Sometimes I read things that aren't fanfiction, and in 2021 I'm trying to do better at this. Here are my totally unsolicited opinions on the books I'm reading. Warning: Spoilers ahead.
If you have a book to recommend, drop me a line. I favour science fiction, magical realism, fantasy, dystopia, speculative fiction, contemporary romance, crime thrillers*, mysteries and the occasional classic or historical fiction. I do not enjoy paranormal romance or Westerns, but I'll try anything if it has good prose and finely written characters.
*note: I'm sick to death of crime thrillers featuring a beautiful dead woman and the rest of the cast is a sausage party. Give me feminist takes on that trope, especially queer lit, and if you're gonna kill the gays or the girls, there had better be a damn good reason for it.
Sally Thorne - The Hating Game
This book was my return foray into contemporary romance, after years of avoiding it. I'm not sure why I've avoided it - after all, I've thoroughly enjoyed a small section of romance authors over the years, particularly Jennifer Crusie and Marian Keyes - but maybe I've felt I had a better chance of reading something good by turning to fanfiction. The ratio of great to awful is probably roughly the same as in published fiction, but at least you don't have to pay for fanfic.
Anyway - wow. This is much fun. Enemies to lovers is a great trope, handled (mostly) believably here. I only wanted to shake the main duo a couple of times, maybe because they were both likeable despite their mutual idiocy, and their slide from competitive pranks (that sometimes border on outright horrible) into genuine kindness is really heartwarming. And there's a beautiful scene toward the end of the book when Josh's father, whose remote disapproval has shaped much of his son's low self-image, is verbally taken to school by our heroine Lucy (who, at the time, is still kidding herself about her feelings for Josh), and I relish it. There's nothing sweeter than seeing someone go to bat for a friend (or lover, or enemy) who for whatever reason can't stand up for themself. If I were Josh, I'd have fallen hard for Lucy after that, too.
The best surprise about this book is that the writing itself is several cuts above the romances I used to read. I loved the author's style, her descriptive prose, the gleeful earthiness of the sexytimes scenes. I was expecting Mills & Boon for the 21st century, and instead I got the kind of writing I've enjoyed in the best fanfic I've read in recent years. I really, really enjoyed it.
Sally Thorne - 99% Mine
Second novel, same author, and I'm sorry to say I was a bit disappointed.
The smooth, lyrical style I enjoyed in Hating Game is abandoned here for something a little more oblique and a lot more pretentious. Before I go on, I should point out that if this had been my first Sally Thorne novel, I'd have enjoyed it more, because I wouldn't have mentally categorised it as contemporary romance. This is something much less formulaic than I was expecting, having read her first book, and that should be a good thing.
But there's a reason for that formula. You know the characters and the settings and the tropes won't be the same from one romantic fiction book to the next, but you also know roughly what you're going to get: a tale of two people falling in love, beset by obstacles that seem insurmountable to them but that the reader knows will only make them appreciate each other and what they have. And while 99% Mine could probably also be described this way, there's something about it that doesn't quite fit the mould.
For me, it's two things. One is that Darcy is somewhat of an impenetrable character, not to mention highly frustrating; I wanted to shake her at least once per chapter. The other is that her unreliable narrative meant that I didn't feel like I knew any of the other characters. Her best friend is kooky, her brother (one of the most important people in Darcy's life, yet we don't even meet him until right at the end) is smarmy, and Tom is ... what is he? Sometimes he's a St Bernard with a saviour complex (is that redundant?), sometimes he's Heathcliff, sometimes he's Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson. I honestly don't think even Thorne knows who she wants him to be, and Darcy's tendency to put Tom on a pedestal reflects that.
Still a good story. Still don't really know just what to make of it. I'll read Thorne's third book when it comes out, though, so perhaps that's my strongest endorsement.
Christina Lauren - The Unhoneymooners
Ah, fake marriage - a romance trope that can be done very well, or very badly. Happily, this is the former, even with the added 'identical twin sisters fall in love with a pair of brothers' identity porn device. This is mainly due to the characters. Messy!Twin Olive is a lot more relatable than Perfect!Twin Ami (whose fate, by the way, is way harsh and totally undeserved), and StoicFakeHusband Ethan is a pretty swoony dude, despite the stick up his butt. However, Ethan's brother and new husband of the aforementioned Ami, is a complete asshole. I don't think too much of a spoiler alert is allowed there - he shows his true colours pretty quickly, even if his family and friends seem willing to laugh off his assholery.
The slow burn at the tropical resort was pretty steamy without being explicit (in fact, I think this is the least smutty Christina Lauren I've read), and the way Ethan and Olive find their way back together after the obligatory Crisis when they return to reality is quite lovely. Still feel bad for Ami, but girlfriend has her shit sorted. All in all - an enjoyable beach read with a nice touch or two of realistic melancholy.
Christina Lauren - Twice in a Blue Moon
I side-eyed this before reading because childhood-sweethearts-torn-apart-find-each-other-again isn’t a theme I usually go for. Maybe low expectations were a good thing in this case, because after a slow start detailing the teenage love affair, it settled in to something I thought was pretty great.
Tate, the heroine, comes across as intensely private and somewhat closed-off, but doing okay just the same. The way she's thrown for such a loop when Sam shows up back in her life made me wary of the big reveal - the reason their idyllic love turned so sour and left such deep wounds. But in the end, I really liked that they were torn apart because Young!Sam made a conscious, if difficult choice knowing it would hurt Tate to her core. Usually it's some contrived misunderstanding that could have been solved if the protagonists just had a conversation, but in this case, yeah. He really fucked it up.
Forgiveness and learning to trust again is the theme of this quiet, slightly introspective book, and the happy ever after feels really earned. Good read.
Christina Lauren - Josh and Hazel's Guide to Not Dating
Scatty, hyper Hazel would drive me bananas as a friend - I've had a friend or two like her, so I know - and it took me a bit to stop rolling my eyes at her antics. But once the book stops belabouring the point about her tendency to drink too much and take off her top, I started to like the way she honestly didn't give two shits about what people thought of her, and how she refused to change who she was.
Josh, of course, is her polar opposite, and I'm sure in real life Hazel would've just made him very tired. But he comes to appreciate her zaniness, of course, this being fiction, and they rub off on each other in the nicest of ways.
This was a good, fun romp all the way to the twist (if you can call it a twist), at which point I became very disappointed. (No spoilers, but if you know me and what I like and do not like in fiction, you'll be able to guess why I nearly rage-tossed my kindle across the room at this point in the book.)
Fortunately, the epilogue sweetened the taste in my mouth enough to drag the rating back up, but it was a close thing.
Christina Lauren - My Favorite Half-Night Stand
A combination friends-to-lovers and Cyrano de Bergerac, this book is kind of a shambles. Millie's mess is totally of her own making, and that girl really needs some therapy and a couple of good girlfriends to talk to - preferably ones she's not tempted to sleep with - because clearly hanging out with the guys is only enabling her to avoid facing, like, anything.
Reid - the friend who becomes a shag that leads to, naturally, lurve - seems like a stand-up guy, but frankly, after Millie catfishes him I'm amazed he'd give her the time of day.
Aside from them, I can't remember anything about the other guys in the friend group except that maybe one of them is kind of a dick? I don't know. Overall, moderately enjoyable, but it’s hard to care that much.
Christina Lauren - Roomies
Apparently this one’s been optioned for a movie, but honestly, they’d do better with Unhoneymooners. Just… so so. I barely even remember the characters - I had to check Goodreads to refresh my memory.
New York girl Holland chance-meets hot Irish busker Calvin on the subway, takes him home like a stray puppy (I think - I honestly don't remember the rest of their meet-cute or meet-ugly or whatever it is), realises he needs a green card to get his dream job and decides to propose. What even... I don't know how many people genuinely fall in love during a marriage of convenience, but if rom-coms are to be believed, true love happens every day. Yeah, no. Zzz.
Christina Lauren - Love and Other Words
Maybe I’ve had enough Christina Lauren or maybe this really is their weakest effort. I found myself skimming sentences, then paragraphs, then whole pages. I couldn’t even tell you the names of the characters and I only read it a couple of weeks ago.
Oh yes, this one! Ugh. The flip-flopping between timelines got really annoying after a while, and while Twice in a Blue Moon managed to pull off a convincing second-time-love scenario, too much effort was expended here on building up the big backstory reveal ... which was ultimately disappointing. Elliott's teenage fuck-up just doesn't ring true for me, and I don't understand how Macy could've been so close to his parents (as evidenced by how much they clearly adore her later in the book) without them stepping in to find out why she cut Elliott off and vanished. Can't really say more without spoilerising, but were you actually going to read this book anyway?
This really is a case where the couple needed to have a proper conversation to sort things out. And Macy needed several years of therapy to boot, which I mean in the most loving of ways, because Jesus Christ that poor girl.
Lauren Layne - The Prenup
Wait, haven't I read this one already? Hot Irish dude meets New York City girl, marries her for convenient plot (visa) reasons, and falls in love? Wasn't this the plot of Roomies (see above)?
Yep, this is another marriage of convenience tale, Green Card style. I do quite like wild child Charlotte and stick-up-his-arse Colin, but this kind of story requires a lot of suspension of disbelief, and I couldn’t quite do it.
Point in its favour - the love story comes later, after their quickie wedding, after they part ways and each goes off to pursue a career. Point not in its favour - Colin, who returns wanting a divorce, is engaged to a cardboard cutout we are predisposed not to like and whom the author doesn't bother turning into a sympathetic character. In fact, Charlotte's dramatic assistant Kurt is probably the character I liked best of all of them. Maybe Layne should write his love story.
Sarah Hogle - You Deserve Each Other
Um, what just happened?
That's pretty much what I asked myself part way through this book. Wait, so ... they're engaged? They already fell in love, they're living together... but now they 're bored stiff with each other? Is this a love story or what?
But wait, there's more! Rather than sit down and have a difficult conversation that ends in either making up or breaking up, they decide to carry on with the status quo, but then ... they start pranking each other? And they fall in hate, which eventually turns to love, again?
You'd be forgiven for thinking this is the stupidest book I ever read, but somehow it's not. Somehow the weirdness of it hooked me, and I actually really liked it. I’m still not quite sure if I want to slap the shit out of the main duo or smoosh their faces together, and this is definitely a stupid story when you get down to it, but it's engaging as all hell anyway. I was rooting for Naomi and Nicholas, even though they exasperated me.
Don't recommend trying their relationship remedy at home, though.
Olivia Dade - Spoiler Alert
As soon as I read the jacket blurb I knew I was going to get a kick out of this book. Fanfiction? Self-insert fantasy? HotFamousGuy falls in love with OrdinaryGirl? Give it to me.
I wasn't wrong. Not only is this so meta I snorted with recognition at almost every reference to fanfic and fandom, it's also clever and sweet and sexy and fun. The characters are genuinely likeable - main and supporting - and well-rounded like OCs in the best fanfic.
The commentary on fandom hit home so hard for me, too. Like protagonist April, I'd love to not feel like I had to hide my identity from my fandom friends or my interests from my real-life friends. Unlike April, I do quite like compartmentalising, so I'm not rushing out to reveal my identity in cosplay on Twitter anytime soon. (In any case, Robert Beltran's Twitter personality reveals him to be nothing like our book hero, Marcus.)
The most delightful thing about this book, though, is April's in-your-face acceptance of herself in all areas. She's fat, and Dade doesn't sugarcoat it, or attempt to describe her as merely chubby or plump to sexify her. Yes, there's more fat-positivity in this book than there should need to be in the 21st century, but Western society has a long way to go before we don't care about appearances or any of that shit. And it's handled in such a lovely way, especially when Marcus's complete acceptance of April in all ways is mirrored in her acceptance of the things he's sensitive about, and is lifted up by the way they're so supportive of each other in the presence of their toxic families.
This is a great book. Please read it.
And now I really want to go find Dade's Game of Thrones fanfiction. Because you know she's written some.
Kasie West - The Distance Between Us
This book was a mishmash.
Caymen, despite her awful name, is a likeable and relatable protagonist, and I love her snappy sarcasm. "Best friend" Skye is a not-so-manic pixie dreamgirl with a tendency to blurt out things Caymen would rather she didn't blurt to people Caymen would rather didn't hear them (honestly, Skye can fuck off. I couldn't stand her). Love Triangle Boy 1 is your fairly typical rich boy with a good heart; Love Triangle Boy 2 is clearly only there to add Tension and for absolutely no other reason. Caymen's mother? No personality. Honestly, I felt like Caymen was the only rounded character in this entire book.
And yet, I quite enjoyed it. The writing is competent and the story moved at an easy pace. Nothing unexpected happened and the 'twist' was telegraphed from miles away, but I finished it feeling satisfied.
I also finished it feeling like I'll probably never pick up a Kasie West book again because I have better things to do with my time.
Maybe this book was more 'average' than 'mishmash'.
Mia Sheridan - Once We Were Starlight
I tried with this book. I really did. It had some good reviews, and the premise sounded off-beat in a sick kind of way, which intrigued me.
I struggled through the prologue, with its hectic, flowery adjectives and its unexplained flurry of emotions and its complete lack of any kind of personality. I thought perhaps it was just a shaky start, intending to hook the reader into the mystery and failing. I thought surely it must get better.
It did not.
Reader, in the first paragraph of the first chapter, Sheridan describes her hero as having obsidian eyes. OBSIDIAN EYES.
cue me tossing this tome across the room - but figuratively, because I read e-books
I have read A LOT of fanfiction, a lot of it REALLY BAD, and I know that the moment you encounter eyes (orbs) of obsidian (or cerulean, or aquamarine, or onyx), you'd better strap the hell in and prepare to leave this reality. And not, unfortunately, in a good way.
I've read enough bad fanfiction for one lifetime, and I don't need to read equally clunky and unimaginative published fiction. No more for me, thanks.