Here’s to Us (Book Review)

This is an A+ cover

I was very excited to get an ARC of Here’s to Us by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera. They are independently two of my favorite writers and both solidly on my auto-buy list. I very much enjoyed their first collaboration, What if it’s Us?, although it wasn’t necessarily my favorite from them (Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is my favorite from Albertalli; Silvera’s novels are all spectacular in different ways, but I find History is All You Left Me the most powerful and Infinity Son the most fun). I was unsure what I’d feel about Here’s to Us, though, for one major reason: I liked the ambiguous ending of the original novel.

What’s it about?

It’s been two years since we last caught up with Ben and Arthur, whose fate-fueled summer romance was maturely cut short when Arthur returned home after his New York internship. Now, though, he’s back in the big city for an internship and despite the fact that both he and Ben have boyfriends, there are definitely still feelings left over. 

What’d I think?

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

This is one of those books that’s very hard to discuss without spoiling the end. That’s why I held this review back until the book is officially released and am putting a spoiler warning on it. The only real spoiler I’m going to give is the big one—whether or not Ben and Arthur get their happily ever after—but that’s a doozy, so if you don’t want to know, now’s the time to click away. 

So. I really liked What if it’s Us? but I was never fully sold on Ben and Arthur as a couple. Individually I love their characters, but I never felt like they had all that much romantic chemistry. Throughout the whole book, it felt like they were both trying a little too hard to make something out of nothing. They believed in fate, but fate never brought them together; they wanted to go for it, so they forced it. For clarity: that’s not a bad thing. If anything, I like that message. Fate isn’t going to do the work for you. If you want something, you have to make it happen. And there’s the flipside too, which is sometimes it simply takes too much work. At the end of What if it’s Us?, Ben and Arthur decided to break up because their circumstances were against them. Getting together was a choice. Being together was a choice. And, ultimately, breaking up was a choice as well.

What if it’s Us? is realistic about love, and particularly young love. Because Ben and Arthur know that they have a definite timeline to their relationship, they both carefully consider whether it is worth pursuing. Ben puts serious thought into being Arthur’s first, hoping that even if they break up Arthur will be able to look back without regrets. When they break up at the end of the novel I loved it. Even aside from the fact that I never shipped them (weirdly, I spent the whole book half hoping Ben and Hudson would make up, because the little flashbacks to their time together felt more emotionally charged to me), I was impressed by the maturity of a YA romance that acknowledged that first loves are not always last loves, but that they can be special and life changing despite that.

Are there people who marry their high school sweetheart? Of course. Are there people who fall in love once and never look at a second person? Sure. But that is not true of most people or most relationships. As much as I love a well-written teen romance, I understand that in the real world most teen romances are teen romances. It was exciting to read a novel that looked at a teen romance and said, “Yes, this is real. Yes, this is beautiful. Yes, this is important. And the fact that it ends doesn’t take anything away from that.” I was so excited by that, I was actually disappointed by the epilogue the first time because it felt too cheesy, too easy. I didn’t think that Albertalli and Silvera needed to leave an obvious door open for Ben and Arthur. On my reread—which I enjoyed more than the first time around, strangely—I was less bothered by it because it wasn’t quite as blatantly yeah they’re back together as I’d remembered. It’s a cracked door, not one flung wide.

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Our Country Friends (Book Review)

So the good news is that I eventually read a book club book that wasn’t terrible. The bad news is that I still didn’t like it all that much. I probably would’ve said it was one of the worse books I’d read this year if the other ones hadn’t been so ludicrously terrible. When compared with books like The Paper Palace or The Death of Jane Lawrence, Gary Shteyngart’s Our Country Friends comes off as inoffensively boring. It improves some over discussion, but it’s certainly not one that I would widely recommend.

What’s it about?

When the COVID-19 pandemic hits, downtrending Russian writer Sasha Senderovsky invites his friends over to wait it out with him, his wife, and his daughter in their bungalows. Also in attendance is a hugely famous Actor who is begrudgingly attached to a TV adaptation of one of Sasha’s novels; Sasha, who needs the revenue from the adaptation, hopes that his hospitality will be enough to finally get the project off the ground.

What’d I think?

Rating: 2 out of 5.

I’m just going to admit upfront that I didn’t really understand the end of this book. Do you ever have those moments when you’ve mentally checked out of a book that’s been limping along too long? I was done with Our Country Friends about 70% of the way through, and then it got really surreal and stream-of-consciousnessy and even though as I was reading I was like ‘I do not know what’s happening‘ I couldn’t muster up the attention needed to figure it out. I stopped several times and pointedly asked myself: “Should I go back and reread this? Should I step away and come back when I can pay closer attention?” Every time I decided that it didn’t feel worth it. 

For that reason, I’m not going to talk about or consider the end at all. Is it possible the ending is totally brilliant and could’ve saved this book entirely? Absolutely. But I’m just going to talk about why the beginning/middle didn’t work for me, and why I was bored enough to check out before the end. 

For starters, pandemic fatigue. We lived through this thing. We’re still living through this thing. Every time we turn on the news, we hear about COVID. No, we’re not in lockdown anymore, but it wasn’t that long ago. A few decades from now, Our Country Friends will be a more appealing read. We’ll (hopefully) have some distance between us and COVID. Maybe someone will pick this book up who didn’t live through the worst of the pandemic. For now, though, this novel just felt like revisiting a period that we were all too eager to leave behind. Yes, this is an excellent account of the fear and uncertainty. But I was there for that. I don’t need to experience it secondhand through these characters.

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Fresh (Book Review)

I’d been looking forward to Fresh by Margot Wood for a while. I saw a short video of Wood talking about it shortly before its publication and it sounded like a book I absolutely could not afford to miss. A modern-day queer retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma? Yes, please. I requested it from the library almost immediately, but the library must have lost it or something because I was number one on the list for nearly four months. After all that, was it worth the wait? Somewhat.

What’s it about?

‘A modern-day queer retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma’ is more or less a decent description. Fresh follows Elliot, a wealthy college freshman. She hasn’t decided on her major yet, and has decided to spend her first semester taking gen-ed classes, finding the perfect boyfriend for her roommate-turned-BFF Lucy, and having an exciting parade of no-strings-attached one-night-stands (at least, when she’s not being firmly reprimanded by her RA, Rose). She makes some major missteps.

How does it compare to Emma?

I adore Emma. Jane Austen is one of my all-time favorites, and Emma is arguably my favorite of her novels (Emma, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey are eternally battling it out for that coveted top spot). I run-not-walk towards adaptations and updates to Emma because it is such a wonderful story. The new version with Ana Taylor-Joy is stunning, by the way. The 2009 version with Romola Garai is essentially perfect. Gwyneth Paltrow’s 1996 version has a few bright spots in the supporting cast but is overall a dud. Clueless is, of course, a classic. Emma Approved is tons of fun and alarmingly bingeable. So where does Fresh fall? 

Pretty low, unfortunately. It’s a decent enough book, and while it does take some cues from Austen, it doesn’t keep enough of the original to feel like a retelling. It’s more inspired by than based on. And that’s fine. It’s just that for someone who knows and loves Emma so much, I was looking for some elements that Wood simply didn’t include and I was a bit disappointed by their absence. OG Emma is a relentless matchmaker; it’s something she does often and obsessively. Elliot sets Lucy up once, but there is no Miss Taylor equivalent to give her her misplaced matchmaking pride.

Also notably missing? Jane Fairfax. Clueless did an admirable job of working around Jane Fairfax, but for my money she’s an integral part of the story. Emma should have a foil who is all the things that Emma says she is, and her absence undercuts Frank Churchill as well. 

It feels simply weird to have an Austen adaptation without the cad. I mean, yes. We have Kenton/Elton, but we’re functionally missing Frank. Frank is, when compared to Wickham or Willoughby, an okay guy but he does still string Emma around and treat her badly. He’s the red-herring love-interest who turns out to be bad news, and that’s a staple of Austen. Fresh’s Frank—aka Nico—has nothing like that. The only way you can tell he’s Frank is because he dates Elliot at the same point in the story when Frank flirts with Emma. There’s nothing wrong with Nico except that he’s bad at sex. He’s not already engaged or using Elliot for social status or any of the things you’d expect from an Austen antagonist. Since I was expecting him to go the route of the original or at least be playing Elliot in some way, particularly considering that Rose—aka Knightley—inexplicably warns Elliot off him several times, but at the end of the day he’s just the wrong guy.  

It also bothered me that Rose doesn’t feel much like Knightley. Obviously that character would have to change for the times, but it seems odd that ‘vaguely naggy’ is pretty much the only element of the original character that was kept. Don’t get me wrong: I like Rose fine, but she doesn’t feel a lot like Knightley.

I think the main reason these characters and this novel don’t feel like Emma is because they’re all new. Austen’s Emma has lived amongst the same people her whole life. They’ve known her for years and she is a pillar of society. Knightley has been a close family friend for as long as she can remember, and in fact is closely tied to the Woodhouse family by marriage (his brother to her sister). Frank Churchill himself is a novelty, but Emma has heard stories of him from his father for years. She is extremely well connected. Fresh’s Elliot isn’t. She’s a college freshman, and she meets everyone when she arrives. There are no long relationships here, so even when Fresh does hit the story beats, the vibe is different.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes modernized adaptations go the other direction and hit every single character beat, so much so that you wonder why you aren’t reading the original. There is definitely a place for adaptations like Fresh. My problem going into it was that I expected it to be more like Emma. If you know going in that it’s going to be loosely based on Austen, you’ll like it more. If you’ve only experienced Emma once or twice and aren’t massively familiar with every plot point, you won’t be bothered. If you’re obsessed with Austen and Emma, though, you might end up wishing for more.

What’d I think?

Rating: 3 out of 5.

It’s a cute enough book, but it’s not one that I’m especially excited by. Because I read it during November (aka NaNoWriMo), I didn’t get to this review until later, and by the time I sat down to write it, most of the things I remembered specifically about it were negative.

The main thing I remember and disliked is a joke that doesn’t land and then gets repeated over and over and over again like it is is hysterical. You see, when Elliot is sexually/physically attracted to someone she calls it “tender chicken.” This is supposedly funny and charming, because she brings it up at least a dozen times. I cringed at it the first time, but it carries through the whole book and even makes a conspicuous appearance in the EPILOGUE. It’s never a good sign when a writer tries to get that kind of mileage out of a joke that is a groaner at best. Ditto the laundry thing. Elliot and her sister have a weird obsession with laundry detergent. It’s just kind of bizarre, but Wood makes it a major part of Elliot’s personality and ties much of her courtship with Rose to it, which strikes me as an odd choice. 

Then there’s Micah. Micah made me feel kind of uncomfortable. He doesn’t have a direct Austen counterpoint, which means that he’s entirely Wood’s creation. He’s also a gay best friend. Not the kind of well-rounded supporting character who is gay; he’s literally the GBF, which is a trope I don’t expect to be played straight in a book with a bisexual woman as its lead. Micah, though. He’s not, like, actively offensive but he plays very little role in the story; he exists just to be stylish, spread gossip, and start shit. Elliot compares him to TMZ when they first meet, but he reminded me more of Perez Hilton at his height. I also sort of feel like he was there to tick some diversity boxes. In their first appearance, Micah is described specifically as being brown and introduces himself with he/they pronouns. Neither of those things ever comes up again, and honestly I wouldn’t even have remembered that Micah used he/they if I hadn’t flipped back to their intro to write this review, because I think Fresh only uses “he/him” for him from then on out.

I suspect Fresh will struggle to find an audience. It’s decidedly a New Adult book—too much sex to be comfortably YA, but too juvenile to be in general fiction—but the problem with New Adult fiction is there simply isn’t a lot of it. Other books that focus on the college experience—Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl is the first one that comes to mind, although there are certainly others—somehow feel both more and less mature; the themes are a little sharper but the sex (if any) is less explicit. Elliot is immature. Most YA protagonists are figuring it out, but Elliot initially doesn’t have any real awareness that she’s transitioning to adulthood. She does whatever she wants whenever she wants, simply doing whatever feels good in the moment. While she does some self-reflection and self-improvement towards the end, proportionately she spends more time spiraling out of control than finding her center, and as a result she feels more than a little childlike. I suspect that older readers will be somewhat turned off by some of the younger-sounding slang and immature characters, and the younger ones will find that the focus on sex and college life don’t feel as immediately relatable. 

Rose is kind of a dud as a love interest. I love the original Knightley. Reimagining Emma/Knightley as a queer relationship should have won me over easily, but Elliot and Rose never really have much chemistry. Their relationship has too many major moments prompted by laundry detergent, and Rose’s main selling point seems to be that she’s super hot and that she’s a really good RA. She is a really RA. I’ll give her that, but a romantic relationship should probably be based on more than “she helped me pick out my classes.”

All this being said, there were still things about Fresh that I enjoyed. Wood does a good job with Elliot’s privilege. Like the original Emma, Fresh knows how drastically wealth has shaped its protagonist’s life and personality and draws a stark contrast between her and her best friend. Elliot can behave as flippantly as she does because she’s rich enough not to sacrifice for college. She bought her way into a hugely expensive college without thinking twice about it, and is resentful when Lucy—who has to work long hours to keep herself in school despite the extensive loans she may never pay off—doesn’t have enough time for her. It’s a minor storyline, but it’s done really well, particularly in comparison with the breezy, mostly surface-level tone of the rest of the story. It’s also a very easy read. It’s not laugh out loud hysterical, but it’s silly and lighthearted and makes for a quick read.

What’s the verdict?

Waiting so long for Fresh turned it into a minor White Whale for me, so when I finally read it after months of anticipation I was somewhat let down. There’s a blurb from Gayle Forman on the cover that calls it “Fun and funny, sexy and sex positive;” that’s a pretty good description. It’s not significantly more than that, but it is that. It is a reimagining of Emma, but only in the loosest of ways. Still, if you are in the mood for a quick wlw romance and don’t mind a bit of sex and immaturity, this is a fun one to pick up.

What’s next?

If you haven’t read the original Emma yet, please do yourself a favor and do it. Pride and Prejudice is the main Austen work that people rad (deservedly; it’s a wonderful, wonderful novel, so much so that we named our puppy Darcy in its honor) but Emma is equally fantastic but comparatively underrated. It’s hilarious and has a darn good character arc on top of the incredible satire and social commentary Austen is so well known and well regarded for.

If, like me, you want to seek out other adaptations of Emma, there are lots. Of the filmed adaptations, both the 2009 and 2020 versions are excellent: faithful, entertaining, beautifully shot and all the other things that a period drama should be. If you’re looking for an update, Clueless (1995) is a classic in its own right and Emma Approved (2013) is a charming (and Emmy-winning) web series that reimagines Emma as a lifestyle guru/vlogger. It was made by the same people who did the Lizzie Bennet Diaries. It’s remarkable that it works so well considering that it consists almost entirely of a few people talking to a camera, but I love it.

Maybe you like the idea of a YA novel taking its inspiration from classic literature, but don’t necessarily need it to be Emma. There are lots of good choices. Here are a few that I’ve read recently: Anna K by Jenny Lee is an undated take on Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and Kathryn Ormsbee’s characters in Tash Hearts Tolstoy adapt the same. Mackenzi Lee’s This Monstrous Thing takes cues from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Patrick Ness has adapted both Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick in Release and And the Ocean Was Our Sky, respectively. Aiden Thomas wrote Lost in the Never Woods, which is inspired by Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie. There are tons of adaptations of Shakespeare out there, of course (especially Romeo and Juliet) and there are countless versions of Pride and Prejudice, although none that I personally think do justice to the original.

If you weren’t here for the literary inspiration and just like the college/new adult vibe, give Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell a shot. Cath is a very different character than Elliot, but there are still similarities to their stories: figuring out adult/college life, befriending a roommate, finding romance in unexpected places, etc. It’s one of my favorite books.

Other new adult books set in college? Mary H.K. Choi’s Emergency Contact is a cute romance, Alice Oseman’s Loveless has a sweet roommate friendship, and Nina LaCour’s We Are Okay tackles more serious issues like grief and depression still in the college context.

Ice Planet Barbarians (Book Review)

I met Ruby Dixon, and she was lovely.

When I was in eighth grade, Wendelin Van Draanen visited my school and—because I hadn’t read any of her books at the time—I didn’t get her autograph. Fast forward a few months and I discovered the Sammy Keyes series and adored it. I’ve been regretting missing her signature ever since, but then I made the same dumb mistake again. I met Jewell Parker Rhodes at a writer’s conference but for some blockheaded reason didn’t get her signature. That one hurts even more, because I actually met her. I listened to her talk for two hours, had a personal conversation with her about writing, and even got a hug. And then I stupidly missed out on Rebecca Roanhorse‘s signature, too. After that, I decided that was it. Every author I met, I’d get their autograph. 

Enter Ruby Dixon. She popped into the Barnes and Noble where I work to sign some books and I got her to sign one to me. Now, Ice Planet Barbarians is not the sort of book I would ever pick up. Romance is not my thing at all, but I’m willing to try things when enough people say they’re good… or when I get to meet the author. It was fascinating to talk with Dixon. As an amateur writer looking at Dixon’s career, her trajectory looks like the dream. She self-published and then enough people started talking about her books online that they totally blew up in popularity and now they’ve been picked up by a traditional publisher and are showing up in bookstores. From the outside, that looks like a slam dunk. That is the fantasy I’ve had since I was very young. 

Talking to her, though, I got to hear about the parts of the success story that aren’t usually told: the long slog before the “overnight” success, the doubts and insecurities, the moments where everything goes wrong. It was fascinating, because from my perspective Dixon had done it. From hers, everything could still fall through. We had Ice Planet Barbarians on our #booktok table, and Dixon mentioned that it felt wrong to see it there next next to books by authors like Sarah J. Maas. She told me about some of the less successful moments in her creative career, like the time a retailer didn’t sell/put her books out on the floor and ended up returning so many to the publisher that she was advised to change her nom de plume before publishing again. Then were the interesting business stories, including some about the process of designing the cover for this new rerelease. It was really interesting, both from a bookseller/reader perspective and from an aspiring writer perspective. 

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White Teeth (Mini Book Review)

Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth is on a list of 100 books to read before you die that I’ve been (very slowly) working my way through. I didn’t know anything about it before diving in, but I enjoyed it.

What’s it about?

White Teeth is an odd novel about family, two families in particular. (Wikipedia categorizes White Teeth as “hysterical realism,” which is a term I have never heard of but which I now love). Two men—English Archie and Bangladeshi Samad— became unlikely friends while serving somewhat incompetently in the second world war together. Both married late in life—Archie married a teenager during a midlife crisis after a thwarted suicide attempt and Samad had to wait for his arranged-marriage wife to be born—and as they, their wives, and their children age together they do their best to figure out how to live in a world they don’t entirely understand.

What’d I think?

Rating: 3 out of 5.

A lot happens in White Teeth and it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly it’s about. Religion, family, culture, traditional gender roles, science, racism, beauty standards, eugenics, nationalism, parenting, and more all play into it. Different characters come in and out of focus as the novel progresses. We start with Archie and Samad, then spend some time with Archie’s young wife Clara before catching up with Archie’s daughter Irie and Samad’s sons Magid and Millat. It’s a very messy book, intentionally so. All the characters bluster about, unsure what exactly they’re doing with their lives, whether they’re on the right path, helpless to make things turn out they way they’ve planned.

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The Nobleman’s Guide to Scandal and Shipwrecks (Book Review)

Several years ago, spurred on by a multitude of positive reviews by book bloggers, I took a chance on The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee. I specifically remember picking the book up, reading the first few pages, thinking this doesn’t seem like my thing, and then buying it anyway. It often takes me a bit to get into my favorite books, and I had seen rave reviews from people whose opinions I nearly always agreed with, so I figured it was worth the shot despite my not-so-hot first reaction to the cover and first three pages. It was definitely worth the shot. It ended up being my second favorite book from that year,* which is particularly notable since I read it in January, meaning that it made a strong positive impression on me and then held onto it for twelve months (and 2018 was a great reading year for me; that was the year I discovered Leigh Bardugo, Adam Silvera, Madeline Miller, and Taylor Jenkins Reid, who have all become favorites).

*beat only by Six of Crows, which has kept the coveted ‘Audra’s current favorite book’ title for going on four years now, which is an impressive streak. 

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is a singularly charming book. It has a little bit of everything going on. It’s a queer historical romance settled into a swashbuckling adventure story and sandwiched into a bildungsroman with some magical realism thrown in for good measure. Most impressive about it, though, is the titular gentleman Monty, who is a riot. He’s exactly my favorite character type. If a book has a quippy, irreverent guy who uses his jokes and poor impulse control to mask his insecurities and secret self-loathing… sign me the heck up. Monty is a great protagonist because he’s lovable enough to root for, but he makes so many ludicrously terrible decisions that he feeds the ridiculously fun plot in the most delightfully frustrating way. And his character development is great, taking him from a shallow, selfish cad who makes questionable decisions for all the wrong reasons to someone who thinks a little more, cares a little more, and makes questionable decisions for all the right reasons. All this to say I totally fell in love with this story. Mackenzi Lee immediately went on my I will all read her stuff list. 

When the sequel to Gentleman’s Guide, The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy was released, I read it immediately. It is a decidedly different book. Because it is helmed by Monty’s decidedly more levelheaded younger sister Felicity, both the narration and the direction of the story are different. Monty is driven by poor impulse control, romance, and a proclivity towards juvenile antics. Felicity is mature and single-minded, if a bit egotistical. Monty is a rich lord to whom doors open until he screws things up. Felicity is a woman who will do anything to force open the doors closed to her by her sex. She gets in trouble by being overambitious and demanding opportunities the world does not want to give her, and as a result Lady’s Guide is a lot more deliberate than the novel that came before it. It is, however, equally fun. Felicity goes to sea with pirates and ends up on a scientific mission for sea monsters, so the overall effect is just as wildly adventurous.

And that brings us to The Nobleman’s Guide to Scandal and Shipwrecks, the third and final novel in this series. Unsurprisingly, it follows the final Montague sibling. I knew that it would have a different feel than either of the first two books because that’s how this series works, but beyond that I had no guess. Felicity is a major character in Monty’s book, so when it was her turn for a starring vehicle, I already had an idea of who she was as a character. Not so for Adrian, who was an infant when we last saw him. Up until this book, he was more plot device than character. Because Monty’s father had another son, he could disinherit Monty. I don’t even remember if Adrian even had a name back then. He was just “the Goblin,” a yowling baby whose existence was a metaphorical axe hanging over Monty’s head. So I was excited, but I had no idea what I was getting myself into for this one.

So what was I getting myself into?

Adrian’s severe anxiety has always gotten in the way of his entering politics and fighting for a better world in the way he’s always hoped. When he receives the personal effects of his late mother, who suffered from the same anxiety, he becomes obsessed with the half-broken spyglass she was obsessed with before him. His investigation of it leads him to the brother he never knew he had, and he decides to throw caution to the wind and travel across the world to the search for the remains of a shipwreck that he’s certain will have answers about his mother’s sudden death.

What’d I think?

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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Lost in the Never Woods (Book Review)

I’d seen several great reviews for Aiden Thomas’ sophomore novel Lost in the Never Woods, so I expected to adore it because I adored their first novel, Cemetery Boys. Unfortunately, this book does not come close to matching Cemetery Boys. It’s decent, but not especially inspiring.

What’s it about?

This novel reimagines Peter Pan. Five years ago, Wendy and her two younger brothers disappeared into the woods behind her house. Wendy was missing for months, but Michael and John never returned. Now, children are going missing again and Wendy finds herself repeatedly and unconsciously sketching the face of a boy who only exists in her mother’s fairy tales… or does he? When the boy shows up in the flesh, Wendy must confront the truth if she has any hope of saving the children or finding out what happened to her brothers all those years ago. 

What’d I think?

For better or for worse, Lost in the Never Woods is a very different novel than Cemetery Boys. Because most authors tend to hit the same sorts of thematic beats across their work, I assumed that Lost in the Never Woods would focus on complicated family bonds, platonic friendships, and gender roles like Cemetery Boys did before it. I was therefore quite surprised that this newer novel is very straight and primarily romantic. Sure, there are a few scenes between Wendy and her best friend Jordan, and there’s a bit of subplot about Wendy’s now-strained relationship with her father, but the primary relationship of this book is the quasi-romantic connection between Wendy and Peter.

I’m not going to pretend there was never a romantic angle to Wendy and Peter’s relationship in previous versions of the story. It’s there in the original and in nearly every other iteration of the story of the boy who wouldn’t grow up. Personally, I have always found it the least interesting element of Peter Pan. Same with Wendy. She’s always rubbed me the wrong way; of course some girls do like extreme femininity and homemaking, but it has always struck me as sad that Wendy has to be the responsible, practical mother while the male Darlings and the Lost Boys get to play.

To be fair, the original Peter Pan was never my favorite story. There are adaptations that I like. The musical with its incredible acrobatic flying is a ton of fun. I reread Geraldine McCaughrean’s dark, atmospheric official sequel Peter Pan in Scarlet many times as a kid. The Tinker Bell spinoffs, both the animated movies and Gail Carson Levine’s novels, are fun. And, of course, every iteration of Captain Hook—from the Disney version to Once Upon a Time’s swashbuckling hero to Descendants’ delightfully unhinged Harry Hook—is wonderful. So a Peter Pan retelling can certainly go right, but it has to pick the right elements.

For me personally, Lost in the Never Woods does not pick the right elements. It’s focused entirely on Wendy and Peter. While John and Michael are mentioned often, they are plot devices rather than characters. No other Lost Boys appear, and there isn’t a single pirate anywhere to be found. (How can there be no pirates? I am surely not alone in thinking that the best part of Peter Pan is the pirates). Tinker Bell is likewise MIA. People who like Wendy Darling or whose main fascination with Peter Pan is Peter himself might not mind this, but for my money… it was hugely disappointing to realize that every single thing I like about Neverland has been left by the wayside. 

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November 2021 Wrap-Up

In puppy news, Darcy got an adorable haircut this month and got to try some turkey and pumpkin at Thanksgiving

November is always a difficult month. Between work picking up—oh, the joys of retail in the leadup to Christmas—and NaNoWriMo, I didn’t have a whole lot of spare time. To save myself the effort of writing lots of book reviews on top of NaNo, I filled the month with rereads. I LOVE rereading (which apparently is an unpopular opinion???) but I din’t do it as often as I’d like to because there are so many new books that I want to experience and sadly there is only so much time I can devote to books. Thankfully, new books from two of my favorite series have come out recently, making my reread choices very easy: Benjamin Alire Saénz and Mackenzi Lee entertained me immensely this month, packing it with four- and five-star reads. Which is good, because the disjointed 57k words I wrote this month are not a four- or five-star read.

Since I’ve written a lot recently, I figured I’d experiment here and do one-sentence reviews; all these books have or will shortly have full reviews anyway, so here we go.

Here’s what I read…

The Death of Jane Lawrence by Caitlin Starling

Rating: 1 out of 5.

While the first half of this novel recalls classic gothic romances like Jane Eyre or Rebecca, the second half devolves into an absolute mess of poorly conceived magical systems, inexplicable character regression, and painfully plodding pace; if you told me that a different person wrote the second half—or that it was the same writer, but very high—I would totally believe you.

Full review here

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saénz

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This gorgeous novel chronicles a friendship-turned-romance between two boys on the cusp of adulthood; the way Saénz deals with complex issues like mental health, homophobia, racism, and growing up is incredible, and despite this being a reread I went through the emotional wringer with this one as dramatically as if it were the first time, and I enjoyed every page.

Full review here

Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World by Benjamin Alire Saénz

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Even though I think that the original Aristotle and Dante book was a perfect standalone and that this book is therefore somewhat unnecessary, I still enjoyed it and was impressed by how well Saénz slid back into Ari’s narrative voice after so long; I wouldn’t necessarily call this sequel required reading for fans of the first, but it’s certainly worth a read.

Full review here

Fresh by Margot Wood

Rating: 3 out of 5.

This queer, sex-positive new adult romance is inspired by Jane Austen’s Emma and as such should have been one of my favorite reads of the year but is ultimately let down by a slight identity crisis and over-reliance on a few jokes that don’t quite land; it’s the sort of book that I read, mostly enjoy, and then forget so thoroughly that in a year or two I’ll see it in my Goodreads and say “I read that?”

Full review here

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I adore this totally bonkers thrill-ride of a novel that is part adventure story, part queer romance, part fantasy, part historical fiction, and totally fun; I’m always into books with diverse characters, as well as ones that blend genre in unique and interesting ways… plus I’m a total sucker for chaotic idiots with well-developed character arcs, so this book abso-bloody-lutely ticks every box for me.

Full review here

The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The Montague Siblings trilogy is a really interesting series because of the way each novel follows a different sibling and therefore has a unique flavor that—despite fitting well into the whole—makes each installation very distinct; this second book, which centers on the asexual, ambitiously level-headed sister of book one’s aforementioned chaotic idiot, is a decidedly different experience but no less charming (or less full of adventure) for that.

Full review here

The Nobleman’s Guide to Scandal and Shipwrecks by Mackenzi Lee

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This last book in the trilogy once again has its own distinct flavor, and it was a really strange but enjoyable experience to rejoin characters we first met in their late teens twenty or so years later as adults; as nice as it was to meet back up with Monty and Felicity, though, this book is the Goblin Adrian’s show, and he stalwartly stands up to the difficult task of coming after them to helm his own novel.

Full review here

What did you read in November? What should I add to my endless TBR?