Review: The Water Cure

 

Rarely do I read anything outside of my approved galleys, due to lack of time and, usually, bitterness at having requested something and been denied. But I had to get my hands on Sophie Mackintosh’s The Water Cure, as I love all things feminine and cultish. Okay, where to even begin? Mackintosh’s debut is stunning from start to end, and I fear any review would be insufficient. It’s not necessarily the subject matter or the characters that are spectacular here, but rather the author’s expertise in construction, from the macro, to the micro level. Every word is precise, yet at the same time, they’re strung together in a fashion that straddles the borders of prose and poetry. The storytelling itself is what is special here– the author’s daring choice to move between narrators and points of view, without being jarring. In this way, the water motif that carries our characters throughout also carries the story along, flowing between perspectives.

Yet, for all of its literary beauty and daring/experimental choices, it’s still cohesive and clear enough so as not to ostracize its reader. There is nothing masturbatory or gratuitous, nor is there anything condescending to the reader. Oftentimes, I find authors to seem as though they’re being off-center for the sake of being off-center, being elusive or controversial in an effort to assert their own, smug intellect. As if the more they confuse the reader, the more they deserve merit. (And hey, I’m not entirely innocent of that elitism myself– just look at my blog name 😉 But there’s none of that with The Water Cure. And, get ready for this, there’s actually a plot. Things actually happen in this novel, despite it being literary. There are physical acts that extend further than mere perambulations, there’s suspense, there’s violence, and even a few twists. It’s truly one of the few books I could recommend to a casual beach reader with as much confidence as I could to a literary snob.

I realize this review doesn’t say much about the actual content of the book, as much as it does the quality, but I’m hoping my enthusiasm will encourage you to read it yourself. Like I said, trying to boil it down to its essential elements would be a disservice. And as a note, you may be tempted to suck it down in one sitting, but temper yourself. Let yourself sip it slowly, savor it. Let the words wash over you. And if you’ve read it, please comment your thoughts– do you agree with me? Disagree? Let’s chat.

Review: 5/5 stars.  (My first five star review of the year, and it’s only January 13th. I’m not sure I had any 5-stars in 2018. Hopefully this bodes well for the rest of 2019– and doesn’t mean that everything is downhill from here.)

Buy The Water Cure on Amazon here. 

Review: Watching You

I’ve been off the grid for a bit, buried in work, but still managing to fit in my daily reading, albeit at five AM. So prepare yourselves for a whole lotta Snark– whenever it is that I manage to get caught up.

All of that being said, I’m going to move the book I finished this morning to the front of the queue.  Why? Because, ladies and gentlemen, I have been genuinely surprised. It’s not often that my expectations are met– and far less that they’re exceeded. Now, it could be that my expectations have withered away over the past few months, having read so many mediocre books. But I’m going to give this one the benefit of the doubt. Of course, now that I’ve built it up, it’ll be a let down for you. Oh well.

So what’s the book?

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WATCHING YOU by Lisa Jewell. I had actually forgotten that was the title until now, and I’m realizing that’s probably why my expectations were so low. Don’t judge a book by its [terrible] title, folks. Watching You is about a small neighborhood in Bristol, England, in which everyone seems to be in everyone else’s business– as is the case in most small towns. But we’re quickly introduced to the fact that there has been a murder in this town, and the primary protagonist, Joey, is also the prime suspect. For about half of the book, it’s unclear whether she’s going to be driven to murder the object of her obsessions, or whether the story is about an innocent woman being framed/wrongly convicted. As the story unfolds, twists and turns are revealed regularly, subverting all expectations (I guess this is the theme of our post today). The way the information is revealed and the transitions are both flawlessly executed, with just enough coming out at just the right times, so that everything makes sense  without feeling contrived. There are a few moments that feel too coincidental, but I’ll give those a pass. Jewell’s writing is clear and her characters are multi-dimensional, possessing positive and negative traits that make them seem human. It’s the kind of writing that is made for movie adaptations. There’s no flowery prose in which to get lost, just a driving plot that keeps you turning pages until the very end.

I’ve never read anything by Lisa Jewell, and since I don’t research authors until after I’ve written the majority of my review so as to keep the person separate from the work, but given her long history writing in the genre, it’s making sense that this book is so solid. It definitely reads like the work of a professional– there’s nothing experimental or avant garde here, no sparks of pure brilliance, but it’s very good. The kind of book you’ll have no problems gifting to anyone and everyone.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

Buy Watching You on Amazon here.

Review: A Well-Behaved Woman

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Did you like Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald? If so, you’re going to love Therese Anne Fowler’s newest historical novel, A Well-Behaved Woman, which offers all of the same historical glitz and glamour, and a strong female protagonist.

Fowler’s heroine is an underdog in high society, a progressive woman from the start, though it is perhaps unintentional at first. Having been born to a family with little wealth, and not being able to rely solely on her looks, Alva Smith used her cleverness to maneuver her way into one of the richest families in the world. Unlike her playboy husband, who is mostly useless and spent his time galavanting around the world, Alva sought meaning in her life, pursuing a life that was deemed inappropriate and positively un-feminine by society.  Instead of accepting her role as a housewife, she boldly pursued her passions of architecture and social equality, including being a champion specifically for African Americans. She later goes on to be accused of being an “architect of society’s downfall” for her decision to *gasp* procure a divorce from her husband.

Stories of women’s insubordination and refusal to quietly comply with the “rules” of patriarchal society are always timely, evergreen, but no more so than today.  That being said, one of the greatest things about this book is that Fowler allows the feminist angle to emerge organically. Towards the end, it gets a bit heavy-handed, but it’s justified as it reflects the protagonist’s true turn towards the women’s suffrage movement. Throughout most of the novel, we’re invited into an otherwise-exclusive world, but its pitfalls– especially for women– are apparent throughout. Though the environment is glamorous, the unfortunate treatment of women, minorities, and the poor are on full display. In such a seemingly romantic era, all the more so given the grandiose homes and affairs, it’s striking how little love exists. Love, Money, or Titles: ladies, take your pick. While men of status were permitted to sink ships, sleep with whoever they pleased, and generally do as they pleased, a single misstep by one of their wives or daughters could result in a permanent fall from grace. Fowler points out the horrific hypocrisy, as it applied to Alva, that “Society loved her when she was advancing its causes, then castigated her when she was advancing her own. Yet, were not the two ever entwined?”

One of my favorite moments of the book is at the end, when Alva is standing with her husband, her former maid, Mary, and Mary’s husband, the latter two of whom are African American:

“Will you look at us? Four people of exceptional quality and intellect, three of whom began life as the property of wealthy white men. Not to say that our situations were equal. I just mean to demonstrate that all sorts of societal wrongs can be improved.”

How interesting is that observation? As a creative who subscribes to the notion that stories say more about the time in which they are created than they do about the time in which they are set, I think this quote is most emblematic of the connections between societal issues then and now.

 

Rating: 4/5 stars

Buy A Well-Behaved Woman on Amazon here.

Review: You Think It, I’ll Say It

I’ve been off the grid for the past 10 days or so, as it was my birthday AND I was reading some older stuff. Namely, Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife. Boy was that one tough for me. Ten days to read a book? Not my style. I wrote a full review on Goodreads, but given that it came out so long ago, I’m going to review Sittenfeld’s newest effort, You Think It, I’ll Say It, instead.

 

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Short stories are tough for me– I don’t always connect with characters, so when I do find myself drawn to a protagonist or a world painted by an author, I want to remain there for more than 20, 30, 40 pages. Of course, it works rather well when I don’t connect, as I know I’ll be able to move on fairly quickly, but that doesn’t make me any more fond of short story collections.

Despite all of this, Curtis Sittenfeld’s You Think It, I’ll Say It was an enjoyable read. I thoroughly enjoyed the various women and their situations, as they felt just common enough to be relatable, yet offered a unique perspective or twist. I often found myself thinking that I could see myself on various sides.

My favorite story was Bad Latch, in which the middle-class, pregnant narrator feels competitive with (and lacking next to) another expectant mother in her prenatal yoga class. Though I’ve not yet been pregnant, this scenario of feeling less-than, particularly when it comes to mothering, is so easy so imagine, especially in the way Sittenfeld paints it. But the magic isn’t just that we can put ourselves in the narrator’s shoes, it’s that we can just as easily empathize with Gretchen, the ostensibly “perfect” mommy, who plans to give birth naturally.

I also found Off the Record to be especially accessible and relevant to today’s culture. Again, both sides here are easy to grasp and the multitude of feelings, the depth Sittenfeld creates within a short span, is impeccable. I think the overall takeaway from this collection, for me, is reinforcing that saying “comparison is the death of joy” (commonly attributed to Mark Twain, but I no longer trust the internet as a source). Many of the stories deal with tiny jealousies that become insidious, and all the more so because they’re often imagined rather than based in any reality.

 

Rating: 3.5/5

Buy You Think It, I’ll Say It on Amazon here

Review: Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating

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This is my first foray into the duo that call themselves Christina Lauren, and I wasn’t disappointed. Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating is exactly what it claims to be: quirky heroine becomes best friends with the hottie from college, fun and emotional chaos ensues as they attempt to set one another up on blind dates that go poorly, until they realize they’re in love. It’s a simple romantic comedy, which is anything but simple to construct, so kudos to the authors.

Something that really stood out to me about this book is that you could almost feel the authors having fun together as they created their story. Obviously I got a sense of Josh and Hazel, who are both thought out and detailed characters, as I read, but there was also a pervasive sense of the authors. I could see Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings  sitting together, perhaps with mimosas on Sundays, shooting the shit, maybe sharing some anecdotes, and crafting these characters with whom they themselves have fallen in love. Maybe I’m wrong and they’ve just been paired together by their publisher and in reality, they barely speak to one another, working mostly over e-mail exchanges of chapters. In which case, bravo to them, as they’re even more brilliant than I thought.

Aside from that, what kept bouncing through my head were similarities to Helen Hoang’s debut The Kiss Quotient, which was released a mere three months before this. Both books are romantic comedies featuring extremely quirky/conventionally “undateable” lead females, hunky, Korean, men, with that cultural element being a nice little thread throughout. Not that I think there’s any plagiarism here– I’m sure this book was already at the presses when Kiss Quotient was released– but  I think that having read them in such close proximity, it flattened this for me. Both are well written, and I’d actually give the edge to Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Dating as far as writing is concerned. It is slightly more clever and the writers feel more seasoned in this genre, capturing all of the hallmarks of romantic comedy without crossing over into being cliche. This is especially clear in the sex scenes, which is maybe a strange thing to compare, and I’m certainly not a connoisseur of literary porn, but where Hoang’s scenes go too far overboard, Lauren is able to craft a steamy scene that doesn’t make you roll your eyes.

Would I recommend this book to fans of the genre? Absolutely. While it’s not breaking any boundaries, it ticks all the boxes for romantic comedy and would be a nice poolside read. If you’ve read Kiss Quotient, I’d give yourself a little breathing time so this doesn’t feel stale. Unless you were obsessed with that book and want more of the same, now, then have at it.

Rating: 3.5/5

Buy Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating on Amazon here.

Review: Spindrift

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Hmm… Where to begin? As with many an avid reader, there’s a special kind of nostalgia I get when returning to books or authors I’ve read as a child. V.C. Andrews was one of those authors I read in that in-between space, when I had already exhausted such fare as A Wrinkle in Time, and was looking for something edgier, but wasn’t quite ready to make the leap to adult or literary fiction. Having already established my affinity for all things macabre or off-center, I was drawn to the gothic tales woven in My Sweet Audrina and Flowers in the Attic, and even more satisfying was the fact that I was the only child in 5th or 6th grade reading such disturbing material, which I happily recounted to my soft-stomached schoolmates.

Given this backstory, I was excited when given the opportunity to read an advance copy of the newest offering by Andrews, Spindrift, about a group of young women who attend an elite academy, only to have one go missing. Gothic mystery fiction, female protagonist(s), academia, and one of my favorite childhood authors– what could be better?

Turns out, A LOT.

This book is not well written. It’s messily-plotted, the characters are superficial, with little to no depth, and there’s hardly a phrase worth re-reading, so clunky and utilitarian is the language. There’s nothing of the sexy gothic mystery, that stomach-churning feeling I so vividly recall from my previous experiences reading V.C. Andrews. And don’t even get me started on the inherent (and accidental) irony of calling this series “The Burden of Brilliance”. You might expect, given that title, the book would be oh-so-clever. And you’d be sorely disappointed. I didn’t even want to bother writing a review, such was my dismay. And then I had a realization:

Hadn’t V.C. Andrews died before I was even born? How was she creating more work? 

Turns out, she wasn’t. 

This book isn’t written by V.C. Andrews at all– which is perhaps the most interesting part of the whole story here. Andrews herself died in 1986. Thirty-two years ago. So now you’re thinking “okay, that’s not weird at all. There are plenty of books posthumously published, plenty of tertiary pieces that remained hidden in a desk drawer, and perhaps this was just one of her lesser works, only recently discovered”. But no, that’s not what’s going on here.

This is a case of ghostwriting, with an emphasis on the ghost part.

Turns out, an author called Andrew Neiderman has been ghostwriting for V.C. Andrews, cashing in on her likeness for years, both on paper and on screen. Neiderman is best known for writing The Devil’s Advocate, which went on to be a widely popular film, though it’s widely regarded as being one of the few films that is better than its original material. I can’t help but feel a bit disgusted by this trickery, not only because it’s a little gross that a publisher would conspire to pass off work that is not Andrews’ herself, but because the writer they chose pales in comparison to Andrews. I have so many questions: when there are so many talented authors out there, why choose someone so subpar?

And more importantly, WHY THE EFF would you choose an older, male writer to ghostwrite for a woman who is known for writing feminine stories, from the perspective of young women, for an audience of young women? 

Gross.

Rating: 1/5

If, against my recommendation, you’d still like to purchase this book, do so at your own risk here. 

 

Review: The Light We Lost

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HOW DID I MISS THIS BOOK WHEN IT WAS RELEASED LAST YEAR?! Cue existential crisis-slash-anxiety attack that despite my attempts to keep my finger on the pulse of what’s hot in the literary world, great books are still falling through the cracks. Ladies and gentlemen– or however it is you folks are defining yourselves; don’t let me confine you– I’m giving out what I believe to be my first five star review of the blog. And possibly of 2018 (even though this was released in 2017).

Page One: Jill Santopolo reached right into my chest cavity and grabbed my still-beating heart.

The Light We Lost is stunning, from start to finish. It is that rare book that is both literary and relatable, which I think is due to its using beautiful language not as flourish, but because it’s from the soul. It’s the language of love and loss. Every word is meticulously wrought, but never pretentious or gratuitous. Or perhaps I’m just a hopeless romantic– emphasis on the ‘hopeless’. I think that my having not discovered this book until I did has to be for some reason. I mean, is it a complete coincidence that I randomly found it on September 11th? Social scientists would say yes, total coincidence. But again, I’m somewhat of a romantic.

This book is designed for those among us who are prone to losing themselves, at least occasionally, in the ‘what if’s?’. Those among us who are seemingly content in our lives, but who struggle to resist the urge to stalk the social media accounts of a former flame. Those among us who wonder about ‘the one that got away’– the one that, over time, rather than deteriorating in our memories, has built up, becoming super-human, invincible.

If none of those things sound familiar, then you’re lucky. But not really, because you’ll likely not appreciate the magic of this book. Santopolo is a genius at crafting meals out of mere moments, like this gem:

“Your face closed. I could see it, like a door shutting behind your eyes… I had stumbled into a fault line I didn’t know was there. I filed that away– I was discovering the landscape of you. Already I was hoping it was terrain I’d learn well, one that would become second nature to navigate.”

To me, this book captures the same tragic emotions of one of my absolute favorite soliloquies in Shakespeare: To be, or not to be. It captures perfectly the “heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”. The only other contemporary author I’ve read who comes close to capturing this kind of heartbreak and longing is Julian Barnes, though I have to say, I think Santopolo’s feminine perspective gives it more resonance, at least for me.

A few other samplings I love from the book:

“It always seemed like you belonged to you and let yourself out to me when you felt like it; I never had complete ownership.”

“Sometimes a year feels like an eternity, broken up into tiny capsules of time. Each chunk is so monumental that it seems like its own lifetime within a life.”

Okay, guys, I could go on and on. And honestly, I’m getting annoyed with the fact that I don’t have anything snarky to say. The worst thing– the only bad thing, really– is that it had to end. I want to cry. I want to hold it in my hands, clutch it to my chest, crush it to bits so that I never have to let it go.

Now that I’ve set your expectations way too high, please check it out and then argue with me.

Rating: 5/5 stars

Buy The Light We Lost on Amazon

(PS: Because this is the first of Santopolo’s novels in this genre, I’m unable to binge read her and thus, would greatly appreciate any recommendations, if you know of any similar books– fiction or nonfiction, either way works for me– or if you have been similarly touched by a book.)

Review: Jane Doe

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Let’s cut straight to the chase here: this novel isn’t written with an eye towards literature. If we’re strictly focused on the writing, it’s probably a 3. Rarely do I make it through a book that I’m enjoying without stopping regularly to highlight beautiful turns of phrase and philosophical tidbits, yet my copy of Jane Doe is nearly pristine in its lack of notations.
So then how did I come to like this so much? I think maybe it’s precisely because it is so quick-paced and searing. There’s no flourish, but there’s also no fat to trim. It’s cut and dry, remorseless, just like the titular character. And there’s a certain kind of art to this ostensible artlessness. Writers often fall prey to their own pens (proverbially, given the whole digital age). How often do you find yourself reading something and thinking “what the hell is this author even saying?”, or taken out of the narrative because the wording is so pretty and attention-seeking? Writers fall in love with their words as much or more as any of their devoted readers, resulting in books that are bloated to the point that the plot is beyond recognition. Or else, on kind of the opposite side of the same spectrum, authors are trying to hit that word count— a phenomenon that is especially prevalent in this particular genre, where publishers are cranking these things out for the hungry masses.
Jane is a self-described sociopath, with a vague plan to take, or at least ruin, the life of the man responsible for emotionally terrorizing her best friend, Meg. I laughed out loud several times at Jane’s calculated, understated subversion. I loved her unapologetic behavior, her acknowledgement that she was confident even while she feigned feminine modesty and drama. This character-playing-a-character added just the right amount of depth, providing a sort of cultural commentary between the lines that never overwhelms or distracts from the story or its characters.
Rating: 4/5 stars

Review: When the Lights Go Out

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A few years ago, I went through a Mary Kubica phase, where I devoured all of her books in short order. I loved her flawed female protagonists, quick pacing, the deep-seated psychological issues, and all the twists and turns in each of her books, or at least in The Good Girl and Pretty Baby. I wasn’t as keen on Every Last Lie, which came out last year, but I’ve tried to push that one aside in my memory. Since my original Kubica binge, I’ve found myself comparing every psychological thriller to hers, and usually they come up short.

Thus, when I saw When the Lights Go Out on NetGalley, I immediately requested it. Usually, it takes me a bit to get to a book as I’ve got quite a queue, but Kubica? She skips to the front of the line, regardless of how far away the publication date is set.

Her newest effort begins much like her previous fare, with a young woman at the center of the story, struggling to make sense of the world around her. In this case, our ‘heroine’ is Jessie Sloane, who is trying to get her life back on track after taking a detour to take care of her ailing mother, Eden. The book alternates POVs, between these two women, with Jessie in the present, and Eden’s story taking place twenty years prior. Kubica does a great job building tension, though I found the pacing here to be much slower than her previous books, with a lot of redundancy. We get it, Eden desperately wants a baby and the pressure is causing her marriage to crumble, while Jessie is struggling with insomnia and can’t seem to solve the mystery of her identity. After a while, what started out as a solid premise and intriguing, mysterious characters, drifted into pleads of “MOVE THE PLOT ALONG ALREADY”.

But the slow burn pacing isn’t the worst thing about this novel. It’s not even really that big of a deal, since the author is still quite talented and engaging, even when she’s not progressing things. But that ending. If you’ve read pretty much any other review of this book, you already know the ending is atrocious. I’ve yet to see one detailed review that is favorable of the ‘twist’ at the end. To me, it’s a cheap cop-out, and I cannot believe an experienced writer like Mary Kubica would resort to it. The very first thing you learn in any writing course, whether it be in literature or screenwriting, is “come up with an ending– don’t lead us by the nose for hundreds of pages and then say “never mind, it was all a dream,”. I’m not even being hyperbolic here– having gotten my Master’s in Creative Writing, I can tell you that almost every individual class I’ve taken has addressed this specific crutch. And I always thought “NO ONE ACTUALLY DOES THAT, QUIT TEACHING IT!”, but apparently people do do that. Even good writers.

To me, it seems like one of two things happened here:

Kubica wanted to ‘break out’ of her typical fare and ‘prove’ she could write with the big boys– that she could be literary and experimental, flouting conventional wisdom and doing it so well that it doesn’t matter if she breaks the rules.

OR

Kubica’s reps wanted her to churn out a novel this year, since psychological thrillers are continuing to sell like gangbusters, so she rushed through this, and the powers-that-be approved it because they were on a publication deadline and assumed readers would gloss over it or be lenient because Kubica’s still one of the most talented in the genre.

If the former, I applaud the author for trying something new and being ambitious, but I still don’t think it worked. If the latter, I applaud the author for making her deadline, but I’d like to go on the record to state that we readers will not accept subpar writing and plotting. Hold the presses until it’s right. To let this novel, which COULD have been very good had it been edited viciously, see the light of day in this premature state is egregious. And in case you’re thinking I’m being too harsh on the lazy publishing here, look at that cover art. Could it be any more cliche and artless? It looks like a bad YA novel. Come on, guys.

Rating: 3/5 stars, and only because I’m still a Kubica fan and will continue to support her and give her the benefit of the doubt.

Buy When the Lights Go Out on Amazon. 

Book Review: The Kiss Quotient

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Autism– especially the high-functioning end of the spectrum, commonly referred to as Asperger’s– has always fascinated me. I think because I’m almost always drawn to people (particularly men) who are treading the fine line between genius and mad, I’ve become well acquainted with the quirks, both positive and negative, that accompany Asperger’s. I loved John Elder Robison’s memoir, Look Me in the Eye, and enjoyed Mark Haddon’s hit Curious Incident. However, I haven’t had much experience with women on the spectrum. I had assumed that was because I seek male partners, and, I guess, I assumed that it was more common in males than females. But Hoang’s notes at the end of the book explain that women are diagnosed far less often because they are more likely to hide their symptoms. I’ve not yet researched this to fact-check it, but it’s definitely believable and interesting to consider.

Anyway, because of my own interest in Asperger’s, and particularly its effects on relationships, I was excited to read Helen Hoang’s highly-praised romance novel, The Kiss Quotient. After all, how great is it when pure entertainment (a la beachy, romance novels) and culturally/socially important messages are intertwined? Not only is it important to get diverse voices out into the zeitgeist, so that we may see things through new perspectives, but it also makes for unique characters that we’ve never seen before. In that sense, this book is successful. It’s cute and fun, culturally relevant, with an intelligent female at its core, and, most importantly, so heartfelt. I connected to Stella and her plight immediately, and that grip never loosened, despite the predictable plot, gratuitous sex scenes, and unrefined writing.

I really loved the world of this novel because of the central character, and I looked forward to returning to it each morning, but I think the writing lacked finesse. While I praise the author on being able to create such a strong emotional attachment to her characters and not let the science and math overwhelm, I think that it needed just a little more poetry and/or intellect injected into the actual writing. This was made even more apparent and at odds, given the supposed brilliance of the protagonist. Stella is portrayed as this phenomenal intellectual, but the immature writing stands in stark contrast. There weren’t any beautiful turns of phrase that I could hold on to and savor, which is one of the things I look for most when I’m reading. I love language, and while plot and emotion are just as important, you can’t sacrifice the words. That being said, it’s a cute novel and I look forward to reading Hoang’s next work.

Rating: 3/5 stars

Buy The Kiss Quotient on Amazon