Review of “The Unhoneymooners” by Christina Lauren

Lauren, Christina. The Unhoneymooners. New York: Gallery Books, 2019.

Paperback | $16.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1501128035 | 400 pages | Contemporary Romance

3.5 stars

The Unhoneymooners is the weakest of the Christina Lauren stand-alone rom-coms, to the point where I had incredibly mixed feelings. On the one hand, it does have some of their signature elements, the primary one being the banter between the hero and heroine that kept me amused as I watched them fall in love.

And on the whole, the characters were pretty solid. Olive is incredibly relatable, what with her feelings of imperfection in spite of her accomplishments, and I feel like it wasn’t helped by some of the issues going on around her, which I will get into in a bit. I wasn’t too sure about Ethan at first, especially given that it was meant to be an enemies-to-lovers romance, but I was quickly won over by his good qualities, although he does have a fatal flaw which I will also get into momentarily that I’m not 100% over. But it’s nice to continue to see nice solid normal men in Chistina Lauren books, and ones with fun quirks, like Ethan’s fear of flying, which is quite ironic in this scenario.

And I did really enjoy their description of the setting. I was a bit nervous when I heard it was set in Hawaii, although mildly assuaged when I saw it was set on Maui. And while it is from a tourist’s perspective, with the view of it being a paradise and vacation away from real life, I did feel like the environment described more or less rang true.

Now for my issues with the book: I was unprepared for so much familial dysfunction, some of it resolved to my liking, some of it feeling a little too neatly resolved. I did appreciate that, once everyone else knew what a scumbag Dane was, he was cut out of all their lives, but I feel like the boiling point for Olive’s relationship with her twin Ami was only a small indicator of larger issues, and while she did grow into a better person over the course of the story to the point of these flaws Ami pointed out in the heat of the moment feeling somewhat resolved, I did feel like Olive forgave her a bit too easily, given her prior feelings of inadequacy.

I still feel like this is worth the read for the high points, but the low points resulted in the dampening of my enjoyment somewhat. However, given those high points, I still recommend this to any diehard CLo readers who haven’t gotten to this yet or to fans of rom-coms, in hopes that you might have a more positive experience than I did.

Review of “Beautiful Player” (Beautiful Bastard #3) by Christina Lauren

Lauren, Christina. Beautiful Player. New York: Gallery Books, 2013.

Paperback | $15.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1476751405 | 406 pages | Erotic Romance

3 stars

To this point, I have loved all of Christina Lauren’s stand-alone books, but largely resisted picking up their erotic series. However, I was looking to try another erotic romance with this series being one I was considerimg, and on the advice of book club friends regarding a mix of quality and my own preferences for more egalitarian power dynamics, I skipped to book 3.

And Beautiful Player is more or less a pretty solid, if rather flawed book. Older brother best friend/best friend’s little sister is one of my favorite tropes, being sort of friends-to-lovers-esque, and I felt like the relationship between Hanna and Will was some pretty well. It starts out with them hanging out due to her needing to get out more, and I loved that, along with the buildup to more.

I did feel a bit more mixed about the characters themselves, and it may be a bit more of a personal preference thing than anything else. Despite Hanna not being a virgin, she’s still naive to the point of annoyance about sex. While it’s possible she just never really found someone who gave her real pleasure up to this point, I found it grating that someone who has done it before would be so inexperienced. And coupled with that, I did have some minor quibbles going in about Will’s playboy past, and they were not assuaged. While it’s not a dealbreaker like the alphahole hero, the playboy/rake ruined for all others by the naive heroine is so overdone.

But it isn’t a bad book by any means, and it definitely kept me invested in the fate of the relationship, despite its casual nature for most of the book. And I think if you’re more of a fan of conventional romance tropes like the naive heroine and playboy hero, this one might work a bit better for you.

Review of “My Favorite Half-Night Stand” by Christina Lauren

Lauren, Christina. My Favorite Half-Night Stand. New York: Gallery Books, 2018.

Paperback | $16.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1501197406 | 371 pages | Contemporary Romance

5 stars

Christina Lauren hit it out of the park once again with yet another hilariously zany contemporary romantic comedy. With endearing characters and a premise surrounding the pitfalls on online dating, it is truly a wonderful and relatable story.

I love the dynamic between the characters, especially Reid and Millie. The story navigates the complicated feelings of both of them having romantic feelings for the other, culminating in several passion-filled encounters, but it’s still believable that they would have a hard time expressing to each other that they want more. I know from my own experience how hard rejection can be, so while I did want them to just tell each other how they felt, the tension was still believable, given the obstacles.

And despite Reid and Millie’s relationship taking center stage, I loved the way the other guys in their group of friends were involved and getting some hints of how their dating escapades played out, especially when it led to some rather comedic results.

This is a must-read for anyone whose read any of Christina Lauren’s previous stand alone contemporaries, and I would also recommend it to any new readers who love a laugh-out-loud romantic comedy.

My Top 10 Books of 2018 and Year-End Wrap-Up

In honor of the first calendar year of doing my blog, I decided to do an end-of-the-year wrap-up post. While I will likely be posting a couple more reviews, if I finish any more books, this an overview of my top ten books of the year, along with some other information about personal goals I had for myself this year.

The top ten was based on a few basic parameters. I started with five star books, but I did not limit myself to these, especially when considering series which were solidly consistent. My main criteria is that it needs to have been memorable in a major positive way, and not have just been a book where I could find little to complain about, which is often the case when I give 5-star ratings.

  1. The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang (Multicultural Contemporary): Almost definitely my top book this year, this book was pretty much revolutionary for me. As someone who was diagnosed as neurodivergent and has difficulty socializing with others, I loved reading a book about a heroine who had similar struggles, and written by an author on the autism spectrum as well. While sex-heavy as a topic, if not in terms of the content, I love how the relationship between Stella and Michael is not just physical, and demonstrates how deeply they care for each other.
  2. The Southwark Saga by Jessica Cale (Historical — Restoration): One of two series on this list. I had never read a historical romance set in the Restoration era before, and now I definitely want to read more. I love the dark, gritty nature of the world, and how the series focuses on commoners rather than the aristocracy. And the characters are all so relatable. From the intelligent and brave Nick Virtue to the bawdy and fiery Meg Henshawe, there ultimately wasn’t a dislikable character among the lot. And the story was rife with conspiracy and murder, which kept me on my toes the entire time.
  3. Good Luck with That by Kristan Higgins(Women’s Fiction/Chick Lit): Yet another life-changing book, I loved this take on the issue of body positivity, highlighting the toxic voices women have in their heads concerning their appearance. While it is important not to glorify unhealthy habits and to recognize enablers, it is also important to promote self-love…at every size.
  4. Forbidden Hearts series by Alisha Rai (Multicultural Contemporary Romance): The second series I have on my list, and a completely unexpected one. I did not know what to expect going into the first book, Hate to Want You, and I was blown away, even though I’m usually not a huge fan of super-steamy books. The way the love stories of all three books managed to negotiate the sexual tension and their deeper emotional feelings was wonderful, along with the way each book built on the previous one in terms of development of the relationships between this colorful cast of characters and the dysfunctional relationships between them.
  5. If Ever I Should Love You by Cathy Maxwell (Historical Romance — Regency): While it isn’t hard to find a books with characters with issues, this is one that highlights an issue that not only remains relevant in many people’s lives today, but is done in such a beautiful way in context with the time period. It adds a new spin to an old trope, with new obstacles facing the couple who must learn to trust one another, despite her past scars and the fact she remains closed off from him.
  6. Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher (YA Contemporary Thriller): As divisive as this book and its Netflix adaptation may be, this book is well written, and the best part is in the ambiguity of Hannah’s storytelling. While it is natural to want to sympathize with her, given the fact that she committed suicide, in many ways, she is unreliable narrator and flawed protagonist, as we see through the interaction Clay has with the tapes. While many of the offenses committed against her are undeniably bad things, like the “Hot or Not” list or her sexual assault,  there are certain actions that work to diminish her credibility, like the fact that Clay is included for no reason other than plot convenience, so we would have a narrator who didn’t hurt Hannah engaging with the tapes, and the fact that she records her conversation with the guidance counselor, and, after not engaging with him properly about her issues, casting blame in his direction as a the final reason for her suicide. While there are undeniably better books out there that depict a much less complicated view of the suicidal individual, I love the thriller-esque vibe to this, where I felt almost no one was truly trustworthy.
  7. The Impossibility of Us by Katy Upperman (YA Contemporary Romance): I love love stories that also tackle tough real-world issues unflinchingly. I love how the story charts Elise’s growth of understanding and love for Mati and his culture, in spite of the obstacles put in her way by her family. The combination of prose from Elise’s perspective and verse from Mati’s, is also incredibly beautiful.
  8. Rise of the Empress duology by Julie C. Dao (YA Multicultural Fantasy): Fairytale retellings have been done to death, but Julie C. Dao provides a unique take with this duology, going into the origins of the Evil Queen in the first book and following it up with a high-action “Snow White” retelling in the second, and developing the rich East Asian inspired world of Feng Lu. Xifeng is a character that you can simultaneously root for and be horrified by, and Jade is a heroine who is very much her match.
  9. Autoboyography by Christina Lauren (YA LBTQ Romance/Coming of Age): I haven’t read much m/m, but this is probably hands-down one of the most beautiful stories within that subgenre. While religious objections are often a hurdle for LGBTQ characters, as they often can be in real life, this take was different in its focus specifically on the Mormon faith. While religion can often be seen solely as an opposition to the happiness of LGBTQ individuals, I love that Sebastian is devoted to his faith even as he’s discovering these taboo feelings, and that is a hurdle for him to negotiate throughout the story. It provides a poignant contrast to Tanner, whose family openly embraces his bisexuality. Rather than falling into the trap of promoting stereotypes, this story shows a wealth of compassion both for LGBTQ people and Mormons, showing a great deal of empathy on the authors’ part.
  10. Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge by Lisa Jensen (YA Fairy Tale Retelling/Fantasy): I very much enjoyed this fresh take on the “Beauty and the Beast” story, and how it highlights the stark contrast between Prince and Beast in poignant detail. While the the way Jean-Loup’s character was handled in relation to his actions may be seen as a dismissal of sexual assault for some, I felt this book was an acknowledgment of the fact that, in many people’s eyes, the Beast was much more worthy of love and did not have to change physically to become a handsome prince for his Beauty, or in this case, his Lucie, because his true love loves him for his good heart.

***

I had three major goals this year. The one I’ve talked about the most with other readers is my Goodreads Reading Challenge goal. The “final” goal was set to 305, although it was reset at various times throughout the year, as I came close to meeting previous goals. But I have discussed my other two reading goals a lot less: read less books about dukes, and read more books by AOC/#ownvoices.

Of course, when making these goals, I did not have a specific number in mind; I just wanted to diversify my reading tastes. As for the former, I didn’t read a single book with a duke hero in January, which became complicated when the publishers for some reason did not want to advertise the hero’s title in the blurb. Over the course of the year, I would also try to limit the number of books about dukes I read. Ultimately, I read a total of seventeen duke books this year,  5.5% of my total books read. I ended up reading forty-six books by AOC/#ownvoices, making up around 15% of books read. By comparison, last year, I read around thirty-four of 206 (16.5%) books about dukes, and eight books by AOC/#ownvoices (around 3.8%).

***

With those stats in mind, I don’t really have a specific reading goal in mind, as I expect it to change again, especially as I’m going through life changes, having graduated from grad school and am in the process of looking for a job. But whatever that goal ends up being, I would like to continue to read more AOC/#ownvoices, and aim for a larger percentage overall, to be determined once I have a more finite reading goal in mind.

Review of “Dating You/Hating You” by Christina Lauren

Lauren, Christina. Dating You/Hating You. New York: Gallery Books, 2017. 

Paperback | $16.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1501165818 | 353 pages | Contemporary Romance

5 stars

Dating You/Hating You is another fun Christina Lauren book.  It’s a fun lovers-to-rivals-to-lovers romance, with a workplace element. I loved getting a peek at the inner workings of what it’s like to be a Hollywood agent, and the cutthroat environment of a company when going through a merger, with a good balance of humor and heart.

I enjoyed the way the dynamic between Carter and Evie evolved over the course of the book, and how their journey sees them evolving from petty rivals competing for a place in the firm to making a decision as mature individuals to bury the hatchet, due to the initial spark between them before all this happened.

I also enjoyed the way it tackled the injustice of the gender discrimination in the office, and how both Carter and Evie each react to it, both not accepting it as “how things are.” I had heard this book praised as a “feminist manifesto,” and the authors talked about it in light  #MeToo, and the serendipity of it releasing just before the movement took off, in a recent Facebook Live chat, and I like how it tackled the issue of the dismissal of women in the workplace with such sensitivity.

I would recommend this anyone who’s looking for a different take on the enemies-to-lovers and office romance tropes.

Review of “Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating” by Christina Lauren

Lauren, Christina. Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating. New York: Gallery Books, 2018.

Paperback | $16.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1501165856 | 309 pages | Contemporary Romance

5 stars

Every time I think Christina Lauren can’t top themselves, I seem to find myself proved wrong with every new book of theirs I pick up. And while the other books I’ve read from them have each been wonderful and special in their own ways, there were quite a few reasons I enjoyed this one.

For one, this is one of the most fun friends-to-lovers books I’ve ever read. I love how well Josh and Hazel play off each other, with a firm foundation of a genuine friendship that includes seeing each other at their worst, that easily translates into something more…even if they don’t realize it initially, due to their perceived incompatibility.

Josh as a hero is really special to me, as while romance novels often fall into the standard formula of the hero typically being the one I want to fall in love with, and the heroine being the one I’d like to be like or be friends with, I found Josh filled both roles well. Part of it had to do with his family and Korean heritage, which resonated with me as I’m part Korean. I also have immense respect for the authors and their depiction of Josh and his family, making his ethnic background part of him without fetishizing him or making him a stereotype, and instead making him a fully fleshed out person.

That’s not to say that Hazel didn’t resonate with me as well. I can relate to her awkwardness, and while she is zany and quirky, it’s never to the point of being annoying.  And as I’m fascinated with books that don’t fall into standard romance archetypes, I like that she’s the one that had a lot of casual sexual experience, stemming from the drama of an intense on-and-off past relationship, contrasting with Josh, who is known as a “serial monogamist.”

I would recommend this book to anyone who loves laugh-out-loud romantic comedies with quirky heroines.

Review of “Autoboyography” by Christina Lauren

Lauren, Christina. Autoboyography. New York: Simon & Schuster, BFYR, 2017. 

Hardcover | $17.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-481481687 | 407 pages | YA Cmaontemporary Romance

5 stars

Autoboyography may be my favorite Christina Lauren book to date. Their exploration of such a relevant social issue today regarding gay teens who may face rejection from their parents is beautiful and makes it a worthy addition to the growing list of books that explore the journey of a member of the LGBTQ community.

Despite my complicated feelings about more “stylistic” structural and prose choices, I loved the way this book came together, with the bulk of the book being in first person present tense and solely from Tanner’s persepctive, and the switch to third person present tense split between Tanner and Sebastian, to represent the fact that the first part of the book actually represents the book Tanner is writing, but their story involves events that Tanner doesn’t chronicle within the pages of his manuscript.

I loved the characters and could relate to them in different ways. I loved reading about Tanner struggling with the catch-22 of being inspired by Sebastian and no one else, but also worrying about the fact that turning in the manuscript could “out” him in the conservative Mormon community. The way Sebastian comes to realize that following his heart is what he truly wants, instead of repressing his love for Tanner as the Mormon religion demands, is well done, and while there isn’t the happiest of resolutions for his family situation, I was glad to see him and Tanner happy.

I would recommend this book to anyone who has felt they need to hide a part of themselves to be loved or accepted, as is the case in the book. It is also one of the best LGBTQ books I’ve read, so it would be a great book for anyone interested in the genre.

Review of “Love and Other Words” by Christina Lauren

Lauren, Christina. Love and Other Words. New York: Gallery Books, 2018. 

Hardcover | $28.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1501190537 | 420 pages | Contemporary Romance

5 stars

Love and Other Words is my second Christina Lauren book, and I find myself already impressed with their range, as they accomplish the feat of being able to move from fun romantic comedies like Roomies to something a bit more serious and introspective with ease, resulting in a greatly moving book.

I loved the exploration of the past and present simultaneously, seeing the lingering tension in the present as Macy and Elliot are reunited after something led to the end of their relationship eleven years earlier, and the sweet buildup of their earlier relationship, culminating in Macy believing Elliot betrayed her. And while the structure of the narrative confused me at first, I felt it enhanced the reading experience, allowing me to feel some suspense as to what happened to get them from the wonderful feelings of “then” to the awkwardness of “now,” and how they’d manage to work it out.

Macy was also a great heroine, and I love how over the course of the story, she not only reflects on her relationship with Elliot, but also how her parents’ relationship impacted her views on what love should be, and she is searching for a definition of love in her life. I also love how this correlates to one of the things she shares with Elliot throughout, a fondness for words and literature.

I think any fan of deep, heartfelt romance would love this book, whether or not they’ve read Christina Lauren before. Like I said before, the structure might be a little much to take in (especially for the anti-first person, anti-present tense folks), but this book makes it worth it.

Review of “Roomies” by Christina Lauren

Lauren, Christina. Roomies. New York: Gallery Books, 2017. 

Paperback | $16.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1501168533 | 358 pages | Contemporary Romance

4 stars

While I had heard of this author before, I was compelled to pick this up when it was announced as one of a recent wave of romance novels that had been optioned as Hollywood movies. And the premise of a marriage of convenience in a contemporary U.S. setting intrigued me, especially since the issue of immigration is such a hot topic these days, though the authors go about it a fun, apolitical manner.

I really enjoyed Holland as a heroine. I found a lot about her to relate to, including her behavior concerning her crush on someone she’s never talked to (ensuing events notwithstanding) and, on a deeper level, her lack of progress with her writing. She expresses similar sentiments, like failing to find inspiration, despite being told that she needs to write every day. I was happy that this situation was addressed by the end of the book, and she did end up seeing her writing published, with hopefully more to come.

The romance between Holland and Calvin is cute and fun, but given that they don’t know each other well when they get married, I found myself a bit unsure as to the longevity of the relationship. It’s understandable that they might have a minor bump in the road over her keeping her crush on him prior to them even talking to each other a secret, and that they could get over this. However, given the number of times other girls come between them, including the last misunderstanding when she seriously should have talked to him instead of jumping to conclusions on a photo that appeared in a gossip rag, I have doubts as to whether the relationship truly has potential years down the road. And despite Holland crushing on, and then falling in love with, him, I just didn’t really understand his appeal, although I did admire him as an immigrant risking everything to follow his dream.

Art and Poltics: A Response to “Romance as Resistance”

Note: This was written as an extended response to several commenters on a post to Julia Quinn’s Facebook page.

In our current political climate, it can be hard to escape the constant coverage, to the point where it has started to impact all facets of life. And while it is understandable to want an artist to focus primarily on their craft and not allow their political concerns to dominate their public persona, at the end of the day, they are people too, with concerns for our society.

While I find many of the celebrities throwing petty insults at a certain political figure tiresome, when an artist has something to say about an issue, I find that worthwhile to listen to. That is definitely the case with the writers featured in the recent article in Entertainment Weekly, “Romance as Resistance: How the happily-ever-after genre is taking on Trump.” Despite what the headline (and the art at the top of the article) suggest, this isn’t more entertainers disrespecting the President. The article instead highlights the fact that these books tackle social issues such as women’s rights, sexual agency, gay rights, and more. And while a reader might conceive these books as being somewhat escapist, they are only partially right: it is escapist in the sense that it imagines a more ideal world where good triumphs over evil, and the real world is not always so black-and-white. That in itself makes a very powerful statement, one of hope. Nowhere does it say that there will be no discussion of real-life issues, however.

And upon doing further reading into the history of romance, you will find that the genre itself is rooted in politics. Maya Rodale’s Dangerous Books for Girls traces the genre back to the early days of women’s writing, and the measures society took to control what women read, out of fear. And if one wants to look at a political movement that directly impacted the romance industry, one should look no further than the “bodice rippers” of the 1970s, which were influenced by the sexual revolution and women’s rights movement of the 1960s.

And even Jane Austen is not the prim spinster aunt one might expect, writing solely about courtship and marriage. As scholars like Helena Kelly (Jane Austen: The Secret Radical) discuss, much of Austen’s work had political undertones. A well-known example includes the discussion of the slave trade in Mansfield Park. Not to mention, Austen was well-known for her disapproval (and that is putting it lightly) of the Prince Regent, the future George IV. She generally wrote very satirical portraits of the aristocracy within her novels, and even was openly critical of him in Emma,  so it is incredibly ironic that Prinny loved them, inviting her to dedicate that particular work to him.

And the truth of the matter is everything is political, although it is not always political in the partisan sense. As Olive Senior wrote: “Every author has a world view which reflects a political stance and shapes what we do, even unconsciously. For example, as a child, I grew up in a world where I never saw myself or the people around me visually portrayed in the children’s books I read (though I took great pleasure in reading them). As a writer of children’s books now, I would say that I am simply concerned with telling a story that a child anywhere in the world that might want to read. But, I have to confess, I am very much concerned that the illustrations should reflect and express a multicultural world, for that is what I live in. Is that political? Can any of us escape the political? I would say no. Even romantic literature plunges us into the realm of political economy: does the potential suitor have a job?” Through this simple act of trying to diversify her own genre, she is making a political statement. And she makes a valid point about romance. Even while it may seem vapid at worst and pure escape at best, in writing a love story where people overcome their obstacles and find happiness.

Other suggested reading:

Kelly, Helena. Jane Austen: The Secret Radical. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017.

Rodale, Maya. Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained. New York: Maya Rodale, 2015,