Book Review

Again, But Better by Christine Riccio

Publisher: Wednesday Books
Genre: Contemporary, YA Fiction
Pages: 384
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 4.95/5 stars

Summary

Written by well-known BookTuber Christine Riccio, Again, But Better is a story for anyone needing encouragement to find themselves and gain the confidence to live in the moment. The novel follows shy and awkward Shane, a 20-year-old pre-med major who decides to spend a semester in London on a limb. As Shane begins her semester abroad, she is determined to essentially re-do her college experience—this means not overthinking, being more outgoing, and having the confidence to go after her dream and her crush. However, as Shane begins to explore new experiences, she is constantly torn between her desire to be a writer and her parents’ expectations of medical school. When these two forces collide, Shane has a decision to make—but will she make the right one? Riccio frames the story so that we are not just reading about Shane’s development, but we begin to understand that everyone is just trying to find themselves. In the end, Riccio shows us that with some courage, faith, and strength we can live up to our personal expectations and desires, and that ultimately anything is possible.

Thoughts

I originally picked up this book because I strongly resonated with the description of Shane. I thought it was unique that a young adult novel focused on a 20-year-old rather than the typical 16–18-year-olds. Shane’s age, as well as the internal conflicts she deals with throughout the novel, is a subject that was close to my heart—Again, but Better is about a college student trying to find who they are and who they want to be, and I think this is something everyone can relate to, especially college students. The novel is great because the reader can feel the anxiety and struggle Shane experiences, but the struggles of the other characters are also evident. There is a beautiful balance in seeing not only how we can be consumed by our own worry, but also the great comfort of knowing everyone is sharing this experience.

One of the aspects which I greatly appreciated was how Riccio doesn’t sugarcoat the fantasy of having a crush or the fear associated with going outside your comfort zone. The initial interactions between the characters is awkward—especially as Shane describes not knowing how to stand in front of her crush, or not initially “clicking” with one of her roommates. The evident anxiety within Pilot (the male protagonist and Shane’s love interest) in making an incorrect decision is one which almost everyone can relate to, and Riccio doesn’t represent this agony as simple. People are oftentimes represented to us from what we outwardly see, but this book makes a good point in showing that what we outwardly express isn’t what we always are; it links the perception of who we are on the outside to who we want to be on the inside.

Above all else, I loved how the central idea of the novel wasn’t consumed with the notion that if Shane only finds “love,” she will inevitably find herself. The romance within the book adds exceptional flavor, but it is in no way the main course. Rather, Riccio chooses to emphasize Shane’s discovery of herself in a time separate from Pilot. It is a book that goes beyond the stereotypical “find love and find yourself” narrative, but really focuses on the development of the characters and the development of yourself as a reader. This concept is so refreshing in a young adult novel.

Again, But Better is a fast-paced and personal read for those who want something lighter, but still deeply meaningful. No matter who reads it, the themes and development of the characters is something that can resonate with everyone. We overthink, we get discouraged, and we let others expectations of ourself get in the way of what we really want. The second half of the book allows the reader to acknowledge Shane’s mistakes and see where we ourselves tend to slip up. We see her struggle, and the struggles of those around her, as we try to navigate the world in relation to others and ourselves.

If you enjoyed Again, But Better, author Christine Riccio created a Spotify playlist to accompany the novel that can be found here!


Guest post courtesy of Lauren Kuhman

Book Review

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Publisher: Ecco
Genre: Contemporary, LGBTQ+
Pages: 242
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 3/5 Stars

Summary

In Exciting Times, Ava, Dublin born and bred, finds herself in Hong Kong teaching English to elementary school students while searching for happiness. When petulant roommates threaten to destroy her sanity, Julian, a wealthy financier, offers her the chance to live a much swankier life than her teacher salary can afford. More companions than romantic partners, they enter into an undefined relationship that Ava continually struggles to decipher and maneuver. When Julian goes out of town for work, Ava meets Edith, a Hong Kong lawyer. Edith upsets the strange balance, leading Ava to question her whole relationship with Julian and ultimately her own identity.

Thoughts

With a title like Exciting Times, I had page-turning high hopes, but overall the novel didn’t necessarily live up to the hype for me. I found myself frustrated with its central group of characters (although that could have been Dolan’s intent). I did agree with the back cover’s assessment of Ava having a cold personality—which is evident in some of her interactions with students and colleagues. However, I did not find Julian all that “witty”; his indifference and callousness with Ava is deflating. The appearance of Edith, the Hong Kong lawyer with whom Ava becomes fixated, gives the novel some drama, as she delivers where Julian cannot in terms of affection and commitment. For me however, the love triangle never quite takes off in a way that is very satisfying. 

Dolan’s use of the characters’ careers as plot devices is fascinating. Her dive into the world of finance through Julian’s career was interesting to the point that I actually had to look up certain industry jargon. The peek into Ava’s career teaching grammar to Hong Kong children is also a fun aspect of the novel. This could have a lot to do with the fact that I am studying to be an English teacher, however the little “lessons” that Dolan interweaves into Ava’s inner monologues nicely punctuate certain scenes. 

Dolan’s commentary on social class is also interesting, as the reader vividly experiences Ava’s struggle with fitting into Julian’s crowd of friends and colleagues. Their differences are not just financial, and Ava is made painfully aware of this during the course of their relationship. Anyone who has dated outside their tax bracket will find her dilemma relatable.

Ava deals with these insecurities and doubts by engaging in a quirky habit of composing text and email messages that she never intends to send. She reveals her true feelings through these “drafts” and they make for some of the more humorous areas of the novel. Dolan makes the choice to use an “accidental” transmission of one of the messages as a plot device, and it is effective in revealing Julian’s continued indifference. 

The novel spends a lot of time inside Ava’s head, as she battles her own good judgement to leave what is ultimately a toxic, unfulfilling relationship. Ava’s opportunity for growth, I believe, was stunted despite all of her rumination, and when the novel concludes, she hadn’t really learned much about herself.


Thank you to Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC
in exchange for this honest and unbiased review.