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

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

toalltheboysi'velovedbefore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Literary Elephant

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Review: Lord of Shadows

I’m not sure if the release date for Dark Artifices book 3 (Queen of Air and Darkness) got pushed back or if I just wasn’t paying enough attention to it in the first place, because I thought I needed to be prepared to read it by February or March, not December 2018. That’s why I decided to pick up Cassandra Clare’s Lady Midnight and Lord of Shadows (Dark Artifices books 1 and 2) in January. I hope I will remember them well enough when book three is published, because after reading Lord of Shadows this week I know I’m definitely going to be reading the final book of this trilogy ASAP.

lordofshadowsAbout the book: Emma is trying to prevent the parabatai curse from befalling her and Julian by convincing him that she’s not in love with him. In the midst of that emotional turmoil, there’s a dangerous trip into Faerie that sets a new adventure in motion. The Seelie Queen wants to make a deal with the Blackthorns– a deal that involves finding Annabelle and the Black Volume. But she’s not the only one with an interest in the book, which means Emma, Cristina, and the Blackthorns need to watch out for some new deadly enemies. No one is sure whether Kieran is on the Blackthorns’ side now, or how far they can trust the Centurions who come looking for Malcolm. And where is Annabelle? What will she do next? Is she truly alive?

“We fear things because we value them. We fear losing people because we love them. We fear dying because we value being alive. Don’t wish you didn’t fear anything. All that would mean is that you didn’t feel anything.”

One thing that Lord of Shadows does better than Lady Midnight is to let the inevitable forbidden love angst stand behind the rest of the plot. Sure, Emma and Julian still love each other and that’s still a problem, but they’re trying to solve it by moving on, which means the rest of the story can take precedence. And it’s a great story. There are surprising twists woven throughout the book, and hints at what the final book of the trilogy will pull from its sleeves. The characters are coming into their own a little more, changing and becoming stronger and finding their own places in the story. We get more perspectives, more of Christina and Mark, more of the other Blackthorn siblings, more Kit. I find I care more about Emma and Julian when the narration takes a step back from their tortured love story.

“I think you cannot root out love entirely. I think where there has been love, there will always be embers, as the remains of a bonfire outlast the flame.”

It’s also great to see farther inside of Faerie with this trilogy. It’s a darkly whimsical place, and it rounds out the Downworld side of Clare’s Shadowhunter novels– we’ve seen vampires, warlocks, werewolves, and of course Nephilim, but faeries only in passing. Lord of Shadows takes the reader a step out of the mundane world for a whole new aspect of Clare’s Shadowhunting universe. Even in fantasy novels, it’s wonderful to see all perspectives represented.

Speaking of representation, Lord of Shadows covers a wide range of more familiar diversity topics as well. While Shadowhunter books have always been advocates of diversity, I have to admit that aspect is starting to feel a little more forced. It did to me in Lord of Shadows, anyway. For example, there’s a transgender character who reveals her medical history seemingly for the sole purpose of receiving an acceptance speech from another character. Accepting transgender characters is good, but it felt like it was just pushed into the story so that Clare could write about being accepting of it. If this character had made a stand against the Clave and the law that prevents her from holding the job she wants because of her gender identity, this reveal would’ve fit into the story a whole lot better. But the law goes unchallenged even hypothetically, and I don’t understand why.

There are good examples too, though. Like Mark’s conflicting loves for Cristina and Kieran. The conflict isn’t in the fact that he’s bisexual and loves both a boy and a girl, the conflict is in the fact that one of them is a faerie and one is a Shadowhunter; Mark is caught between two worlds, and his relationships are a reflection of that. It fits into the story as more than a display of bisexuality.

As long as we’re on the topic of love, I think I’ve finally realized my biggest pet peeve with Cassandra Clare books: every single character seems to be romantically interested in basically every character he or she could ever possibly ever be romantically interested in. There’s something about the narration that makes every routine introduction between characters oddly charged. Every friendship also seems to include both parties being especially aware of the other person’s body and love life. Every gesture and sentence is noticed by someone in some romantic way. Clare’s just covering all the bases for angst, I guess, but can’t anyone just be friends? Can’t they just be casual acquaintances? Is there really that much romance in life? Am I missing out?

But that’s a small matter. Clare readers who’ve been interested in the Shadowhunter novels this long know they’re at least partially in it for the forbidden romance. Let’s go back to diversity.

I especially appreciate the Greek and Roman references in this trilogy, though I am a little disappointed we’re getting so many Latin phrases and quotes from ancient Rome without much reference to the mythology. Especially with a character named Diana after “the goddess of the hunt,” I expected a little more. But I’ve been loving practicing my Spanish skills every time Cristina or Diego forget to speak English. There are some great names thrown in when Shadowhunters from all over the world meet for missions or meetings. And even our main characters do some traveling to show readers a bit of variety in culture. Even though Idris is a made-up place, it’s even exciting to see the differences between real places and fictional ones. Fantasy is a genre uniquely capable of uniting very different peoples and creating spaces where peace and harmony are possible in ways we don’t see anywhere yet in reality. It gives readers a goal, something to strive for in real life even where there aren’t Shadowhunters and Downworlders fighting to the death.

“Fiction is truth, even if it is not fact. If you believe only in facts and forget stories, your brain will live, but your heart will die.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This is the same rating I gave Lady Midnight, but I definitely liked Lord of Shadows better. And I’m hope book 3 will impress me even more. I’m so excited (even though I’m a month late to count it as a successful end to my 2017 goal) to finally have finished my Shadowhunter reading marathon! I have now officially read all the Shadowhunter books currently published, and it feels good. I’m glad I kept going this far even though I haven’t loved every Clare book I’ve read in the past year. I’m still waiting for the Clave to be reorganized, though. Still. Waiting.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Lady Midnight

One of my 2017 goals (that I failed) was to read all of the books Cassandra Clare has so far published. At the time I set that goal, Lady Midnight was the most recent title, but Lord of Shadows was imminent. Now I’m finally finishing those up because better late than never, right? I just read Lady Midnight, the first book in the Dark Artifices trilogy, which is a sort of continuation from the Mortal Instruments series. You can read Lady Midnight without going through all those other Shadowhunter novels, but you probably will have the best sense of who’s who and what’s going on if you do read Clare’s books in publication order. (You can check out my review for City of Bones if you’re just getting started!)

ladymidnightAbout the book: Five years have passed since the Dark War in which Sebastian (Johnathon) Morgenstern tried to take over the world with his evil army. Julian Blackthorn and Emma Carstairs are parabatai now, and still live in the Los Angeles Institute with all of Julian’s younger siblings, who rely on him as their guardian. After years of dead ends and false hope, Emma has finally found a clue that could crack the mystery of her parents’ murder, and of course the Blackthorns will help her en masse, no matter how dangerous or twisted the investigation becomes. The Fae, currently on the Nephilim blacklist, make an interesting proposition to the Los Angeles Institute regarding the murder investigation; it means more risk for Emma and the Blackthorns, but also brings Mark back into the family– at least for a little while.

” ‘The world is terrible,’ said Mark tonelessly. ‘And some are drawn down into it and drown there, and some rise above and carry others with them.’ “

There are beautiful and powerful sentiments scattered throughout Clare’s novels, and Lady Midnight is no exception. But the farther I get into Clare’s oeuvre, I’m noticing that those poignant sentences are hidden under a lot more fluff. The books keep getting longer (my copy of Lady Midnight is 669 pages before the extra content sections in the back) but it seems that less is actually happening. At this point, part of the problem is that so much space is needed to recap previous events in this massive series because everything in the Shadowhunter world is intertwined, and Clare loves name-dropping past beloved characters even when it’s not really necessary to her current plots.

Sometimes Clare hits it spot-on with the humor, especially in the dialogue. But the humor in Lady Midnight often feels forced. Jokes are often followed by explanations that ruin them, random comments are too unnatural and “silly” to be amusing. The same lines and phrases are used over and over again, or sarcasm is brought into situations where it feels out of place. It fell pretty flat for me in this novel.

I think if Clare had written this story in about 200 fewer pages, a lot of these little annoyances would’ve worked themselves out.

But let’s take a look at Lady Midnight‘s central characters:

“She felt suddenly old, not just seventeen instead of twelve, but old. Old in her heart, and too late. Surely if she were going to find her parents’ murderer she would have done so by now.”

  • Emma is described as reckless and brave, and the leader of the group– into battle, at least. But there’s a line between being brave and being careless, and sometimes it feels like Emma makes unintelligent choices just to further the plot, and the others dismiss her rashness too easily.
  • Julian almost falls into that horrible trope where a lack of communication is really the biggest obstacle to his perceived problems, but I do think Emma changes enough throughout the course of the novel that it’s justifiable that he doesn’t try to talk to her openly right away. Many of his “secrets” are obvious before they’re officially revealed, but he’s a good liar, which keeps him interesting.
  • Cristina is a brand new and intriguing character, but so far she’s pretty bland. I could see how eventually it might come in handy to have a main character outside of the Blackthorn family tree, though that hasn’t been necessary to the plot yet. Her backstory is interesting and she seems like she could have a strong personality if she’s developed a bit more, which would make her less superfluous.
  • And then there are all the younger siblings. It was hard for me to keep them straight at first because for a while the reader is only being told about them instead of actually seeing them moving through the novel. I was more interested in seeing them take part in the investigation than in seeing Emma and Julian describe their mannerisms and hobbies.
  • Mark is great. It’s fascinating to see him straddling the line between two worlds, two lives. There’s a depth to his character that isn’t immediately apparent but ensures that he’s more than an object in a tug-of-war between the faeries and the Blackthorns.
  • And Kit Rook– easily my favorite character. He has only a few POV sections and not much action yet, but the things he is involved in are game-changing. His knowledge of the Black Market and its visitors, his skewed view of Shadowhunters, his criminal father, and his eavesdropping on questionable critters from the basement suggest he’s going to provide a unique vantage point to this trilogy going forward.

” ‘Everyone is more than one thing,’ said Kieran. ‘We are more than single actions we undertake, whether they be good or evil.’ “

(On a side note, what is the point of the wild hunt? They’re always described so poetically but… vaguely. They ride among the stars, through storms, with the wind… but for what purpose? What do they actually do? Does anyone know?)

I just don’t love Clare’s books like I did back when The Mortal Instruments was just a trilogy that I binged on a whim. Even in my reread of those first Clare books last year I still had some love for the early novels, but the later books don’t have that same spark for me. The ‘forbidden love’ theme is getting boring, the actual plots– wars and murders and evil robots and whatnot– take so long to play out. But every time I read another book, I’m encouraged to keep going, just one more. I still like something about them, though at this point it’s hard to say exactly what. I guess I keep waiting for the Clave to get what’s coming to them. I’ve been waiting since their bad rules were introduced in City of Bones, but the Shadowhunters are taking an awfully long time to get around to fixing their laws.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was a solid 3-star read for me until the last 50 pages, to be honest. Everything was really coming together well at the end and it made me so hopeful for Lord of Shadows (Lady Midnight‘s sequel). I keep thinking “maybe I’ll quit reading Clare’s books after this one,” but then once I start reading I remember why I appreciated them so much in the first place. My goal is to finish with the old releases so that I can read her new novels as they are published.

Further recommendations:

  1. Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows is the first book in an excellent YA fantasy duology. It features a group of misfits who are maybe friends or maybe just stuck together by circumstance. Either way, they have to work together to carry out an impossible heist. The stakes are high, the betrayals are vicious, and the characters are bold and lovable. It’s also full of underlying morals of fighting for equality, justice, and peace.
  2. Sarah J. Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses series is a fantasy tale of romance and righting the wrongs of the higher powers in charge. If you like Clare’s battles between good and evil, Maas’s stories will probably also appeal to you. In my opinion, you just have to push through this first book to get to the good stuff in the rest of the trilogy, which is a similar battle to pushing through the fluff of Clare’s increasingly long novels for the excitement of the plot.

Are you a Shadowhunter reader? If you are, do you prefer her earliest books, or the latest ones? I guess I’m asking if the excessive length of her newer books is still worth the story? I’m on the fence.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Update: here’s a link to my review of the next book in this series, Lord of Shadows!