Book Review: The Emma Project by Sonali Dev

Title: The Emma Project
Series: The Rajes
Author: Sonali Dev
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: May 17, 2022
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Emma gets a fresh Indian-American twist from award-winning author Sonali Dev in her heartwarmingly irresistible Jane Austen inspired rom com series.

No one can call Vansh Raje’s life anything but charmed. Handsome—Vogue has declared him California’s hottest single—and rich enough to spend all his time on missions to make the world a better place. Add to that a doting family and a contagiously sunny disposition and Vansh has made it halfway through his twenties without ever facing anything to throw him off his admittedly spectacular game.

A couple years from turning forty, Knightlina (Naina) Kohli has just gotten out of a ten-year-long fake relationship with Vansh’s brother and wants only one thing from her life…fine, two things. One, to have nothing to do with the unfairly blessed Raje family ever again. Two, to bring economic independence to millions of women in South Asia through her microfinance foundation and prove her father wrong about, well, everything.

Just when Naina’s dream is about to come to fruition, Vansh Raje shows up with his misguided Emma Project… And suddenly she’s fighting him for funding and wondering if a friends-with-benefits arrangement that’s as toe-curlingly hot as it is fun is worth risking her life’s work for.

The Emma Project is the 4th book in author Sonali Dev’s Jane Austen-inspired series about the powerful, wealthy Raje family. The Rajes, descended from Indian royalty, are fabulously rich and highly influential, especially now that their son Yash has been elected California’s newest governor. (See Incense and Sensibility for Yash’s story).

In The Emma Project, the youngest of the Raje clan takes center stage. 26-year-old Vansh is the “prince” of the family, extremely good-looking and pampered by all of his older sisters and cousins. Vansh has spent the last several years flitting around the world, from project to project lending a hand to all sorts of socially responsible causes, but never settling on just one thing.

After working to support Yash’s campaign, Vansh decides to stick around for a bit, and soon catches the attention of a powerful tech billionaire who wants to fund a project for Vansh — by pulling funding from Naina’s important work. Naina’s work is her whole life, especially since her association with the Rajes ended with public scandal after her fake romance with Yash came to light. (It’s complicated; again, see Yash’s story in the previous book).

Naina is furious over the loss of funding, and she accuses Vansh of engaging in an “Emma project” — basically, like Austen’s Emma, taking on a project for the sake of making himself feel good and alleviating some boredom, but lacking a true commitment or perspective on what others may need.

Over time, Vansh and Naina begin to work together, and become aware of a crazy hot chemistry between them too… but with Naina essentially ostracized by Vansh’s family and being burdened by all sorts of relationship issues due to growing up with an abusive father, any sort of romantic future between the two seems highly unlikely.

Except… there’s that chemisty to deal with, and they just can’t avoid it for long.

Perspective shift between Vansh (the Emma character) and Naina (Knightley), so we get to understand each character’s feelings and why they behave the way they do. All the various Rajes make appearances, often to meddle and complicate situations even further, and there’s a sub-plot about Vansh’s cousin Esha that’s a weird distraction from the main story (and makes very little sense), which seems to be a stand-in for the Jane Fairfax/Frank Churchill storyline from Emma.

I’ve enjoyed most of the books in the Rajes series, but this one was was only so-so. The characters’ inner lives, especially Naina’s, come across as overwrought after a while. The endless ruminations on feelings about relationships and love truly started to get on my nerves. I also couldn’t understand why the Raje family treated Naina the way they did — from a plot perspective, it just didn’t make a lot of sense.

Vansh and Naina have a lot of heat between them, which fine, I’m happy two adults are enjoying themselves so much! However, there’s a restaurant scene that absolutely made me roll my eyes over its ridiculousness, and I had a hard time suspending my utter disbelief enough to get through the rest of the book.

From the author’s notes at the end, it sounds like The Emma Project is the final Raje book. Too bad — I guess we won’t be getting Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey retellings! As a whole, I’ve enjoyed this series, even though I ended up not as engaged with this last book.

Book Review: The Marriage Game by Sara Desai

Title: The Marriage Game
Author: Sara Desai
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: June 9, 2020
Length: 338 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Purchased (paperback); Library (audiobook)
Rating:

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

A high stakes wager pits an aspiring entrepreneur against a ruthless CEO in this sexy romantic comedy.

After her life falls apart, recruitment consultant Layla Patel returns home to her family in San Francisco. But in the eyes of her father, who runs a Michelin starred restaurant, she can do no wrong. He would do anything to see her smile again. With the best intentions in mind, he offers her the office upstairs to start her new business and creates a profile on an online dating site to find her a man. She doesn’t know he’s arranged a series of blind dates until the first one comes knocking on her door…

As CEO of a corporate downsizing company Sam Mehta is more used to conflict than calm. In search of a quiet new office, he finds the perfect space above a cozy Indian restaurant that smells like home. But when communication goes awry, he’s forced to share his space with the owner’s beautiful yet infuriating daughter Layla, her crazy family, and a parade of hopeful suitors, all of whom threaten to disrupt his carefully ordered life.

As they face off in close quarters, the sarcasm and sparks fly. But when the battle for the office becomes a battle of the heart, Sam and Layla have to decide if this is love or just a game.

I wanted to like this book. I really did. I mean… diverse characters, San Francisco setting, family matchmaking, and contemporary romance. What’s not to enjoy?

Sadly, this was a bust. I almost quit multiple times throughout the story, and by the end, managed to convince myself to finish by deciding to think of the book as a parody. (To be clear, it’s not a parody.)

The “marriage game” of the title has to do with arranged marriages. To start a more stable life after some dating and career disasters, Layla decides to meet the men her father secretly selected for her via a dating site focused on Indians looking for arranged marriages. Sam and Layla agree that if Layla finds a husband, she’ll give up the office they’re fighting over, but if she doesn’t, Sam has to leave.

I’m not going to rehash the plot, because I just don’t have the energy for it. But here are a just a few points about the worst elements of this book:

  • It reads as if the author is someone who has never actually stepped foot in a modern-day office and imagines all workplaces based on impressions from bad 80s and 90s movies. One the one hand, we have characters repeatedly reminding each other that “this is a place of business”, yet behaving so unprofessionally and inappropriately that it makes my toes curl. Sexual innuendo, sexual banter, sexual harassment, discussion of personal lives, comments about bodies, not to mention weird interpretations of office rules and a lack of all basic office etiquette. It’s awful.
  • Other than Sam (the lead male character), one friend of his who appears infrequently, and Layla’s dad, every male in this book is a predator, a criminal, a harasser, or just grossly blunt and crass and sexist and awful to women.
  • The “game” that Layla and Sam play makes no sense. He goes on her blind dates as her chaperone, then interferes with every single conversation and ruins/undermines every interaction, while Layla focuses on him and not the person she’s meeting. Granted, the dates are all duds, but the dudes never get a chance.
  • The blind dates are supposedly all men that Layla’s father has prescreened and put into his “yes” list of potential husbands for Layla, but either he has terrible taste or he didn’t bother doing even basic due diligence. Again, just awful.
  • So many cringe-worthy scenes. From a blind date with a restaurant owner who has menacing security goons, gang tattoos, and a prison record to one with a corporate VIP who informs Layla in the first 60 seconds that he wants to “bang” her, not marry her… it’s just not amusing at all.
  • There’s a truly disgusting scene involving Sam and his business partner’s party to woo potential clients — including strippers (and their pole), lots of booze, and even angel dust. Again, is this some sort of parody of 1980s corporate greed? Nope, it’s supposed to be set now. It’s gross, and the fact that they win the contract makes no sense at all. AT ALL.
  • The sexual banter and the way the sex scenes are written are not sexy. There’s a line about Layla being jealous of Sam’s shirt because it gets to cling to his muscles. Ugh.

I think you get the picture.

You may be wondering why I gave this book 1.5 stars when I so clearly did not like it? I figure it gets one star simply because I finished it, and the extra 1/2 star is to recognize Layla’s family. The scenes with all the aunties are fun, even if they feel too similar to every other book I’ve read about Indian American families. But the family dynamics (and the descriptions of all the food) at least provide some scenes that are enjoyable, so that’s got to count for something.

From what I see on Goodreads, there are two follow-up books currently available, centered on other characters in Layla and Sam’s world. As you can probably guess, I’m out — those books will get a hard pass from me.

Book Review: Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Title: Last Night at the Telegraph Club
Author: Malinda Lo
Publisher: Dutton Books for Young Readers
Publication date: January 19, 2021
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Young adult / historical fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A story of love and duty set in San Francisco’s Chinatown during the Red Scare.

“That book. It was about two women, and they fell in love with each other.” And then Lily asked the question that had taken root in her, that was even now unfurling its leaves and demanding to be shown the sun: “Have you ever heard of such a thing?”

Seventeen-year-old Lily Hu can’t remember exactly when the question took root, but the answer was in full bloom the moment she and Kathleen Miller walked under the flashing neon sign of a lesbian bar called the Telegraph Club.

America in 1954 is not a safe place for two girls to fall in love, especially not in Chinatown. Red-Scare paranoia threatens everyone, including Chinese Americans like Lily. With deportation looming over her father—despite his hard-won citizenship—Lily and Kath risk everything to let their love see the light of day.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club is a beautiful, sensitively told story of a young woman in 1950s San Francisco, discovering her sexuality, finding first love, and navigating her place in the world of Chinatown and beyond.

Lily Hu is a high school senior who loves math, science, and reading Arthur C. Clarke. She’s fascinated by the idea of rockets and space, and dreams of one day working alongside her aunt at the Jet Propulsion Lab. Lily is the oldest child of a Chinese-American family living in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and her world revolves around the neighborhood and its community. While she attends a nearby high school, her friends and her activities are all based in Chinatown too — until she starts to get to know Kathleen, a girl in her advanced math classes.

Lily and Kathleen — or Kath, as she prefers to be called — begin to form a tentative friendship after Kath accidentally picks up a newspaper ad that Lily had saved, a promo for a male impersonator’s appearance at a nightclub. Kath mentions that she’s been to the Telegraph Club once, and the two girls agree to sneak out late one night and go together.

Meanwhile, Lily is unsure what to make of the feelings stirred in her when she reads about Tommy Andrews, the nightclub performer, or when she spies a pulp novel at the local drugstore that features two scantily clad women on the cover. When she and Kath finally make it to the Telegraph Club, Lily’s eyes are opened, seeing women together in clearly romantic relationships.

As Lily’s story progresses, she and Kath explore their feelings and learn more about the secret underworld of gay life in San Francisco. At the same time, the “red scare” is bringing fear to Chinatown, as even naturalized or American-born Chinese people are threatened with deportation and pressured to inform on others. When Lily’s father’s naturalization papers are confiscated during questioning about communist activity in Chinatown, the danger strikes home, and Lily is confronted by the potential consequences her own actions could have on her family.

Last Night the Telegraph Club is a moving coming of age and coming out story, and also a well-researched and eye-opening look at a particular time and place in 20th century history. The author shares a great deal of information at the end of the book about her research, her intentions, who she interviewed, and even provides a wide-ranging bibliography for those who want to learn more.

As she points out, there isn’t a lot written about Asian lesbians in historical fiction. The topics covered within this book are a unique blend of LGBTQ+, Asian American, and San Francisco history, and they work together spectacularly.

Lily is a fabulous main character. She’s not flashy or outrageous by any means. A studious, smart girl devoted to her family, she’s really never stepped foot out of line prior to this point in her life. She struggles with the conflict between her identity, her emotions and desires, and her family duty. Lily is portrayed as a sensitive girl who might have truly thrived in the modern era, but because of the time and culture in which she’s born, there is no easy answer for her.

As a non-native San Franciscan myself, I’m always interested in learning more about the history of my adopted city, and Last Night at the Telegraph Club delivers. While many of the places and neighborhoods are the same, the city has changed in dramatic ways since then. I loved seeing all the familiar streets and landmarks mentioned as Lily and Kath and others explore the city, and appreciate that they venture beyond the areas often covered in popular media to include lesser known spots too, such as one of my own favorite places:

Judy had fallen in love with Ocean Beach the first time she saw it almost four years ago, right after she first arrived in San Francisco.

Although as Lily herself later reflects, you can’t always count on the weather:

She suspected it would be freezing out by Ocean Beach

On a more serious note, the response of Lily’s family to learning about her orientation is sadly typical of the time, but still incredibly painful to read:

“There are no homosexuals in this family,” she said, the words thick with disgust.

… and …

“There are studies,” her father said. “You’re too young for this. This is a phase.”

My only quibble with this book is that I wished for a little more at the end, between the last full chapter and the book’s epilogue. I can’t say much without entering spoiler territory, but I wish the events of the last chapter had been carried forward longer to show what happened in the ensuing months. The epilogue wraps the story up very well, but it’s almost too abrupt in its resolution. Still, overall, I’m happy with how things were resolved for the various characters, and felt so invested in Lily’s well-being that I wish I could check back in with her to see how her life turned out 10, 20, and 30 years down the road.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club is engrossing, moving, and sensitive, with memorable characters and a fast-moving plot that manages to convey so much, so well. Highly recommended.

Shelf Control #298: Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

Title: Passing Strange
Author: Ellen Klages
Published: 2017
Length: 131 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

San Francisco in 1940 is a haven for the unconventional. Tourists flock to the cities within the city: the Magic City of the World’s Fair on an island created of artifice and illusion; the forbidden city of Chinatown, a separate, alien world of exotic food and nightclubs that offer “authentic” experiences, straight from the pages of the pulps; and the twilight world of forbidden love, where outcasts from conventional society can meet.

Six women find their lives as tangled with each other’s as they are with the city they call home. They discover love and danger on the borders where mystery, science, and art intersect.

How and when I got it:

I bought the Kindle edition in 2018.

Why I want to read it:

I’d almost forgotten about this one! Luckily, I happened to be skimming through the books in my Kindle library and saw it there.

This is a novella published by Tor — and I tend to really like their selection of novellas. Always something new and different to enjoy!

I can’t quite get a grasp on what this story will turn out to be based on the synopsis — but appealing aspects include a) San Francisco b) 1940s setting and c) some sort of fantasy/magic element. I’m ready to be surprised, and look forward to reading it!

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!


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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments or link back from your own post, so I can add you to the participant list.
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Have fun!

Book Review: Incense and Sensibility by Sonali Dev

Title: Incense and Sensibility
Author: Sonali Dev
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: July 6, 2021
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Yash Raje, California’s first serious Indian gubernatorial candidate, has always known exactly what he wants—and how to use his privileged background to get it. He attributes his success to a simple mantra: control your feelings and you can control the world.

But when a hate-fueled incident at a rally critically injures his friend, Yash’s easy life suddenly feels like a lie, his control an illusion. When he tries to get back on the campaign trail, he blacks out with panic.

Desperate to keep Yash’s condition from leaking to the media, his family turns to the one person they trust—his sister’s best friend, India Dashwood, California’s foremost stress management coach. Raised by a family of yoga teachers, India has helped San Francisco’s high strung overachievers for a decade without so much as altering her breath. But this man—with his boundless ambition, simmering intensity, and absolute faith in his political beliefs—is like no other. Yash has spent a lifetime repressing everything to succeed.

Including their one magical night ten years ago—a too brief, too bright passion that if rekindled threatens the life he’s crafted for himself. Exposing the secrets might be the only way to save him but it’s also guaranteed to destroy the dream he’s willingly shouldered for his family and community . . . until now.

As you might guess from the title — but not from the synopsis — Incense and Sensibility is a modern-day retelling of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. It’s also a moving, well-written, and engaging contemporary novel about love, pain, and healing.

I&S continues the loosely connected story of the Rajes, a wealthy Indian-American family living in the Bay Area. Previous books have focused on Yash’s sister Trisha (Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors) and his cousin Ashna (Recipe For Persuasion). In both of those books, Yash is a background character — the successful, driven brother who can achieve anything he wants. He’s the golden child, the one everyone believes will do great things.

He’s also haunted by trauma, although he doesn’t even realize this until events kick off in I&S. As the book opens, Yash is running a competitive race for governor of California, and his chances look good. He’s a man devoted to public service, who truly believes that he’s called to make life better for those who are suffering. While popular with many voters, Yash also encounters the racism you’d unfortunately not be surprised by due to his skin color and ethnicity. An attempted shooting at a rally leaves Yash lightly wounded, but puts his trusted friend and bodyguard Abdul into a coma that he isn’t expected to wake from.

Suddenly, Yash’s world is turned upside down. He feels tremendous guilt about Abdul’s sacrifice, and is overwhelmed by an anxiety attack when he attempts to go onstage at his next rally. With only months to go until the election, and with a growing lead in the polls, his family is desperate to “fix” him. And so they turn to a friend of Ashna and Trisha’s, India Dashwood, a yoga instructor and Reiki healer.

India lives with her mother Tara and her highly emotional sister China in the apartment above their yoga studio. They’re not well off, but they’re getting by, until Tara falls ill and India realizes they may not be able to cover her necessary medical treatments. On top of that, China is head-over-heels in love with a Korean pop star, but the woman she loves is deeply closeted and insists on secrecy. China sees a rosy future, but India is afraid that China will be hurt badly.

When Yash reenters India’s life, it’s ten years after they spent a magical, romantic night together in which they fell in love, but then parted and never reunited. India has never quite recovered from the pain of Yash’s disappearance from her life, but she also can’t turn him away when he’s obviously in such pain and in need of help. As she works with him on healing from trauma, old wounds reemerge and are finally confronted, and Yash and India’s feeling for one another resurface as well. But with the election his to lose, Yash has to make some big decisions about telling the truth and taking a stand, and India must decide whether she’s willing to risk the peace she’s found for the man she’s never gotten over.

Incense and Sensibility may look light and possibly even funny from the cover, but it’s really not. While there are some lighter moments, the book deals with very real trauma and pain, and the author isn’t afraid to show how the characters are affected by their pasts in damaging ways. At the same time, the characters really are lovely and sympathetic, and I loved getting to know the new characters introduced in this addition to the Rajes series, especially India, who is just wonderful.

As an Austen retelling, I found I&S to be very successful. Contemporary retellings of Austen novels are hard to pull off. With the classics’ focus on marriage, their themes can be hard to translate to a modern setting, and many of the retellings I’ve read feel like they’re trying too hard to shoehorn Austen’s storylines into a setting where they just don’t work.

Not so in I&S. Sonali Dev doesn’t hit us over the head with the Jane Austen references and plot points. While they’re there, they work organically, so the story would make sense and be appealing even without knowledge of the original. And while some characters’ storylines are a bit more obvious — for example, China as the Marianne stand-in is destined to have her heart broken — I was still taken by surprise by some of the twists and turns of the story, and that’s a good thing. Also, for what it’s worth, it took me a really long time to figure out who the Colonel Brandon character would be, even though it should have been obvious (I won’t say why, because spoilers!).

Incense and Sensibility is a terrific read, both as a standalone contemporary love story and as an Austen retelling. I can’t wait to find out which Austen novel the author will tackle next! I’m so enjoying the characters and their lives, and look forward to the next book so I can stay in their world.

And as a side note — India’s yoga practice and her approach to life have finally convinced me that I need to find a good yoga class!

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Take A Peek Book Review: A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

In a powerful debut novel about motherhood, immigration, and identity, a pregnant Chinese woman makes her way to California and stakes a claim to the American dream.

Holed up with other moms-to-be in a secret maternity home in Los Angeles, Scarlett Chen is far from her native China, where she worked in a factory job and fell in love with the owner, Boss Yeung. Now she’s carrying his baby. Already married with three daughters, he’s overjoyed because the doctors confirmed he will finally have the son he has always wanted. To ensure that his son has every advantage, he has shipped Scarlett off to give birth on American soil. U.S. citizenship will open doors for their little prince.

As Scarlett awaits the baby’s arrival, she chokes down bitter medicinal stews and spars with her imperious housemates. The only one who fits in even less is Daisy, a spirited teenager and fellow unwed mother who is being kept apart from her American boyfriend.

Then a new sonogram of Scarlett’s baby reveals the unexpected. Panicked, she escapes by hijacking a van–only to discover that she has a stowaway: Daisy, who intends to track down the father of her child. They flee to San Francisco’s bustling Chinatown, where Scarlett will join countless immigrants desperately trying to seize their piece of the American dream. What Scarlett doesn’t know is that her baby’s father is not far behind her.

A River of Stars is an entertaining, wildly unpredictable adventure, told with empathy and wit. It’s a vivid examination of home and belonging, and a moving portrayal of a woman determined to build her own future.

My Thoughts:

A River of Stars was my book group’s pick this month, and I ended up listening to the audiobook. So, some pluses and minuses: The narrator was pretty good, doing (I’m assuming) a good job with the Chinese phrases, which gave the story a nice, rich feel as a “listened-to” book. While the initial set-up — an off-the-books maternity home for Chinese women of wealth, to ensure that their children would have the advantage of US citizenship — is interesting, the story really picks up once Scarlett and Daisy flee and have to fend for themselves, using their wits and friendship to survive on the run.

When Scarlett and Daisy finally arrive in San Francisco’s Chinatown, the heart of the story really develops. There, they rely on community bonds to make a home for themselves, deliver their babies, and figure out a way to start a life in America while cut off from family, financial stability, and legal status. Scarlett is determined, protective, and entrepreneurial, all traits that can be seen in memories of her earlier years, when she fled her peasant village to seek the opportunities of factory work in a city. Scarlett is inventive and daring, never accepting no for an answer when there’s a way she might better the lives of the people she considers family.

On the negative side, the ending is increasingly implausible (for the sake of avoiding spoilers, I won’t go into why), and I did feel that the book spends too much time on chapters from Boss Yeung and others’ perspectives, rather than keeping a tighter focus on Scarlett and Daisy.

As a resident of San Francisco, I enjoyed the peek behind the scenes of life in Chinatown, with its rich community and traditions that casual visitors and tourists aren’t privy to. And as a reader who appreciates strong women as main characters, I was fascinated by Scarlett’s determination and ambition, and how these brought her from her poor village to her brand new life in America.

A River of Stars is an engrossing read about unusual characters, and I ended up really liking the story of their search for a good life for their babies. Well worth checking out!

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The details:

Title: A River of Stars
Author: Vanessa Hua
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: August 14, 2018
Length: 289 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased

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Book Review: Woman 99 by Greer Macallister

She’s only a number now.

When Charlotte Smith’s wealthy parents commit her beloved sister Phoebe to the infamous Goldengrove Asylum, Charlotte knows there’s more to the story than madness. She risks everything and follows her sister inside, surrendering her real identity as a privileged young lady of San Francisco society to become a nameless inmate, Woman 99.

The longer she stays, the more she realizes that many of the women of Goldengrove aren’t insane, merely inconvenient — and that her search for the truth threatens to dig up secrets that some very powerful people would do anything to kep.

A historical thriller rich in detail, deception, and revelation, Woman 99 honors the fierce women of the past, born into a world that denied them power but underestimated their strength.

What a read! In Woman 99, we first meet Charlotte Smith as the pampered daughter of a social-climbing family living in 1880s San Francisco. Daughters are trained from childhood in etiquette and comportment so they can eventually serve their purpose — helping their families climb higher through an advantageous marriage. Charlotte is proper and well-behaved and subservient to her mother’s wishes…

That was what all my education had been leading to. All the lessons and lectures. We were trained into ideal wives. Daughters were assets to be traded, like indigo, like hemp.

… but Charlotte’s sister Phoebe, according to their mother, is “unmarriageable”, the family disgrace.

While the term may not have been in use at the time, from the descriptions of Phoebe, she’s clearly bipolar. She has manic episodes, full of outrageous social behavior and flights of artistic fancy, then periods of dark depression during which she’s barely functional. In between the extremes, she has periods of near “normalcy”, and no matter what, Charlotte is devoted to her older sister, whom she loves with all her heart.

When Phoebe finally goes too far (and it’s not until later that we learn what this episode was about), she’s committed to Goldengrove, the Napa Valley asylum owned by the wealthy neighbors of the Smith family. Known as a “Progressive Home for the Curable Insane”, Goldengrove is promoted through glossy brochures and the social cachet of the Sidwell family. Still, Charlotte is terrified for Phoebe and her loss of freedom, and is determined to find a way to rescue her.

Charlotte concocts a scheme to get admitted to Goldengrove under an assumed identity, anticipating that she’ll quickly find Phoebe, announce who she is and that they’re going home, and that will be that. Needless to say, things don’t go as planned. Charlotte is unprepared for the emotional and physical trials of being institutionalized, and is horrified to discover that finding Phoebe and getting back out again will not be as simple as she planned. Meanwhile, as Charlotte spends weeks in the asylum, she gets to know the other women of her ward, and learns some shocking truths — the advanced treatment methods that Goldengrove is so well known for have been replaced by cruelty and starvation, and many of the women there are perfectly sane… just problematic for their families or husbands or society in general.

It had claimed to be a place of healing, but instead, it had been a convenient holding place for inconvenient women, serving only the people outside it, never the ones within.

Woman 99 is powerful, upsetting, and incredibly descriptive, showing us through Charlotte’s struggles the restricted roles available to women, the way certain women could be so easily discarded by society, and the shocking lack of value a woman was deemed to have if she dared step outside society’s norms. It’s not at all surprising to see how terrible the conditions inside Goldengrove are. Treatment of mental health at the time varied widely from physician to physician and asylum to asylum, and while some of the treatment concepts may seem worthwhile, such as outdoor hikes or music, there are also terrible methods such as a “water cure” and restraints and isolation, not to mention rumors of women having their teeth removed because poor dental health was considered linked to madness.

Over the course of the book, I really came to care about Charlotte, and appreciated how much she risks for her sister and the other women she meets inside Goldengrove. Charlotte’s initial act of rebellion is spurred on by her love for her sister, but she really has no idea what she’s getting herself into or how much danger she’ll be in. She gains strength and determination through her ideal, and emerges as a woman who’s no longer willing to meekly accept her mother’s plans for her future.

I highly recommend Woman 99. It’s a terrific, inspiring, moving read. And hey, bonus points for the San Francisco setting!

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The details:

Title: Woman 99
Author: Greer Macallister
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: March 5, 2019
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Audiobook Review: When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon


Dimple Shah has it all figured out. With graduation behind her, she’s more than ready for a break from her family, from Mamma’s inexplicable obsession with her finding the “Ideal Indian Husband.” Ugh. Dimple knows they must respect her principles on some level, though. If they truly believed she needed a husband right now, they wouldn’t have paid for her to attend a summer program for aspiring web developers…right?

Rishi Patel is a hopeless romantic. So when his parents tell him that his future wife will be attending the same summer program as him—wherein he’ll have to woo her—he’s totally on board. Because as silly as it sounds to most people in his life, Rishi wants to be arranged, believes in the power of tradition, stability, and being a part of something much bigger than himself.

The Shahs and Patels didn’t mean to start turning the wheels on this “suggested arrangement” so early in their children’s lives, but when they noticed them both gravitate toward the same summer program, they figured, Why not?

Dimple and Rishi may think they have each other figured out. But when opposites clash, love works hard to prove itself in the most unexpected ways.

When Dimple Met Rishi is a sweet, fun young adult romance, focusing on two teens, fresh out of high school, dealing with the expectations of their Indian families while also trying to find their own way in life.

Dimple is passionate about her future as a coder, and despite her mother’s focus on finding a husband for her headstrong daughter, Dimple swears that she’s going to be laser-focused on her education and career. Rishi is devoted to his parents and is determined to make them happy, by becoming an MIT-educated engineer and settling down with a nice Indian wife.

Dimple and Rishi meet at Insomnia-con, a six-week coding competition held on the campus of San Francisco State University. Students work in pairs to develop their own  unique app, and the winning team gets a chance to work with a successful web developer, Jenny Lindt — Dimple’s idol, who is everything she aspires to be.

Things are rocky right from the start for Dimple and Rishi. He greets her as his “future wife”, and Dimple throws her iced coffee on him. Yeesh, not good. It turns out that their parents have conspired to bring them together, and while Rishi is totally on board for this, Dimple isn’t. Not only is she not on board, she’s also completely unaware — her parents didn’t share their plans with her. Dimple is furious, even more so when she learns that Rishi and she have been assigned to be partners, so she’ll be spending oodles of time with him over the next six weeks.

Once past her initial anger, Dimple starts to appreciate Rishi. He’s not a hardcore coder like she is — in fact, he doesn’t care all that much about Insomnia-con, whereas she’s been living for this opportunity. Still, realizing how important it is to Dimple, Rishi throws himself into it as well. As the summer progresses and their tech ideas take wing, a friendship blooms between Dimple and Rishi… and from friendship, attraction and romance start to bloom as well.

The characters are really engaging and likable. Even though they have very different outlooks on life, it’s clear to see that they’re both passionate in their own ways. Rishi, it turns out, is following his parentally approved path to MIT, but in his secret heart of hearts, his true calling is to become a comic book artist. Through Dimple’s eyes, we learn just how talented he is, and it’s hard to understand how he could shut off that piece of himself in order to please his parents.

The two main characters’ Indian heritage adds so much to this story, as we see the weight of family traditions and expectations, but also see the cultural aspects in everyday aspects of their lives such as clothing, food, music, and more. When Rishi and Dimple are required to compete in the Insomnia-con talent show, they choose to perform a Bollywood-inspired dance, from this video:

I felt that the inner struggles both Dimple and Rishi face were portrayed really convincingly. Dimple is completely thrown off guard by her feelings for Rishi, and desperately wants to avoid allowing romance to derail her from her career aspirations into a life more suited to her mother’s preferences. And Rishi is so afraid of letting his parents down that he refuses to even consider taking the opportunities that come his way in the art world.

On the negative side, the pacing is a bit… off. It felt as though the first three weeks of the summer took up most of the story, and then suddenly we jump to the final days of the competition. That means a lot of time is spent on the early days, and then, somewhat bizarrely, on the talent show. I didn’t quite get why a talent show was at all relevant in a coding program, except for the fact that the winners get prize money to put toward their project development. Still, there’s way too much time spent on Dimple and Rishi rehearsing their dance number, and as adorable as they are together, it didn’t quite mesh with the rest of the story.

Some of the emotional crises in the relationship felt rather hollow and immature. They each goad each other and mistrust each other in some pretty petty ways… although to be fair, they’re young, and I suppose the depiction of a turbulent first love is probably pretty realistic.

My other issue with the story is that Dimple is so focused on winning the competition that there’s not much consideration given for any of the other students involved, other than a group of “Aber-zombies” who rely on nepotism rather than talent to get ahead. Granted, Rishi came to Insomnia-con to meet Dimple, but it bugged me that they’re always referring to their project as Dimple’s, and the focus is on whether Dimple wins, not them as a team.

A note on the narration:

The dual narrators, Sneha Mathan and Vikas Adam, take turns narrating sections told from each of the characters’ perspectives. We bounce back and forth between “Rishi” and “Dimple” sections, and the narrators are great at capturing their voices, inner thoughts, and emotions — love, frustration, anger, disappointment, laughter, and more. Plus, they’re able to convey other characters, like their parents or other Insomnia-con participants, in a way that makes the story feel energetic and full of life.

Wrapping it all up:

When Dimple Met Rishi is truly a lot of fun to listen to, although the pacing issues with the story occasionally made the audiobook feel like it was dragging. Overall, though, I really enjoyed it. Dimple and Rishi are great characters with good hearts, and the storyline as a whole is engaging and hopeful, and sends some good messaging about being true to oneself and following your dream. I’ll definitely want to check out more by this author.

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The details:

Title: When Dimple Met Rishi
Author: Sandhya Menon
Narrated by: Sneha Mathan, Vikas Adam
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Publication date: May 30, 2017
Length (print): 380 pages
Length (audiobook): 10 hours, 45 minutes
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Library

Take A Peek Book Review: Love and Other Words by Christina Lauren

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Macy Sorensen is settling into an ambitious if emotionally tepid routine: work hard as a new pediatrics resident, plan her wedding to an older, financially secure man, keep her head down and heart tucked away.

But when she runs into Elliot Petropoulos—the first and only love of her life—the careful bubble she’s constructed begins to dissolve. Once upon a time, Elliot was Macy’s entire world—growing from her gangly bookish friend into the man who coaxed her heart open again after the loss of her mother…only to break it on the very night he declared his love for her.

Told in alternating timelines between Then and Now, teenage Elliot and Macy grow from friends to much more—spending weekends and lazy summers together in a house outside of San Francisco devouring books, sharing favorite words, and talking through their growing pains and triumphs. As adults, they have become strangers to one another until their chance reunion. Although their memories are obscured by the agony of what happened that night so many years ago, Elliot will come to understand the truth behind Macy’s decade-long silence, and will have to overcome the past and himself to revive her faith in the possibility of an all-consuming love.

My Thoughts:

This is my 3rd book in about a month by Christina Lauren, a relatively new-to-me writer duo. I’ve been consistently finding their writing engaging, hard to put down, and emotionally compelling — but that said, Love and Other Words didn’t wow me as much as the other two I’ve read.

In Love and Other Words, there’s an aura of sadness that permeates the entire book, driven mostly by the “Then and Now” structure that keeps the narrative flipping back and forth between past and present. In the present, we know that Macy has never gotten over the heartbreak that Elliot represents, and that as a consequence, she keeps herself safe by never really opening herself up to feeling deep emotions. In the past, we see the growing friendship that turns into love, which is sweet and nostalgic, but even there, the feeling of sorrow hangs over everything as Macy mourns her deceased mother and tries to find a place for herself in the world. None of this is a negative exactly, but it does give the book a heaviness that keeps it from being an upbeat, fun read.

And having now read a few books by these authors in a relatively short space of time, I have a quibble that I can’t ignore: This is the 2nd of their books in a row (after My Favorite Half-Night Stand) where the main character is a woman with a very impressive professional life, which clearly required dedication and years of study — and yet their careers end up feeling like window dressing. In My Favorite Half-Night Stand, she’s a university professor; here’s, she’s a pediatric resident. Specifically in this book, we mainly see Macy coming and going from work shifts, but never actually see her working. What’s more, I don’t remember ever getting a clue from her “then” chapters that she had an interest in medicine or science. It’s great to see women in powerful, learned roles — but I want to actually see them in their professional capacity at least a little bit, rather than having their careers being just another fact that makes up the whole. If that makes any sense…

But back to the love story — Macy and Elliot are awfully sweet together, and it’s not exactly a surprise (so I won’t include a spoiler warning) that these two crazy lovebirds find their way back to one another by the end. “Then” Elliot and Macy take a long time to move beyond friendship, and it’s kind of lovely to see them navigating how to deal with first love. As an added plus, young Macy and Elliot bond over their love of words and books, and that’s never not a good thing! Give me a love story built around shared reading material any day!

I’ll close by sharing this sweet little exchange from a “Then” chapter, when Elliot asks Macy if she thinks about him when they’re apart:

It took me a second to process what he meant. When I was back home. Away from him. “Of course I do.”

“When?”

“All the time. You’re my best friend.”

“Your best friend,” he repeated.

My heart dipped low in my chest, almost painfully. “Well, you’re more, too. You’re my best everything.”

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The details:

Title: Love and Other Words
Author: Christina Lauren
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: April 10, 2018
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library

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Book Review: All Stories Are Love Stories by Elizabeth Percer

all storiesSynopsis:

(via Goodreads)

In this thoughtful, mesmerizing tale with echoes of Station Eleven, the author of An Uncommon Education follows a group of survivors thrown together in the aftermath of two major earthquakes that strike San Francisco within an hour of each other—an achingly beautiful and lyrical novel about the power of nature, the resilience of the human spirit, and the enduring strength of love.

On Valentine’s Day, two major earthquakes strike San Francisco within the same hour, devastating the city and its primary entry points, sparking fires throughout, and leaving its residents without power, gas, or water.

Among the disparate survivors whose fates will become intertwined are Max, a man who began the day with birthday celebrations tinged with regret; Vashti, a young woman who has already buried three of the people she loved most . . . but cannot forget Max, the one man who got away; and Gene, a Stanford geologist who knows far too much about the terrifying earthquakes that have damaged this beautiful city and irrevocably changed the course of their lives.

As day turns to night and fires burn across the city, Max and Vashti—trapped beneath the rubble of the collapsed Nob Hill Masonic Auditorium—must confront each other and face the truth about their past, while Gene embarks on a frantic search through the realization of his worst nightmares to find his way back to his ailing lover and their home.

My thoughts:

All Stories Are Love Stories has some beautiful writing, but using the destruction of San Francisco to set the stage for an exploration of love, commitment, and abandonment might be a step too far.

The characters in this book have all suffered through childhoods characterized by loss, and all feel some sort of aching hole in their lives. Max and Vashti both yearn for what they’ve lost, despite building lives apart from one another. Gene and Franklin have a happy and loving relationship, but loss lurks around the corner, as Franklin has recently been diagnosed with MS and the resulting deterioration frightens Gene no end.

Much of the core of this novel is interior, as we live within the heads of the characters and witness their ruminations on how they’ve reached this particular moment in their lives.

And then disaster strikes. I was both horrified and fascinated by the depiction of the earthquakes and the utter destruction left in their wake, and yet we see so much of it strictly in terms of how it affects this particular group of people.

The comparison to Station Eleven in the synopsis is wishful thinking, in my opinion. Station Eleven was gorgeous and epic in scope, while maintaining the intimacy of personal experience. In All Stories Are Love Stories, we do get these intense personal stories, but somehow, it feels like the biggest stories are always happening off-screen.

The book does do a very good job of showing love in many different forms — between sisters, between lovers, between parent and child — and the risk one takes in loving. Is loving someone and sacrificing for them worthwhile, even when it ultimately must end in grief?

If anything, All Stories Are Love Stories seems to reinforce the sentiment: “‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” In the sense that this book can also be described as a love letter to San Francisco (a very over-used phrase, but it really applies here), the quote works as well. Despite its geological faults and its sociological flaws, there’s something unique and magical about San Francisco — enough so that people continue to rebuild the city every time it gets knocked down. For San Francisco, and for its people, it’s the loving that matters most, not the loss.

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The details:

Title: All Stories Are Love Stories
Author: Elizabeth Percer
Publisher: Harper
Publication date: March 22, 2016
Length: 350 pages
Genre: Adult fiction
Source: Library