AYESHA AT LAST by Uzma Jalaluddin – double review!

Pride and Prejudice with a modern twist 

AYESHA SHAMSI has a lot going on.  Her dreams of being a poet have been set aside for a teaching job so she can pay off her debts to her wealthy uncle. She lives with her boisterous Muslim family and is always being reminded that her flighty younger cousin, Hafsa, is close to rejecting her one hundredth marriage proposal. Though Ayesha is lonely, she doesn’t want an arranged marriage. Then she meets Khalid who is just as smart and handsome as he is conservative and judgmental. She is irritatingly attracted to someone who looks down on her choices and dresses like he belongs in the seventh century. 

When a surprise engagement between Khalid and Hafsa is announced, Ayesha is torn between how she feels about the straightforward Khalid and his family; and the truth she realizes about herself. But Khalid is also wrestling with what he believes and what he wants. And he just can’t get this beautiful, outspoken woman out of his mind. 


Title : Ayesha At Last
Author : Uzma Jalaluddin
Format : eARC
Page Count : 343
Genre : contemporary romance
Publisher : HarperCollins
Release Date : June 4 (US & Can), June 12, 2019 (UK)

Reviewer : Micky / Hollis
Rating : ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ /  ★ ★


Micky’s 5 star review

4.5 stars that I am rounding up.

I am buzzing finishing this book, I have devoured it in 36 hours as life made me put it down a few times. This was a loose pride and prejudice take set in the Muslim community in Toronto. Most importantly it is own voices written (and a debut).

Khalid is a beta-male character with little to paint an admirable picture of his personality. Khalid was a bit of a jerk, he lacked a verbal filter, judged too quickly but he was definitely misunderstood. Khalid grew on me, he was pretty endearing at times and he was a man with integrity and kindness. He didn’t know how he was perceived but awareness did begin to creep in.

Ayesha was a vibrant character, headstrong, a feminist, bucking some traditions that seemed unnecessary to her. I liked her immediately and her quirky ways. Khalid and Ayesha met through friends initially and later at the mosque organising a conference. Misunderstanding and chemistry seemed to be the nature of their relationship.

“Because while it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single Muslim man must be in want of a wife, there’s an even greater truth: To his Indian mother, his own inclinations are of secondary importance.”

This was a strong story, with amazing side characters, mostly family and community, that painted a rich depth. I was glued to this book and I thought about it when I wasn’t. The connection between Khalid and Ayesha was slow developing but full of feeling. This was a clean read along the lines of pride and prejudice but it didn’t need anything more. I could have done with a little more about Khalid and Ayesha in the end, however.

This is an amazing debut from Uzma Jalaluddin. Her writing flowed beautifully and I was hooked so easily; I am eager to read more from her and this context.

Thank you to Readers First for my review copy.


Hollis’ 2 star review

It pains me to rate this so low considering all the excitement I had surrounding this title, not to mention the brilliant diversity in this particular retelling, but..

If this story had been just about Ayesha and Khalid, with the former’s delightful grandparents thrown into the mix, I probably would’ve rated this much higher. But then it also wouldn’t have been as true to the PRIDE & PREJUDICE retelling. Or.. maybe it could’ve been! All I know is there were so many villains, so many unpleasant characters, and I was just bothered and frustrated by it all.

But even some of the non-villains were just.. annoying. The drama was really turned up and I know this is fictional but I was really uncomfortable, not to mention fairly rage-y, over the discrimination in the workplace plot line. Like.. no, I’m sorry. I just can’t see that going as far as it did; and maybe I’m extra sensitive about it because this took place in my hometown? I’m not saying I’m naive enough to believe things like this don’t happen in some form or another, as much as we think we’re all above it, but it just went too far.

I think what it comes down to, more than anything, is while I’m aware that most of these caricatures existed in the original, I’m honestly starting to wonder if I just can’t get behind the book anymore; if maybe I wouldn’t even like the original if I tried to read it today. Maybe I should just stick to movie or TV adaptations from now on.

I love that this book exists for the representation it brings, I did enjoy the changes to the family structures the author made, could appreciate the Toronto setting (even if it only amounted to random references to Timbits and a fairly loose, though accurate, description of Scarborough..), but.. lots of buts.

** I received an ARC from Edelweiss and the publisher (thank you!) in exchange for an honest review. **

STEPSISTER by Jennifer Donnelly – double review!

Isabelle should be blissfully happy – she’s about to win the handsome prince. Except Isabelle isn’t the beautiful girl who lost the glass slipper and captured the prince’s heart. She’s the ugly stepsister who’s cut off her toes to fit into Cinderella’s shoe … which is now filling with blood.

When the prince discovers Isabelle’s deception, she is turned away in shame. It’s no more than she deserves: she is a plain girl in a world that values beauty; a feisty girl in a world that wants her to be pliant.

Isabelle has tried to fit in. To live up to her mother’s expectations. To be like her stepsister. To be sweet. To be pretty. One by one, she has cut away pieces of herself in order to survive a world that doesn’t appreciate a girl like her. And that has made her mean, jealous, and hollow.

Until she gets a chance to alter her destiny and prove what ugly stepsisters have always known: it takes more than heartache to break a girl.


Title : Stepsister
Author : Jennifer Donnelly
Format : Paperback arc
Page Count : 352 pages
Genre : YA Fantasy, retellings
Publisher : Hot Key Books & Scholastic Press
Release Date : May 14, 2019

Reviewer : Micky / Hollis
Rating : ★ ★ ★ ★ / ★ ★ ★ ★.5


Micky’s 3.5 – 4 star review

Steel your stomach for the start of this book because it delves in all twisted up and the story that ensues is every kind of unexpected. The protagonist of this book, Isabelle, is the kind of character that you have to grow to admire. She’s an ugly stepsister with past behaviour and characteristics that speak of inner ugliness. Interestingly, her physical appearance isn’t particularly sketched out, leaving the reader to imagine.

We meet Isabelle at a late juncture in the traditional Cinderella story, from the initial opening you will never be able to guess where this story goes. In fact, the book’s biggest strength is the ability to tell a unique story when it is a retelling. Both Isabelle and Tavi, the other stepsister are quirky, determined characters, with Isabelle in particular, showing strength and tenacity. The backdrop for this tale is that France is at war and the battle is getting closer and closer to the main characters’ dwelling.

There is a clever underlying story of Fate and Chance, two beings with the power to influence the lives of Isabelle, warring over her destiny. This made for interesting manipulation of the story and characters that Isabelle met. Tanaquill, the fairy queen, could not have been less Disney-like if she tried and I loved that aspect and the quest she sent Isabelle on.

Whilst my enjoyment of STEPSISTER is clear in this review, I didn’t fully connect to the characters outside of Isabelle. Sometimes I struggled with the pacing, but it always picked up again fairly quickly.

I am impressed by Jennifer Donnelly’s creativity and writing of STEPSISTER and I would definitely be interested in seeking more from her in a similar vein. STEPSISTER will appeal to those readers like myself who like a side of twisted with their fairytales.

I voluntarily read an early copy of this book, thank you Hot Key Books.


Hollis’ 4.5 star review

History books say that kings and dukes and generals start wars. Don’t believe it. We start them, you and I. Every time we turn away, keep quiet, stay out it, behave ourselves.

I was completely unprepared for how quickly, and how hard, I would fall in love with STEPSISTER. This book immediately opens up with a warning about how this is a darker take on the well-known tale and it is definitely that. But it’s not close your eyes and hide under the cover scary; it’s just hammering home the stark truths and unpleasant realities of societal expectations, a woman’s fate in this world (and our own), and the bleakness of war. And I mean there’s also the fact that the stepsisters lop off pieces of themselves in order to win a prince, which, hey, fun times!

Ella is the beauty. You and I are the ugly stepsister. And so the world reduces us, all three of us, to our lowest common denominator.”

This is the story of what comes after Cinderella, Ella in this story, gets her prince. What befalls the ugly stepsisters and the wicked stepmother. In this case, it’s being shunned. It’s being ridiculed. It’s shame and regret. It’s accepting their choices and living with themselves.. or trying to. It’s about a wish to be pretty, thinking it’ll solve all your problems, because discovering and facing the truth of oneself is so much harder.

How many times had she cut away parts of herself at her mother’s demand? The part that laughed too loudly. That rode too fast and jumped too high. The part that wished for a second helping.

Donnelly’s writing captivated me. It bowled me over. There were passages that made me want to cheer because of the beautiful feminist observations, parts that made me laugh because wow the second stepsister was freaking hilarious, and also parts that made me cry — embarrassingly one of them had to do with mice. But I own that.

I have that feeling.”
What feeling?”
The feeling that you want to own someone body and soul, spirit them away from everyone else, have them all to yourself forever and ever and ever. It’s called love.”
No, it’s called kidnapping.”

The elements of this story are familiar because we’ve heard, or watched, the tale. But never from this perspective, never in this way, and there was a freshness, a realness, to this retelling that just.. got me. Strength and shame and beauty and wonder and forgiveness. Intelligence and cleverness and agony — physical and of spirit — and heartbreak. It seemed to flow effortlessly and honestly the only thing keeping this from being five stars is the big fancy HEA. I don’t think it was a wrong choice but maybe it was a little too right, if that makes sense? I would’ve liked half a step back, I think.

I wanted books. I wanted math and science. I got corsets and gowns and high heeled silk slippers. It made me sad [..]. And then it made me angry. So no, I can’t make myself likeable. I’ve tried. Over and over. It doesn’t work. If I don’t like who I am, why should you?”

I didn’t have much in the way of expectations when I picked this up; I had heard of it but not been endlessly beat about the head with hype. And it definitely deserves some. Totally recommend.

** I received an ARC from the publisher (thank you!) in exchange for an honest review. **

THE BRIDE TEST by Helen Hoang – double review!

Khai Diep has no feelings. Well, he feels irritation when people move his things or contentment when ledgers balance down to the penny, but not big, important emotions—like grief. And love. He thinks he’s defective. His family knows better—that his autism means he just processes emotions differently. When he steadfastly avoids relationships, his mother takes matters into her own hands and returns to Vietnam to find him the perfect bride.

As a mixed-race girl living in the slums of Ho Chi Minh City, Esme Tran has always felt out of place. When the opportunity arises to come to America and meet a potential husband, she can’t turn it down, thinking this could be the break her family needs. Seducing Khai, however, doesn’t go as planned. Esme’s lessons in love seem to be working…but only on herself. She’s hopelessly smitten with a man who’s convinced he can never return her affection.

With Esme’s time in the United States dwindling, Khai is forced to understand he’s been wrong all along. And there’s more than one way to love.


Title : The Bride Test
Author : Helen Hoang
Series : The Kiss Quotient (book two)
Format : eARC / paperback
Page Count : 315
Genre : contemporary romance
Publisher : Berkley / Atlantic
Release Date : May 7, 2019

Reviewer : Hollis / Micky
Rating : ★ ★ ★ ★ / ★ ★ ★ ★


Hollis’ 4 star review

She got you a mail-order bride from Vietnam, Khai.
Why do you say it so it sounds so bad? She’s not a ‘mail-order bride’. I met her in person.

Like pretty much everyone else in the world, I loved THE KISS QUOTIENT. I was so excited when Hoang announced a companion to her world that would not only feature a male lead with autism, though would not be quite like what we experienced with Stella, but would be equally diverse, too. And I really did enjoy being inside Khai’s head. When he wasn’t breaking my heart, that is. Esme, too, was a wonderful heroine. Strong and determined but taking chances, and risks, not for personal gain — or, rather, not only for it — but for her family.

She didn’t need a rich man. She just needed someone who was hers.

The conflicts in this story, Khai’s belief that he’s unable to feel emotion (and, conversely, his inability to handle soft touches and how instead he needs to be handled firmly, held tightly), and Esme’s self-worth as an uneducated immigrant, feel genuine and real; and reading the author’s note helps to explain why these characters resonate so strongly. Khai’s brother, Quan, is a character I want to know more about, too, because he all but leapt off the page at me. Plus, yeah, I want more.

It was easier to keep people at arm’s length when it was for their own good instead of his. That way, he got to be a hero instead of a coward.

However, I’ll admit that this read didn’t consume me the way THE KISS QUOTIENT did. While I so loved when these two got together (hell, even the build-up and the way Esme’s presence wreaked havoc on Khai was fabulous), even if they weren’t yet on the same page, even if they had yet to divulge all their secrets, it was something of a slower start, and as much as I loved these characters, I think I still wanted.. more. I did love the epilogue, though, which I thought to be a much more reasonable ending after all the dramatic excitement just before the final chapter. But that’s all I’m saying.

He was strange and tactless and very possibly an assassin, but when she looked at his actions, all she saw was kindness.

Should you read this? Absolutely. Will it overtake your love for the THE KISS QUOTIENT? To each their own. It’s definitely a sweet, funny, swoony, and a totally worthy addition to the author’s little universe.

** I received an ARC from Edelweiss and the publisher (thank you!) in exchange for an honest review. **


Micky’s 4.5 star review

How do I follow up Hollis’ and many others’ reviews of this rather special book? I don’t know but I’m going to give you a snapshot of my experience. Hold on while I gush because a mail-order bride story with diverse representation, you say. Signed up.

What starts off as an interesting Vietnamese character, My, quickly transports to the US where My renames herself Esme, ready to take on the challenge of being the wife-to-be for Khai. Esme was a ball of self-proclaimed inadequacy, desperate to provide for her family. The slow transformation of a twinkling of Esme’s self-belief and beginning to live for herself was beautiful as it unfolded. I was drawn to her humility, her heart on her sleeve and genuineness.

“Sky and earth, she wanted to taste that smile. And each of those dimples.”

Khai didn’t feel or emote and despairing, his mother went on a special mission to find him a wife, a companion. Khai didn’t know what he wanted or needed, he lived by his routines and the satisfaction in intellectual tasks. However, in little ways, Khai was a stand-up guy for his brother and his mother that gave insight into the caring man he could be. This book brought such believable character development as he navigated the heart connection and sexual attraction.

There wasn’t one thing I didn’t enjoy about this story. It was engaging, it represented topics that we need to read and hear about more, such as, immigration, autism spectrum disorders, poverty and access to education. Helen Hoang wove these issues seamlessly without pontificating, through real lives. Most of all, I adored Khai and Esme, together, apart, awkward and yet natural together, fish sauce and all.

“Her curves fit to his hollows, soft to hard, smooth to rough, the perfect debit to his credit.”

Thank you Atlantic books for the review copy, I feel lucky to have read this early.

THE AUSTEN PLAYBOOK by Lucy Parker – double review!


A double review today and we are very in tune over the greatness of this book. In fact, we recommend all of Lucy Parker’s books.

Freddy Carlton knows she should be focusing on her lines for The Austen Playbook, a live-action TV event where viewers choose the outcome of each scene, but her concentration’s been blown. The palatial estate housing the endeavor is now run by the rude (brilliant) critic who’s consistently slammed her performances of late. James “Griff” Ford-Griffin has a penchant for sarcasm, a majestic nose and all the sensitivity of a sledgehammer.

She can’t take her eyes off him.

Griff can hardly focus with a contagious joy fairy flitting about near him, especially when Freddy looks at him like that. His only concern right now should be on shutting down his younger brother’s well-intentioned (disastrous) schemes—or at the very least on the production (not this one) that might save his family home from the banks.

Instead all he can think of is soft skin and vibrant curls.

As he’s reluctantly dragged into her quest to rediscover her passion for the stage and Freddy is drawn into his research on a legendary theater star, the adage about appearances being deceiving proves abundantly true. It’s the unlikely start of something enormous…but a single revelation about the past could derail it all.


Title : The Austen Playbook
Author
: Lucy Parker
Format : eBook / eARC
Page Count : 400
Genre : contemporary romance
Publisher : Carina Press
Release Date : April 22, 2019

Reviewer : Hollis / Micky
Rating
: ★ ★ ★ ★ .25 / ★ ★ ★ ★


Hollis’ 4.25 star review

The man looked like an assassin in a war film, and would be temperamentally suited to the part. He probably even orgasmed with a frosty stare into the middle distance.

I finished THE AUSTEN PLAYBOOK with happy tears in my eyes. This book gave me all the feels. And all the lols, too. As usual I highlighted the crap out of this book.

She wanted to do productions that she wholeheartedly enjoyed, she wanted a passion outside of theatre, and really — she just wanted to be happy. She also wanted other people to be happy, and it often seemed to be an either/or choice.

Parker’s grumpy heroes are some of my favourite, and Griff is no exception, but we need to talk more about her real and charming heroines, too. Freddy was forking fabulous. But the added element of reality to the author’s romances (stretch marks, bad shower sex, just to name a few delightful examples) are what keep this grounded and balanced considering the London West End-style hijinks and drama that tend to ensue.

According to London Celebrity, control freaks are at much greater risk for arthritis, impotence, and pattern baldness. Just so you know.
As long as you have a reliable source.

This couple was so beautifully, wonderfully, honest. Their openness, their communication, the acceptance of their feelings.. it was just gorgeous. It made me happy, and fuzzy, and very swoony.

His tone conjured images of empty chocolate boxes, and the aftermath of a party, and missing the bus by thirty seconds, and all of life’s fleeing moments of gloom.

Set against a live-action whodunit Austen performance, there are reveals and betrayals and all sorts of excitement to be had. There was really nothing I didn’t love about this one but, as always, Parker includes some nastier characters in amongst the lovelier ones.. though I just about died when one of said nasties got a wooden phallus in the eye. Trust me, not only is it on brand for the story, it’s just what she deserves.

For a man who grew up in a house with blowjob carvings on the library mantle, you’re very judgmental of other people’s decor.

With each new addition to the London Celebrities series, it’s getting harder and harder to have a favourite couple because they are all so wonderful. Freddy and Griff are a great addition to this world and I hope to see them in some of Parker’s famous extras and, maybe, even in the background of book five? Hmm? Maybe?

Calls me a contagious joy fairy when we’re alone in a dusty backroom. Compares me to a stagnant pond in a London newspaper. Timing, my friend. It’s a beautiful thing.

Highly recommend.


Micky’s 4 star review

Delightful and witty with a great story to keep the reader fully engaged, THE AUSTEN PLAYBOOK continued the series with the same quality of writing and development of characters that I have come to expect from Lucy Parker.

Book four took the setting outside of London to Grumpy Griff’s (Ford-Griffen) country seat. Griff was a TV/stage critic whilst managing the failing finances of his family’s home. Griff had thrown a few review punches at Freddy, the quirky heroine, in the past. Freddy was a breath of positive fresh air with some vulnerabilities hidden behind the ‘everything will be okay’ facade. I took to her immediately.

“He was frequently rude, definitely a Slytherin, and clearly viewed her as a sort of irritating insect who kept buzzing around his space, but there was something very reassuring about his solid warmth when she hurt.”

There was an interwoven backstory behind the main story of a play in the country. Freddy and Griff were thrown into each other’s paths and there was a persistent, bubbling chemistry between them. I had all the feelings when they were interacting, either with looks or banter.

“It was more than physical; it was a building and layering of a bond that went much deeper than that.”

As well as the clever backstory (which Parker conveys with ease), there were a literal cast of side characters, brothers, mean girls, fathers, colleagues and sisters. There is something about the acting world on stage that Lucy Parker translates so well to the reader. The English setting was spot on as always with dialogue, colloquialisms and contexts. The banter and dialogue were engaging. My only little niggle was the unstated dual POV, I loved the dual POV but had ‘who is this’ moments, however I did settle into it.

I can’t recommend this series enough and the best thing is they standalone, you can dip your toe into any of them and read out of order if that’s how you roll. Go discover Lucy Parker and you won’t regret it.

I voluntarily read an early copy of this book. Thank you Carina Press and Netgalley.

THE TAKEOVER EFFECT by Nisha Sharma – double review!

Hemdeep Singh knows exactly what he wants. With his intelligence and determination, he has what it takes to build his own legacy away from Bharat, Inc. and the empire his father created. But when his brother calls him home, Hem puts his dreams on hold once again to help save the company he walked away from. That’s when he encounters the devastating Mina Kohli in the Bharat boardroom, and he realizes he’s in for more than he had bargained.

Mina will do whatever it takes to regain control of her mother’s law firm, even if it means agreeing to an arranged marriage. Her newest case assignment is to assist Bharat in the midst of a potential takeover. It could be the key to finally achieving her goal while preventing her marriage to a man she doesn’t love—as long as her explosive attraction to Hem doesn’t get in the way.

As Mina and Hem work to save Bharat, they not only uncover secrets that could threaten the existence of the company, but they also learn that in a winner-takes-all game, love always comes out on top.


Title : The Takeover Effect
Author : Nisha Sharma
Series : The Singh Family (book one)
Format : eARC / OverDrive (ebook)
Page Count : 384
Publisher : Avon Impulse
Release Date : April 2, 2019

Reviewer : Micky / Hollis
Rating : ★ ★ ★ ★ / ★ ★


Micky’s 4 star review

I had high hopes for THE TAKEOVER EFFECT and my hopes were realised. I have really enjoyed previous desi contemporary romantic reads so I knew this was a book worth taking a chance on. THE TAKEOVER EFFECT was about equality in the workplace, legacy and it had an office setting with a whole spaghetti of problems because the mix of family and work is complicated.

Mina was a feminist to the core and I delighted in her character. This was a woman who knew herself, had drive and was a realistic beacon for readers. Mina’s work as a lawyer found her in an unbiased role assessing an attempt to buy out a multi-million dollar company. Here she met Hem, eldest brother and ex-CEO of the organisation. Hem was a strong Sikh man with feminist sensibilities (hooray) and what ensued between these two was a slow-burn of sizzling chemistry set in a great plot. I loved watching the connection between these two grow.

The story was interesting from the start with some fast-paced excitement towards the end. I really enjoyed the other characters, they gave depth to the read and I am envisaging future stories for a number of them; I want books with Raj and the other brothers. I have found a new author to keep watch for and I am delighted. More of these desi diverse reads please, the book world needs them.

I voluntarily read an early copy of this book. Thank you Avon Impulse and Edelweiss.


Hollis’ 2 star review

If you strip away the romance, and left this story as a tense corporate espionage and family feud-y business takeover thriller, I think I would’ve loved THE TAKEOVER EFFECT. But the romance was very prominent and gross characters (who are supposed to be gross) were extra awful by toying with the heroine and threatening arranged marriages if she didn’t comply with their shady nonsense. Which, I mean, I think I could’ve been okay with just that as a blackmail tactic when, again, paired with the tense business politics and schemes. But the actual romance plot just dragged it all down for me.

I didn’t love the romance, obviously, and didn’t love the characters together. Infact, maybe didn’t love the hero at all? Mina was strong, feminine, feminist, but I also feel like she got railroaded by the hero a bit. She stood up to him but she also let herself be convinced, consumed, and let him distract her beyond sense and logic despite how hard she tried to stay professional. Add to the that the fact that the hero went alpha at every given moment? No me gusta. The fact that we also had constant comparisons, or references or throwaway lines, in association with the hero’s “evil ex” was too much. It was to the romance’s detriment that so much time was spent tripping over this character that didn’t even have her own page time and it felt a little like the author was trying so hard to compare the two women in order to sell us on Mina. Did it work? No. Because I was too distracted by Lisa’s ghostly presence in these situations that had nothing to do with her.

Also, the sex scenes? Can’t say they did anything for me. They felt very abrupt, often shoehorned into important dialogue or emotional scenes, and they were too out of place, over too quickly, for any connection to be given to them. I like sexy times as much as the next person but I like them better when they have a purpose or build the relationship. These didn’t.

I will likely read on in the series because the writing wasn’t bad, even if some moments felt a little cheese, and because maybe it was just these characters that failed to sell me on the swoonytimes; other brothers and/or family members, who I assume will get their own stories, might appeal more (the one I most want is the cousin & PA m/m romance because yes hi I want that hate banter please).