Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Romance (page 1 of 6)

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

The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger

We all know the booklover who won’t watch the film adaptation of their favourite book because it couldn’t possibly live up to their hopes. But did you know it also happens in reverse? The Time Traveler’s Wife is one of my favourite films, and I put off reading the book on which it was based for a long, long time. Until now, in fact.

The Time Traveler's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Before it was a masterpiece staring Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams, The Time Traveler’s Wife was Audrey Niffenegger’s debut novel, first published back in 2003. That makes this year twenty years since its release, high time I got over myself and gave it a go, wouldn’t you say?

It’s basically a Mobius strip romance, with some science fiction and fantasy mixed in. Henry is a librarian with an unsettling genetic disorder that causes him to travel through time at random. The titular wife, Clare, is an artist who lives through time in a linear way, like the rest of us. Henry meets Clare at the beginning of the novel, and he has never seen her before – but she’s seen him many times. In fact, she’s already in love with him.

How? Well, bear with me, because this gets a bit complicated. Future Henry has been travelling back through time since Clare was a little girl. He often finds himself in her backyard, where they talk and eat picnics. Henry has told Clare that, in the future, they’re in love – in fact, she’s his wife. But Present Henry hasn’t started doing that yet, when he first meets Clare, so… who’s to say where the love story really “begins”?

I gave up on trying to keep track of the timeline of their interactions (and I’d suggest you do the same). I focused instead on how old each of the relevant parties were for each encounter – Niffenegger helpfully provides that information at the beginning of each chapter. If it helps going in, The Time Traveler’s Wife seems to roughly follow Clare’s linear experience, living from childhood to old age with no deviations, as most of us do. Henry comes and goes as the plot sees fit.

I probably shouldn’t spend too much time delving into all the logistics of time travel in The Time Traveler’s Wife – otherwise what would be the point in reading the book? But I will say this: I am so, so glad to read a time travel book that finally addresses the Clothes Issue. Henry can’t take anything with him when he travels through time, so he shows up wherever he’s going naked as the day he was born. It makes for a lot of interesting fodder for the novel, and Henry’s main motivation almost anywhere he goes is finding clothes, food, and somewhere safe to hide.

Yep, time travel ain’t all beer and skittles, but Henry and Clare find ways to make it work for them. For instance, they play the lottery and the stock-market, and make enough for Clare to live comfortably as an artist while Henry’s barely hanging onto a low-paid library job. Thankfully, Niffenegger spares us all the tiresome hand-wringing about the morality of it, too. It’s a good idea, it makes sense to game the system, and there’s too much going on in The Time Traveler’s Wife to worry about the protagonists getting just desserts.

There are a lot of rapid shifts in The Time Traveler’s Wife – in time (duh) but also in tone. One minute, a thirty-something Henry is living in domestic bliss with age-appropriate Clare. Next, he’s helping an adolescent Clare assault the man who tried to rape her on a date. Then, he’s trying to convince a doctor that his time travel is real, not just a schizophrenic delusion. And presto, he’s engaging in a bit of mutual masturbation with his teen self. It’s at times erotic, ridiculous, philosophical, emotive, gross, sweet, poetic, violent – Niffenegger really threw everything at the wall.

If I had to try to distill it, I’d say the two big Problems in The Time Travellers Wife are: (1) the issue of free will, and whether Clare had any choice in their romance, and (2) Clare’s difficulties getting pregnant as a result of Henry’s disorder. Content warning for miscarriage and baby loss – Clare loses pregnancies over and over because the foetuses inherit Henry’s genetic code, causing them to time travel out of her womb. So, yeah, it’s heavy – as well as being sweet and romantic. I told you! Tone shifts!

So, if you’re looking closely at the latter, The Time Traveler’s Wife can be read as a metaphor for the ways in which women have suffered in the patriarchal institution of marriage. Niffenegger said that she wrote the book as an allegory about failed relationships, but I think you could read just about anything into this book if you squint.

I did take a couple of issues with the novel, ones that didn’t seem to pop up in the film. First, there’s this weird side plot about Henry’s ex-lover Ingrid, and her friend Celia. They pop up from time to time, but don’t really seem to do anything to advance the plot…? I have no idea why Niffenegger stuck them in there; maybe she’d promised a couple of besties she’d name characters after them, or something.

Second, Henry and Clare are quite snooty and pretentious, but – and this is key – simultaneously not progressive at all in their politics. They make some noise towards the beginning of The Time Traveler’s Wife about Marxism and a worker’s rights revolution, but then seem to forget all about it. Plus, they casually drop slurs (not That One, but still) and engage in some pretty harmful stereotyping behaviour. Here’s this bohemian artist and her time-travelling partner who read poetry and go to punk concerts, but there’s absolutely nothing deeper to it than aesthetic. I’m not sure if that was intentional on Niffenegger’s part or not.

Those issues didn’t stop The Time Traveler’s Wife going on to become a best-seller (perhaps I’m the only one who noticed). It got a big boost from Niffenegger’s buddy Scott Turow giving the book a shout-out on NBC’s Today, and then organically from a selection on Richard & Judy’s Book Club in the UK. It was named Amazon’s Book Of The Year in 2003.

In the end, I think the main problem with The Time Traveler’s Wife is exactly what I predicted, and exactly why I resisted reading it: I love the film. It’s like I looked for problems while reading the book because it couldn’t possibly be as good as the movie. The story is just so much smoother on screen, and those tone shifts are evened out, and as a result, the impact is far greater and more devastating. Plus, the ending is better – far less twee! So, read the book if you must, it’s pretty good… but watch the movie if you know what’s good for you.

P.S. No, I haven’t watched the TV series. I probably will, at some point, but see above – I’ll just end up poking holes in it for not being a frame-for-frame recreation of the film.

P.P.S. Apparently, there’s a sequel coming – Niffenegger said on Twitter that it’s called The Other Husband and it’ll be out sometime this year. Stay tuned!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Time Traveler’s Wife:

  • “I dreaded every minute until I finally had enough and time traveled to another book selection!” – Kay Kay H.
  • “Clare grows up knowing she will one day marry Henry because grown up Harry from the future told her. Then she meets Henry in his present and tells him they are going to fall in love and get married. That’s it. If it wasn’t for the time travel device, they would be the most boring couple to have an entire novel written about their relationship.” – beth
  • “If you like pretentious, poorly plotted soft porn with shallow, unlikable characters and a touch of pedophilia, this is the book for you. Otherwise give it a pass.” – Lyn Craven
  • “If Lolita met The Notebook, this novel would be the outcome. And that’s not a compliment.” – Carolyn

If The Shoe Fits – Julie Murphy

Millennial readers occupy a strange middle ground, where they’re old enough to see the problems in the Disney stories of their youth, but young enough to feel the nostalgic pull of magical romances and whimsical stories. That’s how the Meant To Be series came about – books that reimagine classic Disney stories for a newly adult audience. The first book in the series is If The Shoe Fits, an escapist rom-com styled after Cinderella.

If The Shoe Fits - Julie Murphy - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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In this version of the fairytale love story, Cindy is a recent fashion grad and a shoe aficionado. Adrift after barely scraping through her last year of study, and her father’s death, she moves from New York to Los Angeles to live with her step-family.

Now, in In The Shoe Fits, the step-mother and -sisters aren’t evil – they’re just very LA. Erica is an executive producer of the blockbuster hit reality TV show Before Midnight, and her two daughters are budding Instagram influencers. Murphy managed to depict the natural discordance of a blended family without making the bonus members irredeemable villains. Maybe it departs a bit too much from the original story for some folks, but I loved it.

Anyway, Cindy moves to LA with the intention of nannying for her step-mother’s youngest children, but stumbles into a spot on Before Midnight instead. It’s basically The Bachelor, with a few fairytale-themed twists. Cindy’s not expecting to find love – when does the plus-sized contestant ever get the prince? – but she’s hoping to at least jump-start her fashion career.

Ah, yes, the prince: Henry, heir to a crumbling fashion empire (conveniently enough), and appearing on Before Midnight as a last-ditch effort to revitalise his mothers flagging brand. He’s not expecting to find love on the show either, but strangely enough, he and Cindy share a special connection – one that’s going to cause a lot of problems for the reality show’s narrative.

It’s a nice love story, yes, but I found the relationships between the contestants, and with their producers, the most interesting part of If The Shoe Fits. It was really wonderful to read a romance novel with more going on than pining and miscommunication. Plus, the representation – a plus-sized heroine, queer characters – gets a big tick.

Murphy also reimagines the “happily ever after” for If The Shoe Fits, serving up an ending that allows the heroine a lot more self-determination and agency. Snaps for that!

On the downside, though, If The Shoe Fits is a closed door romance (boo!), with nary more than a passionate kiss and a few butterflies – no doubt to satisfy the puritanical standards of the Disney overlords. I also found it a little hard to follow at times; some of the scenes flew by so quickly, I had to double back to make sure I caught everything before forging on.

All told, it’s a sweet romance with a nostalgic vibe, probably a good pick for fans of UnReal (I’m guessing, I only ever saw half of the pilot episode) and people with fond memories of watching Disney’s Cinderella as a kid. If you get a kick out of hate-watching The Bachelor and critiquing the patriarchal messaging, you’ll probably enjoy it, too. If The Shoe Fits is a promising start to the Meant To Be series, and I’m looking forward to checking out the next installments (By The Book by Jasmine Guillory is already out, and Kiss The Girl by Zoraida Córdova is coming soon).

My favourite Amazon reviews of If The Shoe Fits:

  • “felt like if a hallmark movie was written with an agenda, that was more important than the romance” – NeverAgain
  • “I liked that the beauty queen/skinny girl did not win.” – Jennifer
  • “IT ISN’T A MODERN DAY CINDERELLA! It’s a bad rip off of a season of The Bachelor.” – Terri Hansen

Attachments – Rainbow Rowell

Rainbow Rowell didn’t really seem to hit the ‘big time’ until she started writing young adult novels. That was my introduction to her work, anyway; her book Fangirl was on my original reading list when I started Keeping Up With The Penguins. I’ve had a look through her backlist, and Attachments was the only one with a premise that really appealed to me.

Attachments - Rainbow Rowell - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Funnily enough, Attachments was actually Rainbow Rowell’s very first novel, published back in 2011. Even though it’s officially an “adult” novel, I have no doubt (having read it now) it would appeal to her YA fans, too – especially the ones that are into this ’90s nostalgia kick all the Gen Z kids seem to be on right now.

The setting: it’s 1999, and the internet is still a novelty. IT departments the world over are frantically preparing for Y2K, which threatens to plunge all the newly-online businesses into chaos. Beth and Jennifer are colleagues at a small newspaper that has only recently got On The Net. They email back and forth most days, chatting about their lives and romances.

Lincoln is the newspaper’s IT guy. He’s shy and socially awkward, and never really did get over the high school girlfriend who dumped him. He’s recently moved back to his hometown (back into his mother’s house, no less), and the best job he could land was scanning emails for “red flags”. That task takes up about 10 minutes of his night shift, so while the interns deal with the Y2K panic, he reads Beth and Jennifer’s emails to each other. It’s just a bit of entertainment, right?

(If you’re thinking that’s creepy, it definitely is. I actually couldn’t believe how little characters in Attachments were freaked out by it. The attitude was definitely “oh, I suppose that’s a little weird, but you’re SUCH A GREAT GUY Lincoln!”. Maybe this one doesn’t hold up to post-#MeToo scrutiny…)

Anyway, the chapters in Attachments alternate between Beth and Jennifer’s back-and-forth emails, and Lincoln’s life offline. They’re nice short chapters, definitely easy reading. They gave me a few chuckles, even a few literal lols.

Jennifer’s husband has baby mania, so she impulsively gets herself knocked up – hoping to simply get it over with. Beth’s boyfriend is a “musician” (i.e., she pays the rent while he parties all night with his gigging band), and seems reluctant to offer her a ring or any kind of commitment. This is all excellent fodder for email-based workplace chit-chat, especially on slow news days.

They “know”, logically, that someone is monitoring their emails (it’s company policy), but they don’t realise the extent to which Lincoln gets invested in their lives. Especially when he falls in love with one of them. To whom he’s never spoken. Or made eye contact. He doesn’t even know what she looks like.

Yep, there are unhealthy relationships as far as the eye can see in Attachments – except for Jennifer and Beth’s friendship. They’re really supportive of one another, but Rowell doesn’t paint too rosy a picture. They’re not nauseating fictional friends: they disagree and they snipe and they call each other out. It’s almost enough to make up for the shit-show that is literally every other human interaction in this novel.

Oh, and there’s a cheesy, just-what-you’d-expect ending. Absolutely zero spice, if that’s what you’re looking for.

I should probably mention here, too, that Rowell has been vehemently criticised in later years for some of the stuff she’s written (specifically, the novel Eleanor & Park – there’s an excellent explanation of the problems with it here). In Attachments, specifically, I noticed a few ableist slurs that would bother sensitive readers. Just so you know, forewarned is forearmed, et cetera. (Also, trigger warnings for miscarriage, and a dog death mentioned in conversation – of course, I’m probably the only reader who would notice or care about the latter.)

Should we still read books by cancelled authors? Here’s my take on this thorny question.

All told, I spent most of Attachments mentally begging Lincoln to shit or get off the can – but that’s me being a bit of a cynical snot, once again. It’s actually a light and charming novel with plenty of ’90s nostalgia and a wonderful female friendship. You just need to set aside your qualms about all the horrible hetero romances – and the creep factor.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Attachments:

  • “Yeah these people were super boring.” – Sorcia Lorde
  • “Just page after page of two boring lives lived by two wimpy people.” – Jane Myers Perrine
  • “Not what I expected, I want my money back” – Arthaya S. Finley

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 automatic-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
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