Movie review: "To All the Boys I've Loved Before"

Like the protagonist of the new Netflix movie To All the Boys I've Loved Before, I, too, had a fake boyfriend in high school. Our relationship lasted an entire football game. We were trying to make his ex-girlfriend and my current crush, who were dating each other, jealous. But my ulterior motive was that I relished flirting in the bleachers with the boy I'd been obsessed with since seventh grade.

I hadn't made the connection between the plot of To All the Boys I've Loved Before and an experience from my formative years. That's probably because everything about that experience and the insane crush leading up to it is super hazy. That's the thing about getting old. 

But once I started watching, I was overwhelmed by the memory of how heightened everything was when I was a teenager. That's something I enjoy about YA novels even as a solidly 30-year-old woman. They remind me of a more vulnerable and open time where everything felt monumental. And it's refreshing that there are more YA movie adaptations lately that make use of the already intense emotional stakes of youth, without having to throw in tyrannical dystopian regimes or terminal cancer. Lest we forget 2018 also blessed us with  Love, Simon. It's not just YA, though. With films like the instantly iconic Set It Up, it seems like the rom-com genre is on the come up again.

Lara Jean Covey is a shy high schooler whose love life consists of reading romance novels and writing secret letters to her crushes. When her letters get out, she panics because one of them was written to her sister's boyfriend, Josh. So she agrees to a fake relationship with one of the other letter recipients, Peter, to avoid coming clean to Josh about her feelings. But in the grand tradition of romances, things don't exactly go according to plan.

This movie is so adorable and benefits from two charming leads with fantastic chemistry. It pays homage to the teen romantic comedies that came before it, from John Hughes movies (referenced outright, naturally) to hints of films like She's All That and Easy A. And although it feels fresh, it does lean on a lot of old tropes and only sort of tries to subvert the problematic ones, such as teen girls fighting over a boy.

But overall, I was delighted by this and really hope that there's a sequel, since there were two more books in the series this was adapted from and there was a major hint toward a sequel in the mid-credits scene. It's got romance, laughs and John Corbett as a hot single dad. So while this movie may be for the young adults, there's something for mommy, too.


A family affair: "His Perfect Partner" by Priscilla Oliveras

Book: His Perfect Partner by Priscilla Oliveras (Matched to Perfection #1)

Release date: September 26, 2017

Pages: 330

Publisher: Zebra Shout

Genre/category: Contemporary romance

Rating: ★★★

A workaholic single dad and a professional dancer with family obligations and dreams of returning to New York hit it off in this PG romance.

I had a really hard time with this one, and I wanted to love it. I mean, Latinx heroes? Dancing? Adorable plot moppets? Come through, Priscilla. 

But I didn't connect with this one, mostly because it had elements that really turned me off. For one, this is the second romance that I've read recently where a sexy single dad's ex, who is never seen and never gets to speak for herself, is depicted as a selfish woman who abandoned her child. Lately, I don't have a lot of patience for men speaking for women, or for one-dimensional portrayals. You know what I'd love to read, what I'd find way more realistic and compelling? A romance where the ex is still present and yeah, co-parenting is challenging and awkward, but the new love interest and the ex are able to respect each other like mature adults for the sake of the children and because they both acknowledge that they're pretty cool chicks. I would read the crap out of that.

The other thing that bothered me is that Yaz, the heroine, offers to step in and provide free child care — and home-cooked meals! — when Tomas, the father of one of her dance students, gets really busy with an ad campaign and his nanny is unavailable. I get that we're supposed to see that Yaz is a compassionate person who genuinely cares for adorable plot moppet Maria. I also get that it's a convenient way to force the two main characters together. However, it feels like Yaz was really letting herself be taken advantage of. She was back home to care for her sick dad. Would someone in that position really be able to take on that additional responsibility for a stranger?

Then there was the central conflict, which could have been easily solved by the characters honestly addressing whether their career ambitions really were an obstacle to any relationship. It feels like this book was a lot of one character sacrificing things for another, and it didn't feel like an equitable partnership.

I did enjoy all the Spanish in the book, even though as a Spanish speaker, seeing the dialogue immediately repeated with an English translation got a little tedious.

All in all, this was a cute, fun read, and I love seeing a series that centers on Latinas. I might pick up the next book in the series, Her Perfect Affair, because the premise of that one sounds intriguing.


No man's land: "Circe" by Madeline Miller

Book: Circe by Madeline Miller

Release date: April 10, 2018

Pages: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company

Genre/category: Fantasy, mythology, historical fiction

Rating: ★★★★★

I remember loving Greek mythology and The Odyssey in high school, but even then, I thought Odysseus was a total fuckboy. Like, sure, he was an epic hero, but he was also just a trash man who did trash things like killing his servants and pissing Poseidon off and having goddesses as side-pieces. And that's one of many things this retelling of Greek myths gets so right: the king of Ithaca doesn't come out looking too good.

"Is THIS your king?"

In Circe, the titular character is the neglected half-nymph daughter of Helios, god of the sun. Her desperate loneliness triggers a series of quiet rebellions that eventually lead to her exile. There, on the island of Aiaia, she nurtures her natural gift for witchcraft and is visited by gods, mortals and heroes.

This book captivated me. Miller's writing is emotional and philosophical, yet grounded in the visual and tangible. Circe's transformation over thousands of years, from loveless child to hardened sorceress, to a complex woman fully owning her place in the world, is heightened by her divinity and the epic stakes in her story. But it's a story many women will see themselves in.

My whole life, I had waited for tragedy to find me. I never doubted that it would, for I had desires and defiance and powers more than others thought I deserved, all the things that draw the thunderstroke.

I love retellings. And I especially love the concept of a retelling from the point of view of a secondary character. My limited knowledge and memory of mythology in some ways enhanced my experience of the novel, because I couldn't predict how some events would turn out, or I remembered just enough about characters to make their cameos feel like a treat.

Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.

Miller adheres pretty closely to the old stories, but subverts or elaborates on aspects of them in really clever ways. While we do see Odysseus, and his relationship with Circe sets up some pivotal plot points, this goes far outside the scope of his famous story. We meet Prometheus, Daedalus and his son Icarus, Jason and Medea, Hermes, the Minotaur, Scylla, and others.

Both Circe's isolation and her interactions with mythical characters made me think a lot about connections, and about how everyone is the main character of their own story while playing a supporting role in everyone else's. In even the most seemingly insignificant moments of connection with someone, you become part of their story. Sometimes that influence is much more consequential. But so much of Circe's story is about being alone, and about finding what your life means to you and you alone. I loved how this book played with those themes.

I had no right to claim him, I knew it. But in a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me.

I'm not a big rereader, but this book had a major impact on me. I think it might become one of those touchstone books that you reread every so often, when life milestones have changed you in some way and you want to see how you respond to something you loved now that you've added some new layer to your experiences. This epic tale of womanhood, with all its pain and all its pleasure, deserves to be sung about like any battle-forged hero.

TW: Sexual assault, rape, violence


Money moves: "Crazy Rich Asians" by Kevin Kwan

Book: Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

Release date: June 11, 2013

Pages: 416 (13 hours, 53 minutes on audio)

Publisher: Doubleday

Genre/category: Contemporary fiction, humor, satire

Rating: ★★★★

When New York economics professor Rachel Chu agrees to spend the summer in Singapore with her handsome boyfriend, Nick Young, she has no idea the frugal academic is actually one of Asia's most eligible bachelors. Being a plus-one into the highest realms of high society might sound like a fairy tale, but the glass slipper cuts like a knife in this soapy Cinderella story.

Kevin Kwan's trilogy reads like a binge-watch of Arrested Development while wearing a satin robe, eating McDonald's chicken nuggets and drinking Dom Perignon with a bendy straw. It's got a gigantic cast of zany, nasty characters, and enough twists and turns to keep you glued to the story. It deftly plays with tropes and bends genres, and reminds me of Shakespeare's comedies as much as it does a CW show.

The members of Nick's huge family aren't just rich. They're so rich, anyone less rich than they are has no idea they exist because they've worked hard to be completely off the grid. They're so rich, they're guarded by Gurkha soldiers. They're so rich, they pick up stock tips at Bible study. Crazy Rich Asians examines every permutation of wealth and the petty ways the elite size each other up.

As an American-born Dominican who spent her preteen years in her family's ancestral country, I can relate to being a fish out of water in a place where you look like you should belong, but you really don't. Rachel is ostensibly the main character, and her struggles with the scheming 1 percenters reminded me of everything I hated about Meet the Parents — I have a hard time watching one character endure a bunch of humiliating misfortunes. And Nick's mom, Eleanor, is definitely as scary as Robert De Niro. In many ways, Crazy Rich Asians is a story about whether love can overcome overwhelming odds. But the romance is just the cherry on top.

It does suffer in some ways under the weight of its character roster, with little time between the scheming for anyone to be much more than a caricature.

I was really intrigued after seeing the Entertainment Weekly cover story about the upcoming film adaptation starring Constance Wu. From the very first pages, I could see the movie in my head. I could imagine the types of shots, see the color palettes of different locations, picture the costumes, hear the soundtrack. And after finishing the entire series, I can't wait to see this in theaters, especially with that amazing cast.

Crazy Rich Asians is one of those rare series in which the first book stands alone, yet none of the follow-ups feel like filler. You can choose your own adventure, but this one is worth seeing through to the end.


Rapid-fire review catch-up!

Procrastinating always creates more work in the long run, so here are the reviews I kept meaning to write toward the end of 2017. Ready? OK!


Out on Good Behavior by Dahlia Adler

This may have been the one book I finished of the handful I downloaded before my trip to Africa (WAKANDA FOREVER!). It's a sweet, low-stakes F/F romance with pansexual and gay heroines, one out and proud and not at all interested in settling down, the other in the closet and only willing to be with someone who is serious about her. They make a deal to give dating exclusively a test drive.

Now, I'm messy and I live for drama, so as much as I say that I want to ready a lighthearted romance, it's just not true, yinz. This was cute and sexy, and it did have some heavier elements, but I kind of hate manufactured stakes that only exist because the characters are too immature to talk like adults. And yes, the heroines are only in college in this one. But still. STILL.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

I read this one as a kid but had to revisit it before the Ava DuVernay movie comes out. I listened to the audiobook on a long drive. It was delightful. My favorite quote: "You see, though we travel together, we travel alone."

Also ... Oprah 2020? I love the woman, but I hope she runs for Senate or something first. Although we could do a lot worse. A LOT worse.

One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul

Another long-drive listen. Koul is a Canadian writer of Indian descent who works for Buzzfeed, and this book of essays delves into her experiences as a young woman dealing with racism, body image issues, love and just being a human being. I may have to re-listen to this, because I remember it was amazing and that I laughed so hard it made my ability to drive safely questionable.

Also, Koul is executive producing a comedy based on her book.

Also also, she was in South Africa like the week after I was there, and I really think if we'd been there at the same time we would have met and become best friends.

Forbidden by Beverly Jenkins

This is a historical romance about a freed black slave who passes for white and becomes a wealthy and influential politician, and a black cook who is traveling West in hopes of opening a restaurant. This one had insanely high stakes, and I question how well everything got resolved. And I also just don't love historicals in general. The ones I've read (and to be fair, I haven't read many) are too tame, and I don't connect as well to the characters as I do in contemporary. But Ms. Bev is a queen and a legend, and this is still a great read for any romance fan, so I enjoyed it as much as this hardened contemporary fan can enjoy a historical.

Ms. Marvel Vol. 6: Civil War II

This volume broke me a little. I wish that this had taken an even deeper look at the idea of predictive justice in the broader context of current events and racial profiling, but it just scratched the surface of some very complex issues. It scratched thoughtfully, though, and I continue to enjoy seeing Kamala grow and become more nuanced as a hero and as a person.

But what I did not enjoy, especially when I went back and took a look at some of my older issues, was seeing Kamala become disillusioned with her hero, Captain Marvel. I love seeing people meet their heroes — when Oprah surprised Tiffany Haddish on Ellen, I lost my mind, and I haven't even seen Haddish in anything other than her Daily Show interview. So seeing someone lose her hero is really heartbreaking. This is just a very sad chapter of the Ms. Marvel story, and I hope things brighten in the next installment.

Spider-Gwen Vol. 0: Most Wanted? and Spider-Gwen Vol. 1: Greater Power

Surprising me is no fun, because I hate being surprised. I will guess and guess and badger and badger until I get pretty close to an answer or break the gift-giver's will entirely. I guessed totally wrong when I saw those graphic novel-shaped presents under the Christmas tree. But, I was thrilled because Spider-Gwen has been on my radar for a bit.

Gwen Stacy is cool, funny, tough, sensitive, and, in her corner of the multiverse, she's the one who got bitten by a radioactive spider instead of Peter Parker.

I was really excited about how this series avenged one of the most famous dead girls in popular culture. Gwen Stacy is best known as Peter's girlfriend whom he may or may not have accidentally killed while trying to save her from the Green Goblin. She exists in our collective memory as a tragic tale, another girlfriend among the Famously Fridged who exist as emotional lynchpins for a male hero. So it's really nice that the multiverse has granted her an alternate narrative, one where we get to know the smart, funny, capable girl who got taken too soon, and see everything she would have been able to offer. These books resonated with me for so many reasons, I was crying on planes while reading them.

Plus, there's a ton of multiverse fun to be had with new versions of beloved characters. Matt Murdoch as the villain? A black woman as Captain America? Uncle Ben is alive?! Yes, please.

Girl Logic by Iliza Shlesinger

Iliza is one of my favorite comedians, and I had the privilege of meeting her when she performed in my city. Girl Logic is Shlesinger's dissertation on why women think the way they do, and how the seemingly irrational behaviors society roasts us for actually stem from a logical place. Feminism is a journey, not a destination, so there are moments when I felt like Iliza was punching down, not up. There's an ongoing and important conversation about comedy and what's acceptable as we become more aware of the impact of our words. So I'm hyper aware of how jokes that make me cringe now would have been hilarious three years ago. But even if Shlesinger can be problematic at times, she's still smart and insightful, and demands that you listen to her.

Adultolescence by Gabbie Hanna

I've watched a few of Gabbie's videos on YouTube, and she's pretty entertaining. I was intrigued by the marketing of the book as a millennial answer to Shel Silverstein. And while some of the poems are poignant, most of them feel shallow and poorly executed. It feels like the sort of thing I scribbled into my notebooks in science class in high school. Which is fine. It just didn't move me. But Gabbie's workout videos on the ATighterU Instagram account do move me. Damn, girl. Gains! I've been taking  barre, aerial yoga and trampoline classes, and I can't imagine doing one of those upside down bat crunch things. Nope. Nope. Would sooner die.


Programming update

I know. I know. I KNOW.

Listen. Let me tell you something. I’ve got a lot going on, OK?


And I’m looking at my pile of finished but yet-to-be-reviewed books, and my pile of books yet to be read, and I know I’m just making more work for myself every time I put off updating.

As I gather my wits to write new content and hopefully approach this blog in a way that’s more fun for me and for you, I thought I’d give you a general update on reading goals and what’s coming up.
  • This year, I want to tie up some loose ends. I have a stack of books I never finished last year (and the year before, because let’s be honest, it was a shitshow) and I’ve already made a dent in some of that pile. This year I WILL finish Hillary Rodham Clinton’s What Happened. Whenever I’m bored with my podcasts, I listen to a few more minutes of it until I can't take any more and I’m curled up into a ball sobbing and ripping chunks out of the carpet, so it’s taking me a while because carpet is expensive.
  • On the subject of loose ends, I’m sitting on a dozen read books from way back when I went to Africa to now, so I’m going to review the ones I finished at the end of 2017 quick-hits style and pick up with 2018 for full reviews.
  • You know how I promised a spoiler review of Hate to Want You? It’s half-written but I’m wondering if I should just do a spoiler review of the entire series after Hurts to Love You comes out. But that might be too much. So we’ll see.
  • My friend Alli and I did a long-distance buddy read of Alice Clayton’s Nuts and will collaborate on a discussion post about it.
  • That Goodreads sidebar on my page is wildly out of date so I’m going to fix that.
  • My reading goals for 2018 are to read more, and to read more diversely, with particular emphasis on Latinx authors and specifically Dominican authors. I plan to explore contemporary works and the classics, and I might be up to the challenge of reading some of the classics in the original Spanish.
  • I’m in a cozy spot with my romance reading habit, and there’s so much to discover just in that genre. But I also want to branch back out. I want to read more books on a whim without reading prior reviews or hearing about them on a podcast.
So that's the plan. Watch this space.


Best friends forever: "Wrong to Need You" by Alisha Rai

Book: Wrong to Need You by Alisha Rai

Release date: November 28, 2017

Pages: 368

Publisher: Avon

Genre/category: Contemporary romance

Rating: ★★★★★

*This book was provided to me by the publisher as an advance reader copy for review purposes.*

He wasn’t supposed to fall in love with his brother’s widow…

Accused of a crime he didn’t commit, Jackson Kane fled his home, his name, and his family. Ten years later, he’s come back to town: older, wiser, richer, tougher—and still helpless to turn away the one woman he could never stop loving, even after she married his brother.

Sadia Ahmed can’t deal with the feelings her mysterious former brother-in-law stirs, but she also can’t turn down his offer of help with the cafe she’s inherited. While he heats up her kitchen, she slowly discovers that the boy she adored has grown into a man she’s simply unable to resist.

An affair is unthinkable, but their desire is undeniable. As secrets and lies are stripped away, Sadia and Jackson must decide if they’re strong enough to face the past...and step into a future together.

This is a gorgeous and stirring follow-up to Hate to Want You that expands on the world of the extended Kane-Chandler clan. The complexities of grief, family life and friendship are explored in a way that’s intimate yet universal. And you will absolutely fall in love with the delightful couple at its heart.

Sadia is wonderful and real. She is surrounded by people with extraordinary and lucrative careers, including her younger sisters, and she’s just a regular single mom trying to provide for her son and run the family business while bartending on the side. She has secret pastimes she doesn't feel shame about but wants to keep to herself, and she does care on some levels what her family thinks of her and worries greatly about being a good mother. That mix of owning her choices but having nagging feelings of inadequacy made her so tangible to me. She’s also loving, fun, supportive and no-nonsense when she needs to be, especially to protect her family.

Jackson is an epic dreamboat. A man who stands up against social injustice AND who can cook you a croque madame AND who is buff and tattooed? He might sound like a fantasy, but Rai made him flawed and conflicted. His difficulty communicating was a relatable problem that puts him at odds with the more demonstrative heroine. He was a far more enjoyable character than the brief glimpses of him we saw in Hate to Want You, and I was ecstatic about that.

The conflict of a widow falling for her former brother-in-law played out in ways I didn’t expect, and it was very cool seeing my read of the situation evolve with every chapter. Rai is excellent at subverting expectations. She does incredible work evolving the friends to lovers trope here, just like she put a fresh spin on the second chance romance in the previous book.

I also love that Rai continues exploring mental health issues with her heroines, and have a feeling that theme will continue through the end of the series.

Rai weaves in an excellent supporting cast that makes me disappointed this will only be a trilogy. I want to know more about all these complicated, fascinating people.

Read this one immediately, but keep tissues handy.