Tag Archives: romance

Review: Internet Famous

There’s a reason this blog went quiet for a while. You see, I was in a directionless rut, not really reading, not really crafting, just work, home, half-heartedly try to do something relaxing, sleep. Rinse and repeat. And if I wasn’t crafting, and I wasn’t reading–the two things that run deeper through my core of self than any professional affiliation–well, then who was I?

It never quite got to existential levels, but it did leave me in a funk.

It passed, gradually. A small project here, a modular hexagon for my scrap crochet afghan there, pick up a book and read the first few chapters… Gradually, I started coming back around to myself.

Reading mojo took a bit longer to get back. I tried different genres, started lots of books without finishing them, and stared at my checked-out library book shelf at home, just not “feeling” any of them. Until I brought home Danika Stone’s Internet Famous.

I adored All the Feels (as previously squeed over here), and this one promised to deliver more of the things I’ve come to expect from Stone–fandom, a sweet romance, and general nerd positivity–so I sat down to read.

internet famousFor the first time in months, I picked up a book that grabbed me and didn’t let go. This story follows Madi, a high school student enrolled in online coursework and maintaining a popular blog that serves as both community and revenue. Through that community, she has a supportive group of online friends who help her deal with her life, which is complicated by a mother who isn’t around much and a younger sister with special needs that tend to consume a lot of energy and focus at home. Through this community, Madi finds flirtation and romance with cute French exchange student Laurent… and a troll whose tactics escalate and get more personal as she and Laurent’s online flirtation takes off.

While Internet Famous does stand alone from All the Feels, there are some fun little peripheral nods to its predecessor, enough to wink to returning readers without requiring background knowledge for newcomers. And it does have several things in common with Feels, namely the significant role of fandom, internet community, and sweet, nerdy love stories, fitting together nicely thematically.

This one deals more with the downside of anonymity in those communities, but that is not at the expense of the genuine friendships and relationships that develop out of that community. A cautionary tale this is not, and as someone whose network of friends includes people from fan communities over a decade old, I appreciated the balanced depiction. Madi’s online friends feel as real and sometimes flawed (oh, Brian…) and supportive as any fandom community currently in existence.

The romance in Internet Famous was charming. Danika Stone writes lovely, genuinely sweet nerd book boyfriends. Laurent’s long-distance “dates” with Madi via messaging apps and photos gave me what I’m certain was a dopey grin on my face as I read. The relationship feels like one that grows out of friendship and blossoms into something deeper, which is apparently one of my bits of romance catnip. There were a few cheesy moments, but they read as a delightful homage to the ’80s teen movies Madi reviewed on her blog, and I ate it right up. This heart of the story is what kept me reading and what I apparently needed to break my reading drought.

If I have a criticism of the book, it’s that the villains are pretty thin. I don’t expect them to be as fully rounded as the protagonists, but the rule-stickler teacher whose rigidity helps the bully make Madi’s life difficult particularly stretches believability. I’ll give that a pass, though, as the seemingly oblivious adults in Madi’s life step up where it counts. I got my happy ending out of it, which is exactly why I picked up this book and exactly why it was so satisfying.

I’ll still keep coming back to Stone’s writing for the sweet, nerd-positive romances I adore.

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Review: All the Feels

Summer 2002 was significant to me for being the year Seether’s Disclaimer came out and waiting for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix to come out. I spent hours upon hours listening to that album and diving full in to the fandom life; Livejournal and Fiction Alley were lifelines to this homeschooled and very socially sheltered then-teen. I wrote fan fiction, reviewed it, and made friends through it, some of whom are still part of my life today. I know the joys and anguish of fandom firsthand, the anticipation of a new installment and the disappointment when things didn’t quite go as you hoped they would.

So I’m pretty comfortable saying that Danika Stone’s All the Feels really gets the fandom allthefeelslife. Protagonist Liv is heartbroken when Spartan, the hero of her favorite sci fi franchise, is cruelly killed off in the most recent movie. After grieving with her friends and denying it through AU (alternate universe) fanfiction, and with the prompting of a fortune cookie fortune, she decides to do something about it. With the help of her best friend, the debonair and typically steampunk-clad Xander, Liv launches a series of fan videos suggesting that Spartan lives, in hopes of creating a grassroots movement to bring back Spartan. Life is not all fandom, though, and through this, she struggles to balance school and fandom and dating and all the stress of being a college freshman.

Honestly, I could probably review this story with one word: SQUEE! I think I smiled my way through the whole story, rooting for Liv and Xander and nodding in agreement at the sense of community depicted in fandom. Nerdom has become, one might almost say, mainstream in recent years with the popularity of Big Bang Theory and new Marvel blockbusters every few months, but I haven’t seen fandom depicted this well since Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl (another squee-worthy book I adored). Fandom isn’t for everyone, and Stone could have shied away from how encompassing it can be—on the one hand, it is a large portion of Liv’s social life, but on the other, she can and does let it consume her life to the detriment of academics, forming one of the important conflicts of the story.

And I have to give a shout-out to the relationships in this book as well. At the beginning of the book, Xander does have a girlfriend, Arden, who could easily be painted negatively. And she isn’t. Arden is largely peripheral as it becomes clear that she and Xander are not long for coupledom, but she’s fundamentally nice, even helping set Liv up on blind dates after a crush on a classmate ends in disappointment. The depiction of women not tearing down other women is important, and feminist, and I love when that happens in stories, especially romances. The eventual romantic relationship of Liv and Xander grows very slowly and naturally out of friendship, which is a romance trope I appreciate. (And yes, ladies, there are cute nerds out there with dashing social graces—I married one of them… #sorrynotsorry)

Overall, I loved All the Feels, but I did have a couple issues with it. It seemed to straddle the line between young adult and new adult; my library at least classified it as YA, and the way the story scales back the intensity of a few certain scenes suggests YA marketing, but I think this was much richer as a new adult story, and I wish it could have more fully inhabited that space. I want to see a wider variety of new adult stories beyond hook-up stories, and if they’re nerd-positive in addition, even better. One scene I really enjoyed was the blind-date sequence initiated after Liv’s crush on classmate Hank ends in disappointment—because she never really dated when she was younger, Liv’s expectations of romance were dashed at the first disappointment, but Xander and Arden help her to learn the dating process as a series of meetings better meant to help her determine what she does want for herself. Hell, some adults still haven’t learned that skill; it’s an important one, and it was handled with the right amount of awkwardness and humor that rang true to life. I want more of this sort of storytelling, please, publishers; perhaps I’ll have to start writing some of it myself.

Hand a copy of this to anyone you know who secretly or not-so-secretly ever wrote fanfiction. Gift it to the Browncoat in your life still mad about only getting one season of Firefly. Hand it to your wistful romantic of a friend. Give it to the new college grad who is still puzzling through what it means to be an adult. And if any of these criteria fit you, then get thee to a library or bookstore and snag a copy for yourself.

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Thoughts from Teen Lit class

Teen Materials has been one of the drool-inducing classes I’ve been looking forward to in my program of study. One look at the class goals, including the aim of giving students a better understanding of and appreciation for young adult (YA) materials told me I would be in for an enjoyable semester. And so far it is.

But.

The other day, instead of picking back up the beautiful coming-of-age story I should have been reading, I found myself with this thought: “Man, I just want to read a fluffy romance novel. One of the several I have checked out already, maybe.”

This reaction puzzled me at first, since this semester’s readings are full of materials that have been on my to-read list already or in a couple cases were things I already read and loved. Then a part of me wondered whether my impulse to read heteronormative romances had anything to do with this week’s focus on LGBTQ themes. But, again, back to the fundamental truth that these are titles I wanted to read already. Of course, there’s also the possibility of good old-fashioned stubbornness, that somebody making me do something is less enjoyable than doing it on my own; that one I can’t entirely rule out, but I was a pretty good English major, so I do know how to make myself buckle down and read.

Then it hit me: I’ve been reading a lot of YA literature these last couple months, between class and a city-wide library initiative for staff to read as much juvenile and YA materials as possible to improve our readers advisory in those areas. As one coworker used to joke at the end of the challenge, “I feel like I’ve come of age enough times, thank you very much.”

And there I had it: what makes YA literature so rich is also what makes it heavy sometimes–coming of age, figuring out who you are vs who you’re expected to be, railing against a world that seems and is fundamentally unfair–that’s heavy stuff. I care about (most of) the characters whose journeys I immerse myself in (I will vent no more about a certain novel rife with First-World Problems). Sometimes those journeys involve post-apocalyptic or dystopic settings. Sometimes it’s cancer. Other times, it’s navigating the waters of friendships. Or relationships. Or sexuality. Or religion. Or tough moral choices. Of course, the stories are rarely about just one of those things; after all, sometimes a story wrapped in vampire wrapping paper can really be about navigating the waters of friendships in the wake of growing up. Or a book about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse can actually be about an eating disorder.

Fundamentally, growing up is hard. Yeah, it makes for rich stories, but boy it can get heavy sometimes. While I can immerse myself in the pages and care about the characters, there’s no guarantee that things will be “Okay? Okay” for them. I’m glad for the opportunity to read such a cross-section of materials, but I think the desire for something with a pat, guaranteed happily ever after is not so amiss amidst this YA-heavy few months of reading.

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Review: A Week to be Wicked

My foray into the world of historical romances continues, this time with Tessa Dare and her Spindle Cove series. I enjoyed the first one, A Night to Surrender, but I adored second book A Week to be Wicked.

The pairing of outspoken bluestocking Miranda and roguish Colin was broadcast loud and clear at the end of the first book, but they are absolutely delightful in their own installment. Continue reading

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Review: Ain’t She Sweet

Few of us look back with fondness on our high school years. With too much drama and insecurity packed into four years, it’s a wonder people manage to become functioning adults. For the most part, though, once it’s over, those days are behind us.

For Sugar Beth Carey, protagonist of Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ Ain’t She Sweet, high school is about to catch up with her. Forced to return to her small Southern town where she ruled high school as the spoiled-rotten and gorgeous queen bee who made everyone else’s lives miserable, she comes face to face with her former victims, and the reunion is not a joyous one. Among them are her half-sister Winnie and Colin Byrne, whose teaching career she ruined with false accusations of inappropriate behavior. A big helping of humble pie is on the menu, but of course, so is romance.

I’ll say this upfront: Ain’t She Sweet requires a healthy dose of suspended disbelief to accept the premise that virtually an entire town has remained pettily invested in comeuppance of a high school bully. Once that hurdle is crossed, it actually makes a very entertaining read, with snappy banter and some decent character development.

Sugar Beth herself is the antidote to previous contemporary romance heroines I’ve encountered (Bridget Jones, I’m lookin’ at you). She’s a woman who has made some poor life choices and has had to live with and learn from those mistakes. The result is a strong-willed and self-deprecating woman who would rather piss people off and maintain what’s left of her pride than show a moment’s weakness. She’s trying to be a better person, but sometimes self-defeating habits get in the way—in short, while the premise of the story may be contrived, the protagonist herself reads as a fairly realistic person. The supporting cast of characters is developed to varying degrees, but the main ones at least are developed enough to keep the story going. One of the cute subplots involves the relationship between Sugar Beth and her half-sister’s daughter, a teenager going through the throes of, well, being a teenager and looking to her infamous aunt for guidance.

Overall, this was a fun, fast read. I think Susan Elizabeth Phillips is an author I may revisit when I’m looking for something fluffy to read.

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Review: A Lady Awakened

I blame my readers advisory class for a recent trend in my reading habits: I have been devouring historical romances like popcorn this summer. Between better understanding the romance genre and its expectations and having coworkers with solid recommendations, I’ve been enjoying what I’ve encountered so far.

Both my boss and coworker recommended Lisa Kleypas’ Wallflowers and Hathaways series, which I would liken to cotton candy—sweet, light, and fluffy. Per my friend and coworker’s recommendation, though, I recently devoured the romance equivalent of a multi-course meal in Cecilia Grant’s A Lady Awakened.

It’s really really hard to describe the plots and contrivances of a romance novel without getting awkward and defensive because truly they can be silly, but I’m working on it. So here goes: A Lady Awakened is about widow Martha Russell and her bold plan to secure her late husband’s estate, a plan that involves paying neighbor and rake Theo Mirkwood to help her produce an heir within a month, a strictly business matter with pleasure nowhere in the calculations. Ridiculous? Of course. But entertaining as hell—and more than that.

Once again, I find that it all hinges in the character development. Martha and Theo are well-developed characters with glaring weaknesses and redeeming qualities that could be overdone but are instead gradually revealed. Martha is an uptight do-gooder who sees marriage and mating as strictly contractual matters, while Theo is an indolent young man of means who has been banished to the family estate as punishment for debauchery in London. The novel could easily have been a comedic series of awkward sexual encounters with several token turning points, and while it does certainly begin with some highly entertaining bedroom scenes, a large part of the novel ends up taking place on their respective estates as they interact with staff, tenants whom they both want to help live better lives, and in friendships with neighbors (rest assured, the requisite sizzling scenes are present as well, but they don’t occur until much later). Martha and Theo’s relationship actually seems to bloom outside the bedroom, rather than precipitating solely from the events therein.

Some readers may find the slow pace of the tale off-putting, but it allows Grant to make a convincing depiction of two people slowly learning to love—and more importantly, respect—one another. It does end with a ‘happily ever after,’ of course, but a couple twists toward the end lead to somewhat unexpected outcomes. Along the way, there are laugh-out-loud moments (so glad no one was in the break room when I reading this over lunch break… there is no context in which “recalcitrant nipples” is an appropriate phrase for the workplace), hopeful moments, infuriating ones, and even a few suspenseful spells—a full course setting of emotional catharsis for the discerning romance reader.

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Mini reviews, post-semester edition

I have had such grand plans for my few weeks off between spring and summer semesters–play Skyrim, knit, crochet, read, basically do everything I haven’t had much time for during the semester. As it turns out, while a little bit of crafting has happened and Skyrim hasn’t been touched (I ragequit a while back at a place I kept getting killed in, so…), I have been reading voraciously. Rather than write full-scale reviews, I figured I would just post mini-reviews, so here are my most recent three reads.

Locke and Key: Alpha and Omega, Joe Hill. I have been waiting eagerly for the conclusion of this creepy graphic novel series. Without including spoilers for the previous books for those who haven’t read them yet, I will say that I wasn’t sure how things were going to play out after the fifth book’s major cliffhanger ending. The answer is with Hill’s signature blend of humor, pathos, and darkness. As expected, terrible things do happen to characters, with some dark consequences that can only be fixed too late. One of the side characters, Rufus, gets more of a starring role in this volume, which is by turns humorous and heartbreaking in his perspective. Overall verdict: if you haven’t read Locke and Key yet, go start at the beginning with Welcome to Lovecraft. Then come back here and we can squee over its awesomeness together, ok?

Dark Triumph, Robin LaFevers. The sequel to Grave Mercy, this was, if possible, even better. Darker, mostly. While very definitely a sequel in terms of the larger background political plot, this installment focused on poor broken Sybella and her return to her familial viper’s nest at the behest of her convent. The purity of motives of the good sisters of St. Mortain is further undermined, while yet another character learns to navigate her powers and learn to trust herself–and of course, eventually fall in love. The pacing was particularly well-done, with a lot tenser pacing and less of the bloat of the previous installment–more killing, less politics. I can’t wait to see the conclusion to this trilogy.

Seduce Me at Sunrise, Lisa Kleypas. Hmm. One of these books is not quite like the others, is it?  While my other reads have been dark and broody and tragic, this is mostly fluffy fun. The second book of the Hathaways series, I had to see how this pairing would play out after meeting them in Mine Till Midnight. The long-standing history and smouldering-yet-forbidden attraction between sweet, frail Win and rugged, gruff Merripen was at times oddly paced, with odd jumping around between flashbacks and then a flash-forward at the end. That said, the cast of characters has again made it worthwhile. Win made for an entertaining heroine in her own right, with a wickedness and zest for life that was somewhat hidden when she wasn’t the main protagonist. A few of the plot developments made me roll my eyes at the ridiculousness then laugh aloud at the next twist, so it balanced out overall. And yes, I’m continuing the series because they’re just sheer fun.

Current reads-in-progress: A Clash of Kings, George R.R. Martin. True Grit, Charles Portis.

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Review: Mine Till Midnight

“You’re in luck,” my boss said, handing me a book. “It’s the first in one of the series I was telling you about.” The series in question was Lisa Kleypas’s Hathaways series, beginning with Mine Till Midnight, which came to me highly recommended when I mentioned a craving for some fun, fluffy historical romance. And this fit the bill perfectly. Mine Till Midnight, Lisa Kleypas

Sensible Amelia Hathaway has her hands full taking care of her family, including a brother determined to drink himself to death and dependent younger sisters. Between those responsibilities and a previous heartbreak, Amelia has no interest in romance, denying the chemistry that sizzles between her and half-gypsy Cam Rohan upon first meeting. But fate, as Cam believes, has other plans for them, and in spite of obstacles like a house fire, bees, and a suicidal heir who may well leave the Hathaway girls penniless, Amelia and Cam are continually drawn into each other’s orbit.

Many of the tropes of romance are present and accounted for: two love interests between whom sparks fly at first meeting, a difference in socio-economic stations, an independent heroine, and of course, sizzling sexual chemistry. However, what made this a delightful read were the characters populating the pages. Like Austen’s timeless Bennetts, the Hathaways demonstrate that while family can be loud and embarrassing, they are above all family, and the bonds between siblings ring true. The supporting characters have distinct personalities; from dour Merripan, the gypsy taken in by the Hathaways as a child and raised like their brother, to youngest sister Beatrix, with her fondness for befriending small critters and bringing them with her to dinner, the tale is peppered with humor and heart. Details like Amelia trying to be rational about fate and attraction while Cam calmly accepts that this stubborn woman is his fate lend charm to the story as well, a cute reversal of emotional-woman-rational-man stereotypes.

As part of a series, Mine Till Midnight does offer resolution to the main pairing (as expected), while still leaving tantalizing threads dangling for future resolution (I already have Seduce Me at Sunrise checked out to see how the next pairing plays out, a level of investment I was not expecting from this light read). Fans of Kleypas’s Wallflowers series also have the extra treat of guest appearances by familiar friends. This was a fun foray into the world of historical romance, and it will not, I’m certain, be my last.

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