“The Wedding Party” by Jasmine Guillory

The Wedding PartyMaddie Forest and Theo Stephens have something in common: they are both best friends with the same person, Alexa Monroe. With Alexa’s wedding on the horizon, she has naturally asked both of them to be in her wedding party, which means they’ll be seeing a lot of each other. There’s a big problem, though. Maddie and Theo have never gotten along.

Maddie is a stylist who spends her days helping her clients find fashionable outfits; Theo thinks she’s a superficial nitwit who only cares about clothes and celebrities. Theo works for the mayor of Berkeley; Maddie thinks he’s a condescending know-it-all. Then one night after Alexa drags her to Theo’s birthday party, he and Maddie wind up having what both of them firmly insist is a one-night stand.

“Relax,” Theo tells her the morning after. “This will never happen again, and Alexa will never find out.”

However, a few weeks later, it does happen again… and while their sexual connection is obvious, they have nothing else in common, so they’re just having some fun, right? In any case, whatever they’re doing can’t last, so there’s no point in telling Alexa. Or anyone else, for that matter. The two start sneaking around with each other, until something happens that forces them to confront the fact that they might actually have developed feelings for each other.

This is the third book in Guillory’s series (Alexa and her fiancé Drew’s story was told in the author’s first novel, The Wedding Date), and while the enemies-to-lovers trope is well-worn, she handles it with humor and heart. She draws them both sympathetically, giving the reader insight into what makes them tick. Theo’s smartypants behavior masks his deep-down insecurity. And Maddie’s hard outer shell hides a soft, vulnerable center. These opposites actually have a lot in common, and while a happily-ever-after is guaranteed—this is a romance novel, after all—Guillory makes getting to that point a lot of fun.

“The Unhoneymooners” by Christina Lauren and “The Austen Playbook” by Lucy Parker

The UnhoneymoonersDoes anybody ever actually fall in love with their worst enemy? The “enemies to lovers” is a ridiculously common trope in romance novels, but when I think of my own personal nemeses, the idea of cuddling up to them is utterly repulsive. But sure, let’s suspend disbelief. Christina Lauren’s The Unhoneymooners requires a lot of that anyway, since the plot relies on a couple of whopping coincidences.

Olive and Ami Torres are identical twins, but while Ami seems to enjoy a never-ending run of good luck, nothing ever seems to go Olive’s way. However, when Ami’s picture-perfect wedding ends in chaos—the seafood buffet makes all the guests, save the two who didn’t partake, violently ill—she demands Olive go on the all-expenses-paid honeymoon to Maui (a sweepstakes prize that can’t be rescheduled) in her stead. The only other person who didn’t get sick, besides the allergic-to-seafood Olive, is Ethan Thomas, the brother of the groom. (He’s always felt buffets were unsanitary, so he’d opted for the chicken plate.)

Olive and Ethan’s relationship got off on the wrong foot when they first met, though of course both of them are ridiculously attractive, so it seems inevitable that putting them in close proximity on a romantic 10-day trip to Hawaii will cause sparks to fly. However, there are a couple of complications. First, Olive’s new boss and his wife just happen to be staying at the same resort (she’s starting a new job right after the trip), so immediately Olive and Ethan have to pretend they’re actually a couple. And then it turns out Ethan’s ex-girlfriend is also there, along with her new boyfriend. (Shades of Noël Coward’s “Private Lives”!)

I read most of The Unhoneymooners in the wee hours of the morning during a bout of jet lag, and it was really the ideal light, uncomplicated read for that particular circumstance. It’s a fun book if you can roll your eyes and get past the big coincidences.

The Austen PlaybookWhen I saw that Lucy Parker’s latest “London Celebrities” novel, The Austen Playbook, featured a theater critic and an actress as its protagonists, I thought I was in for another “enemies falling in love” storyline, but fortunately, that’s not really the case here. Granted, James “Griff” Ford-Griffin has penned some caustic critiques of Freddy Carlton, but he’s basically a nice guy and romance blooms fairly early on in the book. No, this book is all about the plot, and it’s a doozy. Freddy is starring in a “choose-your-own-adventure” murder-mystery-themed adaptation of Pride and Prejudice that is set to air in the U.K., with TV viewers voting via app how they want the story to proceed. It’s being staged in a theater on the Surrey estate belonging to Griff’s family, which it turns out has some rather interesting historic ties to Freddy’s family, and… well, Griff and Freddy soon learn that both of their families are harboring all sorts of deep, dark, long-buried secrets.

I found myself wishing that The Austen Playbook was a crime novel instead of a romance, because there were times that it would have been very plausible for one of the supporting characters to be knocked off. But the only murder is one that happens in the TV-show-within-the-book. Still, I love novels where scandalous historical goings-on affect the present day, and of course the theatrical backdrop of this series is enormously appealing to me as well. It was also nice to see Leo Magasiva, the hedgehog-owning protagonist of last year’s Making Up, in a cameo appearance.

“The Bride Test” by Helen Hoang

The Bride TestTrấn Ngọc Mỹ works as a maid at a fancy hotel in Hồ Chí Minh City, Việt Nam, supporting her multigenerational family: her mother, grandmother and young daughter. Only 23, Mỹ got pregnant at a young age, and is raising her child as a single parent; Mỹ herself is the product of a brief fling between her mom and an American businessman, who had already left the country before her mother realized she was pregnant.

One day, a chance encounter with a prosperous-looking Vietnamese-American woman leads to a potentially life-changing offer. Cô Nga invites Mỹ to come to California for the summer to meet her youngest son, Khai, a shy accountant who is 26 and has never had a girlfriend. With three big family weddings about to take place, Cô Nga wants to make sure Khải attends the events with a date on his arm—and if it ultimately leads to his own marriage, so much the better: “I could give you a summer in America to see if you two fit. If you don’t, no problem, you go home.”

Mỹ is suspicious, and reluctant to leave her daughter, but hopes that a summer in America may provide her with a chance to find her long-lost father. She agrees to go, changing her name to the more Western-sounding Esme, after the character of Esmerelda in Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (her daughter’s choice). However, Khai is not happy to have a strange woman (even a beautiful one) showing up on his doorstep. He enjoys his highly-regimented life, and Esme seems intent on disrupting it in both large and small ways, from rearranging his bathroom drawers to making noodle soup for breakfast and attempting to tidy up his overgrown yard with the help of a meat cleaver.

Khai, who is autistic, is convinced he can’t fall in love and that his heart is made of stone. Esme, however, falls for Khai and accepts him for who he is. Khai eventually grows accustomed to, and even fond of, having her around, but will that be enough for Esme?

Helen Hoang based Esme on her real-life mother, a war refugee who came to the U.S. from Vietnam and eventually became a successful restaurant owner. Esme herself turns out to be an incredibly resourceful, hard-working and ambitious young woman who decides to use her time in California to educate and improve herself as much as possible. And I loved Khai’s relationship with his family members, particularly his big brother Quan, who is always looking out for him (and hopes he won’t let Esme get away). This is a big-hearted and captivating book that offers authentic and sympathetic portraits of characters we don’t often encounter in contemporary fiction.

“The Proposal” by Jasmine Guillory

The ProposalPublic proposals of marriage are everywhere lately. There was the contestant on “Jeopardy!” who popped the question to his girlfriend during the portion of the show usually reserved for anodyne chats with Alex Trebek. Director Glenn Weiss, immediately after winning an Emmy Award, looked down from the stage and asked his lady love to marry him. The boyfriend of a New York City marathoner couldn’t wait until she crossed the finish line, and he was criticized for breaking out the ring at Mile 16. Not even author events are safe; Tom Hanks, on tour to promote his book Uncommon Type, helped an audience member propose during the Q&A session. Who wouldn’t want the voice of Woody from “Toy Story” involved in their special moment?

“Luckily, she said yes,” People magazine noted about the Hanks-aided proposal. But what if she’d said no—and footage of the event, posted online by onlookers, had gone viral?

That’s the clever concept behind Jasmine Guillory’s The Proposal, the charming follow-up to her delightful debut, The Wedding Date. Nikole Patterson was not expecting her boyfriend of five months to ask for her hand in marriage during a Dodgers game, via a message on the Jumbotron. (The fact that he misspelled her name didn’t help.) Despite the cameras in her face, a flustered Nik knows she doesn’t want to accept the ring; she just wants to get away. A brother and sister sitting nearby help her escape the stadium, but there’s still enough video of Nik to make the “SportsCenter” highlights show. Suddenly, her Twitter mentions are blowing up, and not in a good way.

Nik’s relationship with the man who proposed is over, but she can’t stop thinking of the guy who helped her get away after the fiasco at the game. Carlos is a handsome, single doctor; Nik tracks him down and sends him a thank-you email. One thing leads to another, and before long, they’re enjoying a rebound relationship. But Nik, who is busy building her career as a freelance journalist, is adamant that she only wants some no-strings-attached fun. Is Carlos willing to accept her terms?

The Proposal has a lot of great supporting characters, including Nik’s best friends Dana and Courtney, and Carlos’s extended family; his cousin Jessie, pregnant with her first child, has been diagnosed with a condition that confines her to bed, and the rest of the clan is worried sick. After his father’s death, Carlos has taken on the role of patriarch and family problem-solver, something that isn’t always great for his own health and stress levels.

One way Carlos relaxes is by cooking, and there are a lot of descriptions of food in this book—don’t read it on an empty stomach! Nik’s pal Courtney owns a cupcake shop, too. The Proposal is the literary equivalent of a chilled glass of rosé (Nik’s favorite wine) and a chocolate cupcake with sprinkles: sweet and refreshing.

“Making Up” by Lucy Parker

Making UpMaking Up is the third book in Lucy Parker’s London Celebrities series, which is set in the world of West End theatre. The heroine of this novel, Trix, also appeared in book #2, Pretty Face, which starred her best friend Lily.

Trix is performing in a musical which also features quite a bit of stunt work and acrobatics (I imagined something akin to “Pippin”) when the female star of the show falls and is injured. As one of her understudies, Trix is asked to step in, at least temporarily. However, a bad relationship with a manipulative man who undermined her confidence has left Trix shaken, and she’s not sure she can adequately perform the more difficult role.

Then there’s the show’s new make-up artist, Leo—a former school classmate of Trix’s, and her one-time crush. Not only is he working with her, but he’s also moved into the house she shares with a few other theater people. Leo and Trix immediately clash, but not surprisingly, there’s some sexual tension as well. I knew that Leo was a good guy as soon as it was revealed that HE HAS A PET HEDGEHOG NAMED REGGIE. At that point I would have proposed to him on the spot.

I really appreciated the fact that the main driver of the story is not “will Leo and Trix ever stop fighting and fall in love?” but “will Trix get her self-confidence back?” I think a lot of Parker’s young female readers will learn some important lessons about not letting a romantic partner damage your self-worth and isolate you from your friends; Leo is very supportive of Trix, but it’s clear that this is her journey, and even a cute boyfriend with a pet hedgehog can’t fix all of her problems.

There’s actually more conflict in the book between Trix and Leo’s sister, Cat, who has just returned from a year in New York and is behaving like a brat. (Full disclosure: Leo was actually hedgehog-sitting Reggie for her while she was in the States, but obviously Cat can’t be reunited with her hedgie until she has worked on her own emotional issues.)

With Making Up, Parker has proven that she’s not just writing to a formula in her books, but creating fully-realized and relatable heroines.

“The Hating Game” by Sally Thorne

The Hating GameThere’s a thin line between love and hate. That’s the premise of Australian writer Sally Thorne’s first novel, The Hating Game, which pits two uber-competitive office workers against each other as they both angle for the same promotion at a publishing company.

Lucy has always dreamed of working at a publishing company; Joshua fell into his job after dropping out of medical school due to squeamishness. Bitter rivals, the two are constantly trying to sabotage each other. However, despite their mutual loathing, there’s an undercurrent of sexual tension that becomes more and more difficult to ignore.

To Thorne’s credit, this isn’t the type of book where the protagonists finally declare their attraction to one another on the final page; the romantic sparks between Joshua and Lucy are pretty obvious early on, and a kiss in the elevator at work further complicates their relationship. Both have vowed to quit if the other one gets the promotion, and when Lucy begins to date another employee, things get even more twisted.

The Hating Game reminded me a little of Lucy Parker’s Act Like It, another book where we watch the couple move from antipathy to amour. (Seriously, does that ever happen in real life, or is it just a rom-com trope?) But while Parker’s novel had a rich background in the world of the London theater, Thorne leaves the setting of her book as something of a mystery. At first I just assumed the author was British and that it took place in London, until a receipt with a price in dollars was mentioned. It’s definitely not set in Manhattan, since everyone drives their car to work. When I read that Thorne was Australian, I kind of wished she’d been more specific about the location and given the novel some local color; the huge success of Liane Moriarty’s Oz-set books have proven that readers elsewhere in the world will enjoy fiction set in the land down under. But on the whole, The Hating Game is a fun, light read with a couple of appealing lead characters and a satisfying resolution.

“Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon

outlanderWhen I was a kid, my family frequently traveled overseas to visit relatives abroad. This was in the days before iPads, laptops and other electronic distractions; I don’t even recall movies ever being offered on those drop-down screens you used to see on planes before every traveler was provided with his or her own seatback entertainment center. (Admittedly, to save money, we frequently took charter flights or flew off-brand air carriers, where in-flight movies were probably considered unnecessary frills.)

Therefore, I had one option when it came to entertainment: I could bring a book. I remember going to Waldenbooks in the mall and scanning the shelves for the thickest possible spines. I needed a book that would last a long time, but also provide a super-sized entertainment value. I wanted epics, with exotic settings, life-and-death conflict, and romance, books like M.M. Kaye’s The Far Pavilions and Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds.

Perhaps a nostalgia for the sweeping sagas of my youth led me to pick up Outlander, the enormously popular, and just plain enormous, time-travel romance, for a recent overseas trip. (I got the Kindle edition, not the paperback—I appreciate the technical innovations of the 21st century.) I feel like 16-year-old me would have loved Outlander; 2016 me was rather lukewarm, though I did make it through the entire thing. It took me about two weeks; I started it in Stockholm, and it kept me company through trips to Amsterdam and Paris, before I finally finished it in a Copenhagen airport hotel. I’m unlikely to pick up other books in the series (there are currently eight), though I’d consider watching the TV show if I had the Starz pay-cable channel.

The best thing about Outlander is that it has a strong and resourceful female heroine, Claire Beauchamp, a 20th century nurse who inadvertently winds up in 18th century Scotland after time-traveling through a standing stone. Claire is English, but was in Scotland on a second honeymoon of sorts with her husband Frank. World War II has just ended, and she and Frank were apart for most of it, so they were just getting reacquainted when Claire finds herself in a very different time period. It was smart of Gabaldon to start the book in the postwar era, which was one of hardship and deprivation; the only things Claire really misses are hot baths and modern medicine. Imagine a 2016 woman sent back to 1743—I’m not sure I could function without a smartphone, a good sunscreen, speedy modes of transportation, well-stocked grocery stores, and (dare I say it) modern feminine-hygiene products.

Through a series of events, Claire winds up married to Jamie Fraser, a younger man who was a virgin on their wedding night but soon becomes an ardent and attentive lover. (There are a lot of sex scenes in this book.) At first, she tries hard to return to the standing stone to see if she can time-travel back to 1945, but eventually she realizes that she loves Jamie much more than she ever loved her 20th century husband, who is not nearly so rugged and sexy as the 18th century Scot. Jamie is also a wounded man, literally and figuratively, and becomes more so over the course of the book; Claire has to nurse him back to health several times, though he also saves her life a time or two.

I guess there is something appealing about the fantasy of escaping to a more uncomplicated time, but I kept thinking that despite having a hunky 18th century babe at my disposal, I’d still opt to return to the mid-1940s in a heartbeat. Life was nasty, brutish and short in 1743! It was an especially rough time for women, who were essentially considered property and died in childbirth at an alarming rate. Claire survives and eventually thrives, but I think for the vast majority of us, that time period may be a fun place to read about, but thank goodness we don’t live there.