Category: Romance

One Last Stop

Cover image for One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

by Casey McQuiston

ISBN 9781250244499

“August looks at her as the train reverses past Gravesend rooftops, this girl out of time, the same face and body and hair and smile that took August’s life by the shoulders in January and shook. And she can’t believe Jane had the nerve, the audacity, to become the one thing August can’t resist: a mystery.”

Leaving her eccentric mother behind in New Orleans, August Landry moves to New York in search of a new start, a city where she might actually fit, and a new college where she might finally finish her degree. A childhood spent helping her mother try to solve the cold case of Suzette Landry’s missing brother and August’s namesake has left her wary and mistrustful, and New York seems like just the kind of place for a girl like her. But then August meets a beautiful, charming, mysterious woman on her subway commute. With her tattoos, leather jacket, and old-school Walkman, Jane Su looks like a 70s punk rock dream. But as August gets to know her she realizes that somehow—impossibly—Jane is literally trapped out of time, having become stuck on the Q subway line in the mid-1970s. Suddenly, the investigative skills August learned at her mother’s knee are more relevant than ever, even as she tries to keep herself from falling for the impossible girl on the train while also figuring out where she came from and how to get her home.

August is a prickly and mistrustful protagonist, carefully guarding her heart and cultivating her cynicism. We learn over the course of the book how she came to be that way, from her complex relationship with her mother to her nearly non-existent relationship with her grandparents. However, her opening up begins not with meeting her love interest Jane but when she moves into the crowded old apartment above the Popeye’s with Myla, Niko, and Wes. If you love a good found family story, this book delivers. August becomes part of their chosen family, and it is this as much as anything that begins to open her up to the possibility of being in love with Jane, even if it takes her a while to admit to her feelings. Falling in love with someone who might not be entirely real, who might disappear at any moment, is a fundamentally vulnerable act.

The subplot of the book focuses on Billy’s Pancake House, where August gets a job, and where Jane used to work back when it opened in 1976. As Brooklyn gentrifies and rent rises, the beloved diner is in danger of going out of business, but the community rallies together to try to raise the necessary funds to help Billy buy the building when he can’t get a loan. If the friends August meets in her new apartment become her found family, Billy’s is about the larger community into which they fit, and McQuiston slips in bits of history about New York and its queer community.

In terms of genre, One Last Stop is modern romance with a touch of the paranormal. Jane is stuck out of time on the train, and is capable of various feats that should be impossible, but she is fully corporeal and definitely not dead (per se). Additionally, August’s roommate Niko is a psychic, adding another touch of magic to the largely normal world in which the story is set. New York is otherwise New York as we know it. Content warnings for the book are available on the author’s site.

Wasted Words

Cover image for Wasted Words by Staci Hartby Staci Hart

“The rules you made? The shelves people belong on? You’ve created them yourself. You’ve built your own prison out of something imaginary, and you ended up hurt anyway.”   

Since moving from Iowa to New York City, Cam has had a series of nerdy jobs from comic book retailer to her current gig as the co-manager of Wasted Words, a bar meets book store where she hosts singles nights in addition to selling books and comics. She’s also had a series of roommates, the most recent of whom is Tyler, sent by her last roommate to take her place when she moved out. Recently dumped, Tyler had nowhere else to go, but in the year they’ve lived together Tyler and Cam have become fast friends. Cam is a book nerd while Tyler is a former football player turned sports agent, so it seems like they should have nothing in common. Cam is firm believer in sorting like with like, but Tyler will force her to challenge her assumptions about what makes a good match.

Wasted Words is fairly loosely inspired by Jane Austen’s Emma. Cam fancies herself a matchmaker, although she’s a bit better at it than Emma ever was. However, much like the original, she lets herself get carried away by her imagination, sometimes causing her friends to get hurt in the process. However, it misses out on some of my other favourite aspects of Austen’s original, particularly Emma’s relationship with her father. Cam’s family doesn’t feature at all in the story. The matchmaking aspect of Emma works well in a modern setting, but the familial dynamics and social relationships can be harder to translate.

One thing that surprised me about the book is that it wasn’t a slow burn towards getting together at the end, like you might expect if it was closely following Emma. Rather, Cam and Tyler realize their feelings for one another less than halfway through, and the second part of the book is more about reconciling their differences and facing up to their past traumas in order to be able to move forward. Tyler was dumped by his girlfriend after the injury that ended his football career, and Cam is hiding an old hurt that dates back to high school that she refuses to talk about, much less process.

Cam’s anxiety isn’t immediately evident before she and Tyler get together, though we have a few hints about a traumatizing incident from her past. So it’s a bit jarring when Cam, who seems mostly level-headed if occasionally a bit controlling, starts to spin out in the second half. Her anxiety ramps up, and before she knows it she is jinxing the best thing that has ever happened to her, all because she has certain ideas about herself and what she does or doesn’t deserve in a relationship.

In terms of romance tropes, Wasted Words solidly hits mutual pining, roommates, and friends to lovers. Throw in the Austen connection, and there is a lot to love here. The ending was a bit over the top for my tastes, but fans of the romantic comedy grand gesture will probably find it satisfying.

You might also like Austen-mania Round Up 

Rent a Boyfriend

Cover image for Rent a Boyfriend by Gloria Chaoby Gloria Chao

ISBN 9781534462472

“I hated myself in this house. I hated what my priorities became, what I worried about, the things I said and, more so, didn’t say.”

Chloe Wang is bringing her boyfriend home for Thanksgiving in a desperate bid to convince her parents to turn down a proposal from the Kuo family to marry their son. The only problem is that Chloe doesn’t have any boyfriend, let alone one impressive enough to convince her parents she shouldn’t marry the son and heir of the most prominent family in their church community. So she turns to Rent for Your ‘Rents, a company that specializes in providing fake boyfriends guaranteed to impress traditional Asian parents at family events. Drew Chan is a starving artist side-hustling as a professional fake boyfriend after he was disowned by his family for dropping out of college to pursue his dreams. Drew has a natural sympathy for the pressure his clients are under from their families, and a talent for impressing even the most exacting parents. But when Chloe starts falling for the real Drew, not Andrew Huang the fake boyfriend, they’ll have to face the fact that his real resume is nothing like the bill of goods they’ve sold her parents.

If you like a fake dating trope, in Rent a Boyfriend Gloria Chau takes it to the next level, with Chloe actually hiring a fake boyfriend from a company that specializes in training young men specifically to impress uptight Asian parents who have a very particular standard of acceptable for their daughters. Andrew the Rent for your ‘Rents operative has been trained in everything from mah-jong to dancing, and can fake any major from art history to computer science on demand. Through alternating points of view, Chau explores the consequences of this idea for both Chloe, who hires the fake boyfriend, and Drew, who plays the role and has to compartmentalize his job from his real life. The resulting story is a mixture of funny, sappy, earnest and cute, as Chloe and Drew try to figure out whether their similarities are enough to overcome their differences, and the bizarre circumstances of their meeting.

Both Chloe and Drew have two names, and two separate selves. At home, Chloe is Jing-Jing, the pure and innocent daughter of her immigrant parents, who are deeply enmeshed in their small church community, and place a lot of value on her making a marriage with an upstanding member of their inner circle. At school she is Chloe, an economics major who focuses on her studies and doesn’t have many friends. When he’s at work, Drew is Andrew, a one syllable difference that serves as a constant reminder of the role he is playing on any given day, made to order for the parents of whatever girl he is helping this week. The rest of the time, he makes his art, and tries to find the courage to show it to anyone. Rejected by his family, he can’t quite believe his work is actually worth anything if they would abandon him over it.

Between Drew and Chloe we get two very different views on incorporating their parents’ cultures into their lives as Chinese Americans. Drew is estranged from his family, but his heritage is very much a part of his daily life and his art. By contrast, Chloe is still trying to have a relationship with her parents, but when she is away at college, she feels like an entirely separate person, one who flinches away from references to her heritage or the language her parents speak at home. Drew comes from a more working class community, while Chloe’s parents are dentists in Palo Alto, surrounded by tech money and venture capitalists.

I was a little bit worried about how the story would handle Drew’s job after he and Chloe get together, but I think Chao did a good job with resolving that question. His job isn’t treated as something to be jettisoned the moment he gets the girl, but an important part of his life and financial stability while he figures out how to make a living as an artist. Rent a Boyfriend combines a light romantic romp with earnest questions about reconciling your heritage, relating to your parents as an adult, making hard choices between what you want and what you’re willing to give up in order to have it.

You might also like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before 

Chaos Reigning (Consortium Rebellion #3)

Cover image for Chaos Reigning by Jessie Mihalikby Jessie Mihalik

ISBN 978-0-06-280242-2

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

“I dared to dream of more.”

With all her siblings out fighting or spying in the war between House von Hasenburg and House Rockhurst, youngest sister Catarina is stuck at home on Earth, serving as a political surrogate for her conniving parents. Protected and beloved by her older siblings, Cat longs to make a more substantial contribution, but her carefully constructed public mask as a vapid socialite means that all she can really do for House von Hasenburg is marry someone who will back them in the war. But then an invitation from House James to a particularly exclusive party offers Cat the chance to find out if House James was responsible for her brother Ferdinand’s kidnapping. But her older sister Bianca is on to her maneuvering, and she insists on sending two mercenaries, Aoife and Alex, to guard Cat’s back. Only, in order to get Alex into the heart of House James, Cat will have to pretend he is her date, not her body guard.

Like Bianca in Aurora Blazing, Cat has a secret, only in addition to being afraid of being used by their ruthless father, she owes her life to illegal genetic modifications that would make her very existence criminal under Royal Consortium law. Despite the efforts of her older siblings to protect her, Cat has had to become a ruthless dissembler, using social power as a pointed weapon. But the events of Chaos Reigning call for Cat to tear down her carefully crafted public façade, and reveal the intelligence and competence she has been hiding. No doubt the really interesting part of her story comes later, when she has irrevocably revealed the truth, and has to carve a new path forward alongside her ambitious best friend, Ying Yamado.

As a love interest, Alex is more in the tradition of Aurora Blazing’s Ian than Polaris Rising’s Marcus. In fact his main weakness might be that he isn’t sufficiently distinguished, and the fact that he and Cat are keeping secrets from one another means that we don’t really get to know him better. The reader actually knows more about him from his side role in Aurora Blazing than Cat does, and that is still precious little to go on in terms of character development. His main appeal is that he is handsome, and that he will back Cat’s manoeuvres even when they are dangerous. Luckily, I’m a bit of a sucker for a fake dating trope, so I put aside my skepticism and went along for the ride, which was slower burn on the romance, and rollicking in the adventure department.

Consortium Rebellion is a trilogy, making this the final installment in the series. Honestly, it seems like it could go for another book, in order to resolve the Syndicate plotline, not to mention the final fate of the faster than light technology that started the war to begin with. I know I would definitely read a team up novel where the von Hasenberg sisters take on the galaxy together! But it seems that instead Jessie Mihalik will return with a new series about intergalactic bounty hunters, due out in 2022.

You might also like Chilling Effect by Valerie Valdes

Red, White & Royal Blue

Cover image for Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuistonby Casey McQuiston

ISBN 978-1-250-31677-6

“June, I’m the son of the President of the United States. Prince Henry is a figurehead of the British Empire. You can’t just call him my archnemesis… Archnemesis implies he’s actually a rival to me on any level and not, you know, a stuck-up product of inbreeding who probably jerks off to photos of himself.”

As the son of the President, Alex Claremont-Diaz, his sister June, and their best friend Nora Holleran are America’s golden children, beloved by the press, and the perfect political surrogates for President Claremont and Vice President Holleran as they pass through the 2018 midterms and aim for re-election in 2020. But Alex commits a very public faux-pas when he gets into an altercation with his long-time rival, Prince Henry of England, at the wedding of Henry’s older brother, Prince Philip. As the White House and Buckingham Palace fly into damage-control mode, Henry and Alex are forced to fake a public friendship for the press, even while the sparks that are flying behind closed doors are of an entirely different sort. But if they ever want to really be together, they’ll have to come to terms with themselves, their families, and their place in history.

Red, White & Royal Blue is told from the perspective of Alex Claremont-Diaz, the son of America’s first female president, Ellen Claremont, who is divorced from his father, the senator for California, Oscar Diaz. Although college-aged, Alex lives in the White House with his mother while he attends school at Georgetown, and his sister June has returned home after graduation as she attempts to start a journalism career with the baggage of not being taken seriously as a result of her status as First Daughter. Alex is mouthy and over-confident, with a laser focus on going straight into politics after college and becoming the youngest Congressman ever elected. So it maybe isn’t surprising that coming to terms with his sexuality has been on the back burner. After all, “he’s absolutely sure that guys who kissed a Prince of England and liked it don’t get elected to represent Texas.”

The Claremont-Diaz family is, of course, entirely fictional, a made-up successor to the Obama administration, although certain real political figures are mentioned in passing. Ellen Claremont is finishing out her first term, and heading into the 2020 election as her son undertakes a liaison that could provoke an international crisis. The British Royal Family is semi-fictionalized, drawing clear comparisons to the real monarchy without directly copying the family members as characters. McQuiston’s fictional version of the firm is headed by Queen Mary, whose daughter Catherine has withdrawn from public life since her husband, the film star Arthur Fox, died an early death due to pancreatic cancer. Her three children, heir Philip, and younger siblings Beatrice and Henry comprise the family’s younger generation of the Mountchristen-Windsors.

This book is at heart a light, fluffy romance, but one that also cheekily sends up the problematic aspects of the trope at its center. For example, early in the book Alex complains to his sister June that “royal weddings are trash, the princes who have royal weddings are trash, the imperialism that allows princes to exist at all is trash. Its trash turtles all the way down.” June shoots back, “you do realize that America is a genocidal empire too, right?” I suspect that some people won’t like politics intruding into their fluffy romance in this manner, but I personally found it helped to acknowledge the cognitive dissonance rather than simply ignoring the problems inherent in the trope. Your mileage may vary.

As the book goes on, Henry and Alex develop into frenemies, then lovers, and launch a snappy epistolary romance as they exchange text messages and emails, and try to sneak across the Atlantic to see one another as often as their duties will allow. The sex scenes are a bit more explicit what you would generally find in a YA novel—Red, White & Royal Blue is marketed into the New Adult category—but not actually that graphic overall. It will certainly appeal to fans of m/m YA tales such as Carry On or The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue. Most of all, however, this was a perfect bit of fluffy, swoony fun, which was exactly what I needed in the current moment.

Aurora Blazing (Consortium Rebellion #2)

Cover image for Aurora Blazing by Jessie Mihalik by Jessie Mihalik

ISBN 978-0-06-28241-5

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

 “I would personally storm the gates of hell for any of my brothers or sisters. To claim otherwise was to fundamentally misunderstand me as a person.”

With House von Hasenberg at war with House Rockhurst over the rare mineral called alcubium that will revolutionize faster than light travel, tensions are running high, even in the neutral territory of Serenity. When Bianca, daughter of House von Hasenberg, is attacked, and her brother, Ferdinand, heir to the House is kidnapped, the Rockhursts seem like the natural suspects, but something more complicated seems to be afoot. Bianca deals in information, and thanks to a cruel experiment conducted by her dead husband, she has unique code cracking abilities that no one can know about, not even Ian Bishop, Director of Security for House von Hasenberg. Bianca knows that together they would be an unstoppable force, if only she could convince Ian to stop protecting her, and start working with her to find Ferdinand and bring him home before it is too late.

In the second volume of the Consortium Rebellion trilogy, Jessie Mihalik shifts her attention to the recently widowed Bianca, who is still recovering from the abuse she endured at the hands of her husband in an unhappy political marriage. Bianca is back home in House von Hasenberg, quietly working intelligence for her family, while rumours fly through Consortium society that she murdered her husband. Bianca pretends to mourn, when in fact she is guarding a deadly secret; Gregory was using her as a guinea pig in a science experiment. Thanks to his work, she can pick up and decrypt electronic signals, though the barrage often leaves her head pounding, and her guts churning with nausea. Even her father cannot be let in on the secret, because the ruthless Albrecht von Hasenberg has already demonstrated that he will use his daughters to gain an edge, however small, and the technology implanted in Bianca’s body is priceless. Her time trapped in Gregory’s lab has left her physically weakened, but those limitations only make her a more compelling heroine. What she lacks in physical stamina she more than makes up for with wits and poise.

Like Polaris Rising, Aurora Blazing is as much romance as sci-fi adventure, and will appeal most to readers who enjoy both. Bianca’s love interest is Ian, the mysterious Head of Security. Seven years ago, he was her bodyguard, but back then he spurned her advances to further his determination to rise quickly through the ranks. Ian is somewhat less of an alpha love interest than Marcus Loch was in the first volume, which I found more appealing, though his insistence on ignoring Bianca’s wishes was still infuriating. After being spurned seven years earlier, establishing trust is key if Bianca and Ian are ever to have a relationship, and this is made more difficult by the fact that he technically works for her conniving father, who decidedly does not have her best interests at heart. The tension between them is a slow, cautious burn that lasts through the book.

The first volume of the series focused on Bianca’s younger sister, Ada, and her love interest, Marcus, a supersoldier who escaped a secret government experiment. Ada, Marcus and their allies have a role to play in Aurora Blazing, though Bianca and Ian take center stage. I enjoyed the sibling relationships portrayed between the von Hasenbergs in Polaris Rising, and that continues to be a strong feature in Aurora Blazing. Ada provides critical support to Bianca in her mission to save their oldest brother, and Bianca’s twin Benedict also features, though not as much as I would have hoped. The most interesting glimpse is Catarina, the youngest von Hasenberg, who all the older siblings have strived to protect from their parents’ brutal machinations. But Catarina is beginning to chafe at being constantly sheltered and sidelined, despite her obvious smarts and resourcefulness. She will not be content to sit by for long. The final installment of the trilogy will follow Catarina’s adventures, as her father determines to make her a political match that will solidify their House’s position in the war with the Rockhursts—but Catarina has other plans. Look for Chaos Reigning in May 2020.

You might also like Kill the Queen by Jennifer Estep

Polaris Rising

Cover image for Polaris Rising by Jessie Mihalik by Jessie Mihalik

ISBN 978-0-06-280238-5

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

“My reckless side, the side that had prompted me to run away from home rather than marry a practical stranger for political power, that side knew I would land on the planet. I had to know if my hunch was correct.”

For two years, Ada von Hasenberg has been on the run from her family, one of the three High Houses of the Royal Consortium that rules the universe. But her luck has finally run short, and when she is captured by bounty hunters, she knows that if she doesn’t escape, she will finally have to return home and make a political marriage of her parents’ choosing. As the fifth of six children, that is really all she is good for to House von Hasenberg. Then she is locked in a cell with Marcus Loch, the criminal better known as the Devil of Fornax Zero, an ex-soldier who reportedly slaughtered his own unit before going on the run. They are two of the most wanted people in the universe, with a fortune in bounties on their heads, but perhaps together they will have what it takes to escape.

The protagonist, Ada, was by far my favourite part of Polaris Rising. Despite her highly political upbringing, she is smart, but not cold, and tough but not bloodthirsty. She can fight, but it isn’t her preferred way of doing business. She takes everything her House taught her with the intention of using it to make her into a spy in a political marriage, and instead turns it towards pursuing her freedom. She did, however, read as somewhat older than the twenty-three the author pegs her at. She acknowledges her chemistry with Loch, but doesn’t fancy herself in love, though she is worried by the fact that she could be.

The love interest, Loch, on the other hand, I could take or leave. He is, in the romance parlance, an alpha, and I don’t tend to enjoy the jealousy and posturing that comes with that type. I found it pretty hard to warm to him any further after he called Ada a bitch in their first real argument. Jessie Mihalik softens him in other ways, such as repeated use of enthusiastic consent, but I was still fairly indifferent overall. Your mileage may vary!

Polaris Rising sits at the intersection of science fiction adventure and romance, and probably requires a reader who enjoys both of these genres. There is too much world-building and adventure for someone who is just in it for the romance, and too many romance tropes for someone who is just in it for the science fiction. This includes such contrivances as getting the hero and the heroine in bed together by the necessity of warming one another up after escaping across an icy planet. But the adventure includes a good mystery, as Ada tries to figure out why Richard Rockhurst, a younger son of one of the other High Houses, is suddenly so desperate to marry her, and get his hands on her dowry.

One of the aspects I enjoyed most about Polaris Rising was Ada’s relationship with her siblings, though we only see her substantially interact with her sister, Bianca, and in passing with Bianca’s twin brother. Instead of opting for a fierce or bitter sibling rivalry driven by the political maneuvering of the High Houses, Mihalik instead opts to depict a tight, supportive bond. When their parents try to pit them against one another the von Hasenberg siblings only draw closer, guarding one another’s backs. A second volume is due out later this year, which will follow the adventures of Ada’s widowed sister, Bianca, and House von Hasenberg’s mysterious head of security, Ian.

The Sun is Also a Star

Cover image for The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoonby Nicola Yoon

ISBN 978-0-553-49668-0

“Observable Fact: You should never take long shots. Better to study the odds and take the probable shot. However, if the long shot is your only shot, then you have to take it.”

Natasha is an undocumented Jamaican immigrant who has been in the United States since she was eight years old, and today is her last day in New York. Tonight, she and her family have to get on a plane and go back to Jamaica, all thanks to her father’s DUI. But Natasha is desperate to stay, to graduate high school, to go to college. Everything—her life, her future, almost all of her memories—is here. Daniel is the second son of hard-working South Korean immigrants. Today, he must put on his suit, cut his long hair, and put aside his dreams of being a poet. Today, he has an admissions interview for Yale University, where his parents expect him to study to become a doctor. When Natasha and Daniel’s paths cross, their romance is destined to end almost as soon as it begins. How much can you love in a single day?

When Natasha and Daniel meet, there is an undeniable chemistry, even if Natasha initially—and understandably—refuses to be open to it. She has bigger things to worry about than the cute Korean boy who thinks that they are destined to be together. Nicola Yoon uses this New York Times article as the basis for Daniel and Natasha’s experiment. When the empirical Natasha refuses to accept Daniel’s idealistic belief in love at first sight, he challenges her to spend the day replicating a lab experiment where scientists used increasingly intimate personal questions and prolonged eye contact to try to spark a romance between the subjects. With time to kill before her long-shot appointment with an immigration lawyer that afternoon, Natasha grudgingly agrees.

The Sun is Also a Star requires a certain level of buy-in from the reader. I don’t think you need to believe in love at first sight, but you do need to accept that sometimes two people have an instant, electric connection that signals the possibility of love further down the road. Daniel and Natasha experience an accelerated intimacy spurred by the limitations of circumstance. Whereas Daniel is romantic and idealistic, Natasha has trained herself to guard against disappointment, to always make the reliable choice. She likes things to be quantifiable and certain. I am definitely more Natasha than Daniel, but thanks to Natasha’s healthy skepticism, I was still able to get caught up in their whirlwind romance. If the story had been entirely from Daniel’s point of view, I think I would have had a harder time buying in.

Yoon employs short chapters that alternate quickly between Natasha and Daniel’s perspectives. But sprinkled in are other short interludes from the fleeting perspectives of secondary characters, from waitresses to security guards that they encounter throughout the day. Each glimpse shows that while this is not their story, the secondary characters are fully fledged people with stories of their own. Natasha and Daniel’s actions have ripples that affect these people in ways they could not imagine, just as some of the minor characters have outsize impacts on their single day together. If you can accept the level of coincidence that Yoon employs, these additional perspectives are quite beautiful.

Though Natasha and Daniel’s romance anchors the story, family also plays an important role. Natasha’s father came to New York with dreams of becoming an actor, but has been ground down by repeated failure. Natasha wishes she could blame the failure on her father’s lack of skill, but the truth is that he is a great actor who has be unable to crack a system that is stacked against him. Meanwhile, her mother has worked hard to prop up the family as her father slides into despair. Daniel’s parents have worked hard to give their sons a better future, even if they have a very circumscribed idea of what that success might look like. Daniel and his brother Charlie have a fraught relationship that has been shaped by this pressure. Reflections on immigration, family, and talent add depth to the romantic plot.

Ultimately, I do not think that this is a story that will work for everyone, particularly those who are put off by whirlwind romances, since the love story is the primary narrative here. But if you can get past that initial barrier, Nicola Yoon has written a touching, bittersweet story of first love.

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Also by Nicola Yoon:

Everything, Everything