Tag Archives: romance

Review: The Hating Game

Two romance novels in one month is unusual for me, but I’ve been in a bit of a slump and these only take me a day or two, so it’s a good way for me to jump-start my reading. After enjoying The Kiss Quotient last week, I thought I’d better pick up another romance novel so that it would be ready for me when the mood struck again– and it’s a good thing I did, because here we are. Yesterday I read Sally Thorne’s 2016 release, The Hating Game.

thehatinggameAbout the book: B & G is a recently-merged publishing company led by two CEOs– Lucy is assists one of them, and her nemesis, Joshua, carries the weight of the other. Every day Lucy and Josh work across from each other in a single shiny office, silently hating each other. Or so it seems. The sudden announcement of a promotion that would make one of them the boss of the other is a game-changer; the tension between them escalates as they each work on their own applications but are also forced to work together in other ongoing office projects, including a team-building retreat. In the midst of heightened emotions, the games continue: the staring game, the HR game, the word-tennis game. But the harder Lucy works to one-up Josh (or at least keep the score even) the less sure she is about the ultimate goal of the hating game, especially when she begins to realize Josh might have a different goal in mind.

“The thing about being in combat with Joshua Templeman? I never truly win. That’s what is so deceptive about it all. The moment I think I’ve won, something happens to remind me I haven’t.”

The Hating Game is narrated entirely from Lucy’s perspective, which fits the plot. Unfortunately, part of the reason this works so well is that Lucy makes so many assumptions. We all make inferences about other people from the evidence we’re given, but so much of this story rests on the reader believing Lucy about the other characters’ personalities and motives when in actuality her guess is as good as anyone’s. The fact that Josh talks about the games they play supports the fact that their dynamic isn’t entirely fabricated in Lucy’s head, but it is a pet peeve of mine when a character (or person, for that matter) decides to speak for someone else. Plot reveals later make sense of this tactic, but I think it’s a good idea to be aware going in that readers are going to get a whole lot of Lucy, and the truth comes later.

Speaking of truth, I must admit there’s a certain level of immaturity to the entire hating game. This has been going on for an entire year already at the start of the book. For two grown people in a professional workplace to thrive off a game this petty is a little ridiculous and unlikely, and it’s hard to believe the love story isn’t as obvious to the characters as it is to the reader. But putting the oddity of the game aside, Thorne does a great job of following the rules she sets in this world, keeping her characters consistent and the story addictive. It’s compulsively readable.

Trying to emulate this sort of romance would probably backfire in real life and shouldn’t be encouraged; the moral of this story should not be interpreted as: “if you want your coworker to fall in love with you, be as evil to them as possible until they can’t stand it anymore.” I was a little creeped out by the weirdly blurry line between murder impulses and lust; there are a couple of times when Lucy imagines killing Josh that seemed kind of hyperbolic and easy to overlook, but there are also a couple of times when she says Josh is looking at her with “serial killer eyes” and she’s actually afraid he’s going to hurt her. That’s not romantic. (Is this a double standard? It bothers me that I’m okay with Lucy contemplating murder just because she’s probably not physically capable of strangling Josh, but it also bothers me that anyone might see her rage as “cute.” I think this dilemma would have been solved if Lucy weren’t so tiny and Josh so large. And of course they’re both beautiful. I’m sure this combination exists in real life, but it seems too easy in fiction.)

But the hate vibes worked for me in a lot of other ways: it was easy to see how Lucy could hate Josh with as frustrated and small as many of his comments and actions made her feel. Whether he intended to make her feel that way or not, there’s a lesson to learn in taking the time to consider how others might interpret your actions, regardless of your motives. The hating game also aligned with my sense of humor pretty well. I have a weird self-deprecating sense of humor that not many people in my real life seem to get, but the hate/love balance in this book produced some nice sarcasm right on my level.

“I’m so turned on I wish I could knock myself unconscious until it passes.”

Though there’s really no diversity or anything brushing on current social issues involved in this story (and again, nothing challenging with body image), there is one small element that I found pretty refreshing: Josh is the shy/insecure party in this couple. Usually it’s the woman in fiction who worries about her appearance and doubts that the man will like her enough, etc. but here Lucy is pretty confident and it’s Josh with the anxiety. It’s nice to see that representation.

” ‘You’re not mad I rescued you? Boys don’t need rescuing.’ ‘This one did.’ “

However, there’s a downside to Josh’s character. Putting aside the wedding debacle, which was stupid of him but fits with his character’s inability to just spit out the truth, Josh is unforgivably awful to Danny; jealousy is understandable, but there are reasonable ways to deal with it, and then there’s the absolutely uncalled-for rudeness that Josh treats Danny with. I can’t stand it when fiction pits women against each other, but this was one of the worst cases of that same trope reversed– and displaying it with men instead of women didn’t make me feel any better about it.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I read this in 2 sittings and I liked it a lot once I managed to suspend my disbelief. I doubt any romance will ever be a 5-star read for me, because the inevitable predictability with the genre spoils total enjoyment. But there’s definitely something to appreciate for the fact that you get what you came for. (Also, intrigue: there’s an excerpt at the back of my copy for another book by Sally Thorne that was supposed to be “coming in summer 2017” but apparently never made it. She does seem to have another novel coming out in 2019 now, but with a different title. Anyone know if it’s the same book, or what happened to the 2017 novel? Just curious.) I’m definitely willing to try again with Sally Thorne, though I’m hoping her next book will be a bit more realistic.

Have you read any great romances lately?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

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Review: The Kiss Quotient

So my actual Book of the Month Club selection this month was Michael Rutger’s The Anomaly, but it’s set in the Grand Canyon, which I’m visiting later this summer so I’m putting that on hold for now. In the meantime, I borrowed a copy of another BOTM selection, Helen Hoang’s new adult romance novel, The Kiss Quotient. The draw: the heroine of the story is a woman with autism, in a gender-swapped Pretty Woman love story. Bonus: the hero is mixed-race.

thekissquotientAbout the book: Stella Lane is a phenomenal econometrician– which means she analyses what people buy, and creates algorithms to help sales companies suggest future purchases to their consumers. She’s rich, and up for a new promotion– but her love life is lacking. When her parents start making comments about grandchildren and suggesting help finding her dates, Stella decides to take matters into her own hands before they get too carried away. So she hires a male escort to help hone her skills before she approaches a coworker who she thinks might be a good match. Except Michael, her escort, quickly learns that Stella’s problem isn’t that she’s bad at sex– she just needs a partner who will be considerate of her autism. They agree to work together, each hiding secrets that the other is afraid to admit they already know about– and don’t mind at all.

I wanted to love this book the same way that I wanted to love Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, and in some ways, I did love The Kiss Quotient. The writing and the story completely drew me in, even in the few places where I needed to suspend my disbelief a little more than others. I liked both Stella and Michael. I read the whole book in two days, in perfect summer weather, and it was just the sort of light, addicting drama that I was in the mood for.

And as far as I know, the autism is represented well, as it should be from an Own Voices author. I’ve seen several early reviews for this book stating that it’s helped readers discover their own autism, which is something I find intriguing and wonderful. I couldn’t resist seeing for myself the kind of strong representation that has inspired readers to share their own personal stories.

“With the labels, he might be more understanding, but he’d quit viewing her as Stella Lane, awkward econometrician who loved his kisses. In his eyes, she’d become the girl with autism. She’d be…less.”

But a couple of things bothered me increasingly as the story progressed.

The first is consent. Michael is presented as being very considerate and patient of Stella’s desires and limits. Stella thinks so, Michael thinks so, everyone thinks so. He’s repeatedly saying that he won’t do anything she’s not ready for, and in the chapters that follow his perspective (the chapters alternate between Stella’s and Michael’s stories, though always in third person) his thoughts reveal an interest in Stella for much more than her beauty or their sexual encounters. And yet, in my opinion, this is one of those cases where the telling doesn’t quite match the showing. In actuality, he’s listening to her body language instead of the words coming out of her mouth. This is less of a bother when Stella says ‘go ahead, just do it,’ and he refuses because her body is tense and uncomfortable and clearly not interested in what she says she wants him to do. But later on, once they’ve “mastered” a few skills, she expresses reluctance and he doesn’t listen because he thinks he knows what she wants/needs better than she does.

“He paused. Her words said no, but her body…”

” ‘This can be interpreted as stalking, you know.’ He ducked his head with a sheepish smile. ‘I know.’ ‘You need to stop all of this.’ ‘It’s not just a little romantic? I don’t have a lot of experience with courting, so you’ll have to excuse me if I come across too strong.’ “

No means no. And just because she agrees once does not mean Michael has permission whenever he wants it. Clearly it all works out all right in this book, but I just can’t condone that kind of behavior. The instance that bothered me the most was a kiss– Stella says she doesn’t want Michael to kiss her, and he says “I need this.” She gives in because it’s what he wants, not because she wants to be kissed. That’s not what I want to see in a romance.

The second issue for me is a lesser one, a trope that I just can’t stand though other readers might particularly enjoy it: deliberate miscommunication. This whole book is driven on the tension between Stella and Michael; they want each other, but their relationship begins as transactional, which leads them both to assume that the other isn’t emotionally invested. For hundreds of pages, they’re both thinking constantly, ‘gosh, I like this person a lot but they would never want to be with me for real,’ though the dual perspectives reveal the truth to the reader. Stella and Michael are so busy making assumptions about each other that their only obstacle to a happy ending is that they just won’t have an honest conversation. To me, that’s not compellingly tragic, it’s just frustrating. It’s predictable and boring. Why hit this same doubts over and over when any reasonable reader knows exactly how it’s going to turn out?

I suppose part of that problem stems from the predictability of the romance genre. You just can’t pick up a romance, read the introduction to the lead male and female characters and not know that their problems are going to be overcome. It’s almost entirely an emotional journey.

The emotion plays such a bit part in this story that even the little aspects that should have enhanced this book’s quirkiness were largely skipped over– like Stella’s and Michael’s professions. Stella is shown at her office primarily to display interactions with her coworkers, and provide evidence for her mental state: can she focus on her work today, or is she too distracted by Michael? The few details we do get about her work are tied into her feelings with Michael: an algorithm for underwear purchases turns into a symbol of Stella’s love. And Michael’s job seems designed to cause an awkward run-in with Stella when their relationship is at a low point– the reader is given almost no details of his work at all, even as he returns to the side of it that he’s most passionate about.

But nevertheless, I did enjoy this book. I liked seeing Stella’s and Michael’s individual difficulties, and how uniquely they combined as a perfect pair. Their romance is steamy, explicit but not too graphic, and mostly healthy. The “villain” is not flatly evil or exclusively bad. If you’re looking for a summer romance that’s new and different, The Kiss Quotient would be a great choice. It’s even a little funny, at times:

“He exhaled sharply, and his brow creased in puzzlement. ‘You don’t like French kissing?’ ‘It makes me feel like a shark getting its teeth cleaned by pilot fish.’ “

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Despite how much I loved reading this book, the  issues I had with the story were big enough to keep it firmly off of my favorites list, even as far as guilty pleasures go. But I liked this story and Hoang’s writing enough that I’ll definitely pick up the sequel (The Bride Test) next year, which I believe features an entirely new cast of characters in a completely different situation. A few small tweaks would’ve made The Kiss Quotient a truly fantastic read, so I have high hopes that Hoang will impress me even more the next time.

Do you pick up different genres at certain times of the year? When do you reach for a romance?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Emma

Jane Austen’s Emma was supposed to be my January classic of the month, but I ended up reading this classic romance around Valentine’s Day instead. It’s the fourth Austen novel I’ve read now, but even after experiencing three others I was unprepared for the unique masterpiece that is Emma.

emmaAbout the book: Emma Woodhouse is the highest-standing woman in Highbury’s society. She’s twenty years old, the mistress of her ailing father’s grand house, and the whole town dotes on her. She’s got reasonable talent and insight, but not enough worldly understanding yet as her governess moves out to be married and leaves Emma to her own devices. Confident that the marriage of her governess and close friend was partially her own doing, Emma sets out to make matches for others– first and foremost, a young lady of unknown parentage that Emma longs to befriend and raise in society. Unfortunately, after pulling Harriet from a promising marriage that Emma deems beneath her, Emma learns through a series of unfortunate events that she may not be as wise and helpful as she thought. Along the way, she also discovers the truths of her own heart just in time to worry that she’s lost the man she didn’t realize she’s been in love with from the start.

“Dear Papa, you cannot think that I will leave off match-making!”

While I’ve enjoyed every Jane Austen novel I’ve read thus far, it’s always been the content that impressed me most.  Although Austen’s style of writing and the charming details of bygone days are lovely to read, it’s generally the plots that stay with me in the end.

Not so with Emma. Although amusingly plotted, it’s the master crafting of this novel that stands out. Indeed, most of the plot will not surprise the reader at all because Austen allows the reader to know these characters better and sooner than they know themselves. Much of the novel consists of dialogue that reveals the characters’ secrets, motives, and duplicity. The reader is shown the disparity between thoughts and actions, between words spoken to one party and words spoken to another. The pleasure of the novel exists not in the matches being made, but in observing the various characters as they fall into their own blunders and attempt to grow out of them. Before they find their proper relationships, they must first discover themselves.

“A mind lively and at ease, can do with seeing nothing, and can see nothing that does not answer.”

The power of the writing is such that the characters’ growth remains interesting to the reader even when the characters themselves are unpleasant. The novel opens on Emma as a spoiled girl with unreasonably high opinions of herself as she first enters society as an adult. Her errors in judgment are almost immediately obvious, between crediting herself with a marriage that she no more than guessed at, and pulling Harriet out of what would obviously have been a happy life befitting her station. Mr. Knightley just as blatantly refuses to accept that any opinions but his own may be valid. Mr. Elton is selfish and petulant, Frank Churchill careless and rash, Jane Fairfax suspiciously secretive, Harriet shockingly suggestible, and so on. The reader sees the characters’ faults, knows when their choices will backfire, predicts who will be to blame for the various scenarios, and yet can’t help reading onward to watch it all play out.

“A woman is not to marry a man merely because she is asked, or because he is attached to her, and can write a tolerable letter.”

That said, this novel may not appeal to all of Austen’s fans. With the plot more transparent, the commentary on personality and perfecting oneself makes this book a heavier read than some of Austen’s other works. The reader must be interested in the multi-faceted conversations and nuances of perspective more than on which gentlemen will end up with which lady. Emma is, invariably, a romance, but it is so much more than that. Personally, I found the dialogue and the little ironies completely engrossing, but a reader who lives for plot will probably not be as entertained.

A side note: the beautiful vintage classics edition that I read (pictured above), which looks so nice on the shelf and is such a pleasant shape and size to admire while the covers are closed, was surprisingly hard to actually read. The spine is so stiff (and I didn’t want to crack it, obviously) and the book is thick enough that it’s a two-hand read all the way through; even then it was uncomfortable to hold and difficult to manage at times. I was disappointed that this copy wasn’t as functional as it was decorative, so if you’re looking for a good copy to read, be aware that this edition is better to look at, though reading it wasn’t completely impossible.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I wish Austen had found a way to keep the powerful writing techniques she utilizes in Emma without pairing it with transparent plotting. I never considered DNF-ing this book, but there were times when I was growing a bit bored of knowing what was coming. That’s the only thing that holds me back from giving this book 5 stars, because in all other regards the writing of this book provided me with a new level of respect for Austen’s works. While none of the novels I’ve read from her so far have seemed frivolous, this one definitely seemed more serious and mature. It’s the last book Austen saw published in her lifetime, and the experience with writing and understading her world shows more clearly in this novel than in the others that I’ve read. I’ll definitely be reading the two novels of Austen’s that I haven’t yet (Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility), though I’m not in too big a hurry because I already know how sad I’m going to be when my first experience with each of Austen’s books is behind me.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you like a classic romance that also turns an eye to personal growth, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is an obvious but rewarding choice. Jane’s strength of character is steadfast and inspiring, and the love between two wise but unfortunate people is delightfully dramatic.
  2. My current favorite Austen novel is Persuasion,  a lovely reminder that matters of the heart must be decided upon first and foremost by the couple who will be most affected by them. It’s a beautiful book about making one’s own choices.

Do you have a favorite Jane Austen novel?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Ugly Love

I read Hoover’s It Ends With Us a little over a year ago. I liked what it was trying to do, but wasn’t thrilled with the ways it went about it. But it did have some good morals, was fun to read, and made me think I should try another of Colleen Hoover’s romance novels before giving up. At the very least, romance novels are occasionally a nice guilty-pleasure read for me. From her oeuvre, I chose Ugly Love.

uglyloveAbout the book: Tate moves into her brother’s apartment in Seattle because the empty room allows for a convenient commute to her nursing job. She isn’t intending to stay forever, but she gets along well with her pilot brother and a few months with him seems like a good choice. While she’s there, she meets one of her brother’s pilot friends, Miles. He’s drunk and desperate and in need of assistance. Their reintroduction in the morning when he’s sobered up a bit doesn’t go much better. But he is attractive, and she sees something in him that first night, a vulnerability that he’s extremely careful never to show when he’s in control of himself. So even when he makes it clear that he’s not interested in talking about the past or the future or love, that he’s only looking for a physical relationship, she agrees, hoping she’ll see that real, raw, deeper part of him again eventually. He’s highly motivated to make sure that doesn’t happen, which seems to doom their relationship from the start.

“I don’t see how love could get ugly enough for a person to just shut himself off from it completely.”

First, let’s look at the formatting. Many of Miles’ POV sections, which mostly focus on his traumatic past, are written with center alignment. Usually I appreciate unusual formats, but this simply had no purpose. I believe it was intended to make some of his story seem more poetic, but Miles is a pilot, not a poet. All of the books on his stuffed-full shelves are aerodynamic texts. And present-day Miles is still pretty bitter about the events unfolding in those past sections, not poetic.

What the formatting does accomplish however, is emphasis. This has more to do with spacing and sentence structure than the central alignment, and it’s especially noticeable in Tate’s POV chapters. There’s a lot of emphasis to be found in the parts that are probably supposed to be romantic. But spacing does not make up for the fact that the narration is constantly telling rather than showing in Ugly Love.

And what is it telling? A cute sentence Miles speaks is repeated in Tate’s head word. by. word. as the phrase becomes her new favorite sentence. Someone blushes and it’s mentally gushed over for an entire paragraph. “His fingertip touched my knee. OMG HE TOUCHED. MY. KNEE.” These are things that any reader can generally pick up on without being told three times in various ways that something significant is happening. An interested reader can identify a cute bit of dialogue without being told it’s there. He/she can identify a blush and recognize what it signifies. And if these cues are being given appropriately, we will be just as interested as the protagonist that the tiniest bit of the love interest’s skin is casually touching her knee. A tighter round of editing might have served better than the emphatic use of spacing, central alignment, and italics. So many italics.

“You look up there and think, I wish I was up there. But you’re not. Ugly love becomes you. Consumes you. Makes you hate it all. Makes you realize that all the beautiful parts aren’t even worth it. Without the beautiful, you’ll never risk feeling this. You’ll never risk feeling the ugly.”

But even the worst formatting, if a story has good bones, can be overlooked. And yet I could not quite bring myself to appreciate Ugly Love‘s bones. Tate is made to seem commendable for sticking with Miles while he struggles with his past. But sticking with him is pretty harmful to Tate from the start, worse as the novel wears on, and awful toward the end. There is a time she thinks “he RUINED me,” and stays with him. There is an incident when kissing is compared to killing. Miles is never physically or even intentionally abusive, but he’s constantly hurting Tate, and I didn’t think it commendable to show readers that staying in those situations is good for the person who’s constantly being hurt and coming back for more. But let’s skip to the big question of the novel: Are the ugliest parts of love worth the beautiful parts? An old question. One that’s already been answered time and time again, in better ways. Who doesn’t know “It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?” The romance is obvious before one even cracks open the book– but even the themes are predictable.

Where there’s predictability, there’s boredom. I didn’t need 100+ pages of proof that Miles had been in love before his romantic tragedy. That’s a no-brainer. That’s what makes his disaster disastrous. The tragedy itself has good shock value, but I believe I would’ve had the same reaction to reading it without all the backstory of how they’d gotten there. Even just hearing Miles say it in present day would’ve been as powerful as reading it directly from his past. Hoover gives point 1, dangles point 2, and then with 2 in sight she takes the reader on a scenic trip to 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, etc. There could’ve been a bit more mystery to the book, a bit more subtlety.

Instead, there’s insta-love. My problem with insta-love isn’t that I don’t agree with the possibility of love at first sight, it’s when the initial attraction never becomes more than that superficial first layer of physical attraction. And after finishing Ugly Love, I still can’t tell you what either Tate or Miles might have found lovable about the other. It’s just relentless physical attraction. Where’s the love?

Also there are a handful of details that seem to be pulled directly from Fifty Shades, which is unfortunate.

My reaction: 2 of 5 stars. Not the worst book I’ve ever read. It just wasn’t right for me, apparently. I had a lot of eye-rolling moments, but I did also laugh twice. It’s a romance, which is what Ugly Love purports to be, so it is successful in that.  I just wish there had been more focus on provocative and worthwhile content than on distracting formatting and familiar sentiments. I still feel like maybe in one of her novels Hoover will get just the right balance of unique and interesting story with the proper, powerful narration it deserves. But I’m not in a hurry to comb through the rest of her books looking for the one that will finally hit that mark.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you’re serious about picking up a Hoover book and haven’t already tried It Ends With Us, I recommend that one. While parts of It Ends With Us seemed preachy to me, there were more main characters and deeper questions, morals I wanted to hang on to longer. This one deals with spousal abuse and homelessness, and the epistolary formatting for part of the story is reasonably explained. It’s not so predictable.
  2. Although I would say Hoover’s books would be considered Adult romance, or maybe New Adult at lowest, I’m going to suggest Paper Princess by Erin Watt if you want a romance that really has the power to surprise. Paper Princess, a romance in the YA age range, was also a guilty pleasure for me, but I didn’t have nearly as many problems with it. The characters are teens, but it’s just as explicit as an adult romance. It’s gritty and weird and a little less obvious– there’s a whole family of hot boys, and it took me longer than I want to admit to figure out which one of them was the love interest. They’re interesting people, at the very least.

I’m sorry to have so many complaints about one book and I want to end on a good note: “It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” is indeed a beautiful sentiment.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Truth About Forever

I could have chosen a picture book from way back to fill the “book from your childhood” slot in my 2017 reading challenge, but why go the easy route, even this late in the game? So I decided to reread my first ever Sarah Dessen novel, The Truth About Forever. I was 11 or 12 the first time I read this, and I did read it multiple times in those first few years, but it’s been a long time now. I wanted to find out if it was still one of my favorites. The verdict: it definitely is.

About the book: Macy saw her dad die. thetruthaboutforeverShe was there. If she had been with him just a few minutes earlier, she might have been able to get him help in time– or at least she might have had one last conversation with him before the unexpected end. That was over a year ago, but Macy and her family still haven’t learned how to cope. Macy and her mother strive for perfection and control in the aftermath, to keep themselves busy and to prevent any more horrible surprises. But when Macy takes over her perfect boyfriend’s perfect job for the summer while he’s gone, things really start to unravel. The job, it turns out, is not perfect for Macy. The one that is comes out of nowhere, in the form of a catering company. At first glance, Wish Catering is a disorganized mess, but its employees just might be able to guide Macy through her twisted path of grief with their whirlwind of controlled chaos.

“I am not a spontaneous person. But when you’re alone in the world, really alone, you have no choice but to be open to suggestions.”

This is a book that never gets old for me, apparently. I loved it for the story line when I was younger, and now that I’m wise enough to see through to the mechanics of the book, I still like what I see. There’s no single fantastic element I can point out that makes it so great; it’s just one of those books that has all the right pieces in their proper places. Everything works as it should, and it’s a worthwhile picture once it’s all together. Each of the characters is unique and important in their own way. The villains are human and sympathetic, and even the good guys make mistakes. All of the details mesh together, from the “Gotcha!” game to the Armageddon discussions, to the used-parts sculptures and the refurbished ambulance. Nothing feels like a cheesy and obvious plot device, although it’s all working toward the same themes.

“I just think that some things are meant to be broken. Imperfect. Chaotic. It’s the universe’s way of providing contrast, you know? There have to be a few holes in the road. It’s how life is.”

I think the biggest success in The Truth About Forever is the focus on coping with grief. Readers are rooting for the romance, but that’s crafted carefully under the umbrella of taking new chances, appreciating what used to be, but building something new from what’s left. Macy’s fear and sadness after losing her dad, and the struggle with perfectionism that grows from those emotions, are always at the forefront; when Macy befriends the male lead, there’s real substance in their conversations rather than a corny, forced romance. Love is secondary, and that’s what makes this one so strong.

“Grief can be a burden, but also an anchor. You get used to the weight, to how it holds you to a place.”

“That was the thing. You never got used to it, the idea of someone being gone. Just when you think it’s reconciled, accepted, someone points it out to you and it just hits you all over again, that shocking.”

I also think Dessen makes a wise decision with the level of honesty in this book. There are lies, of course, because any book about truth needs that balance, but it’s so refreshing for teen characters to be honest instead of playing games. Well, I mean, the honesty is part of a Truth game, but after the first round or two of the game, it feels like an excuse to talk openly rather than a real challenge. What I mean is, no one’s trying to impress their crush by pretending to be someone they’re not. I’m partial to that sort of blunt reality, especially in romance.

It’s like Gilmore Girls, wholesome but not in a cheesy and/or boring way. There are great messages in here for grieving teens, for perfectionists, for anyone struggling to accept who they are and take a chance on being themselves. And it’s fun uncovering them.

If there’s anything I might complain about with this book, it’s Macy. Now that I’m past high school senior age, she no longer seems much like a high school senior to me. (Or soon-to-be senior, I suppose, since the book takes place over the summer). She’s supposed to be a smart girl, and she is, but she’s also confused all the time. Many of her conversations include at least one instance of her needing to ask for clarification on what the other person is talking about. If she lacks strength at times, the reasons are apparent, but I will never fully understand her delusion of thinking that the way her mother treats her at times is an acceptable form of parenthood. There isn’t always a lot a child can do about bad parenting, but for a child of this age she should at least understand that her mother is doing it wrong. Especially if it’s a change as a the result of a recent grief, which suggests that most of her childhood was different. It wasn’t quite enough for me to find Macy truly annoying this time around, just… a little less impressive than I remembered.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I just love the Wish Catering crew. They’re funny and wise and… ordinary. They’re awkward and weird, they make mistakes, and they just feel more real than most secondary characters do. This book is the reason I’ve read almost all of Dessen’s books, and continue to pick them up, even though I’m past the age where YA contemporary/romance really appeals to me. I’m so glad I reread this one, and I will definitely read it again. Maybe I should reread a Dessen book every year. Or maybe I should just reread any old favorite once a year– around Thanksgiving, like this one was, to appreciate past loves and my reading growth. Rereading The Truth About Forever was too fun an experience to let go without establishing a new tradition.

Further Recommendations:

  1. If you’re looking for more Sarah Dessen, I suggest some of her earlier books more strongly, like This Lullaby, Keeping the Moon. Just Listen is probably the best contender if you like The Truth About Forever, because it has that same sort of mild romance under dealing with a past trauma, although the story is entirely different (as far as I remember. I really want to reread this one now, too).
  2. If you’re looking for more YA about dealing with grief– and especially with a missing father– try Emily Henry’s A Million Junes. This one is brand new in 2017 with a magical realism twist, but the main characters’ banter is hilarious, the messages are powerful and relevant, and the plot is certain to surprise. I’ve never read a book with a stronger father/daughter relationship that also feels so realistic.

Coming up next: I’m currently reading Karin Slaughter’s latest mystery/thriller The Good Daughter, which is my first Slaughter novel. Parts of it feel pretty fictional to me so far, but the events are completely captivating and the writing style keeps pulling me back in. There have already been several murders and a girl buried alive, so at least it’s not boring. I can’t wait to see where it’s going. Stay tuned.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Skewed Goodreads Ratings

“One learns most clearly what not to do [when writing] by reading bad prose.” -Stephen King (On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft)

The thing about Goodreads ratings is that they’re not accurate. They are not the opinions of random, objective readers. Almost every single person who contributes a review or star rating for any given book has picked up that book for a reason and went into it with expectations that will affect their concluding opinions of it. Have you noticed that ratings for books in a series tend to be rated higher as the series goes on, even though the overall ratings are fewer? That’s probably at least partially due to the fact that the readers who make it that far in the series are readers who’ve already found something they liked in the first book and know they’ll find what they’re looking for in subsequent novels. There are exceptions, and of course it is possible that the books in any given series do actually improve, but I think it’s also worth noting that the people who read (and rate) book 2 are usually people who liked book 1. And by book 3, even more readers who were on the fence have been weeded out, thus driving ratings up even more.

That’s just an easy example. We also have people who rate books they’ve DNF’d (unfair, in my opinion), people who rate books before they’ve read them, people who know the author, or have been given a free early copy, or had to read a book for a class and wound up letting their feelings about the class show in their review of the book. No matter how it happens, anyone who checks for reviews on Goodreads before picking up a book should be aware that almost every single person who’s left their opinion in the reviews section has been biased in some way. They believed the Booktube hype, or have read something else by the same author, or found the title on a list of reputed “good books”, or are in love with a particular genre. Most of those readers aren’t people who saw the title in a bookshop, picked up the book without knowing anything at all about it, and reviewed it completely impartially. I’m not saying that doesn’t happen, but it’s not the norm.

Don’t be fooled: I love Goodreads. I check the ratings there before I pick up a book, often. But it’s important to note that sometimes books are rated highly not because they’re good, but because they contain whatever their readers were looking for when they picked them up. Case in point: Elle Kennedy’s Off-Campus series.

I’ve been highly stressed lately, and in times of stress I reach for guilty pleasures. I often go for something I’ve already read and know will be a guilty pleasure, but this time I picked up something new. In the Off-Campus series, Elle Kennedy has written four NA romance books. They’re pretty short and easily readable–I read all four in four days. I’m talking about these here because they’re rated highly on Goodreads; every single book in this series is rated above 4 stars, and they’re not good.

That’s not to say they’re all bad. I’ve read worse. I gave each of the books in this series (The Deal, The Mistake, The Score, and The Goal) 3 stars for my enjoyment level, which is certainly not my lowest rating. They’re cheesy, predictable, somewhat sexist books with transparent plot mechanics. But even though the plot is obvious and feels fictionalized, it is a functioning plot. It makes sense, at the very least. The mechanics are in working condition, even if they are more visible than they should be. Even though it’s clear from the first two chapters who’s going to end up with whom and which major obstacle they’ll have to overcome, there’s emotion in there. There are abundant sex scenes, if that’s your thing. And that’s why I think these books have been rated so highly. The people reading these ab-covered books are the people looking for predictable bodice-rippers starring college hockey players who believe they’re God’s gift to women. The abs on the covers attract a certain audience. There are some topics these books handle well– every main character has something difficult in their present or past: a rape, an abusive parent, a sick parent, a dead friend, an unexpected pregnancy, etc. These details are dealt with carefully and respectfully. It’s the “puck bunnies” I have a problem with. The use ’em and lose ’em mentality of the men in this book. And that’s why I’m not posting full reviews for each of the books in this series. They’re all very much the same and I had the same complaints about them all. Admittedly, I liked them enough to read all four, but I think it’s like Stephen King says: we learn what not to do in our writing by reading bad books, and that’s as important a lesson as reading examples of what we should do.

Sometimes you just have to read a bad book or two. Or four. There’s nothing wrong with reading whatever the heck you want, literary merit be damned. I just wanted to use this opportunity to talk about the Goodreads rating system, because I was shocked that the third book in this series is rated higher than some books well-known for their goodness. The Score, an NA romance novel about a horny hockey player who falls in love with a girl who’s ashamed she had a one-night stand with him, is rated higher on Goodreads than Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s important to keep in mind when using Goodreads that it’s not a tool for rating literary goodness. It rates enjoyment. Sadly, those are two very different categories. And further, enjoyment levels are affected by the fact that readers always, always have expectations of the books they’re reading.

The reading world would be a different place without Goodreads. A lonelier place. But, like any other tool, we must use it wisely.

How do you feel about the Goodreads rating system? Also, does anyone have any better NA reading recommendation for me?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: A Million Junes

I wanted to read all three of my new Book of the Month books in June, but for some reason Emily Henry’s A Million Junes sounded the least exciting so I saved it for last. But I was wrong, so wrong to neglect it because this is now absolutely one of my favorite books of the year.

About the book: June O’Donnell has amillionjunestwo rules: Stay away from the falls, and Stay away from the Angerts. The rules are both more and less important now that June is eighteen and her dad, writer of the rules, has been dead for ten years. Both rules are turning out to be harder to stick to than ever before, but even considering breaking them feels like an insult to her dad’s memory. Even if she develops an instant crush on the enigmatic Saul Angert when they run into each other (literally) at a town event, everyone knows there’s bad blood between the Angerts and O’Donnells. Bad things happen when their paths cross; June has seen proof of that. As her feelings for Saul deepen, however, June is also receiving what she believes to be messages from her dad. The O’Donnells live in a magical place, a thin place where the borders between worlds is weak, and through the gaps June slips into memories of her family’s past that might finally explain why the Angerts have been enemies of the O’Donnells for generations–but she doesn’t know whether finding the answers will end the feud, or drive her and Saul apart forever.

“I think life is about learning to dance even when you’re sitting still. You learn to dance when you cook and clean, when you bite into cherries, and when you lie in clean sheets. It’s easy to believe that if you could do it all over, you’d do everything different.”

This book is a mystery. It’s a romance. It’s magical realism. It’s an exploration of grief. It’s a coming-of-age story. It’s a ghost story. And it does all of those things well.

“This is rapidly becoming a bad teenage retelling of a Shakespearean comedy.”

I laughed so much while reading this book. June and Saul’s flirting is hilarious. There are serious moments, and sad moments, and triumphant moments, but the first half of the book makes great use of humor to pull the reader in and lighten what might otherwise be a very tragic tale. And yet it’s all about balance. I stayed up late, reading for the funny banter, but I marked many quotes about what it means to grieve and move on when someone you love is gone forever. This is a fun read that’s also full of strong messages, and those messages are the part that will stick with me and keep this book in my list of favorites for a long time.

“I wanted to forget this feeling forever. The feeling of being ripped into two people: the you of before and the one you’ll always be once you know what it is to lose something.”

A Million Junes is sophisticated YA. It’s YA for all ages. It’s YA because its main characters are 18 and 20 and coming-of-age, but it’s a great choice for any age group because it’s not lewd or crass, and covers some hard topics that are widely applicable.

“I am very small, and don’t find myself wishing I were any bigger. All I want, with my one tiny moment, is to love you. If you remember anything about me, remember the truest thing: I will love you after all the stars have burned out, after the sun has died and ice has covered the earth, after the last human has taken her last breath.”

There’s an interesting female-female friendship in A Million Junes, as well. June and Hannah are supportive and kind to each other, even in situations when they might be interested in the same boy, or one of them is getting the other one in trouble. Often in books (especially in YA) girl friends can be uniquely cruel to each other and quick to hate, but June and Hannah sort things out calmly and stick together. Of course, since this book is focused on the turmoil in June’s life, we see Hannah routinely asking if June’s all right and what she can do to help, but their friendship is such that I’m sure June would give Hannah just as much love and attention if the situation were reversed; as it is, June’s problems dominate their conversations, but there is textual evidence of June’s compassion and consideration in the friendship, as well, even if it’s mostly internalized. It’s a great example of a literary female friendship.

And did I mention the phenomenal father/daughter relationship? Sometimes books have great dads, but this book realistically addresses the ups and downs of the relationship–realizing that no one is perfect no matter how much you love them, and that even death can’t take them away completely. June’s dad seems a lot like I imagine Ronan’s dad (from Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle) would have been like, magical dreaminess and all. If I had to pick a single purpose of this book, it might be June’s reconciling of the fact that her father’s dead and not who she thought he was, but she will always love him anyway.

“Maybe some people die gradually, move away from their bodies over time, but others–the people who shine–go in an instant. You can see their souls in their eyes until the last possible second, feel the gap in the world the second they’re lost.”

I was expecting a simple elegance to the ending after the rest of the book ran so smoothly, but the answers to A Million Junes‘ mysteries are convoluted. I had to do some serious mental juggling to keep straight which Jack O’Donnell is which (June is technically Jack O’Donnell IV, which means there were three others before her, plus the original Jonathon O’Donnell nicknamed Jack a few generations earlier) and what “the curse” means for different individuals, before I finally got it all straightened out. If I had to name a complaint about this book, it may be the multi-faceted layering of those final answers about the family feud, especially when all those secrets lead to such a simple choice for our main characters. It felt a bit like the plot was digging itself into a hole that Henry was determined to pull it back from at any cost, but I suppose even if it turned messy the plot survived the struggle.

My reaction: 5 out 5 stars. As I mentioned above, this one’s going straight to my best-books-of-2017 list. I was not expecting to love this book nearly as much as I did, and those are the best sort of reading surprises. I’m ecstatic to also have Emily Henry’s The Love That Split the World unread on my shelf because I NEED more of this wonderful writing in my life. My July TBR is already overfull, but expect a review on Henry’s first publication in the near future.

Further recommendations:

  1. Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun is a contemporary YA that also addresses the death of a parent and the ups and downs of other close relationships–mainly the bond between twins, but also in friendships and young love. No magic here, but plenty of art and family history intrigue.
  2. For another compelling YA book that’s important for readers of all ages, try Mindy McGinnis’ The Female of the Species. There are some great friendships and parents in this one, teens standing up against rape, a little romance, and a coming-of-age story for a group of high school seniors learning strength and morality.

Coming up next: Robin Roe’s A List of Cages, a beautiful YA novel about foster sibling love and coping with mental illness. This is one of those heavy-hitting YA books that covers a myriad of difficult topics meant to raise awareness of real life problems, and despite its easy readability it packs a powerful punch.

What are your favorite heavy-hitting YA books?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant