Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Romance (page 2 of 7)

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.

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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

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.

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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
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