By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
The Kiss Quotient
By Helen Hoang
For Stella Lane, math is everything and her job of coming up with algorithms to predict customer purchases has given her more money than she knows what to do with, but not enough experience in the dating department. So when her parents tell her they’re ready for grandchildren, 30-year-old Stella, who is on the autism spectrum and thinks French kissing is like a shark getting its teeth cleaned by pilot fish, must come up with a strategy.
That strategy involves practice — with a professional. Enter Michael Phan, a Vietnamese and Swedish escort with the swoon-worthy looks of a K-drama star. Michael, whose family has recently taken a hard financial hit, can’t afford to turn down Stella’s proposal and agrees to help her.
As with many romance novels, Stella and Michael’s professional arrangement quickly turns into more and the pair begin to develop feelings for each other.
What sets their love story apart is the insight Hoang gives readers into how living on the autism spectrum can be. From her very specific nightly pre-bed routine, to her difficulty reading social cues, there are a number of things that set Stella apart from others. But there is more about her that shows she is not that different from anyone else. She just wants to fit in and be accepted and loved for who she is, which is what most of us want.
As a lover of romance novels, I can count on one hand the number of stories with Asian male love interests. So it was refreshing to meet Michael. The Vietnamese side of his family plays a large role in his life and, Stella, who is white, is brought into the fold. What I appreciated was how relatable Michael’s family was. Whether it’s two siblings bickering and bantering or various members helping with day-to-day chores around the house, she shows that they are just like any other family. But Hoang also highlights their Vietnamese heritage, showing that their culture is just another layer to these characters.
It Takes Two
By Jenny Holiday
Wendy Liu’s best friend is getting married and she should be thrilled. But she’s trapped spending time with Jane’s brother, Noah Denning, the boy who broke her heart, during all the wedding festivities. Fortunately, she’s had more than a decade and a half to perfect her poker face around him and engage in their usual MO of competing and one-upping each other.
This snowballs into a high-stakes bet to see who can throw the best bachelor or bachelorette party. Wendy finds herself dropping her guard around Noah, and those feelings come rushing back.
Wendy has always held a special spot in Noah’s heart. As they are thrown together more and more, he comes to realize that the love he feels for her is of the more romantic variety. But it’s an uphill battle as he senses an underlying hostility from Wendy and doesn’t know where it’s coming from or how to diffuse it.
Wendy, who is Chinese Canadian, is a highly successful criminal defense lawyer and a strong character readers can look up to. While strong female leads in romance novels are not new, Asian lead characters are still few and far between. So it was refreshing to see Wendy as a complex and multifaceted character. However, other than the fact that Holiday refers to her Chinese and Asian heritage twice — once in the middle of the book and once at the end — there were no indications of Wendy’s background. And while it was nice to read about someone just living their life and falling in love, who happens to be Asian, it felt as though her background was an afterthought.
“It Takes Two” is the story of two damaged people who are still dealing with the trauma of having lost their fathers at an early age. Both were deeply affected and they still carry that with them as adults. Holiday does a great job of showing how difficult overcoming this can be and how even if you know the problem, it’s not easy to fix.
By Sarah Kuhn
DAW Books, Inc., 2018
With the power of emotional projection, all Beatrice Tanaka has wanted to do was join her older sister Evie, and Evie’s best friend Aveda Jupiter, in protecting San Francisco from demons and other supernatural phenomenon.
But the duo still see Bea as the impulsive and temperamental teenager she once was.
So instead of fighting the good fight, Bea, who is half Japanese and half white, spends her days shelving paranormal romances at It’s Lit, the bookstore where she works with her best friend Leah Kim, and hanging out with and bumming rides from her other best friend, Sam Fujikawa.
But when a mysterious being starts contacting Bea, hinting that a new evil is on its way to take over the city, she sees this as her chance to come out as the superheroine she was destined to be.
This is all on top of her attempts at playing matchmaker for Leah, establishing a more stable relationship with her sister, and trying not to notice how attractive Sam is after their spur-of-the-moment, drunken make out session.
“Journey” is Kuhn’s third story in her Heroine Complex series. While this is Bea’s story, we get to see what everyone else has been up to since Aveda’s story. Kuhn does a great job of showing the characters’ growth and development over the years, but is able to keep the key qualities that make each of them individuals.
In addition, we get to see how their relationships have changed and how they’ve stayed the same. For example, Bea and Sam are still just as competitive as they were in their teens in the previous stories. Despite this new layer to their relationship, the pair continues to compete at almost everything and keep score.
While a lot of the focus of “Journey” is on this new evil Team Tanaka/Jupiter, one thing I love about Kuhn’s stories is how down to earth everyone is. Take away the action and you have imperfect people who are just trying to live their best lives. And that’s all any of us could ask for.
Samantha can be reached at email@example.com.