Review: Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen

Title: Here and Now and Then
Author: Mike Chen
Rating: ★½
Summary: Kin Stewart is an everyday family man trying to keep the spark in his marriage and struggling to connect with his teenage daughter. But his current life is a far cry from his previous career as a time-traveling secret agent. Stranded in suburban San Francisco since the 1990s, Kin has kept his past hidden until the afternoon his “rescue” team arrives—eighteen years too late. Their mission is to return Kin to his proper timeline in 2142: where he’s only been gone weeks, not years, and a family he can’t remember is waiting for him. Torn between two lives, Kin is desperate for a way to stay connected to both. But when his best efforts threaten his daughter’s very existence, it’ll take one final trip across time to save her—even if it means breaking all the rules of time travel in the process.


Note: an eARC of this title was acquired via NetGalley & Edelweiss+.

I’ve been sitting on this review for a week or so, but I cannot figure out what to write. Like, Here and Now and Then was a book? And I read it?? Time travel stories are some of my absolute favorites to experience, but after I finished this one, I realized that there were a lot of things that happened but nothing that really grabbed me or made me feel truly invested in the narrative. Everyone feels like silhouettes of themselves, reduced to fictional stereotypes in a paint-by-numbers sci-fi romp.

I can tell that Mike Chen spent a lot of time thinking about the story—especially how time travel would work—but the prologue introducing Kin was too brief for me to really empathize with him getting stranded in 1996. And then the next time we meet him, in 2014, feels like another blip on the way to the real story: Kin being forced to return to 2142 and subsequently trying to figure out a way “back to his daughter”. (I won’t write how he accomplishes this, but I literally said out loud “Oh, that’s not what I thought would happen but okay sure” after reading it.) But once he’s back in his proper timeline, Kin is able to “process both eras clearly and cleanly,” the huge barrier providing tension to the previous chapters magically removed. Kin also talks a big game of having to choose between Heather, his wife in 2014, and Penny, his fiancee in 2142—but he never has to, not really. The choice ultimately becomes Penny or his daughter, but he doesn’t have to choose between them, either, getting to have both with little conflict. Everything just kind of… works out.

It’s not that Here and Now and Then wasn’t good, it’s that it wasn’t for me (even though I really wanted it to be). Chen’s characters are stilted outlines without much filler, the plot moves forward but doesn’t feel like it goes anywhere, and every scene is so full of extraneous stuff that you don’t notice how ultimately bland and empty the book is until you finish. With too much focus on the how instead of the why, the story, unfortunately, becomes forgettable, one of those books you’ll close with a “hmm” and then never open again.

Review: You Know You Want This by Kristen Roupenian

Title: You Know You Want This: “Cat Person” and Other Stories
Author: Kristen Roupenian
Rating: ★★
Summary: You Know You Want This brilliantly explores the ways in which women are horrifying as much as it captures the horrors that are done to them. Spanning a range of genres and topics from the mundane to the murderous and supernatural, these are stories about sex and punishment, guilt and anger, the pleasure and terror of inflicting and experiencing pain. They fascinate and repel, revolt and arouse, scare and delight in equal measure. And, as a collection, they point a finger at you, daring you to feel uncomfortable—or worse, understood.


Note: an eARC of this title was acquired via NetGalley.

Most of the stories in Kristen Roupenian’s You Know You Want This were… not good, trailing behind the much-hyped “Cat Person” in substance and quality. Of the twelve included, I only really enjoyed four—”Cat Person,” “The Boy in the Pool,” “Biter,” and “The Good Guy”—but these were also the longest, had named characters, and included motivation and consequence which felt earned. (But really “Cat Person” most of all.) The rest read like first drafts, perhaps written by an ~edgy college-aged woman who read American Psycho and Tropic of Cancer “for fun” and wanted to push her readers toward discomfort for the chance to seem holier-than-thou when they (inevitably) “didn’t get it.” (Or perhaps I am merely projecting; I was that woman and saw a lot of my writing in Roupenian’s.) There was no real perversion within the book’s pages, only a facsimile of an attempt to tip-toe the line of grotesquerie. (I also can’t even remember what two of the stories were about.)

After finally reading “Cat Person,” I can understand why it went viral. Roupenian very clearly and cogently expresses an average first “date” of a 21st-century young, single woman who falls into a sexual encounter and then finds it’s simply too much effort to extricate herself before copulation. Instead of getting to enjoy the experience, Margot must distract herself until Robert finishes, becoming emotional support to his ego until it’s socially acceptable to leave. That he completely misreads her subsequent silence, that he sends a barrage of texts—at first pleasant then not—that he behaves in the exact way Margot hopes he won’t is the beautiful irony of the whole reading experience.

Unfortunately, none of Roupenian’s other stories are “Cat Person,” and I found myself powering through like Margot, hoping each new story would be better than it was, wishing, at times, that I’d never picked up You Know You Want This in the first place.

Trigger warning: the first story, “Bad Boy,” includes a rape scene. Idk either.

Review: My Favorite Half-Night Stand by Christina Lauren

Title: My Favorite Half-Night Stand
Author: Christina Lauren
Rating: ★★★
Summary: Millie Morris may have four guys as best friends, but she’s still perma-single. When a routine university function turns into a black-tie gala, Mille and her circle make a pact to find plus-ones for the event via online dating. There’s only one hitch, though: after making the pact, Millie and one of the guys, Reid, secretly hook up—only to mutually decide the friendship would be better off strictly platonic. But online dating isn’t for the faint of heart, and Millie’s first profile attempt garners nothing but dick pics and creepers. Enter “Catherine”: Millie’s fictional profile persona, in whose make-believe shoes she can be more vulnerable than she’s ever been in person. Soon “Cat” and Reid strike up a digital pen-pal-ship…while Millie struggles to resist temptation in real life. She’ll either have to concur intimacy or risk losing her best friend, forever.


Note: an eARC of this title was acquired via NetGalley.

Like Millie, I have had the Talk with myself: do I stay friends with this person or do I try to be more than friends? Is this regular “I’ve made a new acquaintance” excitement or more “I want to see you without your clothes” anticipation? Do I want this person to like me or do I want them to like me? As Millie asks, “are these spasms in my stomach what most normal people describe as love”—or are they simply just spasms?

As my first Christina Lauren novel, I went into My Favorite Half-Night Stand not knowing what to expect. The sexy times: great. The banter and accurate portrayal of friendship: awesome. The “I’m almost 30 and still don’t have my shit together”: I feel you 🙏. I legit read this in two sittings, desperate to figure out how Millie and Reid were going to get their HEA, both engrossed in the plot and amused by the antics.

But there were also a lot of “oh don’t do that” moments, too. Millie came off as emotionally stunted, her behavior more suited to someone who’s (maybe) in her early twenties instead of solid 29 with a super grown-up job. I’m sure that her duplicitousness was mostly manufactured for the plot, but it also went on longer than necessary. (Making a fake dating profile to ward off dick pics is one thing. Carrying on a correspondence with your best friend when a) he doesn’t know it’s you and b) you are both clearly developing feelings for each other’s online personas is another.) Then there’s Reid, who was guilty of one of my biggest pet peeves once he’d had his own Moment and then didn’t talk to Millie about it. (Yes I understand this is not always easy but most things aren’t and this is fiction and UGH JUST ACT LIKE ADULTS.)

Had I heard good things about other Christina Lauren books? Definitely. Did I enjoy the friends-to-lovers trope? Absolutely. Can I recommend a character who catfishes her best friend? Eh… maybe? My Favorite Half-Night Stand was one of those books that sucks you in and makes you desperate to keep reading. It’s only when you’ve finished do you realize, “oh, maybe I didn’t love it that much after all.” So enjoy the post-coital glow—but maybe don’t stay until morning.

Review: The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory

Title: The Proposal
Author: Jasmine Guillory
Rating: ★★★★½
Summary: When freelance writer Nikole goes to a Dodgers game with her actor boyfriend, his man bun, and his bros, the last thing she expects is a scoreboard proposal. Saying no isn’t the hard part, though – it’s having to face a stadium full of disappointed fans. When Carlos comes to Nik’s rescue and rushes her away from a camera crew, they form an easy camaraderie. Nik knows that in the wilds of LA, a handsome doctor like Carlos can’t be looking for anything serious, so she’s okay embarking on an epic rebound with him, filled with food, fun, and fantastic sex. But when their glorified hookups start breaking the rules, one of them has to be smart enough to put on the brakes.


Note: an eARC of this title was acquired via NetGalley.

Y’ALL.

Let me just preface this by saying that I absolutely adored The Proposal. Jasmine Guillory is a fantastic writer, full-stop, and her sophomore novel was a fun contemporary romance that treated its characters (and readers) like competent adults. There was dramatic tension, but it didn’t feel like the characters made stupid, dumb choices JUST to move the plot forward. They communicated with one another the way people do in real life and disagreements happened because of what each character SAID to one another, not because they didn’t talk to begin with. (Such gasp. Much shock. So horror.)

Both the two leads and everyone else were diverse in some way, but no one’s backstory or motivations felt contrived or there to only serve a narrative purpose. Like, this novel was just so refreshing and makes you question the romance genre as a whole. Why can’t other novels have functioning adults as their protagonists? Why can’t there be more than just straight white people falling in love?? Why can’t more intersectional stories cross over into the mainstream???

I was definitely aware of Guillory’s debut, The Wedding Date, earlier this year (an #OwnVoices contemporary romance raved by Roxane Gay!), so I really wanted to read The Proposal as soon as it was published. (Because duh that cover and that summary.) AND LET ME TELL YOU. It delivered. The Proposal could have been any other romance, but because Guillory is so precise in her characterizations, it made sense that THESE characters in THIS setting had THESE things happen to them. The sex scenes weren’t gratuitous but they didn’t feel safe for work, either. And I know the timeline in which her protagonists fall in love is, in theory, very short, but it’s also like why is this taking so long?? 👏HUR👏RY👏UP👏

Honestly, the only thing that I disliked was that the damn book ended. I could see that the pages left were getting smaller and smaller, but I was also like no??? maybe don’t?? And then when Nik and Carlos FINALLY get their Happily Ever After, I turned the page and there was a biography of Guillory instead of more story. (How dare she.)

I know that both The Wedding Date and next summer’s The Wedding Party take place in the same universe, but that’s kind of not the same thing and I am very, very sad I can no longer read this book for the first time.

Review: One Day in December by Josie Silver

Title: One Day in December
Author: Josie Silver
Rating: ★½
Summary: Laurie is pretty sure that love at first sight doesn’t exist anywhere except the movies. But then, through a misted-up bus window, she sees a man who she knows instantly is the one. Their eyes meet, there’s a moment of pure magic… and then her bus drives away. Despite searching for the next year, they don’t “meet” until Laurie’s best friend giddily introduces him as her new boyfriend. What follows is ten years of friendship, heartbreak, missed opportunities, roads not taken, and destinies reconsidered. One Day in December is a joyous, heartwarming and immensely moving love story to escape into, and a reminder that fate takes inexplicable turns along the route to happiness.


Note: an eARC of this title was acquired via NetGalley.

One Day in December has SO many things going for it: a Christmas-themed holiday meet-cute, a friends-to-lovers arc, and that super-adorable cover art (which I know isn’t that important, but still, it’s super adorable). Instead, Josie Silver’s novel feels like fanfiction of something else, where we KNOW that a certain couple is endgame, but we have to suffer through all of this pointless bullshit before they get their happy ending. (Especially when she puts our OTP in the freaking summary. If I know where the story is going – that basically, Silver’s going to purposefully put her characters into pointlessly dramatic situations – the entire story becomes drama for drama’s sake. Stupid, pointless drama.)

I found myself reading in binges while on vacation, one half of me hoping the novel would get better and then the other immediately regretting it. Like, I would actually roll my eyes and yell at my iPad. Will this book get better? I hope it gets better. But do I hope it gets better? Why do I hope it gets better? Ugh this book is such trash! I never really bought the initial premise of the meet-cute and so always kind of felt like there was no real motivation to want Jack and Laurie to get together. (And their actions never convinced me, either.) Then Silver finally gives them their Moment and it’s like, meh, I’m more happy that this book is finally over.

On top of all that, Silver uses dual narration as a crutch, which is one of my absolute biggest fictional pet peeves. When an author chooses to use dual narration, there better be a good fricking reason for it. If the only way to know which character I’m following is by the name that’s written at the start of the chapter, an author has failed. Most of the POV switches happened at pivotal scenes, too, when knowing how Jack felt about Laurie would “tug at our heartstrings”. No! It annoyed me! Who the f*ck cares what Jack thinks!

So, I don’t know… should you read this book? Maybe. A lot of other reviews are giving it high marks – but maybe those same people think Andrew Lincoln’s character in Love Actually was romantic. (I didn’t.) There are so many good holiday-themed romance novels out there; you owe it to yourself to find one.

Review: The Witch of Willow Hall by Hester Fox

Title: The Witch of Willow Hall
Author: Hester Fox
Rating: ★★★★
Summary: In the wake of a scandal, the Montrose family and their three daughters—Catherine, Lydia, and Emeline—flee Boston for their new country home, Willow Hall. The estate seems sleepy and idyllic, but a subtle menace creeps into the atmosphere, remnants of a dark history that call to both Lydia and Emeline. All three daughters will be irrevocably changed by what follows, but none more than Lydia, who must draw on a power she never knew she possessed if she wants to protect those she loves. For Willow Hall’s secrets will rise, in the end.


Note: an eARC of this title was acquired via NetGalley.

Do you ever read the summary of a book and think, “yeah, that sounds like something I would like”? That’s how I felt about The Witch of Willow Hall. Normally, though, books like this languish on my TBR list, something I can never quite find the time (or interest) to read once it’s been published. Months pass. Newer, more interesting books take precedence. I might eventually forget what the book was even about, only to re-read the summary years down the road and think, “meh.” And maybe (just maybe), I’ll take it off my TBR altogether.

Do not make this mistake. This book cleared my skin. It watered my crops. It set up a 401K and then invested in a robust stock portfolio.

I mean, yes, Hester Fox’s novel has its faults. Her characters can come off as overwrought and trope-y as hell: Catherine, the eldest sister, is not merely looking for marriage but scheming, using her hyper-sexuality to ‘trap’ an eligible bachelor. And Lydia – poor, good Lydia – is the naïve ingenue who is ‘blinded’ to reality and compares their sororal relationship as a catty no-holds-barred competition for the affections of the mysterious and dashing John Barrett. Then there’s the plot, which falls somewhere between historical romance and gothic horror but doesn’t convincingly meld the two until more than half-way through. We think Lydia is the witch referenced in the title but is there someone else? Does Willow Hall itself hold supernatural power? (So ~spooky, y’all.)

But listen. I started this book not expecting much, and I was so thoroughly surprised and delighted at the end result. Read during a week when the turning weather felt especially serendipitous, I felt literally and figuratively cozy – surrounded by the whistling wind and dreams of a crackling fire as Lydia and John got swept up in their own romance. At first pass, Fox writes everything so harshly that part of me wondered why a character’s behavior had to be taken to such extremes, why there was no gray between the black and white. But then, chapters later, an impulsive action would be re-evaluated or a character’s motivations would be explained and I would think, “oh, that’s why.” (Some readers will probably love the way the plot trundles forward but then others may roll their eyes at the heavy-handed foreshadowing. To each their own.)

I don’t think I can fully explain why I enjoyed The Witch of Willow Hall so much, not even to myself. Maybe it was the way the plot seduced me and I could think of no better activity than to keep reading. Or maybe that the stakes felt real, or that the characters were given agency, or simply that Willow Hall was so vividly realized I felt like I could drive there and visit. Maybe it was the tense, gothic elements or the acute remembrance of being eighteen and feeling everything so forcefully: the lows abysmal but the highs astronomical. Perhaps it was everything together, the sum greater than its parts.

Early in the novel, Lydia tries to articulate her feelings for John Barrett. “Suddenly sitting here beside him is not enough,” she narrates. “The empty place that I didn’t even know I contained is aching with want, trembling with fear that it may never be filled.” Same, sis. Same.

Review: Incendiary by Michael Cannell

Title: Incendiary: The Psychiatrist, the Mad Bomber, and the Invention of Criminal Profiling
Author: Michael Cannell
Rating: ★★
Summary: Long before the specter of terrorism haunted the public imagination, a serial bomber stalked the streets of 1950s New York. The race to catch him would give birth to a new science called criminal profiling.


Note: an eARC of this title was acquired via NetGalley.

The most interesting chapter of Incendiary was its epilogue, when author Michael Cannell finally pulled all of his interweaving threads together to tell a concise ending to his story. In my opinion, he spends far too many words on the Mad Bomber and the NYC police department and too little concretely connecting them to the psychologist who used reverse psychology to catch said bomber. This could have been a great magazine article, stripped of its fat and zeroed in on just how revolutionary a case it was. As is, I got too bored trying to wade through the minutiae to make that connection myself.

Interested in more true crime? These sound much more interesting.