Review: Technically, You Started It by Lana Wood Johnson

Title: Technically, You Started It
Author: Lana Wood Johnson
Rating: ★★★★★
Summary: When a guy named Martin Nathaniel Munroe II texts you, it should be obvious who you’re talking to. Except there’s two of them (it’s a long story), and Haley thinks she’s talking to the one she doesn’t hate. A question about a class project rapidly evolves into an all-consuming conversation. Haley finds that Martin is actually willing to listen to her weird facts and unusual obsessions, and Martin feels like Haley is the first person to really see who he is. Haley and Martin might be too awkward to hang out in real life, but over text, they’re becoming addicted to each other. There’s just one problem: Haley doesn’t know who Martin is. And Martin doesn’t know that Haley doesn’t know. But they better figure it out fast before their meet-cute becomes an epic meet-disaster…

I had high hopes for Technically, You Started It: an adorable pseudo meet-cute with mistaken identity? In a young adult novel told exclusively through text messages? Yes, please! I feel very, very lucky to have (literally) stumbled onto an arc, because it was the perfect backdrop to my train ride down to New York City. (The return-trip book, not so much.) It was so easy to fall into Haley and Martin’s developing relationship: to laugh at their jokes, smile at their obliviousness, cheer when they both finally admitted that what they were doing actually meant something—that the book fulfilled all of my expectations.

I wasn’t sure if I’d enjoy reading a book of nothing but texts, if it would feel like something was missing, but the only real difference is how quickly I got through the book. Lana Wood Johnson does such a good job at developing the world in which Haley and Martin exist that I quickly grew accustomed to the format. I felt like I knew the two of them—their friends, their families, how they were spending their summers—that it was if I’d grabbed one of their phones and scrolled through their entire text history and not that Johnson had made the whole thing up.

While Martin initially texts Haley to ask a question about school, and Haley accidentally restarts their conversation a few days later, their infrequent and short threads quickly morph into daily, in-depth conversations. It’s so easy (for so many reasons) to be more open online, and Johnson takes advantage of this, allowing both Haley and Martin to connect without having to deal with the anxiety of an in-person meeting. (And even when Haley brings up that Martin is only continuing their correspondence because it’s just texting, he’s quick to shoot her down—because that isn’t the only reason, at least not for Martin, and at least not at that point in the story.)

The majority of the plot revolves around Haley thinking that she’s texting one Martin (“the good one”) while she’s really texting the other one (“the burrito clown”), and the fun is in how Haley’s torn between the connection she feels with Text Martin and the growing attraction she has to IRL Martin—who she doesn’t know are the same person. Martin figures this out pretty quickly, but Haley remains in the dark for the bulk of the novel, and it’s this in-between space where Johnson lets us live. Haley’s reluctance to ever meet Martin irl heightens the dramatic tension, but it also makes sense for her, and the text format never feels like a crutch Johnson uses just to keep her protagonists apart.

I’m sure that readers will judge Technically, You Started It by its cover, or its summary, or even its format, but they shouldn’t. The book is such a refreshing (and modern) look into how humans connect with one another, how much easier it is to talk to a screen but how gratifying it becomes when you let yourself truly be vulnerable with another person. This book made my soul happy, and it’s something I know I’ll return to when I need a pick-me-up.

Review: Fix Her Up by Tessa Bailey

Title: Fix Her Up
Author: Tessa Bailey
Rating: ★★★½
Summary: Georgette Castle’s family runs the best home renovation business in town, but she picked balloons instead of blueprints and they haven’t taken her seriously since. Frankly, she’s over it. With a four-phase plan, Georgie’s determined to make herself into a Woman of the World… whatever that means. If people think she’s having a steamy love affair with resident sports-star and tabloid favorite Travis Ford, maybe they’ll acknowledge that she’s not just the youngest Castle sibling who paints faces for a living. Sidelined by an injury, Travis is flipping houses to keep busy, but he can’t even cross the street without someone recapping his greatest hits. When Georgie proposes her wild scheme, he agrees. But the girl Travis used to tease is now a funny, full-of-life woman—and there’s nothing fake about how much he wants her…

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

Fix Her Up is a study in contrasts. On one hand, the cover and summary promise a cute contemporary romance featuring a fake relationship and the good ‘ole “my older brother’s best friend” hurdle. On the other, this is probably the most explicitly sexual book I think I’ve ever read.

And I couldn’t tell with which side I took the most issue.

Was it the cutesy, over-the-top plot? 🤷‍♀️ Like, there’s rom-com sweet and then there’s made-for-TV sweet. Everything in Fix Her Up feels just slightly off, as if the story can’t quite stand up on its own—but, perhaps, sandwiching everything around sex means it never has to. With a few minor exceptions, I pretty much loved the book until the very end. (spoiler

Travis proposes to Georgie live on television after they’ve broken up because Things Were Kept Secret and OH YEAH she also wants a huge family and he doesn’t want kids. Someone needs to explain to me how a month-long relationship can enable this kind of self-actualization because damn. Like, this book literally ends in a marriage proposal. It felt like a slow-speed car crash instead.

←spoiler) I could over-look how every relationship besides that of Travis and Georgie lacked depth and authenticity. I could ignore the compressed time-frame and “oh, so we’re going there” plot points. I could even turn a blind eye to how Bailey very clearly sets up the protagonists of book two in the “wait, this is already a series?” series. (Give me three guesses and I can probably name the stars of books three through five, too.)

What I cannot get over—still, after five days, have not been able to get over—is the pornographic play-by-play on top of all of that saccharine sweetness. As if there happened to be a scene in your favorite Hallmark movie where that cute Chris Evans knockoff said “soon as we get on that couch tomorrow, I’m going to ride you straight through the credits” while he was (absolutely, no question) fingering the love interest.

(Like, y’all. I cannot, with a straight face, read some of the dialogue in this book!)

While I can objectively understand how Bailey moves her story from point A to point B, it also kind of feels like the plot was there only to set-up all of the sex. Like, on what kind of emotional journey can Travis and Georgie go where her giving him a blow-job in the high school dugout feels the most resonant? Is it after she rekindles his love for baseball? And it starts raining? And this blow-job is wish-fulfillment for her thirteen-year-old self? Let’s go with that.

Is Fix Her Up a good contemporary romance? Sure! It’s sickly sweet! It punched me right in the feels! It made me giggle and squee because Travis and Georgie are so goddamn cute and I wanted more of the story!

Does it also have good sex scenes? Yes! They are certainly explicit but also fun and felt like a natural—albeit heightened—extension of the characters and their relationship to one another.

BUT—and it’s a big but—do those same scenes work with the story Tessa Bailey was trying to tell? 😬 One part of me wanted the romance more than anything—the furtive glances, the blushing, the repartee and innuendo—and would have been just fine with the fade-to-black on which that kind of story thrives. And then the other went along for the x-rated ride, shaking my head at the absolutely absurd and unnecessary plot, speed-reading because who tf cares about Georgie’s financial independence?

I could never reconcile the two.

Review: Fake It Till You Break It by Jenn P. Nguyen

Title: Fake It Till You Break It
Author: Jenn P. Nguyen
Rating: ★
Summary: Mia and Jake have known each other their whole lives, and their mothers are convinced that they’d be the perfect couple—if only they could stand to be in the same room. After yet another attempt to push them together, Jake and Mia decide they’ve had enough, hatching a plan to get their moms off their backs—permanently. All they have to do is pretend to date and then stage the worst breakup of all time. The only problem? Maybe they don’t hate each other as much as they once thought...

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

So, here’s the thing: I didn’t enjoy Fake It Till You Break It. Like, at all. Since signing up for the Year of the Asian reading challenge, finding books written by Asian or Asian-American authors is always at the back of my mind. To see that there was a young adult contemporary romance featuring a Korean-American main character and written by (to the best of my knowledge) an Asian-American author seemed like a double-score. That bright pink cover? Gimme. Fake dating? Absolutely.

Unfortunately, Jenn P. Nguyen’s story was just very meh the whole way through. It wasn’t so much poorly written as juvenile and in need of some solid editing. I found myself rolling my eyes through most of the book, wishing for substance amid the paper-thin character-building and barely-there plot. On top of the “twelve-year-old’s idea of what it must be like to be a high-school junior and in love” vibe, the story felt very much like a connect-the-dots attempt to include as many tropes and caricatures as possible.

I should have probably DNF’d once I realized that I didn’t care at all about either Jake or Mia, the book’s main characters, or buy into their reasons for fake dating. I should have definitely DNF’d when I realized their chemistry was lacking that certain je ne sais quoi every romance needs. Nguyen was never successful in selling Mia and Jake as “enemies,” Mia’s crush on a fellow drama-geek was clearly there to add unnecessary romantic strife, and Jake’s “fued” (hated? apathy?) toward his brother didn’t fit well, either. On top of it all, Jake and Mia’s mothers were pushy as hell, and their behavior toward their children was borderline problematic; for them to literally say—after the two plus hours I spent reading—”Get together. Don’t get together. To be honest, we don’t really care anymore” just made me want to throw my iPad in frustration.

I’m happy that other readers enjoyed Fake It Till You Break It, but to me, the book was a complete dud. I probably should have just read To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.

Review: Star-Crossed by Minnie Darke

Title: Star-Crossed
Author: Minnie Darke
Rating: ★★★★
Summary: When childhood sweethearts Justine (Sagittarius and serious skeptic) and Nick (Aquarius and true believer) bump into each other as adults, a life-changing love affair seems inevitable—to Justine, anyway. When she learns that Nick bases his decisions on the horoscopes in his favorite magazine—the same magazine for which Justine happens to write—she decides to take Fate into her own hands. But as Nick continues to not fall headlong in love with her, other Aquarians are making important life choices according to those same horoscopes. Charting the ripple effects of Justine’s astrological meddling, Star-Crossed is a delicious, intelligent, and affecting love story about friendship, chance, and how we all navigate the kinds of choices that are hard to face alone.

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

“Only by luck, though,” Justine said. “Only by… lucky, random chaos…. There are choices within choices within chances. It’s all so complicated and tangled. How does anything ever go the way it’s supposed to?”

Star-Crossed will probably fall under the radar among all the other new May releases, but I really hope more people read it. The book is a cute romance that focuses just as much on our protagonist’s professional life as it does on her personal one. The leads are well-matched, and their rekindled friendship feels authentic. As the plot moseys along, Minnie Darke weaves B- and C-plots into main character Justine’s and love interest Nick’s will-they-or-won’t-they (or perhaps how-they-or-when-they?) back-and-forth. Although it wasn’t until a reviewer on Goodreads pointed out that the plot reminded her of Love Actually and Valentine’s Day that I finally had my own aha moment—because this comparison is just perfect—I still found the book charming and enjoyed it much more than I thought I would.

This book is a bit longer than most contemporary romance, but I never felt like the plot dragged on needlessly. I can see how readers might find the “cusp”s in-between chapters as mere filler, but I found them to be a unique and fun way to further flesh out the world that Darke created. I certainly enjoyed Valentine’s Day, but Star-Crossed is a better-written version of that kind of film; with an expanded timeline, the characters are allowed to breathe. Although we primarily follow Justine, we also get to spend time with Nick as well as all of the side characters with which they interact. We might not know why Darke includes something or how it connects until the end of the novel, but once we figure out the reason, it feels so satisfying, narrative threads finally pulled taut to reveal a clean stitch.

Reviews for Star-Crossed on Goodreads are mixed, but for me, a chance request on Netgalley for an unknown author definitely paid out. I wanted to read this book, planned my nights around how much time I could give to it around other obligations. And once I’d finished, I actually said out loud, “I liked that” as if it were some sort of surprise, like I’d forgotten how much I’d enjoyed the book along the way.

Review: The Unhoneymooners by Christina Lauren

Title: The Unhoneymooners
Author: Christina Lauren
Rating: ★★★★★
Summary: When her sister gets married, Olive braces for a crazy 24 hours before she can return to her comfortable, uneventful life. But when the entire party gets food poisoning, the only two who aren’t affected are Olive and prickly, irritating Ethan—and there’s an all-expenses-paid nonrefundable honeymoon in Hawaii up for grabs. Putting aside their mutual loathing for the sake of a free vacation, Olive and Ethan head for paradise, determined to avoid each other at all costs… until she tells a small lie and they have to pretend to be loving newlyweds. But the weird thing is that Olive doesn’t mind playing pretend. In fact, she kind of likes it.

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

The Unhoneymooners was a delightful throwback to both Christina Lauren’s stint writing fanfiction and the summer after my junior year of college when I read basically nothing but fanfic, staying up until the wee hours of the morning because I needed to know what happened in whatever story I was reading. Was I exhausted? Yes. Was the story going to be there in the morning? Also yes. Should I have made better life choices? Absolutely! But there was just something so cozy about reading a chapter and then trying to articulate a response that adequately expressed how much I loved something I’d just read—and The Unhoneymooners brought me right back to that place.

Even though Christina Lauren do a lot to make it seem like the events of the book could happen, the story still relies on its tropes: enemies to lovers! forced cohabitation! fake relationship! Our main characters dislike one another but still end up going to Maui on an all-expenses-paid honeymoon vacation? Where they must share a room? And fake a relationship for her new boss and his ex-girlfriend? GIMMIE.

I read The Unhoneymooners in two sittings, gleefully turning the pages because I was so engrossed in the story. Ethan and Olive had such chemistry that I needed to know if their faux relationship would ever turn into a real one—or if the tension that fuels any romance would come off as trite or eye-rolling. (Reader, it did not.) I literally laughed out loud at some parts and then giggled from others. Could this story ever really happen in real life? Probably not—but did it matter? The unbelievability of such circumstances never felt forced or overwrought, and I was so into the story that I don’t know if I would have cared, either.

Unlike in My Favorite Half-Night Stand, the romantic drama of our two protagonists was relatively lighthearted in comparison to the relationship between Olive’s sister and Ethan’s brother (which definitely impacted both the story and their own relationship, but not in an oh my god come ON kind of way.) We got to experience their blossoming relationship in real time as Christina Lauren gleefully threw what ifs? at the wall to see what stuck. What if Olive and Ethan were forced to spend time with one another? What if they had to pretend to be in a relationship? And what if they didn’t want to pretend anymore—what happens then?

I know that Christina Lauren books are often hit-or-miss, but The Unhoneymooners deserves a try. It’s a romantic comedy with laugh-out-loud humor and authentic dramatic tension. It focuses on the relationship between two sisters and their huge extended family. And, if nothing else, it leaves you yelling at its main characters to just hurry up and bone already. (Which isn’t always the point, but, you know… 😉)

Note: Ethan and Olive are less enemies and more do-I-really-have-to-spend-time-with-you irritation, and the sex scenes were 100% fade-to-black, but otherwise I really loved this!

Review: This Is Not a Love Scene by S.C. Megale

Title: This Is Not a Love Scene
Author: S.C. Megale
Rating: ★
Summary: Lights, camera—all Maeve needs is action. At eighteen, a rare form of muscular dystrophy stands in the way of romance, but she’s got her friends, her humor, and a passion for film-making to keep her occupied… until a hot older guy literally walks into her life. Tall and bearded, Cole is everything Maeve can’t be, and between takes, their chemistry is shockingly electric. But girls in wheelchairs don’t get the hot guy—right? Cole’s attention challenges everything Maeve once believed about her self-image and hopes for love. But figuring this out, both emotionally and physically, won’t be easy for either of them. Maeve must choose between what she needs and what she wants. And her failing lungs might not wait for either.

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

What to say about This Is Not a Love Scene that isn’t completely negative? I mean, yes, this book is #OwnVoices and, yes, it contains physical disability rep… but not much else. Even though the main character Maeve has moments of self-confidence where she stands up for herself and her worth, she’s still kind of an asshole, the book was super problematic, and I was happy to leave them both behind. (Like, the biggest thing I took away from the story is that I shouldn’t have even finished it.)

First of all, Maeve is self-absorbed. We know hardly anything about her friends (like their interests, their home lives, or even their last names), she eye-rolls anything her parents suggest that will legitimately keep her alive, and S.C. Megale introduces a far-fetched sub-plot because Maeve can’t believe that anyone would actually want to help children with disabilities (that basically resolves with an “oops my bad” from Maeve). She also whines for half the book that no one could even like her like that but is completely oblivious to the feelings a friend has for her. I neither understand how she has one friend—let alone three—nor do I get why they continue to friends with her.

Second, Maeve’s mean. She refers to a character in the book as “Mags’ asshole boyfriend” and then is surprised when her friend gets upset. She gets angry when other characters make light of or otherwise acknowledge how her disability makes her different… but then is also upset when those same people fail to relate to or understand how she encounters the world. (Like, they’re just supposed to know? Tell them!!!) She hates when her physical appearance is used as a qualifier but feels just fine describing side characters by theirs. 🙄

And third, the romance is just all kinds of no thank you. We’re supposed to feel as hot and bothered for Maeve’s love interest, Cole, as much as she does, but he’s not even that great of a guy. He doesn’t really acknowledge Maeve outside of the late-night texts they share, he sends her dick pics and then ghosts for about a week, and he strings her along and then is like “I can’t do this” after weeks of maybe-kind-of-but-not-really seeing one another… and Maeve continues to lust after him. Cole is obviously using Maeve’s desire to his advantage, but I also didn’t really like Maeve all that much either so… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I just… I wanted to like this book so much, and instead I got a mish-mash of nope with ew why and please don’t. (I want y’all to know that there is even more problematic bullshit I didn’t mention.)

PS. what is with the goddamn emoticons?! Does anyone still even use :) or :P in texts anymore??

Review: The Library of Ever by Zeno Alexander

Title: The Library of Ever
Author: Zeno Alexander
Rating: ★★★½
Summary: With her parents off traveling the globe, Lenora is bored, bored, bored—until she discovers a secret doorway into the ultimate library. Mazelike and reality-bending, this library contains all of the universe’s wisdom: every book ever written and every fact ever known––and Lenora is now its newly appointed Fourth Assistant Apprentice Librarian. As she rockets to the stars, travels to a future filled with robots, and faces down a dark nothingness that wants to destroy all knowledge, Lenora will have to test her limits and uncover secrets hidden among its shelves in order to save the library itself.

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

Her parents hardly ever brought her here, and Lenora was determined, when she grew up, to go to the library anytime she wanted.

The Library of Ever was cute, but after reading through all of the glowing four and five-star reviews, I’m beginning to think that I was not the target audience for this book. (But I’m okay with that!) With a colorful, eye-catching cover and the word “library” in its title, I was pretty much always going to check out the summary, but reading that it was “an adventure across time and space as a young girl becomes a warrior for the forces of knowledge”? UM YES PLEASE.

At almost 200 pages (of kid-lit sized paper and font), it took me just over an hour to finish—but perhaps that was part of the problem. I approach one-sitting reads much differently than ones which take multiple sessions, and I’m also not used to the pace of kid-lit. A lot of the fiction I read is character driven and, although stuff happens, what I find most interesting is how the characters react to or are changed by those events. Zeno Alexander doesn’t even give his main character Lenora a last name. We know that she’s being babysat by someone she doesn’t particularly like and that she’s annoyed at being told to wait in the car while her babysitter runs into the library, but that’s pretty much it. Her curiosity immediately kick-starts the plot and then the book basically doesn’t stop moving.

For me, this kind of frenetic pace was exhausting. I was in that place while reading where I was really tired but knew that if I just powered through, I could finish––but you can’t read this book and only half pay attention. Alexander so perfectly weaves each chapter with the next that if you’re not careful, you become lost in the maze he’s created. But for others? This kind of story probably feels exciting. Whether Lenora’s adventures are “real” isn’t the point: it’s the confidence she gains, the lessons she learns, the cool and noteworthy facts she uncovers.

Alexander wants his readers to fall in love with books and reading the same way Lenora does, and it saddens me that I wasn’t as wowed by The Library of Ever as other readers. Maybe I’ve let the Forces of Darkness in and lost my kid at heart.