I’ve talked about Jackie Lau here at Eight Ladies before; I was impressed with Ice Cream Lover, a book about ice cream, Canadian love, and a grumpy but adorable Asian-Canadian hero who meets a bicultural Ice Cream Queen. (Both the heroine and the ice cream are bicultural.)
That was Book Two in the Baldwin Village series, and Book Three, Man vs. Durian, was just released on August 27, 2019. Jackie writes fast, and she writes well – an amazing combination for readers who devour books and want more.
The marketing tags for Man vs. Durian promise a fake relationship, a very sweet hero, a grumpy heroine, and lots of food – and the book delivers on all counts.
First, I really like to have food in a book – good food, bad food, food that provokes emotions and socially smooths the path for our characters. Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me revolves around chicken marsala and doughnuts; Lois McMaster Bujold invented the delightful and talented cook, Ma Kosti, with her little chocolate desserts of plutonium-like density. Food, written well, taps another level of our consciousness, and gives a story depth and heft.
Second, a fake relationship – in other words, the good old “marriage of convenience” trope in modern form – is also something I enjoy. In this case, Valerie (our heroine) has disappointed her mother on both the professional and the biological empire fronts (no boyfriend, no marriage, no grandchildren being the logical progression). Harassment made her quit a job she liked in computers, blacklisting prevented her from finding a new one, and a sucky boyfriend, straight from Reddit’s Relationship Advice pages, soured her on love. She’s now scooping ice cream in the shop from Baldwin Village Two, sorting out her options, and she’d like to get her mother off her back.
On the spur of the moment, she invents a Peter – who is not only a male boyfriend, but a children’s doctor. And, as fate would have it, the next day our hero, Peter, walks into her ice cream shop, and she walks into him with a scoop of durian ice cream.
Our Peter has a backstory with durian. Durian, Queen of the Fruits, has a notorious smell, and it seems to be the world’s most polarizing fruit – you either love it or hate it. Peter hates it, whips off his shirt, and seems prepared to burn the durian stain with fire.
But by this point, we know Peter. He’s a sweetie. He’s no pediatrician, but he has a decent job in landscaping and an English degree. In former times when women could be ruined by an overly long buggy ride, he might have been considered a rake. But today, he’s a guy who loves having a girlfriend, and has had a lot of them, most of whom left the relationship with friendly feelings toward him. What I’m saying is that he’s EXPERIENCED, but he’s not raging testosterone. He’s a sweetheart with a sex drive.
It’s our heroine who is the broody alpha, licking her wounds and not wanting to commit to love. And I LOVE that flip of the trope. For class, we Ladies read Loretta Chase’s excellent Lord of Scoundrels. The hero, Dain, had deep wounds that needed healing, while the heroine, Jessica, was a no-nonsense lady who could take or leave love (until she actually fell in love, anyway). She shoots her man with a pistol, and gets him to straighten up . . . and I’m sure that’s going to get this book on banned lists, but for ladies who grew up in a certain era, there’s a feeling that that’s what it takes to get the brute’s attention – at least, you can get an artistic license for that love gun.
When the trope is flipped, Valerie is allowed to brood and take some time to figure herself out. Peter only gives the tiniest of pushes to guide Valerie – completely unlike Jessica with Dain. Valerie must rescue herself, but Peter’s decency and love provides a solid bedrock from which she can launch her new self. He lets her vent. He suggests a course of action but doesn’t make it happen for her, even though he has the opportunity. He accepts her, wounds and all.
I’ll tell you something else this book doesn’t do: it doesn’t have that weird dynamic where the hero is infatuated with the heroine, does everything to support her, and then suddenly retreats into some toxic masculinity BS when she doesn’t follow his advice. Peter doesn’t dump her publicly at a party because he has a few doubts, or kiss her boss to show that he’s above this love business.
Peter is practically perfect; he is patient, he waits, and he wants to be in a relationship. Does that make him a wuss? I don’t think so. I am completely charmed.
And I don’t blame Valerie for her doubts, either, which is the hallmark of some damn fine writing. The timing is well done. Some writers enjoy wallowing in bad circumstances and the aftermath of hasty decisions that had to be made. Others speed right through them without really letting the reader feel how hard it was. Jackie strikes the right balance – I feel Valerie has solid reasons to be unhappy and a hermit, but she also takes steps to re-establish her happiness in a timely manner. I wish I knew how to do that trick (both the author’s and Valerie’s, now that I stop and think about it).
I feel I should something about the sexy quotient here. Jackie writes sexy love scenes. In Ice Cream Lover, she had a female masturbation scene that gave the heroine agency and control. In Man vs. Durian, Jackie tackles the problem that many women find it hard to reach orgasm through PIV (penis-in-vagina) alone – especially with a new lover. Valerie and Peter talk about things, and Peter is a good lover who is most interested in giving his lover a great time – not a good lover who is most invested in his magic penis giving his lover a great time. He’s concerned with the results, not the end. Valerie adds a sex toy to the scene, and a happy ending is achieved by everyone.
Now, nobody has to raise their hands here, but it’s quite common for romance readers to talk about borrowing their mothers’ books and becoming sexually informed through them. Romance novels can shape a girl’s notion of what love and sex and consent is. Not only is Jackie providing sexy models, she’s providing healthy models, and while I’m afraid that my writing will not provide the healthiest examples of sexuality, I am very glad to see it being done.
These books are stand-alones, even though they are part of a series. You get glimpses of other characters and reminders of their happy endings, but no paragraphs of fan service – on the other hand, this means I had no problem picking up the series in the middle, and when I circle back to read Book One of the Baldwin Village series, I don’t anticipate any confusion.
Give it a try – sample pages are at Amazon. And if you like it, Jackie’s already written quite a few self-published stories, and has more on the way.