Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Romance (page 1 of 7)

Reputation – Lex Croucher

Regency romance is truly having its Moment – but long gone are the days of chaste, historically accurate novels about the lords and ladies of the early 19th century. The new generation of Regency romances are full of life and colour, and rebellious men and women challenging the rigid class rules of the time. Lex Croucher’s first novel, Reputation, is one such story.

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Reputation begins – as so many Regency romances do – with a young, middle-class lady, staying with stuffy and overbearing relatives (her parents having absconded to Live By The Sea), bored out of her mind. Georgiana is desperate for friendship and excitement, but her only excursions with her fussy aunt are to dinners with neighbours that bore the life out of her.

At one such dull ‘party’, she’s hiding in an alcove to escape the dreary small talk when she’s joined by Frances Campbell, an enigmatic and unfathomably rich party girl of the social set. Lacking any other options, they befriend each other, and Georgiana is introduced to a whole new world beyond her wildest dreams.

Yes, Reputation is not one for the era purists. The focus is on fun, rather than realism. It’s Regency England with sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. (Okay, fine, more the first two than the latter, but you get my point.) This Brat Pack of young lords and ladies thumb their nose at chaperones, get high on ‘peasant drugs’ in barns, drink themselves silly and generally cause chaos wherever they go. It’s everything Georgiana has been missing in her life, but of course, entering a world into which you weren’t born comes at a price.

Reputation has a romance plot, naturally, and a good one at that – but it’s really a book about friendship and class. It’s Mean Girls meets Bridgerton, and Croucher does an excellent job of incorporating critique into a standard storyline. In between all the lavish parties and clandestine debauchery, there are serious questions raised about sex, consent, wealth and privilege.

This is made abundantly clear in one particular scene, where one of Frances’s friends explicitly tells Georgiana that she can’t expect to get away with behaving the way the rest of them do, because she doesn’t have the wealth or the privilege of birth to protect her from the consequences that girls of her station would face. Georgiana’s shocked by this, which should tell you everything you need to know about the naivete of her character.

Reputation also has a remarkably diverse cast, with characters drawn from a range of racial and ethnic backgrounds, including nobility of Indian descent. Croucher says in the Acknowledgements that this was deliberate, a conscious choice to protest the widespread whitewashing of British history. For more context on that, I highly recommend reading Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race.

All that said, what sparkles most in Reputation is, of course, the burgeoning romance between Georgiana and one of the men she meets in her new circle. My absolute favourite pages of Reputation were the letters exchanged between Georgiana and Thomas – they were so witty and flirtatious and fun! They had me grinning like a text message exchange with a new lover.

I also particularly enjoyed the (relatively) subtle resolution to the queer romance that blooms between Frances (who is revealed to be bisexual) and Jane, the same character who told Georgiana she was too poor to party. Their mutual attraction and distress at the social mores that keep them apart is brought to a really satisfying and clever solution in the epilogue, so hats off to Croucher for that.

So, if you’re looking for an accurate and appropriate Regency romance, full of long sighs and lingering glances across a ballroom, steer well clear of Reputation. If, however, you’re up for a fun romp through the Regency party scene, something to tide you over between seasons of Bridgerton, you’ll find this one to be a pure delight.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Reputation:

  • “it’s about as Regency as I am.” – Anita Sunday
  • “If you love historical/regency romance, this book is not for you. If you love YA and strong themes of alcoholism, morally grey characters, and don’t mind sexual assault, this is for you.” – Alice

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.

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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.

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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
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