Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Romance (page 1 of 7)

The Fiancee Farce – Alexandria Bellefleur

The Fiancee Farce is a Sapphic marriage-of-convenience romance, between a bookstore owner and a book cover model-slash-publishing heiress. It’s like it was written for me personally! I sat down with it crossing my fingers for smut, to complete the trifecta.

The Fiancee Farce - Alexandria Bellefleur - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The Fiancee Farce should come with a warning: the first chapter is off-the-hook, totally-and-completely bonkers. It goes from 0 to 100 on the very first page, you’ll be thrown back in your seat. Tansy has been “dating” a pretend girlfriend – romance book cover model, Gemma West – for six months. It’s a ruse she perpetuates to get out of dinner with her snobby step-family. She’s attending a wedding with said step-family when, lo and behold, Gemma comes strutting in.

Tansy thinks she’s busted, but without even the slightest heads up, Gemma goes along with it. It turns out, Gemma has her own reasons for needing a fake relationship as cover. It turns out she’s a publishing heiress, all set to inherit the family business, but for a clause in her grandfather’s will that stipulates she be married by the time of the board meeting that will transfer ownership.

So, Gemma promptly declares to all and sundry that she and her “girlfriend” Tansy are engaged. And so, The Fiancee Farce begins.

Tansy is disinclined to go along with the scheme at first. Then, she learns that her wicked step-mother plans to sell their own family business, the bookstore that Tansy has called home all her life. She figures out that if she marries Gemma, the merging of their financial assets will give her the funds she needs to buy the bookstore herself outright. So, Tansy and Gemma are set to be wed.

Of course, The Fiancee Farce is ridiculous – all the best romance novels are – but it’s great fun, and honestly, the genuine chemistry and compatibility between the leads makes up for the absurd plot. Despite having lived very different lives and having very different personalities, Gemma and Tansy are both black sheep. It gives them enough common ground to build a solid relationship (because of course they do, that’s hardly a spoiler, get a grip).

They fake affection in mixed company, only to find before long the sparks are flying for real. The only real impediment to making their marriage legit is the duplicitous scheming of Gemma’s family. It’s all very Succession-esque, with alliances and double-agents and reconnaissance and blackmail. So, the question at the heart of The Fiancee Farce isn’t so much whether they’re going to fall for each other for real as it is will they survive the ravages of the Van Dalen empire.

I really appreciated that there was no hand-wringing about queerness in The Fiancee Farce (I think there was maybe one vague mention of lifestyle choices in a family argument scene, but nothing memorable). There’s not a trace of all the gay tropes we’ve come to hate – no dead lesbians, no dramatic coming-out stories, no gay-related trauma. Of course, stories about the lived experience of homophobia (both societal and internalised) are important, but I’m just kind of tired of them in romance novels. This is a genre built on escapism, and life treating the queers poorly is just exhausting and all-too-real sometimes. It was a blessed relief to read a book where queerness wasn’t othered at all, and the marriage of two women was handled exactly the way any other coupling would be.

I made note of a very surprising 180 from Tansy’s step-mother towards the end, and a frustrating third-act break-up (boo! hiss!), but honestly, those flaws weren’t enough to detract from a wonderful reading experience. The Fiancee Farce is rollicking good fun all the way through, a pleasantly spicy romance written with great affection.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Fiancee Farce:

  • “Everything could have been better save for the lovely bookstore one of the characters owns.” – Emily Butler
  • “I laughed, I cringed (for the plot), I got all the tummy flutters and coochie clenches.” – A. D. Waltz
  • “Have you ever seen Atonement? You know that library scene? Yeah. It’s like that, but gay… and no children were traumatized. Blessed.” – Amazon Customer

The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer

The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society is billed as “a moving tale of post-war friendship, love, and books,”. I’m not into WWII historical fiction as a rule, but the bookish aspect of this one drew my attention.

The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society - Mary Ann Shaffer - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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This one also has a heart-wrenching authorial story. Mary Ann Shaffer was a 70-year-old former librarian, encouraged by members of her book club to write a book of her own. She was inspired by a visit to the English Channel island of Guernsey, and crafted a story that combined that location with her own lifelong passion for books and literature. Sadly, Shaffer’s health began to decline after she submitted her manuscript to publishers, and her niece Annie Barrows had to take over for final re-writes and edits. Shaffer passed away shortly before The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society was published in 2008, so she never saw her debut novel in print.

But wipe your tears away, we’ve got a book to review! The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society is an epistolary novel, set in 1946. The action takes place between London, a city still recovering from the Blitz, and the island of Guernsey, which was occupied by Germans from 1940 to liberation in 1945.

32-year-old writer, Juliet Ashton, found fame and financial security (in very lean times) by writing comedic columns as an intrepid and subversive character. As the novel begins, she’s writing to her publisher to say that she’s ready for a change, to write under her own name about weightier topics. She begins casting around for an idea.

Around the same time, she receives a letter from Dawsey Adams, a stranger from the island of Guernsey. A book that had previously belonged to her – The Essays of Elia by Charles Lamb – has found its way into his hands, and he writes to her to tell her how much he enjoys it. They begin a correspondence, and Dawsey tells Juliet all about the literary society run by the residents of Guernsey. It began under strange circumstances, as an alibi for being out after the curfew imposed by German occupiers. Juliet is fascinated, and the story sparks an idea…

The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society is a highly readable book, and surprisingly moving. The wide cast of characters is charming and entertaining, and the letter format is used to great effect. Most importantly to me, the war is more than a convenient backdrop – it’s integral to the plot and the characters, and Shaffer neither romanticises it nor exploits its horrors for dramatic effect.

I read an excellent review by Stevie Davies for The Guardian, which I think sums it up beautifully:

Shaffer’s Guernsey characters step from the past radiant with eccentricity and kindly humour, a comic version of the state of grace. They are innocents who have seen and suffered, without allowing evil to penetrate the rind of decency that guards their humanity.

Stevie Davies (“Bright and dark” – Review of The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society)

Given how well it flows and gently tugs on heartstrings, it’s no surprise that The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society hit the best-seller list. I’d imagine that book clubs the world over had a field day with it. It was also adapted into a 2018 film (starring Lily James as Juliet), and the trailer looks quite promising.

Overall, this isn’t a challenging or life-changing read, but a perfectly pleasant one – the perfect gift for a casual reader of historical or romantic fiction, or one with which to pass a quiet rainy afternoon yourself.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society:

  • “Read the whole thing, dog conversations and all. Terrible. I was excited by the title and that turned out to be the best part.” – Sharon tonkin
  • “How could they send four to five letters in the same day!!!!! They weren’t texting, they were writing letters! DUMB. And really, can somebody write letters everyday??? That tells me that Juliet didn’t have a life. WEIRD” – SuzieG
  • “WW2 is SUPPOSED to be used as the backdrop and reason for the title, but the disjointed writing could cause a historically inept person to believe WW2 was fabricated by the authors as a convenient cause for secret food gatherings. This book is assanine.” – Siren23
  • “Want to read about a starving Nazi soldier strangling a cat, boiling it and eating it? No? How about starving Nazi soldiers using spoons to scrape the bottom of a boat to pick up any food scraps left over? How about learning that the heroine you’ve been rooting for all along has been killed in prison and won’t return to her beloved island? Neither did I. The charming and romantic parts of which there were plenty were ruined with these graphic parts. It’s like serving a delicious salad with a few rotten boiled eggs and a teaspoon of spoiled salad dressing. It tastes good except for the rotten bits and in the end you are left with a bad taste in your mouth.” – Ivy Jolie

Sense And Sensibility – Jane Austen

Jane Austen novels tend to go in and out of fashion. Of course, they’re all perennially popular by general standards, but within Austen’s oeuvre there’s definite trends. I missed Sense And Sensibility‘s most recent hey-day, the peak that came with Emma Thompson’s 1995 film adaptation, but I think the time is ripe for it to come back around.

Sense And Sensibility - Jane Austen - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Sense And Sensibility was the first of Austen’s novels to come out, published anonymously in 1811 (and it has never been out of print, never not once, since then). The author had been working on it since 1795, as best we can tell from what remains of her other writings. It was originally an epistolary novel, told in a series of letters, and she gave it the working title Elinor and Marianne (for the two main characters) before settling on its final form and title relatively late in the game. You can still trace the novel’s epistolary origins, though, in the gossip-y nature of its plot. A lot of Sense And Sensibility is driven by speculation about what others are thinking and feeling.

The story follows two sisters, Elinor (19 years old, as Austen was when she first started working on it) and Marianne (16 years old). They, along with their younger sister and widowed mother, are forced from their family estate by their older half-brother after their father’s death. They settle in Barton Cottage, a comparatively modest home out in the middle of nowhere, on the property of a distant relative. As you’d expect of an Austen novel, the sisters’ only hope for social progression and livelihood is an advantageous marriage.

Are you sensing a duality theme, here? The two key words of the title, the two sisters… Elinor and Marianne represent each half of the title (as Elizabeth and Darcy represented both “pride” and “prejudice”). Elinor is the one with all the sense. She’s reserved, polite to a fault, and very considered in her words and actions. Marianne, on the other hand, is impulsive and emotional, with keen sensibility as demonstrated by her passion for the arts and beauty. Austen is too clever to let it be that simple, of course. Over the course of Sense And Sensibility, you see Elinor’s sensibility and Marianne’s sense come to the fore on various points.

All that said, I really didn’t care that much about the duality and the broader themes and metaphors of Sense And Sensibility – I’m probably only thinking about it, and telling you about it, because I read the Norton edition (which is aimed at an academic audience, with endless footnotes and explanatory essays). It’s all very fascinating for other readers, studious types who are taking it seriously, but that’s not me. What I’m here for is the savagery.

Sense And Sensibility is definitely the cattiest of Austen’s novels. Elinor in particular is a straight-up hater. She might put on a polite front for other characters, but Austen reveals as narrator that she is absolutely murdering everyone around her in her mind. You’ve got to admire a girl who can filter like that!

So, on my reading, that’s the strongest recommendation I have for Sense And Sensibility: pick it up when you want to read a woman destroying people with words. I’m sure there are many other, loftier reasons to enjoy Austen’s first published work, but that’s the reason I loved it and I see no point trying to pretend otherwise.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Sense And Sensibility:

  • “I heave read and enjoyed all of Austen’s published works, and decided to try an Audible version for my daily walks. Why an American would be chosen to narrate an English cast of characters I do not know. The narrator has all the charisma of an eggplant and sounds more like a YouTube robot than an animate being.” – VMT
  • “To the end, I was hopeful that Marianne would die, or perhaps become an old maid, but no. This is a *happy* ending.” – Alexander Kobulnicky
  • “People have worse problems to worry about than worrying about the problems the character has. I kept going through the story and saying, “So what? Who cares? Fix your own problems.”… If you have time to actually read this book, I suggest you spend your time doing something worthwhile instead of wasting your life on Sense and Sensibility.” – J. Lin

I Kissed Shara Wheeler – Casey McQuiston

I’ve been kicking-my-feet-in-the-air excited to read I Kissed Shara Wheeler ever since I read Casey McQuiston’s last novel, One Last Stop. It’s their first Young Adult novel (their previous ones having been… well, adultier), so I knew I wasn’t going to get as much spice, but I still had the feeling it would be a magical read.

I Kissed Shara Wheeler - Casey McQuiston - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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If you like your teenage characters bored, queer, and not a little bit Extra(TM), I Kissed Shara Wheeler is the book for you. Just take a gander at this premise: Chloe Green is in a fierce fight for class valedictorian, when suddenly her main rival plants one on her in an elevator… then disappears. Chloe does a little B&E at her house, only to discover that she’s not the only one Shara Wheeler kissed. She’s also left behind a maddening series of clues as to her location, and all three kiss-ees are going to have to work together to track her down before graduation.

So, this is a story of unlikely alliances, transcending clique boundaries in a religious Alabama high-school. Chloe is the only openly-queer girl at Willowgrove and she compensates for her outsider status with academic achievement. Smith is Shara’s long-time quarterback sweetheart who runs with the jocks and the cool kids. Rory is the boy next door who’s hobbies include writing emo songs on his guitar and breaking school rules. They all kissed Shara Wheeler, and they’re all desperate enough to work together to follow her trail.

See? I wasn’t kidding when I said the characters and the plot are Extra(TM) – but given that I Kissed Shara Wheeler is about teenagers in a small town with nothing better to do, it feels understandable (if not always totally realistic).

It’s like a queer Paper Towns at first (which McQuiston openly admits to, alluding to John Green’s best-seller with a similar plot on page 45). It has a much younger vibe than McQuiston’s previous novels; clearly, they made a conscious choice to skew this story younger, rather than just writing a book with less sex and slapping a Young Adult label on it. It focuses less on the romance and more the journey of self-discovery that comes alongside Shara’s scavenger hunt.

That’s the thing about popular kids. They don’t have the type of bond forged in the fire of being weird and queer in small-to-medium town Alabama.

I Kissed Shara Wheeler (Page 4)

I Kissed Shara Wheeler feels like McQuiston’s most overtly political novel (despite the fact that their debut, Red, White & Royal Blue, was literally set in the White House). McQuiston manages to depict both radical queer joy in found families and living one’s truth, and the very real prejudices and pressure that LGBTIQA+ kids face to stay in the closet. The setting is what amplifies it – deeply Christian, deeply Southern, where (in the real world) many teachers are actually forbidden by law from responding to kids’ questions about gender and sexuality or providing them with reading materials that might help them.

Even though Chloe Green and co. clearly struggle with the deck stacked against them in their homes and at school, McQuiston keeps the tone positive and joyful. The only thing that jarred a little for me was having I Kissed Shara Wheeler explicitly set in 2022 with no mention of the pandemic at all. It would’ve completely changed the Mood of the book, I grant you, and it would’ve up-ended the high school experience of the characters… but it still felt strange. I personally think it would’ve made more sense to shift the story back to 2019 to alleviate that dissonance while retaining its contemporaneity, but that’s just me.

It didn’t detract much from what was otherwise a lovely reading experience. I Kissed Shara Wheeler would be the perfect pick for fans of Sex Education on Netflix, or anyone who considers Taylor Swift’s Mastermind their personal anthem. I’m even surer now than I was before that McQuiston has a great, long career of writing queer romances ahead of them.

My favourite Amazon reviews of I Kissed Shara Wheeler:

  • “It’s like a lesbian John Green book” – Novalea Patton
  • “When you put it up you can’t put it back down. You need to know where is Shara.” – Kayla Smith
  • “If you love gay disasters, friendships where they’re all gay, and a little bit of mystery, then I Kissed Shara Wheeler is the perfect book for you.” – RL

Well Met – Jen DeLuca

“All is faire in love and war.” That’s the slogan of Well Met, an enemies-to-lovers romance novel that takes place in the unlikely setting of a small-town Renaissance Faire. I’m a sucker for a kooky premise like that, so of course, I had to read it.

Well Met - Jen DeLuca - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The heroine, Emily, is in her mid-20s and coming off the back of a rotten break-up. She moves to Willow Creek, a (fictional) small town in Maryland, to help her sister and niece recuperate after a serious car crash. Emily finds herself roped into volunteering at the local Renaissance Faire, an annual fundraiser (for what exactly is never specified). So far, so good.

The love interest is Simon, a bloke with a stick up his arse if there ever was one. He runs the Renaissance Faire to honour his older brother, who passed away a few years prior to the beginning of Well Met. He doesn’t take kindly to Emily’s bemused attitude to all things Faire-y, and they “clash” a few times in rehearsals (though, I must say, it doesn’t amount to much more than a few loaded comments and glares).

I’ve got to say, I don’t know anything about Renaissance Faires. I can’t recall ever having seen one here in Australia – I think they’re an American thing. The preparations they undergo in Well Met seem a lot more thorough than I would have expected, far beyond putting on a costume and throwing a few “ye”s and “thou”s into conversation. I suspect DeLuca might’ve taken some creative license, giving Emily and Simon more time in the pressure cooker so that their enemies-to-lovers angle really popped – but I could be wrong.

Once the Faire begins, Emily and Simon begin flirting – under the guise of their Faire characters, a tavern wench and a pirate. Before long, the flirtation starts to feel real, and Emily starts to wonder whether she and Simon could make a go of it in the present.

Well Met is very easy to read. Emily’s sunny nature makes for delightful narration (without ever becoming grating), and the plot is perfectly paced. Sure, the characters get a bit Extra at points, but it’s a romance novel. That’s expected.

Now, if you know anything about me, you know I like my romances “spicy” (as the kids say these days). I’m pleased to report there are some good sexy bits in Well Met, in a couple of chapters. Of course, I would’ve liked to see more – but I always want to see more, so you can’t set much store by that.

I appreciated that, while Emily and Simon’s romance is the driving force behind the plot, there are a lot of other fascinating characters and non-romantic relationships at play. There’s Chris, the bookstore owner who hires Emily, and plays the Queen at the Faire in her spare time. There’s Stacey, a fellow tavern wench who seems a bit vacant but very supportive. There’s Mitch, the uber-sexy phys-ed teacher who plays the kilted Scotsman of the Faire. And, most importantly, there’s April and Caitlin, Emily’s sister and niece respectively; their family relationships haven’t always been perfect, but there’s a nice little arc that sees them closer by the end of Well Met.

With this strong supporting cast, DeLuca did an excellent job at leaving doors open for future books in the Well Met series, without being too heavy-handed about it, or leaving threads dangling. Since it was published in 2019, it’s been followed-up by Well Played (2020), Well Matched (2021), and Well Traveled (2022). I’ll definitely be seeking those out – DeLuca has won herself a fan! In the mean-time, I highly recommend this fun feel-good summer romance.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Well Met:

  • “Perfect woman meets man consumed by his brothers death and she fixes everything, saved you the trouble.” – Jlo
  • “If these two had super powers it’d be jumping to conclusions in 0.2 seconds.” – TechieArtMama
  • “I was enjoying this book until the main character crippled herself with doubt making a molehill out of an ant, or whatever the heck that saying is.” – Swendog Millionaire
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