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November 16, 2020

4 Diverse Romance Novels

by MK French

There has been a big push in the publishing industry for more diversity in books. Today, I have four romances that feature diverse characters. The first is about Asian-Americans and the second features an Indian-American protagonist. The third book I review is a romantic fantasy set in 1920s Shanghai. The fourth book is a historical romance set in the Roman Empire in 115 CE.
Amazon affiliate links are used on this site. Free books were provided for an honest review.

His Grumpy Childhood Friend by Jackie Lau

His Grumpy Childhood Friend
November 2020; Indie; 978-1989610183
ebook, print (232 pages); romance
Charlotte Tam is a cranky introvert, so a public proposal at a baseball game five years ago turned her off from the dating scene as well as her ex. A friend suggests asking a friend to go out with her to ease her into the dating game. Charlotte soon runs into Mike Guo, her childhood best friend.  He’s perfect for this plan, only she starts to fall for him despite how different he is from her.

Charlotte is an extreme introvert, happily working from home and not leaving the house for days. Her friends are women she met in college when they shared a major, and meeting them once a week is “the perfect amount” of socializing for her. At the same time, she is a romantic at heart. Definitely a tough combination, when dating involves socializing and talking to someone that’s a stranger in the beginning. She has great friendships and I laughed at the ridiculous conversations with her younger sister, all of which really flesh out who she is and what she likes. While her friends, sister, and parents tease her, they never make her feel like less of a person just because she doesn’t enjoy what they do. It’s a fine distinction that comes across very well here.

Mike had a more emotionally abusive upbringing, with invalidating and cold parents that essentially had him and his siblings compete for attention. He cut off contact with them and maintains a relationship with his sister and niece, who comes across as being on the autism spectrum due to her poor socialization, niche interests, and precise speech. It’s never put down or called inappropriate, and Mike’s traumatic response to his childhood isn’t belittled, either. He has his fears of continuing the cycle, which is treated as the serious concern it is, and his past therapy was brought up as a positive reaction to process his fear.

In addition to these thoughtful touches, the back and forth between Charlotte and Mike was wonderful to read. They both are self-conscious about their faults and wish to find someone. Perhaps because they’re both in their 30’s, they realize that they’re looking for someone to complement them and complete their day, not someone to fix or someone they have to change themselves to please. It’s a mature relationship that develops naturally out of their past friendship and ease in talking, and one that I thoroughly enjoyed reading about.

The Boy Toy by Nicola Marsh

The Boy Toy
November 2020; Berkley; 978-0593198629
audio, ebook, print (352 pages); romance
Samira Broderick used her successful practice in LA to avoid her meddling Indian mother; her arranged marriage had fallen apart as soon as life had been difficult, and her mother arranged it. Returning to Australia for business allows the two to rekindle their relationship, and Samira decides that a fling might also help her get out of her funk. At the same time, Rory Radcliffe avoided letting others know about his stutter by taking stunt roles. With an upcoming reality show host job coming up, he needs a dialect coach, who is none other than the older Samira, his one night stand.

We start off meeting Samira’s mother Kushi, who is so much like the South Asian aunties I had seen in my neighborhood growing up. She cooks a lot of spicy, fragrant foods and is convinced that marriage and children is the way to happiness. After the prior betrayal, Samira has the “love is for schmucks” attitude. But this is a romance, so we know she’ll find the one to make her feel comfortable in her own skin and truly forget the way her ex had put her down and betrayed her. The push for that comes in the form of her cousin Pia, who is a wonderful and funny woman I loved reading. It’s heartbreaking that both Samira and Pia have difficulty getting pregnant when they want to be mothers not just to meet cultural norms, but because they genuinely enjoy caretaking.

There are cultural issues here, as Samira is half Indian and half American, growing up in Australia. She had felt ostracized by some of the aunties, and her mother had hoped marrying an Indian man would avoid further issues in the community. It hadn’t, but it explains why she wouldn’t reveal the dates with Rory right away. For his part, Rory is a great guy that feels bad about himself because of the stuttering, which had led to significant bullying from peers and even his father. He’s always self-conscious, and some of that extends to the relationship with Samira. The ten year age gap comes up, even though it’s not something he is overly concerned about.

There are multiple issues getting in the way of the relationship, such as culture, career, and the family problems that they deal with. All of these are serious issues to contend with, and are treated respectfully and honestly. Samira is troubled by the rapid changes in her life, and how little she can control them. Rory grows up a lot as well, and realizes what is most important to him. Thankfully for the reader, we get our happily ever after. 

Buy The Boy Toy at Amazon

These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong

These Violent Delights
November 2020; Margaret K. McElderry Books
audio, ebook, print (464 pages); fantasy romance
A blood feud exists between two rival gangs in 1926 Shanghai. Juliette Cai has returned to assume rule over the Scarlet Gang, and her main rival is Roma Montagov, leader of the White Flowers. Gangsters on both sides soon are clawing out their own throats, and there are whispers of a contagion or madness spreading. Juliette and Roma have to combine forces, or there will be nothing left to rule.

We're introduced to the gangs right off the bat, as well as our Romeo and Juliet. Some lines are borrowed from the Bard, but this isn't a West Side Story rehash located in a different place. We have the culture of 1920's Shanghai, the different underworld figures, and the supernatural all in the prologue. 

From there, the novel is addictive, with so many details about the city, its politics and the gangs that I feel like I'm there. Juliette is trying to get to the bottom of the madness while she's also fighting misogyny and the subtlety of familial relationships and piety inherent in her Chinese culture. Roma has a Russian background, but the White Flowers progress more by merit than bloodlines. Either way, the tension between them and their families is a palpable thing. That distracts them from the monster in the river and the insects; reading about it makes me want to scratch my scalp as well, it's so vividly described. 

There is so much action in the second half of the book, with shifting loyalties and the weight of the past between Juliette and Roma as they try to figure out the truth of the monster and save Shanghai. It doesn't help that they can't openly cooperate and that there are those willing to bring them down in the name of advancement within their gang. I turned pages so fast and groaned in frustration when it hit the end. Then there was another twist I wasn't expecting that made perfect sense, and another groan with the last few lines. There's going to be another book following this one, which is wonderful, but it was the end of this one and I wanted more book to read!

Romeo and Juliet fighting a monster in 1920s Shanghai works so well, even when it looks like it shouldn't. Trust me, you want to read this one.

Buy These Violent Delights at Amazon

Soothsayer by Kathryn Amurra

May 2020; Indie; 979-8642802380
ebook, print (279 pages); historical romance
Aurelia had never valued politics or power, so she turned away multiple suitors. Her father allowed this, but when he died she no longer had choices. She needed to protect herself and her brother, who would be drawn into the army unless excused by a governor. Marrying the elderly governor in another province would provide that, so agreed to the marriage. Cassius, as head of the governor’s guard, was chosen to escort Aurelia to the estate. He was never interested in love, as an early death had been predicted for him by a soothsayer, but misfortunes along the road bring Cassius and Aurelia into close contact.

Soothsayer takes place in 115 CE within the Roman Empire, nine years after the end of the Dacian War. Aurelia’s brother Angelus has developmental disabilities, in that he has a childlike disposition and hasn’t progressed mentally past that point. All young men at sixteen will need to join the army, and boys his age have all tormented him when he tried to play with them. The governor of the province where Aurelia lived wouldn’t bother to intervene, but her father’s former friend is willing to marry her and spare her brother. The entire trip is one disaster after another, to the point where Cassius thinks the gods are against the marriage. Problems don’t stop just because Aurelia is stubborn enough to push forward. As much as the governor doesn’t initially believe in the soothsayer or signs, even if others in his district do. This leads to the happily ever after of the romance, and it follows all of the predictions that the soothsayer had given them.

The beginning of Aurelia’s and Cassius’s relationship reminds me of Lizzie and Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. They have their separate ideas of who the other is and what would matter to them, and it’s only as they get to know each other that they know the truth. That’s what endears them to each other and has them starting to care. The obstacles they had to deal with along the journey reveals more about their character to each other, and we see more about the different classes of people in Roman times. Overall, this is a solid romance, with the heat level never going past kissing and groping.

Buy Soothsayer at Amazon

Born and raised in New York City, M.K. French started writing stories when very young, dreaming of different worlds and places to visit. She always had an interest in folklore, fairy tales, and the macabre, which has definitely influenced her work. She currently lives in the Midwest with her husband, three young children, and a golden retriever.

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