The Kiss Quotient and The Bride Test

I picked up The Kiss Quotient after reading an article about its author, Helen Hoang, a woman who was diagnosed with autism (at the high functioning end of the spectrum) at the age of 34. Given at last some insight into the problems she had dealt with through the years, Hoang decided to write about an autistic heroine.

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Stella Lane comes from a wealthy family, but she’s made her own fortune through her work as an econometrician, a mathematical and statistical occupation ideally suited to her personality. Her social life isn’t so successful. In fact, it’s pretty much non-existent. She’s nearing thirty, and she’s had three sexual experiences, all of them disasters. Her mother wants grandchildren, and Stella herself thinks there might be more to life than binge watching Korean drama shows. So she does what anyone with tunnel vision and determination might do—she hires a male escort to teach her “how to do sex.”

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Michael Phan is half Vietnamese and half Swedish, handsome and athletic. On Friday nights he works as, let’s be honest here, a prostitute. He has his reasons, thinks he does, anyway, and he’s at heart a nice guy (although he worries about that—his father wasn’t). He tries his best to avoid ever having a second “date” with a client, so he’s very reluctant to accept an exclusive job with Stella. At least until he gets to know her.

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There’s a lot of graphic sex in this novel. Not my favorite reading, frankly, but Stella wants to learn about sex, so that’s sort of the point. But seeing the world through Stella’s eyes, and seeing Stella through the eyes of a writer who really knows what makes Stella tick, is fascinating, and that’s what makes The Kiss Quotient such a good book.

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The Bride Test, Hoang’s second novel, is not about learning “how to do sex”; there’s bit of that, but much less graphic sex than in The Kiss Quotient. Rather, The Bride Test is about learning how to recognize love when it knocks you off your feet. In a reversal of roles, in this book the hero is on the autism spectrum, while the heroine, a village girl from Vietnam, has no idea what that means.

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Khai Diep (Michael’s cousin and Quan’s brother from the previous book) is a highly successful CPA, although he lives modestly and has little interest in money. He is convinced that he has no feelings, that his heart is stone, and that involving himself in any relationship would only be cruel to the other person. His mother knows better, and she goes to Vietnam to find him a wife.

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The potential bride she finds is Esme Tran, who lives with her daughter, her mother and her grandmother in a shack, and who cleans the bathrooms in a hotel to support them. When Khai’s mother offers her a summer in California to see if she’s a match for Khai, Esme decides (with encouragement from her mother) to take the chance. (And if she’s very lucky, she might even track down her American father, knowing only that his name was Phil, he went to Cal Berkley, and he must have been the source of Esme’s green eyes.)

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Two people from wildly different cultures, backgrounds and educational levels—what could possibly go wrong? And what could possibly go right? Will Khai (with help from some very funny conversations with Michael and Quan) ever figure out what love is? Will Esme, diving into the local night school for immigrants, exceed her own expectations? Will the ending produce a few happy tears? Hey, folks, this is a romance. You know the answers, but getting there is definitely worth reading the book.

A Regency Christmas Novella

Lady Sarah Milton, the heroine of Cheryl Bolen’s His Lady Deceived, has had numerous offers of marriage since her presentation at court five years earlier, but none of those men made her heart sing. She’s reserved that feeling for a man she’s never even spoken to, Alfred Wickham, the son of Viscount Landis. When Lady Landis invites Sarah and her family to spend Christmas at Hedley Hall, the home of the Duke and Duchess of Radcliff, Sarah agrees, but she’s cautious. Lady Landis is convinced that Sarah would be the perfect wife for her only son, Alfred. Sarah longs to meet Alfred at last—but won’t be a party to any marital trap set by his mother.

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Alfred Wickham (known to his friends as Wick) has made it to the age of thirty without a wife, and he’s happy that way. When he gets wind of his mother’s Christmas plans, he agrees to go to Hedley Hall, but enlists his best friend, Lord Hugh Pottinger (known as Potts) to accompany him. Wick claims he doesn’t want to leave Potts to spend Christmas alone in London, but Potts knows better. Wick wants something.

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Wick does indeed want something. He wants Potts to convince Lady Sarah that Wick is a poor marital candidate. He makes Potts (who is hopelessly shy around women) promise to tell the lady that Wick wagers on everything—and always loses, that he fences without a mask, and, worst of all, that he has an “understanding” with an actress. The third, at least, is not true.

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What Wick has failed to realize is just how attractive Lady Sarah is. Alas, Potts finds her attractive, too, and Potts believes that Wick is not interested. Meanwhile Sarah isn’t sure what to think about either one of them. Surely Wickham is out of the question (that actress!), but maybe there’s more to Hugh Pottinger than meets the eye.

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Mix in a house party and a blizzard, a variety of eccentric guests, and a child with a secret identity, and you have a Christmas Regency romp. And if you want to know how the Duke and Duchess of Radcliff (the Duchess is Wick’s cousin) met and fell in love, pick up Bolen’s A Duke Deceived.

Romance!

Gerry Bartlett’s Texas Trouble brings together Scarlett Hall from Texas Lightning and Ethan Calhoun from Bartlett’s earlier Texas Heat trilogy–and a whole lot of trouble. Scarlett is doing her best to recover from a traumatic encounter with a knife-wielding criminal when she learns that Knife Guy has escaped from prison, and just might be looking for her. Meanwhile Ethan’s mother has escaped from a mental hospital, demanding help from him.

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Texas Trouble has lots of action, sizzling romance, some very scary villains, a talented tattoo artist, Scarlett’s brother (named, surprise, Rhett), a motorcycle riding PI, a sometimes exasperated Texas Ranger, and one very small but very brave dog. What more could we ask for in romantic suspense? (Rumor has it that Rhett Hall will be getting his own happy ending come December–I’m looking forward to that one.)

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I’m not an avid reader of historical romance, but I picked up (or rather downloaded) Zana Bell’s Fool’s Gold on the strength of its setting, New Zealand in 1866, definitely something different. Gwen (Lady Guinevere) Stanhope is an English woman left on her own in New Zealand after her father dies on the long sea voyage to the colony. Gwen has very little money, but she does have the photographic equipment with which her father had hoped to capture a picture of the (alas, extinct) moa and make enough money to buy back the mortgage on the family estate. Gwen is very nearly swept away by a sudden flood, only to be rescued by Quinn O’Donnell, an Irishman who arrived in New Zealand after serving as a surgeon in the American Civil War.

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Gwen wants only to return to Maidenhurst, the family home in England, even if she has to marry the man who holds the mortgage (her father’s back up plan). Quinn hates the English and wants to build a new life in New Zealand. But this is a romance novel, so we know something’s gotta give.

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Along the way, Gwen tackles a number of jobs, even working briefly as a housemaid, learning quite a bit about herself and about the people she never noticed when she was a pampered lady in England, while Quinn learns what he is really meant to do with his life. Their romance grows slowly (heat level sweet) and believably.

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The New Zealand setting is fascinating (and I assume authentic, as the author lives in New Zealand), the characters are likeable, and the story held my attention.

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Shelly Chalmers’ Must Love Plague is the first book in her Sisters of the Apocalypse series. Piper Bane, descendant of the Pestilence clan, returns to the small paranormal town of Beckwell, Alberta, for the wedding of her best friend, Ginny (heiress of Famine, who loves to bake) and a reunion with their friends Anna (heiress of War, currently the town librarian) and Nia (heiress of Death, who speaks to ghosts). Piper has spent ten years trying to avoid her heritage—and her propensity for making others ill. Now she’s faced with the rumor that she and her friends are about to rise as the Four Horsewomen of the Apocalypse, bringing on the End of the World.

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As if that wasn’t annoying enough, the first person she runs into when her car lands in a ditch going through the supernatural barrier that protects the town is her one-time fiance, Daniel Quillan, town doctor and sometime Fomorian (yes, I had to look that one up—definitely bad-ass guys). She’s also being stalked by a large brown toad. And the barrier that has protected the town and its not quite human inhabitants for a century has suddenly turned into a prison dome.

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What’s a girl to do? Piper and her friends are determined to avoid the Apocalypse, but the citizens of Beckwell aren’t making that easy.

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Chalmers’ imaginative approach to a wide range of mythology makes for an entertaining read, to be continued as the rest of the Four Horsewomen take their turns.

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