Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Romance (page 1 of 5)

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.

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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

The Other Boleyn Girl – Philippa Gregory

I’ve had The Other Boleyn Girl on the shelf for quite a while, but it was listening to the Sentimental Garbage podcast that inspired me to finally pick it up. I saw the movie a long time ago, and remember really enjoying it. I figured as well that it might be a good warm-up for Wolf Hall, another historical fiction take on the reign of Henry VIII. I would proffer a spoiler warning here, but honestly, if you don’t already know about Henry’s wives and divorces and executions and what-not, I don’t know how to help you.

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Philippa Gregory has a PhD in 18th century literature. She’s written a number of historical romance novels about the Boleyns and Tudors (“The Tudor Court Novels”), and other books of contemporary fiction, but The Other Boleyn Girl is surely the book for which she’s best known. It’s a semi-speculative historical romance, which posits that Henry VIII originally fell in love with then-14-year-old Mary Boleyn before famously divorcing his wife, and England from the Vatican, to marry her older sister Anne.

The story is told from Mary’s perspective, and is loosely based on the true historical record of her life (though so little is known about her, there’s basically just her name and a few murky autobiographical details for Gregory to work from). It begins with the execution of Mary’s uncle, in 1521. He’d been foolish enough to say out loud that the King wasn’t capable of siring a “natural heir” (i.e., a son), and when word got back to Henry, he was not pleased.

Mary was 13 years old at that time, newly married to William Carey (a man much her senior), and freshly appointed to the royal court as a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catharine of Aragon. She was certain that Henry would pardon her uncle, so it was quite the shock when his head was lopped off – portending much darker things to come for the Boleyn family.

That was one of my favourite things about The Other Boleyn Girl and Gregory’s writing: the *chef’s kiss* ominous foreshadowing. When Mary is first favoured by the King, and her family plots to use the attraction to advance themselves, Anne says to her: “If I were in your shoes it would be the king or nothing for me… I’d put my neck on the block for a chance at him.” Nailed it!

Your standard historical fiction romance novel might focus only on the Mary and Henry storyline, but that takes up only about the first third of The Other Boleyn Girl. Henry knocks Mary up a couple of times, and motherhood ages her very quickly. As she becomes more interested in, y’know, raising her kids, as opposed to sneaking off to boink the King while his wife’s not looking, Henry finds his eyes wandering… all the way over to Mary’s sister, Anne.

That’s where the story comes to more familiar (i.e., slightly-more-accurate) ground. Anne encourages the King’s attraction – as do all of the Boleyn family, Mary really couldn’t give a shit by this point – and starts pressuring him to wrangle his way out of his marriage to Catherine so that she can solidify her position as the most powerful woman in England give him an heir.

I’m telling you all about the ladies’ action and motivation here, because the men are all incredibly gross, with their unnatural inclination towards barely-teen girls (EW!) and constant pissing contests. The only exceptions, really, are William Stafford (whom Mary goes on to marry, after the King marries Anne, and Mary’s first husband dies of “sweating sickness”), and the closeted Boleyn brother, George. The latter ends up being executed, alongside Anne, for his “crimes”, which is the biggest bummer of the book.

I thought The Other Boleyn Girl would be steamier, so I was disappointed by the (mostly) closed-door sex scenes. There was a lot of politics, a lot of gossip, a few pregnancies and how-to tutorials, but very little actual smut.

The absence of steam also meant that the story dragged a bit: waiting for Henry to get his divorce, and then waiting for Anne to conceive the heir she’d promised him… Perhaps that’s because I was all-too-aware of what was coming. When the story finally reached its climax, and what we all knew would happen happens, it all felt a bit… well, anti-climactic.

Reviews of The Other Boleyn Girl were mixed. Fans praised its depiction of “claustrophobic palace life in Tudor England”, while critics pilloried Gregory for “lack of historical accuracy”. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if you’re coming to romance novels for “accuracy”, you have bigger problems. That certainly wasn’t an issue I took with Gregory’s telling of the Boleyn saga. As I’ve said, I was disappointed in Gregory skipping over the dirty bits, and had to plod through all the politics before reaching the inevitable conclusion, but her creativity in imagining the role that Mary might have played at court, and the aforementioned genius foreshadowing, made up for it.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Other Boleyn Girl:

  • “If OK magazine and Penthouse had been writing in the 1500’s this is what they would have come up with.” – Kindle Customer
  • “could be better” – Cameron
  • “Yes henryVIII was a womanizing pig. yes he chased everything in a skirt under 20 with a pulse. yes he wanted a son. but why all the sexual bs gregory freak us out write a novel without the bleedung sex please” – virginia corley

Bridgerton: The Duke And I – Julia Quinn

Okay, fine, I’ll cop to it: I’m a basic bitch. I binged the Bridgerton series on Netflix. Twice. And when I saw the book on sale at KMart (with the basic-bitch movie cover, no less!) for twelve bucks, I snapped it up. For those of you who have been living under a particularly large rock, this is a Regency romance series based on the series of books by Julia Quinn. The Duke And I is the first book in the series, focusing on the marital prospects of the eldest Bridgerton daughter, Daphne.

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Julia Quinn has written over two dozen historical romances, with a writing career spanning decades. Originally, she envisioned the Bridgerton books as a trilogy, but the series grew and there are now eight full-length novels (one for each of the children in the fictional family), plus a few extra bits and pieces. She was always very popular among romance readers, but the Netflix adaptation has catapulted her into the mainstream. It premiered just six-ish months ago, and has already been watched by over 82 million households, making it the most-watched-ever series on the platform. Naturally, Quinn saw a corresponding boost in book sales, and her twenty-year-old Regency romance went skyrocketing up best-seller charts.

The Duke And I is set in 1813 (think Austen’s era), in London’s “ton” during “the season”. No shame if you don’t know what that means (I didn’t before I watched/read!): the “ton” was Britain’s high society during the late Regency, and once each year these high-falootin’ folks would gather in the city so that young ladies could make their debut into society (i.e., swan around looking pretty in an effort to snag a husband).

The Bridgertons are a powerful and well-liked family, and a big one at that. The patriarch has passed, but there’s still Mama and her eight (eight!) children, so the house is hardly empty. Their gimmick is that the kids are named in alphabetical order, from oldest to youngest: Anthony, Benedict, Colin, Daphne, Eloise, Francesca, Gregory, and Hyacinth. Daphne is the middle child, but the oldest girl, so the first to make her debut – much to the delight of the ton’s gossip mongers.

Quinn positions Daphne as your typical girl-next-door: beautiful, but “cool” and friends-with-all-the-boys, so none of them want her in the romantic sense. Of course, that’s a disaster, because money and prestige were all tied up in marriage at the time, and the rules of polite society dictate that Daphne must marry before any of her younger sisters can debut themselves. She’s well aware of the weight of expectation upon her slender shoulders, but she’s still got enough self-respect to be a bit choosy.

“[She] wasn’t holding out for a true love match… but was it really too much to hope for a husband for whom one had at least some affection?”

Bridgerton: The Duke And I (page 17)

Enter, the Duke: Simon Basset, Duke of Hastings and notorious rake. He has recently returned to London, but he has every intention of staying above the fray of the ton and living out his days as a confirmed bachelor. Of course, it wouldn’t be called The Duke And I unless there was a meet cute. Here it is: the Duke walks in on Daphne punching an overly-amorous would-be suitor.

They get to talking, and decide to forge ahead with the trope a plan that suits them both: a fake romance! If they appear to be in love and an engagement imminent, Daphne’s stock will rise (make-them-all-see-her-in-a-new-light-et-cetera) and the Duke will be left alone (because obviously all the ladies will be throwing themselves willy-nilly at a bloke with his looks and title, despite the fact that he’s actually a bit of a dick). It works a charm… at first.

All of the local gossip is communicated by the pseudonymously-authored Lady Whisteldown’s Society Papers. It’s a very clever narrative technique used to great effect by Quinn. As she explains herself in the author interview section at the end of my edition, the Papers give her the chance to explain context to reader without having to cram a whole bunch of exposition into the dialogue. Fun fact: in that same interview, she also reveals that she actually had no idea or plan for the true identity of Lady Whistledown when she first started writing the series!

And – I can’t help myself – here we come to the compare-and-contrast part of the review. Naturally, spoilers abound, so look away now if you care.

The Duke And I introduces the Duke’s father’s abuses far earlier than the Netflix series ever did. The latter treated it as a “reveal” later on, once we’d formed a bond with the characters, while Quinn put it all up front in the Prologue. It was a heart-wrenching way for a romance novel to begin, and set a very different tone.

The diversity and representation for which the Netflix series is famous isn’t as explicit in the novel, though. For instance, the Duke – played by Rege-Jean Page in the series, a British-Zimbabwean actor – is described as having “icy blue eyes” and presumably white skin. The sole exception is that of Lady Danbury, a side character who plays a much smaller role in the book, but her use of a cane for mobility is mentioned sensitively and often. (And if you’re going to come down in the comments and have a sook about the Netflix series not being “accurate” because there were people of colour among the gentry, save it. Black people didn’t miraculously appear in England sometime in the 20th century, they were there all along – read Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race. Plus, if you’re coming to romance novels for “accuracy”, you have bigger problems.)

The Duke gets a lot more narrative time in The Duke And I than he did in the Bridgerton show (and he’d want to, being a titular character and all). The reader is privy to a lot more of his inner world and turmoil than the viewer ever was. That’s nice and all, but personally I kind of liked the element of mystery better – he’s supposed to be an enigmatic love interest, after all. Plus all that narrative space has to edge out something, and I’m sorry to say that Eloise and Penelope’s characters are completely submerged in the book, along with many other side characters and plots. I suppose they all come out in later books, but I’m not sure I’ll be reading that far to find out.

And, my biggest bug bear: The Duke And I is nowhere near as steamy as the show. I’m sure all the pearl-clutchers are happy about that, but it ticked me off. In the first hundred pages, there was just one reference to an erection. The story revolves around kids and marriage, without all the rooting that made the Netflix series fun. I threw an actual tantrum when – after 274 pages of build up – Quinn threw in a fade to black chapter break on the wedding night! She opened the door shortly after, but still, the momentum was totally lost.

Here’s the weirdest twist: the book leaves a lot more open-ended questions and unresolved plot points than the Bridgerton show (despite the fact that it’s been renewed for a second season, one that will undoubtedly disappoint given that the sexy Duke will not be returning, gah!). All told, I’d say The Duke And I was fine, but probably not worth the twelve bucks I splashed out on it. I haven’t read enough Regency romance to make a call on where it stands in the canon, but if you’re thinking of picking it up because the Bridgerton series hooked you the way it did me, I’d say don’t bother. Save your eyeballs for (yet another) re-watch instead.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Bridgerton: The Duke And I:

  • “Quick reading very entertaining
    .will finish the whole series to see who is Lady Whistledow also the sex of Daphnes” – Xiomara E. Delgado
  • “With the production of the TV Bridgerton the book prices have gone up terribly. Just not fair!” – victoria belin-pauline
  • “I get that it’s problmetic, but it’s a romance book, though. But I wish you new show fans could chill just a little bit?” – Samo
  • “A very light read that may make you blush. Mrs Whistle down is the best part. Content is 18+ with some violence. Did not leave me feeling enlightened.” – CB

The Kiss Quotient – Helen Hoang

For a while now, I’ve been thinking I should really seek out an #OwnVoices alternative to The Rosie Project. I settled on The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang, a book about a woman who lives with an autism spectrum disorder written by (dramatic pause) a woman who lives with an autism spectrum disorder. It was first published back in 2018, and it made quite a splash – mostly for the no-holds-barred steamy scenes and the awesome diverse cast of characters…

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Meet Stella: our protagonist, a successful woman who loves her work as an econometrician and is generally happy with her life. Cue inciting incident: her parents tell her they want grandchildren, ASAP, and they think it would be good for her to start dating – specifically, dating Philip, the office lech.

Stella isn’t particularly fussed on men and dating. Her previous experiences have been decidedly lackluster. But, she figures she lacks practice, and what’s the most rational way to go about improving her skills (social and… otherwise)? Hire an escort, of course! She hires Michael, a gorgeous escort she finds online, to teach her how to date and fuck with the best of them.

Michael isn’t the kind of two-dimensional manic pixie dream boy we’ve become all-too-accustomed too. He has A PAST (which is alluded to, lots, before it finally comes out). But aside from that, he also has interests (martial arts), a day job (at his mother’s dry-cleaner), and a family he loves more than anything.

The Kiss Quotient is effectively a gender-bending Pretty Woman, and it makes for a surprisingly sweet and romantic story – the perfect blend of endearing and sexy, a combination that’s difficult to get right. I think Hoang nailed the balance between romance (i.e., sexy times) and plot, which made it all the more enjoyable to read. It’s a perfect step up from your penny Harlequins about princes and pirates, without the ick factor of a Fifty Shades.

Stella is hypersensitive, to smells and touch and sound, which means Hoang’s writing is really rich in descriptive detail that goes beyond the visual. From the texture of Michael’s jacket to the sound of a nightclub, Hoang paints a really vivid portrait for the reader. And, I must say, this dedication to description extends to the sexy fun times Michael and Stella have together. The door is WIDE OPEN, folks. Hoang isn’t here to fuck around. The Kiss Quotient is steamy as heck.

The dangling mystery of Michael’s past – only revealed at the climax – is actually kind of annoying, though. Hoang drops constant hints, never letting us forget for one second that this dreamboat escort has a “dark side” or whatever. The upside is at least Stella’s autism wasn’t the main/only obstacle keeping them from being together. The dynamics and balance of the romance are really pleasing, in that both the parties to it have their own baggage and their own power. Neither is faultless, and neither is helpless. Their affection for each other feels genuine and intimate, despite the commercial aspect.

Stella is particularly relatable – even for readers who don’t live with/aren’t familiar with autism – for her simple but powerful desire to be loved. That’s something we’ve surely all experienced, at one time or another. Her autism is not the only facet of her personality, nor is it the only interesting thing about her; she ever feels like a token or a stereotype.

It seems a shame, then, that Hoang has used a few problematic sex worker tropes with Michael’s character. The sex-worker-with-a-heart-of-gold thing is tired and yucky. I’m also not sure how I feel about the implied idea that autism-related intimacy issues can be magically cured by a sex god (but then again, I’m neurotypical, so it’s probably not for me to say whether that’s okay or not).

All told, I’d say The Kiss Quotient isn’t perfect, but its flaws are forgivable for the fact that it’s a step up from the alternatives and it’s real fun to read. It’s perfect for fans of The Wedding Date (the Debra Messing movie, not the Jasmine Guillory book, though that recommendation would probably hold up, too). It’s a solid summer read if you’re looking for something sexy to take to the beach when the warmer weather returns.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Kiss Quotient:

  • “Cute but wasn’t what I expected. Easy read but also very sexually graphic and reminded me how very single I am.” – Kindle Customer
  • “Sex: multiple scenes, including oral
    Language: 68 F words, 20 Lord’s name in vain, 34 S words
    Violence: forced kisses, black eye
    Cliffhanger: no
    Do I need to read books before this one: no
    Would I read more of the series: YES” – dncall
  • “Half of the book is used to describe how the couple has sex in details.” – wilson

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before – Jenny Han

For a fluffy young-adult rom-com, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before has a spine-chilling premise. Lara Jean has written a letter to every boy she’s ever loved (five total), letters that were supposed to be for her eyes only… until one day, under mysterious circumstances, the letters are mailed to the boys in question. It’s every teen girl’s worst nightmare; even now, slightly (ahem!) past my teenage years, I shudder at the thought. But don’t let that put you off! It sets the stage for a thoroughly delightful read.

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To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before was first published back in 2014. I’d already seen the Netflix adaptation, but I figured if the book was anywhere near as charming and endearing, it’d be worth reading. Han has said her story was inspired by her own habit of writing love letters (never mailed) to the boys she had crushes on as a teenager. For Lara Jean – and presumably for her creator – the letters are cathartic, a way to “let go” and farewell the boys she has no future with (including her sister’s boyfriend – eek!).

Sure, the romance is the central plot, but equally essential to this novel is Lara Jean’s family. Her mother is, sadly, dead, but she is very close to her father and sisters. Margot is the elder, headed off for university in Scotland, and Kitty is the younger, annoying at times but wise beyond her years. Josh – the aforementioned boyfriend of Margot – is practically part of the family. He lives next door and he often joins them for dinner and family events. He is also (prepare yourself for a stomach-churn) an unintended recipient of one of Lara Jean’s letters.





What’s a girl to do? Throw everyone off the scent by plunging head-long into a fake relationship, of course! Another recipient of a letter, Peter Kravinsky, is the “cool guy” of Lara Jean’s high school. He’s also recently broken up with his own girlfriend. They mutually agree to carry on as though they’re in a relationship. Lara Jean hopes it will prove to Josh that she’s moved on (and stop Margot cottoning on to the fact that she was secretly lusting after him the whole time, plausible deniability is the name of the game!), and Peter just wants to make his ex-girlfriend and resident Mean Girl, Gen, jealous.

Will it come as any shock if I tell you that this perfect plan goes horribly awry? Of course not! Of course it does! And everyone involved gets their feelings at least a little bit hurt. Such is the nature of young-adult romances. And yet, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before – predictable and sweet as it might be – never once feels like a cliche. It’s never cloying or annoying. I mean, if you’re determined to be a real grouch, I suppose you could look down your nose at it, but boo to you!





Given the dire state of the world, and our collective desperation for a little escapism, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is the perfect read for the current moment. It’s sweet, it’s nostalgic, no one has to wear a mask or sing Happy Birthday as they wash their hands… Lara Jean’s internal monologue feels real. So. many other YA novels I’ve read sound like an adult simply parodying the way they think teenagers speak “nowadays”, which is patronising to say the least. To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, however, hits the mark – a bullseye! Ah, to be young and in love…

The initial release spent 40 weeks on the New York Times Young Adult Best Seller List, and went on to be translated and published in over 30 languages. It got another boost upon the release of the Netflix adaptation in 2018 (which, I’m pleased to report, was mostly faithful to the book). There have since been two sequels, too: P.S. I Love You in 2015 (now with its own Netflix treatment, too), and Always And Forever, Lara Jean in 2016. I’m not sure I’m hooked enough to seek those out, but I wouldn’t discourage anyone from doing so. On the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed this one, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who needs to be reminded that life can be good and sweet.

My favourite Amazon reviews of To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before:

  • “I wanted the movie.” – Kayti
  • “This was an amazing book because it was about boys.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I couldn’t put this book down. I love how it was clean and not dirty.” – Staci

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