Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Romance (page 1 of 5)

Red, White & Royal Blue – Casey McQuiston

What happens when America’s First Son falls in love with the Prince of Wales? It’s a killer premise for Casey McQuiston’s debut novel (and #Bookstagram darling) Red, White & Royal Blue. They’ve quickly become one of my auto-buy authors – I loved One Last Stop, and I’m desperate to get my hands on a copy of I Kissed Shara Wheeler – so it was great to go back and see where it all began for them back in 2019.

Red White And Royal Blue - Casey McQuiston - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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McQuiston, unsurprisingly, came up for the idea for Red, White & Royal Blue – a romance between the heirs to two of the world’s most powerful families – during the 2016 American presidential election. They’ve also cited the TV show Veep, the Hilary Clinton biography A Woman In Charge, and royal romance The Royal We as sources of inspiration.

It makes for a delightful escapist read. Alex Claremont-Diaz, one of the romantic leads, is the First Son of America’s first woman president. He’s had a few encounters with Britain’s Prince Henry, none of them good. Their mutual dislike bubbles over at a royal wedding, when a little argy-bargy sends them careening into an extravagant wedding cake – a moment unfortunately captured by photographers.

So, it’s time for damage control! Their handlers concoct a plan for Henry and Alex to make a public show of friendship, to alleviate the risk of any further diplomatic incidents. Red, White & Royal Blue isn’t so much a fake-dating romance book as it is a fake-friendship-turns-into-real-dating romance book – a welcome twist on the trope.

Alex and Henry’s forced proximity really keeps the tension high, and propels the plot forward. Their burgeoning love affair is paced just right – not so quick as to be completely unbelievable, not so slow as to become boring, and with just the right amount of angst. The sociopolitical complexities of coming out are addressed as significant obstacles, but not overwhelming ones.

The only flaw in Red, White & Royal Blue‘s story, as far as I could see, was that one of the plot points (re: the emails, no spoilers but IYKYK) was so blatantly foreseeable! I felt like I spent two-thirds of the book waiting for that particular shoe to drop. Hot tip: if you EVER want to keep ANYTHING secret, NEVER put it in writing – especially in a romance novel!

That was forgivable, though, given how FUN this novel was. It’s hard to believe McQuiston was a debut writer. The tone was consistently youthful (without being either annoying or condescending), wry, and self-aware.

He’s unsure of the dress code for inviting your sworn-enemy-turned-fake-best-friend to your room to have sex with you, especially when that room is in the White House, and especially when that person is a guy, and especially when that guy is the Prince of England.

Red, White & Royal Blue (page 134)

I did get a weird pang towards the end, looking at the dates. The timeline of Red, White & Royal Blue clearly stretched in the future at the time McQuiston was writing; they (understandably) had no idea that absolutely everything would change in 2020. It makes for a heart-wrenchingly sweet parallel universe where a left-wing woman could be President and none of us ever did a birthday party via Zoom.

Red, White & Royal Blue, unbelievably, lives up to the hype. Of course, it’s targeted at younger readers, but I can vouch for the fact that it resonates for young-at-heart readers, too. I’d especially recommend it for fans of The West Wing, and/or anyone who’s just particularly burned out by The State Of The World and looking for some starry-eyed optimism.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Red, White & Royal Blue:

  • “Alex is sad. He looks at Henry. Their eyes meet. Henry smiles for once. That makes Alex smile. Alex says “OMG LOL WE ARE CRAZY” then Henry says “we ARE crazy” then they both turn on their heels and head to another room. Sex happens. Sky is blue. Grass is green.” – Amazon Customer
  • “If you want to read chapter after chapter of vulgar language explicitly describing homosexual sex, then this is the book for you.” – goldie
  • “Written for adolescent girls with the reading difficulties.” – Kneale Grainger

Happy Endings – Thien-Kim Lam

If your taste in rom-com books tends towards the smutty (like mine does), then your ears will prick up when you hear the premise of Happy Endings (like mine did). A sex toy salesperson has to team up with her restaurateur ex-boyfriend to make her dream of opening her own shop come true. But will their chemistry bubble over and spell disaster for them both? It’s a steamy, second-chances romance about unfinished business, good food, and homemade orgasms.

Happy Endings - Thien-Kim Lam - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Meet the players: Trixie Nguyen, sex toy salesperson extraordinaire with a passion for empowering women to own their Os and a desire to prove herself to her traditional Vietnamese parents, and Andre Walker, who has recently inherited a flailing soul food restaurant from his mother and is struggling to keep the wolf from the door.

Years ago, when they were both living in New Orleans, they had an intense romance… until Andre left Trixie, with just a “I’m sorry, I can’t, don’t hate me” Post-it note by way of explanation. (What a guy!)

Now they’re both living in Washington DC, and (of course) they unexpectedly run into each other when Trixie is selling vibrators at a party hosted in Andre’s restaurant. The night is a smashing success for both of them, and there the (brilliant!) idea of pop-up sex toy shops alongside soul food buffets is born.

Both Trixie and Andre feel the weight of others’ expectations, albeit in different ways. Both are desperate for business success, believing it to be the key to their happiness. Both of them feel they have something to prove to their parents. And both of them are hot-hot-HOT for each other, even though they know it’s a mistake to mix business with pleasure. It makes for a very, very steamy novel, just like I like ’em. Now, that’s just my personal taste; if you’re liable to clutch your pearls at an exposed breast, this is not the book for you.

(Or, actually, maybe it is. Happy Endings is sex-positive, pro-pleasure, and full of encouragement for those who might need it. Lam clearly believes, as does Trixie, that pleasure is for everyone, regardless of gender, size, age, or inclination. So, you know, maybe don’t write it off completely, even if that’s not usually your jam.)

It may seem like I’m revealing a lot here, but the first few chapters of Happy Endings (well, most of them, if I’m honest) are exposition-heavy. You don’t need to read between the lines one bit.

Another bummer: as a Coeliac, I couldn’t help but cringe at the fairly frequent jibes about gluten-free restaurants. Lam used them throughout Happy Endings as a symbol of the evil gentrification that Andre was so desperate to defeat. I tried not to let it bother me, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t. His fried chicken sounds delicious, but would it really be worth days in a sick bed or hunched over a toilet bowl (not to mention a shortened lifespan), when I could get a decent GF feed up the road? Hmph.

But other than that, Happy Endings was a delight to read. The blurb maybe overstates the stakes a little (they’re comfortingly low), and there’s a cast of supportive, empowering characters that keep the mood up. All told, it’s a fun second-chance romance with a sweet message and (as the title suggests) a happy ending for all involved.

P.S. Lam is clearly an awesome lady, too. As well as writing books herself, she founded Bawdy Bookworms, a subscription service that “pairs sexy romances with erotic toys”. I checked immediately whether they deliver to Australia (they do!) and immediately put a subscription of my own at the top of my wishlist.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Happy Endings:

  • “Happy Endings was the perfect book for my Vegas trip. It held my attention over all the noise of a pool party.” – Kendra Pierson
  • “The only downside? There is a lot of talk about food and it made me hungry. Other than that, it was an excellent read.” – Tegan H.
  • “Andre is kind of a stick but he will grow on you.” – kathleen g

Crazy Rich Asians – Kevin Kwan

14th century Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta wrote: “Nowhere in the world are there to be found people richer than the Chinese”. It’s a fitting epigraph for Kevin Kwan’s debut novel Crazy Rich Asians, an outrageous over-the-top satirical novel about the very richest Chinese families, first published back in 2013.

Crazy Rich Asians - Kevin Kwan - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get Crazy Rich Asians here.
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Kwan has said that, in writing Crazy Rich Asians, he wanted to “introduce a contemporary Asia to a North American audience” – and try to bite back your jealousy when you hear that he loosely based the novel on his own upbringing in Singapore. While caring for his father (who sadly passed in 2010), Kwan began writing stories to preserve the memories they shared. Beginning with the chapter he called “Singapore Bible Study” (“an excuse [for attendees] to gossip and show off new jewellery”), he eventually developed the stories into a novel.

Crazy Rich Asians revolves around five central characters, though the full cast is huge. There’s a helpful family tree in the front to help you keep things straight, with hilarious footnotes (the footnotes continue throughout the novel, but sadly devolve into oddly patronising for-dummies translations of slang terms and descriptions of Asian cuisine).

Things kick off when Nicholas (Nick) Young, heir to the fortune of one of the wealthiest families in Asia, asks his ABC (American Born Chinese) girlfriend Rachel Chu to come to Singapore with him, to attend the wedding of the year. Singapore’s most eligible bachelor, Colin Khoo, is marrying fashion icon, Araminta Lee, and everyone’s going to be there.

Rachel has basically no idea about Nick’s family or wealth. As far as she knows, he’s a regular old middle-class NYU professor, like her. She crashes into this grand-wedding-cum-family-reunion completely unprepared.

Eleanor Young, Nick’s controlling mother, is one of the titular Crazy Rich Asians. She’s as obsessed with prestige and propriety as you’d expect a ridiculously wealthy matriarch to be. She’s terrified at the prospect that Nick might be serious about – might even marry – a girl no one knows, an American, from outside her close-knit circle of wealthy friends and families.

Eleanor hires a private investigator to learn more about Rachel’s past, hoping to use whatever she uncovers to prove to Nick that she’s not a suitable marriage prospect. Things backfire, in more ways than one.

And, as if that’s not enough, there are side plots galore. There’s Nick’s younger brother and his trampy soap-opera star girlfriend, who shows up to meet the family in a completely sheer outfit. There’s Nick’s cousin, who is baffled to discover that her seemingly-happy husband is receiving filthy text messages from a Hong Kong mistress. Colin’s wondering what the hell he’s got himself into with all these wedding shenanigans, and whether he can stomach the hoopla long enough to get Araminta down the aisle. And more!

Crazy Rich Asians is just as gossipy as Austen, with the same emphasis on class, lineage, and scandal. Of course, the volume is turned up to eleven, with jaw-dropping opulence in every aspect – designers, decor, and domestic help. In fact, Kwan has said that his editor asked that some off the more lavish details be cut from the story, as they weren’t “believable”; Kwan sent through links to news articles to prove that the families he’s writing about really do live this way. Truth is less believable than fiction, at least in this case.

It was fun to plunge into the glitzy world of the Youngs and the Leongs, but a couple of things held me back from enjoying Crazy Rich Asians as thoroughly as I would have liked. Firstly, the dialogue was quite stilted throughout, and tended to over-explain (I recall a similar issue when reading Kevin Kwan’s 2020 novel Sex And Vanity). Secondly, there was a shocking and unexpected scene about dog-fighting, which made my breath catch in my throat. Thankfully, it was called out by characters in-text, but it still felt really jarring. I skipped my eyes over a page or two, and went back to the glitzy fun I came for. (Oh, and another trigger warning, there’s a fairly detailed description of a pretty awful domestic abuse situation towards the end.)

Still, despite those issues, I can see why Crazy Rich Asians went gangbusters and became an international best-seller. Kwan capitalised on the momentum and released two sequels: China Rich Girlfriend in 2015, and Rich People Problems in 2017. There was a film adaptation too, which was widely praised for its carefully curated aesthetic and Asian cast.

All told, if you’re looking for a book to take to the beach, Crazy Rich Asians is a very safe bet. Be prepared to weep the next time you check your own bank balance, though!

My favourite Amazon reviews of Crazy Rich Asians:

  • “I would recommend this book to people who like flat characters, unrealistic dialogue, a love story with no spark, and a predictable ending.” – doodlenoodle
  • “if I could get the time back I spent reading this book I’d use it to watch paint dry, I’d enjoy that more.” – IL
  • “I get it. They’re crazy rich. Not enough character development.” – ST
  • “if you actually loved this book and found it funny and entertaining, then you must be as dumb as a bag of rocks. I’m no member of Mensa, but I can see that this book was written for the un-intellectual masses instead of people who actually enjoy fiction.” – RWK88205
  • “Regardless of the word “rich” in the title, this novel is poor, poor, poor.” – Margaret Grant

Outlander – Diana Gabaldon

Imagine popping out for an afternoon stroll. You leave your loving husband to do his little family tree hobby, and wander around looking at interesting plants. You get closer and closer to some big rocks, and notice one of them with a hole down the middle seems to be buzzing. Screaming. You topple through the gap and find yourself 200 years in the past, dazed and confused and staring down the barrel of your husband’s ancestor’s pistol. That’s what happens to Claire Beauchamp in the first hundred pages of Outlander – and there are still seven hundred pages to go!

Outlander - Diana Gabaldon - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Outlander is a time travel-historical romance, previously published as Cross-Stitch. Diana Gabaldon sat down about thirty years ago to have a go at writing a novel “for practice” – y’know, just for fun – and this is the result. Her test run has been published in 38 different languages, sold over 25 million copies around the world, and it’s been adapted into a highly-acclaimed television series.

It’s a CHUNKY book, as I alluded to just a second ago – 868 pages in my edition. In retrospect, it would have made a good lockdown read (so if we have to live through another once-in-a-century pandemic, be sure to put Outlander on your nightstand). As it turned out, I ended up reading it while I was laid up with a rotten cold, so I suppose the experience was mostly the same.

Back to the story: our girl Claire was an army nurse, and was happily beginning her post-war life with hobby genealogist Frank Randall in 1946 when she tumbled through the wormhole. Post-tumble, she’s in 1743 Scotland, and has to think double-quick to escape the clutches of Frank’s great-great-great-great-(great-great??) grandfather Captain Jack Randall. Luckily, a Scottish clansman, the dashing Jamie Fraser, rides in to the rescue and knocks the bad guy out so she can scarper.

Now, the logic of Outlander gets a bit convoluted, but to boil it down to its bare bones: Claire is English, but the clansmen trust her, and she ends up having to marry one of them (Jamie being the obvious choice) because the English Captain can’t arrest a Scot (even a Scot by marriage) on their ancestral lands.

Poor Claire ends up caught between two lovers and timelines. At first, she’ll do anything to get back to her own time and to Frank, but the longer she spends with her husband-by-convenience, the hotter she gets for him and the more at-home she feels in her new era. Jamie keeps being all dashing and rescuing her from hard scrapes, plus he’s pretty good at the obligatory marriage consummation, so you can understand her trouble.

The plot of Outlander is episodic, very Quixote-esque. It’s one damn thing after another, and a lot of traipsing from place to place to escape whatever trouble they’ve gotten themselves into. They still manage to make time for plenty of sex, though, naturally. It’s not a closed door romance, but the door isn’t wide-open either – it certainly wasn’t as steamy as I was expecting.

What concerned me was the romanticised violence. There’s a lot of “men beat their wives because they love them” kind of stuff, worked up to be some kind of passionate declaration of devotion (ew), and a lot of violence as vengeance for slights – real or perceived – against a woman’s honour (double ew). So, if that’s something that bothers you, you might want to give Outlander a miss.

The gay characters also made me raise my eyebrows a bit. Gabaldon doesn’t offer particularly positive queer representation. The only gays are villains, and there’s more than one instance (including one particularly extended and graphic instance) of queer men raping straight men. That said, given that it’s a historical romance set in the 18th century and written in the late ’80s/early ’90s, the presence of gays at all is unusual and commendable to some extent.

Oh, and there’s a few instances of casual ableism and racism, too. I know, I know, Outlander is “of its time”, but you know what? We’re reading it in 2021 and we should at least acknowledge that we know (or should know) better now.

The only other heads-up I’ll give is that the story takes some very strange turns in the last hundred pages or so. There’s a lot of religion, a bit of witch magic, and I think some kind of twisted not-at-all-recommended form of self-administered amateur exposure therapy? Nevertheless, Gabaldon manages to wrap everything up in a way that feels satisfying but definitely paves an inviting path for the sequel.

Ah, the sequel! And the one after that! And the one after that! There have been nine of ten planned Outlander books published now (most recently, Go Tell The Bees That I Am Gone in 2021), as well as several novellas, short stories, and a whole other series (the Lord John books) telling accompanying stories. It’s now one of the best-selling book series of all time. Not bad for a book written for practice about a girl who takes a walk, eh?

My favourite Amazon reviews of Outlander:

  • “I forced myself to read on for several days (I typically can devour a book in less time!) and finally quit when I finally admitted I had made a mistake in buying a sex novel based on a ridiculous story line.” – ARS
  • “Stupid drivel. She obviously wanted to write spank-erotica but needed context, so came up with waaaaaay too much to go with the spanking. God, and the wolf. I stopped reading it at that point. Wanted to stop earlier, but so many friends just loooooved it. Why you gonna write about some horrible wolf you gotta kill? Cause you WANT to write about killing wolves. I don’t wanna read that. Why’s your mind all twisted up with wolf-icide, crazy Gabaldon?” – Hannah Flake
  • “Alice in Wonderland (Alice through the Looking Glass), and The Wizard of Oz both had the protagonist experiencing something that put them in a different time/location. The primary difference in the two older versions is the lack of pornography.” – G. McLeod
  • “I’ve never bothered writing a really bad review before, but this book compelled me. I was told that this is a good series for Game of Thrones lovers. Um, NOPE. This is a good book for women who read books with Fabio on the cover, have a strong stomach, and have a lot of patience.” – alex a

Like Water For Chocolate – Laura Esquivel

Let’s kick this off with a fun fact, shall we? Like Water For Chocolate, the 1989 novel by Laura Esquivel, takes its name from the Spanish phrase como agua para chocolate, which is an expression to say that one’s emotions are on the verge of boiling over. It’s a neat nod to the book’s contents, the story of a woman named Tita whose overwhelming emotions are often cooked into the delicious food she serves to her family. This edition was translated into English by Carol Christensen and Thomas Christensen.

Like Water For Chocolate - Laura Esquivel - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Like Water For Chocolate here.
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The front cover of Like Water For Chocolate promises “a novel in monthly instalments with recipes, romances and home remedies” – and that’s exactly what you get. Even though the timeline of the story is far longer than a year, it’s divided into twelve months, each preceded by a recipe that the characters cook in the following chapter. Hot tip: make sure you’re not hungry when you pick this one up, because the recipes and cooking chat will have you drooling!

The story is a bizarre history of sorts, of the De La Garzas: Mama Elena (husband deceased), her daughters (Gertrudis, Rosarua, and Tita), the cook (Nacha), and the maid (Chencha), all narrated by Tita’s grand-niece sometime in an unspecified future. They live on a ranch in Mexico, near the U.S. border. The family legend is bolstered in the South American style of magical realism, where tears can turn into rivers and bitterness alone can kill.

It begins in January with a recipe for Christmas Rolls (not one of the more delicious offerings: sardines, chorizo, and chiles serranos? Ho, ho, no!). They are youngest daughter Tita’s favourite dish. Tita is the star of Like Water For Chocolate, though her supporting cast is also stellar. As the youngest, she is forbidden – by long-standing family tradition – from marrying, so that she can stay home and care for her mother for the rest of her life. Tita’s fine with this, until she meets the hunk-a-spunk Pedro. It’s love at first sight, for both of them, but Mama Elena isn’t having a bar of it.

When Pedro comes to ask for Tita’s hand, Mama Elena suggests that he marry Rosarua instead. Pedro reluctantly agrees, reasoning that at least marrying into the family will allow him to stay close to his true love, Tita, for life. Yeah, yeah, that’s a little problematic, but let’s not let it ruin the romance, eh?

The only thing Tita loves as much as she loves Pedro is cooking. Unfortunately, her dishes are infused with her emotions, sometimes with disastrous consequences. The lust of her rose petal sauce (made from the roses Pedro gave her) causes her sister Gertrudis to run away naked and work in a brothel. Tita’s desperate longing baked into Rosarua’s wedding cake causes everyone who attends the wedding to become violently ill (and delays consummation, ahem!). This supernatural effect is woven into the narrative very naturally, so that it almost feels like a given.

Despite the looming specters of death and heart-break, Like Water For Chocolate reads like a well-written rom-com. It’s certainly a lot more fun than, say, One Hundred Years Of Solitude – I’d say it’s closer to the love-child of My Brilliant Friend and The Alchemist, with a sprinkle of romance and magic. It’s easy to read, but it’s not without substance. The recipes are a neat hook, but that’s not all there is to love about this short, bittersweet family saga.

Like Water For Chocolate has sold over a million copies in Spain and Hispanic America, and a whole bunch more in translation around the world. It was also made into an award-winning film of the same name (no, I won’t bother watching it, the book was delightful enough and I’m worried they’d ruin it). I can certainly understand its enduring popularity, and I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to wade into the pool of South American literature, rather than diving all the way into the deep end.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Like Water For Chocolate:

  • “Read this or stab yourself in the eye? Stab yourself in the eye. Hands down the worst thing I’ve ever read (and I’ve read ‘Mansfield Park’).” – Ben
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