Tag Archives: romance

are reality dating shows romantic?

Review: One to Watch by Kate Stayman-London

One to Watch

In this novel, Bea is a popular plus-size fashion blogger who goes viral for a posted complaint about all of the female stars on reality dating show Main Squeeze being model-thin; for a show whose purpose is to uphold the prospect of fairytale love for the ‘average’ American, shouldn’t the cast be more… representative of actual Americans? Bea would like to know.

She’s been unlucky in love herself, but when the season of Main Squeeze that she criticized flatlines and the producers decide to try a new tactic by hiring Bea as the next star, it’s not exactly love she signs on for. So much of reality dating tv is staged, she knows, and the engagements from each season’s final episode tend to last the contractual six weeks before the couple cuts ties. But going on the show would boost Bea’s fashion business and help show women who look like Bea that they can have fairytale love, too. With twenty-five eligible men vying for her hand though, will Bea be able to keep love out of the arrangement?

“…a lot of people find the existence of a fat woman something to get worked up about.”

CWs: body shaming, fatphobia, sexism, infidelity

I’m afraid this review is going to come off as a rant by the end, but I did appreciate a lot of things about this book and enjoyed the read, so I want to start off with some positives.

The body positivity and critiques of fatphobia first and foremost are incredible here, as one might expect from the premise. Bea is the main narrator throughout the book and is presented as a full, complex human being who calls out those who wrong her and deals with trolls on the internet and occasionally makes a bad call, as do we all. She’s humanized through and through, and while her experience as a plus-size woman colors every part of her life, Stayman-London avoids the mistake of letting Bea’s fatness make up her entire characterization.

“If the other kids just didn’t pay her any mind, that meant they weren’t being cruel, either. But being ignored is its own kind of hurtful.”

There’s some great diversity among the rest of the cast, as well. Main Squeeze has just changed hands from a lazy old white guy producer to a young woman on the rise and eager to move the show in a more inclusive direction. Bea’s bachelors include a Black man, a Frenchman, a single dad with a gender-nonconforming child, an asexual and aromantic man, a fat man, and more. Bea’s best friend is a lesbian. The best part is that all of these characters are given great scenes in which they get to just be a person- they’re not stereotyped, but their actions and advancement on the show make some great statements as well. I don’t want to say more and spoil any of the twists of Bea’s Main Squeeze episodes, but let me assure you that there are so many positive messages in One to Watch, both directly in the prose and also in the structure of the plot. (Watch out for those internet trolls though, they do spew some absolute venom along Stayman-London’s road to incredible commentary.)

And it’s not only the inclusivity. One to Watch is FUN. Woven in with the narration are bits of multimedia related to Bea and Main Squeeze– texts, group chats, think pieces, blog posts, tabloid articles, contracts, emails, tweets, interviews, and more. Though the book did get off to a bit of a slow start for me, once Bea is on Main Squeeze even the chapters are laid out as episodes of the show, complete with bits of script and film direction. All of this formatting keeps the story feeling fresh , fast-paced, and realistic, and most of all, it brings the Main Squeeze fandom to life.

I actually do not watch The Bachelor or any of its spinoffs- I am not a part of that fandom, which One to Watch is clearly mirroring. But it is so easy to get sucked in right along with the fans in the book: hashing over who’s been cut from the show, guessing who’ll stick around for the next episode, wanting to comment over every shocking comment and gesture. The drama is all there, and allows for a high level of reader engagement. It had all the appeal for me that murder mystery whodunnits usually do, only without bringing death into the equation. This would be a fantastic book to read along with a group or buddy, to weigh in every chapter or two and talk over what’s happened and predict what will happen next. It’s juicy in a way that’s exciting to share.

But it didn’t sell me on reality dating TV. And here is where I run out of praise, even though I did know going in to expect a Bachelorette-type story- One to Watch is upfront and correct about the sort of book it is, so my complaints do not lie with the novel, exactly. I saw a few reviews from readers who aren’t Bachelor franchise fans but loved this book, and I decided to take a chance and hope Bea would be doing some dismantling. Bea does dismantle stereotypes, but aside from wanting to make Main Squeeze more inclusive she accepts the show as is, questionable ethics and all, and that’s essentially where my issues lie. I do understand that the people on these shows sign contracts and know what they’re agreeing to and do actively agree to participate, and that in this case those characters are also entirely fictional, all of which is good. But humiliating someone on live TV as a “plot twist” to boost ratings? Keeping “villain” suitors around for intrigue? Filming personal conversations for public consumption. Having to take all these random suitors you hardly know into your family’s home for someone else’s entertainment. Broadcasting genuine heartbreak for the sake of the fans. It just feels gross to me, so the TV part of this book was never going to be the right fit.

“This is reality television, not a symposium on ethics and moral philosophy.”

Not only do I dislike the general premise and practice, but a story using this format is also necessarily going to rely on some of my least favorite tropes- there’s the instalove factor (the show takes place over several weeks, but there are so many people involved that a lot of decisions are made based on first impressions), the fake dating (these people have signed contracts and are getting paid to act as love interests; even if they are actually looking for love there are mixed motivations here, especially in Bea’s case, as she goes through several episodes and dates without her heart in it at all), and dating as a competition (Bea has to judge these men against each other and they are competing- the drive to “win” perhaps does not always coincide perfectly with the goal of finding real love). If these tropes are more your jam than mine, that’s totally fine, of course! Personally I’m into romance novels more for the angst, for relationships (of any sort: friends, enemies, coworkers, etc) that slow-burn develop into something more, and for characters pretending they’re not in love when they secretly are. I like my love stories a bit more on the emotionally torturous side, apparently. The fairytale/fantasy/money-is-no-object stuff just isn’t what I’m generally looking for, and again, I did read the synopsis of this book and decide to chance it, so any disappointment over finding what I expected not to like in these pages is on me.

But weighing my likes and dislikes here, I’m realizing that I did enjoy One to Watch, I just didn’t find it romantic. I wanted to know who Bea would choose in the end because I wanted to be right about my guess, not because I felt chemistry between any of these characters. A comment from one of the fans in the book about one contestant potentially winning an engagement “by default” when love gets messy toward the end of Bea’s season left me wondering whether fans of reality dating shows (and/or this book) are in it for the romance, or the game? What makes a romance a romance- are dates enough to put a book in the romance genre, even if they’re paid, even if they’re fake? I don’t mean to push anyone’s trope-loving buttons here, I’m genuinely curious to hear about what draws you (or doesn’t) to reality dating, whether you find reality dating truly romantic, and what you look for in romance media.

Because with this book, even though a few of the guys are very decent, I was surprised to find that the only one warming my heart was Bea.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I’d definitely recommend this book if the premise appeals; it delivers exactly what it says it will, and does it well. I found it inspiring and encouraging even if not exactly romantic, and I’ve already loaned out my copy to someone who barely reads because I think this is an easy book to love and a fun one to talk about. The only downsides for me were ones I foresaw from the start, so I’ll absolutely be keeping an eye out for any further work from Stayman-London, especially if it steers away from reality dating!

The Literary Elephant

Review: Life and Death

Before the Midnight Sun announcement and release earlier this year, I had not read, watched, or really thought about Stephenie Meyer or Twilight in years. Much to my surprise, I did still find Midnight Sun (Twilight retold from Edward’s POV) pretty enjoyable when I picked it up a few months ago, despite changes in my reading taste, despite the flaws of the Twilight saga being much more apparent to me now than they were originally. It was an amusing throwback for me. And so I decided to keep the entertainment going by picking up another Twilight redo: the 2015 10th anniversary edition, Life and Death, in which Stephenie Meyer gender-swaps the entire Twilight cast and tells the familiar story yet again. Unfortunately, this attempt did not hit the mark. At all.

Life and Death: Twilight Reimagined (The Twilight Saga)

In the novel, Beau Swan has just moved into Forks, Washington to live with his dad the police chief. He’s a good (if clumsy) seventeen year-old kid who wants to give his mom a chance to travel with her new husband, even though he hates the cold, wet weather of Washington. But you know who doesn’t hate the lack of sun? The Cullens. Most of the local kids are used to the weather, but for the Cullens it’s more than that. They stand out, and Beau can’t help but notice. There’s one in particular, a girl named Edythe, who sits next to him in biology. At first she looks like she wants to murder him, followed by a pointed absence from school, then she ignores him completely, and finally the two strike up a friendship and Beau begins to get some answers- namely, that Edythe is a vampire. But it’s too late to be horrified; Beau’s already in love.

Sound familiar? If you’ve heard anything about Twilight in the last fifteen years, it probably does- this is the same story as Twilight, complete with similar (in some cases exactly the same) dialogue, plot, and commentary from the main character. The only difference is that everyone’s genders have been switched, with the exception of Charlie and Renee, Beau’s parents. The obvious parallels are not what bothered me here. For someone who hates predictability in books, I am surprisingly okay with literary echoes and experiments of perspective- Midnight Sun also repeats the same plot and dialogue as Twilight to a large extent, and I had no problem with that either. As long as it’s clear up front (which this book is, both in the jacket copy and the book’s introduction), I really see no reason to mind the repetition. Any reader who doesn’t want to read something so similar has the perfectly acceptable option of not picking it up.

And actually, the plot of Life and Death is not *exactly* the same as Twilight– there’s a big plot twist at the end that’ll intrigue long-time Twilight fans! This complete divergence from Twilight canon was one of the few things I actually enjoyed about Life and Death.

But that’s the only praise you’re going to hear from me here today.

My main complaint with this book is related to its core premise. Meyer herself notes in the book’s forward that the whole point of this gender-swapped retelling is to prove to criticizing readers that the weird, uneven dynamic between Edward and Bella has nothing to do with sexism and everything to do with the hunter/prey vampire/human relationship. Meyer sets out to demonstrate that Edward’s controlling, stalker-y behavior is not a result of his maleness but of his species; she is determined to make this point by giving Edythe and Beau the same story and dynamic, thus proving that Edythe/Edward’s power and disregard for rules and morality are related to their vampirism, and Beau/Bella’s vulnerability and infatuation comes down to humanity only. The problem? Meyer actually does change a lot more than character pronouns, altering many small details with the result of failing to land her argument convincingly but also, frustratingly, completely reinforcing the gender stereotypes she claims to be challenging.

“Try not to get caught up in antiquated gender roles.”

For example, in a Twilight scene where Edward carries Bella’s backpack at school, in Life and Death human Beau takes vampire Edythe’s heavy backpack instead- implying that this move is actually about male chivalry, not vampire strength. Similarly, in a scene where Edward helps Bella step up into a tall Jeep, instead Beau opens Edythe’s door for her and then struggles up into his own seat by himself. In a scene where Bella is reading Jane Austen, Beau is reading Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. In a scene where Edward tells some classmates that he’s taking Bella to dinner, Edythe tells the classmates that she’s making Beau take her to dinner. There are a lot of “one-armed bro hugs” with Beau where Bella would’ve simply hugged someone. In a scene where Edward lends Bella a jacket, Edythe lends Beau… her brother’s scarf. This one really baffles me. Loaning a possession that does not even belong to you is just… not the same gesture. Not to mention, jackets for women are not always tight, form-fitted, pink affairs! I (a woman) have personally at least once lent a jacket to a guy, who wore it comfortably in public without getting any funny looks and it fit him fine. Even though Meyer is aparently more concerned about gender appearances than she’ll admit, loaning a jacket can be pretty neutral if one doesn’t overthink it.

But it’s not only the small details. Everything about Beau and Edythe’s chemistry is just completely different to Bella and Edward’s. Even some things that are written the same just read differently because the social expectations have been carried over and transposed rather than dodged. It feels backwards to Beau when Edythe (or his human girl friends at school) ask him to a dance (even though it’s girls’ choice!) or on a date. It’s not written explicitly, but Beau’s discomfort shows that his masculinity is at stake in these situations. And Beau thinking Edythe is too gorgeous to ever feel dangerous reads like an insult that it wouldn’t have with Bella thinking the same about Edward, especially when Beau expresses greater fear around the male vampires than the beautiful women. Edythe and Beau are just as much a product of the patriarchy as Edward and Bella.

“I felt a strange sense of pride, being able to claim her this way. Kind of Neanderthal of me, but there it was. ‘Yeah, she’s my girlfriend.’ “

And none of this addresses the fact that stalking, breaking into someone’s house, and threatening force to get your way are simply wrong behaviors, no matter who is doing them. Life and Death is, in the end, just as toxic as Twilight, if not moreso for being a second take pushing for the same bad things in the wake of a lot of valid criticism. It’s obvious by this book’s very existence that Meyer is bothered by the criticism leveled against her for Twilight‘s flaws, but instead of acknowledging that there might be any merit to the complaints, she digs in deeper. She is going to die on this hill, and it’s never been an ideal vantage point. Come on, having Beau think of himself as a stalker when he watches Edythe move around the school does not erase the fact that one of these characters (not Beau/Bella, in case that wasn’t clear) is entering the other’s house uninvited while the other is asleep to stare at them for hours and eavesdrop on their sleep-talking. Meyer also doesn’t miss the chance to fit in that one comment from the vampire (Edythe, in this case) about the human (Beau here) seeming like a child to them, making the age gap as uncomfortable as possible, just like always.

” ‘Be careful though, the child has no idea.’ / ‘Child? You know, Jules is not that much younger than I am.’ / She looked at me then, her anger gone. She grinned. ‘Oh, I know.’

I think a gender-swapped Twilight *might,* if done right, have gone some way toward making Meyer’s point about the vampire/human relationship vs the male/female one. If Beau and his friends had been trying on dresses in Port Angeles as Bella and her friends did. If Edythe had taken Beau’s backpack, helped him into the Jeep, and lent him her jacket. If Beau had been reading Jane Austen. If Renee had been the police chief and Charlie traveling around with his new wife, the athlete. All of these would have been acceptable choices and made a stronger statement than the limp attempt that is Life and Death. (And there’s a whole other conversation to be had about how ‘gender-swapping’ in this way leaves no room for anyone who doesn’t fit a gender binary, which is of course harmful in itself.)

The only really good thing that comes out of the gender switches, in my opinion, is Carine. I’ve always liked Carlisle, but seeing a woman doctor as the head of this vampire coven is powerful in its own exciting way. Especially considering that Carine, like Carlisle, is over 300 years old, and thus would have learned her medical skills in an era where a woman getting an education in pretty much any subject, much less medicine, would’ve gone against the grain. That’s the kind of “gender shouldn’t matter” commentary I was looking for here, and in no other way received. And Meyer doesn’t even address how difficult it would’ve been for Carine to become a doctor when she did- only the reader looking between the lines will see the implication at all.

To top it all off, the butchering of the gender discussion isn’t even the book’s only flaw, though it is the most damaging. But in addition, it’s just all too hasty. I mean, no, I didn’t want to spend any more time with this book. But on the other hand, I might not have disliked it so strongly if it hadn’t felt so lazy. Meyer is clearly banking on the fact that only Twilight fans who are already intimately aware of Edward and Bella’s story are going to be reading Edythe and Beau’s- it’s a shorter book, even though the plot twist means there’s a fair amount of extra work that’s needed at the end to make the story land. I’m not sure whether Meyer was bored herself with this project, or just rushed, but she’s absolutely flying through the plot and rationalizations here without taking the time to make the story feel lived-in. It’s hard to keep track of the huge cast of characters who pop in and out with little to no personality attributed to them, it’s hard to suspend disbelief for the fantasy element which is treated like a forgone conclusion practically before it’s even introduced, and it ultimately feels like even the central characters are failing to take this fiction seriously. In order to appreciate anything that’s going on, one has to keep Twilight superimposed over Life and Death in one’s mind to make sense of who is supposed to mean what to whom and why. Everything feels condensed, which is…not conducive to the romance, literally the only thing this series has ever had going for it.

There’s no compellingly readable heart to this version of the story. It’s flat and lifeless (pun not intended). If Twilight had begun this way, with Beau and Edythe and this completely bizarre and unexplored relationship, I would not have been interested in reading sequels, and I doubt many other readers would have been, either. 10+ years later, fully cognizant of Twilight‘s issues, that book still has the power to suck me in and keep me reading, even if I am laughing under my breath at it nowadays instead of wholeheartedly loving it. It still has the power to keep me picking up sequels and spin-offs that’ll give me a few hours of amusement. But Life and Death utterly lacks that ability to captivate.

It fails on every level.

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. Would not recommend, even to serious Twilight fans. Any modicum of enjoyment I got out of this comes primarily from the rants I’ve gotten out of the experience.

What’s a book that’s burned you recently?

The Literary Elephant

Reviews: Girl Made of Stars and Everything Leads to You

My catch-up YA Spotlight post is imminent; to put myself in the right frame of mind to talk all things YA, I’ve been picking up a few books from that age range recently. Today’s topics: sexual assault and the importance of believing victims in Ashley Herring Blake’s Girl Made of Stars, and Hollywood filmography in the sapphic Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour. Both of these are contemporary books with a hint of romance involving LGBTQ+ characters, and a focus on family.

In Girl Made of Stars, we follow Mara, one half of a set of twins. She and her brother Owen and their friends are seniors in high school when the unthinkable happens: Owen’s girlfriend accuses him of rape. This puts Mara in a particularly difficult situation, as her family expects her to believe and support Owen; the thought of him committing an act of violence is incongruous. But so is the thought of his girlfriend, a close friend of Mara’s, lying about something so serious. Coloring matters further is the fact that Mara herself is a survivor of sexual assault, though she’s not yet told anyone about the incident. And in the midst of it all, things have gotten complicated in Mara’s recent breakup with her girlfriend/best friend.

“Because here, under the empty sky, he is just my brother. My twin who would never hurt me, whom I could never imagine hurting anyone. In between passes and dribbles [with the basketball], I find myself watching him, looking for signs that he’s not that lying boy from our family meeting earlier. Or that I imagined it all, conjured up some twin sense because I felt us slipping away, the him and me I’ve always known and counted on. Maybe that fear- that I never really knew him at all- was stronger than anything else.”

This is such an incredible, thoughtful portrayal of sexual violence against teenaged girls. Herring Blake acknowledges the immediate and long-lasting trauma of sexual assault, even in a case where pressing charges is up to the state attorney rather than the victim, even when the attacker wears a condom, even when initially the girl said yes, and only changed her mind late in the encounter. Through all of these details and more, the author gives a nuanced look into the way sexual violation can alter a person and turn a community unfairly against them. She highlights the dangers in failing to believe a victim who reports sexual assault. And she does it all in a way that’s appropriate and approachable for young readers.

It’s a compelling story (even as an adult) with productive dialogue and great character dynamics- on top of the commentary around sexual assault, Herring Blake also provides a wonderful example (with the help of a bisexual protagonist and her non-binary best friend) of how to accept and help those who are exploring their gender and sexuality.

The plot is not exactly action-packed, mostly revolving around small scenes that bring this cast of characters in and out of each other’s orbits as they work through this fraught situation, but nevertheless it’s a captivating story in which every small detail holds the reader’s attention. I’d call this a must-read for teens; it doesn’t shy away from showing how deeply girls can be hurt, but it is also tinged with hope. Ours may be an imperfect world where shitty things happen, but there are people who believe those who speak up. There are friends to be had. There are ways of coping. There are ways to mend. The ending may not be fairy tale perfect, but by the time this book closes these characters have found ways to be comfortable again and find a path forward- and the reader can have hope for the same, and advocate for those who need help getting there. There are two pages of resources for assault survivors in the back of the book as well, for anyone who needs them.

“What else is there for any girl to do, when everyone but her can just forget everything like a random bad dream?

My only complaint is that Mara and Owen’s storytelling tradition anchored around the stars- particularly Gemini, as it’s the sign for twins- felt a bit infantile. To be fair, it’s a tradition that started in their youth and Herring Blake uses it well to advance her themes, but this was the only part of the book that felt too simplistic, the symbolism completely transparent, the stories they tell an obvious crutch to avoid certain direct conversations. It seems like lazy writing, though I can understand something like this being a helpful mechanism for communication in real life.

One final point: the synopsis of the book mentions a ‘trauma from Mara’s own past,’ but I didn’t realize when I picked the book up that Mara had also been sexually assaulted. I think Herring Blake handles Mara’s history deftly and allows the incident to shine further light on how pervasive and damaging this sort of violence is, but coming across that thread unexpectedly also left me wondering how the story might have read if Mara had not been assaulted herself. Would she have understood the other girl’s pain so easily, or would this conflict have been an eye-opening experience giving context to Mara’s own work on the school’s feminist newspaper?

To some extent, I wonder if Mara’s sympathy is born from the source of her own personal pain; this would have been a very different book if the accusation against Owen were Mara’s first brush with sexual assault, and that story might have been more relatable to the teenage reader who hasn’t been subjected to such violence and wishes to find an entrance point to understanding. As is, Girl Made of Stars is a work of support for those who have experienced sexual assault and an argument that this is a prevalent problem. Both very worthy angles, to be sure, and I’m not unhappy with the route Herring Blake has chosen. I wish there had been a possibility of having it both ways, perhaps with an additional perspective in the narration, because I think seeing a case like this from a character farther outside of it (like Mara’s best friend, for instance, suportive from the sidelines) would have made a stronger case for allyship and the importance of trusting survivors even when one doesn’t have their own firsthand experience. But of course reading from the perspective of someone with firsthand experience is sympathy-inducing in itself, and I do think Girl Made of Stars is incredibly powerful as it stands.

CW: rape, sexual assault of a minor, physical violence (slapping), homophobia (mostly indirect)

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This is exactly my brand of YA, dishing out heavy themes in a captivating way and teaching me about an experience that I haven’t had, that real people deal with it every day. The messages may not have been new to me, but they are important, and delivered here with admirable nuance and intriguing characters to make it all feel fresh. Well worth the read at any age, and one I’d highly recommend to anyone who likes their YA on the hard-hitting side.

In Everything Leads to You, Emi is an eighteen year-old just-graduated intern designing sets for movies in sunny LA. It’s the last summer before college, when her best friend will be leaving for an out-of-state school, and they want to make the most of it. Luckily, two things happen: they land great jobs on a new movie they both love instantly, and they stumble upon a letter from a recently-deceased celeb addressed to a daughter the public didn’t know existed. While trying to track her down, they find Ava, a troubled girl their own age who needs a couple of friends and a project of her own. They aren’t necessarily looking for love, but this is LA! These are the movies!

“People talk about coming out as though it’s this big one-time event. But really, most people have to come out over and over and over to basically every person they meet. I’m only eighteen and already it exhausts me.”

This is a perfectly sweet story of girls being their wonderful talented imperfect yearning selves, making art and falling in love. It didn’t work for me as well as I’d hoped, but I’m not the type of reader who is particularly won over by glamor and riches and everything going right. There is simply… no conflict here. Everything just goes up and up and up. I know there are readers who like this type of glitzy escapism, and there is some tension. There are difficult pasts, relationships ended, the prospect of big changes ahead. So it’s not complete gold-coated soullessness, but too soft to fit my tastes.

The book does include some brief commentary on race, poverty, bad parenting, and the difficulty of being a member of the LGBTQ+ community in a society that’s still largely unaccepting. But these are flashes of commentary only, and on the whole I’d say this story is a lot like Gilmore Girls, where there may be some real struggle and heartbreak but ultimately there’s always the rich parents/grandparents to fall back on for the low cost of admitting you could use some help. Emi has a great family, a great job, a great best friend, a cool brother who’ll lend a totally superfluous apartment at no cost instead of making bank renting it, solid college and career plans, and plenty of people around her willing to compliment her efforts. The best friend seems equally well off. Ava has seen the rougher side of the tracks, but lo and behold she’s just come into a fortune and all the answers to her mysterious family history, so she’s ready to start turning things around.

It’s obvious the girls like each other too much for anything to stand in their way, and that whatever happens next they’re going to be okay. Emi’s privilege is called out by the characters around her, so she’s not unbearably ignorant. There’s really nothing wrong with the story and it’s always nice to see girl characters working hard and winning things and falling in love, so I hope others will have better luck here. Those who are more interested in celebrities and film and reading about art (other than writing) may find this book a better fit. Those are not my interests and so I was just…not hooked.

CW: Drug overdose, minors consuming alcohol, poor parenting (making the child feel unwelcome in the family home, telling them it’s not okay to be gay, placing conditions on parental love)

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I know Nina LaCour is still a popular YA contemporary author these days (Everything Leads to You was published in 2014 but she has several more recent titles with great ratings and reviews) so I may try again at some point, but I suspect her style may not be for me.

The Literary Elephant

Review: Midnight Sun

If you’re actively opposed to all things Twilight, feel free to skip this post; I’m going to be talking about Stephenie Meyer’s new Twilight Saga release here, the long-awaited Midnight Sun.

To start off, I’d like to point out that I was intending to read one chapter of this book per day over about a month (there are 29 chapters), and finish with a post titled ‘A Case Against Wish Fulfillment Books.’ This plan was derailed two weeks in when I finished reading the chapters that leaked a decade ago in the Midnight Sun manuscript; I ended up binging and quite enjoying the rest of the book. In place of that more critical post, I’m simply going to cover all of the discussion points I think other Midnight Sun readers will potentially be interested in; sorry to everyone who doesn’t fit in that category, but also… not sorry. My 2020 needed this diversion.

Midnight Sun is the same exact YA fantasy romance delivered in Twilight: a love story between a 109 year-old vampire in a 17 year-old’s body (Edward) and a human teenage girl (Bella), with a simple narrator POV swap. As with Twilight, the story starts with Bella’s first day at school in Forks and continues up to the couple’s evening at prom a couple of months later. The first twelve chapters are VERY similar to the corresponding chapters of the partial Midnight Sun manuscript circa 2008. If you’ve already got those firm in your mind (I suspect the audience for this book will largely overlap with the audience who read that leaked draft), you could skip right to chapter 13 if you felt so inclined.

I fully expected to enjoy this in a cringe-y, nostalgic, guilty pleasure sort of way, but am instead here to confirm that Midnight Sun is just as addictive as any of the Twilight novels ever have been, for better or for worse.

Having read both perspectives now, it seems shocking that one version of this romance could ever have existed without the other, that the two were not written simultaneously, so tidily do they complement each other. There are a few awkward moments in Midnight Sun where the established dialogue doesn’t quite match Edward’s newly revealed thought process and he has to wonder ‘why did I say that?’ or note that his behavior isn’t following his conscious intentions; the symbolism of the title and cover is also hit harder than necessary. But these clumsy maneuvers are few and far between, and on the whole I think Midnight Sun does an excellent job of connecting previously invisible dots; every time Edward speaks or gestures too fast for Bella to catch is now captured on paper. And these two spend so much time wondering what the other is thinking that having access to both of their thoughts suits the story. As far as I can tell the details track- I took a cursory look through the meadow scene from both books to compare, and found only minor differences between how actions are meant vs perceived, and which details are made note of or ignored by each character; these small differences are not mutually exclusive, and in fact I think they improve this project, exploring the idea that no two people experience the same thing in the exact same way.

I thought Twilight coming from Bella’s perspective was the perfect choice at the time- as the reader’s first foray into this world, of course it makes sense to introduce fantasy elements from the point of view of someone who is also newly discovering them. But in the same vein, Edward’s perspective is the right choice for a new Twilight novel today, when even those who haven’t read the books or watched the films likely have some knowledge of the story. Edward is all extremes, so the series might have died here if it had started this way originally, though he is by far the more interesting of the two, and the only character capable of breathing some life back into this overblown piece of pulp fiction. Seeing his point of view at this point allows Meyer to add depth to the now-familiar story that no other angle could provide. So much of this book is exactly the same and yet it also manages to be new and different, thanks to this one vital shift.

There’s no point in denying that this book is entirely gratuitous and unnecessary- yes, it’s a bit ironic to call any of these books necessary, but the rest of them do at least advance the scant plot; Midnight Sun adds virtually nothing new beyond Edward’s voice, and even this is not a surprise, as his position has been made clear from his dialogue in the rest of the series. This is, plain and simple, a wish fulfillment book for long-time Twilight fans, which is apparent even in the book’s dedication. I was prepared to hate it for not bringing anything new to a table that’s already stacked with a lot of issues, and indeed: the vast majority of the content here is comprised of the exact same plot, scenes, dialogue, and backstory that are already familiar from Twilight. The two books correlate practically chapter for chapter- about half even share the same titles. The two books are warped mirror images of each other. There are four extra chapters in Midnight Sun, and almost 200 more pages than Twilight contained, but that’s easily explained by Edward’s obsessive over-analyzing of every. thing.

“Not for the first time in my life, I wished that I could make my brain slow down. Force it to move at human speed, if only just for a day, an hour, so that I wouldn’t have time to obsess over and over again about the same solutionless problems.”

Some patience is clearly required, but I think those who are still interested after the twelve year hiatus from this series won’t mind that the final product comes with plenty of padding.

I do want to acknowledge before going further that the same flaws plaguing the earlier books of the Twilight Saga still exist here in Midnight Sun, though it’s clear Meyer is more aware of those criticisms by now. Unfortunately I think she spends more effort tying up little plot holes (admittedly a gratifying element) than addressing the more serious characterization problems, and some of those she acknowledges without cleaning up which actually makes them seem worse (Edward’s stalking and spying tendencies, for one, are fully acknowledged and dismissed). But to be fair I think it would be pretty hard to change the canon believably at this point, within the strict constraints imposed upon this novel. So, enter at your own risk- Edward is still a controlling, manipulative boyfriend no one should aspire to have, Bella is gilded a bit when seen through Edward’s eyes but still a single-minded idiot no one should aspire to be, the Quileutes are still presented unfairly as an antagonistic enemy, and the age gap in the romance is still uncomfortable (Edward thinks of the high schoolers as children). Additionally, Edward’s thought-reading reveals a lot of unpleasantness in the personalities of many formerly benign side characters, including Rosalie, most of Bella’s human friends, and even Bella’s mother.

On the plus side, there’s a lot more time spent on the uber-supportive Cullen family dynamic and on teasing out individual quirks for each of the vampires. Emmett shines as the best friend Edward ever could’ve asked for, Alice has some real prowess with the future visions (and I found her all-but-silent conversations with Edward incredibly amusing; Alice has always been my favorite Cullen), Jasper’s mood controlling makes sense and is put to fantastic use at last, and Carlisle and Esme’s kindness radiates off the page (though Esme is still the flattest of them all, sadly). There’s even a bit of silent observation from Edward’s side that endeavors to prove he loves Bella for more than the smell of her blood, which is a nice addition.

It’s still a romance, of course. But where Bella’s POV makes Twilight revolve entirely around the love story and the discovery of magic hiding in her ordinary world, Edward’s POV brings us less of a love story and more of a war with his own self-worth and self-control. The falling in love part happens early and easily, immediately apparent in the angst and (melo)drama if not in Edward’s conscious awareness. What drives this version of the story instead is his internal grappling; he loves her, but he wants to kill her. The thing he wants most is the thing he poses the most danger to. He can have momentary happiness, or he can endure intense momentary discomfort for long-term happiness. His long-term happiness on the other hand would require certain sacrifices from the object of his affections, and can he ask that of her? Her happiness is a double-edged sword that incites both pain and pleasure- which is stronger, and what will that mean for her future? For his?

Edward loathes himself for bringing someone he loves and believes innocent into his world of vampirism; he considers himself the monster, the nightmare, full stop. It’s a dark and anxious book, and the fraught self-hatred and denial is the main draw. It’s a book full of pain and suffering, much of it self-inflicted. The gloomy psychological battle won’t be for everyone of course, but if you’ve ever been Team Edward this is likely what you’ve been craving all along- Edward’s uncomfortable predicament has been clear through all of these books, though it’s never been this potent.

“As I stared at her, I began to feel almost agonized at the thought of saying even a temporary goodbye. She was so soft, so vulnerable. It seemed foolhardy to let her out of my sight, where anything could happen to her. And yet, the worst things that could happen to her would result from being with me.”

Because the reader already knows what is happening and how this world is built, and because Edward is the mythical creature rather than the painfully ordinary human, Midnight Sun is able to start in the thick of things even as it goes back to the very beginning, and it’s able to take the otherworldly aspects farther than Bella’s perspective allowed. Meyer knows the reader is already familiar with her brand of vampirism, and in any case by the time this story starts Edward has already been a vampire for close to a century, so he doesn’t get caught up in world-building minutiae the way Bella does.

There’s a bit more magical behind-the-scenes action going on here too, and a deeper dive into Edward’s backstory and his behavior unbeknownst to Bella. None of this changes canon content, and the extra details aren’t anything that couldn’t be guessed at based on remarks from the other books, but it’s still amusing to see in print. To be honest, I think being willing to laugh at these books has always been a prerequisite for enjoying them, and that’s no different here.

“For half a second I was distracted by the idea, the impossibility, of what it would be like to try to kiss Bella. My lips to her lips, cold stone to warm, yielding silk…

And then she dies.”

I mean, it’s so bad it comes all the way around the spectrum to good again. Like 90s horror flicks. I think this is why I can read Midnight Sun in 2020 and not something like The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes; the Twilight Saga all but begs not to be taken seriously, and thus is easier to pick back up even when reading tastes have changed.

Honestly I think the only thing here that will disappoint readers who’ve been more or less enjoying the series up to now is that as Midnight Sun nears its climax, as Bella breaks away from the Cullens to run toward her own demise, Edward is able to block out most of his worry about her safety when it should be at its most heady. Luckily the plot picks up with some grand theft auto and vampire magic to help redirect attention, but this doesn’t quite replace the glut of emotion I think most readers will expect in that scene. Ah, well. I suppose even vampires must have a breaking point.

In the end, I would argue that Midnight Sun is better than Twilight, although I think both objectively leave a lot to be desired, just as both have served their purpose and proved wildly entertaining in their own time and place. I don’t expect that Midnight Sun is going to win this series many new readers, however. Even though it is just another iteration of the first book, and would probably work as an entrance to the series, it doesn’t seem intended for that purpose. This is an expansion of known story, not an organic introduction to this world. Furthermore, I suspect this will be the end of the Edward-perspective books, which means anyone looking to jump into this saga is going to have to face Bella’s POV sooner rather than later if they plan to continue reading.

Enough of Edward’s thoughts and motivations are clear here that it’s easy to imagine how and why the rest of the series’ plot unfolds the way it does, and drawing out Edward’s perspective further would feel incredibly repetitive and even more superfluous than it does in Midnight Sun. He’s already (unknowingly) contemplating a lot of the issues that will come up for him in the future: how and why he might leave Bella, what that would feel like, how and why he might come back. Why a physical relationship between them would be dangerous. What he thinks about her potentially becoming a vampire vs staying human. His jealousy. His stance on letting her go or even encouraging a more normal life for her, separate from him. His anxiety when she’s out of sight. His fear of her inevitable death looming above everything else. It’s all here, and I think Meyer provides it with the understanding that it’s all the reader is getting. Midnight Sun adds an indulgent layer, but further books would probably become too cloying. Especially given that the second installment would just be a massive tome of severe depression, given the plot of New Moon.

And yet, despite the doom and gloom and obvious predictability, it is still fun. I suppose this is why wish fulfillment books exist.

“Run, Bella, run. Stay, Bella, stay.”

I enjoyed this read far more than I expected based on my present reading taste; I don’t regret picking it up, I’m excited to talk about it with anyone who’s read it or is planning to read it, and I could even envision doing a reread someday- I’d be curious to try Midnight Sun and Twilight side by side, scene by scene, eventually. But there’s only so much sparkly vampire romance I can take in one dose these days and I’ve hit my limit for now, so I’ll be taking a break.

Have you read or are you planning to read Midnight Sun? Hit me with all your Twilight Saga thoughts down below, I’m in some kind of teenage angst mood.

The Literary Elephant

Reviews: Beach Read and The Gifts of Reading

Here are a couple of bookish books I’ve read recently! Emily Henry’s new romance novel Beach Read was my BOTM pick for April- it’s been a popular release this spring that helped pull me out of a reading slump! Also meant to help with the slump, I’ve been saving Robert Macfarlane’s charming little personal essay, The Gifts of Reading, for a moment I needed a pick-me-up; it’s a tiny little booklet of just 34 pages, but heartwarming and inspiring in spite of its size.

beachreadEmily Henry’s Beach Read is a romance novel in which a romance novelist (January) and a literary fiction writer (Gus) meet again a few years after their college writing class days. Suddenly the two are neighbors, and after being thrown together by the town’s bookshop owner they strike up a competitive friendship and challenge each other to swap genres for the summer. Meanwhile, both are dealing with trauma from their pasts, and use their writing and each other to work through what’s bothering them- which of course brings them even closer together.

“As different as I’d thought we were, it felt a little bit like Gus and I were two aliens who’d stumbled onto each other on Earth only to discover we shared a native language.”

Romance is the only genre in which the reader generally knows exactly how the book will end as soon as the characters are properly introduced- if not before. As someone who doesn’t typically enjoy predictability in any book, what makes a romance novel work for me is a convincing emotional journey- and this is where Beach Read excels. Considerably heavier than most of the romances I’ve read, the main characters in this novel are carrying some serious baggage; there is of course comedic relief and plenty of lighter moments, but even when things are good for January and Gus their hardships are never dismissed to make way for the steamy scenes, but rather become something for the two of them to work through together.

I actually don’t always like bookish books- author name dropping and stories within stories and references to people reading need to provide something to the book beyond cuteness to feel effective; lucky for me, Henry seems to get that, and doesn’t spend a lot of page time dwelling on what her characters are reading and writing. She uses these tactics only where they add something to the plot or characterization rather than letting the focus shift away from the emotional work her characters are putting into their writing and their relationship. Beach Read does include some commentary on romance being just as worthy a genre as literary fiction, though it feels more personal than philosophical because the antagonism is presented through characters who essentially embody their respective genres.

“I know how to tell a story, Gus, and I know how to string a sentence together. If you swapped out all of my Jessicas for Johns, do you know what you’d get? Fiction. Just fiction. Ready and willing to be read by anyone, but somehow by being a woman who writes about women, I’ve eliminated half the Earth’s population from my potential readers, and you know what? I don’t feel ashamed of that. I feel pissed.”

But there were a few details that made the overall effect less effective for me, despite my enthusiasm for the broader strokes.

First, neither of these characters ever asks for consent. This is something I always look for in romance novels, and even though both main characters seemed very self-aware, very considerate, and very attuned to the other’s body language, I can’t help feeling dissatisfied when in 350 pages of romance no consent is asked or given. Bonus points for proper condom usage, but that’s not quite enough to make up for it. Consent is sexy.

Second, and this is certainly subjective, the steamy scenes did not work for me at all. There was a lot of moving around and changing positions that I found overly elaborate and a bit hard to follow, but mainly those scenes just felt a lot less emotionally charged to me than earlier angst in the smaller touches. The language used to describe their more erotic encounters just did nothing for me, which isn’t to say they won’t work better for others.

Third, a lot of Beach Read‘s emotion is driven by miscommunication and lack of communication, which is a peeve of mine. This is an enemies-to-lovers romance, in which the characters are only enemies because they’re misconstruing and making assumptions. Additionally, the MC has some intense family drama going on- a distant mother, a dead father, his all-too-present lover nearby. (None of these are spoilers, they’re all introduced very early as part of the set-up.) While it’s reasonable to misunderstand what another person is doing and to avoid uncomfortable conversations, it frustrates me as a reader when an honest chat or two would essentially solve 300 pages of tension.

Ultimately, I loved the attempt and most of the details but just wasn’t quite swept away by the whole. I liked that Henry made the effort to do something different with this romance; everything about it is a little unexpected- a “beach read” set in flyover country, a romance featuring a lot of death (and a cult!), a romance novelist writing a literary circus tragedy, etc. It should have been the perfect formula to win me over, especially as it leans slightly literary. I like Henry’s writing, and have enjoyed her work in the past as well, but both books of hers that I’ve read now have left me feeling that one of her books might end up being a favorite for me, though this just isn’t it. Maybe my ideal Emily Henry book hasn’t been written yet. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Don’t be fooled- I had a great time with this one and it was perfect for my mood this month. I just don’t think it will be very memorable for me long-term, even though… it could have been.

 

thegiftsofreadingNext, I picked up Robert Macfarlane’s The Gifts of Reading, which was very thoughtfully gifted to me last year! This little nonfiction piece shares some of Macfarlane’s experiences with being gifted certain books throughout his life, and books he likes to give as gifts.

Macfarlane never quite comes out to say that we should gift books more often, but that is certainly the spirit of the piece. He effectively demonstrates that books given freely without expectation can have a profound, even life-altering effect on the reader. Most of the specific titles he mentions are books I haven’t read and don’t consider myself very interested in at this time, but I’m finding myself inspired to embrace book-gifting anew nonetheless, and perhaps to spend a little extra time with the books that others have given me over the years.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Honestly this was hard to rate, it’s so short and such a specific account of book gifting, but I did find it an enjoyable and encouraging read with an overall positive message. I have no idea who I would recommend this to- it is, perhaps, better to stumble across it without knowing too much, and simply let it take you where it will.

 

These two pieces have next to nothing in common, but both discuss books in a way that have restored some of the magic for me. I’ve been complaining about a reading slump for about a month (I swear I’ll stop now), but a little bookish reading turned out to be all I needed to kick it. What’s your favorite book about books?

 

The Literary Elephant

Spotlight on: Romance

Welcome to my Spotlight series! Every month in 2020 I will be focusing on a different genre that I enjoy reading- not because I’m an expert, but because I want to celebrate a worthwhile category of books! I’m hoping this will be a space where everyone feels free to share their experiences with a genre of the month, whether you’ve read one book from the category or a hundred. I’ll share here what Romance means to me, filling the post with titles and recommendations from my own experience, and then I’ll look forward to chatting with you in the comments about icons and recommendations I’ve missed (because that’s inevitable- I haven’t read everything)!

February seems like an obvious time to talk about romance novels, but before we get into it, a quick warning: I’m going to be talking about a wider range of love stories here than the feel-good fluffies; if you’re here for recommendations be aware that not every title mentioned is going to be a heart-warmer! Without further ado…

 

What is Romance?

This genre is of course populated with “meet cutes” (strangers meeting for the first time in adorable ways), friends- or enemies-to-lovers tropes, and newfound love. But in my opinion, romance also encompasses the angst, the unrequited loves, and the doomed/unhealthy/problematic relationships. For me, this genre encompasses all books in which a romantic relationship plays a significant role in plot and/or characterization.

I consider erotica a subgenre of romance.

I also fit books from other genres (for example, fantasy) in the romance genre if there is a strong romantic element; I tend to honor different elements of books by labeling them with every genre that applies, rather than limiting each title to one genre. Because the point of these posts is to share a wide variety within each genre and maybe convince readers to check out bookish elements they otherwise wouldn’t, my goal in this Spotlight series is to offer an expansive view, which will include titles that while relevant aren’t necessarily 100% saturated with the genre in question.

 

My History with Romance

Once Upon a Marigold (Upon a Marigold, #1)As a child I liked the occasional princess fairy tale as much as the next kid, but the only book I can remember reading with any romantic element prior to my teen years is Jean Ferris’s Once Upon a Marigold. This is a fantasy / fairy tale, geared toward an MG/YA audience, but it’s the first book I can remember reading and wanting the characters to be together.

In jr. high I caught the romance bug. There were a couple of years in my early teens when I was reading probably 90% YA romance; by which I mean, I also read a lot of fantasy and a few other genres but almost all of it had a strong romance element, and that was an intentional choice.The Truth About Forever In this era I read all of Sarah Dessen’s books that had been published at the time, her The Truth About Forever still standing as one of my favorite books today. I read everything of Meg Cabot’s that I could get my hands on (The Princess Diaries, anyone?), as well as works by Lurlene McDaniel, Susane Colasanti, Ann Brashares, Jodi Lynn Anderson, and more.

This was the point at which Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight entered my life, and thus began my vampire romance obsession (long ago ended, I’d like to clarify) as well as my preference for romance-based fantasy and sci-fi novels. In this time I read books like L. J. Smith’s The Vampire Diaries, Kristin Cashore’s Graceling, Amelia Atwater-Rhodes’s Hawksong, and Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones. I also sped through Elizabeth Chandler‘s YA paranormal romance novels. 43641. sy475

By high school my tastes were *slightly* more adult, and I graduated to Nicholas Sparks, Janet Evanovich, and Sara Gruen. In college my romance preferences took darker turn, and I picked up books like E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Gray (this has explicit scenes) and V. C. Andrews’s Flowers in the Attic. To round things out I also reached for…

 

Romance Classics

My high school did not require much novel reading, so I started searching for classics on my own. I still felt woefully behind my fellow English majors in college despite those early efforts, so over the years I’ve picked up more classics, including these famous love stories:

The Great GatsbyJane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, and Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. The former, featuring a fastidious orphan who falls in love with an enigmatic man who can’t marry her; the latter, a star-crossed love between a man and woman of unequal social standing. Both are arguably toxic relationships by today’s standards.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, in which a rich man throws elaborate parties and uses his new neighbor in an attempt to reignite an old love.

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, and its sequel Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley. This historical romance takes place in the southern US during the Civil War, its heroine a stubborn and selfish woman who wants what she can’t have. CW for slavery and racism.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, in which a dissatisfied wife leaves her marriage for a more passionate affair, and a rural bachelor falls in love with a woman who wants someone else. CW for suicide.

25853025. sy475 Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare, the famous play of ill-fated lovers from rival families who would rather die than live without each other. CW for suicide.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. CW for rape and pedophilia, of course. This is a romance only from the man’s perspective (he becomes obsessed with a very young teenage girl), though I believe this is more a character study than an attempt to convince readers that the man’s behavior is in any way acceptable. It’s meant to be humanizing and horrifying at once.

The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer. This is perhaps a stretch, but Paris’s love for Helen is the inciting incident of the former (not to mention Achilles’s love for Patroclus as the emotional heart of the story), while the latter’s premise is built on a man trying desperately to return to his wife, who is busy fighting off other suitors because she’s not ready to give up on him. It is romantic.

EmmaRebecca and My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier, gothic romances full of death, secrets, fire, poison…

And of course, it wouldn’t be romance without Jane Austen. I managed to read Northanger Abbey (a romantic spoof on gothic literature) for a college class, and enjoyed it enough to seek out the rest of Austen’s work. I’ve since read Persuasion (a woman allows her family to talk her out of an engagement, which she comes to regret), Pride and Prejudice (a well-off but rude man insults the woman he loves, who holds him accountable for it), Emma (a well-off woman tries to help a friend with less by encouraging a marriage she doesn’t realize is a bad match), and Sense and Sensibility (a pair of sisters have their hearts broken when their loves seem to be attached to other women).

 

Modern Romance Staples and Recommendations

Recently I’ve been reading such love stories as: Sally Rooney’s Normal People (a pair of teenage sweethearts from very different families can’t stay together or let each other go), Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones and the Six (stars from a 70s rock band unite over their love of music), and Helen Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient, followed by The Bride Test– both starring autistic characters who find love (these have explicit scenes).

I’ve also checked out such pop culture icons as Caroline Kepnes’s You (a man meets a woman he likes at a bookshop and proceeds to stalk her), Jojo Moyes’s Me Before You (a woman works as an aid for a paraplegic man who no longer finds his life worthwhile), Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife (a man who slips uncontrollably through time tries to hold on to the woman he loves) and Josie Silver’s One Day in December (a man and woman fall in love after glimpsing each other through a bus window and meet again when he dates her best friend). Red, White & Royal Blue

And, at long last, I’m making an attempt to branch into lgbtq+ romances, including such wonders as Casey McQuiston’s Red, White and Royal Blue (the US President’s son falls in love with the Prince of Wales), Sarah Waters’s The Paying Guests (in historical London a woman is forced to rent part of her family’s home to a couple of lodgers, and finds herself entranced by the new woman), and Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein (in an era when the mind is valued exponentially more than the body and robots may be the world’s inevitable future, a trans man strikes up a relationship with a male scientist). I have plenty of work left to do in this category!

 

But if you’re new to the genre and not sure where to start, I do have some recommendations for entrance points to romance based on other categories you might already enjoy (these are based on my own reading, so it’s not an exhaustive list! If anyone has more ideas, please share them below!):

If you like YA: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, Dumplin’ by Julie Murphey, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

If you like NA: Again, But Better by Christine Riccio, A Million Junes by Emily Henry, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, the Off-Campus Series by Elle Kennedy (these have explicit scenes!)

If you like history: As Bright As Heaven by Susan Meissner, The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah, Atonement by Ian McEwan, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. (Fair warning, these are all rather sad, with light romance, other than Outlander which is borderline explicit)

Outlander (Outlander, #1)If you like sci-fi/fantasy: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (a tragic romance, to be clear), Providence by Caroline Kepnes, 11/22/63 by Stephen King

If you like literary: The Pisces by Melissa Broder (this has explicit scenes), Animals Eat Each Other by Elle Nash (this has explicit scenes), Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney, Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

If you’re ready to dive straight into something steamy: Christina Lauren, Sally Thorne, Colleen Hoover

Like any other genre, categorization of romance is not determined upon hard rules. You may disagree with my placement of some of the books I’ve mentioned above, and you may call something romance that I wouldn’t. All’s fair! Genres are slippery, and their main purpose (other than helping publishers market books) is simply to guide readers toward similar books they might also enjoy. Hopefully showcasing some of the many facets of the genre will help anyone who’s not sure where to go next find something that appeals!

 

Romance on my TBR:

Beach ReadI’m planning to pick up some of Tessa Bailey‘s work, and more from Sarah Waters. I’m looking forward to Emily Henry’s 2020 release, Beach Read, and Helen Hoang’s 2021 title, The Heart Principle. I have one Jane Austen novel left: Mansfield Park. I also want to make a point of reading more lgbtq+ romance specifically. (Recommendations welcome!)

Other titles and authors not currently on my TBR that you might be familiar with and/or interested in: The Selection by Kiera Cass,  Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins, Bared to You by Sylvia Day (this has explicit scenes), The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, The Princess Bride by William Goldman, My Not So Perfect Life by Sophie Kinsella.

 

Why Read Romance?

I read romance because it reminds me that people are good. I don’t often read purely for escapism, but romance is a genre I like to reach for when I want to see the world in a better light. These books teach me that people can change, that people care about each other, and that money doesn’t always make the world go round. I also pick up romance because I enjoy character studies, and love tends to be a huge facet of human motivation. This genre encourages sympathizing with other perspectives and considering one’s morals.

 

Your turn

We’ve reached the part where I encourage you to drop a comment below sharing anything you love (or don’t) about this genre. Tell me about your own experiences, good and bad! If you have recommendations, if you’re looking for recommendations, if you have questions or hangups that stop you from reaching for romance, mention them below! I’m not trying to pressure anyone into reading what they don’t want to, but I’d love to discuss anything and everything about the genre. That’s the point of this post! A genre can mean something different to everyone, so to take a wider view, I’d love to see what it means to you.

Thank you, in advance, for participating! 🙂

 

The Literary Elephant

 

 

Review: Sense and Sensibility (book and film)

Very soon I’ll be sharing my Spotlight post for February, which focuses on the romance genre. One of the books I read this month to help put me in the right frame of mind is a popular classic I’d been meaning to read for ages: Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Though I always adore Austen’s writing, this one actually turned out to be my least favorite of her novels (so far- I still have Mansfield Park left on my TBR)! Fortunately there is a film version I’m partial to!

senseandsensibilityIn the novel, Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters are forced from their familiar home after the late Mr. Dashwood leaves the property to his son, born to a previous wife. The women move into Barton cottage courtesy of a distant relative. The change of location separates Elinor, the eldest Dashwood daughter, from a close, loving friendship with her brother-in-law; it also introduces many new characters into their lives, including a man that Marianne falls instantly in love with, and another who falls instantly in love with her. Elinor’s reserve and Marianne’s no-holds-barred approach to romance may seem wildly different, though their relationships share significant parallels and both girls must accept that they could learn something from the other’s behavior.

“I wish as well as everybody else to be perfectly happy, but like everybody else, it must be in my own way.”

As always, Austen manages to use her characters’ personalities to convey truths both acknowledged and unspoken in early nineteenth century British society. Though very few criticisms are spelled out explicitly, Austen’s insight and skill are readily apparent. In Sense and Sensibility, we see how difficult life could be in this time and place for women who can neither inherit fortunes nor earn them. Marrying well was one of very few options for a woman to improve her circumstances, made more difficult by the fact that even men with money sometimes could not be persuaded to marry “beneath” themselves.

Another tactic Austen employs here is to populate the novel with pairs of opposites- almost every single married couple that appears in these pages is described in such a way that leaves everyone (characters and readers alike) wondering how these people ended up together. Inexplicably cheery wives with permanently grumpy husbands. Boring women concerned primarily with appearances matched with amiable husbands who like any and all company and diversions, taste be damned. Even Elinor (sense) and Marianne (sensibility) are very different personalities that can leave the reader wondering how the sisters can possibly get along so well, so often do they disagree. By bringing these disparate personalities together in surprisingly agreeable ways, Austen makes her point that there’s an ideal middle point between extremes, that rather than one way of thinking being better than its opposite we need instead a bit of both, a happy medium.

“It would be an excellent match, for he was rich and she was handsome.”

The novel’s failing, on the other hand, is that there is very little momentum, stemming from a noticeable lack of Austen’s signature brand of romance. Despite two parallel love stories introduced very early on, this book is rather full of heartbreak and lost love, the heroic couples of the tale seeing little actual page time which limits even the angst of unrequited love. Elinor goes to such lengths to convince everyone that she’s not in love that it begins to seem true, and Marianne’s relationship with her husband-to-be is nonexistent until the book’s final chapter.

Actually, let’s talk a bit more about Marianne and the man who’s in love with her, because this relationship actually left me a bit uncomfortable. First, there’s the fact that this man apparently falls instantly in love with her upon first sight, based on her looks, possibly her musical ability, and the fact that she reminds him strongly of another woman. Though he is unfailingly polite to her throughout the book and characters who know him well are not shy about announcing his obvious emotion, Marianne does not pay any attention to him. She is not interested at all. But he hangs around, hoping to win her over. Then we see him form a close friendship with Elinor; the two become confidants, actually spending more time together and seeming better suited for one another than this man would with Marianne. Only at the very end of the book, when Marianne is resigned to having lost the romance she wanted, or realizing that it was never the romance she saw it to be, does she look at this other man and realize he’s quite good enough. It’s awkward and rather emotionless, to be honest.

I think it’s clear through the writing that Sense and Sensibility was Austen’s first published work. Her talent is undeniable; the characters and themes do carry quite a lot of weight here and ultimately do make this book worth the read, but the storytelling seems less polished and engrossing on a surface level than the other works I’ve read from this author.

“The more I know of the world, the more am I convinced that I shall never see a man whom I can really love. I require so much!”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Romance is not a genre I reach for with great frequency; to be honest, before reading any of Jane Austen’s novels, I had the impression that I would find them frivolous, the effort of reading the older style not worth the payoff. Luckily I had to read Northanger Abbey in college, and have loved Austen’s writing ever since. Her writing is intelligent and fun at once, and it remains one of my greatest bookish sadnesses that her body of work is not larger. Even as my least favorite of her novels, I found this one impressive and enjoyable.

 

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that any faith I might have lost in reading Sense and Sensibility was restored to me upon watching the 1995 adaptation, starring Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Kate Winslet, and Hugh Grant.Image result for sense and sensibility film

Interestingly, I’ve been watching this film for over ten years thinking Marianne was the Dashwood sister worth focusing on. She’s loud, her adventures in love are front and center, and the other characters pay a lot of attention to her and her feelings. But after reading the novel, which focuses primarily on Elinor’s perspective, I saw another layer to this story that I had previously missed while only watching the film.

This adaptation does Austen’s novel immense justice. It follows the original plot well enough, but the changes I did notice in the film seemed to the story’s benefit, fitting very naturally with Austen’s written themes and characterization. The best part is that it plays up the romance, making the watch a much more emotionally engaging experience than the read. Marianne spends sufficient screen time with her husband-to-be to smooth the rough edges of that relationship; it’s so well done after all that for years I had thought their relationship was the highlight of the story. This time around though, I identified much more with Elinor and found myself appreciating her quieter romance to a much greater extent than I had when I first watched this film at 12 or 13. Austen’s smart commentary is still present, and I like to think she’d be pleased with this take on her first novel.

Even if you’re not into reading classics, or just aren’t interested in this novel in particular, I highly recommend checking out this film instead if you’re at all a fan of the romance genre.

Have you read or watched Sense and Sensibility? Is there another Austen novel or adaptation that you prefer above this one?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Red, White and Royal Blue

I can’t let February go by without picking up some romance, and what better choice could I have started with than the highly popular Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston, which I was lame enough to miss out on last year? I think this was my first time reading a m/m romance (though I’ve read m/m relationships in other genres), and I highly enjoyed it!

redwhiteandroyalblueIn the novel, US President Ellen Claremont and her two (adult) biracial children live in the White House Residence. Alex, in his last year of undergrad classes and harboring big political dreams of his own, finds himself in an unpleasant situation when he and his nemesis, Prince Henry of Wales, accidentally topple an expensive cake at a royal wedding. Thrown together in a public display of friendship to avoid an international relations nightmare, Alex begins to realize he may have judged Henry too hastily, and the fake friendship soon turns into something very much more.

“His brain is struggling to keep up, running through about five thousand possible ways this could go, imagining himself ten years down the road being frozen out of Congress, plummeting approval ratings, Henry’s name scratched off the line of succession, his mother losing reelection on a swing state’s disapproval of him.”

The narration is third person, though it mainly follows Alex’s life over the course of about a year. The text includes news headlines and articles, lists, text messages, emails, and quotes from private letters of various historical persons as well as the expected straightforward prose. Alex is an interesting character to follow, in the national spotlight just enough to give the reader a bit of White House drama without the politics overshadowing the romance. He has Mexican and American heritage, and is just discovering that he’s bisexual; he knows he needs a bit of luck and a lot of hard work to succeed on a national platform, and his can-do attitude about it is endearing. I would’ve liked all of the characters to have slightly more distinctive personalities, but the fact that they’re uniformly skilled, confident, hopeful, and kind certainly doesn’t hurt.

The romance itself is as cute as one would expect, but what really impressed me was the general positivity permeating this alternate reality. The story is set in a world where a kick-ass democratic woman with Mexican-American children and on her second marriage wins the presidential election in 2016, which results in a gloriously diverse, open-minded cast. One of Alex’s role models is an openly gay Latino Senator; one of his closest friends is the Vice President’s bisexual granddaughter. Alex’s family is open-minded and supportive, and even with his parents’ divorce and high-profile careers (his dad is a Senator as well) everyone mostly gets along and makes time for each other. It’s all wonderfully escapist and wholesome, and I loved the vibe just as much as the queer love story that plays out across this backdrop.

There are a few bumps in the road of course, especially with the love interest being a member of the British monarchy and thus coming from a long line of people to whom acknowledged homosexuality (Henry is gay) is completely unacceptable. Some of his family want him to hide the truth of who he is, and expect him to take up the traditional role of a prince, including marrying a woman and “producing heirs.” He handles it as well as anyone could. But despite the challenges, this is definitely a light-hearted, positive, happy-ending story. It’s empowering and encouraging. If you want to read a male/male romance that isn’t going to break you and shows the good guys winning for once, this is a strong contender.

” ‘I’ve always felt it, in him. There’s this side of him that’s… unknowable.’ He takes a breath. ‘But the thing is, jumping off cliffs is kinda my thing. That’s the choice. I love him, with all that, because of all that. On purpose. I love him on purpose.”

But, after all this praise, it wasn’t quite a perfect read for me. I had a handful of small issues with the story:

  • The enemies-to-lovers arc is a bit too abrupt and flimsy for me. Alex and Henry are never proper enemies, and they figure it out fast.
  • There are a lot of sex scenes, which I don’t mind on principle, but it bothers me that every single encounter between our main characters ends with intercourse, invariably.  It kills the spontaneity and begins to feel formulaic.
  • The political content feels fluffy and idealistic. I think that’s a necessary choice in keeping with the tone of the book, but it detracts slightly from the realistic feel of the narrative.
  • “The media” feels like a single entity rather than a complex web of differing opinions. In the wake of the cake fiasco, all headlines are in agreement. When the fake friendship is advertised, all headlines are in agreement (and somehow no one suspects a cover up?). When Alex and Henry think about what it would mean for their relationship to go public, they assume all headlines will damn their decision. I expected more nuance to reporting and public opinion, especially with Alex’s sister dreaming of a career in journalism.
  • I would’ve liked a little more depth and insight into some of the character dynamics, like: the international friendships, Alex’s sister being the only member of the family disinterested in a political career, the fact that Alex’s parents are kind of inaccessible, etc. I think there was a lot more room for commentary and exploration here than McQuiston ultimately went into.

But in the end, Red, White and Royal Blue walks a fine line between realistic queer romance and pure political escapism, and it went a long way toward cheering me up and making me feel optimistic about the world again. McQuiston writes:

“What I hoped to do, and what I hope I have done with this book by the time you’ve finished it, my dear reader, is to be a spark of joy and hope you needed.”

Under that criteria, it’s a resounding success.

A final note: I’m not gay, bisexual, Latino, British, male, royalty, or political, so I can’t comment on the authenticity of the representation, and I’m not sure how many of those categories McQuiston herself claims, but I thought all characters were handled respectfully.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I can’t help nitpicking things in romance novels. But even though I would’ve changed a couple of things, I did absolutely adore this reading experience and 10/10 will be reading McQuiston’s next book. Sadly, it looks like I’ll have to wait until 2021 for that.

 

The Literary Elephant

Reviews: One Day in December, The Kingdom of Copper, and The Institute

First off, apologies to anyone who wanted to share a comment on my last post and wasn’t able to, thanks to a WordPress glitch. I’ve corrected the post settings and the comment box is back now, so I’ll link it here just in case: Reviews: Know My Name and The Body in Question. (No worries if you don’t want to comment, of course.)

For today, I’ve got another set of short reviews. These don’t have anything in common except for the time period in which I read them, so feel free to skip around if you prefer.

onedayindecemberJosie Silver’s One Day in December is a popular romance novel that I received last Christmas and waited all year for the right time to pick it up! In the end, reading this between Christmas and New Year’s was really the highlight of my experience. It’s formatted as a set of New Year’s resolutions followed by snippets from the year, over the course of a decade.

Other than the perfect timing, a lot of this story just didn’t work for me. First, it’s the least romantic romance I’ve ever read. The main couple “meet” in the first five pages of the book by glimpsing each other through a bus window. This moment was supposedly important enough that neither of them are able to fully love anyone else afterward. Through ten years of narration, we follow both of them as they date various other people; the romance we’re unarguably supposed to be rooting for through nearly 400 pages doesn’t come together until the LAST PAGE of the book. So, no steamy scenes between the two of them, and for most of the interim they can’t even be honest or open with each other. (Where’s the romance?!)

To some extent, I appreciate the longer timeline and the messy relationships, but I didn’t feel that the author used this setup to develop much of a rapport between the two main characters. Both the man and the woman find excellent partners in these 10 years that I would have rather seen them with than each other, which is partially due to the fact that the reader simply spends more time with those couples than the main ship. Even with 390+ pages and ten years’ worth of plot, we don’t really get to know any of the main characters well enough. The writing is so much telling rather than showing, to the point where the characters remain completely unpredictable because they don’t exhibit clear personalities or motives. They seem more like vehicles to push us through this story rather than just, you know, being the story. This made it impossible to invest emotionally, a crucial flaw in a romance.

“Despite the fairy-tale snowstorm out there, this isn’t Narnia. This is London, real life, where hearts get kicked and bruised and broken, but somehow they still keep beating.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Full disclosure, I think I’ll end up lowering this rating after some time has passed. I had low expectations going in and picked it up at a time when I wanted something light and inconsequential so I didn’t hate the read, but I think it will be the complaints that stick with me most.

thekingdomofcopperI read S. A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass, the first book in her Daevabad trilogy, almost an entire year ago, and I don’t think I did it justice in my (3-star) review. I remember my expectations not quite fitting what I actually knew about the book (that it’s the first in a Muslim, Middle Eastern high fantasy series), so that’s on me. I also remember feeling a bit disappointed in the use of a few tropes, which seemed to be driving the story in a predictable direction. Long story short, my expectations for The Kingdom of Copper were a bit wonky when I picked it up soon after, and I am now relieved that I set it aside in March and finished it in December. This was the better time for it in my reading life.

I don’t want to say much about the plot since this is a sequel, but in this second volume Chakraborty leaves the cliches behind and gives us three well-developed characters who are growing and changing in interesting ways, who are all brought together into the same conflict, on different sides of the issue. The magic and politics are intriguing, the world-building is excellent, and the characterization is absolutely superb- I found all three POVs equally engaging, which is rare and didn’t happen for me even in the first book of this series. If you enjoy adult high fantasy, this is really a stellar trilogy so far. I can’t wait to see how it all comes together in The Empire of Gold (out in June 2020).

“I know what it’s like to have ambitions, to be the cleverest in the room- and have those ambitions crushed. To have men who are less than you bully and threaten you into a place you know you don’t belong.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. It’s my own fault, but it was definitely a bit jarring trying to jump back into this right in the middle. I think my ratings could definitely change (for the better) in a proper reread of all three books together.

theinstituteMuch to my surprise, after this buddy read went off the rails in early December, my friend and I suddenly decided to try finishing Stephen King’s The Institute in the last three days of the year (while also wrapping up other books)- and succeeded! Aside from that rewarding victory, this was a mixed bag for me.

On one hand, this started out so promisingly with an interesting ex-cop on an unhurried adventure, picking up an old-timey job in a random small town when struck with a whim. As soon as he’s settled in what is foreshadowed to be an important location to the overall plot, the narration switches to a genius boy of twelve who’s taking his SATs (as a formality) in preparation of beginning his college education at two elite schools- at the same time. But something happens that he doesn’t see coming- he’s kidnapped and taken to a secret facility in Maine where children with light psychic abilities are tested, used, and abused. Of course if anyone can figure out a way to stop what’s happening there, it’s the genius kid, and so a large turn of events is set in motion as soon as he arrives. Looks good, right? Unfortunately, it started unraveling for me about right at that point.

My biggest issue was simply that I didn’t buy it. The secret place where thousands of kids have been held captive over the course of 50+ years and used as psychic tools by conspiratorial adults could have been fantastic if it had been a bit more grounded and developed, but instead it feels like a quick sketch of an idea that’s not entirely thought out. There’s no nuance to the adults at this facility, they’re absurdly cruel and apathetic without reasonable explanations. The tests sound cool and retro (“shots for dots”) or provide a vivid image (the immersion tank), but they don’t make much sense. The plot is riddled with holes (it definitely shouldn’t have taken a genius to escape this place), the Stranger Things and even Miss Peregrine’s vibes are weak and doesn’t carry the story, the characters begin to feel less like people and more like plot devices the longer the book goes on. I also kept having to double check that this is set in modern day because the kids don’t speak and behave like modern day kids.

That’s a lot of complaining, but the worst part is King’s tone deafness. In The Institute he commonly refers to a group of kids as “gorks.” These are kids who’ve been kidnapped and abused to the point of essentially losing their minds, and it feels incredibly unfair of him to lump them together with such a thoughtless, hurtful term. Near the end of the book, there’s one character who tries to urge the others not to say “gorks” because its rude, but within two pages she admits it’s too hard not to, and everyone goes on using this term without another thought. This seems to indicate that King knew he would be called out for insensitivity, but either didn’t understand why or didn’t care enough to remove the offensive comments. (And I haven’t even started on how the one woman on the small town police force was “never cut out to be a cop.”)

I’ll leave The Institute at this: I like the core idea and the first third of the book was a 4- or even 5-star read for me, but the execution fell apart in the latter half. I hope King will continue to publish future novels, because I’d really like to see him do better, for old times’ sake.

“It was so simple, but it was a revelation: what you did for yourself was what gave you the power.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I enjoyed bits and pieces, I enjoyed the buddy read experience (as always), but this one is going nowhere near my favorites list.

Have you read any of these? What did you think?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

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