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 to come


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 to come


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

The Death of Jane Lawrence (Book Review)

Another month, another painfully bad book club book. I love the idea of a book club, because I definitely get stuck in ruts where I keep reading my favorite authors and genres over and over again at the expense of trying anything new. But I wish my actual club could pick a book every once in a while that isn’t a giant stinker. I had high hopes for this one, too, as it’s good for nearly a hundred pages. I’ve never had a four-star read devolve into a one-star read so quickly. If you told me one writer wrote the first half and then passed it off to someone else for the second half, I would believe you; the first half is good, but the second half is one of the most convoluted messes I’ve read in a while.

What’s it about?

Jane is an independent-minded woman who arranges a marriage of convenience for herself. Her chosen husband is perfect on paper—a doctor of good means and marriageable age who requires an assistant with Jane’s logical and mathematical skillset—but Jane learns quickly that he has secrets. He lives far away from his practice, in a secluded and decrepit home that he forbids Jane from visiting. But, of course, Jane winds up at this mysterious manor and learns that in her quick marriage she may have signed on for more than she realized.

What’d I think?

Rating: 1 out of 5.

Mild/nonspecific spoilers throughout.

I was actually a little concerned before I started this book. It’s coded as horror, and I am a major scaredy cat, and I was worried that I’d have nightmares. I’m afraid of everything. I couldn’t watch Disney’s The Little Mermaid until I was in double digits. When I read Richard Wright’s Native Son in high school, I had to leave it outside my bedroom because I couldn’t sleep with it near me. Both The Prestige and Angels and Demons gave me nightmares for months, and I was a teenager when I saw them. I refused to see The King’s Speech in theatres because I knew that an R-rated movie would have R-rated ads, and I was too afraid to sit through any. It does not take much to scare me, but The Death of Jane Lawrence didn’t scare me at all. I kept expecting something to happen that would horrify me, but nothing ever did. I can’t tell if I’m relieved or disappointed because on one hand… yay, I’m glad to skip the nightmares because I’m sleeping badly enough as it is. On the other hand, if a book claims to be creepy and horrific, the world’s biggest coward should not be able to read it alone at midnight without a care in the world.

The attempts to make The Death of Jane Lawrence scary and mysterious ultimately fail because, as much gore as there is, it’s all strictly medical. When Starling describes surgical procedures as if they’re bone chillingly horrific, I rolled my eyes. The novel itself even admits that Augustine Lawrence’s actions only look horrific when stripped of context (and, let’s be real, the context is obvious even before it’s revealed). Caitlin Starling is so determined to make Jane and Augustine’s story a swoony romance that she fails to maintain any sort of interesting balance for Augustine, which means the scenes that potentially paint him as monstrous are halfhearted at best.  

I actually really liked the first half of the book. A gothic romance about an independent woman who arranges a marriage of convenience for herself only to discover that her unknown husband has unsavory secrets? Sounds cool. I love Rebecca, and Jane Eyre is one of my favorite novels, so I was ready for something in that vein. It seemed doubly sure that Jane Lawrence was meant as an homage of sorts to those novels when Jane learned of her husband’s first marriage and the suspicious circumstances around her death. Both Rebecca and Jane Eyre famously have mind-blowing first-wife twists, and it seemed that Starling was headed down that road. Only she wasn’t.

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That’s My Girl! (My Favorite Character Type)

Previously, I wrote about my favorite type of character. As I was doing it, I realized that—much as I usually hate it when things are stupidly and arbitrarily split by sex—my favorite character type seems to vary depending on whether the character is a guy or a girl. Part of that, I suspect, is that certain character archetypes are so closely associated with masculinity that there just aren’t any girls who fit it exactly. Then there’s the psychological element to it. Because of the way people are socialized according to their sex, the same experience might make people react very differently. For instance, my favorite male characters are usually anxious or have low self-esteem, and that often manifests itself in irreverent humor and flash. Girls, at least in my experience, become quieter with insecurity, not louder. I also noticed that my favorite female characters often buck specific sexist tropes in media. Obviously a male character can’t subvert misogynistic tropes.

In any case, here’s what my favorite girls look like:

She knows how great she is

One of my favorite things about female characters is when they know that they’re amazing. Sadly, real women are usually socialized to play down their own achievements. We’re not always encouraged to own our awesomeness, so we often don’t. I love it when fictional girls don’t play down their badassery. Don’t like that Isabelle Lightwood is faster, stronger, more beautiful, and more deadly than you are? Deal with it. Want to go up against Sharpay Evans for musical auditions? Do so at your own risk. These women don’t have time to deal with naysayers. They have things to do and they’re going to do them brilliantly and confidently.

Isabelle from The Mortal Instruments/Shadowhunters
Sharpay from HSM

She’s feminine

Or, at least, she doesn’t look at down on femininity. There’s an insidious idea that strength is inherently masculine, and the only way for a women to be strong is to eschew anything traditionally associated with womanhood in lieu of more manly traits. When most people think of strong female characters, they think of the Strong Female Character who is Not Like Other Girls and can kick any guy’s ass because she doesn’t waste her time on girly stuff. Well, it turns out that punching stuff isn’t the only way to be strong (and plenty of girly girls can punch stuff). Girls can dress up if they want, like the color pink, and focus on quiet hobbies. Keeley Jones might have an apartment full of frilly pink pillows, but that doesn’t keep her from being a boss, and even though Evie loves fashion and makeup, she’s as loyal a friend and powerful a supporter as you could ask for. And one of my favorite recent entertainment moments is when the collective Game of Thrones fanbase realized that feminine Sansa is just as strong as masculine Arya, that there is no one way to measure strength, and that it’s possible *gasp* to support them both.

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Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World (Book Review)

In preparation for the sequel’s release, I reread Benjamin Alire Saénz’s novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. I’d only read it one time previously, but I remembered it as a quietly profound novel that was both beautiful and heartbreaking. It’s always dangerous to reread books you remember as being brilliant, because it’s hard to stand up to ‘brilliant.’ Aristotle and Dante absolutely does, though. The simple, pared back prose is paired with a deeply emotional story of a conflicted young man whose complicated relationships with himself, his family, and the world around him change forever when a charming stranger offers to teach him how to swim. It’s a slam dunk of a novel. The characters are often unsure, but Saénz never is, deftly navigating the complexities of adolescence as Ari and Dante experience it. It’s painful but affirming, and while it doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of the world, it is ultimately a beautiful novel about love and hope.

That’s a lot for a sequel to stand up to, and Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World would have had a lot to live up to regardless of circumstances. Considering that the first book has found new life on #booktok after its original publication in 2012 there was extra pressure on it. I’m always a bit skeptical when an unplanned sequel comes out, and a part of me was concerned that this sequel was a cash grab inspired more by the public’s newfound interest than by the story itself.

Thankfully, that’s not the case. While I don’t think it reaches the heights of the first novel, Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World is still an excellent novel that takes the reader through the emotional wringer.

What’s it about?

Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World picks up exactly where Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe lets up. While Ari and Dante are happily in love when they’re alone or with their families, the rest of the world is less welcoming. The cusp of adulthood is uncomfortable enough without the added pressures of being gay and Mexican and living under the shadow of the AIDS pandemic. As they move into their last year of high school, Ari and Dante know that their childhood is coming to a rapid close, and they have to find a way to exist in a world that isn’t built for them. 

What’d I think?

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

In many ways, this second book doesn’t do much to surprise. It builds very much on the themes and plotlines of the first, taking the more subtle and subtextual storylines and bringing them to the fore. Much of the story is about Ari coming to terms with his sexuality, as he had repressed it through most of Secrets of the Universe and accepted it only at the very end. Because of the story’s setting, homophobia and AIDS are major parts of the novel. It is a very intense read. Dante’s gay bashing is far from the only queer violence in this series, and it gets ramped up in Waters of the World. At times, this is a really hard book to read. There’s still a lot of homophobia in the world today, but reading this book is a harsh reminder of how bad things were not that long ago. It was jarring, to say the least, to see the f-slur printed on the page. Saénz certainly doesn’t pull any punches.  

Strictly speaking, I don’t think this book is necessary. Don’t worry: it is not the kind of sequel that makes the first book worse in retrospect. But it doesn’t really introduce anything particularly new. I don’t necessarily feel that I know Ari or Dante better now than I did after Secrets of the Universe, and I don’t think that it does anything thematically that wasn’t done more deftly the first time around. It hits a few points a bit too heavily and there’s one part in the latter half of the novel that personally I think should’ve been cut, as it seemingly adds misery for misery’s sake.   

I do, however, like that this second book expands Ari’s world. The first book is almost entirely about Ari and Dante, with Ari’s father being an important but secondary player. In book two, Ari has far more people than just his own family and Dante. His friends from the first book get significantly more pagetime, and he makes another who is even more important. His parents get subplots that transform them from just Ari’s parent’s to fully fledged characters in their own right (and Ari’s discovery of his parents as people is a major part of the story). He spends more time at school with his teachers and classmates. The first book was about Ari and Dante’s love for each other, but this book gives them—and Ari specifically—a community. In book one, Ari mostly fights the demons inside his own mind. He suffers from depression, he represses himself badly, and he can barely communicate with the people he loves most. While he hasn’t entirely overcome those issues by the second novel, here he has opened himself up to the outside world, and his biggest problems stem from it: racist discrimination, homophobic abuse, the pressures of college, and the knowledge that he can’t have the traditional happily ever after with the person he loves.

There’s a recurring motif of Ari and Dante as cartographers charting out a new world for themselves, and it is really effective. The book as a whole is effective. It is a great, great book. It is a slight disappointment only because Secrets of the Universe is so absolutely wonderful. There’s really no way a sequel can stand up to it, and that Waters of the World came so close is a major achievement.

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Meet Cute Diary (Book Review)

Meet Cute Diary by Emery Lee takes a few traditional romcom tropes and makes them feel fresh by starring trans and nonbinary protagonists and by lampshading our romanticized view of romance.

What’s it about?

Noah, a young trans boy, runs a blog wherein he posts about sweet meet-cutes that will give hope to other trans people who worry that they’ll never find love. There’s one problem, though. Noah doesn’t actually collect true stories from trans submitters; the stories are all wish-fulfillment fiction of chance encounters Noah had that might’ve been been a standard meet-cute if they’d ended with romance. They didn’t. When rumors start to fly online that the Meet Cute Diary is a scam, Noah fears that it’s all over. But then the universe tosses him a lifeline in Drew, one of the guys Noah cutely met and wrote about on the Diary. Drew is a dream come true: Noah’s first boyfriend and a lifeline for the blog all in one handsome package.

What’d I think?

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I picked this one up on a whim. Earlier this year I made some lists of great LGBTQ+ pride reads, and I realized that despite my efforts I haven’t done a great job of reading books by and about trans and nonbinary people. Meet Cute Diary is that, and it comes recommended by lots of authors I love—Becky Albertalli, Kacen Callender, Mason Deaver, and Aiden Thomas—so I decided that I’d give it a shot even though it ran the risk of being too romcomy for my taste.

Thankfully, it ended up being great. I’m rapidly revising my “I don’t like romance” stance to “I don’t like straight romance.” Queer romance is just better. It tends to focus more on identity than instalove, putting the focus as much on individual character development as the romantic love story. A lot of the things that are contrived for a straight romance feel more organic for a queer one. Authors have to jump through a lot of hoops to drum up the kind of drama they’re looking for when their characters are in a socially approved relationship. All those couples hiding their relationship for no reason. All that drama caused by the universe pulling the lovers apart in ways that the universe never does. Half the time the reason the lovers can’t be together is because one of them is in another relationship (with a terrible, disposable love interest, of course), and the other half of the time it’s because of some dumb miscommunication that could get cleared up in a single conversation.

Take the fake-dating plotline in Meet Cute Diary. I have railed against this particular trope before. I think it’s pretty much the dumbest thing in existence and I almost skipped Meet Cute Diary because I’m just over that. But to my surprise this is actually the second queer fake-dating book I’ve read in as many months, and both of them worked. Part of that is because both books acknowledge the trope as a thing that the characters know about and are manipulating. Noah knows what fake-dating is. He’s a romantic, and he knows how these stories end, so he’s willing to use the trope in real life because he believes that he can write himself a real-life romance as easily as if he were a movie hero. His engagement with the trope is tied to his developing understanding of romance. As he realizes that real relationships take more than a meet-cute and a pre-written list of steps, he grows out of the infatuation with the tropes he originally loved. Also, the usual fake-dating storyline—the one where both parties independently fall in love and mutually pine the whole time because no one ever talks about it—gets averted really quickly. Noah and Drew admit they’ve got real feelings for each other and the narrative moves onto bigger and better things. The fake-dating is the setup, not the whole story.

More than anything else, I think that’s the difference. When a novel plays the rom-com tropes straight, I hate it. When it plays with them, acknowledges the flaws and the ways those tropes don’t and can’t fit into the real world, they work really well. Meta fiction is great.

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Matrix (Book Rant)

It’s books like this that make people think that all queer women and feminists are humorless misandrists.

This is one of my ranty reviews. As always, if you liked this book or aren’t in the mood for snarky negativity right now, you should skip this. I’ve got plenty of overwhelmingly positive reviews! This just isn’t one of them.

Rating: 0 out of 5.

I wanted to like Matrix by Lauren Goff—I mean, obviously; I don’t ever want to dislike something I’m reading—because its focus on a powerful and largely content lesbian counteracts the things that I often dislike about historical fiction (namely, that it either ignores minorities or focuses solely on their trauma). Unfortunately, I have rarely hated a fictional character more than Matrix’s smug, hypocritical Marie, and the style of the writing—which many reviewers have praised as the novel’s greatest achievement—only irritated me with its unnecessary floweriness and casual disregard of grammatical conventions.

Attention, authors. Forgoing quotation marks is not artsy. It’s not creative. Every amateur writing class has at least three people who think removing quotation marks from dialogue makes them seem brilliant. It doesn’t. It’s annoying, it’s common, and doing it intentionally is indistinguishable from simply not understanding correct punctuation. If you have to deviate from the usual rules of usage, do something else. At least surprise me with your intentionally bad grammar. Don’t make my response be a disappointed sigh and oh, so it’s one of these.  

Anyway…

It’s hard to imagine a book missing the mark for me more. I was actively bored and annoyed the whole time, which is never a good combo. One, I can handle. Both? Yikes. Books less than 300 pages should not feel interminably long. This novel covers a whole lifetime and yet makes it feel like nothing happens. But at the same time, too much happens. There’s a new thing happening every other paragraph, but the writing is so blandly and unnecessarily descriptive that it sounds like a sparknotes of a history textbook written by a sophomore trying way, way to hard.

Mostly, though, Marie. I hate her so much. Groff writes her—and the other characters’ reactions to her—as if she is a feminist icon who is breaking down barriers for women and creating a feminist utopia even in a world in which men have all the power. In reality, Marie is a selfish asshole who has a permanently holier-than-thou attitude and who actively tears down anyone—man or woman—she sees as a threat.

I suppose one could argue that since Marie is an abbess by the end, she is literally holier-than-thou. Except that Marie never seems to fully believe in a higher power other than herself. She claims to have visions from the Virgin Mary occasionally, but she never fully commits to her religion. The word “god” is notably never capitalized in the novel, Marie happily flaunts any religious rule she doesn’t like, and Marie enters the convent in high position because she is related to royalty (she is a bastard born of rape, but her rapist father was a king so the royal family has up put up with her). Sure, it’s possible that Marie really had all her visions and that she is truly devoted to serving Mary’s will, but it’s kinda convenient that Mary wants to dramatically increase Marie’s power and give her more comfortable quarters, right?

I don’t really want to expend a whole lot more energy thinking about Matrix, because it was just so bad (literally every member of my book club disliked it; we’ve been united in liking a book before, but we’ve never unanimously disliked something), so here’s a concise list of some of the most egregious things that Marie does to give you a picture of why I found her, and her book, so detestable:

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That’s My Boy! (My Favorite Character Type)

Years ago, I made a post about my favorite character archetype. I’d noticed that I have the same favorite character in everything. That’s definitely still true. There’s a certain kind of character that I naturally gravitate towards, enough so that people who know me well can identify my favorite character immediately. My sister and I play a game when we start a new show together: after three or four episodes, we’ll both guess each other’s favorite character. I’m often right. She is always right. Every. Single. Time.

It’s uncomfortably easy to psychoanalyze me based on my favorites. It’s the insecure, anxious gay one! I wonder what that could mean!

The more I’ve thought about it over the years, though, I’ve realized something about my favorite characters: they’re all men. Well, they’re almost all men. This type of character, for whatever reason, is nearly always male. That’s kind of a weird thing to notice. Why do I relate so much more strongly to male characters? Does that have more to say about me or about fictional archetypes? I don’t have an answer to that, but I have discovered something interesting… My female favorites don’t fit this type.

I haven’t come across enough female (or gender nonconforming) characters that fit these criteria to know if they’d stand amongst my favorites. My favorite ladies are similar, but there is one very pronounced difference. I’ll get to that, but since this is my blog and my own space for musing and figuring things out, I’m going to look at the guys again first.

He’s a secondary player at best

Main characters are always focused on the plot. Heavy is the head that wears the crown and all that. If there’s a prophecy, the hero bears the brunt of it. If the weight of the world sits on someone’s shoulders, that person is the hero. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for spontaneity. Secondary characters, though, don’t have the responsibility to keep the plot traipsing forward. They can, of course, but they have a lot more space to do other things. Sometimes they’re there to be a sounding board. Sometimes they tell jokes to inject some levity. Maybe they’ve got a tangental plotline that fleshes out the wider world. There are certain beats that a hero has to hit (see: the hero’s journey), but the people around them can do as much or as little of that as they like. While the hero might be forced into something by fate, his friends have a choice. Frodo is given the ring and has the burden to carry it; Merry and Pippin come because they want to help out.

Merry and Pippin from The Lord of the Rings

Secondary characters also have a lot of freedom to do the unexpected, which can make them dynamic in ways that the hero usually isn’t. Most of my favorites, as you’ll see below, are loyal to a fault. That said, the secondary character doesn’t have to be. Look at Dustfinger from Inkheart. That’s a character who is every bit as complex and well-drawn as the heroes around him, but that little bit of distance from the center gives him the chance to surprise. Main POV characters can’t shock you with a surprise betrayal (or, if they do, it is only because of some very impressive writing that not all authors can pull off), and they tend to have thicker plot armor. The secondary character can operate offscreen enough to stay mysterious, and danger to them always feels a bit more tangible. Plus, they can disappear and pop back up regularly, which means that if they never outstay their welcome. I always want more of my favorites, because they’re not always around.

Dustfinger from Inkheart

And sometimes, to be honest, he doesn’t have that much going on. A sidekick doesn’t have to. Soemtimes he’s just the sidekick to a more important character, existing solely to round out a cast or to make the world more fun.

He’s funny

Although he usually has lots going on beneath the surface, my favorite character is often used for comic relief. The kind of humor varies. Sometimes he’ll be hilariously sarcastic, always ready with a clever one-liner. Sometimes he’ll be a perpetual goob, saying the wrong thing at the wrong time or otherwise making a fool of himself. He’s usually a bit chaotic, but however he does it, he’ll make me laugh. Seriously, how do people go for the broody hero when there’s a sassy, quick-witted sidekick right there?

If there was ever a character who perfectly embodies everything I love, it’s Jesper from Six of Crows. He’s not the main character; he’s one step removed, as the best friend of the main protagonist (and he gets bonus points for being seen as a brother; I love sibling relationships). He carries a lot of the humor in the series. When you dig beneath the surface he has as much emotional turmoil as anyone else, but even if you remove all the incredible depth and development he has, he’s still great because he’s so darn funny. The guy’s laugh-to-line ratio is incredible, and it’s all very natural.

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Love and Other Natural Disasters (Book Review)

This battle of the romcom tropes could have been a clichéd nightmare, but thankfully Misa Sugiura writes with enough heart and nuance that she’s able to elevate Love and Other Natural Disasters far past its premise.

What’s it about?

After a humiliating rejection, Nozomi is determined to reinvent herself and have a swoonworthy summer romance. Everything seems perfect when she meets Willow, a gorgeous and newly single girl. Willow doesn’t want a new girlfriend—she’s too hung up on her ex—but a social media misunderstanding gives her the brilliant idea to create a fake relationship. Nozomi wants to date Willow for real, and she’s see some romcoms. Fake dating always ends with real dating, so Nozomi enthusiastically agrees, certain that by the end of the summer Willow will be her real girlfriend.

What’d I think?

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Okay, so there are some immediate things that don’t work in this book’s favor. First of all, that title. It’s a bit oof. And then there’s the fact that this is a romance that uses both enemies-to-lovers and fake dating tropes. I know those tropes work for a lot of people, and that’s great, but I am not one of those people. I hate them. So much. Usually when I’m told that something has either one of those tropes I’m immediately out. But Misa Sugiura wrote it, and I loved It’s Not Like It’s a Secret. Also, look at this cover. It has two wlw couples on the cover, and they’re all women of color! So I went in tentatively optimistic.

Thankfully, Sugiura is better than her tropes. I hoped that she would subvert them, and the does. This is not a typical fake dating story. The narrative is very, very aware that Nozomi is Willow’s rebound even if Nozomi isn’t. We watch Nozomi make terrible decisions and as much as we might understand and empathize with her—her rejection at the start is devastating, the situation with her parents is difficult, and her conflicting feelings about her grandmother are absolutely gutwrenching—we never lack the perspective to see that she is acting in ways that are both manipulative and self-destructive.

In the real world, agreeing to fake date someone is insane, but in fiction it is something that happens all the time and is almost always a cute decision that results in true love. I have never read a fake-dating storyline where there isn’t at least a dozen better ways to solve whatever pickle they’re in. There’s a certain amount of suspending disbelief that’s required for this kind of storyline to work, and it was really exciting to see that Sugiura wasn’t asking me to suspend that disbelief. She has written a romantic comedy full of romcom tropes, but she manages to root it in the real world and to shine a light on the way these tropes might play out in there. Likewise, the enemies-to-friends-to-lovers plotline is done a lot better than the norm. Instead of there being a stupid and easily-solvable issue that kickstarts it, the original animosity is prompted by depression and grief. It’s still pretty clear the direction the story is going, but at least it’s grounded in reality and doesn’t force situations purely to hit those tropey staples.

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I Care too Much About Fictional Relationships (Adam Groff Part II)

I was far from the only one who had a lot of thoughts about season three of Netflix’s Sex Education. It’s a great show, and the most recent season has a lot of developments. The one that most people, including me, had the strongest reaction to is the unfolding of the romance between Adam and Eric. I think we can all agree that that is not what we expected from those two.

My sister and I watched the show together long distance, and when I looked back at how many texts we sent analyzing Eric and Adam’s relationship, I decided it was time to write another of my embarrassingly long and nerdy (but surprisingly popular) essays about fictional relationships. When I actually set down to write it, though, I found myself focusing more on Adam individually than on the pair. That’s why this essay has been broken in two… it simply got too long. You can find Part I here, which is mostly about seasons one and two. This is a continuation of that earlier post, but you can start here if you only want to read about season three.

At first, I was mad at Eric. He used to be my favorite character, and by the end of season three he wasn’t anymore. In season three specifically, I find Adam to be a lot more sympathetic and much easier to relate to. My first reactions were entirely in Adam’s corner, because Adam’s confusion and internalized issues with his own sexuality are things I can really empathize with, so when a character is brushed aside because of that hesitation and shyness, I react pretty viscerally. In writing this, I did my best to approach Eric’s side of the equation with as much tact and understanding as possible. I still love Eric. He’s a fantastic character, and through the writing of this I was able to come around to his side of things a little more. I tried to keep this essay balanced, but if you notice a slight wavering in my impartiality, that’s why.

Let’s get started!

Table of Contents:

Adam and his Mentors: Communication Crash Course

At the end of season two, it looks like it will be smooth sailing for Adam and Eric. Adam has come out and is liberated from his father both at home and at school. Eric has broken things off with Rahim, and Eric’s mother is onboard the new relationship. Adam is even allowed back at Moordale.

It’s not perfect, though. Adam is definitely a work in progress. For Eric’s sake, he’s trying to do better, but his bad instincts are still there. When he arrives back at school, it doesn’t take long for people to start whispering about him. There are rumors that his mom bribed the school to get him reenrolled, and his sexuality is a topic of much conversation. Adam’s first impulse is to fight anyone who talks about him, and that doesn’t go over well with Eric.

ERIC: What are you doing?

ADAM: They… they were talking about me.

ERIC: But that doesn’t mean you can hurt people. No, I… I can’t do this again.

Sex Education season 3, episode 1

Eric likes Adam, of course, but it’s worth noticing that even here in episode one Eric is ready to leave the relationship. For clarity’s sake, that’s a good thing here. Based on their history, Eric has forgiven a lot. Their relationship is conditional on Adam having developed past his violent bullying. Eric entered the relationship only after feeling certain that Adam had, so when Adam demonstrates that that might not be the case, Eric knows to prioritize himself and get out.

Thankfully, Adam has developed past that. He needs a bit more help to reprogram his first instincts, but he’s eager to change. Importantly, Adam is not alone anymore. He has Eric, of course, but more importantly he has Ola. As in season two, Ola is there for Adam when he needs her the most and like in season two, Ola knows exactly how to help Adam navigate the things he’s struggling with. Adam, when he’s upset and angry, wants to destroy things but Ola prompts him to open up instead, introducing Adam’s primary challenge for the season: communicating what he wants.

ADAM: Do you wanna go and smash some shit?

OLA: Or we could talk instead?

ADAM: I’m… I’m not good at talking.

Sex Education season 3, episode 1

Adam’s first instinct here, as it has been in the past, is to smash stuff. In season one, he was unfortunately smashing people. In season two he found the healthier outlet in the junkyard, but here Ola suggests that maybe violent smashing isn’t always the best outlet. Thus prompted, Adam admits to Ola that he’s concerned about his reputation and his masculinity; Ola tells him exactly what he needs to hear, and exactly what he needs to work on.

OLA: Of course you’re still a man. But you know, men don’t need to hit things, and men can date other men.

Sex Education season 3, episode 1

Ola is a treasure. She deserves more screentime of her own, but we won’t get into that now. In this Adam-centric essay, the important point is that Ola sees him and sees what is important to him. She gives him another definition of what it is to be a man, and as we’ve seen, Adam has a lot of toxic ideas hardwired into him about masculinity. Ola is offering him a healthier version, a version that is more true to him. Adam can embrace his sexuality, express himself, and communicate openly. Doing so does not make him any less of a man, and it does not make him any less masculine either. It is, however, worth noting that down the line that Adam’s more traditionally masculine presentation when compared with Eric’s flamboyant, more traditionally feminine expression eventually becomes a sticking point between them.

Now, however, Adam takes Ola’s advice to talk to Eric about how he’s feeling.

ADAM: I don’t like it when I hurt people.

ERIC: Then don’t.

ADAM: Yeah. I don’t know why I do it. I just get so angry, but I wanna change.

ERIC: Okay.

Sex Education season 3, episode 1

Adam is good to his word. We see the effort it takes for him to change, but he makes huge strides in the right direction immediately. The next time someone tries to mock him for being gay, he challenges them verbally rather than physically. For someone who struggles to speak, he has a pretty brilliant comeback that forces his attacker to either affirm him or cross the line into naked homophobia.

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October 2021 Wrap-Up

I hope you all had a good October. I didn’t have a particularly eventful month. There have been some renovations at work, which has been stressful, but that’s pretty much all that’s been going on. I dressed up as Kaz, which was fun.

Here’s what I read…

Love and Other Natural Disasters by Misa Sugiura

This was my second book by Misa Sugiura, and I loved it. Love and Other Natural Disasters has cemented Sugiura as a go-to writer for smart, nuanced, sweet lesbian romance. This book subverts many of the usual romcom tropes and turns them insto something that is somehow even more romantic, but significantly less frustrating. I think this one would appeal both to people who love romance and those who hate it, because it averts most of the things that are most irritating (and/or traditionally toxic) about romantic narratives while maintaining the feel.


Out of Love by Hazel Hayes

If you like the musical The Last Five Years, you will like Out of Love. They use a similar format to tell the story of a once-promising relationship that has fallen apart. Interestingly, like Love and Other Natural Disasters, it is a kind of anti-love-story love story. While it is about a relationship that ultimately fails and moves backwards from the breakup towards the first kiss, it is also a love letter to love. The most powerful thing about it is the way it makes a case for the beauty and power of love even when the relationship isn’t “the one.” A relationship isn’t a failure just because it ends, and that’s a beautiful sentiment.


Dark Rise by C.S. Pacat

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Good Girl, Bad Blood (Book Review)

A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson was a delightful surprise of a mystery. I sat down for ten minutes only to realize that hours had passed and I’d finished the book. I knew that the sequel Good Girl, Bad Blood couldn’t possibly be as good, and it wasn’t. It was still really good, but it’s definitely a step down.

What’s it about?

After making waves (and a podcast) for solving a cold murder case in her hometown, teen detective Pip is determined to settle down and go back to being a normal kid. The world has other plans for her, though; her friend Connor’s brother Jamie has gone missing, and Connor is convinced of foul play. Pip wants to sit this one out and let the local authorities handle it, but since Jamie is legally an adult and is deemed a low-risk case, Pip once again finds herself in the position of being the only one who will solve the case.

Do you have to read A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder first?

Yes! Most mystery series are loosely connected by a detective but for the most part can be read in whatever order you stumble across them. You’re not going to miss anything if you read Christie’s last Poirot book first, or if you accidentally skip one of McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books. This series isn’t like that. While technically speaking Good Girl, Bad Girl picks up with a new case that is unrelated to the one in book one, the events of A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder are built upon. Jackson does a good job of recapping the important elements so any readers who didn’t go straight from one to the next don’t get left behind, so while you could understand what happens on a basic level, skipping book one is definitely not the way to go. For one thing, there are an unbelievable number of spoilers. If there’s any chance of you reading A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder, stay away from the sequel. The first chapter recaps almost every significant event. Mostly, though, Pip’s story builds from book one to book two. She is deeply affected by her first investigation. She has trauma from the darker moments and revelations, and even though the mystery itself was wrapped up there are still a lot of loose ends. Ravi, Pip’s sidekick-turned-boyfriend, is attending court daily to watch the legal proceedings because in the real world you can’t just get a criminal to confess on tape and leave it there. So no, you should not read Good Girl, Bad Blood without A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder. You’ll miss significant character development, you’ll lose the emotional connection to one of the most horrifically real storylines, and you’ll lack some of the needed community relationships that Pip built in the first installment.

What’d I think?

Rating: 4 out of 5.

There are a few spoilers for A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder. I do not spoil Good Girl, Bad Blood.

A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder was absolutely brilliant. I loved the way Jackson balances the thrilling twists and turns of an edge-of-your-seat whodunit with the gravitas of a bildungsroman grounded on real social issues and organic connections. From the start, she situates us in a small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business, but secrets nevertheless run deep. Everywhere Pip turns she finds a path leading back to someone she has known all her life. The deeper she digs, the more she fears what exactly she’s going to find. Likewise, the reader feels deeply tied into the town and the people who populate it.

Good Girl, Bad Blood is still excellent, but it doesn’t have that same natural feeling. To be fair, a mystery sequel is never going to feel as natural. Unless the protagonist is actually a detective of some variety, the chance of them running into more than one mystery is pretty low. The other problem, though, is that Jamie and Connor don’t feel as deeply tied to the town as Andie and Sal did. I know that Connor was in the first book, but I barely remembered him even though I only read that book a few weeks ago. When Pip and Ravi attend the memorial at the beginning of the novel and run into the important characters, it’s a bit of a who’s who. There’s a new couple living down the street. There’s a new teacher. There’s Connor’s extended family. I got the impression that I knew Pip’s hometown pretty well in A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder, but clearly I was wrong, because aside from Pip, Ravi, Cara, and the de Silvas, I felt like I was in a sea of new faces.

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Dark Rise (Mini Book Review)

While it suffers a few mild pacing issues, overall Dark Rise by C.S. Pacat is an engaging, exciting foray into a new fantasy world that I will happily renter for book two.

What’s it about?

Will has been in hiding since his mother was violently murdered by a group of mysterious killers who are now searching for him. But he can’t run forever, and eventually the past catches up with him, and not just the recent past. No, Will is intrinsically linked to an ancient conflict between a Dark King and a group of Stewards, supernaturally strong protectors of the Light. The Stewards believe that Will is the descendant of a magical Lady who defeated the Dark King the first time, and as such Will will be integral to the effort to keep the King from rising again.

What did I think?

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I was excited when I heard about this book. I absolutely adored the graphic novel series that Pacat wrote alongside artist Johanna the Mad, and I’ve very much wanted to read more of her work, but have been a bit hesitant to do so because her other books—the Captive Prince series—are dark romance and that’s not really my scene. YA fantasy, though? I am so there. Also, just look at that cover. I’m easily won by shiny gold covers.

Overall, I thought Dark Rise was great. The writing is good. The characters, for the most part, are very compelling. It is immensely readable, and I am very eager to read the rest of the series. That being said, there are a few issues.

A lot of series start okay and get amazing by the end. My go-to example of this phenomenon is City of Bones. I adore the Mortal Instruments as a whole. But City of Bones specifically? It’s okay. When you introduce a new world, there’s a lot of early legwork that goes in. You need to create an entirely new society. What’s the social structure like? How does magic work? What kinds of technology are there? What’s the geography? Who has the power? What’s possible? That takes a lot. It’s not like a contemporary novel where you can just start the story with the comfortable knowledge that your readers will understand and recognize the general setting. Most readers have seen a standard high school before, know how cell phones work, and understand the basic function of the police, for instance. Sure, some fantasy worlds hit the ground running, but others start a bit slow and pay off later.

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YA Mystery/Thrillers: A Survey

I am very passionate about young adult literature. I am literally the YA expert at my Barnes and Noble. I read YA constantly, think about it obsessively, and blog about it compulsively. So I am very qualified to say that YA is not a genre. It’s an age category, and a wide one at that. Some middle schoolers read YA. Lots of twenty- and thirty-year-olds do as well.

If someone says they like “fiction,” they’re not necessarily saying that they read and enjoy everything from James Joyce to Ashley and JacQuavis to Madeline Miller to Colleen Hoover. They might, but that’s not assumed. For that same reason, it’s irritating to me that so many people like to boil YA down to “sparkly vampire romances.” There are a few of those, but they’re far from the majority in YA and their appeal will vary from YA reader to YA reader. Some of us love vampire romances. Some of us despise them. Some of us enjoy one every once in a while but don’t read them regularly. There’s a lot going on in YA, and it is very hard to categorize it.

Generally speaking, a book is YA if the main character is a teenager or, possibly, in their early twenties. It therefore follows that they are often about change and transition. YA characters are usually figuring out who they are, finding their place in the world, or experiencing something big for the first time. That’s something that can happen across a lot of different genres, which is why there is such diversity amongst YA. Every once in a while, one of those YA subgenres gets a boost, usually on the heels of a massive bestseller. Harry Potter was the reason we have so many magical boarding schools. Twilight gave us the aforementioned paranormal romance moment. The Hunger Games launched the dystopian frenzy. There’s always a lot going on in YA, but right now YA mystery/thrillers are having a moment.

I only read mysteries occasionally, but I figured that—since there are so few of them that get significant attention and since we’re coming up on Halloween—I’d read all the big ones and compile a list. So here they are: YA mysteries and thrillers, what you should know, and which ones are worth the hype. My full reviews are linked to the titles.

One of Us is Lying by Karen McManus

The hype: This book is trending everywhere, and if I were forced to name the book that got mystery/thrillers going, this would be the one. It is on #booktok, will be adapted into a TV series on Peacock, and even has a couple of sequels. At the time I’m writing this, it has a 4.04 on Goodreads.

What is it? It’s basically The Breakfast Club with murder. Five teens are sent to detention. One of them dies, leaving the remaining four as suspects. Because Simon, the victim, ran a vicious rumor blog and his fellow detentioners all had secrets they wanted kept, any one of them would’ve had a reason to kill him.

Worth it? Yes, but not as a mystery. The actual killer is very easy to predict. People who never read mysteries might be surprised, but anyone who knows anything about the genre will see the reveal coming a mile away. That being said, this book is a great teen drama. The four suspects are all really interesting, fully developed characters. They start from base stereotypes and blossom into a lot more. There’s a good smattering of romance, empowerment, and drama. While I wouldn’t necessarily hand this to someone looking for a twisty, suspenseful plot-driven story, it is absolutely a great choice for those inclined towards teen drama.


Sadie by Courtney Summers

The hype: This was everywhere a year or so ago. The buzz for it has died down, but it seemed like it was *the* book for a while there. Goodreads has it sitting at a 4.09.

What is it? In this thriller, a young woman decides to chase after her sister’s murderer and a popular radio host follows her trail for his true crime podcast.

Worth it? For my money, not really. This one benefits from the limited number of thrillers for the age group. It’s okay, but it’s a bit repetitive. The concept is really cool, but rather than having the two sides of the story come at the central mystery from different sides, the secondary POV–West, the radio guy–is always a few steps behind the titular Sadie, uncovering secrets that the reader has already uncovered with Sadie a few pages previously. It’s decent, but it’s not one you’re likely to hear me recommend.


We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

The hype: This is one of the darlings of #booktok. Surprisingly, it has a slightly lower goodreads score at 3.80, but that’s likely because of its wider readership. It’s been a steady bestseller for at least a year, and every time we think its popularity had died down, it resurrects.

What is it? Two years ago, something horrible happened to Cady. She has horrific headaches and gaps in her memory, but since no one will tell her what happened that summer on her grandfather’s private island she has to depend on her own fractured mind to find out.

Worth it? This book is a masterclass in unreliable narrators. You can’t ever trust anything Cady thinks or sees, both because she is so damaged and because people are actively keeping secrets from her. Every action has at least one level of hidden meaning, and the twists at the end are shocking (and potentially divisive, thus the lower goodreads score). It’s absolutely worth the read.


Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart

The hype: I cheated a little to put this on the list, because it doesn’t really have much hype. It is the same author as We Were Liars, though. 3.29 on goodreads for this one.

What is it? This is the story of a runaway, but you don’t really know who she is or why she’s running away because it begins at the end.

Worth it? Yes. I found this novel fascinating. There were a few gaps, and I wish some things had been fleshed out a little more, but the formatting is absolutely brilliant. We’re used to reading mysteries and wanting to know what happens next. I’ve never read one that moves the opposite direction. You wouldn’t think it possible to have just as many surprises going that way, but if you think that, you’ve clearly never read Genuine Fraud.


A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson

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Out of Love (Book Review)

This reverse love story has some pacing issues, but overall Out of Love by Hazel Hayes is a smart, modern take on romance that proves that the happily ever after isn’t always the point.

What’s it about?

A young woman’s long-term relationship has ended. Her boyfriend has moved out, and she has packed up his things. She knows that the relationship has objectively failed in the end, but as the reader moves backwards chronologically through the relationship they see that the ultimate breakup does not invalidate the joy that came before.

What did I think?

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

When I read the summary of Out of Love, my first thought was “This sounds like The Last Five Years.” Even the timeline is basically the same. While Out of Love does do a few things differently thematically, it never truly breaks from that comparison. That’s not a dealbreaker for me, as I love The Last Five Years, but it does keep me from being totally won over by the novel as it never feels entirely original.

For much of its pagetime, Out of Love doesn’t do anything that The Last Five Years doesn’t (and arguably does less, as the musical provides POV from both its leads, but Out of Love leaves Theo’s perspective out of it). The narrative trick is cool, but it runs the risk of becoming gimmicky. Each chapter moves backwards in time, but they’re not strictly moored to one time, if that makes sense. Our unnamed heroine is very reflective. At any given moment she might reflect back on her past or consider her future, which means that often when we pop backwards in the next chapter it is to an event that she has already thought about in passing. About halfway through, I found my interest lagging; sure, it is fun to see how things shake out, but there aren’t any surprises. For instance, in one chapter our girl remembers her best friend Maya’s miscarriage as well as Maya’s boyfriend’s response to it. Not long later, we experience the moment in real time. It’s still emotionally intense, but it doesn’t feel like it’s providing the overall story with anything new.

Thankfully, once I pushed through that slightly dry middle portion, everything paid off. There’s not an exact place where it happens, but subtly over the course of Out of Love the story transitions from being about a failed romance to being about a woman rebuilding her faith in love after abuse. It’s sad that the relationship with Theo ultimately doesn’t work out, but the breakup doesn’t contradict the fact that falling in love with Theo was a significant part of our protagonist’s healing process. He might not be the one but through loving him she made necessary changes in her life, met her lifelong best friend, and, not least, experienced a healthy romantic relationship in the first time in her life. Significant eras in our lives don’t spoil or become insignificant because they end, Hazel Hayes says in Out of Love. Every relationship has good and bad and, one way or another, every relationship ends. Ultimately, the ending is not as important as the journey.

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