A Knight of No Honor: Adapting Gawain in David Lowery’s The Green Knight

“Gawain as good was acknowledged and as gold refinéd,
 devoid of every vice and with virtues adorned.”

– The Pearl Poet, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (lines 33–34, J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation)

Spoiler Warning: Mild spoilers for both the 14th century poem and the 21st century movie adaption of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

(700) Years of Chivalry

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a 14th-century Arthurian Romance in verse written by an anonymous author known as the Pearl Poet. It tells the story of Sir Gawain, the youngest knight of the Round Table and the strange game he begins one Christmas Day.

A mysterious knight, green of both skin and attire, enters King Arthur’s court and challenges any who dares to strike him one blow with his great axe if, in return, they will allow him to strike them in the same manner at his Green Chapel one year hence. Gawain takes up the challenge and in a single blow severs the Green Knight’s head from his shoulders.

Unfazed, the Green Knight picks up his head and turns to leave. “At my Chapel, one year hence!” the severed head calls out as it’s body carries it out the door. So begins a tale of honor and doom.

On July 30, 2021, David Lowery released The Green Knight, his adaption of the classic poem, starring Dev Patel as Gawain. As a massive fan of the poem and Arthurian literature in general, I was extremely excited for this adaption. Now, having seen it, I was struck both by how faithful and how remarkable different Lowery’s adaption is.

The Armor Makes the Knight

In the poem, before Sir Gawain departs on his quest to the Green Chapel, both he and his horse Gringolet are arrayed in finery. Among Gawain’s accoutrements are a damask doublet from Tharsia and golden spurs. Gringolet wears a crimson horse-breastplate (called a poitrel) studded with gold and a saddle fringed in golden tassels.

The Pearl Poet makes explicit that this finery is not merely fashion, but represents the inner fineness of Gawain’s soul. Gold in particular is a metaphor for moral purity.

This scene from the poem is lovingly rendered in Lowery’s Green Knight. Particularly beautiful is the prop design of Gawain’s shield. As in the poem, the shield has as its device a pentangle (five pointed star knot) representing the five knightly virtues, and on its interior a painting of the Virgin Mary that Gawain may look at for courage when he is sorely tested.

But there is one key difference in both this scene and the rest of Lowery’s adaption. While the Pearl Poet tells us from an omniscient perspective that the clothes represent Gawain’s true inner virtue, in the movie Queen Guinevere merely prays that the armor represent the truth of Gawain’s character, a prayer that will go unanswered. A scant handful of scenes later, the beautiful shield is sundered, splitting down the center of the Madonna’s face.

Gawain the Impetuous Fail-Son

Lowery’s Green Knight replaces the chivalric hero at the center of the poem with a rather self-centered character who Lowery describes as a “cad.” According to Lowery in an interview with SlashFilm, he cast Dev Patel to play his hero in part because Patel was so charismatic an actor that he could make the audience like his pathetic protagonist.

The Gawain of Lowery’s adaption is not even a knight at the film’s beginning, and spends most of the movie wandering aimlessly through a quest meant for a nobler, less human hero. Patel does a truly marvelous job of playing a living embodiment of imposter syndrome: an overgrown boy who should have been a knight but cannot even manage to be a man.

I couldn’t help wondering if this was how I would perform, if thrust suddenly onto a hero’s journey. Very few real people would walk a path towards certain death with the self-assured honor of the Pearl Poet’s Sir Gawain. To be a person, I think, is to be somewhat dishonorable, at least when compared with the hero of an Arthurian Romance.

Final Thoughts & Critiques

Lowery’s Green Knight is a more complicated and fraught retelling of an ancient Romance. I thoroughly enjoyed and was routinely surprised both by its detailed faithfulness to the original text and its stark deviations at key moments.

Perhaps my only criticism of the film was its choice not to explore the gay subtext of the poem. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a famous for its queer undertones: Gawain exchanges no less than six kisses of increasing intensity with one Lord Bertilak de Hautdesert as part of a strange game. In the film, this section of the story is much reduced in scope. And while this choice makes perfect sense in the context of Lowery’s overall shift in narrative focus, I hope to one day see another adaption which explores this fascinating element of the original work more fully.

The Brief Account of a Harry Potter Virgin’s Literary Experience

Photo by Tuyen Vo on Unsplash

Almost a year ago I was sitting in a staff meeting for The Spellbinding Shelf and mentioned that I had never read Harry Potter. *gasp* It gets worse—not only had I never read any of the books, but I had never seen any of the movies, paid no attention to any of the references, or experienced any of the fan culture. *double gasp* I’m not joking: the only thing I knew about the series was that it was about wizards. My fellow writers were astonished—a book lover and blogger who has never read one of the most iconic literary series of all time?!

It wasn’t necessarily my fault—my younger self enjoyed dystopian-themed novels and by the time Harry Potter was “a thing” I felt the time had passed for me to jump on that train. However, this staff meeting was the catalyst that pushed me to finally commit to reading the series. I jumped in headfirst and took one of the most risky literary gambles any reader will understand: buying the box set. Of a previously unread series. When I later described this new journey, my fellow bloggers were excited as well as interested: I was basically a case study of how readers still respond to the books without the pressure of pop culture and a now multi-billion dollar industry. 

After seven months of reading I am here to give my reflection and opinion on the “Wizarding World of Harry Potter.” It is worth noting that while the series is surrounded in controversy due to J.K. Rowlings’ problematic comments in recent years, this reflection does not condone her actions in any way. Rather, I endeavor to share my experience as a reader with the story, for which I can say it is amazing.

Words cannot express my deep attachment, love, and appreciation for this series. I loved everything from the character development to the intricate spells. The experience was so immersive that from the first page I wished I lived in the world presented by the series and was thankful for the chance to imagine I was in such a world. There is too much to behold to accurately capture the seven book series that is Harry Potter, so I’ve decided to describe some of my favorite moments, thoughts, and reactions—including some choice texts I sent to my friend that I feel best captures my emotions during and after each book. So without further ado: The Brief Account of a Harry Potter Virgin’s Literary Experience. (Warning: spoilers ahead!)


Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. A fantastic beginning to fuel the long and turbulent journey of Harry Potter. I felt all the emotions a reader and fan of the series should feel: absolute contempt for the Dursleys, the excitement and nervousness of Harry on his first day, and the promise of a journey filled with mischief and wonder. The Sorcerer’s Stone really helped introduce Harry’s thoughts and emotions which aids in the reader’s emotional attachment to the characters and their development. It is also worth noting that I shipped Ron and Hermione from the very beginning.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. I liked The Chamber of Secrets because it had all the promise of what being a second year student feels like in any situation. Harry was more confident in his abilities and his joy in being a wizard emanated from the pages as he, as well as the reader, began to connect and discover more of his past. Additionally, what I love about the series as a whole is that while the books are individually read with a typical literary arc, the series does as well. This fluidity aids in the literary experience and creates a unique and immersive atmosphere any reader will love.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Now, this book was insane in all the best ways. I could not believe it when Cedric died, and one thing I determined (and had reaffirmed throughout the rest of the series) was that authors are cruel, sadistic people who want their readers to suffer. After reading this book I texted my friend, “…it’s just playing with my emotions on a whole new level.” This comment adequately describes how much this book (and series) roped me in and how ignorant I was to the pain that would come.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. On almost every page where Umbridge made an appearance, I wrote some form of grievance because I could not stand her character—it got to the point that I was going to throw the book at the wall. I really liked the Order of the Phoenix because of the leadership Harry, Ron, and Hermione assumed as well as the number of questions it began to ask and answer. Whereas The Goblet of Fire was one of the last books where Harry experienced a  “childhood,” The Order of the Phoenix began introducing the intricacies of the magical war in which Harry would take part. I was also so incredibly proud of Fred and George (two of my favorite Weasleys) for their amazing mischief and success—I love them so much. However, amidst this triumph, The Order of the Phoenix was the first book in the series that made me cry because of Sirius’ death. When that happened I had two chapters left and messaged my friend the following:

“THEY KILLED SIRIUS/NO/NO/NO/NO/THAT’S NOT FAIR/AGHAGGAHGGAA ITS NOT FAIR/UGHHHH WHY DO THEY TRY TO MAKE ME SUFFER”

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Honestly, this book wasn’t my favorite out of the series but I can’t deny that it was incredibly needed. That might have been partly because “The Big Bang Theory” spoiled Dumbledore’s death or because I personally trusted Snape while Harry was still very much suspicious of his character. However, in the end I found myself doubting my own beliefs of Dumbledore’s trust in Snape and I became ever more worried about the fate of the wizarding world and Harry when the locket was found to be a fake Horcrux. I could once again feel Harry’s grief—as well as that of the others—and I knew in my heart that Harry, Ron, and Hermione would not be the same. On another note, I was extremely heartbroken when Harry broke up with Ginny but very happy when Ron and Hermione finally showed some flirtatious interaction. It became increasingly difficult to stay away from Harry Potter fan content so I went on a hiatus from most social media and television to avoid spoilers. Afterwards I noted:

“I’m a little worried about Harry too. He seems like he lost something inside him like happiness or I guess that childlike enjoyment and curiosity and it makes me hurt for him although considering he has to kill Voldemort I get why he’s anxious…”

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Nothing impacted me more in this series than the final chapters: when Harry walked solemnly into the forest during battle, I bawled. In those last chapters I had trouble reading the page (partly due to tears); the amount of emotion within the scene and the impact of being on Harry’s journey to get to this point hit me in full force. In the end, I was right to have faith in Snape, Ron and Hermione did end up together (yay!), and I was very pleased to see Harry and Ginny together. So in the end, at 10:48 pm on August 12, I texted my friend:

“AGH/AGHHHHHHH/I FINISHED/WORDS CANNOT EXPRESS ANYTHING/MY WHOLE HEART HURTS”

And those emotions continue today. I am so incredibly grateful for this journey and even more grateful that I could experience it (mostly) without spoilers and properly digest every theme and moment. While I didn’t get to grow up with Harry, Ron, and Hermione I will undoubtedly continue to experience their journey as I reread their stories and feel the impact that Hogwarts has left on my heart. Sometimes, ironically, words cannot express the feeling a book gives you—any reader will understand this impact and I am so lucky to have experienced this feeling. I know (as I have felt the last month) that I will continue to fangirl, obsess, and mourn the finishing of Harry Potter for a long time to come.

How to Read Faster (Maybe): The Story and Science of Speed Reading

Photo by Min An on Pexels.com

What if you could read a whole book in one day? In a few hours? In twenty minutes? 

Are you interested in learning how to read faster? If so, let me introduce you to speed reading. Whether speed reading is even real is contested, and while there may be techniques you can try, the story and science of speed reading is well…complicated.


Speed Reading Is Real

There are some proponents of speed reading who argue that anyone can learn to speed read, that it’s a skill one can practice.

There are common techniques for learning to speed read. When most people read (even silently), they hear the words being said; this is called vocalization, and speed reading trainers will ask you to practice removing this voice. Doing so can increase reading speed. Other techniques include changing the ways your eyes move, including moving them bidirectionally (not just left to right but back and forth across alternating lines) or zigzaging diagonally across a page looking at chunks of texts rather than individual lines.

And there are numerous people who have practiced these techniques and celebrate advances in the speeds at which they read. Check out this person’s journey or this person’s. However, there are critics who believe that people learning to speed read aren’t actually technically reading.

Speed Reading Isn’t Real

Science tends to find a huge sacrifice that speed reading brings: decreased comprehension. The speed reading community joke about people who read War and Peace in only twenty minutes is that they know it’s “about Russia.”

Some speed reading experts and practitioners argue that reading speed and comprehension are inversely proportional, meaning if reading speed goes up, comprehension must always come down. There is a small window, however, of increasing speed to a certain threshold before one begins to sacrifice comprehension; that window differs for each individual.

Another criticism against speed reading are those who argue that it isn’t “real” reading, but rather just skimming. Skimming is “strategic, selective reading method in which you focus on the main ideas of a text.” Skimming isn’t technically reading—since, by design, it requires deliberately skipping large portions of text.


Speed Reading Is Real (Maybe)

After researching critics of speed reading, I was left with many questions because I was someone who believed they could speed read without losing comprehension. There is a site you can use that will test your speed and comprehension, and I was surprised by my results:

So I could read above average reading speeds with high comprehension. But does this mean that anyone can speed read too? Not necessarily. One issue is that people reading in languages that aren’t there first read slower, so speed reading is not accessible to everyone. A second issue is that speed reading might only be accessible to certain neurotypes or to some neurodivergent people. Research finds that autistic readers (like myself) are able to actually speed read.

So, maybe speed reading is real and possible but not in the ways we have thought about it previously.


What You Can Try

Can you actually learn to read 20,000 words per minute? Or read War and Peace in twenty minutes? Probably not. But whether you’re neurodivergent or not and willing to give it a go, here are what speed reading experts (and skeptics!) recommend based on real science that may actually work.

  • You can try software and apps designed to test or practice reading speeds that show one word at time in order to simplify eye movement. The following video is a quick example of such programs. The downside of these kinds of programs is that users tend to find success only in short bursts.
  • You can try skimming a text before reading it. While skimming and speed reading are different things, orienting yourself with text before reading may help you consume it both faster and with greater comprehension.
  • You can try reading a lot, especially new genres and styles. The more you read, the more you update your language banks, which can help you move through texts more quickly. Reading texts that are outside what you normally read can help familiarize you and assist in navigating the unfamiliar more readily.

So, it’s worth giving it a shot! Test your current reading speed and comprehension levels, practice the techniques, and see how and where reading faster might be of use to you in your life. The worst that could happen is you read a few more good books.

Book Review

Ice Planet Barbarians by Ruby Dixon

Publisher: Ruby Dixon, 2015
Genre: Science Fiction, Romance
Pages: 188
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 5/5 stars

Summary

Georgie had a normal life here on earth. That is, until she was kidnapped by aliens who intended to sell her, and the other women they stole, as slaves. After a ship malfunction, Georgie and the rest of the women are dumped on an ice planet until the aliens can return.

Frozen and starving, Georgie sets out to find help and meets Vektal, a six-foot-tall blue alien with massive horns on his head and an instant attraction to her.

Together, they work to save the women from their captors and, maybe, fall in love in this spicy tale of fate and discovery.

Thoughts

The fun of Ice Planet Barbarians is the inherent lunacy of the story’s premise. The plot is insane, but Ruby Dixon’s willingness to embrace the madness allows the reader to do so as well, resulting in an adventure of a book where logic is abandoned and the reader can just enjoy the ride.

The book wastes no time getting to the story, opting instead to thrust the reader, along with the characters, right into the bizarre environment. This creates a fast paced and engaging narrative that draws you in almost as soon as you start reading. Not only that, it also forms a connection between the reader and Georgie as they are equally clueless to the world.

Speaking of Georgie, her and Vektal’s relationship is masterfully crafted. Ruby Dixon has a gift for creating romantic pairings that feel natural. Both Georgie and Vektal are remarkably similar and when paired together they strengthen each other, creating a positive and sincere romance. The book doesn’t shy away from steamy moments—in fact, it’s full of them—but they are well written and offset by scenes of casual affection and connection, creating a well-rounded romance that’s a delight to read.

While the book focuses on Georgie and Vektal, the other kidnapped women and the aliens are also well developed. Since this book is the first in series, each of the kidnapped women and aliens are fleshed out to some degree, to the point that observant readers may be able to determine the future pairings from their personalities alone. This not only sets up the future books, but also serves to create a really dynamic cast of characters who add another layer to the story.

Overall, I loved this book. It was a wild, outlandish romance with sincere and relatable characters. Ruby Dixon has a real knack for romance, and Ice Planet Barbarians is a perfect example of that. I have read six books in this series so far and, in my opinion, they only get better. If you’re looking for a racy romance, Ice Planet Barbarians is the book for you.

An Homage to the Summer Reading Program and a Heavy Bookcase

This year, for the first time in over ten years, I thought about not participating in the Maricopa County Summer Reading Program.

Normally, I would have no problem soaring over the program’s simple, 1,000-minute reading threshold. In 2020, I had nothing else to do with my time, so I read. In 2019, I was desperate for college preparatory advice, and I read. Before that, I had summer homework that occasionally involved reading 700 pages of Democracy in America—I was a shoo-in for the program. As a child, I would use the time my mom read to me before putting me to sleep as part of my minutes. In fact, I remember using a sticker book to log my time before the program was fully digital. For years, the summer reading program was part of my DNA. By the end of each summer, I would have read well over the requirements, and I would have my prize for completion: a free book shipped to my local library.

This year, however, I was tired. After two years full of literature and writing classes for both my degree in English and my newly added journalism major, I felt drained by the written word. Despite my love of reading and writing, the last few years were rough. I was coming hot off of a semester where I had read numerous student papers for my on-campus job, and I was knee-deep in investigations for my newspaper. With next semester’s schedule packed with 18 credits of English and journalism classes (in addition to some of my final prerequisites), I decided I had done my due diligence for the time being. I would read later, spending my precious summer months doing anything but looking at a book.

Instead of working on the completion of the summer reading program, I was on a reading hiatus. It seemed to be working well enough: I would write for my job, then watch a show or listen to music, distracting myself in a way that did not involve words. My brain felt nice and quiet, albeit a little empty.

The new summer plan went smoothly until my mother decided to move our massive bookshelf. The monstrosity is so large and full of so many books—we have attempted (and failed) to thin it out many times—that it is physically impossible to move without emptying it first. So my mother, reasonably enough, asked me to take out my share of books so we could move it.

Suddenly, I found myself staring at my old favorites: On Writing by Stephen King, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and a Star Wars book called A New Dawn by John Jackson Miller that has been a longtime guilty pleasure.

Without making any promises to myself, I picked up A New Dawn and devoured it in two sittings. When I reached the last page, I was surprisingly disappointed that it was over.

The next thing I knew, I was back at my pile of books, digging for something that would take me far away from the struggles and burnout of the past year. I settled on a brief rereading of The Mysterious Benedict Society, a childhood favorite. This time, I pulled out my trusty iPhone timer so that I could keep track of my minutes. This reading quickly turned into me reading all four books of the series in one weekend.

Instead of being exhausted by the words, I was ravenous—and I could not have been more excited.

At this point, in mid-July, I’ve certainly exceeded the 1,000 minutes needed to complete the Maricopa County Summer Reading Program. More important to me, though, is that the feeling I’m chasing is not going away. I went to the library, bought a few books online, and am delving into a few fascinating nonfiction works that I never would have considered reading in the past. My mind is starting to think again, and I’ve even had the energy to work on writing for fun in addition to my job as a reporter.

Looking back on where I was a month and a half ago, I laugh at the thought that I could stay away from reading all summer. It’s okay to take breaks, but I know that sometimes you just need the right kind of push—and I also know that I have a bookcase and a steadfast summer reading program to thank.


Guest post courtesy of Anna Campbell

In Defense of Movie Novelizations

I know what you’re thinking. “Who would choose to read a book based on a movie?!” Well, me! And hopefully after reading this defense, you will too!

It is well known that many novels are adapted into movies, but did you know that movies are often adapted into novels? They’re called novelizations.

What are novelizations?

A novelization is a novel derived from the story originally created for a film medium. Novelizations exist for many films ranging from Star Wars to a recent publication of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood to—my personal favorites—Alien.

Novelizations are often maligned: some people see them as hackwork, money grabs, or quickly produced junk. But I’m here to suggest to you that novelizations can be good, even very good!

“It’s always amusing to me, you take a book, say, To Kill a Mockingbird, throw away three quarters of it and win an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay, But if you take a screenplay and add three quarters of original material to it — which is a much, much more difficult piece of writing — well, that’s by definition ‘hackwork.’ And it’s much harder, having done both, to take a screenplay and make a book out of it than [to] take a terrific book and make a screenplay out of it.”

Alan Dean Foster, prolific novelization writer

Novelizations have existed for nearly as long as films. And before the existence of DVDs, VCRs, or even televisions in our homes, novelizations were ways that fans of movies could relive and enjoy the story again at home. They were a little souvenir to remind of you of the thrill of seeing Alien in theaters for the first time. But it’s 2021 now, so why do novelizations still exist?

Novelizations are good, actually!

They have more details, including deleted scenes or information that’s not in the movies. You can experience the same story you love in a deeper and more complete way. If you’ve wondered while watching Alien Resurrection why Larry Purvis’s chestburster grows so much slower than in others, the answer is explored in the novelization: he has a genetic thyroid dysfunction. This small detail raises more interesting questions in the Alien universe about the life cycle of the xenomorph and human disability.

They explore different angles than their movie counterparts. Because novelizations are derived, their writers do have some freedom in telling the story in a new way or even telling new stories entirely. Tarantino describes his recently published novelization of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as “a complete rethinking of the entire story.” He explains, “It’s not just me taking the screenplay and then breaking it down in a novelistic form. I retold the story as a novel.” Alan Dean Foster says about writing the novelization of Alien, “As [a fan], I got to make my own director’s cut. I got to fix the science mistakes, I got to enlarge on the characters, if there was a scene I particularly liked, I got to do more of it, and I had an unlimited budget.”

They explore different truths. Novelizations tend to explore characters in more detail and give more individual attention to all characters in a story. We see new sides and nuances of the same characters. In particular, the novelization of Alien Resurrection gives the reader insider knowledge of smaller characters, especially DiStephano and Christie. You can see inside their minds and learn motivations never revealed in the movie. Even the main character, Ellen Ripley, is explored in deeper ways, including more tension on whether her loyalties are with the humans or aliens.

They can be more accessible for some people. In a novelization, you experience the story in different time. A two-hour film can be become a ten-hour novel—maybe experienced and read over weeks or months, giving you time to bask in the mythos. For some, films with flashing lights can be overwhelming, triggering, or impossible to watch, so a novelized version could be a preferred or necessary way to experience the story. Novelizations can be more accessible for people with disabilities, including those who have difficult focusing for the duration of a movie.

They let you linger in worlds you love. The different times you spend in a movie versus in a novel changes your experience of the story, letting you delight in a beloved story or franchise. The truth is: people who read novelizations tend to be the ones who loved the movies. As a huge fan of the beloved Alien franchise, it’s a joy for me to spend more time with characters I already know and love.


So, who would read a book based on a movie? Maybe you! Whatever your favorite movie, check out its novelization and enjoy the story you already love in a deeper, lingering, and more nuanced way.

Storytelling Apps: Are They Worth It?

If you’ve used social media recently, you’ve likely come across at least one ad promoting a storytelling app. From Choices to Hooked, this new sub-genre has grown considerably, often stealing the spotlight with bizarre ads promoting stories about romance, murder, and more. However, despite their initial similarities, these apps vary wildly in genre, style, and—most importantly—in quality. While some apps provide a rich reading experience, others lack story and are more focused on encouraging the user to spend money. In order to determine which storytelling apps are actually worth the storage space, I downloaded five of the most commonly promoted apps and gave them a full month of use. I will be reviewing them based on the quality of the stories and of the app itself to decide which of these apps are hidden gems, and which are better left uninstalled.


Hooked: 3/10. Hooked is an app that specializes in telling stories through the texting format. It does this by having the reader click the screen, causing the text to appear in small chunks, similar to reading a text conversation. It also has short form shows as well, but for this list I will only be reviewing the written stories.

The minute I installed this app I knew that this app would not be great. In order to access ANY of Hooked’s stories the user must subscribe to pay five dollars a WEEK! To put this into perspective, Netflix and Hulu both cost less than ten dollars a MONTH. I subscribed to the free trial so I could at least view the content, but this was already foreboding.

The stories on Hooked are fine. They aren’t anything special, but they aren’t terrible. The unique formatting helps the stories that focus on scarier elements stand out, but it falls flat when there are more contemporary plots. Simply put, Hooked is not worth paying five dollars a week, and I cancelled my subscription before I was charged.


Galatea: 7/10. Galatea is an app that functions a lot like a Kindle, with an expansive library of stories for the user to read. Unlike many of the other apps on this list, Galatea is not a choose your own adventure style app—rather, it just provides the stories as is. The stories on the app can vary in quality, but overall they tend to be written professionally and offer several stories that I personally really enjoyed. There are occasional oddities in the stories that may confuse readers who are more used to professionally published work, but overall the stories are coherent and often fast paced.

The stories featured tend to focus on the romance genre, specifically paranormal romance, and a majority of the stories on the app surround werewolves or some other creature. I’m a fan of paranormal romance, so this wasn’t an issue for me, but readers who are unfamiliar with some the the common tropes of this genre may not enjoy it.

One area that will make orbreak one’s enjoyment of this app is the adult themes. The romance on this app can be very spicy and sex scenes are pretty common. This doesn’t effect the rating of the app overall, but it is important to know going in that explicit content is the norm, so those who are uncomfortable with them can avoid it.

Where the app lost some points for me, however, is their built in monetary system. When reading a story the user can only read one ‘chapter’ every six hours. If the user wants to keep on reading they can either pay five dollars a month for unlimited reading or buy coins to unlock the next chapter. Due to these intensives, the app can be difficult to use without paying, and since there is no in-app way to earn coins, the monetary system is designed exclusively to get more money.

However, I was able to use the app successfully without spending much money, and I do feel that many of the stories on the app are worth the wait.


Is it Love? Drago: 1/10. Is it Love? Drago is one in a series of apps, all titled Is it Love?, that have been regularly advertised. Since I didn’t want to play every app in the series, I downloaded the one that they seemed to advertise the most. This means that, unlike the other apps on this list, Is it love? Drago only tells one story.

The app tells the story of a young witch who has been hired as a nanny for a little girl while she’s in college. The house where she works also has two mysterious men who live there, and the young nanny must grapple with her attraction and curiosity as she discovers the secrets of this family. As a choose your own adventure style game, the user must guide the nanny and make choices that shape the ending.

To call this story a Twilight ripoff would be disrespectful to the Twilight books. The “mystery” element is completely pointless, especially because the logo for the app makes the answer painfully clear, and this leaves the reader frustrated as the nanny acts oblivious to the obvious red flags. The vampires also behave uncomfortably throughout the game, often just staring quietly at the character and never answering her questions and just overall being boring. The dialogue is also very stilted and it reads like a first draft, ruining any enjoyment that the reader could gain from playing. Truthfully, while I did attempt to play the game for a full month, I did not progress through much of the story because I had to constantly stop due to the writing; so while it is theoretically possible that the story improves, if I wasn’t writing this article I wouldn’t have completed the first chapter.

There is a coin system at play in the game—specifically, the user must pay coins to access each line, and after you spend them you either pay for more or wait 24 hours for more coins. This is a manageable system where the user can choose to be patient and get through the game without paying, however it doesn’t hide the overall flimsy storytelling of the app.


Choices: 7/10. Choices is a choose your own adventure game that has tons of different stories to choose from. The user selects a story from the many available and then reads it all the while making choices that effect the outcome of the game.

This was a difficult app to review due to the massive diversity presented by the stories available. While it does have some common themes, like a heavy focus on romance, the overall quality of each story varies wildly. In the end, I had to split the difference in my rating as it neither exceptional nor terrible.

In a similar vein, the monetary system for this app is also neither exceptional nor terrible. Diamonds are needed for certain choices and to style the playable character’s avatar, but it is possible to earn more as you play and they aren’t necessary to use the app successfully. Overall, Choices is a broad app that has its hits and misses but is generally a solid storytelling app.


The Arcana: 10/10. Lastly, we have The Arcana, a choose your own adventure game set in a medieval fantasy setting. The reader plays as the apprentice to the magician Asra who has lost all their memories except for the past three years. The apprentice is hired by the countess, Nadia, to catch a man named Julian who murdered the count, Lucio, three years ago. In this fantasy mystery, the reader can choose between six different paths, each with a character that they fall in love with. Each path also comes with a good and a bad ending, depending on the readers’ choices.

To say that I love this app is an understatement. Every character is meticulously written with unique and dynamic character arcs that make each romance plot fascinating. The amount of detail included in both the artwork and the storytelling also creates a reading experience that is unparalleled by any other app on this list. While the focus of the app is on the relationships, the plot of each route also receives a great deal of effort and care, making the stories told on this app truly magnificent.

The game does have a coin mechanic, but the coins are only used to buy extra scenes within each chapter and do not affect the story in any way. It is fully possible to complete every route without spending any coins. There is also a mini-game where the user can earn coins, so the user could do that as well. All in all, this is a fantastic storytelling app that has set the bar high for others like it.

Book Review

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

Publisher: Random House
Genre: Autobiography, Memoir
Pages: 352
Format: Hardcover
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Summary

Growing up in a remote area of beautiful Idaho may seem like a dream come true. But for Tara Westover, the remote location mirrored her own isolation, both in beliefs and in terms of those she could relate to.

Born into a family of devout Mormon extremists and survivalists, Tara was not allowed to take medicine, have a valid form of personal identification, or even attend school. Moments that might have been spent learning how to read were instead needed to prepare for the inevitable doomsday that her family believed was quickly approaching.

My Thoughts

Tara’s journey—from a child unable to attend school to a young adult earning her PhD at the renowned Cambridge University—is filled with heartbreak, tears, and genuine happiness. The eloquent yet accessible nature of Tara’s writing style allows her readers to go through the journey of her young life with her. Even though her life experiences are likely vastly different from those of the majority of her readers, Tara has a way of telling her story that is innately human. Although most of her readers may not relate to Tara’s memories of things like being in a horrible car accident and then forbidden to go to the hospital for her injuries, themes like familial tensions and the struggle to find the meaning of one’s academic education will certainly resonate with many others. 

Educated is worth the read not only because Tara’s story is compelling, but also because it will positively leave readers with something long after they’ve closed the book—whether that be gratefulness for the opportunities education has afforded the audience or reflection on what life and education means to them. I encourage everyone to delve in as soon as possible, and I promise you won’t be able to put it down.

All the Bright Places: Book-to-Movie Adaptation

Each time I go to Goodwill, I end up leaving with a stack of books that live on my shelf indefinitely. I always plan to read them, yet somehow always end up with more that I don’t get around to. A few weeks ago, I found All the Bright Places sitting on my shelf and was drawn to it. I had heard some things about it, but was not at all expecting the emotional whirlwind it took me on. I devoured it in a day, then immediately watched the movie afterwards to compare—and I have some thoughts on the adaptation.

All the Bright Places tells the story of Finch and Violet, an unlikely pair that first meet on the top of the school’s bell tower. They are the only two who know the truth about who saved who as the story circulates the school. When they’re paired to do a school project together, they discover just how much they need each other. But as Violet heals, Finch begins to sink.

I fell in love with this book the second I finished it and I knew it had been made into a movie, so immediately after closing the book I pulled it up on Netflix.
Generally, the movie did a good job bringing these characters to life. The casting is one place where they excelled. Elle Fanning is a perfect Violet—she’s exactly how I pictured her in my head. Justice Smith, as Finch, was excellently cast as well, which really aided in putting the story on the big screen.


Casting aside, there were a few changes made that I found a bit odd. For starters, in the novel Violet and Finch meet on the top of the bell tower and most of the school sees them up there, turning it into a whole ordeal. In the movie, however, Violet is on a bridge when Finch finds her. It seems like a minor change, yet in the novel a large part of the reason they’re thrown together is because of the news story that spirals from being caught up there. Ultimately, this didn’t make a huge difference to the overall feeling and message of the story, but I was surprised when at it.

A common flaw when translating a book to a movie is the timeline. I noticed while watching that it almost felt rushed, but I also think that is just a result of the medium. Generally speaking, the important moments were articulated well and the actors did a great job bringing this movie to life. I will almost always favor books to movies, and I definitely recommend reading the book first, but the movie does bring the story to life in a touching way. 

If you haven’t read this book already, I definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a new tearjerker. Niven touches on a lot of important, and often overlooked, issues, especially in literature, and for that I applaud her. I recommend both the novel and the film, but I suggest that you read the book first to get the full effect. You can purchase it here.

Book Review

Better Together by Christine Riccio

Publisher: Wednesday Books
Genre: Young Adult, Coming of Age
Pages: 448
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 4/5 stars

Summary

If you’re looking for an extraordinarily unique, dark twist on a classic story, look no further than Christine Riccio’s Better Together. Jamie and Siri are sisters separated at a young age and completely devoid of contact for over a decade due to their parents’ nasty divorce.

In a twist of luck (or fate) the two sisters are reunited at the same “rediscover yourself” retreat and hatch a devious plan: the two will switch places and confront their respective parents.

However, not everything goes as planned, and it’s going to take a lot more than switching places to understand each other, find themselves, and ultimately face the complexities of family.

Thoughts

It has been almost a year since my very first post with The Spellbinding Shelf where I discussed one of my favorite young adult novels, Again but Better by Christine Riccio. Now, coming full circle, I decided to review her newly released second novel, Better Together. While very witty, I have to admit that initially I was not completely sold on the plot—mostly because it wasn’t my usual type of young adult novel. The whimsical magic reminiscent of The Parent Trap and Freaky Friday are classically engaging, but I was not as enthused with those themes. Perhaps due to my hesitancy, I ended up being disengaged, and the combination of short and rather uneventful chapters left me searching for more.

Despite some of these shortcomings, I was pleasantly surprised with Riccio’s capability to take a traditionally lighthearted storyline and investigate the twisted, dark, and traumatizing difficulties of divorce, dysfunctional families, and the impact of parents’ choices on their children. Indeed, there were moments in the book where, while I was craving more action, I couldn’t ignore the insight and attention to how both Jamie and Siri processed their emotional baggage. Riccio does an amazing job detailing the struggles of both characters who have completely different personalities and means of handling their past to move towards their future. There were multiple times in which I had to underline prominent messages or found myself laughing at the page as Riccio nicely combined comedy, romance, and sardonic tones with the seriousness of her overall topic.

Most importantly, Better Together was primarily written during the pandemic—a heaviness that is translated in its pages as the reader slowly feels the suffocation and eventual release of tension most everyone has felt over the past year. In this manner, I appreciated Better Together not only because of its mix of tragedy and comedy, but also its overall feeling of angst and the eventual, much needed, feeling of relief.