American Panda by Gloria Chao

I received this book for free from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

American Panda by Gloria ChaoAmerican Panda by Gloria Chao
Published by Simon Pulse on February 6, 2018
Genres: Contemporary, Romance
Pages: 311
Format: eARC
Source: Edelweiss
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At seventeen, Mei should be in high school, but skipping fourth grade was part of her parents' master plan. Now a freshman at MIT, she is on track to fulfill the rest of this predetermined future: become a doctor, marry a preapproved Taiwanese Ivy Leaguer, produce a litter of babies.

With everything her parents have sacrificed to make her cushy life a reality, Mei can't bring herself to tell them the truth--that she (1) hates germs, (2) falls asleep in biology lectures, and (3) has a crush on her classmate Darren Takahashi, who is decidedly not Taiwanese.

But when Mei reconnects with her brother, Xing, who is estranged from the family for dating the wrong woman, Mei starts to wonder if all the secrets are truly worth it. Can she find a way to be herself, whoever that is, before her web of lies unravels?

Fluffy contemporaries are my favorite, and this cover had my hopes up high, between the cutesy fonts and drawings, that glowing smile, and the warm beverage, it promises the fluffiest. There are a few darker aspects to American Panda, but on the whole I got just what I wanted. Actually, some of the things I didn’t want ended up being just right. I love when contemporaries strike that balance between cuteness and real life problems. I loved American Panda from the first page to the last.


Top 15 Books of 2018

Every year, for some reason, I dread writing this post. Part of it is that my memory for books isn’t that great, because I shove so many into my brain that it’s really hard for me to remember them all. And by ‘really hard,’ I mean I literally can’t. That means that, at the end of the year, I look back at all my high ratings, and I don’t remember some of them. Does that mean they were less good? Should I still put them in my round-up of my favorite reads for the year? Gah, the indecision, it burns.

After making a big ol’ list of all of my top-rated books of 2018, the ones that made me feel something, I made a second list of all the books I could not bear to leave off of my list of my top reads, and that came to fifteen. Not bad out of 310 books read. That said, I am cheating a bit, putting series together (even sometimes with a loose definition of series oops).

What I was left with were the books that had the biggest impact on me throughout the year, and I’m so surprised how many of those I read during the first half of the year, since usually it skews more recent. I did make a couple of selections between books of about equal enjoyment by prioritizing books that I believe need more hype. They’re also all books I would reread.

Ready to rock? Let’s go.


A Hope Divided by Alyssa Cole

A Hope Divided by Alyssa ColeA Hope Divided by Alyssa Cole
Series: The Loyal League #2
Published by Kensington on November 28, 2017
Genres: Historical, Romance
Pages: 320
Format: eBook
Source: Library
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The Civil War has turned neighbor against neighbor--but for one scientist spy and her philosopher soldier, war could bind them together . . .

For three years of the War Between the States, Marlie Lynch has helped the cause in peace: with coded letters about anti-Rebel uprisings in her Carolina woods, tisanes and poultices for Union prisoners, and silent aid to fleeing slave and Freeman alike. Her formerly enslaved mother's traditions and the name of a white father she never knew have protected her--until the vicious Confederate Home Guard claims Marlie's home for their new base of operations in the guerilla war against Southern resistors of the Rebel cause.

Unbeknowst to those under her roof, escaped prisoner Ewan McCall is sheltering in her laboratory. Seemingly a quiet philosopher, Ewan has his own history with the cruel captain of the Home Guard, and a thoughtful but unbending strength Marlie finds irresistible.

When the revelation of a stunning family secret places Marlie's freedom on the line, she and Ewan have to run for their lives into the hostile Carolina night. Following the path of the Underground Railroad, they find themselves caught up in a vicious battle that could dash their hopes of love--and freedom--before they ever cross state lines.

Historical romance needs more diverse authors ASAP. Obviously I knew this before I read Alyssa Cole, but her series have really highlighted how much we miss out on by having so few diverse authors writing historical romance. There are a bunch of contemporary romances by diverse authors coming out this year (THRILLED), but I want that same wave to happen to historical romance. A Hope Divided has the same excellent features of An Extraordinary Union: strong, unique characters, powerful plotting, and a whole lot of knowledge dropping.

In general, people dismiss romance novels for being silly wish fulfillment. Obviously, I disagree with this for a host of reasons, (beginning with 1) what’s wrong with silly? and 2) what’s wrong with wish fulfillment?) but it’s also not true that the romance genre can’t also be about real things. Yes, the romance takes center stage, but, if the characters are well-developed, they have issues they are overcoming and painful life lessons to learn. At heart, most novels are about an emotional journey in one or more characters, which romances do very openly and proudly.

The sidebar rant is because, if you think you can’t learn something from a romance novel, The Loyal League series would show you that you’re wrong. There’s so much that’s sadly still relevant in these books, and Cole has a serious gift for showing the ways that different experiences shape people and truly change ways of thinking. She excels at the privilege check, and the way she does it is a thing of beauty.

On top of that, these books are about spies! That’s obviously fun and adventurous, though, actually, I’ve read some regency spy novels that really went light on the espionage in a way that these do not. What I especially love about The Loyal League is that Cole depicts different aspects of espionage. In book one, Elle and Malcolm were the more traditional sort of spy a reader might expect: undercover and collecting information to pass to the government. In this book, though Marlie and Ewan are both spies, they’re not that same kind. Marlie uses her privileged position to pass along anything she hears to The Loyal League, and she and her white half-sister Sarah also use their estate as a stop on the underground railroad. Ewan, on the other hand, works as a torturer for intelligence, to get crucial details out of important captured men.

Marlie grew up with her mother for her early childhood, and she learned to make tisanes and poultices and how to do small magics. Her life changes when her mother sends her along with Sarah, who is willing to accept her as part of the family. Though Marlie does not want to leave her mother, she settles in and makes use of the opportunities she has. She educates herself on the medical side of herbs and improves on her processes. Her relationship with the more magical elements of her mom’s teachings is complex, and I thought that was handled in a really realistic, complicated way. Marlie’s a much sweeter, milder girl compared to Elle (who’s not?), but she’s powerful in her convictions and consistently brave.

Her love interest, Ewan, is the brother of Malcolm. He’s in psychological crisis for most of the book, reading a bunch of philosophy and feeling sorry for himself, not so much because he’s been captured by the Confederates but because his own sense of self has been questioned. (See how beautiful this subtle privilege-checking is?) He and Marlie actually bond over their disparate opinions on philosophy actually, which is pretty dang cute.

Ewan’s a very interesting character, certainly unlike the average romance hero. While he is strong, at least when he hasn’t been imprisoned for a long period of time, he’s logical to the degree of sociopathy and occasionally sounding like an ignorant ass. He’s terrible at dealing with people, because he truly doesn’t understand why they have feelings and do not enjoy being informed every time they are incorrect about something. This does cause problems with Marlie, but she’s naturally intellectually curious and not bored by his discussions. My favorite thing about this series so far is precisely how unique the characters are, and Ewan’s a great example. View Spoiler »

The plot’s a bit quieter than the one in An Extraordinary Union, but that’s not a bad thing. The pace is no slower for there being more potential danger rather than physical danger for much of the book. In A Hope Divided, Cole depicts how incredibly dangerous Marlie’s position is, even as one of the lucky few black women to be wealthy and in a powerful family. Even her sister Sarah, a wealthy white women, lives on the edge of danger every day for being somewhat outspoken about her disagreements with the Confederate cause and for helping black people in a state actively hunting Northern sympathizers. Something Cole does so well in this series is highlight the range of experiences in the Civil War.

With A Hope Divided, the romance was once again the weakest part of the narrative for me. That really highlights how phenomenal the book is as a whole, because usually I wouldn’t like a romance novel this much unless I loved the ship. I do ship Marlie and Ewan quite a bit but not quite to my usual level. In both of these books, the hero and heroine have been inexplicably physically drawn to each other from the very first, and I find that trope annoying. I think I would have really shipped them if their love had initially stemmed from their intellectual connection rather than the physical one.

The Loyal League books are outstanding. Can anyone recommend more historical fiction like this because I need it?

Tl;dr – Review in a GIFfy:

December 2018: Month in Review

We made it through 2018, which in and of itself really feels like an accomplishment this year, even though the days turned all by themselves like usual. It’s been a hell of a year, in basically all possible interpretations of that.

I spent my new year the way I like to: at home in pajamas, reading a great book and watching TV. I did wear a sparkly shirt, because that is the degree to which I am actually a festive human being.


An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole

An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa ColeAn Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole
Series: The Loyal League #1
Published by Kensington on March 28, 2017
Genres: Historical, Romance
Pages: 320
Format: eBook
Source: Library
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As the Civil War rages between the states, a courageous pair of spies plunge fearlessly into a maelstrom of ignorance, deceit, and danger, combining their unique skills to alter the course of history and break the chains of the past . . .

Elle Burns is a former slave with a passion for justice and an eidetic memory. Trading in her life of freedom in Massachusetts, she returns to the indignity of slavery in the South—to spy for the Union Army.

Malcolm McCall is a detective for Pinkerton's Secret Service. Subterfuge is his calling, but he’s facing his deadliest mission yet—risking his life to infiltrate a Rebel enclave in Virginia.

Two undercover agents who share a common cause—and an undeniable attraction—Malcolm and Elle join forces when they discover a plot that could turn the tide of the war in the Confederacy's favor. Caught in a tightening web of wartime intrigue, and fighting a fiery and forbidden love, Malcolm and Elle must make their boldest move to preserve the Union at any cost—even if it means losing each other . . .

Though I don’t actually worry too much if my first or last book of the year is a specific number or is good for omen reasons, I’ll admit that it IS nice when those things happen. I wanted to hit 310 books for 2018 if I could, and I finished An Extraordinary Union at 11:30 on December 31. Even better, I got to end on a book that rocks. An Extraordinary Union goes to show how amazing diverse historical romance can be.