shakespearean professor at Fordham University in New York, marrying an Italian man, and suffering the pain and indignity and fear of cancer. And yet, the heroine emerges from this story a fully formed person in her own right.

Lizzie Delford is on the island of Elba in Italy living at the ultra-fancy Hotel Bonaparte (naturally!) with her best friend, Grey Thuston, and his lover, Hollywood megastar Rohan Das. Lizzie has stage three, incurable cancer and has been invited by Rohan on a luxurious vacation that she could’ve never afforded. In the midst of all her pain and pills, Lizzie enjoys the pampering, the beach, and the warmth of the sun on her skin. And she feels alive like she has not for a very long time. Bly has done an extraordinary job of showing Lizzie’s relationship with her illness. How the fear of pain and the irrevocable slide into further and further deterioration of quality of life are causing her to refuse experimental treatment and to give in to death waiting in the shadows. She exists in the liminal space between living and dying, a stasis of waiting. And yet, she is charmed by a man, voraciously attracted to him, uninhibitedly making love to him, falling in love with him—all life-affirming actions.

Dante Moretti is the father of a twelve-year-old girl. He is also a world celebrity chef whose private life is shrouded in mystery in the wider world. On the island of Elba, everyone knows Dante and his nondescript restaurant where one eats what one is served and dinner reservations, for even the wealthiest yacht owners, are many months out. Lizzie is unimpressed with Dante’s creations, though everyone with a pulse extolls their virtues. He is charmed by her refusal to kowtow to his talents. For a chef who refuses to make substitutions to his dishes, he makes a hamburger for her at her very first meal—his plebian American.

Unlike what the title implies, this is not a romance novel with a happy ever after—this is the heroine’s journey—but the romance between Lizzie and Dante is a large part of the story and the novel hums with the joy of their love. Right from the beginning when they meet on the beach, Lizzie and Dante exist on the verge of being in love. It takes tremendous courage for anyone to love someone, and especially for Lizzie to love Dante. As Lizzie says, “Pity is a terrible reason to start a relationship” and so she does not share her illness and its prognosis with him...until he eventually guesses. For her, there is no “falling in love”—love is an act of valor. You choose it by saying, here is someone I want to share a pillow with and smile across a candlelit dinner table with for all my days. For as Hannah Arendt has said, “Fearlessness is what love seeks.”

Lizzie and Grey met in their teens at their last foster mother’s house, and they have been an item ever since. Their love is intense and soul-binding. For a while, Lizzie thought they would even marry. But the evening when she thought he would propose, he came out to her as being gay. She was utterly devastated. And ran away from him to Europe for further studies. Grey, in turn, was devastated thinking she was rejecting his being gay and hence threw him away. He had thought they would continue as before, and nothing would change.

With great finesse, Bly lays out the complexity of Lizzie’s and Grey’s relationship and how, on Elba, it is compounded by Rohan’s presence in his life and Dante’s presence in her life. Lizzie and Grey are ex-lovers and love each other and yet are not in love with each other. There is a difference that Bly makes you appreciate—this is her skill in writing romances as Eloisa James coming to play. Grey argues that sex is not a definer of love and that his love for Lizzie is purer and all the more valuable than his for Rohan or Dante’s for her. He is fighting for her life and she, by refusing further treatment, was rejecting him all over again. She was not fighting for him.

The issue of further treatment is a complex conundrum for Lizzie. Part of her wants to reject it out of fear of having her hopes repeatedly dashed and out of fear of continued pain. Part of her wants to undergo it because of her love for Grey and Dante. It’s her decision. They don’t get to coerce her to do it. But should she do it for them? Does she owe them? These questions tease at her conscience all throughout the book. It is only when she decides to do it for herself that the decision feels right. As Lizzie says to Grey, “I’ll fight. I will do it all. Everything. And if...if it doesn’t work, it won’t be because I didn’t try to stay here. I promise.”

Lyrically spare and thematically lush, Lizzie & Dante is a sprawling yet intimate tale, rich in detail and images. Bringing her own rich life to the page, Bly has crafted a fictional story that stands on its own. Nobody could better understand Lizzie than Bly—her despair, her laughter, her singing, her very appreciation and sheer gratitude in being alive. There is a wise Shintō saying: “To be fully alive is to have an aesthetic perception of life because a major part of the world's goodness lies in its often unspeakable beauty.”

[Content Warnings: disordered eating, cancer, dying, death, funeral]

Sunday, December 5, 2021

My Best Romance Novels of 2021

Here are my best romance novels of 2021 (in alphabetical order by the authors' last names):

The Brightest Star in Paris by Diana Biller
This book was a wow book for me. In this gorgeously written romance, Diana Biller provides a fascinating view into the psychological makeup of two haunted lovers, where one is literally haunted. Yes, there are ghosts in this book. This is a stunning novel of tender emotions amid harsh circumstances. The romance is set in 1878 France, seven years after the horrific events of the siege of Paris and the Paris Commune. It’s an unusual setting for a romance, full of great strife and turmoil, and Biller provides readers with a fabulous immersion into that place and time. The heroine is a prima ballerina with the Paris Opera Ballet. The hero and heroine met 12 years ago in a whirlwind summer romance, but she broke it off. Now he is back and determined to rekindle their romance, yet she sends him away again. He realizes that he has to let her go so she can decide if they are meant to be together. This book is very much her journey from living a rigid life of conformity and denial into one of acceptance and courage and in charge of her happiness. (Review here.)

The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting by KJ Charles
KJ Charles continues to write book after book of near perfection. She is a courageous writer who doesn’t shy away from morally ambiguous characters, where a protagonist can hold positive and negative traits in balance; sometimes one takes precedence over the other. The end is always positively sound while still retaining some of the ambiguity. Sir John Hartlebury “Hart” is a baronet, a prosaic member of the Upper Ten Thousand with a good-sized property, and also a tradesman efficiently managing his sister’s brewery. He is a large man with a large voice, who cannot be bothered to temper his views or mind his manners when in company. He retains an avuncular interest in the future of his niece, wanting her to acquire some town bronze, while safeguarding her fortune from the hands of fortune hunters. Robin Loxleigh is a gazetted fortune hunter. He and his sister, Marianne, make no bones about them being down on their luck and from a small village in Nottinghamshire, here in London to make advantageous marriages. They charmingly cozen everyone into thinking them to be harmless, so Society casts a benign eye over their machinations. Robin and Hart meet when Robin inveigles himself into the notice of Hart’s niece, and Hart is instantly suspicious of him. (Review here.)

Accidentally Engaged by Farah Heron
There is food and friendship, vulnerability and defenselessness, affection and aloofness, birth family and found family, betrayal and the requisite expiation. And above all, there is love and laughter. Heron draws on her own Indian Tanzanian Canadian Muslim heritage to authentically write about her culture in the dishes where the Gujarati Indian food has an East African twist, in the occasional comments about what is allowed or disallowed in Islam, in the Canadian-ness of the heroine’s outlook to life, in the longing the hero has for the beauty of Dar es Salaam and the spices of Zanzibar. Reena works in finance, a field she despises. It is a field she chose in defiance of her parents’ wishes to work in their real estate business. She wants to be independent. Nadim has come to Toronto from Dar es Salaam via a graduate degree from the London School of Economics. A big stumbling block for Reena is that Nadim works for her dad and is the chosen one "from the Muslim Bachelors 'R' Us warehouse" for her hand in marriage by both sets of parents. (Review here.)

The Sweetest Remedy by Jane Igharo
This is a lovely women’s fiction tale set in Nigeria. The country comes alive from Igharo's personal experience as a Nigerian-Canadian author. Hannah is biracial and writes for an online magazine. She is very close to her loving Caucasian American mother. Her wealthy entrepreneur father abandoned them when he returned to his family in Nigeria when Hannah was little. Lawrence runs one of her father’s companies in Nigeria. By the terms of her father’s will, Hannah is invited to Nigeria for his funeral. The heart of the story is of Hannah stepping away from constantly feeling unwanted by her father, to forgive him, and to allow his family to embrace her as one of their own. She lost her father, but gained a family.

Hana Khan Carries On by Uzma Jalaluddin
A touch of a hand. Warmth. A cupping of the face. Tenderness. Glances and long looks. Mesmerizing. There is a wealth of meaning in small, small things. Relationships are spun out of romanticism like this, infused with the weight of regard and understanding and care. Such is the beauty Jalaluddin brings to to this book. Hana is a young first-generation immigrant woman, living in the Golden Crescent region of Toronto. She dreams of working in radio, telling stories of people and how they live in the world. To make that dream a reality, she interns at a radio station, while honing her skills on a secret podcast with a deeply loyal following. The Golden Crescent is made up of first- and second-generation family-owned stores, such as Hana’s family’s Three Sisters Biryani Poutine restaurant, a halal fixture in the area. Aydin is a newcomer to the Golden Crescent, brash and wealthy. He is a first-generation immigrant as well and comes from faraway Vancouver. He has come to open his own halal restaurant and is determined to put Three Sisters out of business. To Hana, even if Aydin’s restaurant were to fail, he would always have his father’s wealth and contacts to fall back upon, but if her mother’s restaurant were to fail, her family would be bereft, their very survival at stake. (Review here.)

Tokyo Ever After by Emiko Jean
Awash in tenderness, with limitless care, Emiko Jean leads with her heart. This YA contemporary romance is a story that is American and Japanese and neither and both. Like the delicate sakura, the protagonists’ love is essential to them, the very air they breathe; whether like the blossoms it will be impermanent or endure is for the future to know. This is the story of Izumi Tanaka becoming... A senior at Mount Shasta High School in California, Izumi often feels like an outsider in the place of her birth. As a single child of a single parent, she has often felt lonely, but her questions about her father have gotten instantly shut down. Naturally, she has wondered if he even knows she was born; would he accept her if he knew she existed; does he care—these are questions that circle her mind obsessively. A chance glance at a book reveals a name, expert Googling later there is a contact, a letter is sent...and highly polished Japanese officials show up in her kitchen with its cracked yellow linoleum floor. Her Imperial Highness Princess Izumi, they call her. She’s the illegitimate daughter of the Crown Prince of Japan and he wants her to visit him at his residence, Tōgū Palace, in Tokyo. Izumi shows up at Narita airport in leggings and a faded sweatshirt and is greeted by Akio Kobayashi, a gorgeous Imperial Guard with a stick up his backside. (Review here.)

One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston
How do you romance someone on your subway commute? Especially when, she is lost in time and trapped on a train? And especially, especially when you want to help her return to her time in the 1970s? One Last Stop is a new adult, queer, magical realism spin on Kate & Leopold. Life circumstances have made Caucasian American August Landry a cynic. She arrives in New York with her entire life in a few boxes. She moves into an apartment with people who are wildly different from each other. And yet, they meld together in one close, wisecracking family. August meets Asian American Jane Su, in her ripped jeans and leather jacket, on the Q train. From the first, August is entranced and hopes she can meet Jane again and again. And she does...until she realizes that Jane is actually a time traveler from the 1970s stuck on the Q train. The book cover is fabulous and has such tiny-tiny details from the story. (Review here.)

Reckless by Selena Montgomery AKA Stacey Abrams
This was my first book by Stacey Abrams. I keep meaning to read her hugely popular mystery, but I have been a bit leery whether the book is popular because of the contents of the book or Abrams' name. However, this book has convinced me that she is an excellent writer. I am hoping Avon plans on publishing other of her Selena books. Reckless has a mystery as well as the romance, and both are very well paced. The heroine is a high profile celebrity defense attorney in Atlanta and he is a small-town sherriff in a small town in Georgia, who moved there from Chicago and finds that the small town suits him better. This small town is also where the heroine grew up, and moving back here to defend a client has her questioning her high-stress job in the big city. (Review here.)

First Love, Take Two by Sajni Patel
The story is set in the same circle of friends as Patel's debut book, The Trouble with Hating You. An Indian American woman fell in love with a Black American man back in college, but pleasing her parents and his father's disdain caused her to repudiate him. He was devastated. Now they're back in touch and sharing an apartment and just as much in love. Will they fight their parents for their right to love each other or will they continue to let their parents dictate who they should be with?

Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers
Nearly fifty years ago, Joni Mitchell sang, “we are stardust” and Carl Sagan famously said that we are made of “star stuff.” The protagonist in this book by Morgan Rogers is indeed the child of the cosmos. The universe conspired to make her. And inspired her to dream of becoming an astronomer.Grace Porter has a newly minted doctorate in astronomy from Portland. Eleven years of dogged hard work and weekends and summers sacrificed to research and achieving new and newer heights in her pursuit of perfection have left her burnt out. Job search has been heartbreaking as she realizes that the field of her dreams is rejecting her Black heritage. In a bid to shore her spirits up, Grace goes off to Las Vegas with her dearest friends. And there, one night, she meets a girl with stars in her eyes and roses in her cheeks; they get drunk; they get married; and they buy a lock together with matching keys and rings. After a night together, the girl leaves behind a love note to her Honey Girl with a calling card and a photo. Yuki Yamamoto is a Japanese American child of immigrant parents living in NYC. She is a medieval history major who waitresses for her living needs and assuages her lonely soul and those of others in a late night radio show called Are You There? (Review here.)

Peter Cabot Gets Lost by Cat Sebastian
An m/m story set in the 1960s, unfolds over the course of a cross-country journey by car from Boston to LA. Peter is the son of a super wealthy Massachussetts family of politicians, with his father running for president. All his life, he has been considered the family's disappointment. He never measures up to their drive and ambition; and they don't yet know that he is gay. Throughout his four years of college, he has lusted after his classmate Caleb, the one who has it all together. Or so it seems. Caleb comes from poverty and through dint of scholarships and sheer hard work has made it through an Ivy League university. Now, he has landed a prestigious job at LA Times as a journalist. But he just has to get there, and he has very little money left, and his ride skipped out on him, and he is stuck...and in tears. Spying Caleb on the side of the road, Peter jumps to his aid and offers to drive him to LA—mentally consigning his father's campaign to the flames. His family thinks very low of him, and he just plans on pleasing himself from now on. Peter is all laconic charm, bending over backwards to please. Caleb is grumpy, prickly, and has a chip on his shoulder about money and paying his share. The heart of the story is how they grow together and become more of themselves through the belief and support of the other in them. They each believe that the other is wonderful in every which way. And a journey that was supposed to take days becomes a life-long committment. Tender and fierce, this book is what romance is all about.

Love, Chai, and Other Four-Letter Words by Annika Sharma
Tender, attentive, thoughtful...this book is what true romance is all about. Kiran Mathur is a Type-A biomedical engineer who moved to Duke from India and on to New York City. Nash Hawthorne is a child and adolescent hospital psychologist from Nashville. They connect over chai, philosophy, and the vibrant city around them. This is the first South Asian multicultural book I have read where one set of parents is based in India, so the clash is between conservative Indian Indian values and Southern Caucasian American values as opposed to Indian American and Caucasian American values in nothern cities, which are easier to meld. Sharma's work is pitch perfect here as she has her protagonists walking the tightrope between what their hearts desire and what their cultures demand of them. (Review here.)

The Ex Talk by Rachel Lynn Solomon
An excellent enemies-to-lovers book. Shay Goldstein is Caucasian Jewish American and a producer at a public radio station in Seattle. She secretly yearns to be a host of her own show, but in ten years of taking crap from her sexist boss, she hasn’t made much progress in that direction. Dominic Yun is Korean American and has a degree in journalism from Northwestern University. He is intent on making his mark in serious journalism. Inexplicably, he chooses to do so at a radio station despite his fear of public speaking, because he sees that as a springboard to journalism greatness. Shay and Dominic’s animosity towards each other fuels great banter between them. (Review here.)

The Fastest Way to Fall by Denise Williams
This book delves deep into the psyche of a woman struggling with body image and sense of self. It is not a story about weight loss, but about learning to love who you are and about falling in love with someone who helps you feel strong. Britta Colby is a curvy Black woman whose goals are to jump out of a plane and to look and feel good naked. Britta refuses to allow being fat to define her. And yet, rejection from a crush about her looks causes her to doubt herself and wonder if she’s good enough. Wes Lawson is the CEO of FitMe Fitness, a hugely popular, individualized, body positive lifestyle app. Through its clever matching algorithm, FitMe teams up each client with a professional coach who helps them meet their goals. FitMe’s cardinal rule is that neither the client nor the coach should know each other outside the confines of the text-based coaching experience of the app. However, early on, when Britta’s emotionally miscalculated crash dieting and over-exercising cause her to put out a frantic call for help, Wes breaks confidentiality to rush her to the hospital. (Review here.)