Tag Archives: romance

Review: Again, But Better

Earlier this month I mentioned in another post that I don’t read YA contemporary romance anymore, and here I am eating my words. In all fairness I did not pick up Christine Riccio’s Again, But Better because of its synopsis. I’ve been following Riccio’s writing updates on her Booktube channel since early 2016; though my interest in YA content (and thus most of her videos) has severely declined, I stuck with her writing series.

When Again, But Better was finally published this spring, I had to check it out because 1) seeing a physical, finished product after watching a complete stranger talk about it conceptually on my phone screen for several years seemed like a fascinating experience I couldn’t pass up, and 2) there’s been a lot of backlash against Booktuber books, which some believe are published for their easy marketability rather than story quality; that’s a judgment I didn’t feel I could chime in on without ever having read a Booktuber book. After waiting on a long hold list, I finally got my chance this month to pick up Riccio’s book. Results: It’s not the most accomplished debut I’ve read, but I certainly don’t resent its publication!

againbutbetterIn the novel, Shane leaves New York for a study abroad semester in London. Though she’s been making good grades and pleasing her parents with her progress toward a medical degree, she’s not happy with her college experience and is eager for a fresh start. So eager, in fact, that she signs up for a creative writing program in London that has nothing to do with her major, and takes an internship at a travel magazine. And, best luck of all, she’s rooming next to a cute boy who makes her want to stick to her resolution to try new things! But of course, it’s all too good to be true. When the trip takes a sour turn, Shane’s left wondering what she would do with a second chance.

“I was trying really hard to do what I thought was the right thing for so long, and turns out maybe the right thing was the wrong thing… It’s hard to come to terms with that.”

Riccio states in an author’s note before the novel proper that this is a fictional story, based on her own experiences. I think the extent to which Shane is Christine will be fairly obvious from the start for readers who have any familiarity with the author. Her sense of humor and personality (such as I have gleaned without having met her) seem to be a direct match with her characterization of Shane. If you pick this up because you enjoy Riccio’s social media presence, I think you’re far more likely to find this an appreciable book.

Again, But Better is divided into two parts that each take up about half of the book’s space. The first half features Shane’s semester abroad in 2011. (There are so many pop culture references that forgetting the year is impossible.) The second half features Shane’s second chance. Both parts are immersive and entertaining, though perhaps longer than necessary. The transition between the two is abrupt, with an unexplained magical element tying the two together; this feels like lazy writing- the magic is easy, convenient, and totally unviable as an option for readers looking to take advice on second chances from this story- but it allows Riccio to demonstrate her point clearly and keep the story light, so I suppose it serves its purpose in the end.

” ‘Could we have gone through a wormhole?’

‘Magic is more plausible than a wormhole,’ I argue.

‘Wormholes are scientific.’

‘Magic is just science we don’t understand yet.’

‘Shane it’s magic; that’s why we can’t understand it.’

‘Hogwarts could be real!’

‘I can’t believe this is a serious conversation I’m having.’ “

The constant attempts at humor were somewhat exhausting and unnecessary in my opinion, but the characters ultimately struck me as believable. Shane is painfully awkward, the love interest is flawed but kind, their roommates bring new and worthwhile perspectives to the mix. Though I would argue that both halves of the story could have endured some shortening without losing anything vital, Riccio does an excellent job of circling back on even the smallest scenes to imbue meaning; every inclusion is deliberate and the layering of detail complex. The writing is not without skill, though I’m sure time and experience will hone it further.

I did have a few small hangups with the premise, though. Thematically, this is a story about stepping out of your comfort zone (particularly in college, though not necessarily limited to that environment) and taking chances. Making room for your dreams instead of focusing only on obligations. I can get behind that. And while I don’t think the narration means to present study abroad as the cure for introversion, and it certainly doesn’t present introversion as some sort of serious personality flaw that must be overcome at all costs, I did find the implication that the key to jump-starting your life is to travel and abandon your major a rather privileged and simplistic stance. Additionally, I think the book skirts one of the biggest issues it raises: how to make that grab for independence. Shane learns the hard way that she can’t make her stand on her parents’ dime, and though their lack of support adds an interesting challenge to the narrative, the story skips straight from that conflict to Shane’s settled life several years later. Of course, Again, But Better is a fictional romance, not a self-help book. I love that it depicts a young woman falling in love without giving up her own goals. But I did feel a bit of disconnect between its apparent aim to inspire and its lack of realistic suggestions.

But, Riccio says in her acknowledgments:

“I hope you enjoyed my first book. I hope it made you happy in some way or another. I hope you laughed. I hope it made you want to face your fears.”

I did enjoy the read, parts of it made me happy, I laughed twice, and I did close the cover in the end with the mindset of wanting to take a chance in my own life. In this, Riccio’s intent seems to have been met. She also states that this was the story she wanted to read when she was twenty (Shane’s age), and I am quite sure that if I had read this as the naive, introverted twenty-year-old that I was, I would have loved this book. It does have a lot of elements that were missing for me in the books I was reading at that time- modern college-aged protagonists, a search for elusive independence, proof that failures and disasters even of one’s own making are survivable, familial discord, YA pop cultural references, Beatles appreciation, etc. It might not have been a perfect fit for me even then, but I would have appreciated knowing I wasn’t the only one skipping parties to stay in and read. And as such, I’m grateful that other twenty year-olds who struggle to find their place in college will have the opportunity to discover a book they might relate to in that way.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. All in all, an interesting reading experiment. Would I read more from this author? I’m not sure. Though I enjoyed this book and am curious to see where Riccio goes with her writing career, this isn’t a genre I reach for often and I don’t particularly want to read another self-insert story. I picked up Again, But Better to cap off my experience with her writing videos for this novel; in the future, I’ll decide whether or not to pick up her work based more directly on my interest level in the synopses.

How do you process reading a book written by someone you know, or feel like you know? Do you find it difficult to separate the author from the story?

 

The Literary Elephant

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Soul Ripping Romance Tag

I am skipping Top of the TBR this week because I only had three books to talk about today anyway, and more importantly because there’s an Amazon protest going on until the 16th and I don’t want to log into Goodreads (which is Amazon-based) in the meantime.

Which means this is the perfect time for a tag- and thanks to the kind and wonderful Naty (who nominated me for this one; check out her post here!), I have the perfect tag in mind!

“It feels intellectually unserious to concern himself with fictional people marrying one another. But there it is: literature moves him.” -Sally Rooney, Normal People 

The Rules

  • Thank the person who tagged you and create a pingback to the original author – Nel at Reactionary Tales.
  • Share at least 5 (but more are welcome) romances that tugged your heart strings. They can be from books, movies, TV shows, manga; anything you can think of! They can be examples of sad tears, angry tears, happy tears or a combination of all three.
  • Nominate 5 (or more) people to share their emotional traumas
  • (Note: Try not to spoil the story for your readers in case they would like to check out these romances on their own)

The Romances

  1. crookedkingdomLeigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows. Romance-driven fantasies don’t often work for me, but when the romance is a background detail I tend to love it. Romance is definitely not the Point of Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology, and for that reason I think the relationships feel so much stronger. There’s also the fact that they’re friendship-based, which is excellent. I particularly love the way Kaz and Inej skirt around each other (though Jesper and Wylan are also adorable and Nina and Matthias are clearly meant for each other). I desperately want Kanej to have an honest conversation about their feelings, but I do not want the eventual third book in this series cheapening the romance with too much wish fulfillment. *fingers crossed for subtle greatness*
  2. theblindassassinMargaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. I use this book in tags as often as I can, because though the pace is a bit slow the payoff was huge for me, (and it fits so many prompts!). It’s a genre-bending novel by one of my favorite writers, part family saga, part fantasy- and completely, utterly tragic. The chapters switch in and out of a mysterious ongoing affair throughout most of the novel, but the heart-wrenching love story comes in a bit later. It all fits together so incredibly, I doubt I’ll ever forget this one.
  3.  Margaret Mitchell’s gonewiththewindGone With the Wind. This was one of the first classics I ever read, and I was young enough at the time that reading it opened doors for me, so it holds a special place of honor in my reading life. This is another tragic romance, in my opinion. Scarlet O’Hara was the first unlikable character that I ever really appreciated. She’s so set on having what (and whom) everyone else seems to want that she can’t see what’s in front of her, which might be a better match. Her love life was always destined to go awry because dissatisfaction with her lot (even when everything is grand) is her modus operandi, and frankly, that’s why I found her choices so compelling.
  4. conversationswithfriendsSally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends. Naty already used Normal People, so I have to go with Rooney’s other novel because I can’t refrain from including one! The relationships in Rooney’s books are just brilliant- awkward, difficult, somewhat inappropriate, and completely captivating. Though Normal People resonated with me more, Conversations with Friends was delightful to read. It gave me a lot of anxiety because as usual the characters repeatedly make poor decisions without learning from them, but the intensity of emotion that Rooney manages to invoke- all kinds of emotion- is only further proof of her skill.
  5. Sarah Dessen’s The Truth About Forever. thetruthaboutforeverI figured that with this being a romance tag, I should at least pick one book that’s an actual romance novel. Here is a YA contemporary romance that I first fell in love with at age 12, and reread (for the first time in a long time) in 2017 only to fall in love with it all over again. Sarah Dessen is one of my most nostalgic tween/teen authors, and I was so relieved to discover upon the reread that I enjoy her work just as much as an adult. The Wish Catering crew in this novel is probably my favorite fictional friend group of all time, the romance is a slow-burn built on honesty, and underneath the banter are heavier themes like handling grief, finding a self-identity separate from what others expect of you, and refraining from judging others because there’s always more to them than you see on the surface. I am not a YA contemporary romance reader anymore. But I will 10/10 read this again and love it just as much.

The Tags

I’ve tagged a bunch of specific people in my last few tag posts, so I’m going to open it up in this one instead, to whoever wants to participate. If you’ve read this far and your heart has ever stirred for fictional characters, consider yourself tagged!

What’s your favorite romance of all time?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: The Bride Test

Last year I read Helen Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient in a rare romance mood, and though I had a few qualms with it about miscommunication and lack of consent, I thought it showed a lot of promise and immediately added The Bride Test, Hoang’s second (and related) novel, to my TBR. I managed to get my hands on a copy early this month.

thebridetestIn the novel, Esme (or Mý) is working a steady- if somewhat undesirable- cleaning job at a Vietnam hotel to support herself, her mother, grandmother, and small daughter. At the hotel, she meets a bold woman who is wife hunting for her grown son, Khai, who lives in America and has no idea what his mother is planning. Esme isn’t sure she’ll manage to convince anyone to marry her, but she does want to go to California to search for her long lost father, and decides to take a chance. Then she meets Khai- a kind, autistic man who doesn’t believe himself capable of love. Their families seem eager to push the two of them together, but can they admit their feelings for each other in time to wed before Esme’s travel visa expires?

“She wasn’t impressive in any way you could see or measure, but she had that fire. She felt it. That was her worth. That was her value. She would fight for her loved ones. And she would fight for herself. Because she mattered. The fire inside of her mattered. It could achieve and accomplish. People might look down on her, but she was making her way with as much integrity as she could with limited options.”

Right off the bat, I knew I was going to appreciate the exact same things about this book that I did with The Kiss Quotient; it’s wonderful to encounter a romance that offers such great representation- the man is autistic, he is American but his family is from Vietnam, and the woman is fully Vietnamese, unmarried with a child. I’m not a huge fan of romance books in general, so I like to be able to pick up a book from that genre that’s also going to offer insight into aspects of life that I’m not so familiar with. My list of elements to admire in this one included: seeing Esme learning to navigate a US airport without full grasp of the English language; seeing Khai’s perspective on how autism affects his emotions; seeing Esme care for Khai with the same enthusiasm both before and after she knew about his diagnosis, without letting him use the autism as an excuse when he does something hurtful; and seeing Quan look out for his younger brother (Khai) in a patient and considerate way. The Bride Test is a love story, but it’s also so much more.

“Everyone deserved to love and be loved back. Everyone. Even her.”

But in spite of the positives, I had more issues with this novel than I did with The Kiss Quotient, even though I liked the premise of The Bride Test more.

First, I had the same qualms as with Hoang’s first book- consent is not always asked for or given before things get physical, and, I thought a lot of the climactic tension could have been resolved (or at least lessened) if the characters had taken a moment to communicate with each other instead of walking off alone with their hurt feelings and assumptions. I understand that there’s a bit of a language barrier between Esme and Khai- she prefers to speak in Vietnamese and he prefers English; they understand each other but continue to converse in different languages. I also understand that Esme doesn’t really know what autism is or how it might manifest in Khai’s behavior or thought processes, but I do believe she knows him well enough that she would understand where he’s coming from if they would’ve had an honest conversation instead of being stubborn.

But my biggest problem with this book is simply that the entire major conflict made me uncomfortable. Admittedly, I don’t know much about autism or how to help an autistic person understand something that they seem hardwired against believing, so it’s possible that everything happening here is the “correct” way of going about it. But Esme and Quan, literally making Khai sick while trying to change his viewpoint on the matter at hand was hard to stomach. What bothers me most is that the truth was plain for everyone to see- they only pushed him because they wanted him to admit the words aloud. This is probably just a personal opinion, but I don’t think that what something is called matters as much as what something is. Esme and Khai butting heads over semantics in the final days before the deadline of her visa was not cute and angsty for me; it was torturous seeing Khai squirm between a rock and a hard place. I could see why Esme wanted Khai to say what she was asking him to say, but I couldn’t bring myself to sympathize with her. I agreed with most everything she thought and said, and yet I did not completely agree with her behavior.

“If he didn’t love her, someone else would. She wasn’t going to settle for a one-sided love. Not in this lifetime. Not ever.”

Perhaps most problematic to my reading experience, I was never quite convinced by Esme’s character. From the way she’s described by the other characters and the personality she presents in her own chapters, it seems like there’s absolutely nothing to dislike about her. She’s sunny and optimistic, nice to everyone, and smoking hot besides, of course. She’s worried that she’ll be turned away because of her family’s poverty or her young daughter, born out of wedlock. Unfortunately, these are real possibilities in life, but it’s obvious to the reader- and should be obvious to Esme- that they bear no significance with Khai. Furthermore, I don’t think The Bride Test is promoting very healthy practices between new couples by allowing Esme to get away with concealing her daughter from Khai’s family for almost the entire novel- that’s just not something you should wait to introduce to a potential partner until the day of the wedding, no matter the circumstances.

But The Kiss Quotient won Hoang a lot of fans, and I’m sure The Bride Test will as well. It’s funny, it’s steamy, it’s got some quality commentary about minority experiences. Esme’s situation (well, before the mail-order bride bit) feels plausible and worth the attention it receives here, as does Khai’s. Matt and Stella are given a couple of honorable mentions that’ll please past Hoang readers, and despite my criticisms, I am still completely on board for the next novel in this series, which looks to be Quan’s chance to shine. (It is not necessary to read the entire series or to read these books in any particular order, though of course you’ll not catch the references to previous MCs if you haven’t read the earlier books.)

All in all, there’s plenty to recommend about The Bride Test and The Kiss Quotient, and even if they aren’t perfect, they’re a step in the right direction for the genre (and literature) as a whole; I’m so excited to see more authors jump on this trend in the future and make this genre more inclusive and irresistable. In the meantime, I’ll keep trying with Hoang.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This was an incredibly quick read for me; even in the moments I completely disagreed with what was happening, I couldn’t seem to put the book down. I’m glad I picked it up, and I’m sure parts of it will stick with me, but I’m also glad I decided to check this one out from the library instead of purchasing immediately. I’m really looking forward to the Quan book, though! Before that one hits shelves, next up for me in romance will probably be Casey McQuiston’s Red, White, and Royal Blue, but I’ll warn anyone anticipating my review of it that it might be a while before I pick it up, simply because I’m not a frequent romance reader.

What’s your favorite romance novel? Have you read either of Helen Hoang’s books? I’d love to know what you thought!

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: 99 Percent Mine

I don’t read a lot of romance, but I did pick up Sally Thorne’s The Hating Game last year. That was a pretty good time, so I was excited to pick up Thorne’s 2019 release, 99 Percent Mine.

99percentmineIn the novel, Darcy Barrett returns from a shift at the bar to find her childhood friend, Tom, ready to start work on the renovations of the cottage she and her brother have inherited. Tom is used to dealing with the Barrett twins’ frequent disagreements and high expectations, but he’s still worried about the responsibilities associated with starting his own renovation company, and about losing his friends in the process of fixing up their house. With tensions high between the twins and Tom caught in the middle, flighty Darcy is forced to face her fears by embracing the cottage’s new look and fighting for the romance she always ran away from.

At least, I think that’s what the book is about. The strongest impression I’m left with at this story’s conclusion is one of confusion- I don’t know if my brain just operates on different circuitry than Thorne’s or what, but starting around the halfway mark I was completely lost.

I think my main issue with this plot is that it’s one of those angsty misunderstanding types in which the drama could have been avoided entirely if the characters had simply shared an honest, adult discussion at the beginning of the novel. It’s clear to the reader early on that Tom and Darcy are in love, and that their reasons for trying to stay away from each other are not big enough to hold them back once all of their truths are out in the open. But it’s practically impossible to avoid predictability in romance, so I tried to overlook the obvious ending and enjoy the ride. Unfortunately, that became increasingly difficult to do.

The next obstacle for me was characterization. I found it incredibly difficult to keep track of whether Darcy was chasing Tom at the moment, or trying to hold him at arm’s length. Both characters wavered so often and for so little reason that I struggled to understand their dynamic at any given point of the story. I think Thorne was going for a we-want-each-other-but-don’t-think-we-deserve-each-other vibe, but both Darcy and Tom seem to have the emotional instability of teenagers who take everything to heart and change their minds at the drop of a hat. These adult characters act completely immature: Darcy gives up her dream career after one bad review and Tom all but abandons ship when he has to admit that he’s not capable of 100% perfection. Darcy throws tantrums. At many points its unclear whether their friendship or potential romance is more important to them, or whether they believe it’s best just to leave the other alone. I love complex characters, but I had a hard time connecting the dots even between one sentence and the next with these two.

Even more off-putting than the inconsistent characters though, is the completely nonsensical writing that surrounds them. 99 Percent Mine reads like an unedited first draft, free of simple mistakes like typos but in desperate need of some revision. The story opens in the bar where Darcy works, giving the reader insight into a setting and an array of characters that receive only bare mentions throughout the rest of the book, if they reappear at all. There’s a sort-of-friend with benefits who does absolutely nothing for the story. Darcy complains about her paychecks barely covering the cost of her health care (she has a congenital heart defect, which is actually one of the few things I appreciated about this book), but then goes on to fund pizza parties for the entire renovation crew on a weekly basis.  She seems to hate her brother for everything except the fact that he’s her brother, which made their relationship almost as difficult to comprehend as the romance with Tom. Even at the micro level, details don’t match up; at one point, Darcy phones a friend and asks for a ride; the friend agrees before going on to talk about something else, but without any mention of ending the call Darcy is suddenly speaking to a different person and making other plans for the afternoon, and the friend never shows up. I think that was about the point at which I gave up reading for any purpose other than to finish.

” ‘One hundred percent mine.’ He considers that, then maybe he remembers the desperate hug that my brother gave me. He tips his head toward the door. ‘Better let him have one percent of me.’ He smiles, and I laugh. ‘Okay. Ninety-nine percent mine. That’s got a nice ring to it.’ “

It hurts me to list so many complaints after enjoying Thorne’s The Hating Game as much as I did. In the acknowledgements of this book, Thorne talks about being shocked by her debut’s success and a bit scared to publish again afterward, and I think that shows in 99 Percent Mine. But I also think that with this one out of the way, there might be another Hating Game-quality story someday. The first half of this book did strike me as perfectly competent, but somewhere along the way it unraveled. As always, it’s entirely possible that I’m missing something or that other readers will simply find more to enjoy than I did, but I feel confident in saying that this one probably won’t be received as favorably as Thorne’s debut.

If you’re picking up 99 Percent Mine just for The Hating Game‘s epilogue, you might be disappointed there as well. The additional scenes packed into the back of this novel (epilogues for both 99 Percent Mine and The Hating Game) are only a few pages long each, and absolutely unnecessary caps to their respective stories. They read like wish-fulfillment scenes, little snippets that exist just to give the reader the thrill of seeing characters they liked in print again, even if just for a kiss. But I understand that most people picking up Sally Thorne’s books are probably looking for the easy angst and kissing and happy endings, so there will likely be plenty of readers who get more out of this novel and its extras than I did.

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. This book started out well enough for me- not any kind of personal favorite, but at least I could follow it- and then spiraled out of control in the second half. I had high hopes for another The Hating Game, but I think I’m swearing off romance for a while instead. I’ll still be interested in seeing how Sally Thorne might do with a third book, but I think I’ll wait and see how it does before committing to it if she does continue. I may just be the wrong audience for this genre, Hating Game aside.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before Trilogy

Back in December, I did something I NEVER do: I watched the movie before reading the book. Actually, I did this twice in the same day- to watch Dumplin’ and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. I enjoyed both, and committed to reading both books. Or, in the case of Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, the entire trilogy. I picked up Dumplin’ in January (and adored it), and I spent last week binging To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. 

toalltheboysi'velovedbefore

Since I read all three of Jenny Han’s (YA contemporary romance) novels back to back, I’ve decided to talk about them all together in one go instead of writing three reviews. So let’s take a closer look ->

About the book(s): Lara Jean is the middle of three sisters. Her older sister, Margot, is leaving the country for college at the start of Lara Jean’s junior year. Kitty, the youngest, is a fierce nine-year-old. The girls are very close, which means Margot’s absence is a challenge for them all; but the biggest challenge for Lara Jean comes shortly after Margot’s departure, when a box full of old love letters she’s written to all of her crushes goes missing, and the letters begin turning up in the hands of the boys she liked. One goes to a boy from camp, one to a childhood friend, one to a boy who likes boys, one to the most popular boy in school, and… one to the boyfriend Margot just broke up with.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before- this was my favorite book of the trilogy because it seemed the most unique and the least predictable. Having seen the movie (even though I wasn’t paying complete attention, knowing I would want to read the books later and then rewatch the film) ruined that a little more than I’d expected. The scenes are a bit different in the film than in the book, so it was still interesting to read and compare, but there weren’t really any important differences. I spent most of this novel just reading to get through to the next one.

“Gosh. To be sitting in the passenger seat of Peter Kavinsky’s black Audi. Isn’t that what every girl has ever wanted, in the history of boys and girls? Not Peter Kavinsky specifically, or yes, maybe Peter Kavinsky specifically.”

P. S. I Still Love You- A major character who didn’t make it into the first book comes into play here in book two, but not until halfway through the book. There are a lot of cute couple scenes as Lara Jean’s current relationship finds its balance after the drama that occurred in book one, but essentially the first half of this novel felt like a waiting game. This is also the point at which the trilogy started to feel very predictable to me. There’s a definite lack of nuance- if you were able to guess who sent out Lara Jean’s letters in book one (and come on, there’s really only one person it can be), you’ll also guess who Stormy’s favorite grandson is before he appears. You’ll see that Lara Jean’s jealousy/judgment is a bit misplaced before Gen reveals the truth about her “family problems.” But there is some quality commentary on high school relationships (romantic and platonic) beneath the teenage drama.

“You only know you can do something if you keep on doing it.”

Always and Forever, Lara Jean- I just wanted to know who she was going to end up with! But it becomes clear early on that the question is not “which of the five crushes will Lara Jean choose?” but rather “will Lara Jean and this one boy stay together after graduation?” This made the lead-up to graduation a bit tedious, though it still had its cute moments. Again, there was a lot of predictability in this one. Lara Jean has her expectations for college a little too set, very early in the novel. The end of high school will mean changes for Lara Jean and this boy, and somehow she’s the only one who can’t see that.

“The hottest places in hell are reserved for people who maintain neutrality in times of crisis.”

This is not my usual sort of reading fodder. I haven’t read this sort of cutesy contemporary romance since I was in middle school- I’m talking Meg Cabot and Sarah Dessen. If I had read Jenny Han’s books at that time, when I was 11 or 12, I probably would’ve loved them. The biggest obstacle to my enjoying them now is that Lara Jean’s narration seems more like the commentary of a twelve year-old than a seventeen year-old. I don’t read middle-grade books anymore because I learned while trying to read Percy Jackson about five years ago that this sort of writing just does not work for me anymore. This was most problematic for me in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, though I think reading all three back-to-back helped keep it from becoming so noticeable in the sequels.

So why did I pick these up, if all evidence seemed to point to them not being to my current literary taste? Well, I did enjoy the film. And a friend gifted me the boxed set for Christmas so I couldn’t not read them. I know a lot of readers love these books, and I was hoping to be pleasantly surprised. Furthermore, I’m a completionist. Once I had started this story (by watching the film), I had to know how it would end. And last but not least, it is February. I wanted to read a romance.

But unfortunately, I didn’t get much from this trilogy beyond the cuteness, and that’s not something that tends to leave a lasting impression for me.

I thought that a lot of the plotting was flimsy. It should come as no shock to Lara Jean who keeps (and addresses!) personal letters that someone finds and sends them. All three of the sisters came off as much more selfish to me in the books- Margot is negative about every development at home while she is away, and the only things she does to further the plot are 1) break up with Josh at the beginning of book one, and 2) tell Lara Jean that their mother said not to go to college with a boyfriend. Kitty has one key moment, but otherwise her side plots (convincing their father to buy a dog, matchmaking between her single dad and divorced neighbor, even giving the boy crushes her seal of approval) seem largely unnecessary to the major issues in Lara Jean’s life. Lara Jean hopes for romantic gestures, and does nothing in return but bake, which is something she does for stress relief anyway. And the biggest disappointment for me is that the letters that started it all (which also feel like they were written by a twelve year-old, or younger) are just the catalyst to Lara Jean’s relationship dramas; most of the letters are out of the story already by book two, and there are only references to them by the third book.

Despite the fact that this is turning into a list of complaints, I didn’t hate the reading experience. Obviously, I was enjoying it enough to read all three books. These were super fast to get through, and I think I only spent 4 or 5 days on the entire set. I am glad that I was gifted the box set because I think I might have lost interest if I’d had to wait between volumes, but since I did have them all on hand I let myself succumb to the brief addiction. And I do know a few people who will probably want to borrow the set now that I’m finished.

Some things I liked very much: the assassins game and the USO party, Lara Jean’s impromptu trip to UNC Chapel Hill, Peter giving Kitty a ride in his two-seater on her birthday. I smiled through a lot of the dates/hang-outs and dialogue. I really liked John Ambrose McClarren, and Lara Jean’s dad- he’s a great YA-novel parent. And Jenny Han does a great job of encouraging young readers to take chances in high school, to work hard but also to try new things and talk to people you wouldn’t. I do wish I would’ve had these books when I was younger.

“I think that time might be different for young people. The minutes longer, stronger, more vibrant.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars, each. It’s hard to pick a favorite. I think book one probably would’ve been my favorite if I hadn’t already seen the film, but there were pros and cons to each that left them pretty evenly matched in the end. I’m glad Jenny Han says (in the acknowledgments at the end of book 3) that this series is truly finished, and not going to endure a spin-off “Lara Jean in college” storyline; she knew exactly where to end it. I am immensely looking forward to seeing what Netflix does with the next (and hopefully the third) film! I think this series will end up being one of those rare occasions of liking the movie better than the book, at least for me.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating

Occasionally (admittedly very rarely) I’m in the mood for a romance novel. The last time the mood struck was June, so I suppose I was due for a relapse. I’m not entirely sure why I keep trying with romance novels because they’re never exactly what I want them to be in the way that other novels can be exactly what I’m looking for even before I know what I’m looking for. But there’s something very freeing about picking up a book I have absolutely no expectations for, so I keep coming back. This time, I tried my first ever Christina Lauren (an author duo) novel, an adult romance that was published in September: Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating.

joshandhazel'sguidetonotdatingAbout the book: Josh is in a relationship with a woman who makes no effort to be a part of his life, a woman his family and friends dislike; the relationship has no future, as Josh is discovering. Hazel is a lively elementary school teacher who tries with men, but mostly sees herself as undateable because she can’t stay with anyone who is embarrassed by her, but she can’t change her personality, either. Even Josh, who she met in college, laughs at the idea of a serious relationship with Hazel. But now that Hazel is working with Josh’s sister, a new bond is formed; Josh and Hazel try to help each other out by setting up blind double dates, but the more time they spend together the more they realize that their assumptions about each other may have been wrong, and that their burgeoning friendship matters more than either ever expected it would.

Unfortunately, Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating was the least impressive contemporary romance I’ve read all year. Granted, I’ve only read three. But before I get into the complaints…

This book does have several good points. It is considerate and inclusive of minorities, the central romance is healthy and non-problematic, and the characters stay true to themselves. Ideally, these are components for a perfect romance, right?

“A tiny voice reminds me that Josh didn’t bother to blow smoke up my butt and tell me what a lovely place I had. He never lies, or fakes enthusiasm. He just accepts me.”

But the plot is predictable (as often happens with romance novels), and worse, it’s rather uninteresting. The entire premise of the blind double-dates made me cringe– I missed that part of the synopsis and might not have picked this book up if I had caught it– and it only gets worse as every single contender turns out to be more awful than the last. I don’t have much faith in blind dating to begin with and have not bothered with it in real life, but are people really so horrible? Do real people behave this badly over a single meal with a stranger? There is no angst or spark in Josh and Hazel’s growing connection because there are literally no other people in their lives to stand in their way. Between their uncaring exes and their new rude acquaintances, Josh and Hazel are all but forced together. There is no resistance.

Let’s take a closer look at Hazel. It’s admirable of Christina Lauren to include a female character that is so entirely confident and herself that she would rather keep trying over and over and end up alone after every failure than consider changing who she is. But she feels more like a type than a character– Hazel is the epitome of the “quirky girl,” although most of her wildness comes out in the stories from her college days rather than her present behavior. Every time she takes a drink, she makes a show of telling someone they need to basically staple her shirt to her body so that she can’t drunkenly take it off, but nowhere in the book does she actually have to be stopped from undressing in public.  Hazel is boisterous and unapologetic, but there’s a disconnect between how “crazy” everyone seems to think she is and the way she is actually presented in this novel.

“I’m Crazy Hazie and he’s Awesome Josh (hangover prevents me from finding something that rhymes with Josh) and nothing– I mean nothing— scares me more than the idea of us dating and him deciding that I’m too wild, too weird, too chaotic. Too much.”

And yet, in all of the time that they’re spending together, they’re dating each other in all but name and she has no reason to think that he could be scared away. This is just one example of how nonexistent the obstacles are between Josh and Hazel. Every now and then they think they have a reason to hold back, but the reader knows it’s bogus and not going to last. And that gets in the way of emotional investment in these characters.

Fortunately, the books speeds up toward the end as the drama passes from dating games to more serious life challenges, and it does end with a lot of positive commentary about kindness and acceptance in a variety of relationships– romantic, familial, and friendly.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. There’s nothing actually wrong with this book, it’s just… boring? Usually even if I don’t have a lasting appreciation for romance novels they do at least offer some instant amusement, but I was losing the will to finish this story as I read. There was nothing in the writing or plot to inspire actual hate for this book, it just seemed lackluster. I might try one more romance before the mood dies, but I’m feeling less interested after this one. I might even try one more Christina Lauren novel, as there was potential in the intent, even though this book didn’t impress me in the end.

Further recommendations:

  • For a more engaging “dating” game, try Sally Thorne’s The Hating Game, an adult romance about competitive co-workers who love to hate each other.
  • For diverse romance, try Helen Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient, an adult gender-bent Pretty Woman romance between a mixed-race man and an autistic woman. This book is a Goodreads Choice Awards winner!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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