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.

Top Ten: Contemporary Romances

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted at That Artsy Reader Girl. This week’s theme was books from my favorite genre.

I’ve been reading a lot of contemporary romances lately, and it’s been absolutely lovely. (I can’t wait to prioritize more of them going forward!) Below are some of my favorites.

Fix Her Up by Tessa Bailey
If I’m Being Honest by Emily Wibberley & Austin Siegemund-Broka
Lip Lock by Susanna Carr
Miss You by Kate Eberlen
The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory

Queen of Babble by Meg Cabot
The Royal We by Heather Cocks & Jessica Morgan
♥ Star-Crossed by Minnie Darke
Still Thinking of You by Adele Parks
The Unhoneymooners by Christina Lauren

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: 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: What If It’s Us by Becky Albertalli & Adam Silvera

Title: What If It’s Us
Author: Becky Albertalli & Adam Silvera
Rating: ★★½
Summary: Arthur is in New York for the summer, hoping that the universe will deliver a show-stopping romance worthy of a Broadway play. Ben, on the other hand, just wants the universe to mind its business; being witness to a proposal while in line to ship a box of his ex-boyfriend’s things? Not cool, universe. But what happens when Arthur and Ben meet-cute at the post office? What if they get separated – is it nothing? What if they get reunited – does that make it something? What if they can’t quite nail a first date… or a second first date… or a third? What if Arthur tries too hard to make it work… and Ben doesn’t try hard enough? What if life really isn’t like a Broadway play? But what if it is?

FYI: this review contains spoilers.

There were many reasons why I picked up What If It’s Us: (1) I fell in love with Love, Simon 1000% and needed more Becky Albertalli-written soft queer boys from Georgia in my life to distract me from a Check, Please! withdrawal. (Soft queer boys from Georgia are apparently my nemeses???) (2) I saw that gorgeously illustrated cover on display at my library and literally could not help myself the day before a week-long vacation. (This is, and continues to be, A Problem. Pls send help.) (3) It’s a young adult teenage love story that includes a Post Office flash mob meet-cute and just so happens to be about two boys falling in love. (4) Sara absolutely adored it.

But there were also two big reasons why it just didn’t do anything for me: (1) it featured my all-time most loathed narration technique of dual first-person POV with the extra-special added bonus of one character starting a thought… and then the other ending it. (UGH NO JUST STOP) I find this technique so incredibly lazy, and I had trouble every single chapter trying to figure out through whose POV I was reading. On the one hand, yes, having the chapter title be the POV character is great! BUT my brain literally does not pay attention to chapter titles. So until someone mentioned a name, it was basically a toss-up as to who was narrating. 🤷‍♀️ (2) I thought Arthur was a little bit Too Much in the way he reacted to events in the story, such as Ben still talking to his ex, the Hamilton Ticket Fiasco, or his two best friends dating and not telling him. It seemed like his frustration and anger was inappropriate to the circumstances (or else I have completely blacked out how it feels to be a teenager), and I found him too self-absorbed and privileged to really enjoy his parts of the story.

I understand that not every YA rom-com novel has to have a happy ending. Two seventeen-year-old boys having the foresight and finesse to amicably break up at the end of the summer before their cozy new relationship goes down in flames could happen in theory – but it’s not the ending I wanted for this story in particular. Am I wrong for wanting Arthur and Ben to stay together through their senior year, missing one another over Skype and then being over-the-top with their PDA when they do get to see each other? What’s the problem with a chapter or two of their super cheesy text chains or sweet “I miss you” Instagram posts?

I know that having them break-up was the Adult Thing to Do and actually made them grow as people and blah blah blah, but I wanted romance, dammit! I didn’t want them maybe reconnecting as college freshman. I wanted Art and Dylan to plan an adorable surprise of “oh sorry sweetie I can’t make it to New York it’s too expensive” and so Ben has to third-wheel his own senior prom but then Oh My God there Art is in his tux with a single long-stem rose and they dance together and it’s beautiful. (But can you imagine this? Because I can and it’s making me tear up rn.)

Albertalli and Silvera had the best building blocks for a great love story – and I get why some people went gaga over it – but it wasn’t the right story for me.

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.