Review | Our Wayward Fate, Gloria Chao

Our_Wayward_Fate_CoverOur Wayward Fate is a much angrier, more frustrated, book than Gloria Chao’s earlier novel American PandaIts protagonist Ali Chu, the only Asian-American student in her mostly white school, has lived her entire life dealing with racist microaggressions — and, quite frankly, horrifically overt aggressions — from teachers and friends. The emotional toll this takes on Ali practically pulses off the page. We can feel her seethe as she smiles silently at another racist joke. We can sense her shame as she prepares a PB&J sandwich for lunch, because her classmates think congee is ‘gross.’ It’s difficult to read at times, but important, and one wonders how much of this behaviour (even from teachers who should behave better!) goes unchallenged across North America.

Even Ali’s conflict with her mother, also a major plot point in American Panda, feels more fraught here. Whereas Mei’s mother was hyper-critical, Ali’s mother outright keeps a major secret from a daughter, one that potentially has a major impact on Ali’s future. While her actions are definitely wrong, I did find the mother a sympathetic figure, and couldn’t quite work up as much righteous outrage as Ali and her friends did upon finding out. I love the scenes where we learn a bit more about Ali’s mother’s history, how she felt about the choices she made, how she dealt with the racism she experienced in America, and how her own experiences led to the decisions she made about Ali’s future. I felt for her, and while I understand the perspective the narrator took, I wish Ali’s mother had been treated with a bit more sympathy.

There is a romance — between Ali and new student / fellow Taiwanese-American Chase Yu — but it feels almost secondary to the story. There are some cute moments — I love the flirting over kung fu (where their idea of a dream date involves a rooftop sparring session), and their text messages are filled with puns about their names (which honestly got old for me pretty quickly, but I can imagine a couple in love getting giddy over teasing each other that way). There’s also an angsty conflict — Chase’s family has a troubled history, and Ali’s mother doesn’t approve of the relationship.

But overall, Ali and Chase’s connection felt less like teenagers in love and more like a pair of Taiwanese-American teenagers finally finding someone who helps them be more fully themselves. Unlike Ali, who had learned to sublimate her Taiwanese background in order to fit in, Chase enters the school utterly refusing to follow suit. He calls out racist behaviour in the classroom, advocates for classmates to pronounce Ali’s name properly (‘Āh-lěe’, after a mountain in Taiwan, rather than the more Americanized ‘Allie’), and eats Chinese food with chopsticks in the cafeteria. With his friendship and support, Ali becomes braver about standing up for herself and for who she is, and while it’s disheartening to see the responses of some of her so-called friends, it’s thrilling to see Ali grow.

I personally preferred the more light-hearted American Panda, probably because I related more to Mei than I did to Ali. But I think a lot of Ali’s experiences at school will resonate with Asian-American teens. I hope those teens find this book, and, like Ali, understand that their voices matter.

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Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review | Million Dollar Marriage, Katy Evans

Evans-MillionDollarMarriage-28092-CV-FL-V1.inddNell is a super nerdy PhD who reads Baudelaire and Chinese philosophy for fun. Luke is a tattooed bad boy who owns and runs a dive bar. So when they have to get married to compete in a competition reality show for a million dollars, it’s purely a marriage of convenience, and both have full intentions of annulling the union after the competition. Except while ziplining, running through a maze tied together, and performing a host of other Amazing Race-type challenges, they start getting to know each other better. And the incredible sexual chemistry between them eventually develops into actual love.

I absolutely loved Million Dollar Marriage. I love the concept of getting trapped together for a chance at a million dollars, and I love the chemistry just buzzing between the two leads. I love how Nell is an unapologetic nerd, who believes she’s good only for her brains and is genuinely taken aback when she learns that Luke’s favourite part about her is actually her freckles (awww!). And I love how Luke immediately assumes he’s the brawns in the partnership, only to be genuinely moved when he learns that Nell thinks he’s actually really smart. Their relationship may have started off as opposites attract, but I love that Luke was already becoming attracted to her from the very beginning, and that despite their arguments, they actually worked together well for the challenges.

I just outright fell in love with Luke. He’s hot and sweet and considerate. There are moments where Nell’s fears could cost them a challenge and the chance at a million dollars, but throughout the story, he completely respects her boundaries, and lets her take the lead. I also love how he really listens to her, especially in an intimate setting. When she tells him she’s never come during partner sex, he acknowledges her previous partner must have just been bad at sex, but he doesn’t really harp on it. Rather, he takes things slow and gentle and (spoiler alert) pleasantly surprises her with her response. He also respects her desire to save sex for someone she truly loves, and acknowledges that since they barely know each other, she likely isn’t in love with him yet. I love a good alpha hero as much as any other romance reader, but I have to admit, I’m totally loving how gentle and understanding Luke is. He is labelled the Prince Charming of their TV show, and it’s easy to see why.

Nell may be a bit more difficult to love, just because she’s so prickly. But I love how relatable she is. Her hesitations on sex and relationships are rooted very much in a bad, I’d even say abusive, relationship she had genuinely thought was the one, and I also felt for her during the glimpse we had of her father also being a controlling jerk. She’s dealing with a lot, and I like that she takes a while to open up to Luke.

I also love that Nell is a straight-up PhD, and that throughout the filming, people refer to her as Dr Carpenter, or to her and Luke as Dr and Mr Cross. Her PhD is in comparative literature, which is just delightfully nerdy, but the significant part is how much people rightfully respect the title she’s earned. Given how hard it is for a woman to gain respect in academia, much less for a humanities degree like comparative literature, I love that the other characters simply accept it as Nell’s due, and give her the respect she deserves.

Overall, I absolutely loved this novel. I wasn’t too happy with the little incident near the end that almost risked their happily ever after, but I admit it’s true to the characters. I also totally melted at Luke wanting to introduce Nell to his grandmother — how adorable is that?

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

Review | Ellie and the Harpmaker, Hazel Prior

EllieHarpmakerBookCoverEllie and the Harpmaker is a lovely, sweet, charming story about love and friendship. Ellie is a woman in an unhappy marriage to a controlling, abusive husband. Dan is a reclusive harp maker who likes his privacy and his routines, until Ellie walks into his shop. He offers Ellie a harp of her own, and unbeknownst to her husband, she comes into his shop daily for lessons, thereby discovering a part of herself that she’d been forced to keep hidden but that gives her a dose of daily happiness.

The novel is written in a genteel, almost fabulistic style. Ellie is drawn to Dan’s shop because of the magic in his craft, and in the friendship that develops between them, and Prior certainly weaves a spell of just that magic for the reader. The novel tackles some serious issues — domestic abuse, a secret that upends a character’s life — yet it all does so with a somewhat hazy, rosy glow. Just as Ellie loses herself in the melodies she can create through her harp, so do can we readers lose ourselves in the world Prior has created, an isolated, idyllic place where a lonely poet and a harp maker can form a connection.

Something about the relationship between Ellie and Dan reminds me a bit of gentle British romances, like Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Despite the undeniable physical attraction between them, the chemistry isn’t at all fiery. The lasting impression one receives is that of a deep and binding friendship rather than a romance.

The book is a bit of a slow burn. To be honest, it was difficult at times to tell if Ellie and Dan really liked each other, or if they just each offered the other a chance to escape a particular kind of life. Dan is also incredibly naive about relationships — at one point, he completely misunderstands a long-term relationship, in a way that felt a bit more like Forrest Gump than Don Tillman. That reveal just made me more sad than anything, because he was deceived by someone important in his life, but it also made me uncomfortable how Ellie kept digging into his back story without his knowledge or consent.

So the romance in this book didn’t really hook me, but I love the development of Ellie and Dan’s friendship. I love the setting, and I love the descriptions of the harps and the potential they have to make people happy.

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Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.