Before I get stuck into this review, where’s that bulletproof vest I left lying around? Can’t be too careful when discussing a Colleen Hoover book, these days. Despite Hoover currently being public enemy number one in the book community, I neither proudly nor sadly say that this is my fifth trip on the CoHo express. Destination love, with plenty of f-ed up personal trauma along the way.
Who, What, Where?
As usual, first the plot lowdown. Our FMC is Kenna, who has recently finished serving five years in prison for manslaughter following the death of her boyfriend, Scottie, in a car accident. She returns to his hometown hoping to finally meet her and Scottie’s four-year-old daughter, Diem, being raised by Scottie’s parents and best friend/bar owner, Ledger. However, Diem’s grandparents want Kenna nowhere near their family. Despite his anger and hurt, Ledger is the only one willing to give Kenna a chance but as the two grow increasingly closer, they risk a highly destructive fallout.
Who’s Cutting Onions?
I admit I wasn’t super enthusiastic going into this. I’ve had some mixed reactions to Hoover books in the past and this didn’t seem like my cup of tea. I expected stupid, only-in-a-romance-novel type character names (Ledger, Diem – TICK), melodrama (oh, boy tick), and plenty of plot conveniences (again, tick). What I wasn’t expecting was for this damn book to make me tear up every couple of pages. I wish I could blame it on that time of the month but alas, I can’t. My eyes were leaking like a dodgy faucet. Jeez, I didn’t come here to…feel things. Jokes aside, I ended up finding this to be a heartfelt story with sympathetic, yet mixedly developed, characters. Aside from Kenna’s constant crying (then again, I guess I can’t judge), I connected with her and her story, and appreciated her journey toward rebuilding her life and finding self-forgiveness. It was a lot for one person to battle through and I really wanted to see her come out the other side. Even Scotty, who’d been dead for several years, made a nice impression in just a couple of flashbacks. I loved Hoover’s use of Kenna’s letters to Scottie to showcase their history and Kenna’s thoughts and feelings, even though I knew how these would eventually affect the plot…sigh.
As a male lead, Ledger’s development is a little on the flat side and as a romance hero he may be (mostly) kind and generous, but there isn’t anything particularly memorable enough for the book boyfriend mantle. I’m willing to cut CoHo a little slack here as there are a couple of nice side character inclusions. These involve Kenna’s neighbour Lady Diana, willing to marry someone for a PlayStation and Pokémon cards, and Ledger’s friend Roman, whose unrequited love for a mysterious, married woman at the bakery drives him to constantly buy a million cupcakes.
Less Romance, More Parent-Child Drama
When people pick up a CoHo book, they’re normally looking for some heavy romantic drama. Now, while the romance in RoH is certainly important, it does take a somewhat supporting role to the plot surrounding Kenna and Diem. I know people might complain about this because it’s more akin to women’s lit than romance, but I can’t say I minded. For me, the two storylines worked well in tandem as part of a bigger picture, rather than simply coming together at the end. The relationship between Kenna and Ledger isn’t amazing or perfect but it’s pleasant enough for the most part. There are some slight instalove vibes to their early interactions (mostly on Ledger’s side) and Ledger’s hurtful comments about Kenna potentially using him to get to Diem when he’s the one constantly showing up are mighty questionable. However, I do feel as though an opportunity was missed by not having a greater focus on Kenna moving on from loving and losing Scottie (or the reminders of him, as it were), especially with Ledger being her first relationship since his death and Scottie’s best friend to boot.
A Bit Too Neatly Wrapped
With the main plotline, there are things that work and others that don’t. While I believe the emotional weight is there, the pacing and events leave something to be desired at times. There are certainly points where there’s a sense of repetition and lack of forward momentum to Kenna’s attempts to connect with Diem. Come on girl, fight a little! Also, without spoiling anything, there isn’t much of a twist to speak of with this book, more of an emotional climax. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that, but it is what it is. I also have to say that the way everything is wrapped up is rushed, predictable, and far too neat. Did I tear up again? …Yes. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been handled better.
Overall, I enjoyed this. Sure, it’s over the top, perfectly wrapped up, and at times a little cringy to read aloud, yet, I suppose that’s what you sign up for. Say what you will about Colleen Hoover, but her writing is approachable, emotive, and easy to pass the hours away with. Will I read more of her books in the future? Potentially. Am I going to join the BookTok cult that worships her as romance’s lord and savior? Not likely.
Note: For anyone planning on raging at me for giving CoHo more money, I got this on Kindle for $2. Two Dollars. I did what I did.
Unlike with Kingdom of the Cursed, going into Kingdom of the Feared I adopted a ‘fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me’ approach to keeping my excitement levels in check and, in a nutshell, I’m glad I did.
WARNING: Spoilers – for both the previous two books and this one.
Who, What, Where?
As with book two, KotF starts out right where the previous book left off. And thank god, right? We were on the verge of some highly important and anticipated smut here! Now that the whole will-they-won’t-they teasers are out of the way, Emilia and Wrath are faced with looking into the murder of a high-ranked court member of House Greed. The evidence seemingly points towards Emilia’s not-so-dead sister, Vittoria, but Emilia isn’t convinced and sets out to prove her innocence in the hopes of avoiding a war. At the same time, she’s also determined to finally discover the true nature of the witch’s curse that binds them all and break it before it becomes impossible to do so.
Not in Front of My Salad
I’ve always been more into this series for the romance than the fantasy plot (because it’s messy af). So, when I say that the romance in this book started out fun but became tedious, you’ll understand my rating for KotF. The main problem: there’s just so much sex. I love a good smutty scene, but I don’t need one almost every time the main couple is together, especially not super repetitive ones. The sad thing is, we started out so well! It was nice seeing Wrath being more affectionate towards Emilia and the sex scenes were nothing new but still, I was like, yeah girl, get it! Then the scenes kept on coming…just like Emilia (bad dum tss!). Every time they were around each other, all she could think about was wanting to bone him. I swear Wrath could trim a nose hair and Emilia would find a way to get Niagara Falls in her underwear. Moreover, if I have to read another descriptor about how alpha masculine, hot and powerful Wrath is, I’m going to throw my kindle. We get it. He’s a sexy, commanding manly man. Please stop telling me.
Also, it blows my mind that this is still being promoted as YA (*cough* Goodreads choice awards *cough*). There’s literally a blowjob in a gondola. ‘Nuff said.
Journeying Towards a Very Small Summit
Alright, let’s discuss that messy plot I mentioned. My word of choice for KotC was ‘confusing’. For KotF it’s ‘unsatisfying’. The pacing in the middle to around the 85% mark of the book is decent and there are some plot elements that invested me in the story where earlier chapters hadn’t, especially regarding Pride and his wife. However, the early and final stretches struggled. I think my main issue with KotF is that it feels like such an anti-climactic read. Everything is so neatly resolved and there isn’t nearly enough tension and gravity present. For half the book, the murder is a major plot point and I struggled to care about its potential to start an all-out war. And what do you know, it was wrapped up in one short, lacklustre conversation before everyone goes about their business. Then there’s the curse, which is broken in such a flat (but traumatic for Emilia, using the tired ‘sacrifice of power’ trope) way, and what do we get immediately after? Another sex scene. There’s even a battle around halfway through, after which the enemy has barely any involvement in the rest of the book. It’s so bizarre. Don’t even get me started on the rushed, package-it-up-in-a-neat-little-bow explanation for everything that happened in book one using a couple of paragraphs of internal monologue. *sigh* At least I can say that I now understand who all the pieces on the board are after being lost for two books.
Loose threads & Character Work
One of the things that bugs me about KotF are the multiple plot and character threads that are left dangling by the end. They’re clearly being saved for a spin-off but the lack of answers for some of them feels like somewhat of a cop-out because of how heavily intertwined they are with the plot of this series. But I suppose considering they make me want to read “unknown spin-off”, they’ve done their job, haven’t they? I really enjoyed Envy in this book, particularly his budding friendship with Emilia – GIVE ME MORE! KotF starts to develop his character further and teases mysteries about his past that I’m intrigued to delve into in future books. Another character evidently being set up for more page time is Vittoria. Despite her bitchiness in KotF, she’d probably be a fun character to switch perspectives to – power, sexual confidence, cunning, strong allies, plus the potential for messy relationships with Pride & Envy. Sign me up.
Sadly, I found this to be an underwhelming and almost boring (?) finale, particularly for one of my more anticipated 2022 releases. But it is what it is. Also, please send help – I’ve literally not rated a single book in this series above a 3.5 and I’m still like, bring on the next one. I guess that says something about Maniscalco’s writing (continued descriptions of fashion at weird moments aside), but I’m not sure what.
Looking for my reviews of books 1 & 2? You can find them here and here.
Just when I think I’ve started to gravitate away from YA books, gems like this reel me back in. I’ve heard My Best Friend’s Exorcism described as a cross between The Exorcist, Heathers and Beaches, and you know what, that’s about right. This book is all 80s vibes, malicious demon exploits (slash mean high schooler antics), and the amazing power of friendship. And gosh, it’s good.
Who, What, Where?
Our story revolves around best friends Abby and Gretchen who have been tight ever since they were ten years old. While partying at their friend Margaret’s lake house, the girls take LSD and Gretchen mysteriously disappears into the woods only to return hours later disoriented and dishevelled. Although Gretchen claims to be fine, in the weeks that follow she begins to act strange, scared and, eventually, cruel. As terrible things start to happen to their classmates, Abby tries to put the pieces together and starts to wonder whether Gretchen might in fact be possessed by a demon.
Time After Time
If you love 80s nostalgia, come right this way. I know I normally criticise books for an overreliance on pop culture references but, much like Ready Player One, this is an exception because I had a blast. I mean, even the chapter titles are named after 80s songs! The feel of the story and setting details (complete with ‘just say no’, rumours of satanic cults, and crazy 80s diet fads) are spot on, even the attitudes of the characters are believable for the time. The story itself also follows a similar trajectory to an 80s horror/teen flick and balances creepy and gory against a slightly tongue-in-cheek approach to high school drama. It’s probably why it’s so bingeable.
Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For
Although MBFE deals with horror themes like demonic possession and it’s marketed as involving “unspeakable horrors”, don’t go in looking for something genuinely scary. That isn’t what it is, and you’re bound to be disappointed. Sure, there are a couple of gross out moments, one of which involves a tapeworm, but it’s more on the side of paranormal thriller. Almost like an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The possession itself happens fairly early but the book does require some patience afterward with regards to Gretchen’s transformation. It’s somewhat of a slow burn to reach the sly demonic mayhem you’re probably looking forward to most but, for me, it’s worth it.
Never Gonna Give You Up
While the nostalgia and high school horror is fun, the heart of the book is the friendship between Abby and Gretchen in all its Phil Collins sing-a-longing, roller-skating, late-night phone calling, ET loving glory. Hendrix fantastically sets up the bond between the two early on and it’s so easy to believe that the girls are as close as sisters, especially in the face of their difficult home lives. Despite being severely tested, it was lovely to see just how far Abby would go to save her friend, even at the risk of potentially permanently blowing up her own life. The exorcism scene itself hit me hard in the feels because the Devil may be strong, but ain’t nothing stronger than the love of high school besties.
Every Rose Has Its Thorn
I really enjoyed this book but there were a couple of little things that let it down. First, there are a few issues with the editing, particularly names, which caused some confusion during certain scenes. Not the end of the world, though. Second, I wish we’d gotten more clarity as to how Gretchen became possessed. We’re given a few puzzle pieces but never told how they fit together. Third, there are some references made to satanism and a murdered girl that are never expanded on. It’s kind of odd and I’m left wondering, was there a purpose or was it simply referencing the 80s satanism panic? Guess I’ll never know.
Should I Stay Or Should I Go?
Sorry, couldn’t resist using another 80s song title. If you’re looking for a quirky and fun take on 80s horror that blends creepy with coming of age and features a heart-warming female friendship, pick this one up!
(If I gave out extra points for awesome covers, the paperback edition pictured above would get so many. The old VHS look is ridiculously cool).
Damn you, hype train, and your creation of excessively high expectations!
I was really, really hoping that this book would make all my fantasy-dark-academia dreams come true but, sadly, there were a few too many things missing for it to hit the high notes for me.
Who, What, Where?
Six of the most talented young magicians are chosen by The Alexandrian Society to be given the chance to join their ranks. It’s a secret society of advanced magical academics who act as caretakers for the prized knowledge of antiquity, and whose members usually rise to positions of wealth, power, and prestige. Candidates are to spend one year together with access to the believed lost Library of Alexandria, researching and experimenting in areas of arcane magic. The six include: Libby & Nico, rival cosmologists who control physical matter; Reina, a naturalist with a unique relationship with plants; Parisa, a telepath who relies on her looks and seduction skills to survive; Tristan, the son of a crime boss who can see past illusions; and Callum, an empath with terrifyingly powerful talents of persuasion. However, only five of them will be initiated.
Although it’s called The Atlas Six, this book often feels like The Atlas Four and, even then, there’s an imbalance. While I understand that authors have their favourites, it’s important that other characters’ development doesn’t suffer because of it. Despite the rotating third-person POV, which I really liked, I feel as though I know very little about Callum and Reina and that both were underutilised considering their potential. In Callum’s case it’s problematic because of the villain-ish type role the story wants him to fill. Like, yes, his powers are terrifying, but I need more. With Reina, it’s almost as though she could have been deleted from the book and barely anything would have changed. It’s frustrating because from the small carrots that were dangled, there’s clearly so much more to explore.
Within “The Atlas Four”, I enjoyed Parisa, Nico and Libby (I’m torn on Tristan). They’re not exactly likeable characters – that’s dark academia for you – but there’s depth and intrigue there. The dynamics each of them has with the others are compelling, although often more about a power struggle than emotional connection – something the book could have done with more of. The level of conversation between the characters generally is also somewhat limited considering the story’s circumstances. Still, there’s something enthralling about a group of morally ambiguous magicians constantly alternating between the 3 states of – I want to f*** you, I want to kill you, and I need to remind you that I’m the hottest shit here. Make of that what you will.
Philosophical and Indulgent Prose
I genuinely believe I would have rated TAS a lot higher if I and the writing style had meshed better. There were times when I’d be really feeling it but then, suddenly, a switch would flip and the next thing I knew, everything sounded so overcomplicated, indulgent, and pretentious…The dialogue, especially, tended to quickly veer into this territory. For example:
“Every single one of us is missing something. We are all too powerful, too extraordinary, and don’t you see it’s because we’re riddled with vacancies? We are empty and trying to fill, lighting ourselves on fire just to prove that we are normal – that we are ordinary. That we, like anything, can burn.”
Perhaps I’m too simple-minded or impatient for this type of poetic and philosophising purple-prose. All I know is that if I were to describe dark academia as a writing style rather than just a genre, it’d be this book.
If you’re a reader who prefers plot-heavy novels, this won’t be for you. The opening chapters are great – not only as an intriguing hook but a fantastic introduction to the characters. After this, The Atlas Six rests largely on vibes and The Six themselves, at least until towards the end. It’s slowly paced, and most scenes are devoted to the characters reading/conducting research, having subtext-filled one-on-one conversations, and thinking A LOT. To an extent, I was okay with this because the characters were interesting and the tension was high. However, I’ll admit that I expected there to be much more structure to the initiation year – goals, more in-depth lessons, measures of success/failure, etc., but that wasn’t the case, and it felt somewhat odd and empty as a result.
The book does include a couple of plot twists. The first falls kind of flat, mainly because we’re aware of the gist of it from the blurb & prologue, but also because it bizarrely fizzles out by the end. The later twists, on the other hand, are much stronger and tease an exciting sequel.
I have no idea what was going on with the magic in this book. At a surface level, I can see that Blake was going for a scientific approach as we get mentions of things like gravity, matter, patterns of thought, and so on. The way these were utilised to explain aspects of magic in specific scenes was fine. However, the problem lies in that there’s no explanation for how magic works broadly. For instance – how are spells cast? Or, what governs the categories of magic magicians can do spells from? For example, others can perform aspects of Nico & Libby’s specialty but no one else seems capable of what Callum or Parisa can do. Honestly, I’m just lost.
Then, we have the world-building around magic, which is similarly vague. We’re made aware that magic users in this world are out in the open but not told much about what the world looks like. How do magic users fit into society? How has history deviated? Are magicians accepted? I feel like there’s so much potential, but I’ll have to wait until the sequel to see if it’s realised.
Overall, not a perfect read but enjoyable enough to convince me to continue with the series.
The time has finally come to review one of my favourite standalones.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that when writing a review I will have endless things to say…unless it’s something I loved. If I read a book and give it five stars you can almost guarantee that if I try to tell you WHY the only thing my brain will produce is an assortment of positive, but useless, adjectives. However, this is my second time through Conversations with Friends so here’s hoping that the power of repetition will help me coherently explain why I adore it as much I do beyond simply cry-saying: It’s just so good.
Who, What, Where?
Conversations centres around the mess of relationships between four core characters – Frances, Bobby, Melissa and Nick. Best friends/ex-es, Frances and Bobby, are students at Trinity who regularly perform spoken word poetry together. During one of their shows, they meet Melissa, a thirty-something journalist who asks to write a piece about them. The girls are drawn into Melissa’s upper-class lifestyle and introduced to her handsome but quiet husband, Nick, an actor who never really reached his full potential. While Bobbi is enamoured by Melissa, Frances begins a flirtation with Nick which evolves into an unexpectedly intimate affair. She soon finds herself navigating spiralling relationships, confronting deep personal insecurities, and thinking about her life and the type of person she is.
The Rooney Style
Like many other people, Normal People was the first book I picked up by Sally Rooney. At the time, I distinctly remember having trouble adjusting to her writing style with its direct prose, absence of quotation marks and nonlinear scenes. With Conversations, however, we clicked. The writing is so smooth and effortless, almost like a continuous stream of thoughts, dialogue and images. It feels like a long, get-things-off-your-chest chat with a close friend in the wee hours of the morning. Rooney’s prose seems so clean and innocuous that it’s tempting to brush it off as being simple but more and more I find myself rereading dialogue or small details, picking up on subtle nuances that enrich her scenes in beautifully real ways. Her prose isn’t for everyone but I frequently get lost in it.
It’s (Not) Just Sex
The relationship between Frances and Nick seems like something I should be adverse to. It’s an affair and a toxic one at times, too. Yet, I’m so captivated by it. There’s just something about these two shy, awkward people forming a deep connection but being unable to express it because they’re terrible at communicating about their feelings. And so, they make jokes and downplay it as just sex because they have low self-esteem and worry that if they did admit they care, it wouldn’t be reciprocated. As a result, they actively look for things to support this conclusion, feel hurt by what they find and then, in the case of Frances, lash out at the other person. Can you tell I have a lot of feelings about this relationship? I think I like it so much because it doesn’t feel idealised. Sure, there are bad moments but so many sweet ones as well.
The main reason people cite for not enjoying this book is the characters, and I get it. They can be selfish, dishonest, pretentious, privileged, plus they’re wrapped up in messy relationship drama. But, for some reason, I can’t get enough of them. Despite their tendency to frustrate, disappoint, even anger me, I love how emotionally complex and real they feel. Each person has a distinctness to the way they speak, act and think, to the point that I can vividly imagine having a conversation with them. They’re not “nice” people, but these flaws make them so much more compelling and I cared for and sympathised with them all the same.
As our narrator, Frances often bears the brunt of the criticism. People have a tendency to write her off as being spiteful, childish and a stereotypical millennial, but I have such a soft spot for Frances. She’s wormed her way into my head and heart and refuses to leave. She feels so vivid to me – this mess of loneliness, insecurity, self-destruction, and the strong desire to be loved. There are parts of her that I relate to so deeply it hurts, even the uglier ones, but mostly, I just want so badly for her to be safe and happy.
Quiet but Memorable
Conversations is not the book to read if you’re looking for something plot-heavy. It isn’t a big, flashy drama full of cinematic moments, nor is it a swoon-worthy romance to get swept up in. And yet, both times I’ve read it I’ve been glued to the page from start to finish. It’s a quiet, emotionally resonant novel about people, their lives and relationships. It looks at themes like love, monogamy, mental health, youth and belonging in very personal and intimate ways. I truly felt this book, in more ways than one, and I suppose that’s what matters most.
Conversations with Friends is unlikely to be everyone’s perfect read but, to be blunt, I absolutely love this book and it’s something I’ll continue to think about for a long time.
A trip to a beautiful, remote Irish island with barely any people, an abundance of cake, and a hot photographer who bears a resemblance to a young Harrison Ford? Sign me up! After really enjoying Josie Silver’s One Day in December a few years ago, I was really excited to give One Night on the Island a read but, sadly, this wasn’t the romance for me.
Who, What, Where?
ONotI follows Cleo and Mack, two strangers who travel to Salvation Island in the hopes of finding some peace and quiet, and their creative muses. Cleo, a dating columnist and aspiring novelist dreading her 30th birthday, has been sent by her editor to do a feminist piece about self-coupling involving marrying herself. Meanwhile, Mack, a talented photographer with the charm and looks of Han Solo, has been struggling with the separation from his wife and being a good father to his boys. He hopes that visiting his grandmother’s hometown will bring him some perspective and comfort. The problem is, both Cleo & Mack claim to be staying at Otter Lodge. With boats to the mainland delayed due to bad weather and each person stubbornly resistant to leaving, they decide to bunker down together for the next few weeks and make the most of the situation.
Less Romance, More Individual Journey
Part of the problem I had in gelling with ONotI is that I went into it with a misunderstanding about the type of novel it was. When I read One Day in December, I was very clear on the assignment: romantic drama. Yet, the setup and blurb for this book made me think it would be more in line with a romantic comedy. While it does have elements you’d find in a rom-com e.g. only one bed, that’s not what it is. I would even go so far as to say the romance isn’t the focus of the book. It’s more about the individual journeys of two characters who just happen to fall for one another while on their way to other things. This isn’t a criticism, but something to keep in mind if you’re hoping for an intense romance read.
Three’s a Crowd
Speaking of the romance, unfortunately, it didn’t really work for me. I have two main reasons for this. First, it didn’t feel as though Cleo and Mack spent enough quality time together to really justify the depth of their feelings. Second, I had trouble reconciling their relationship with Mack’s marriage situation. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with Mack being separated from his wife and this being his first romantic interaction since. However, it’s tough to root for a couple when the male lead is not over his wife and the marriage itself is still ending. One thing I did quite like was the ‘reveal three things’ exchanges between Cleo and Mack throughout the novel. I thought it was super endearing and worked well in showing us the two getting to know one another.
Lacklustre First Impressions
When it comes to the characters themselves, the first few chapters were rocky. Cleo is rude to Mack before there’s any real reason to be and I found it bizarre that Mack somehow thought his distant relative saying he could crash at the cottage trumped Cleo’s booked and paid for vacation. Still, they grew on me a little with time, despite Cleo’s occasionally childish antics. Something I wish had been toned down a little, though, was the immense focus on Mack as a father which dominated a lot of the story and his characterisation. I completely understood why being a good parent was so important to him but it felt repetitive and overwhelming at times.
Take me to Salvation Island!
My favourite part of ONotI was the setting. Salvation was such a lovely, peaceful (despite the weather) and isolated place, and it was so easy for me to imagine Otter Lodge in all its cosy, cottagecore comfort. By halfway, I was ready to pack my bags and head to Ireland in search of a quiet spot where I, too, could scream like a maniac knowing no one would hear me and only get decent reception on a random rock at the top of a seaside hill. I also liked the addition of the small handful of Salvation locals with their knitting circle, packed to bursting pub on trivia night and welcoming nature. Although, I wish that these characters had been better developed as they did feel weak outside of group settings.
On Cleo’s self-marriage journey, I’m torn. The marriage itself felt silly but I was very supportive of the ideas of self-love and self-partnering behind it and appreciated the sense of freedom and empowerment it instilled in Cleo. However, I can’t help feeling like this was an odd storyline to include alongside Cleo’s romance with Mack. This is mainly because, for me, it wasn’t able to properly find momentum until Mack departed the island, giving Cleo the time and solitude to think about her life and make some big changes. Then there’s the fact that the book literally includes a scene in which Cleo lists three things she fell in love with during her trip and, even with all the talk of self-love, she still ranks herself below Mack. It’s just a bit of a vibe clash.
Despite this not being my cup of tea, I can still see myself reading more of Josie Silver’s books in the future. The things that didn’t work for me here were subjective so I definitely recommend giving One Night on the Island a read if you’ve liked Silver’s previous books or if it catches your eye.
Thank you to Penguin & Netgalley for this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
So. The Goodreads Choice Awards. Every year I feel like by the time the winners are announced most people are in one of two camps: A) THAT book won?, or B) I have no idea what any of these books are. Let’s face it, these awards aren’t the greatest indicators of what the “best book” in any given genre is for the year. Mainly because GR bases nominations on the number of users adding, reading and reviewing books, missing out on some amazing indie releases and debut authors. Also, most of us voting are unlikely to have read all of the nominees by the time we place our vote. With that in mind, I thought it might be fun to try reading each of the ten books in the final round of the romance category and reviewing them to see just how closely my opinions line up with the actual votes. And for kicks, I’ll also determine how I would have ranked them had I been the sole voter in the awards (because I’m self-involved like that).
The final ten nominees for 2021 were (if you’d like to jump to a specific review, just click the title):
Let’s jump into the reviews! And prepare yourself for a LONG ass post…
People We Meet on Vacation – Emily Henry
I’m beginning to think that Emily Henry and I are stuck in an ‘I really like you, I just don’t love you’ relationship. PWMoV is a friends to lovers, When Harry Met Sally inspired romance that revolves around Poppy and Alex who meet at university and become best friends. For the last 10 years they’ve taken a summer trip together, but since the events of their last trip two years ago, they’ve barely spoken. Hoping to repair their friendship, Poppy asks Alex to take one more trip. Now, she has one week to fix everything.
PWMoV is structured to alternate between the present and Poppy & Alex’s past trips, slowly building up to what happened 2 years ago. While I understand what EH was trying to do with all this backstory, there were moments where these flashbacks dragged for me. Then, once I finally reached the big reveal, there was a moment of, that’s it? For something that supposedly had such a big impact on their relationship, I expected something more…dramatic.
My favourite thing about this book was Poppy’s sense of humour. Her jokes and quips were a lot of fun and a large part of why I liked her character so much. Alex’s more reserved nature took longer to warm up to but, like Poppy, I came to appreciate just how lovely he was. Their opposites attract dynamic was great, full of sweet, vulnerable conversations and witty back and forths. Although the slow burn romance was easy to root for, I found their friendship really endearing, too.
Lately, contemporary romances seem to be incorporating more serious real-world topics. PWMoV involves bullying, death of a loved one, millennial burnout (VERY RELATABLE), and navigating personal insecurities. Yet, it does so without making the book feel heavy or dampening the romance. It still felt like something I could fluffily enjoy but with depth.
Overall, a great pick for a summer romance binge and to consider bringing on your next holiday.
The Spanish Love Deception – Elena Armas
The Spanish Love Deception seems like something I’d easily award five stars. This book’s marketed tropes sound like my personal romance bingo card. So, understand my disappointment when I say I’m only giving it 2.5.
Our heroine Catalina works for an engineering consulting company alongside the hero, Aaron. The two haven’t gotten along since a bad introduction 2 years ago. Catalina’s sister is getting married back in Spain soon and wanting to avoid the pity stares, Lina tells her family she’ll be bringing her (non-existent) boyfriend. To her shock, Aaron offers to play the role and, without options, Lina accepts.
While I know it’s a debut, some of the writing in this was noticeably clunky. There are a few odd word choices/phrases and a lot of the dialogue doesn’t use contractions, making it sound stilted. The sex scenes also aren’t my favourite – the descriptions were fine but every time Aaron would open his mouth I’d cringe. And the number of times he calls Lina ‘baby’…stop, please.
One of the main drawcards for me was ‘enemies to lovers’ but, honestly, I feel let down. Part of the reason I love this trope is snarky banter and there was so little here. Even the “enemies” dynamic was questionable because the rivalry seemed to only be in Catalina’s head. I also had trouble feeling the chemistry between Lina & Aaron at the start but, thankfully, it improved with time. Probably all the intense staring and casual brushing of body parts.
It took a while for me to get into this. I felt really disconnected early on but things picked up a lot once Lina and Aaron got to Spain. The fake dating plot wasn’t the best I’ve seen, but I still had fun with it. The interactions with Catalina’s family were also sweet (except the dick pic requests & ‘bubbies’ comments? WHYYYY?), and I wish we’d gotten more time with them.
Lastly, our leads. I really disliked Catalina to start because she came off childish and annoying. Plus, the endless pages of internal monologuing were tedious. She grew on me slightly but her obtuseness about Aaron was frustrating. Aaron, on the other hand, was nice but verged on being too perfect (except for his dirty talk…). In other words, fine but nothing I’m obsessing over.
Despite my ranting, this was okay but I don’t understand the hype. With the internet you win some, you lose some, I suppose.
It Happened One Summer – Tessa Bailey
I’m not a Schitt’s Creek fan, I’ve never read a Tessa Bailey book before, and yet, here we are.
It Happened One Summer is a Schitt’s Creek inspired romance about an influencer named Piper who gets sent to a small fishing town by her step-father after hosting an out-of-control party and falls in love with a gruff fisherman, Brendan. The premise for this was really cute and I had a lot of fun with it. The plot surrounding Piper and her sister Hannah fixing up their father’s old bar was especially sweet. However, the book’s third act complications felt convenient and frustrating.
I knew going in that TB’s books were known for high levels of steam and IHOS certainly didn’t disappoint. I mean…*fans self*. This was easily some of the better written (and raunchier) smut I’ve read in romance. Still, if I’m being honest, I could probably have used slightly less steam, only because the sex scenes and sexual thoughts became extremely dominant in the second half at the expense of things like plot and character development.
As far as leads go, I enjoyed both Piper and Brendan (despite the latter being too alpha for my liking sometimes). Piper was such a cheerful, ditsy, entertaining character, and I loved reading as she became more independent and realised her value outside of social media. Meanwhile, it was lovely seeing Brendan lighten up, embrace more change and move on from the death of his wife. The chemistry between the two was also pretty fire and perfect for lovers of the grumpy-sunshine trope.
This was a great opposites attract/small-town romance, suited to those summer feels. I’ll 100% be looking out for the sequel.
The Soulmate Equation – Christina Lauren
In recent years I’ve become a bit of a CL fan so I hit this up as soon as it came out. Our heroine is Jess, a statistician and single mother, who sends a genetic sample to a matchmaking company called Genetically, which supposedly can use DNA to find your soulmate. To everyone’s surprise, she gets an unheard-of 98% compatibility score with the company’s stubborn and standoffish founder, Dr River Pena. Hoping to maximise publicity of the match, the company offers to pay Jess to spend time with River.
I really liked the premise – it’s similar to John Marrs’s novel The One, if it had been a cute romance instead of a thriller. The book focuses a lot on whether love is about choice or fate/chemistry and I found this quite interesting. I’m not usually drawn to ‘Soulmate’ trope books but I was okay with how it was handled here. The fake dating trope, however, was somewhat weak. There were also some elements of the story that felt unbelievable and the pacing had moments where it felt either too slow or too rushed.
The main reason I didn’t rate this higher was the chemistry between Jess and River. As individual characters, I liked both of them. Jess was smart, independent and kind, and while River was slower to connect with, I eventually got on board with him as well (despite a rough patch at the end). However, I just wasn’t as invested in their relationship or convinced of their spark as I have been with CL’s other couples.
The book’s side characters were my favourite part. Jess’s grandparents were lovely, her daughter Juno was sweet and I adored Jess’s best friend, romance author Fizzy. Sassy, funny, supportive and a little dirty, we should all have a Fizzy in our lives (and our rom-coms). It was really nice to have an MC who was a single parent with a wonderful support network behind her.
The Soulmate Equation was an enjoyable science meets romance read but nothing special and far from my favourite CL book.
The Ex-Hex – Erin Sterling
I’m don’t know which is worse, a bad book or one for which the only descriptor you have is: it’s ‘fine’.
The Ex-Hex is about a witch named Vivi who lives in a small, magic-fuelled town called Graves Glen. After a breakup with fellow witch Rhys Penhallow, Vivi jokingly (& drunkenly) curses him. Nine years later, Rhys returns to recharge the town’s magical ley lines and finds the curse in full force. Wanting to depart quickly, Rhys charges the lines but in doing so infects the town with his altered magic. And so, Vivi and Rhys team up to reverse the curse and fix the resulting mayhem.
This book isn’t bad. It’s just bland. It’s a light, fluffy read that reminds me of magical sit-coms like Bewitched or Sabrina the Teenage Witch but with less charm and laughs. I love easy-going books as much as the next person but I still need something fun or swoon-worthy to engage with. Here, I wanted more from everything.
I really liked the idea of the curse and Vivi & Rhys fixing it, but the execution was disappointing. The main reason was that the stakes felt really low. For something with the potential to destroy the town, I expected more magical hijinks. The pacing was also off. Towards the middle of the book the curse plot halts for Rhys & Vivi to have a sex marathon and by the time they remember their situation there aren’t many pages left, leaving the resolution feeling rushed and flat.
When it comes to the witchcraft and world building, there’s almost no explanation. I have no idea how magic works or how witches fit into the world. It’s very vague and as someone who loves magic, it makes me sad. However, I did like Graves Glen as a setting. It’s charming, autumn-y and full of romantic, small-town vibes. I wanted to join the Halloween festivities and eat my weight in hand pies.
Onto the romance which is, to use that word again, “fine”. The back and forth dialogue is okay, Rhys & Vivi are both likeable (if unmemorable) characters, and the smut is…eh. Honestly, I don’t really have any intense feelings either way. It’s kind of sweet, but there’s little depth and the two never deal with the reasons for their original breakup.
In the end, not really my idea of a great magical romance but good for those after some fluff during spooky season.
The Love Hypothesis – Ali Hazelwood
The hype around The Love Hypothesis has been insane so I was almost positive there was no way it could be as good as people were saying. But sweet Jesus, this book. It’s just so cute and lovely, and darn it, I think I’m in love. It’s about a biology graduate student named Olive who abruptly kisses grumpy professor, Dr Adam Carlson, in an attempt to convince her BFF that she’s dating someone new. When their supposed “relationship” hits the rumour mill, Adam and Olive realise they can both get something out of perpetuating the idea of a fake relationship. But, as with any fake dating scenario, real feelings start to get involved.
I loved Olive & Adam’s relationship. The banter and flow of their conversations were top-notch and genuinely funny. I could really feel the chemistry and was seriously rooting for them to get together for real. It was all so wonderfully wholesome, but still had room for an A+ sex scene (minus one questionable move involving a boob. How?). It was also super exciting to see a female lead who’s demisexual.
I really enjoyed the STEM setting and story revolving around Olive trying to continue her pancreatic cancer research. YES TO WOMEN IN SCIENCE. Sometimes these other narratives can get lost against the central romance but not so here, and I was interested in how things would turn out. You can tell the author has a background in scientific research because it felt very believable.
As a romance, TLH is super trope-y. One hotel room, workplace romance, grumpy-sunshine, not enough chairs, miscommunication, etc. But it uses them in such an enjoyable and self-aware way that it gets away with it, especially if you find these things comforting in your romcoms. Yet, the miscommunication element does get utilised slightly too many times which felt frustrating at points.
Basically, the internet told me so and they were right.
One Last Stop – Casey McQuiston
Into awkward PDA-ing on the subway? This may be the book for you! One Last Stop is a F/F romance based around bisexual uni student/waitress, August, who has recently moved to New York only to meet an amazing girl named Jane on the subway. As it turns out, Jane is displaced in time from the 1970s, bound to the train line and unable to remember her past or how she got stuck. So August sets out to save her.
First things first, at over 400 pages, this was too long and it showed in the pacing. I’m confident it could have been cut down and still achieved its aims. Things started to drag around the middle, part of which was probably due to Jane being stuck on the subway and the repetition of having scenes in the same place. However, despite this, it also felt like there were a few too many things battling for attention. There are 3 main plot points – Jane’s dilemma, August’s missing uncle, and the fight to save Billy’s Pancake House, but also a bunch of small ones and it can feel like a lot.
The side characters in OLS were really likeable. You can never go wrong with a super sweet found family theme and, here, it was like being enveloped in a warm, welcoming hug. The cast was so charming, diverse and supportive, and I loved their uniqueness. Aside from being a LGBTI romance OLS really felt like a love letter to the queer community. It includes elements of queer history (remembering those who suffered and fought), incorporates the New York drag scene, and generally advocates for love, acceptance and pride in who you are.
Now, the romance. Fingering on a crowded train aside…it was good, but I wasn’t blown away. I could see the chemistry, I thought the sex scenes were done well and the ending was satisfyingly adorable, yet there was something missing I can’t quite put my finger on.
Two more small points:
Casey’s writing – still good! Approachable, easy to get into, and solid humour (even though I didn’t laugh as much as I did with RW&RB)
The time travel elements – a little iffy. The characters try to explain but it’s not the clearest, especially as to how August fits in.
Not my favourite read on this list but I’m still looking forward to CM’s YA debut I Kisssed Shara Wheeler.
Neon Gods – Katee Robert
I had low expectations going into Neon Gods, mainly because I know my own tastes (I’m not just making a dig). It ended up being slightly better than I thought but far from a win.
NG is a Greek mythology reimagining. It’s set in the modern city of Olympus which is ruled over by a powerful body of thirteen, each with a title named after a Greek god, and headed by Zeus. Persephone, our heroine, flees after her mother tries to marry her off to Zeus, despite him supposedly murdering his previous wives. She finds refuge with Hades, who holds a grudge against Zeus for the murder of his parents. The two form a bargain to enter a public sexual relationship to reduce Persephone’s appeal to Zeus and get back at him.
The word people constantly use to describe this book is “spicy”. Now, if we’re measuring by the amount of sexual content, sure, it’s level 10 because there are a lot of sex scenes. But, even for erotica, something this length doesn’t need 8+ sex scenes. Don’t get me wrong, they started out hot and fun but after a while, it gets repetitive. I can only read about so much fingerbanging. Also, from the way this was marketed and early chapters teasing Hades’ “tastes” and “playroom”, I was expecting more kink, D/S or S&M scenarios but aside from some exhibitionism, it’s quite vanilla.
The world building is ambiguous and odd. Is there magic? Some elements suggest yes, but almost everything else feels contemporary (e.g. the thirteen aren’t Gods, just corrupt leaders). Then there’s Olympus itself – where is it? The book makes it sound like America, but I’m not sure and if so, why is everything named after Greek mythology? Does that lore exist in this world? Speaking of which, the actual mythology links in this are light. It’s a very loose retelling and the only real ties are the character names, division of the city, occasional references such as Persephone’s safe word (Pomegranate), and Zeus being a dick.
The plot is minimal. If you’re looking for meaty drama to go with your romance (or sex, really), there isn’t much here. The Zeus conflict ramps up around 80% but resolves in an anticlimatic and overly neat fashion with plenty of unanswered questions. The book’s focus is the central relationship, which I have mixed feelings about. There were parts I liked and I could feel the connection between Hades & Persephone. Still, I wish it’d been more of a slow burn fitting the myth and that the two of them had been given better developed character arcs. Also, Hades’ constant mother-henning of Persephone started to annoy me after a while.
I didn’t strongly dislike this, but I get the feeling that erotica might not be for me.
Act Your Age, Eve Brown – Talia Hibbert
The order to read a series in is 1 and then skip straight to 3, right? Great, that’s what I thought.
Our heroine is Eve. Her life is a mess and when her parents cut off her trust fund, she finds herself interviewing for a job as a cook at a small B&B. The owner, Jacob, is organised, controlled, and wants chaotic Eve nowhere near his business. That is, until she accidentally hits him with her car, leaving him with a broken wrist and little choice but to hire her.
The story is predictable but in a cozy, comforting way. There isn’t much plotwise outside the relationship but I was completely fine with that since I loved the setting and liked the characters. The climax is tedious (DAMN YOU, MISCOMMUNICATION!) and you see it coming but I appreciated how quickly the characters overcame it.
Once again, Talia Hibbert brings the diversity goods. Two leads on the autism spectrum? A female MC who’s black and bigger in size? All the yes. It’s so wonderful to have some variety! Plus, I loved that these traits were important to Eve and Jacob’s characters and played a role in their interactions, but didn’t dominate their stories.
If you love ‘grumpy-sunshine’ and ‘enemies-to-lovers’, look no further. Eve is bubbly, charming, and unabashedly herself. She’s an endearing sweetheart and it was great seeing her journey of self-discovery unfold. Jacob, I went back and forth on, mainly because he’s an ass at the beginning but reveals himself to be considerate, supportive, and romantic underneath. There’s a lot of good banter between the two as they fire shots at one another and some wonderfully vulnerable moments as well.
In Talia Hibbert fashion, AYAEB is steamy. There’s a good build-up before the big moment (well, in pages if not time), and I liked that the sex didn’t completely take over, a problem I had with Chloe Brown. Still, there were a few lines I could have done without (vaginas dissolving into glitter, um what?) and I had trouble connecting Jacob’s bedroom persona with his everyday one.
Definitely would recommend! Guess I’ll have to go back and read Take a Hint, Dani Brown, won’t I?
Seven Days in June – Tia Williams
I love surprises. And this book was the good kind.
SDIJ is about Eva & Shane who met in high school fifteen years ago. After sharing one crazy, loved-up week together Shane mysteriously disappeared, leaving Eva heartbroken. Both have since gone on to become authors – Eva of a bestselling fantasy-romance series and Shane of award-winning literary fiction. While Eva lives in New York with her daughter Audre and manages debilitating migraines, Shane is almost two years sober and working teaching underprivileged kids. The two reconnect when Shane visits NY to attend a literary event and find that the spark is as strong as ever.
This was so refreshing. Not only does it feature a female lead who’s a single mum and dealing with a chronic pain condition, but both romantic leads are black. I really enjoyed Eva’s relationship with Audre and thought that the representation of her disability was handled really well. It was also great to read about characters who were so unapologetically black and for the book to not only comment on the challenges they face but celebrate their successes, especially through the lens of the literary world.
I’m not usually a big second chance romance fan but I was committed here. I loved the idea of Eva and Shane having this electric connection but the timing just being wrong because they hadn’t had the time and space to develop into the people they were meant to be yet. The fact that their bond had such a profound impact on them that it basically shaped their novels was pretty romantic, too. However, I wish that the flashbacks to their original week together had been expanded on slightly to better reinforce its impact as they felt somewhat brief and drug-hazed at times.
Writing-wise, I think SDIJ strikes a fantastic balance between levity, romance, and drama. While the side characters are fun and Eva & Shane have great chemistry, you still feel the weight of the story’s intense themes. Although, one negative for me was the amount of pop culture references and slang terms which, at times, made the book feel like it was trying too hard to sound young and cool. It’s also likely to date quickly going forward.
The characters were really well written. Both Eva and Shane felt like complex, real people with histories, dreams, fears and demons. I loved reading about the positive trajectory their lives had taken despite having to battle against immense hardship. I really wish we’d gotten more info about Eva’s family history, though, because it sounded so interesting!
This was a great read and I strongly recommend it if you enjoy slightly more dramatic contemporary romances.
Phew! We’re done. Ten reviews. I need a nap. A long one. I don’t think I’ve ever written this many book reviews so close together in my life. How do you review-everything type bloggers do this? Anyway, moving on to the rankings.
Official GRCA Results
FYI, this is how the books ranked in the awards based on the number of votes submitted:
I had a couple of books that ended up with the same star rating so I did have a dilemma organising things, especially when it came to the 4 star reads. In the end, this is where I settled:
I feel like a cliche but I loved The Love Hypothesis so it takes my number one spot. I’m always shocked when I buy into the hype train. With Eve Brown, It Happened One Summer and Seven Days in June, it just came down to overall enjoyment level because these were all great reads. I’m sad that I didn’t love People we Meet on Vacation as much as others did (seeing as it won the awards), but I’ll still be reading Henry’s next book. Two books I didn’t really understand the obsession with were The Spanish Love Deception and Neon Gods, both of which have been crazy popular on Booktube (or so I’ve heard) However, I’d still be willing to try other books from the authors.
Okay, I’m officially romanced out for the moment (well, except for a romance ARC that I really need to get to soon). This was definitely a challenge but I like that I managed to do it (even though I started to wonder why after three 2.5 or lower books in a row).
Have you read any of these? If so, what did you think and what are your thoughts on my ranking order?
Would you look at that, only a few short weeks before the end of the year and here I am with a fantastic sci-fi read. Huh. Colour me shocked and impressed.
Who, What, Where?
Project Hail Mary follows Dr Ryland Grace, who mysteriously wakes up from a coma onboard a spacecraft with no memory of who is he is, how he came to be there or why. All he knows is that the rest of the crew is dead, there’s plenty of scientific equipment on hand and he’s nowhere near Earth. As Ryland slowly begins to piece together his history and mission, he discovers that he’s the only person standing between humanity and extinction.
Get Your Science On
Let’s get the negatives out of the way. Firstly, most of the side characters are underdeveloped. They’re around for specific purposes but there isn’t much depth or attachment beyond that. Second, and more importantly, this book is really science-y. Like, really. Yes, I do realise it’s science fiction. I’m not a complete dummy. But, you don’t understand. It’s just SO science-heavy. I now know more about physics and the physiology of made-up microscopic species than I ever wanted to. To be fair, Weir does a great job trying to break down scientific theory and concepts for layman readers. Plus, it helps that his main character is a high school science teacher, accustomed to doing exactly this. Some of it is pretty interesting and a lot of it is extremely important to the story. It certainly enhanced the realism of the mission. Yet, I’d be lying if I said there weren’t paragraphs where I found myself skimming.
What in Outer Space is Going on Here?
PHM was an intense ride. That sounds weird considering there are so many stretches where the characters are conducting research or working through a problem, but it’s true. I’m sure there will be others who’ll find it snooze-worthy but, me, I was engaged in the story almost from start to finish. The plot has elements of Sunshine, The Martian, and Arrival woven into it, but it still feels like its own thing. I was hooked right from the first page and immediately intrigued by finding out what the hell was going on, why, and how Ryland of all people had ended up in this position. The first two questions are resolved without too much of a wait but the third takes far longer. I really liked the way the book’s mysteries unfolded gradually through Ryland’s discoveries and flashbacks as he remembered more and more of his past. I was also extremely invested in his efforts to solve humanity’s dilemma. The need for answers kept me flipping pages until the end, experiencing the successes and setbacks alongside the characters.
BEWARE SPOILERS. During his mission, Ryland comes across an alien ship and ends up in a first contact situation with a being he names ‘Rocky’. I wasn’t expecting this plotline but I loved it, and the interactions between Ryland and Rocky were my favourite part of the book. It was such a wholesome and great friendship that I was willing to overlook how quickly they bridged the language barrier (I’ve seen Arrival, okay. Alien languages are complicated!). There were moments with buddy comedy vibes, which were fun, and I loved reading about the two working together and learning more about each other’s races.
As a main character, Ryland has some big similarities to The Martian’s lead, Mark Watney. Both are scientists, astronauts (technically), lone humans in remote locations, and rely on humour in their narration to lighten the mood. Admittedly, there are some differences – Ryland is a molecular biologist and generally avoids real curse words while Mark was a botanist and his favourite word was four letters long and started with an ‘F’. Ryland also gets ridiculously excited about science in a way I don’t remember Mark doing and has much more to worry about than his own survival. Regardless, if you weren’t a fan of The Martian for character reasons, you’ll likely have similar gripes here. Personally, I found Ryland easy enough to spend 500 pages with and I enjoyed his sense of humour, even though he’s terrible at naming things (or is he fantastic? It’s hard to tell).
Armageddon with a Smile
Something I really appreciated about PHM was its amusing and upbeat tone. Despite the serious nature of plot, the story doesn’t feel extremely heavy and bleak all the time. There’s hope, positivity, persistence, humour, and every time the characters hit a major speed bump, they’re disappointed, but they keep working the problem. The ending is also pretty uplifting and suited to Ryland’s character, although I do feel it could be slightly divisive.
Altogether, this was a great sci-fi read and I feel bad for putting it off for so many months. After hearing lots of not-so-positive things about Artemis and deciding to give it a miss, it’s good to know that Weir’s writing is back to the standard he set with The Martian.
It might seem strange considering I only gave the first book in this series 3 stars, but I was super pumped for Kingdom of the Cursed. I honestly thought this would be the case of a sequel blowing book one out of the water. As it turned out, yes, I enjoyed it more, but at the same time I can’t help feeling like my weirdly high expectations are on the train to disappointment city right now.
Who, What, Where?
KotC kicks off almost immediately after the end of KotW, with Emilia travelling to Hell and taking up residence in Wrath’s kingdom while she prepares to fulfil the bargain she made to marry his brother, Pride. However, when cryptic messages start showing up in her chambers, she begins searching for answers as to what really happened to her sister and the nature of the curse binding the Devil. She comes to believe that locating certain magical objects will assist her in discovering the truth, but as a mortal navigating the dangers of hell, nothing is easy.
Upping the Steam Factor
The direction and vibe of this book was very different from what I was expecting. KotW was a mix of mystery, romance and fantasy, and I assumed the sequel would be the same. Instead, the first half of KotC is pretty much a straight-up romance novel. A Hades-Persephone type one. Other plotlines pop up eventually but it takes a while before the book deals with anything outside of Emilia and Wrath’s relationship. Also surprising is the series’ sudden jump from slightly sexy YA to Sarah J. Maas-ish New Adult, complete with swearing and a smorgasbord of explicit sexual content. I’m talking parties with orgy buffets. Personally, I enjoy adult romances and believe loosening the content shackles here suits the story better but I’m positive there’ll be fans of KotW who will find this change jarring.
All About that Angsty Romance
I thought the romance in this book was great. Angsty, but pretty darn hot. It’s largely why I rated it what I did and probably higher than I should have, but anything that can get me turning pages that freakin’ quickly gets bonus points. I really enjoyed Emilia and Wrath’s conversations, flirting and occasional fights. It was also nice seeing the relationship evolve as Emilia became more confident in her sexuality and we learned about Wrath & his world. However, I have to mention the black mark that is chapter 17 *sigh*. (BEWARE SPOILERS) During this chapter, Wrath tries to train Emilia to resist the magical influence of his brothers in preparation for a social event. This involves mind control antics that left me with an icky feeling. I might have been able to forgive it had it assisted Emilia later on but nope. While I wish this scene had been cut, it didn’t ruin the book for me so I’m going to carry on and hope the author avoids this type of thing in the future.
When it comes to the non-romance plotlines, I have one word for my feelings: confused. Magical artefacts, a magic tree, talking skulls spouting riddles, witch-goddesses, the devil’s curse, the original witch, the witch murders in KotW, the crone…I’m exhausted listing it all. There’s just so much to keep track of, link and contextualise, especially considering most of it doesn’t come into play until the second half. I’m still lost on parts of the ending as well but, then again, I felt similarly about KotW so, what’s new? I really wish these elements had been introduced earlier and developed gradually with more of a mystery/investigative trajectory (like book 1) to better serve the dramatic reveals. I can see the potential, it’s just muddled.
I’ll See You in Hell
Going into this, one of the things I was most excited for was the new setting. I really liked atmospheric Sicily, but Hell?! How could I resist? Different Princes’ courts, demons, plotting, backstabbing…GIMME. In the end, though, I was a little let down on this front. The first half of the book is spent almost entirely between two locations – a passage called the Sin corridor, which Emilia and Wrath traverse on entry to Hell, and Wrath’s castle. As you can probably guess, this wasn’t the exciting and cutthroat backdrop I’d been hoping for. However, once the characters finally started to move around the map somewhat, I had much more fun, despite only really getting to see Envy and Greed’s Houses. Fingers crossed we’ll get further expansion on the world in book three.
Extra Random Comments
Why are there so many clothing descriptions? I love pretty dresses but there comes a point where it becomes overkill.
Once again, Emilia flicks back and forth between badass and complete idiot. I still have no idea if I like her or want to yell at her.
How Emilia loves romance novels yet has no idea what oral sex is will never cease to confuse me. Then again, maybe she’s just reading Pride & Prejudice type stuff.
Although not one of my favourite series, I’ll definitely be checking out the last Kingdom of the Wicked book when it releases. Not going to lie, it’s pretty much entirely for the romance. Make of that what you will.
Looking for my reviews of books 1 & 3? You can find them here and here.
Beautiful World, Where Are You? is quintessential Sally Rooney. If someone had handed me this book with absolutely no information whatsoever, I’d be able to pick the author within minutes. In other words, if you already love her work, you’ll probably like this and if you don’t, reading it isn’t going to change your mind.
Who, What, Where?
In small-town Ireland, successful and disillusioned novelist Alice meets warehouse worker Felix, and, despite a rocky start to their interactions, she invites him to join her on a work-related trip to Rome. Meanwhile, in Dublin, Alice’s best friend Eileen is getting over a breakup and falls back into flirting with her emotionally closed-off childhood friend, and long-time crush, Simon. And so, the four attempt to navigate sex, love, friendship, loneliness, careers, and life in general, in a world that it can often be difficult to see the beauty and meaning in.
I loved the structure of BWWAY. The majority of chapters are written in third person, usually from the POV of either Alice and Eileen, and the narrative shifts back and forth between the two through emails they send one other. These transitions were very smooth and really helped shape the connection between the characters, even though they weren’t physically together. However, I wasn’t a fan of some of the content of these emails. Part of the time A & E discuss their relationships, careers, families, etc., which I really liked, but the rest they spend philosophising about random topics like the nature of beauty or human relationships. I’ll admit, I zoned out during some of these musings, mainly because they’re not really what I signed up for and some of them are pretty lengthy. In the past, I’ve heard Rooney’s characters accused of being pretentious and unrealistic, something I normally go ‘eh, whatever’ to, but during these sections I could understand the criticism.
As with Rooney’s other novels, the characters in Beautiful World aren’t the most easily likeable at first glance (Felix, especially). They’re frustratingly bad at communicating, say hurtful things just to be shitty, have a tendency toward self-involvement, frequently overlook their privilege, and the women feel heavy-handed on the ‘aren’t-I-intellectual’ side. And still, they grew on me – not immensely but more than enough to feel for them. I’m slightly confused as to how, but I think it has something to do with them all being relatably flawed messes. Like us, they have moments of weakness, say things they regret, and have trouble expressing their feelings, or hold back from doing so out of fear of change or rejection. It’s all about their idiosyncrasies, and I enjoyed exploring their desires, fears, hopes and hurts over the course of the book.
What’s a Quotation Mark?
All I’ll say about the writing is: it’s Sally Rooney. Expect dialogue without quotation marks, densely packed pages of text, instances of unnecessary descriptive detail, and passages that seem simple but upon reflection paint the loveliest picture. One of my favourites was this from Alice:
“When I try to picture for myself what a happy life might look like, the picture hasn’t changed very much since I was a child – a house with flowers and trees around it, and a river nearby, and a room full of books, and someone there to love me, that’s all. Just to make a home there, and to care for my parents when they grow older. Never to move, never to board a plane again, just to live quietly and then be buried in the earth.”
More About Who Than What
Rooney’s books have always been more about characters than plot, and it’s the same here. Yet, in both Conversations and Normal People I feel as though there were more personal events going on in the lives of the characters alongside their relationships to maintain a sense of momentum. In Beautiful World, aside from an early trip to Rome and some minor drama during a visit to Alice, it seemed to be much more about the ebb and flow of the core relationships. While this subtle approach to the story was nice, I wish there’d been more to it at times, perhaps drawing on Eileen’s family issues, Alice’s mental health struggles, Simon’s difficulty opening up to others, or Felix’s past, all of which felt slightly underexplored.
When it comes to the relationships, for the most part, I enjoyed them. They’re weird, awkward and unpleasant at times, but also written so intimately. Gestures, lingering looks, small conversational exchanges, words unspoken…it’s strangely addictive and somewhat mesmerising. I sat there turning page after page, wondering whether the two romances would work out (despite being more interested in one than the other) and if Alice and Eileen’s friendship would survive the distance. In the end, I was satisfied with the outcomes and found myself smiling during the book’s final email epilogues.
Rooney has often been labelled a writer for millennials and that’s mainly because she relatably and succinctly captures so many of their experiences, aspirations, and fears in her work. Beautiful World continues this trend and looks at things such as: navigating modern romantic relationships, loneliness and the difficulty of making new friends as an adult, feelings of failure associated with comparing yourself to others who are seemingly thriving, and the difficulty of juggling life, work and relationships alongside mental health struggles. As with Rooney’s previous works, I can certainly say that I felt seen at multiple points reading this and I know others will feel similarly.
While Beautiful World, Where Are You? wasn’t the five-star read I’d been hoping for, it was an enjoyable, if flawed, reading experience. If you’re new to Sally Rooney this may not be the best entry to her work, but if you’re looking for something slower, quiet, and thoughtful which focuses on the complex nature of people’s relationships, perhaps pick this one up.