Playing With Matches
by Katherine Greyle, Karen Harbaugh, Sabeeha Johnson, and Cathy Yardley; contemporary (2003)
Signet, $6.99, ISBN 0-451-20830-7

I guess with the successes of movies like Mississipi Masala, Monsoon Wedding, Bend It Like Beckham, and the fact that Double Happiness seems like a cult favorite with every Chinese American I encounter, romance authors soon catch on the fact that sometimes non-Caucasians fall in love too. Playing With Matches is a beautiful novelty: it stars women of the minority in American society falling in love. It's just too bad that the only moment when the anthology comes to life is during Karen Harbaugh's story, and that's towards the end of the book.

Oh, and this book deals with matchmakers. Playing With Matches, geddit? Although this time, this premise is understandable because we're dealing with conservative Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, and Indian (as in from India) cultures.

Cathy Yardley's Romancing Rose tells of half-Vietnamese Rose Parker deciding to learn Vietnamese culture to placate her grandmother who is forever nagging her to get married and matchmaking her silly. She meets Paul Duong at the Au Co Vietnamese Cultural Center, listens to that silly uptight ass go on and on and on about race issues, and they marry.

I don't like Paul. I am a self-confessed banana Chinese (yellow outside, white inside) and I know how it feels when having to be at the receiving end of really insulting comments from people of my own race who automatically deem me a traitor to the culture just because I can't murder Mandarin songs in karaoke. But I have a hard time sympathizing with a man who bristles at the use of the "banana Vietnamese" insult when he, in fact, is the first to judge Rose at first sight. I never warm up to him even towards the end, because he's more like a soapbox than a character. Likewise, the grandmother must die. Does Ms Yardley think that Mai woman is funny? I find her offensive, racist, and outright hostile, and trust me, if she's my mother, she'll be deported back to Vietnam with a gag over her mouth.

Too much race issues, too little romance - although I sympathize with Rose's not fitting in - and too much Grandmother Mai. Romancing Rose is a bad start. Things can only get better.

Katherine Greyle's heroine Chen Su-Ling has had enough when her mother matchmakes her one time too many with obedient baby-faced Momma's boy accountants in Dragon For Dinner. She impulsively drags a guy with earrings and tattoos as her "date" to her father's birthday party, only to learn that this guy, Mitch Kurtz, is actually a volleyball coach at her niece's school. Wacky hijinks - too many, actually - ensue as poor Su-Ling finds herself torn between getting down with Mitch or being the obedient Chinese daughter to her family.

Mitch strikes me as a potential heartbreak when he begins insisting that Su-Ling choose between him and her family when they aren't even dating, and his behavior rarely improves. Instead of trying to bring out the conflict Su-Ling is facing, the author prefers to up the wacky hijinks or reduce her characters into shrill, bitter Chinese old hag stereotypes that make me wince. (If you have seen that horrible Korean mother, Mama Lane, on Gilmore Girls, you may know what I am talking about.)

After the previous two heroine's absurd attempts at rebellion, Nalini's cheerful acceptance of her being set up for dates in Sabeeha Johnson's The Spice Bazaar has me blinking in surprise. Sabeeha Johnson also writes as Sabrina Johnson for the Harlequin chopshop, by the way. This one is steeped in traditional Indian culture, from the role of the professional matchmaker - Showla Aunty in this case - to the vibrant wedding ceremony. Unfortunately, this story of mistaken identity also goes on for way too long.

Nalini has agreed to meet Dilip at the Spice Bazaar restaurant, but the man she meets is actually Lokesh, Dilip's friend. Lokesh is here to look over Nalini and then drop Dilip a line and if she's hot, Dilip will show up and take over. I am to believe that a modern day matchmaker will have "no time" to get a photo of Dilip, and I am to expect that a jerk like Dilip will be friends with Mr Perfect Lokesh here. Lokesh and Nalini predictably spark off, but the case of mistaken identities just go on and on and on and on and on. When the story reaches its inevitable ending - Dilip's a jerk, Lokesh's the one - I am more relieved than anything. The two main characters have no discernable personalities and this novella is more like a documentary of Indian culture first, romance novella a distant afterthought.

Still, at least it doesn't annoy me. The matchmakers are pretty benign and not malicious or outright intrusive, and blandness is more palatable than irritation.

Finally, Karen Harbaugh delivers a story that isn't a soapbox, documentary, or Bad Stereotype Showcase. Her tells the story of website designer Amy Miyazaki who has a love-mild-irritation relationship with her mother. Her mother isn't called the Blind Date Empress of San Francisco for nothing. When her mother commences her usual nonsense, Amy quickly accepts a job from Kyle Nakagawa. He's hot. Okay, let me put Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa's face in my mind and we're all set to go. Alas, poor Amy, is Kyle yet another of her mother's evil plots or is he actually for real? What do you think?

I really like this one. It's funny but funny in a good way. Mrs Miyazaki is given her own personality and background, and she is more adorable than intrusive and obnoxious. In fact, Mrs Miyazaki is totally recognizable in her actions and behaviors - from her "Eat, you are too thin, my daughter!" to her really familiar laments about not having grandchildren - she could be my own mother, it's really eerie how well the author gets the speech and action and even cunning perfectly portrayed in her story. Amy and Cary, sorry, Kyle are more realistic characters in that they behave like people rather than self-conscious "Hey! We're not Caucasians, look, look, look!" walking showcases - they laugh, they do things other human beings do, and they are comfortable with being themselves. The story is predictable and I can see the denouement coming from the first word I read, but this story is so infectious and sunny that I close the book with a big grin on my face.

This is one anthology that really gets better as it goes along. Karen Harbaugh's story is almost worth the $6.99 I spent. It's not an impressive anthology, but still, if you're a fan of those movies I mentioned at the start of the review, this anthology is definitely worth a look or two.

Rating: 66

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