About Jaclyn

I'm a total bookaholic! Fave genres include romance, mysteries, thrillers, and fantasy. I'm especially interested in books by and about: BIPOC folks, Filipino / Filipino diaspora, plus-size / fat folks. Romances with animal-loving heroes and heroines are a major plus. I am NOT interested in books that include, in any shape or form, animal abuse / neglect / death.

Review | The One True Me and You, by Remi K England

OneTrueMeAndYouThis is such an adorable, heartwarming, and sweet romance, an utter delight to read from beginning to end! Kaylee is a fan fiction writer, at a hotel for a convention for the Sherlock Holmes show The Great Game. They’re excited to meet online friends, try out they/them pronouns for the first time, and also, kiss a girl for the first time. Teagan is Miss Virginia at a teen pageant in the same hotel. She wants to win for the scholarship money, and she has big plans of finally coming out as lesbian once she enters college and is free of the conservative (read: homophobic) pageant world. Teagan’s a secret fangirl at heart, so she sneaks into a convention party where Kaylee’s dancing with some friends, and, well, the sparks start flying.

Both main characters are new to queer romance, and both are still in the process of figuring out their respective sexualities. So the romance between them is honestly one of the sweetest I’ve read in a while. Teagan’s blushes as she notices how sexy Kaylee looks in their soldier John Watson cosplay is just adorable, and I like how part of what catches Teagan’s eye is how the costume plays with male and female gender expressions without quite fully committing to either. And Kaylee’s flurry of text messages to their friends about making out with Teagan, coupled with their friends’ excited squeeing in return, just took me back to high school, and all the fun, uncomplicated joys of having a crush like you back. The author does a great job of describing the giddiness and sheer enjoyment of first love, and from their first meeting to the final page, I was 100% shipping Kaylee and Teagan the entire time.

I also love the storylines the author crafted for both main characters beyond the romance. I love Teagan’s friendship with fellow pageant contestant Jess. So much of what we see about beauty pageants in media focuses on the cutthroat nature of the competition, or the over-the-top controlling nature of pageant moms. But this book shows as well the mutual respect that can develop alongside intense rivalries, and the bonds of friendship that can form when you grow up together in the same competition circuit. In a similar way, Kaylee has their real-life best friend Ami, and their online friends Cake and Lady, whom they meet for the first time at the convention. I love how the author explores this side of online friendships, how people can form supportive networks online, and how for some, it can be easier to be themselves online than in real life.

Similarly, I love how both Teagan and Kaylee have strong interests in stuff beyond the pageant and the convention. I thought the subplot about Kaylee’s fanfic fame and writing competition seemed a bit unrealistic, but I’m also the first to admit that’s likely just my envy talking, as there are indeed real-life seventeen-year-olds who find similar success. I did find myself more drawn to Teagan’s backstory, with her interest in art, her mom’s death by suicide, and her resulting ambition to become an art therapist. I love how all of that played out in the pageant, and I absolutely love how it paid off for her in the finals.

My one (minor) snag is that I wish the villain got her just desserts. In a rather convenient coincidence, both Kaylee and Teagan share the same nemesis: Madison, a.k.a. Miss North Carolina. The Regina George of Kaylee’s school, Madison bullies Kaylee constantly, to the point that Kaylee feels genuine fear when they see her at the hotel. She also seems intent on sabotaging Teagan’s chances at winning, so as to improve her own, and I don’t know if she just has a hate-on for Teagan, or if she’s just as shady with the other contestants. At the hotel, she commits a couple of acts of what I consider violence against the leads. No spoilers, but I think one would be enough to earn her a suspension if she did it in school, and the other should have gotten her disqualified from the pageant if she’d been caught. Madison doesn’t quite succeed in getting everything she wants at the end, yet she also seems to have gotten off really lightly, and I can’t help wishing that some more karma had come her way.

Still, all that being said, the overall impression left by this book is one of joy. Kaylee and Teagan are really sweet protagonists, and I loved watching them grow together and towards their happily ever after.

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Thank you to St Martin’s Press for an e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Greenwich Park, by Katherine Faulkner

GreenwichParkWhen Helen meets Rachel at a pre-natal class, the two women strike an immediate friendship. Except the friendship seems much stronger on Rachel’s end, and even when Helen tries to set stricter boundaries, Rachel somehow always seems to be where Helen is. Before Helen realizes it, Rachel’s staying over at her house, and finagling invitations to various family events, and Helen’s beginning to suspect that there’s more to Rachel’s interest in her than she realizes.

Greenwich Park has an interesting hook, and a big reveal with a villain and a motive I admit I didn’t see coming. But overall, I found it more slow-moving and less thrilling than I anticipated. It also required major suspensions of disbelief — like, why on earth would an adult woman like Helen let Rachel take over her life so easily? Or, even if I could accept that Helen was really that spineless, why on earth didn’t she ask her sister-in-law Serena, or her other brother’s girlfriend Katie (the two other narrators in this novel) for help in setting boundaries? As good as Rachel was at manipulating Helen’s emotions, she was in many respects an unpleasant, stalkerish kind of person, and it’s hard to believe a woman with such a solid support network would be so unable to keep her away.

There’s also a subplot about someone constantly calling Helen about a mortgage she’d never actually applied for. Upon her husband’s advice, Helen mostly just dismissed it as telemarketing, at least until something happens super late in the book that leads her to call her financial adviser for, well, advice. That all ties into her inability to set boundaries, but I don’t understand why she wouldn’t have blocked the person’s number in the first place. Or tracked down the company and reported them for unsavoury business practices. Or, heck, even called her financial adviser earlier on, since it was causing her so much stress. And on the flip side, if the call was legit, why wouldn’t the company have conducted an investigation as to why the person who’d supposedly filed for the mortgage was now denying all knowledge of it?

The novel also had a bunch of plot threads — some red herrings, and some actual clues — that often felt semi-half-baked for most of the story. For example, Helen finds a note in her brother’s bathroom that makes her suspect Rory is cheating on Serena. We get chapters from Serena’s point of view, but little actual insight into her marriage to Rory, so that plot thread just kinda lies there without really going anywhere. It does end up having some significance at the end, but overall, it just felt under-utilized as either red herring or clue.

Similarly, there was a big deal about how Katie and Helen’s brother Charlie rekindling their relationship, and some hint at tension between Katie and Helen. But most of Katie’s chapters were about a rape trial she covered as a reporter, and about her eventual investigation into the mystery surrounding Rachel. So again, while Katie does play a large part in the mystery itself, she seems underdeveloped as a character. And apart from a minuscule reference to her being jealous about one of Charlie’s exes, I don’t think the story would have changed at all if she and Charlie weren’t romantically involved, either in the past or in the story’s present.

The story does pick up near the end, and as I said, the big reveal was an interesting surprise. I just wish the build-up had been more deeply developed.

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Thank you to Simon Schuster Canada for an egalley of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Last Rose of Shanghai, by Weina Dai Randel

LastRoseOfShanghaiEven before I turned the first page, I was already in love with this novel. As a book blogger, I must have seen one or two World War II novels with each promo email from a publisher. And I like them well enough; I enjoy historical fiction, and losing myself in a different place and time. Still, when this caught my eye in the Thomas Allen catalogue, my immediate thought was: finally.

In the midst of shelves full of World War II stories about white people in Europe and North America, finally, here’s one set in China. Finally, here’s one that stars a Chinese woman instead of a white one with blond hair and blue eyes. Finally, here’s one that talks about the Japanese occupation of China, and the intra-Asian racism and cruelty during the war, alongside the horrors of the Nazi regime.

Finally, here’s a World War II novel that talks about that period of history in my part of the world. The publisher’s choice of cover art is, to me, just as powerful. I’ve seen dozens of World War II novels with the brave heroine standing in the centre, her back turned to the viewer. But I can’t remember the last one I’ve seen where the woman wasn’t white or blond. Covers of Asian historical novels published in North America seem to have a certain aesthetic: East Asian women with partially concealed faces, pastel-coloured flower petals, possibly some soft lighting. With this cover, the book seems to declare that it’s not so much an “Asian historical novel” as it is a “World War II” novel, that has an Asian lead and an Asian setting. It’s a powerful, long overdue, message, and one I hope to see a lot more of.

The Last Rose of Shanghai is about the forbidden love between Aiyi Shao, a wealthy heiress, nightclub owner, and business mogul in Shanghai, and Ernest Reismann, a penniless Jewish refugee from Germany, whom Aiyi hires to play the piano at her club. The romance between them is sweet: I love how much they care for — and take care of — each other. And while the obstacles between them did get a bit much towards the end (a scene featuring a tank stretched the limits of even my suspension of disbelief), I do like how the core reasons they couldn’t be together were very true to their characters’ unique circumstances.

For example, there’s the usual barrier of Aiyi being engaged to another man. But more important than that is the fact that Ernest is also on the run from Japanese soldiers, who suspect him of killing one of their own, and the powerful Japanese commander has threatened to shut down Aiyi’s beloved nightclub unless she turns him in. Thus, Aiyi’s motivation for staying away from Ernest has only a bit to do with the usual barriers of family honour and duty, and much more to do with who she is as a person who values her financial independence, and takes great pride in what she has accomplished with her night club.

And from Ernest’s perspective, there’s all the usual stuff about how he can’t really offer Aiyi much in terms of a stable future, but even more central to his character is his devotion to his younger sister, and his desire to give her a good life despite their current circumstances. His relationships with Aiyi and with his sister come to a head in a single, tragic moment, and the resulting rift between him and Aiyi afterwards feels both heartbreaking and totally understandable.

In fact, I’d say that it’s Aiyi and Ernest’s own story arcs that really make the novel shine, even more than the romance between them. The love story aspect began to feel a bit episodic after a while, when just as things seem headed for a happy resolution, something new happens that keeps them apart again. After a while, the obstacles themselves began to feel a bit convenient, like a TV writer stretching out the story over an entire season’s worth of episodes. The ending to this plot line, with the big reveal in the final few chapters, was satisfying, though I wish there had been more of an emotional payoff.

In contrast, Aiyi and Ernest’s respective story arcs are really strong. I loved watching Aiyi fight to maintain her power and financial independence at a time when women still dealt with bound feet and social expectations about their role being limited to the home. I enjoyed watching her negotiate with the powerful Jewish magnate Sassoon, and seeing her outwit Japanese soldiers and her domineering oldest brother, all to hold on to the business she’d worked so hard to build. I was especially captivated by the tension between how much she was willing to sacrifice for Ernest’s sake, because of her love for him, and how much she’d refuse to give up to ensure her own future. I found Aiyi to be a complex, compelling heroine, and I was totally into seeing her story unfold.

Ernest, as well, is a sympathetic character. From the tragic backstory behind the scar on his right hand, to his determination to play through a more recent injury just to keep his sister in school, he’s very much a heroic figure. Perhaps most powerful for me was a scene where his sister’s host family — who housed her while she went to school — decided to go back to America. Their departure forced Ernest to make a near-impossible choice about his family’s future, and while the scene where Ernest makes that decision is probably the most heartbreaking in the entire novel, the aftermath of the decision he makes imbues the scene with even more layers of emotion. It’s a beautiful moment, and one that both shows the kind of person Ernest is, and shapes the kind of person he becomes.

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Thank you to Thomas Allen Ltd for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.