Category: Romance

Ocean’s Echo

Cover image for Ocean's Echo by Everina Maxwell

by Everina Maxwell

ISBN 9781250758866

“They were working together, they were rooming together, and every time he turned around, there was Tennal—unpredictable and razor-edged, crackling like the end of a live wire. Surit worked in a universe of fixed possibilities. Tennal was a chaos event. Surit was drawn to it like a gravity well.”

Tennalhin Halkana is a reader, capable of perceiving the emotions of those around him and even their thoughts if he pushes deeper. But deep reading is incredibly illegal in Orshan, and even a rebellious runaway like Tennal has moral limits. Unfortunately for Tennal, his powerful aunt will stop at nothing to bring him back into the fold. Conscripted under questionable orders into Orshan’s military, Tennal may find himself permanently bound to an architect who is charged with controlling his reader powers and bending them to their only acceptable use: navigating the maelstrom of chaotic space.

Lieutenant Surit Yeni is the son of an infamous traitor, his own so-far exemplary military career notwithstanding. Intent on securing a pension for his one surviving parent, Surit accepts a questionable transfer to the regulators for a salvage mission. While Surit is surprised by his orders to sync with a reader, he is shocked when he finds that the reader is neither a volunteer nor under a properly sanctioned court order for abuse of their powers. Surit believes the orders he has received are illegal, but when his superior officers refuse to listen, he and Tennal strike upon an unusual plan: fake a sync bond for as long as it takes to help Tennal escape.

Ocean’s Echo is set in the same universe as Winter’s Orbit, but otherwise stands alone with little crossover. Orshan, like Iskat, is part of the Resolution but wary of its influence. Neuromodified readers and architects are forbidden by the Resolution to leave Orshan space, and Orshan has done everything in its power to avoid drawing attention to their military use of these assets. In terms of genre, it’s neither entirely science fiction nor really romance, and I think this may be a sticking point for some readers as everyone will be looking for a different balance of these two elements. This installment has an even slower burn on the romance side than its predecessor, pushing the balance slightly towards science fiction.

I was initially rather confused by the world building surrounding readers and architects, and why it would be socially acceptable for architects to control people, but taboo for readers to perform even surface reading, which provides little more information than body language or tone of voice. It took the story going on a bit for it to become evident that this wasn’t a bug, but one of the central conflicts Maxwell was building the narrative around. Control is useful to governments, but readers have proven difficult to control and can access information the government would prefer to keep secret. Tennal, snarky chaos incarnate, is prime example of this difficulty, although his reader powers are honestly the least of his problems given his struggles with drugs and other self-destructive behaviour (full content warnings are available on the author’s site). As the primary POV character, it isn’t always easy being inside his head.

Tennal and Surit come to their relationship under the most fraught circumstances. Surit’s brief is to sync and control Tennal, but while his scruples prevent him from carrying out the order, he is still Tennal’s superior officer for as long as he is nominally in the military. In other circumstances, however, the power tilts in Tennal’s favour; he is the son of a powerful family, nephew of the Orshan Legislator, while Surit is the orphaned son of a traitor. It is no surprise, then, that the slow build towards deeper feelings is complex and fraught with both political and emotional landmines. And while Surit vows that he will never sync Tennal under any circumstances, events constantly conspire to push them towards this end, tempting them to seize the one tool at their disposal.

You might also like A Taste of Gold and Iron by Alexandra Rowland

10 Years of Required Reading

When I launched this blog in the fall of 2012, shortly after my husband and I moved to the Seattle area for his job, I had no idea I would still be maintaining it a decade later! At the time, I was at loose ends waiting for a work visa, and looking for something to fill the time. Since then, I’ve returned to library work, starting in public libraries and then making an unexpected jump into the world of corporate librarianship. We’ve adopted two cats, bought a condo, and settled in to stay. These days I don’t have quite as much spare time to read or review, but I still love having a place to collect my thoughts and reading history, especially when someone asks me for a reading recommendation!

In honour of the tenth anniversary of Required Reading, I thought it might be fun to dig into the stats and find my most popular posts. Since October 2012, I’ve published 722 posts (this makes 723!) for a total of more than half a million words, which have been read by people from literally all over the world:

Heat map of all-time visitors to Required Reading by country.
Heatmap of all-time visitors to Required Reading by country

Over the course of the coming week, I’m planning to share some of my favourite reads from the the past ten years, but to kick things off, here are the top five most popular posts on the site:

The Rose and the Dagger

by Renée Ahdieh

ISBN 9780399171628

Cover image for The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh

I’m not sure why this 2016 review of the YA fantasy sequel to The Wrath and the Dawn is so popular, but year after year this review continues to receive hits. It’s one of the few spoiler reviews on my site, because I couldn’t find a way to write about it without discussing the ending. It makes me think that, despite the taboo, people actually do like spoilers! Inspired by the 1001 Nights, the sequel focuses on Khalid and Shahrzad trying to break the curse that turned him into the murderous caliph who executed all of his previous brides, including Shahrzad’s best friend. She must find a way to regain the trust of her allies, and free the kingdom from this curse so that no more girls have to be sacrificed. 

Categories: Young Adult, Fantasy

Always and Forever, Lara Jean and P.S. I Still Love You

by Jenny Han

ISBNs 9781481430487 and 9781442426733

Cover image for Always and Forever Lara Jean by Jenny Han

My 2015 and 2017 reviews of two of the books in Han’s popular To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before series continue to see high traffic, with a bump driven by the recent Netflix adaptation. However, the much of the traffic here comes from some popular text graphics I shared on Pinterest, that continue to do the rounds. P.S. I Still Love You follows Lara Jean and Peter trying to figure out how to date for real after the fake dating plot of the first book, when another boy from her past shows up with a letter in hand. Then, Always and Forever, Lara Jean focuses Lara Jean’s senior year of high school and her decision about whether or not to follow her boyfriend to college. You can start the series here with To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.

Categories: Young Adult, Romance

The Outside Circle

by Patti LaBoucane-Benson

ISBN 9781770899377

Cover image for The Outside Circle by Patti LaBoucane-Benson and Kelly Mellings

This 2016 review of a Canadian graphic novel continues to see a high hit count, and the search terms lead me to guess that maybe it is being taught in some Canadian classrooms. The Outside Circle follows Pete, a young aboriginal man who goes to jail after a fight with his mother’s boyfriend. Eventually, time served and good behaviour gets Pete admitted to a traditional aboriginal healing centre in Edmonton, where the program aims to help First Nations people process their history in order to help them understand the cycle of abuse in which they have been trapped. The standout here is the striking art by Kelly Mellings which brings Pete’s story to life using a minimalist colour palette.

Categories: Canadian, Graphic Novel

El Deafo

by Cece Bell

ISBN 9781419710209

Cover image for El Deafo by Cece Bell

This 2015 post is a review of Bell’s graphic memoir, based on her own experiences as a deaf child in school, although the characters are drawn as cute rabbits. When four-year-old Cece suddenly becomes violently ill, she wakes up in the hospital unable to hear, and has to be outfitted with a hearing aid. When first grade rolls around, it is time for Cece to go to her neighbourhood school, where she will be the only deaf student. Cece’s El Deafo character doesn’t just turn deafness into a super power. Rather, El Deafo is Cece’s more assertive self, the one that is brave enough to stand up and explain when something that her friends are doing is actually making things more difficult for her.

Categories: Middle Grade, Graphic Novel

Thanks to all my readers, whether you’ve been here from the beginning or are just tuning in now! Check back throughout the week as I highlight some of my favourite reads since the inception of this blog.

Asian YA Fantasy and Romance Mini Reviews

This month my book club is reading books by Asian or Asian American authors. I predominantly picked up YA romances and fantasy that fit this theme, and I’ve gathered a few picks together here, with a focus on East Asian stories.

A Pho Love Story

Cover image for A Pho Love Story by Loan Le

by Loan Le

ISBN 9781534441958

“In different circumstances, this could happen. This is possible in an alternate reality.”

Linh Mai and Bao Nguyen’s families are sworn rivals. For the last six years, their families have operated competing pho restaurants across the street from one another in La Qinta, California’s Little Saigon neighbourhood. But despite the deep enmity, Linh and Bao are curious about one another, and it doesn’t take much to push them together. When open-hearted Bao does a favour for Linh and her family without their parents’ knowledge, it becomes the beginning of a secret friendship, and maybe something more. Soon Bao and Linh are working together on the school newspaper, with Bao writing restaurant reviews that Linh illustrates. Bao has always felt directionless, but through this project he begins to find himself as a writer, while Linh struggles with the knowledge that her parents will never support her choosing a career as an artist, despite her obvious talent. A Pho Love Story is told in alternating chapters, switching between Linh and Bao’s perspectives. Unfortunately I didn’t find that the two had distinct voices, and it was easy to forget whose chapter I was reading. However, I was invested in the family mystery, and learning more about the complicated history that tied Linh and Bao’s families together long before the competing restaurants, sparking a bitter rivalry. Loan Le also excels at food descriptions, and this book made me positively hungry.

Tags: Fiction, Young Adult, Romance

XOXO

Cover image for XOXO by Axie Oh

by Axie Oh

ISBN 9780063025011

“You agreed to share your whole life with your fans, so that they can love you without fear that you’ll disappoint or hurt them.”

Jenny has her future clearly planned out: graduate high school at the top of her class and be admitted into one of America’s best music conservatories before pursuing a career as a cellist. Boys and dating don’t figure into this plan, until Jenny meets Jaewoo at her part-time job at her uncle’s karaoke bar. Jenny spends one whirlwind evening with Jaewoo before he disappears back to Korea and she expects she’ll never see him again. But then Jenny’s grandmother needs surgery, and Jenny and her mother will be traveling to Seoul to help her halmoni through the recovery. Jenny enrolls at a prestigious arts academy, only to discover that among her classmates are the members of the K-pop boy band XOXO—and Bae Jaewoo is the most popular member. Jenny should be focused on her future, and as an idol, Jaewoo is absolutely forbidden to date. In fact, XOXO barely survived a recent scandal when one of Jaewoo’s bandmates was photographed with a girl. Both Jenny and Jaewoo are confined by expectations in their own way, trying to figure out how a music career fits into their future. XOXO was a cute, fast paced romance. However, the effort to keep the pacing brisk did mean that many scenes ended abruptly, with some rough transitions. Events that perhaps should have taken place on page are also passed over with a sentence or two, and the overall effect was somewhat jarring.

Tags: Fiction, Young Adult, Romance

The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea

Cover image for The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh

by Axie Oh

ISBN 9781250780874

“You claim the gods should love and care for humans. I disagree. I don’t think love can be bought or earned or even prayed for. It must be freely given.”

When Mina sacrifices herself to save her brother and the girl he loves, she finds herself in a palace beneath the sea, home of the Sea God. Every year, Mina’s kingdom has sacrificed a bride to the Sea God, searching for respite from the storms that have plagued the coast for the past hundred years, but every year the storms return. Perhaps Mina can finally be the true bride who breaks the Sea God’s curse, and saves her kingdom. But caught in the realm between life and death, Mina instead finds herself a ward of Shin, the Sea God’s right hand man and most trusted protector. Still determined to find a way to help her people before her limited time in the spirit realm runs out, Mina must contend an implacable man who blocks her at every turn. The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea is based on a Korean folk tale, however that story is about Shim Cheong, the dutiful daughter. Oh’s retelling is told in the first person by Mina, who makes the rebellious choice to save Cheong, who she regards as a sister, and give her a future with Joon, Mina’s older brother. Mina becomes the heart of this new story, rising to the unexpected challenge she faces, and using her voice a storyteller, which also allows Oh to weave in other Korean myths.

Tags: Fiction, Fantasy, Young Adult, Fairy Tale, Romance

An Arrow to the Moon

Cover image for An Arrow to the Moon by Emily X.R. Pan

by Emily X.R. Pan

ISBN 9780316464055

“Her parents’ expectations had become a paperweight, and she was meant to hold still, nearly flattened.”

Emily X.R. Pan’s second novel is Romeo and Juliet meets the Chinese legend of the moon goddess Chang’e and the hunter Houyi. Pan blends the two tales together, along with nods to the 1996 Baz Luhrmann film. Luna Chang and Hunter Yee have grown up in Fairbridge, where their fathers are academic rivals at the local university. However, the enmity between the two families seems to run deeper than mere professional rivalry can explain. Both the Changs and the Yees come from Taiwan, but have differing stances on Taiwanese independence. An Arrow to the Moon is set in 1991, seventeen years after the Terracotta Warriors were unearthed in Shaanxi, an event with magical significance for Luna and Hunter, who were born on the day the tomb was opened. When Hunter and Luna accidentally meet at a party, the world shifts beneath their feet—literally. Things begin changing in Fairbridge, first manifesting as mysterious cracks in the ground. Hunter’s tense relationship with his parents grow more fraught, while Luna learns that her mother has committed an unforgivable betrayal. As their relationship grows, it threatens to unearth family secrets, call in old debts, and unleash a magic that was never of this world.

Tags: Fiction, Fantasy, Young Adult, Fairy Tale

The Empress of Salt and Fortune

Cover image for The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

by Nghi Vo

ISBN 9781250750303

“History will say that she was an ugly woman, but that is not true. She had a foreigner’s beauty, like a language we do not know how to read.”

This last title isn’t YA but I read it as the same time as the others and it fits thematically! The Empress of Salt and Fortune is the first in a series that will follow the cleric Chih, a disciple of the Singing Hills abbey. Chih is an archivist and keeper of stories, and they are trained to find and record the most interesting tales—perhaps especially those tales that some people would rather were never told. Following the death of the formidable Empress In-yo, Chih is drawn to Old Woman Rabbit, and soon finds that they are in the company of the Empress’s long-time handmaiden, companion, and confidante. The relationship between the foreign bride who seized a kingdom and the servant girl who chose to follow her into exile is one of choices, about what they are and are not willing to sacrifice for one another, and for ambition. In this short but perfectly honed novella, Chih quietly peels back the layers of Rabbit’s life, until they uncover a secret that could bring down a dynasty.

Tags: Fiction, Novella, Fantasy, LGBTQIA+

You might also like:

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

Daughter of the Moon Goddess by Sue Lynn Tan

MXTX Mini Reviews

Today I’ve got three danmei (m/m romance) novels by Chinese writer Mo Xiang Tong Xiu (MXTX), recently translated officially into English for the first time. All three are also xianxia, a Chinese fantasy genre where the characters cultivate near-magical abilities through meditation or other practices that allow them to direct their life force. One of these novels, The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation, is the source material for the popular television series The Untamed on Netflix, starring Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo. Originally published as web novels, they’ll debut in English in multiple installments over the next year, so I’ve covered the first volume of each here.

The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation

Cover image for The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation (Mo Dao Zu Shi) by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu

Volume 1 of 5

ISBN 9781648279195

“No matter how thoroughly Lan Wangji was praised as an unrivaled rare beauty, nothing could help the fact they he looked profoundly embittered, as if he had lost his wife.”

Once deemed one of the most talented young cultivators of his generation, Wei Wuxian met a tragic end after he deviated from the orthodox path and invented demonic cultivation in order to put an end to an otherwise unwinnable war, only for his allies to turn against him when peace was achieved. When he is unexpectedly reborn thirteen years later in the body of an abused young man named Mo Xuanyu, he finds himself in the middle of a mystery that has unexpected connections to unfinished business from his first life. To solve the case, he’ll need to work with Lan Wangji, with whom he has a tumultuous history. But unbeknownst to Wei Wuxian, Lan Wangji has many regrets about not standing by Wei Wuxian the first time around, and he won’t allow this second chance to slip away. Mysteries and politics abound, but the real draw here is the complex relationship between Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian. As a self-sacrificing character who is often oblivious to others’ regard for him, Wei Wuxian becomes absorbed in the mystery, refusing to allow himself to confront his feelings for Lan Wangji, or accept that they may have been reciprocated all along. As they work together to solve the mystery, incidents from their past are slowly revealed, eventually forcing a reckoning between the two.

The Scum Villain’s Self-Saving System

Cover image for The Scum Villain's Self-Saving System by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu

Volume 1 of 4

ISBN 9781648279218

“Dying for Shizun or dying together with Shizun, either one is something this disciple will gladly do”

Mo Xiang Tong Xiu’s first novel, The Scum Villain’s Self-Saving System, has a more humourous tone than her other works. In many respects, it is a satire of a certain type of web novel. Shen Yuan is an avid reader of such stories, and he dies cursing the terrible writing of Proud Immortal Demon Way by Grandmaster Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky (a pen name like Mo Xiang Tong Xiu). He awakens within the world of the novel, having being transmigrated into the role of Shen Qingqiu, the evil master of Proud Immortal Demon Way’s protagonist, Luo Binghe. In the original novel, Shen Qingqiu meets a terrible fate. If Shen Yuan wants to survive, he’ll need to find a way to avoid becoming the antagonist. However, he is bound by certain rules of the System, a video game-like structure that governs the changes he is trying to make to the plot of the novel in order to save himself. This book is cracky, snarky, meta, weird, and deeply fannish as Mo Xiang Tong Xiu skewers tropes and upends clichés. The new Shen Qingqiu bumbles through, never realizing that Luo Binghe’s feelings for him are more than a disciple for his master. After all, in Proud Immortal Demon Way, Luo Binghe always gets the girl. Shen Yuan is just hoping not to end up dead.

Heaven Official’s Blessing

Cover image for Heaven Official's Blessing (Tian Guan Ci Fu) by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu

Volume 1 of 8

ISBN 9781648279171

“On the night of Zhongyuan Festival, sometimes when people strolled they might discover a road that never existed before. Such a road should never be taken, because if they walked the wrong one, they would enter the Ghost Realm and never return.”

Mo Xiang Tong Xiu’s most recent novel is also her longest, with a projected eight volumes for this English translation. It’s perhaps no surprise then that I felt this first volume was a bit of a slow start, mainly serving to introduce the vast array of characters. We meet Xie Lian, former crown prince of the lost kingdom of Xianle, when he ascends to the Heavenly Realm for the third time. While it isn’t unusual for a god to fall from grace, to fall and then rise again not once but twice is not just unusual but laughable. Xie Lian is known among the other gods as the Laughingstock of the Three Realms. When his third ascension destroys the palaces of two other heavenly officials, he must descend to the Mortal Realm to investigate a case in order to earn merits to repay his debt. Along the way he encounters San Lang, a mysterious youth who seems to be unusually knowledgeable about everything and unperturbed by even the most unnatural events. If you enjoy novels about gods behaving badly, the officials of the Heavenly Realm are no better behaved than the Greek gods. Shenanigans are afoot, and Xie Lian is about to drag his own messy history right into the middle of the heavenly politics he has spent the better part of eight hundred years trying to ignore.

You might also like:

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

Daughter of the Moon Goddess by Sue Lynn Tan

Top 5 Fiction 2021

Although I took a blogging hiatus for much of 2021, I was still reading. This year featured a lot of comfort (re)reads, an unexpected dive into the romance genre, and lots of science fiction and fantasy. Here are my top five fiction titles read or reviewed–but not necessarily published–in 2021. Check back next week for my top non-fiction picks!

Boyfriend Material

Cover image for Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall

by Alexis Hall

ISBN 9781728206141

Boyfriend Material is a fake dating romance featuring Luc the unmitigated disaster and Oliver the polished barrister. Lucien O’Donnell works for an obscure environmental non-profit but his real problem is his D-list celebrity fame as the son of two estranged rock stars. When the paparazzi snaps a compromising photo, Luc is forced to do damage control with the charity’s stodgy donors; he needs to find a respectable date for the annual fundraiser. Enter Oliver Blackwood, a criminal defense lawyer who also needs a date for a big event—his parents’ upcoming ruby wedding anniversary garden party. The secret sauce of this romance is that under his polished exterior Oliver is, in his own way, just as much of a disaster as Luc, with a string of failed romances behind him and a tense relationship with his family. But their chaos is complimentary, which is perhaps why their mutual friend Bridget has been trying to set them up for years (though Luc insists it is because they are her only two gay friends). I liked this romance so much I read it not once but twice in the last year and enjoyed it just as much the second time through. I’m really looking forward to the sequel, Husband Material, due to be published in the summer of 2022!

Tags: Fiction, Romance, LGBTQ+

The Heart Principle

Cover image for The Heart Principle by Helen Hoang

by Helen Hoang

ISBN 9780451490841

Anna Sun’s life seems to be in free-fall. After burning out in her musical career as violinist following an unexpected bout of YouTube fame, she feels adrift. Then her boyfriend tells her that he wants an open relationship before they decide if they should marry. Steeling her nerve, Anna decides that if her boyfriend is going to sleep around, she can too. And this time she won’t pick a man just because her family approves. The Heart Principle is the third in Helen Hoang’s series of romances featuring people with autism as heroines or love interests; the first was 2018’s The Kiss Quotient. The series is tied together, and love interest Quan Diep is the business partner of Michael Phan, the love interest from the first book. With his motorcycle and tattoos, Quan is nothing Anna’s parents would ever approve of, but when a crisis strikes in Anna’s family, Quan is there for her in ways that are more than she ever could have expected from a fling. In fact, it feels a lot like love. Unlike the other installments in the series, The Heart Principle is written in the first person, lending a heart-wrenching immediacy to Anna’s struggle with her burnout, paralyzing repetitive behaviours, and controlling family. Despite this darker element when I was generally turning to romance for heart-warming fluff, I absolutely ripped through this book, and it may be my favourite novel in the series.

Tags: Fiction, Romance

The Jasmine Throne

Cover image for The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri

by Tasha Suri

ISBN 9780316538527

Tasha Suri’s first adult fantasy is dark political intrigue rife with magic. The Jasmine Throne employs a large and complex cast of characters with competing interests, and the point of view shifts frequently. However, the two central characters are Malini and Priya. Malini is a princess of Parijat, but she has been exiled to an outlying province by her brother the emperor for refusing to go willingly to the pyre as a sacrifice to the gods. Priya is a maidservant in the household of Ahiranya’s colonial governor, but once she was something more, a forbidden history that lies dormant and half-forgotten. When the exiled princess is imprison in the Hirana, Priya is among the members of the governor’s household sent to attend her and her jailer. Ahiranya chafes under Parijati rule, but the dissidents do not agree on how to regain autonomy. Ashok leads the guerilla rebels, while Bhumika, the governor’s Ahiranyi wife, has married the enemy to try to keep her people safe from the ravages of life under the thumb of the empire by more diplomatic means. These are subtle politics with no easy answers; everyone thinks that their way is the right way, that they alone have drawn the right lines in the sand. In the midst of all this, Malini and Priya are drawn into an unlikely romance, but is far from the centre of the story, which focuses around imperialism and colonial politics.

Tags: Fiction, Fantasy, LGBTQ+

A Memory Called Empire

Cover image for A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

by Arkady Martine

ISBN 9781529001587

It has been twenty years since Lsel Station sent an Ambassador to the Teixcalaan Empire, and fifteen years since that ambassador last visited home when suddenly the Emperor Six Direction demands a new Lsel Ambassador. Hurriedly implanted with the outdated imago-machine of her predecessor, Mahit Dzmare arrives at the heart of the empire to find that the former ambassador is dead, likely murdered. Guided by her cultural liaison Three Seagrass, and the shadow of Yskandr provided by his old, possibly sabotaged imago-machine, Mahit must uncover the truth even as Teixcalaan seethes on the edge of a succession crisis. The secret of the imago-machine may be Lsel Station’s salvation, or it’s undoing. A Memory Called Empire provides a unique and well-built world, and a mystery that is steeped in religion, politics, and technology crafted by a writer who knows what she is about—Martine has degrees in history, religion, and city planning. Teixcalaan is a pervasive military and cultural juggernaut with hints of both the Byzantine and Aztec empires, among others. The threat of cultural if not political assimilation looms constantly over Lsel Station. After studying Teixcalaanli language, literature, and history all her life Mahit finally gets to experience the culture she dreamed of, only to confront the fact that to the Teixcalaanlitzim, she will never be more than a barbarian.

Tags: Fiction, Science Fiction, LGBTQ+

This is How You Lose the Time War

Cover image for This is How You Lose the Time War

by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

ISBN 9781534431010

The future is malleable, shaped and reshaped by agents from rival factions, traveling up and down the threads of history to mold events to suit their own agendas. Red is among the best operatives for the techno-utopian Agency, winning against the agents sent by organic-futurist Garden time and again. But amidst the ashes of what should be her greatest victory, Red senses something amiss. In the ruins of the battlefield she finds a communication from an agent on the opposing side, one of the most challenging operatives Red has ever gone head to head with. The letter is a taunt, an invitation, a beginning. In the midst of this endless war, Red and Blue strike up a secret correspondence that transcends the central dichotomy of their existence. As they continue to do battle, and exchange their hidden messages, they discover that they have more in common than they ever could have imagined. The story is told is the form of a novella with alternating points of view, including the letters passed between Red and Blue. It is not entirely epistolary, but significantly so. This is How You Lose the Time War is highly focused on the main characters. The two rival futures are rarely depicted, and the sides little described, so that there is no clear idea of either faction being definitely right or wrong. The war is a vague, nebulous thing, while Red and Blue shine crisp and clear. To say I was obsessed with this book this year is an understatement; I read it twice through and listened to the excellent audiobook as well!

Tags: Fiction, Science Fiction, LGBTQ+

What were your favourite fiction reads during 2021? Any unexpected trends in your reading this year?

Romance Mini Reviews

Boyfriend Material

Cover image for Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall

by Alexis Hall

ISBN 9781728206141

Boyfriend Material is a fake dating romance featuring Luc the unmitigated disaster and Oliver the polished barrister. Lucien O’Donnell works for an obscure environmental non-profit but his real problem is his D-list celebrity fame as the son of two estranged rock stars. When the paparazzi snaps a compromising photo, Luc is forced to do damage control with the charity’s stodgy donors; he needs to find a respectable date for the annual fundraiser. Enter Oliver Blackwood, a criminal defense lawyer who also needs a date for a big event—his parents’ upcoming ruby wedding anniversary garden party. The secret sauce of this romance is that under his polished exterior Oliver is, in his own way, just as much of a disaster as Luc, with a string of failed romances behind him and a tense relationship with his family. But their chaos is complimentary, which is perhaps why their mutual friend Bridget has been trying to set them up for years (though Luc insists it is because they are her only two gay friends). I liked this romance so much I read it not once but twice in the last year and enjoyed it just as much the second time through. When I was working on this mini review I was pleasantly surprised to discover that there is a sequel, Husband Material, due to be published in the summer of 2022!

Tags: Fiction, Romance, LGBTQ+

The Heart Principle

Cover image for The Heart Principle by Helen Hoang

by Helen Hoang

ISBN 9780451490841

Anna Sun’s life seems to be in free-fall. After burning out in her musical career as violinist following an unexpected bout of YouTube fame, she feels adrift. Then her boyfriend tells her that he wants an open relationship before they decide if they should marry. Steeling her nerve, Anna decides that if her boyfriend is going to sleep around, she can too. And this time she won’t pick a man just because her family approves. The Heart Principle is the third in Helen Hoang’s series of romances featuring people with autism as heroines or love interests; the first was 2018’s The Kiss Quotient. The series is tied together, and love interest Quan Diep is the business partner of Michael Phan, the love interest from the first book. With his motorcycle and tattoos, Quan is nothing Anna’s parents would ever approve of, but when a crisis strikes in Anna’s family, Quan is there for her in ways that are more than she ever could have expected from a fling. In fact, it feels a lot like love. Unlike the other installments in the series, The Heart Principle is written in the first person, lending a heart-wrenching immediacy to Anna’s struggle with her burnout, paralyzing repetitive behaviours, and controlling family. Despite this darker element when I was generally turning to romance for heart-warming fluff, I absolutely ripped through this book, and it may be my favourite novel in the series.

Tags: Fiction, Romance

Somewhere Only We Know

Cover image for Somewhere Only We Know by Maurene Goo

by Maurene Goo

ISBN 9780374310578

Roman Holiday but make it K-pop. Lucky is a K-pop star at the height of her fame. She has captivated Asia, and her management team has turned their sights on a North American breakthrough for their Korean-American idol. But Lucky is burnt out, struggling to remember why she wanted this life so badly in the first place. Isolated in a Hong Kong hotel, what she really wants is the ability to go out for a hamburger without being mobbed by adoring fans who have no idea what her life is really like. Meanwhile, Jack is under pressure from his family to head to college when what he really wants is an art career. He’s been secretly moonlighting as a tabloid photographer for months, a surprisingly lucrative gig for a teenager. When he rescues an apparently drunk girl on the heels of an assignment at a swanky Hong Kong hotel, he has no idea at first that she is international superstar Lucky. Somewhere Only We Know has a strong sense of place as Lucky and Jack take a speed run through the sights of Hong Kong, eating everything they can get their hands on along the way. However, I struggled to sympathize with Jack or see his appeal as a love interest given what we know about his intentions once he realizes who Lucky really is.

Tags: Fiction, Romance, Young Adult

One Last Stop

Cover image for One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

by Casey McQuiston

ISBN 9781250244499

“August looks at her as the train reverses past Gravesend rooftops, this girl out of time, the same face and body and hair and smile that took August’s life by the shoulders in January and shook. And she can’t believe Jane had the nerve, the audacity, to become the one thing August can’t resist: a mystery.”

Leaving her eccentric mother behind in New Orleans, August Landry moves to New York in search of a new start, a city where she might actually fit, and a new college where she might finally finish her degree. A childhood spent helping her mother try to solve the cold case of Suzette Landry’s missing brother and August’s namesake has left her wary and mistrustful, and New York seems like just the kind of place for a girl like her. But then August meets a beautiful, charming, mysterious woman on her subway commute. With her tattoos, leather jacket, and old-school Walkman, Jane Su looks like a 70s punk rock dream. But as August gets to know her she realizes that somehow—impossibly—Jane is literally trapped out of time, having become stuck on the Q subway line in the mid-1970s. Suddenly, the investigative skills August learned at her mother’s knee are more relevant than ever, even as she tries to keep herself from falling for the impossible girl on the train while also figuring out where she came from and how to get her home.

August is a prickly and mistrustful protagonist, carefully guarding her heart and cultivating her cynicism. We learn over the course of the book how she came to be that way, from her complex relationship with her mother to her nearly non-existent relationship with her grandparents. However, her opening up begins not with meeting her love interest Jane but when she moves into the crowded old apartment above the Popeye’s with Myla, Niko, and Wes. If you love a good found family story, this book delivers. August becomes part of their chosen family, and it is this as much as anything that begins to open her up to the possibility of being in love with Jane, even if it takes her a while to admit to her feelings. Falling in love with someone who might not be entirely real, who might disappear at any moment, is a fundamentally vulnerable act.

The subplot of the book focuses on Billy’s Pancake House, where August gets a job, and where Jane used to work back when it opened in 1976. As Brooklyn gentrifies and rent rises, the beloved diner is in danger of going out of business, but the community rallies together to try to raise the necessary funds to help Billy buy the building when he can’t get a loan. If the friends August meets in her new apartment become her found family, Billy’s is about the larger community into which they fit, and McQuiston slips in bits of history about New York and its queer community.

In terms of genre, One Last Stop is modern romance with a touch of the paranormal. Jane is stuck out of time on the train, and is capable of various feats that should be impossible, but she is fully corporeal and definitely not dead (per se). Additionally, August’s roommate Niko is a psychic, adding another touch of magic to the largely normal world in which the story is set. New York is otherwise New York as we know it. Content warnings for the book are available on the author’s site.

Wasted Words

Cover image for Wasted Words by Staci Hartby Staci Hart

“The rules you made? The shelves people belong on? You’ve created them yourself. You’ve built your own prison out of something imaginary, and you ended up hurt anyway.”   

Since moving from Iowa to New York City, Cam has had a series of nerdy jobs from comic book retailer to her current gig as the co-manager of Wasted Words, a bar meets book store where she hosts singles nights in addition to selling books and comics. She’s also had a series of roommates, the most recent of whom is Tyler, sent by her last roommate to take her place when she moved out. Recently dumped, Tyler had nowhere else to go, but in the year they’ve lived together Tyler and Cam have become fast friends. Cam is a book nerd while Tyler is a former football player turned sports agent, so it seems like they should have nothing in common. Cam is firm believer in sorting like with like, but Tyler will force her to challenge her assumptions about what makes a good match.

Wasted Words is fairly loosely inspired by Jane Austen’s Emma. Cam fancies herself a matchmaker, although she’s a bit better at it than Emma ever was. However, much like the original, she lets herself get carried away by her imagination, sometimes causing her friends to get hurt in the process. However, it misses out on some of my other favourite aspects of Austen’s original, particularly Emma’s relationship with her father. Cam’s family doesn’t feature at all in the story. The matchmaking aspect of Emma works well in a modern setting, but the familial dynamics and social relationships can be harder to translate.

One thing that surprised me about the book is that it wasn’t a slow burn towards getting together at the end, like you might expect if it was closely following Emma. Rather, Cam and Tyler realize their feelings for one another less than halfway through, and the second part of the book is more about reconciling their differences and facing up to their past traumas in order to be able to move forward. Tyler was dumped by his girlfriend after the injury that ended his football career, and Cam is hiding an old hurt that dates back to high school that she refuses to talk about, much less process.

Cam’s anxiety isn’t immediately evident before she and Tyler get together, though we have a few hints about a traumatizing incident from her past. So it’s a bit jarring when Cam, who seems mostly level-headed if occasionally a bit controlling, starts to spin out in the second half. Her anxiety ramps up, and before she knows it she is jinxing the best thing that has ever happened to her, all because she has certain ideas about herself and what she does or doesn’t deserve in a relationship.

In terms of romance tropes, Wasted Words solidly hits mutual pining, roommates, and friends to lovers. Throw in the Austen connection, and there is a lot to love here. The ending was a bit over the top for my tastes, but fans of the romantic comedy grand gesture will probably find it satisfying.

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