Wednesday, January 29, 2020

British Chick Lit

I just finished Mariana Zapata's Luna and the Lie, and while I generally like Mariana Zapata's writing, this book was about 50% too long. While I get choosing your own happiness, there's a line between focusing on what you can control and willful blindness to your emotions and needs. Luna didn't seem to have much character development, which was disappointing–things just happened to her.

In contrast, I've been on a Mhairi McFarlane kick, because while the novels deal with the complexities of relationships and life like Emily Giffin's books, unlike Giffen, the heroines aren't all affluent blondes that do a lot of lunching. McFarlane's heroines are grittier and more relatable.

If you like Mhairi McFarlane, then you'd probably like Beth O'Leary's The Flatshare and Josie Silver's One Day in December. Of the two, I prefer The Flatshare as the romance seems more believable. Although Silver's Laurie and Jack are supposedly meant to be, we don't actually see the connection developing.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Review: Autoboyography by Christina Lauren

Autoboyography by Christina Lauren
Published September 12, 2017 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Fangirl meets Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda in this funny and poignant coming-of-age novel from New York Times bestselling author Christina Lauren about two boys who fall in love in a writing class—one from a progressive family and the other from a conservative religious community.

Three years ago, Tanner Scott’s family relocated from California to Utah, a move that nudged the bisexual teen temporarily back into the closet. Now, with one semester of high school to go, and no obstacles between him and out-of-state college freedom, Tanner plans to coast through his remaining classes and clear out of Utah.

But when his best friend Autumn dares him to take Provo High’s prestigious Seminar—where honor roll students diligently toil to draft a book in a semester—Tanner can’t resist going against his better judgment and having a go, if only to prove to Autumn how silly the whole thing is. Writing a book in four months sounds simple. Four months is an eternity.

It turns out, Tanner is only partly right: four months is a long time. After all, it takes only one second for him to notice Sebastian Brother, the Mormon prodigy who sold his own Seminar novel the year before and who now mentors the class. And it takes less than a month for Tanner to fall completely in love with him.

I have a love-hate relationship with Christina Lauren's books. It's a bit like a bag of Lays potato chips. You know you really shouldn't eat more than one, but you can't just eat one, and in a few moments, the entire bag has been devoured and you feel full of fat and sodium. Meaning, I find myself compelled to keep reading, even as part of my mind loudly shouts, "noooo!" This is partly because in many of their (Christina Lauren is the combined pen name of longtime writing partners Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings) novels, insta-lust is often described as love. I don't believe in insta-love, so I can't get behind fundamental premises of their books.

That said, Autoboyography is their first YA novel and it is well done. It's their best work so far. There's the signature insta-lust, but there's also stuttering steps towards intimacy as both Tanner and Sebastian risk vulnerability to get to know each other better. When Tanner says he's fallen in love with Sebastian, it's believable because it's been earned. The all-consuming swooning and distraction over a crush is captured so well, as is the discussion of faith and religion. There's complexity and nuance to how Mormonism is described, and side characters - Tanner's best friend Autumn, and his parents, are also complex, nuanced, and just plain awesome. There were genuine moments where my heart ached, and moments where I wasn't sure where the plot was heading. Ultimately, though, I find the book hopeful and charming, such that at the end, I was on a bubbly high. This is a delightful read.

Rating: 5 stars

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Review: Alex, Approximately by Jenn Bennett

Alex, Approximately by Jenn Bennett
Published April 4, 2017 by Simon Pulse

In this delightfully charming teen spin on You’ve Got Mail, the one guy Bailey Rydell can’t stand is actually the boy of her dreams—she just doesn’t know it yet.

Classic movie buff Bailey “Mink” Rydell has spent half of her junior year falling for a sensitive film geek she only knows online as “Alex.” Two coasts separate them until she moves in with her dad, who lives in the same California surfing town as her online crush.

Faced with doubts (what if he’s a creep—or worse?), Bailey doesn’t tell Alex she’s moved to his hometown. Or that she’s landed a job at the local tourist trap, the oddball Cavern Palace Museum. Or that she’s being tormented daily by Porter Roth, a smart-alecky yet irritatingly hot museum security guard. But when Porter and Bailey are locked in the museum overnight, Bailey is forced to choose whether she should cling to a dreamy fantasy in Alex or take a risk on an imperfect reality with Porter. The choice is both simpler and more complicated than she realizes, because Porter Roth is hiding a secret of his own: Porter is Alex. Approximately.

True to the synopsis, this is an absolutely delightful, charming novel that is well done on so many levels - writing, plot, and characterization. I finished reading feeling happy, and we can always use some happy.

The tone and dialogue is on point. Jenn Bennett is hilarious. Case in point, Bailey day dreaming about meeting her online friend and crush, Alex: "He’ll be wonderful, and by the end of the summer, we’ll be crazy in love, watching North by Northwest at the film festival on the beach, and I’ll have my hands all over him. Which is what I spend a lot of my free time imagining myself doing to his virtual body, the lucky boy."

The plot is also realistic, following Bailey as she gets settled into her new town and new job the summer before her senior year. Romantic scenes are handled skillfully, making it appropriate for younger ages, as in Bailey's description of making out with her boyfriend, "...time to park at Lovers Point Park and watch the sunset behind the cypress trees as the waves crashed over the beach. Or, in our case, not watch the sunset. Which is what we ended up doing. A lot." Bennett is also sex positive, emphasizes a healthy, consensual relationship, while also capturing the teenage nerves of exploring new territory.

Bennett's novel is a love letter to California and it's surf culture and cinematic ties, and it's reflected in the diversity of characters. I'm so glad that there are more and more novels that reflect the world as it is. Alex is an interracial cutie and Bailey's new best friend, Grace, is Nigerian-British-American. There are people of color, but that's not their defining characteristic. Bennett also introduces the many multicultural foods that are readily available in California, but perhaps less familiar to readers: churros, posole, and jolof. Her descriptions of the fictional town of Coronado Cove, based on Santa Cruz, are vivid. Each chapter is proceeded by an very apt quote from a film. An altogether enchanting book, this is one of my top reads this summer.

Rating: 5 Stars

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Review: Fitness Junkie by Lucy Sykes and Jo Piazza

Fitness Junkie by Lucy Sykes and Jo Piazza
Published July 11, 2017 by Doubleday

When Janey Sweet, CEO of a couture wedding dress company, is photographed in the front row of a fashion show eating a bruffin—the delicious lovechild of a brioche and a muffin—her best friend and business partner, Beau, gives her an ultimatum: Lose thirty pounds or lose your job. Sure, Janey has gained some weight since her divorce, and no, her beautifully cut trousers don't fit like they used to, so Janey throws herself headlong into the world of the fitness revolution, signing up for a shockingly expensive workout pass, baring it all for Free the Nipple yoga, sweating through boot camp classes run by Sri Lankan militants and spinning to the screams of a Lycra-clad instructor with rage issues. At a juice shop she meets Jacob, a cute young guy who takes her dumpster-diving outside Whole Foods on their first date. At a shaman's tea ceremony she meets Hugh, a silver fox who holds her hand through an ayahuasca hallucination And at a secret exercise studio Janey meets Sara Strong, the wildly popular workout guru whose special dance routine has starlets and wealthy women flocking to her for results that seem too good to be true. As Janey eschews delicious carbs, pays thousands of dollars to charlatans, and is harassed by her very own fitness bracelet, she can't help but wonder: Did she really need to lose weight in the first place? A hilarious send-up of the health and wellness industry, Fitness Junkie is a glorious romp through the absurd landscape of our weight-obsessed culture.

This is a fun read that reminds me of Crazy Rich Asians - the white New Yorkers ladies-that-lunch version. Janey is a likable character, a successful business woman who is reeling more from her breakup with her gay best friend and business partner, Beau, than from the end of her marriage to her husband. Beau demands that she lose thirty pounds, or else she'll lose her job. Incredulity ensues as Janey tries all the latest fitness fads, and those that roll their eyes at Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop newsletter will appreciate the satire of the appearance-obsessed crazy rich, who willingly cough up thousands of dollars to try the latest workout and diet regimens. Janey's romances with Jacob and Hugh are charming and enjoyable as she figures out who she is without Beau as her anchor. The end does wrap up rather too neatly and quickly, but, like a frothy pink cocktail, makes a good accompaniment to a lounge chair on a sunny day.

I received a review copy through NetGalley.

Rating: 3 Stars

Monday, June 19, 2017

Review: The Shameless Hour (Ivy Years #4) by Sarina Bowen

The Shameless Hour (Ivy Years #4) by Sarina Bowen
Published April 12, 2015 by Rennie Road Books

She's not looking for a hero. He's not looking for a hookup.

For Bella, the sweet-talking, free-loving, hip-checking student manager of the Harkness men’s hockey team, sex is a second language. She’s used to being fluent where others stutter, and the things people say behind her back don’t (often) bother her. So she can’t understand why her smoking hot downstairs neighbor has so much trouble staying friends after their spontaneous night together. She knows better than to worry about it, but there’s something in those espresso eyes that makes her second guess herself.

Rafe is appalled with himself for losing his virginity in a drunken hookup. His strict Catholic upbringing always emphasized loving thy neighbor—but not with a bottle of wine and a box of condoms. The result is an Ivy League bout of awkwardness. But when Bella is leveled by a little bad luck and a downright nasty fraternity stunt, it’s Rafe who is there to pick up the pieces.

Bella doesn’t want Rafe's help, and she’s through with men. Too bad the undeniable spark that crackles between the two of them just can't be extinguished.

Sarina Bowen is one of my favorite contemporary romance authors, and her Ivy Years series is a great New Adult series because of how deftly she addresses current issues in a college setting, and this is my favorite book of the series because she turns so many stereotypes on its head: you have a sex-positive female (Bella) who doesn't pay much attention to her appearance; and a virgin male (Rafael, Rafe for short) who works in the school cafeteria, but whose masculinity and desirability is never once questioned. Bella's closet friends are members of the men's hockey team at the elite New England college which she attends. But when she's the victim of sexual harassment, she finds herself ashamed from turning to her friends. Her neighbors, Rafe, all-around-good-guy, and reclusive celebrity Lianne, step in when they see she's not okay.

Issues like sexual assault, double standards in rape culture, and shame are addressed well, although the thread of the challenges faced by first-generation minority students in elite higher education is left hanging. The rapport that develops between Bella and Lianne is hilarious, and there's a delightfully empowering scene where Bella gets retribution for a misdeed done against her.

Overall, this is an enjoyable read that challenges gender expectations and our attitudes towards sex and shame, and also authentically captures college life in America.

Rating: 5 Stars

Friday, June 16, 2017

Review: Broken Beauty Novellas by Lizzy Ford

Broken Beauty (#1, Broken Beauty Novellas) by Lizzy Ford
Published February 3rd 2017 by Lizzy Ford
Broken World (#2) available on WattPad
Broken Chains (#3) available on Radish Reading

Broken Beauty Synopsis:
Just a broken girl in her broken world.

When socialite party girl Mia Abbott-Renou wakes up in a garden she has little recall of the previous night -- except that she is naked...hurt...terrified. Not only has she been raped, but she knows one of her assailants: the son of a wealthy politician who happens to be her own father’s political ally.

Mia wants and needs justice. Except this privileged boy has an alibi and her father forbids her from going to the police. It’s a critical election year, one that his party might lose if his image as a doting father is soured due to Mia being labeled a lush or worse, promiscuous.

Devastated at not having the support of her family, Mia finds herself in a tug-of-war with her conscience over what to do, especially since she can’t remember exactly what happened that night. Worse, the men who attacked her have hurt several other girls, and Mia may be the key to stopping them.

Mia tries to forget, until the unthinkable happens, and she’s left reeling once again, faced with a new challenge that will force her to take more control of her life.

Broken World Synopsis:
A confrontation is brewing …

Mia realizes the aftermath of her rape is not over when she is rocked by another challenge, one that will put her publicly at odds with her father, a U.S. Senator who has made her the poster child for his re-election. But the public face he wants her to wear can’t be farther from who she is inside.

The latest rape victim is expected to die soon, and only Mia can identify the attackers. With pressure from the police to come forward, Mia is distraught when her father forbids her from speaking out.

She is surprised to discover new allies in her siblings, who break ranks with her father to support her. But even they have their own agenda.

Before Mia turns eighteen, she’ll face the ultimate choice: betraying her family or her conscience.

Broken Chains Synopsis:
The truth will set her free...

But first, it might suffocate her.

After a brief reprieve and a quiet birthday, Mia once more becomes the center of media attention. This time it's because the charges against her rapist go public - before Mia and her team are ready/ Thrust into intense publi cscrutiny again, Mia is faced with a new difficulty from the direction of her father, who follows through with his threats and forever alters the dynamics of her world.

Her desperate need to be loved by her father is crushed once and for all. But it's the great family secret she discovers that offers her the first piece of real hope she's experienced since the incident. For the first time in months, she's starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel - and that light includes Dom.

All she has to do is survive the trial - and a terrifying confrontation with Robert Connor.

Broken Beauty is, as far as I understand, a revision of a previously published work under the same title. This is not a novella, nor even a short story, as there is no structure - we are introduced to the main character, Mia, and the plot starts off with conflict, but there is no character arc. It is, instead, a sampler of a longer work that ends at the end of an inciting incident, when the reader might think that Mia is finally going to see some character development.

I do think the story deserves credit for addressing rape, the recovery process, as well as rape culture. Ford excels at description, particularly the movements of people, but I thought there was sometimes too much description and not enough of moving the plot forward.

I do think this series has potential, and "Novella" #2 (available on WattPad) definitely is a stronger work than the first in the series, with actual character development. I enjoyed the strong friendship between Mia and her best friend, Ari, as well as witnessing Mia's relationship with her uncle, Chris, develop. Unfortunately, the most interesting characters are Chris, uncle and lawyer extraordinaire, and Dom, police officer to the rescue. Mia is rather...bland.

I understand that she's been sheltered, hidden, and purposely trained to view herself as a possession or a prop her entire life, but her steps towards agency are rather limited. There's also not much of a sense of her personality. She is described as sporty, one who enjoys playing basketball and soccer, but I was surprised when I read that she was one of the co-leaders of the cheer team, since as someone who professes to like physical activity, she didn't think of exercising as a way to relieve stress until suggested by someone else.

The narrative finally reaches a conclusion in "Novella" #3, which was released on the Radish app, a mobile app for serialized fiction, where you can read the rest of the narrative chapter-by-chapter on a weekly basis, or all at once for a nominal amount through the purchase of coins (the number of coins purchased at once determines the cost per coin). As an aside, I liked the layout and design of the Radish app, but found the works there to be of vary quality - mostly middling.

Unfortunately, the plot doesn't really go anywhere for 7 of the 8 chapters. Overall, Mia just comes across as a boring young woman of privilege with a too quick, too neat wrapping up of a conclusion. I don't need likable characters, but I do need characters who make more of an effort. Perhaps being released on the Radish platform contributed to the problems in "Novella" 3, since the serialization of works prevents a big picture edit.

I received a copy of the Broken Beauty "novella" through NetGalley in exchange for a review.

2 stars (Broken Beauty)
3 stars (Broken World)

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Review: Always and Forever, Lara Jean by Jenny Han

Published May 2, 2017 by Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers

Lara Jean’s letter-writing days aren’t over in this surprise follow-up to the New York Times bestselling To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and P.S. I Still Love You.

Lara Jean is having the best senior year a girl could ever hope for. She is head over heels in love with her boyfriend, Peter; her dad’s finally getting remarried to their next door neighbor, Ms. Rothschild; and Margot’s coming home for the summer just in time for the wedding.

But change is looming on the horizon. And while Lara Jean is having fun and keeping busy helping plan her father’s wedding, she can’t ignore the big life decisions she has to make. Most pressingly, where she wants to go to college and what that means for her relationship with Peter. She watched her sister Margot go through these growing pains. Now Lara Jean’s the one who’ll be graduating high school and leaving for college and leaving her family—and possibly the boy she loves—behind.

When your heart and your head are saying two different things, which one should you listen to?

Lara Jean returns in this charming conclusion to the To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before series, retaining many of the characteristics that I loved in the first two novels: a focus on family relationships (particularly that between sisters), Lara Jean's romantic optimism, seamless interweaving of Lara Jean's Korean-American heritage, astute observations of teen life, and well-developed characters, both primary and secondary. But, this last book is even better with a more mature and self-aware Lara Jean, such as this observation after a fight with her boyfriend, Peter Kavinsky: "I’m petty enough to be glad he’s not enjoying himself anymore."

The writing is the clearest of the series, with less contrivances in the plot, and characters, while complex, that also behave true to themselves.

Lara Jean shows her maturity by consciously appreciating the present instead of being caught up in the romance of the past:
When I’m old and gray, I will look back on this night, and I will remember it just as it was. Is. We’re still here. 
It’s not the future yet.
The greatest pleasures of the book, are how deftly Han captures the excitement and uncertainty of the transition from high school graduation to adult life, whether it be attending college or taking a gap year, and the bonds of sisterhood.

Lara Jean frets about the results of her college applications:
"I’ve done everything I’m supposed to do, but will it be enough? At this point, all I can do is wait, and hope. And hope and hope."
Or, on choosing from her college acceptances:
"What if I came here and I ended up loving it? What if, after a year, I didn’t want to leave? What then? But wouldn’t it be great if I loved it? Isn’t that the whole point? Why bet on not loving a place? Why not take a chance and bet on happiness?
The simultaneously hopeful and retrospective tone perfectly encapsulates how many of my graduating students must feel, year after year. Additionally, just like the best part of Frozen was the relationship between Elsa and Anna, Always and Forever, Lara Jean is at it's strongest in the scenes between Lara Jean and sisters Margot and Kitty. Lara Jean observes, "Because of my big sister, the grief I felt about growing up was less acute."

Lara Jean places those bonds of sisterhood above every other relationship, describing how she feels love and relief when Peter promises her younger sister that they will still be friends even if she and Peter break up, knowing that her sister will be cared for, and how touched she is that Peter always takes Margot's side: "Of course he should take her side. It’s his job to take her side. It shows that he gets how important her good opinion is to me, and he gets the place she has in my life."

Also joyful to see was Lara Jean and her best friend Chrissy. They're very different, in personality, lifestyle, and choices, but they making being a support for each other a priority and there's genuine respect and acceptance of each other for who they are. I think this book, a very easy read, is a satisfying end to the series. Finally, as a college counselor, I am relieved that Jenny Han got every part of the college admissions process right.

Rating: 5 stars