Book Review: Written in the Stars by Alexandria Bellefleur

Title: Written in the Stars
Author: Alexandria Bellefleur
Narrator: Lauren Sweet
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: November 10, 2020
Print length: 384 pages
Audio length: 11 hours, 11 minute
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

With nods to Bridget Jones and Pride and Prejudice, a charming #ownvoices queer rom-com debut about a free-spirited social media astrologer who agrees to fake a relationship with an uptight actuary until New Year’s Eve—with results not even the stars could predict!

After a disastrous blind date, Darcy Lowell is desperate to stop her well-meaning brother from playing matchmaker ever again. Love—and the inevitable heartbreak—is the last thing she wants. So she fibs and says her latest set up was a success. Darcy doesn’t expect her lie to bite her in the ass.

Elle Jones, one of the astrologers behind the popular Twitter account, Oh My Stars, dreams of finding her soul mate. But she knows it is most assuredly not Darcy… a no-nonsense stick-in-the-mud, who is way too analytical, punctual, and skeptical for someone as free-spirited as Elle. When Darcy’s brother—and Elle’s new business partner—expresses how happy he is that they hit it off, Elle is baffled. Was Darcy on the same date? Because… awkward.

When Darcy begs Elle to play along, she agrees to pretend they’re dating to save face. But with a few conditions: Darcy must help Elle navigate her own overbearing family over the holidays and their arrangement expires on New Year’s Eve. The last thing they expect is to develop real feelings during a fake relationship.

But maybe opposites can attract when true love is written in the stars?

The synopsis really says it all — Written in the Stars is a fake-dating, opposites-attract romance with a guaranteed HEA, but with a few bumps along the road.

Darcy is a (gorgeous) tightly-wound actuary who likes her world orderly, clean, and easily analyzed and compartmentalized; Elle is a (super-adorable) astrologist who likes gel pens, glitter, marching to her own drummer, and a certain amount of chaos. They have nothing in common — yet somehow, their fake-dating arrangement starts to feel more and more real as they have fun together, learn to see beneath their surfaces, and (obviously) recognize that they have a major spark going on.

The comparisons to Pride and Prejudice and Bridget Jones are mostly unnecessary. Yes, the Darcy character comes across as judgy and off-putting, but that’s just a piece of the puzzle in this relationship, and the P&P trappings (sisters named Jane and Lydia, for example) are just minor details that don’t particularly matter.

Elle and Darcy have a lovely chemistry, each forcing the other to rethink basic assumptions and stretch a bit in their worldview — although honestly, most of the changing seems to happen on Darcy’s end. They’ve each been hurt in different ways in the past, through family dynamics or disastrous relationships, and they bring their baggage with them. As their fake relationship deepens into something more, they’re forced to open up and be honest about their dreams and their fears — but of course, as happens in pretty much all romance fiction, there’s a major falling out before they can get to a happy ending.

I enjoyed Written in the Stars, but not without some quibbles. The writing is spirited and light, and I liked getting chapters from both Darcy and Elle’s perspectives. But, certain wording choices started getting on my nerves, possibly more noticeable because I listened to the audiobook and repetitions really jumped out at me — for example, I lost count of how many times it’s mentioned that a particular character licked her lips. (It was a lot.)

All romance novels have the inevitable obstacle right before the happy ending, but the big drama here had to to with an overheard conversation and misinterpretation, and the way the scene was constructed left me feeling that the characters were behaving unreasonably and with a lack of maturity. Yes, their fall-out was over some big issues that they needed to address and resolve in order to move forward, but an actual conversation would have been a much healthier approach.

Side note: Some day, I’d like to read a romance where the main characters have a misunderstanding and then TALK ABOUT IT LIKE ADULTS, rather than having to go through a break-up, pints of ice cream, ugly crying, and then a BIG GESTURE in order to get to a good place. Anyway…

In terms of sexual content, there aren’t a huge number of sex scenes, but the ones that do exist are on the graphic end of the scale. (See my thoughts on a ratings scale for sex scenes in books, here). We are up close and personal with the characters through every moment of their encounters. Not my personal taste in fiction, but could appeal to those who generally enjoy these scenes on the explicit side.

Overall, Written In the Stars is a sweet story with lots of cute and funny moments. The audiobook is well done, with the narrator infusing humor and personality into the dialogue (and doing a great job with how she reads the many texts between characters — a very fun aspect of the story).

There are two more books that follow Written In the Stars, one focusing on Darcy’s brother, the other on Elle’s best friend and roommate. I don’t feel a need to continue at this point, but I may keep them in mind for when I want a light diversion at some point down the road.

Book Review: Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall

Title: Boyfriend Material
Author: Alexis Hall
Publisher: Sourcebooks Casablanca
Publication date: July 7, 2020
Length: 427 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Wanted:

One (fake) boyfriend

Practically perfect in every way

Luc O’Donnell is tangentially–and reluctantly–famous. His rock star parents split when he was young, and the father he’s never met spent the next twenty years cruising in and out of rehab. Now that his dad’s making a comeback, Luc’s back in the public eye, and one compromising photo is enough to ruin everything.

To clean up his image, Luc has to find a nice, normal relationship…and Oliver Blackwood is as nice and normal as they come. He’s a barrister, an ethical vegetarian, and he’s never inspired a moment of scandal in his life. In other words: perfect boyfriend material. Unfortunately apart from being gay, single, and really, really in need of a date for a big event, Luc and Oliver have nothing in common. So they strike a deal to be publicity-friendly (fake) boyfriends until the dust has settled. Then they can go their separate ways and pretend it never happened.

But the thing about fake-dating is that it can feel a lot like real-dating. And that’s when you get used to someone. Start falling for them. Don’t ever want to let them go. 

Sometimes, mood is everything. Several months ago, I borrowed the audiobook of Boyfriend Material from the library, and couldn’t get past the first chapter. Too self-absorbed, too focused on partying, too desperate to be adorable… or so I thought.

Here I am, months later, to tell you that I was wrong, wrong, WRONG about Boyfriend Material. My friends, this book is a delight!

On a whim, I borrowed the e-book from the library, incredibly in need of a light, engaging story — and that’s exactly what I found here, plus heart-warming squishy love and oodles of giggles.

Our main character is Luc, the son of a famous rockstar who walked out of his life as a child. After a terrible betrayal by an ex-boyfriend years earlier, Luc lives fast and free, and has developed a tabloid relationship of being yet another spoiled, misbehaving brat of a has-been celebrity. When Luc’s latest exposure in the tabloids (honestly, he just tripped! he only looks like he was passed out in a gutter!) threatens his job in fundraising, he knows some serious reputation repair is needed.

Enter Oliver, an uptight lawyer whom Luc once propositioned years earlier (unsuccessfully). Through a mutual friend, Luc and Oliver are reintroduced and agree to the ultimate romantic trope, the fake-dating scheme. Oliver is posh and presentable, someone who will give off “good gay” vibes for the donors Luc needs to charm, and Luc will make a fine companion for Oliver at an obligation-and-guilt-filled upcoming family event.

He gave me the type of look you give someone when you’re mentally shifting them from the box that says “attractive” to the box that says “weird.”

Initially like water and oil, Luc and Oliver eventually find that they complement each other in all the best ways. Trust, friendship, support, and (obviously) feelings soon follow. Their fake relationship turns into something real, but they’ll need to each get out of their own heads and put their unproductive inner dialogues aside if they’re going to make it work.

Oh, my, is this fun! First of all, while Luc is definitely a fiction type — the messy, unreliable, flighty guy with a heart of gold, who just needs someone he can count on — he’s also a total sweetheart, and outright hilarious. He’s silly and snarky, and I love him to pieces. Oliver is a little harder to love, since he comes across as stiff and serious, but hey, despite being a total neat-freak, he makes a mean French toast and is sweet and protective when it counts.

The plot zips along and hits the major plot points you’d expect, but the journey is just so adorably entertaining that I loved every minute.

The writing is consistently funny, and managed to catch me by surprise with its silliness and cleverness the whole way through. A few choice bits:

Peeping through my eyelashes like a small child braving an episode of Doctor Who from behind the sofa cushions, I checked my notifications.

We went on a couple of dates and I thought it was going really well, so I introduced him to Bridget, and she fucking stole him from me. Well, she didn’t steal him. He just liked her more. And I don’t resent it at all. I mean, I do. But I don’t. Except when I do.

“I’m sure we can negotiate matters as they arise. And you’re still welcome to stay. If you’d like. If you have no other engagements.”

Engagements? Oh, Oliver. “There was this tea dance I was meant to go to in 1953, but I can probably skip it.”

“You”—I gave a thwarted sigh—“are a terrible fake boyfriend.”

“I’m building fake anticipation.”

“You’d better be fake worth it.”

I stood at the sink and did that thing people do in movies where they brace themselves on the counter and stare meaningfully at their reflection. Turns out, it didn’t help. It was just a dick, looking at a dick, asking why he was always such a dick.

… Really, what do you have to lose?”

“Pride? Dignity? Self-respect?”

“Luc, you and I both know you have none of those things.”

You get the picture. Boyfriend Material is a book you’ll want to hug. There are emotional moments and people confronting past hurts and obstacles, but overall, it’s sweet and upbeat and just cute and romantic as hell.

A follow-up book comes out this August, and I absolutely cannot wait!

Release date: August 2, 2022

Book Review: The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood

Title: The Love Hypothesis
Author: Ali Hazelwood
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: September 14, 2021
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

As a third-year Ph.D. candidate, Olive Smith doesn’t believe in lasting romantic relationships–but her best friend does, and that’s what got her into this situation. Convincing Anh that Olive is dating and well on her way to a happily ever after was always going to take more than hand-wavy Jedi mind tricks: Scientists require proof. So, like any self-respecting biologist, Olive panics and kisses the first man she sees.

That man is none other than Adam Carlsen, a young hotshot professor–and well-known ass. Which is why Olive is positively floored when Stanford’s reigning lab tyrant agrees to keep her charade a secret and be her fake boyfriend. But when a big science conference goes haywire, putting Olive’s career on the Bunsen burner, Adam surprises her again with his unyielding support and even more unyielding… six-pack abs.

Suddenly their little experiment feels dangerously close to combustion. And Olive discovers that the only thing more complicated than a hypothesis on love is putting her own heart under the microscope.

EVERYBODY seems to either have read or to be reading this contemporary romance — so I gave in to temptation and joined the crowd! And mostly, it’s a really enjoyable, sweet tale.

But — ugh — let me just say that I do not like the synopsis (above). It just doesn’t convey the charm of the characters or what’s special about the book’s set-up.

So… Olive is a Ph.D. student working her butt off, living off her meager grad stipend, and basically focused solely on her work. A complication arises when it becomes clear that the guy she’d started casually dating is actually much more interested in Olive’s best friend, who seems to return the interest. But Anh would never agree to date him and break the friend code, even if Olive insists she’s just not that into him.

When Olive lies to Anh and says she’ll be out on a date with a new love interest, leaving Anh free to start a romance with Jeremy, things get complicated. Anh sees Olive in the lab building — clearly not on a date. So, as the synopsis says: Olive panics and kisses the first man she sees — who just happens to be Dr. Adam Carlsen, a young powerhouse in the academic field, with a reputation of being an arrogant ass when it comes to his grad students.

Olive is embarrassed and super awkward… but as it turns out, a fake dating scenario would benefit both Olive and Adam. Olive needs Anh to believe that Olive is in a relationship so that she can pursue her own love life guilt-free, and Adam needs Stanford to believe he’s in a relationship so they don’t consider him a flight risk and cut off his grant money. So hey, what’s a little fake-dating between (kind of) colleagues? Olive assumes a weekly coffee date is enough to seal the deal and make it believable.

Of course, it’s more complicated than that, as Olive and Adam are constantly thrown together, and (of course) develop an easy rapport, ridiculously cute banter, physical attraction, and, eventually, real and actual feelings.

The Love Hypothesis follows many of the standard story beats of the fake dating trope, but it’s got a lot of unique elements going for it as well. First of all, the science and academia setting is terrific. I love seeing a woman in science, here presented as dedicated to the point of obsession when it comes to her profession and her research. Olive is smart, motivated, and committed, and her struggle to be taken seriously and get the opportunities she deserves is well portrayed and convincing.

Also, the academic setting provides a structure that I haven’t come across much in contemporary romances. The science and lab work and dissertation meetings are all part of the plot. I’ve seen too many romances where we’re informed that the lead character is a respected professional, but we never see her doing any actual work. Here, we follow Olive in and out of meetings and labs and conferences, and get a real feel for the texture of her life as a graduate student (as well as the truly minimal financial resources she has… so yes, it’s a big deal when Adam pays for her pumpkin spice lattes!).

An added unique element is Olive’s sexuality, which I’d describe (although not labeled as such in the book) as demisexuality. Olive is fairly inexperienced when it comes to sex, mostly having tried it a few times during her college years as something to check off a list, rather than experiencing desire. As she explains, she’s only able to feel sexual attraction when with someone she likes and trusts, and this hasn’t really happened for her previously in her life.

Olive and Adam do have great chemistry, and I enjoyed them together as a couple. Despite Adam’s fearsome reputation in the department, he warms up around Olive, and they’re able to joke and exchange quips together that would probably make his grads’ heads spin.

I’m not typically a big fan of awkward encounters, which seem to be a staple in contemporary romances, and this is an obstacle for me in The Love Hypothesis as well. There’s a lap-sitting scene and a sunscreen scene, to name but a couple, that are kind of clunky and weird — I think they’re meant to be funny, but really, just made me cringe and feel uncomfortable.

Also, some of the lying really bugged me after a while. Olive persists in lying about the fake-dating to Anh even well past the point where she should have just come clean. She also lies to Adam after he overhears a conversation that could reveal her feelings about him, and continues to allow him to misinterpret her feelings even after it’s clear that she should be honest. She’s way too smart for some of the dumb decisions she makes about her emotions and her personal life, and even though she’s portrayed as someone so focused on science that she’s neglected her inner life, I feel like this goes overboard and undersells Olive’s maturity and good sense.

If you’ve read any of my other romance reviews, you may know that I prefer my romances with steaminess on the implied rather than explicit side of things. In The Love Hypothesis, there’s really just one major sex scene, but it is very explicit. Because it was limited to one encounter, I didn’t feel that it took over the book or overwhelmed the reading experience — but still, if you prefer these kind of scenes to be off-screen or fuzzy, just be aware in advance that the sex in The Love Hypothesis is graphic.

Overall, I really enjoyed The Love Hypothesis and found the characters and the set-up charming and off-beat. I love seeing women in STEM professions, especially when the professional aspect is treated seriously and not just as a side note. I’ll definitely want to read more by this author!

Book Review: While We Were Dating by Jasmine Guillory

Title: While We Were Dating (The Wedding Date, #6)
Author: Jasmine Guillory
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: July 13, 2021
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Two people realize that it’s no longer an act when they veer off-script in this sizzling romantic comedy by New York Times bestselling author Jasmine Guillory.

Ben Stephens has never bothered with serious relationships. He has plenty of casual dates to keep him busy, family drama he’s trying to ignore and his advertising job to focus on. When Ben lands a huge ad campaign featuring movie star Anna Gardiner, however, it’s hard to keep it purely professional. Anna is not just gorgeous and sexy, she’s also down to earth and considerate, and he can’t help flirting a little…

Anna Gardiner is on a mission: to make herself a household name, and this ad campaign will be a great distraction while she waits to hear if she’s booked her next movie. However, she didn’t expect Ben Stephens to be her biggest distraction. She knows mixing business with pleasure never works out, but why not indulge in a harmless flirtation?

But their lighthearted banter takes a turn for the serious when Ben helps Anna in a family emergency, and they reveal truths about themselves to each other, truths they’ve barely shared with those closest to them.

When the opportunity comes to turn their real-life fling into something more for the Hollywood spotlight, will Ben be content to play the background role in Anna’s life and leave when the cameras stop rolling? Or could he be the leading man she needs to craft their own Hollywood ending?

Jasmine Guillory’s books are reliably romantic, intimate, and full of unusual characters, and While We Were Dating is no exception.

Our two main characters are Ben, an up-and-coming advertising executive (who, BTW, used to be a backup dancer — hot!), and Anna, an Oscar-nominated actress who needs her next movie to be the big breakthrough that will take her back to the Oscars and send her home with the prize.

When Anna agrees to star in the ad campaign Ben is leading, they’re immediately drawn to one another and develop an easy rapport. But it’s not until Ben offers to drive her all night to reach her family at a Southern California emergency room that they truly connect, spending the long car ride sharing secrets and dreams. Their intimacy becomes physical, and they’re both wildly attracted to one another — but neither imagines that this can be anything but a fling.

Later, Anna’s manager comes up with a plan: In order for the studios to see Anna as a big enough box-office draw to land that next crucial movie contract, she needs to be more in the public eye. He convinces her to go public in a fake relationship with Ben, making sure the paparazzi are on hand to capture their every private-but-public flirtation. Soon, they’re featured in People magazine and are walking the red carpet together, but Ben knows that once the premieres have ended, so will this relationship.

I enjoyed a lot about While We Were Dating. Anna and Ben are both well-developed, flawed people. Sure, they’re super hot, but they’re also vulnerable, each dealing with his or her memories and past painful experiences, cautious about who they trust and who they allow into their lives. They have an easy chemistry together, and their banter is adorable and flirtatious and very down-to-earth.

This author also tends to go outside the societal norms of beauty when it comes to her heroines, and Anna is depicted as both stunningly gorgeous and plus-sized. And honestly, I love that about her.

I’m not a huge fan of “Stars! They’re Just Like Us!” kind of stories, so the Hollywood magic is, if anything, a minus for me when it comes to books featuring glamorous stars and their love lives. Here, though, we see Anna’s family and her roots, her struggle to adjust to her new reality, the invasiveness of the paparazzi, the need to always be “on”, and it makes her feel relatable, even if the day-to-day of her life — with stylists and gowns and borrowed jewels — feels like something from another world.

The books in The Wedding Date series are all loosely connected, but don’t worry if you haven’t read the others. Familiar characters show up, and you’ll be happy to see them if you know who they are, but it’s not at all crucial to know their backstories in order to enjoy While We Were Dating (or any of the other book in the series.) Each book focuses on a new romantic pairing and can stand on its own just fine.

If you’re a fan of Jasmine Guillory’s books, you’ll definitely want to read this one as well. Even if you’re new to this author, this would make a great pick for beach or poolside reading.

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