Our Favorite Tropes: 6 Recommendations and Why We Love Them

This post is a collaboration between Makayla Aysien and Lauren Kuhman

Enemies to Lovers

The Hating Game—Sally Thorne. The Hating Game follows Lucy and Josh—two people who work for the same publishing company—who are forced to work in the same office space, and who absolutely despise each other. Lucy is sweet, colorful, passionate, and friendly, while Josh is tough, reserved, and intimidating, but no less passionate than Lucy. The two clash so often and so epically that their heated relationship is infamous at their little publishing company, Bexley & Gamin. When a promotion becomes available—available to only one of them—their competition appears to come to an all-time high. Amid the chaos of change, and the two of them knowing that their current dynamic will surely be altered by this promotion, the main question is what kind of new relationship might blossom between the two of them. 

The Hating Game is the book that pulled me into the romance genre. I thought I had picked up a mediocre book that wouldn’t distract me while I was supposed to be committed to schoolwork, but this turned out to be one of the best mistakes I have ever made! With its endless hilarity and truly passionate romance, I couldn’t put it down. Other enemies to lovers books like to point out the fact that their main characters are “verbally sparring” without actually bantering, but Lucy and Josh know what it means to be witty. I think it’s safe to say that Sally Thorne has reinvigorated the enemies to lovers trope in the modern romance genre.


Found Family

Six of Crows—Leigh Bardugo. Six of Crows follows a handful of teenagers in Ketterdam, a city where capitalists’ dreams come true and gangs run the streets. When an opportunity comes along to become obscenely wealthy, Kaz Brekker—leader of one of Ketterdam’s prominent gangs, the Dregs—recruits an unlikely crew to complete a heist. 

Six of Crows is everywhere, and it deserves all the hype it gets. It intertwines some of the greatest storylines and tropes imaginable, from heists and trickery to young love and friendship. Bardugo has created vivid, lively, but vastly different personalities who somehow come together to achieve their goals. Every member of Kaz’s crew comes from some sort of great familial loss, but in working together, they discover a love for each other that is more important than any other wealth.


Workplace Romance

If I Never Met You—Mhairi McFarlane. This romance follows Laurie, a successful career woman, whose longtime boyfriend suddenly and unexpectedly ends their relationship. Their breakup is made all the more awkward by the fact that they work for the exact same law firm. Laurie hasn’t dated in years, but her ex and his new girlfriend, as well as the workplace gossip about her love life, pushes her to take action. After running into Jamie Carter, the office playboy whose love life is the topic of conversation far too often, they hatch a plan to pretend that they are dating.

If I Never Met You combines one of my favorite tropes—workplace romances—with another amazing romance trope: fake dating. While this is very much a romance novel, it offers a unique type of romance to the genre. It’s subtle, slow, and sweet. This book focuses a great deal on Laurie and what it’s like to move on from a relationship that ended in profound heartbreak, but also offers a gentle hand to those who are learning to open their hearts back up again.


Main Character Ends Up with a Celebrity

Catch a Falling Star—Kim Culbertson. I am a supporter of the fact that romances don’t need to be incredibly physical to be amazing or that adults can’t enjoy YA novels—and Catch a Falling Star is no exception. One of the first novels I bought and read myself at my school’s Scholastic Book Fair, Catch a Falling Star perfectly encompasses all the feelings of young love with the caveat that the main character doesn’t initially want such feelings. This fairly short novel is about a small town girl who, when a movie star comes to film in her town, is asked to portray the celebrity’s girlfriend. While the relationship is tense at first, it isn’t before long that both catch feelings. But is it real? Can the two survive the pull of their completely different lives?

This is a great read any time of the year, but if you don’t like the cold and are dreaming of summer look no further for a perfect wish-I-was-on-the-beach read. As well, for fans of Disney Channel’s movie StarStruck this book encompasses those tensions, feelings, and hope that young love can offer.

Honorable Mention

Girls Save the World in this One—Ash Parsons. We couldn’t include this trope without mentioning Girls Save the World in this One by Ash Parsons. A quirky and lovable novel that combines unlikely romance and the zombie apocalypse, this book is perfect for anyone wanting a typical literary trope with a unique plot.



Self-Discovery and Mental Health

Dear Evan Hansen—Val Emmich. A musical, a book, and now a movie, it goes without saying that Dear Evan Hansen has become a world-wide phenomenon (and with good reason). The story follows Evan Hansen, an anxious and isolated high-schooler. One day he is tasked with writing a letter to himself by his therapist—however fellow student, Connor Murphy, takes the letter. The next day, Evan Hansen is approached by Connor’s grieving parents who believe that the letter was a final note from their son, who took his own life that day. Evan Hansen is pulled into a conflicting situation as he searches for belonging while addressing the harsh reality of being a young person and lifting the grief of the Murphy family.

Dear Evan Hansen is an amazing story and addresses so many ideas but mostly emphasizes the idea of personal growth and self discovery as Evan Hansen searches for meaning and belonging while making some pretty bad decisions. Additionally, the story is available in many formats that all articulate the prevalence of Evan Hansen’s journey. The book and movie are the most accessible, but as always I encourage you to read the book first (and as a bonus listen to the original sound track as you read!).


Psychological / Survivalist

Lord of the Flies—William Golding. Lord of the Flies by William Golding is just an all-around good book. Short and concise, the novel follows a group of young boys who have recently been stranded on an island. What begins as an organized attempt to survive quickly descends to chaos. Declared a classic and recipient of the Nobel Prize, the novel goes beyond its acclaimed status. It is the type of story that offers something new every time you read it; it takes on multiple forms, multiple focuses, and articulates new ideas. It is timeless not only because it speculates some of the most innate qualities of humanity, but because it is a story that answers the age-old question of what would happen if you were stranded on a desert island. So…what would you do?

Why Neurodivergent Representation Matters in the Romance Genre

When we speak about the romance genre in this setting, I’m referring to complete, nonstop romance. Virtually every scene, every word, every breath is imbued with romance, even if the degree of cheesiness is left to the prerogative of the author. This romance isn’t a mere subplot; it is the very essence of the novel, laying out what is often essentially 300 pages of fluff.

Despite its sweetness and all of the immediate joy these stories bring us, we cannot ignore that this genre is severely lacking in diversity. How many books featuring two cis straight white neurotypical people—one male, the other female—falling in love did publishers reasonably think they could pump out before we demanded more representation in race, religion, sexual orientation, and gender identity? The romance genre has begun giving us this diversity, but in our reimagining of the genre, I’m worried that queer characters, as well as the subject of this article, neurodivergent characters, are going to be left behind.

Two authors of neurodivergent and inclusive romance novels give me hope that this doesn’t have to be the case: Helen Hoang and Chloe Liese. Hoang has written three books featuring autistic characters: The Kiss Quotient, The Bride Test, and The Heart Principle. Liese has written eight novels featuring characters with autism, anxiety, and physical disabilities in her Tough Love and Bergman Brothers series. What’s even more exciting is that both of these authors have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), meaning that we get to read neurodivergent romance novels by authors who have an understanding of what it’s like to have a neurodivergent mind.

Throughout their books, we are given different illustrations of what the ASD experience might be like for different people. We get to see characters who received their diagnosis early in life, as well as those who weren’t diagnosed until adulthood, like the authors themselves. Moreover, Hoang and Liese sprinkle in particular experiences that people with ASD, and other neurodivergent folks, have, including overstimulation, touch sensitivity, confusion about certain social cues, and special interests.

Not only do we need this sort of representation across different mediums of storytelling and in everyday life, but we need to make sure that neurodivergent folks are incorporated in every genre, from action movies to fantasy novels. I find it frustrating when I go into a bookstore or library and find that books like LGBTQ+ fiction have their own section. Perhaps it’s just me, but it’s frustrating to see that there are usually so few and that they aren’t mixed in with the fiction novels. Why can’t we both write more LGBTQ+ fiction and not set them apart as if they’re an esoteric genre only queer people would read? The same must be said about novels with neurodivergent characters; we need more of them and they need to not be treated as a separate genre. This will help take away stereotypes and stigmas about neurodivergence. After all, if every human experience is unique to the person who experiences it, why should the neurodivergent experience be set apart from what it is: a unique human experience that should be cared about as much as all neurotypical experiences are?

By specifically placing neurodivergent folks in the romance genre, we get a closer look at how they might go about any human relationship, not simply romantic ones, but, of course, how they might want to receive romantic love and how they love others. Surprisingly or unsurprisingly, it really is no different from a romantic relationship that neurotypicals would want to pursue. Most neurodivergent folks want a romantic relationship. They want hugs and hand holding and sex. They want their partner to feel loved. As with any relationship, there will be unique interests and things that certain people are uncomfortable with. In that case, people in a relationship should communicate to set up boundaries, but this is typical of any healthy relationship.

This is why romance novels featuring neurodivergent characters, especially those written by neurodivergent authors, are so important—they show us the reality that sweet, sexy, passionate, erotic, loving, and lasting romantic relationships aren’t unattainable or undesirable to neurodivergent folks because of their neurodivergence. What makes these relationships more difficult for some neurodivergent individuals is the expectation that they must act like neurotypicals. They must give and receive love as others typically do. These books show that this expectation is unhealthy, not simply for neurodivergent folks, but for neurotypical folks, as well. Learn how your partner loves. Do they want to infodump? Do they give you random small gifts because they were thinking about you and thought you would like it?

On a personal note, these books were here for me throughout my own diagnosis with ADHD, another neurodivergence. I read them before I even had a clue I had something in common with these characters, during the process of diagnosis, and now, after I know myself better than I ever have before. They serve as a beautiful reminder that my life, and in this context, my love life, doesn’t have to be different simply because I’m neurodivergent. They show me that I am still deserving of love. We all are.

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.

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.

4 Books to Dive Into This Summer

Summer is just around the corner and, for me, there is nothing better than lying in a hammock with a good book. While it is arguable that most any book will work in this scenario, some books just scream “summer” more than others. After some thought, I have compiled a list of books that I think are perfect for diving into summer.


The Summer I Turned Pretty—Jenny Han. Starting off the list is a novel from the author of the To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before series. It follows the story of Belly, who looks forward to the summer all year. Each year, her family spends the season in the small town of Cousins where they join the Fishers, whose sons Jeremiah and Conrad have grown up with Belly. It’s a story of first love, heartbreak, and the summer sun. I used to read this book every year—it’s the perfect YA summer love story. If you’re looking to get into the summer mood, then I highly recommend giving this novel a chance. If you like it, it’s part of a three book series!


Red White & Royal Blue—Casey McQuiston. It wouldn’t be a summer reads list without this fan favorite. This novel tells the story of Alex Claremont-Diaz, whose mom is the President of the United States. When the tabloids get a hold of a physical altercation between him and the Prince of Wales, a variety of problems arise. In the efforts between the two countries to mend the relationship comes a heart-warming and unlikely love story. There’s a reason this novel is so popular, and as summer rolls around I find myself gravitating towards it again.


It Had to Be You—Georgia Clark. This is a newer release—it came out about two weeks ago—but I have a feeling it is going to be the novel of the summer. Told in a style similar to Love Actually, this novel tells the story of Liv Goldenhorn, who is not only dealing with the death of her husband, but also the fact that he left half of their business to his mistress, Savannah. For obvious reasons, Liv isn’t happy about this, and when Savannah comes to work with her, they don’t exactly mesh right away. However, long nights and deep conversations have a way of revealing hidden depths about people, and both Savannah and Liv find that not everything is what meets the eye. It’s a witty, heartwarming story that perfectly captures that summer feeling.


The Girl from Widow Hills—Megan Miranda. I read this novel at the beginning of last summer and as I was thinking of novels for this post that were less romance-y but still summer-y, and this one immediately popped into my head. This novel follows Arden Maynor, who now goes by Olivia Meyer, 20 years after she was found in a storm drain in the small town of Widow Hills. She has spent her life trying to distance herself from her past, but it always has a way of catching up. This novel is shocking and thrilling while still maintaining that summer feeling. If summer romances aren’t as much your thing, I highly recommend checking this novel out.


Book Review

A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson

Publisher: Tor.com
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 160
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Summary

In this queer fantasy romance, Aqib bgm Sadiqi, son of a lesser noble in the court of Olorum, falls hard for Lucrio, a Daluçan soldier in the city as part of a trade delegation. Their love burns quick and bright, both knowing that each moment together is precious. All too soon the treaty will be signed, and Lucrio will be called back home. But they must also be careful, for the religion of Aqib’s forefathers does not approve of their union.

While kings and gods negotiate the future of their nations, Aqib and Lucrio negotiate their own futures in a treaty no less monumental for all that it defines—not relations between kingdoms and empires, but only between their two hearts.

Thoughts

The wonderful thing about short books is that you can read them in one sitting, and ever since Tor.com decided to start publishing novellas (one of the most underappreciated literary forms, in my humble opinion) I’ve been on the hype train.

A Taste of Honey is Wilson’s second novella from the imprint, set in the same world as his debut The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps. Tonally, however, the two books could not be more different. Sorcerer was a tour de force of experimental fantasy: a traditional sword-and-sorcery story with a non-linear narrative structure, and a masterful use of layered, naturalistic dialect. Imagine my surprise upon picking A Taste of Honey to discover an aching summer romance, full of queer longing and forbidden love.

Honey is in many ways a more casually approachable work than Sorcerer. This was a purposeful decision on the part of Wilson, who wrote in his essay “A POC Guide to Writing Dialect in Fiction” that “Many people won’t read even gorgeously written dialect—cannot, in the first place, perceive the beauty in it.” Therefore he toned-down the dialect in his second work, though he notes that Honey is still “deeply although subtly spiced with it.” His experiments with form, on the other hand, have been—if anything—heightened. The warp and weft of interwoven past and present give the book an almost dreamlike quality, imbedding the reader into a diachronic character study of Aqib bmg Sadiqi.

Aqib’s personal turmoil takes center stage in Honey. I’m not ashamed to say this book made me cry as Aqib’s thorny relationship with his family tore its way through my heart. (Don’t worry though, Ashante knows better than to violate romance’s sacred trust of the happily ever after).

And Lucrio—sweet Lucrio—is just about the best Prince Charming I’ve ever encountered in print. If you fall hopelessly in love with storybook characters (as I do), be prepared to go head over heels for this strong and gentle Daluçan soldier.

I recommend this book whole-heartedly. You would be hard pressed to find a more intimate portrait of tragedy, romance, and longing in a smaller package than A Taste of Honey. Come spend a chilly winter evening warmed by love and the light of the Olorum summer sun.

Impact of Romance Novels on Young Readers

Twilight. Divergent. Matched. Pride and Prejudice. Romeo and Juliet. These stories are classics; known by readers everywhere for their intricate detail and swoon-worthy love interests. However, is it possible that these stories have ruined the young reader’s current perception of relationships?

I’ve thought a lot about the role of YA romance novels in the last couple years. I once praised the gooey-feel-good, yet often simplistic plot line of romantic comedies and the “bad boy/good girl” archetype I read throughout my tween and teen years. While these books are wonderful for many reasons, I couldn’t help but realize as I got older that the protagonists were much younger than myself, and yet they had their life easily figured out by the end of 300 pages. This led me waiting throughout my teen years to be older; but as I grew into my late teens, I found the end of high school didn’t mean the completion of my self development—and more importantly—no attractively mysterious love interest would randomly come into my life. 

In a blog post about why they hate YA novels, Vivian DeRosa discusses two important points surrounding the typical themes within teen-romances: first, teenagers are inherently awkward, underdeveloped, and immature people; second, YA relationships are pure fiction. I don’t think there is a single person who looks back at their early teens and thinks they were at their peak. Being a teenager, even well into someone’s twenties, is awkward both physically and mentally; developing into who we are and finding who we want to be is a lifelong process that doesn’t conclude when one problem is solved. It is difficult for young adults to read these iconic stories and not receive the impression that they are supposed to be stunningly attractive and fully mentally developed, especially when Hollywood casts older actors to play these characters. It is impossible to think that 16-year-old Tris, while just beginning to understand her “Divergence,” could possibly build an actually sustainable relationship with Four. Or that 17-year old Bella not only found true love with a 104-year-old Vampire but gets married and fights in an ancient feud between the vampires and werewolves all while still in high school.

To this point, “YA tends to treat teenage relationships like they’re going to last forever. Many epilogues show the main character and their love interest happily married. But that’s not how most teen relationships shake out…” (DeRosa, 2017). Most teenagers are focused on typical high school and young adult things, and if they are in a relationship usually it doesn’t develop into a life-altering love story that will take precedence of their life and last forever. However, these stories have young readers believing that not only are relationships purely built on “finding the one,” but that there is no effort involved in finding, cultivating, and sustaining an actual romantic relationship. This thought process is detrimental to the perception of good relationships because it doesn’t offer the difficult perspective of how much work and time relationships actually take; it gives young readers a false foundation that life is just like these stories and all two people need is an attractive counterpart and one very passionate kiss.

Additionally, the perception of love through not just YA romance novels but all romance media is dangerous for all genders and sexualities. Because while Twilight, Divergent, and Romeo and Juliet are all coming of age stories where the protagonist’s journey takes the reader on one of self discovery as well, these mediums are often excluding the storylines of non-cis gendered, racially diverse, or gay protagonists. That a male protagonist without abs might fall in love with another male, female, or nonbinary peer who might have a diverse set of beliefs or culture is almost unheard of in YA romances, while today this is the reality of relationships. These stories, while considered classics, cater to a specific female fantasy—and without the diversity of representation, there is a whole population who may either lack a well-rounded understanding of relationships and/or see love as an unreachable fantasy.

This is not to say that these stories aren’t good. They are. There is a reason why Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is continuously taught and referenced through different mediums; why John Green’s “Okay? Okay.,” line reference has taken off with readers; and why the promotion of “sparkly, chiseled-abed vampires” has become a teen cliché. These stories are beautiful, incite strong emotions, and are oftentimes powerful. Despite having contradicting emotions about the genre, I still love and appreciate these stories. Don’t stop reading them, but don’t take them as a bible to your literary world. Teach each other that these books are not a guide for how to look, act, or love—and, most importantly, expand to local and diverse authors dedicated to telling the story that is not only special but realistic. In this way, we can indulge in the beauty and power of love, but remember that love is nothing without a relationship—which is often much more complicated than 300 pages would suggest.

Aviles, G. (2019, March 10). The rise of young adult books with LGBTQ characters – and what’s next. NBCNews. https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/rise-young-adult-books-lgbtq-characters-what-s-next-n981176

DeRosa, V.P. (2017, June 21). I’m a teenager and I don’t like young adult novels. Here’s why. Huffingtonpost. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/what-ya-gets-wrong-about-teenagers-from-a-teen_b_594a8e4de4b062254f3a5a94

Book Review

Dear Emmie Blue by Lia Louis

Publisher: Atria/ Emily Bestler Books
Genre: Fiction, Romance
Pages: 320
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 4/5 stars

Summary

Dear Emmie Blue tells the story of Emmeline Blue as her life falls to pieces. When she was 16, Emmie released a balloon with a secret written on it, only for it to wash up on a distant shore and introduce her to her best friend, Lucas. Now in her twenties, she is hopelessly and irretrievably in love with Lucas, and thinks he is finally going to ask her out—only for him to announce that he is getting married. To make matters worse, Lucas wants Emmie to be his “best woman,” prolonging and magnifying her anguish. From her dead-end job, distant mother, and aloof landlady, Lucas’s engagement is the last straw for Emmie.

Despite all the loneliness and heartache, however, wonderful things are in store for Emmie Blue. Lia Louis’ novel pays homage to the idea that life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans, and reminds us that unexpectedly wonderful things could be waiting just around the corner.

Thoughts

I don’t know about you, but this year has been a doozy for me. This was a book that I desperately needed to help me cope with this unpredictable—and sometimes depressing—world we’re living in. This might seem to be an odd sentiment, given that Emmie faces heartbreak and calamity for a decent portion of the book. I would argue, though, that a book with a certain amount of despair is fitting, given the current state of things (so long as all ends well). While Louis undoubtedly forces the reader to empathize with the protagonist, there is a certain hope found in seeing a character continue pressing on, even when things look bleak.

I think a great deal of charm in this novel comes from Emmie Blue herself. She manages to be strong and fragile, resilient and weary, all at once. More so than this, you truly feel for her throughout the book. Especially when she divulges the details of a sexual assault in her youth, and wrestles with her broken relationship with her parents, you can’t help but root for her. It’s hard to not be in Emmie’s corner, especially concerning her relationship with Lucas—a kismet meeting if ever there was one. Both Emmie and us as the reader see these two as so obviously destined to be together, and it’s beyond frustrating that they aren’t. Even characters that I didn’t find very likable, such as Rosie and Marie, were appreciated insofar as they related to Emmie.

Dear Emmie Blue is an important reminder that life is unpredictable, and that sometimes that’s the best thing about it. If everything stayed the same, there would be no way for things to get better. It’s a cheesy sentiment, sure, but true nevertheless. The only complaint I had about this book comes from the predictability of the ending, but I would argue that even this lends a certain charm—knowing how something ends doesn’t make the journey any less meaningful, right? I would recommend this book to anyone who needs a mental reset, or a reminder that there are sunnier days ahead.


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

Perfect Imperfections

If Sense and Sensibility were a twenty-first century novel, Marianne would be the heroine, not Elinor. There is no way a woman with perfect composure who never offends anybody would take the spotlight. Marianne always speaks her mind, sometimes to the degree of incivility. She wears her heart on her sleeve and gets it broken. This brings a drastic change in her personality as she adopts discretion for the first time in her life. Elinor, whose perspective we have the most access to, and can therefore be considered the primary character, is politically correct from the beginning. She is fully functional when she’s down in the dumps and low-key patronizes her sister for indulging in a mourning period.

Granted, it’s Jane Austen. But even Thomas Hardy with his candid, earthy writing could not do worse than Bathsheba Everdene in Far from the Madding Crowd, whose only fault is that she dares to run a farm without consulting a man. She is punished for it by being put through a series of toxic relationships that break her spirit and rob her of her independence until, spoiler alert, she finally submits to the man she spurns in the first chapter.

Many of our revered classics—The Picture of Dorian Gray, Anna Karenina and The Great Gatsby for example—were highly controversial when they were first published and received mixed reviews. It had a lot to do with the fact that the main characters sinned repeatedly without obvious remorse, and that readers of that time could not stomach the acres of moral grey area that these fictional worlds presented. One could say that they were ahead of their time, like most great works of art. They paved the way for eminent writers of our time to create realistic characters with quirks, vulnerabilities, and impulses.

It’s more than just the artistic cliche of romanticizing pain. I think society became more accepting of imperfection as time went by—or at least less ashamed of it. We finally admit that we relate well to flawed characters because they give us hope that we too can experience amazing, extraordinary things, battered and dented as we are. The last thing the modern reader wants is a morally unscrupulous hero or heroine. What we want is to witness growth.

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