As a romance blogger and fan of slow-burn romance, it seemed like a crime that I hadn't read any of Mariana Zapata's books, especially given that she was so freaking popular and I had about six of her books that I'd bought while they were on sale gathering virtual dust on my Kindle. I sought to remedy that, binging DEAR AARON and RHYTHM, CHORD & MALYKHIN, one after the other. I'm sorry to say that these were both a bust, as the emotionally manipulative, domineering heroes really put me off, as did the spineless, weepy heroines, with their hearts wrapped in a film of angst that's as clingy as cellophane, and their complete double-standards to any and all other women in the books, not to mention their shallowly-tapped emotional issues. I was told that KULTI was different, and it is - it's a much better book than DEAR AARON or RHYTHM, although not with out flaw. I'll get into both in a minute, but I do want to preface this review by saying that if you're going to try this author, start with this book.
KULTI reads a lot like a J-drama. Kulti is a classic tsundere, who starts out cranky and cold and aloof, and gradually softens over time, to the point where he is possessive in his love for the heroine and will do practically anything to defend her. I'm a total sucker for that, which is why I ate up Hana Yori Dango (also known as Meteor Garden) and the very similar new adult novel, PAPER PRINCESS, despite their highly problematic gender stereotypes and d-bag heroes. I love me a good tsundere, and Kulti in this regard was very well done. When the heroine, Sal, first meets him, he acts like he can hardly stand to be in the room with her, and he is such a jerk to her teammates and then, later, her dad, that she gives him a royal telling off that practically makes his ears burn.
This is where KULTI diverges from DEAR AARON and RHYTHM - Sal actually has a spine. She isn't afraid to stand up for herself, but she also knows when to keep her mouth shut. Her actions are those of an adult, and even though she's roughly in the same age bracket as both Ruby and Gaby (the heroines from the aforementioned books), she acts much more mature, and I really appreciated that. I also liked that Kulti wasn't as controlling as Aaron and Malykhin were and didn't string Sal along. It was clear that he respected her a lot, and he was hard on her as a coach to his player, but also knew when to back off when Sal told him that she wanted to deal with something herself. Again, I like.
Sal's interactions with her family and her teammates were also some of the best parts of this book. The interactions with Sal and her mom and dad made me smile big, because it reminded me of my own family, and how they always went to my stuff, even if they thought it was boring (I was a band kid, and both my parents went to every single one of my concerts and performances, and there were a lot and they were long). Her dad was especially cute and I thought he gave her really good advice while being totally supportive. I also thought Zapata captured the team dynamic really well, from the oft-supportive atmosphere to the petty jealousies that can spawn from the slightest infractions.
On the other hand, KULTI also had some problems that appear to be chronic issues in this author's work. Slut-shaming is one of these issues, although it was mitigated in this book and Sal called herself on it. Still, the way Sal described Kulti's groupies and his ex-girlfriend (or was it his wife?) was kind of gross, especially since she was receiving similar treatment from her teammates and Kulti's fans. You would think that would make her sympathetic but no, she considered her pure self utterly undeserving of such treatment, whereas others were fair game when her man was on the line.
And going off on that vein, Sal also says some very immature things in this book. Immature language was one of the things that bothered me about RHYTHM, and while it was, again, mitigated in this book, it was still present. Sal has a weird poop-fixation and if you think I'm exaggerating, think again - the word "poop" is mentioned 70 times in this book. Every time Sal wants to not think about how sexy or awesome Kulti is, she imagines him pooping and by proxy, so do you, the reader. KULTI lacks the transphobic jokes and comments that bothered me in RHYTHM but at one point, Sal implies that Kulti might be gay or bi and then calls it a "jab." Implying that saying someone is gay is something worth being offended over. This was a one-off comment, and I probably wouldn't have noticed it if the language in RHYTHM hadn't offended me so much. I try to view things from all sides as a reviewer, and after thinking this over, it occurred to me that this is probably what the author considers authentic "locker room talk," as RHYTHM is a book about rock stars and KULTI is a book about athletes, and both those professions seem to attract toxic chauvinism and slur-ridden trash talk. I get that, but at the same time, it's very hard for me to like heroes and heroines like that as people, as I go out of my away to avoid people who talk like that in real life because it upsets me so much.
Lastly, the sex scenes in this book are just not good. Somehow I always end up cringing at the moment when the hero and heroine get together, and considering how long this takes, I feel like I ought to be celebrating, and not asking myself, "Why? Why God, why? Why do you think that's sexy?" For the record, the thought of a weeping purple head just doesn't do it for me. Sorry.
I know it seems I'm being hard on this book, but I did think it was a vast improvement over the author's previous works, so it seems like she does at least look at her critical reviews and tries to improve, which I really appreciate. Colleen Hoover had a similar transformation in her writing, and it's truly remarkable how much better her later efforts are than her earlier ones. Some authors seem to take criticism as an affront, so I am always grateful when authors actually take criticism as a means to improve their craft and write better stories. It really did work here and I enjoyed most of the book immensely, even if I did think one of the revelations towards the end was incredibly unrealistic and hyper-cheesy (the epilogue and deleted interview, however, made me smile and laugh, respectively). If you were put off by DEAR AARON and RHYTHM like I was, definitely check out KULTI. In some ways, it's reminiscent of an edgier Meg Cabot, and the romance between the hero and heroine really is quite sweet as it blossoms out of its prickly origins like a rare and precious cactus flower.
3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars