Tara Calaby

writer, editor & phd candidate

Tag: romance (page 1 of 3)

Review: All American Girl – Meg Cabot

All American Girl book coverI’ve never read any of the Princess Diaries books. My library never has the first one in, and the movie put me off them a bit, because Anne Hathaway bugs me, and I’m exceedingly shallow. So I think All American Girl might be the first full-length Meg Cabot book that I’ve ever read. I picked it up at a library book sale, expecting it to be a light and fluffy read that I could then pass on, but I was pleasantly surprised at just how much I enjoyed it. It’s a clever and fun contemporary romance, which I shan’t be giving away after all!

Sam is an enjoyable heroine, who has a strong personality. My favourite part about the novel was the way that she grows throughout its pages, learning to see the world and the people around her in a more mature way. Although All American Girl is not strictly a coming-of-age story, there is still a great deal of character growth shown here. Sam’s art lessons, and her struggle to paint what she sees, instead of what she believes she knows, form a perfect metaphor for her parallel reassessment of her family, her long-term crush, and the other people in her life.

I can’t stand the phrase “Leader of the Free World” as a synonym for “American president”, because the US president is not my leader, thankyouverymuch. It’s used multiple times in All American Girl, but I get the impression that Cabot uses it ironically, given the way she portrays the president and his actions. If so, it’s another example of the clever writing and characterisation that makes the novel stand out a little from the crowd of contemporary romances.

Speaking of the romance, it’s also nicely done. There’s a love triangle of sorts, but only in the sense that Meg is torn between her long-held “love” for Jack (her older sister’s boyfriend) and the “frisson” between her and David. I particularly enjoyed the way that Jack’s character failings are never specifically detailed, but rather the reader is allowed to form their own conclusions from his behaviour.

All American Girl is, indeed, fluffy teen romance, but it’s a strong example of the genre. Perhaps I should try the Princess Diaries after all!

Review: Ex-mas – Kate Brian

Ex-mas book coverEx-mas is enjoyably fluffy. Like many contemporary romances, it’s rather predictable, but the storyline is pleasant and the writing style is low-key and unobtrusive. I read it on public transport, and it’s the perfect sort of book for that situation. You don’t have to think too much, and it’s likeable enough that the time passes quickly.

I’m a big fan of queen bees, so I got excited when I realised that Lila was one of the two most popular girls in her school. This isn’t a story about popularity, however, but rather one about the choice between being popular and being yourself. In this sense, it has a good message, but I found Lila’s dilemma a little unconvincing, given that she’d spent three years working at gaining and maintaining her place in the social hierarchy of her school. That shows commitment!

I struggled to find the connection between Lila and Beau convincing as well. For starters, their background is that they dated through middle-school and into their freshman year, and this is represented as having been an extremely serious relationship, with them being in love with each other. I really needed them to be aged up a little if I were to believe in their past and their rightness for each other. In contrast, Lila’s three year relationship with Erik is written more like a three month relationship. I know dating is different in America, but it still didn’t ring true to me – especially as Lila’s memories of Beau being controlling are never really addressed.

Then again, it never pays to think too deeply about a lot of novels, and Ex-mas is entertaining enough that I was able to put aside my questions and enjoy the plot. Road trip stories are always fun, and here the purpose for the trip adds an extra element of interest to the story.

Review: My Summer of Love – Helen Cross

My Summer of Love book coverI watched the film of My Summer of Love earlier this year. It was one I’d picked up super cheap at some point in time, completely unaware that it was related to the novel I’d had sitting in my bookshelves for years, waiting to be read. I didn’t like the movie at all, so I had very low expectations for the book it had been based upon. Luckily, I enjoyed it a lot more than I had been expecting.

My Summer of Love is tightly written with a very strong voice. The protagonist is fifteen-year-old Mona, and the novel is presented from her flawed perspective, complete with slang and local dialect. At first, it’s a simple tale of teenage boredom and family drama, centred around Mona’s sister’s second wedding and life at her father’s pub. But then she meets Tamsin (for the second time) and Mona’s penchant for gambling, drinking and petty crime descends into something a lot darker.

While reading My Summer of Love, I was strongly reminded of the absolutely brilliant film, Heavenly Creatures and, upon finishing, I realised that it also has many similarities to The Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers. There’s a strong sense of apathy here that belies the obsessive emotion that Mona says she feels for Tamsin. As readers, we are not given the impression of a young girl caught in the flush of first love; rather we see someone broken and breaking further apart, with no apparent care for what she does and who she does. My Summer of Love is not so much a tale of love as it is an account of deep grief and the (unknowing) quest to find something to feel.

The main pairing in the novel is a lesbian pairing, but I am not sure that this matters at all. Mona doesn’t question her attraction to Tamsin, but rather lets it slot easily in amidst her growing awareness of men and her attractiveness to men. I found this refreshing, but not entirely realistic, given the novel’s setting.

I am not entirely sure why they changed the novel so very much when making it into a film. Certainly, there is not a lot in the film that bears any great resemblance to the book, which is a shame. My Summer of Love is dark and clever and very good. On the other hand, I would not read it again, simply because I didn’t like the ending. I’m not sure it was sufficiently supported by Mona’s journey and, in a purely personal sense, it just felt too dark and pointless. The first line of the novel talks about the day that two people died. If it had only been the first person, I think the ending would have been perfect.

Still, the fact that I didn’t enjoy everything about My Summer of Love doesn’t mean that it isn’t a very clever novel, with strong characters and a wonderful feeling of apathy and destruction throughout.

Review: Anna and the French Kiss – Stephanie Perkins

Anna and the French Kiss coverPeople have been raving about Anna and the French Kiss for as long as I’ve been book blogging. As a great lover of contemporary young adult romance, my interest was obviously piqued, but I didn’t rush to get my hands on a copy because I was worried it wouldn’t live up to my inflated expectations. I need not have been concerned. Anna and the French Kiss is just as wonderful as everyone says it is.

The thing with contemporary romance is that it’s a genre where it is particularly obvious that there are only so many stories to be told. The key to a good novel, therefore, is not in the level of originality so much as it is in doing things well and with heart. And Anna and the French Kiss definitely has heart.

Anna makes for an extremely likeable protagonist. While she is beautiful (of course), she is not perfect. In fact, she learns a few important lessons about herself as the novel reaches its climax. She makes mistakes, but once she realises this, she works to put them right, which is the thing that matters. I particularly enjoyed the fact that Anna is passionate about something other than Étienne – film – and that her plans to study it remain firm despite her feelings for him.

Étienne himself is basically constructed by Stephanie Perkins to steal the hearts of a good number of her readers. He is thoroughly charming and always quick to defend and support Anna. There is the clichéd American fetishisation of a British accent, which I always roll my eyes at, but luckily Étienne has more to him than an accent and floppy hair. I liked the fact that he is short and that the trials in his life actually have an effect upon his behaviour.

Both the friendship and romantic tension between Anna and Étienne feel very real. Sometimes, romance can feel forced, but that is definitely not the case here. More importantly, neither Anna, nor Étienne, are forced to alter who they are in order to work together. My only concern with the relationship is the fact that, as charming as he may be, Étienne does not really strike me as a good long term relationship prospect. You wouldn’t catch me placing too much trust in sometime with such a history of extreme emotional cheating!

As a brief aside, I often struggle with books with an ‘American Goes Abroad’ focus, simply due to how the other culture is so often described in a patronising manner. This is absolutely not the case in Anna and the French Kiss, which I found very pleasing. In fact, any negativity is directed towards America itself – so perhaps the awkward feeling for non-American readers will be replaced by one for Americans!

Anna and the French Kiss is a warm and enjoyable novel, with characters that are easy to like and an overarching will-they-won’t-they plot thread that is very appealing. Stephanie Perkins deserves the praise that this novel has received and I very much look forward to reading the companion books.

Review: Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier

Rebecca book coverRebecca is one of those classic novels that somehow invade your consciousness long before you pick them up for the first time. There are allusions to it in all manner of modern books and television programs and I, personally, saw the Comic Strip’s “Consuela” well over a decade before I finally read the original. None of this, however, dulls the power of Daphne du Maurier’s rich prose and the overwhelming feeling of discomfort that catches hold of you the moment you start turning the pages of this book.

Anger, sadness and joy are all familiar emotions to feel while reading, but never before have I felt so intensely uncomfortable as I made my way through a book. Sometimes it’s extremely hard to read Rebecca, so enormous are the sensations of inadequacy, ineptitude and uncertainty that flood from du Maurier’s text. Anyone who has experienced being second best or a rebound partner will find that the thoughts and emotions of the second Mrs. de Winter resonate far too clearly. There were times that it almost hurt to read this novel – times that were reminiscent of burying my head in a pillow to avoid someone else’s embarrassment on TV. But even when the uncomfortable truth of the text is at its most painful, the suspense of the plot ensures that the reader can’t quite turn away.

There are few likeable characters in Rebecca. Maxim de Winter is appallingly paternalistic by today’s standards, and it is hard to understand his place in literature as a fictional heart-throb when he treats his second wife so very much like a child (and wishes to keep her forever in that childlike state). She herself is too weak to be admired, particularly if the reader is able to see anything of their own weakness in her! It somehow doesn’t matter, though. The book is just so artfully constructed and written that one is able to adore it even while caring little for its main characters.

And adore it I did. It’s clever and engrossing and so prettily written that it’s no surprise that it’s considered a modern classic. A wonderful read.

Review: Blood Feud – Alyxandra Harvey

bloodfeudThe Drake Chronicles series are marketed as standard YA paranormal romances, but I think that is underselling them a little. Sure, there has been a hint of romance in both of the instalments I’ve read so far, but the focus is so much more on the conflicts between the various vampire groups. This is particularly so in Blood Feud, where the romance between Isabeau and Logan takes a back seat to the negotiations between the Drakes and the Hounds and the ongoing struggles with Montmartre and the Hel-Blar. There’s probably enough tension here to keep paranormal romance fans happy, but there’s also enough action and world-building to interest those who prefer their paranormal without the side of UST and love.

Blood Feud is interesting in that it doesn’t continue the stories of Solange and Lucy, who were the joint first-person protagonists of the first Drake novel, My Love Lies Bleeding. At first, I wasn’t pleased to realise this. I loved Lucy’s strong and feisty voice, and it was sad to find her so little used in this second book. I soon got over my disappointment, however, because Isabeau is just as enjoyable a character. We also get to see things through the eyes of one of the male Drakes for the first time, and Logan does an excellent job of combining loyal, chivalrous and deadly in a manner that’s sure to win him a lot of fans.

Blood Feud also adds a new element to the series, in that it incorporates numerous flashbacks to Isabeau’s life before she was turned. Interestingly, these are told using a third person perspective, which should really clash with the use of the first person for Isabeau’s present-day chapters but somehow doesn’t. I’m not usually a fan of historical fiction, but the sections of the novel detailing Isabeau’s life during the French Revolution held my attention well and definitely increased my appreciation of her as a character.

The action and world development here is great, although the final climax seemed a little rushed and a lot too easy. It’s not a particularly long novel in modern terms, so an extra ten or twenty pages dealing with the final battle could easily have been incorporated. That said, it was very refreshing to finish a book in a series and feel as though it had been properly ended, rather than just cut off mid-scene!

I was pleasantly surprised by the first Drake Chronicles book and Blood Feud has confirmed my initial feelings about the series, producing a strong second instalment that has ensured that I will be reading more from Alyxandra Harvey

Review: The Unwritten Rule – Elizabeth Scott

unwrittenruleSarah has liked Ryan for years. The trouble is, Ryan is now dating her best friend, Brianna. Sarah knows that crushing on your best friend’s boyfriend is breaking one of the biggest unwritten rules of friendship but, the more time she spends with Ryan and Brianna, the more she realises that she doesn’t want to back away, even though she knows she should.

The Unwritten Rule does a very good job of capturing the kinds of emotions involved in having a crush on someone you’re not meant to like and I think that Elizabeth Scott did a good job of making her characters realistic when it comes to being too afraid to communicate due to inexperience and fear. Even more so, Brianna is just spot-on as a study of a teenage girl whose behaviour is entirely influenced by her unhappy home life. I think a lot of readers will dislike her greatly, but I personally found her a very sympathetic character, despite her self-centred behaviour.

I think my greatest difficulty with The Unwritten Rule was the fact that I just don’t like infidelity in any form. Scott puts a lot of effort into making it almost seem excusable here, by making both partners cheaters and by emphasising the fact that Brianna isn’t an entirely wonderful friend to Sarah but, in a way, that just made me more uncomfortable with the subject matter. There is always the feeling that what Sarah and Ryan are doing is wrong, but it seems to be portrayed as a justifiable wrong, and that just doesn’t sit well with me. I don’t think it’s okay to cheat, just because your partner isn’t as perfect for you as someone else is and I don’t think it’s okay to betray a friend because she cares more about herself than about you. So I don’t think I’m really the intended audience for this book!

All that said, I enjoyed how the novel was written and found Scott’s style extremely fluid. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to readers who aren’t quite as put-off by infidelity and betrayal as I am, because I think it’s a well-constructed book with a lot going for it. As it was, I read most of it in one sitting, and will definitely look out for more of Elizabeth Scott’s books in the future.

Review: Jenna & Jonah’s Fauxmance – Emily Franklin & Brendan Halpin

Charlie and Aaron play girlfriend and boyfriend on a top family television program. In order to boost the show’s popularity, they also pretend to be in love in real life, an act that can be difficult to maintain when they annoy each other so very much. But then their cover is blown, their career is on the rocks and the two teen stars are forced to weather a frantic media storm without the old roles to depend upon.

Jenna & Jonah’s Fauxmance is a light read with three distinct parts. The first section concentrates upon Charlie and Aaron’s life as teen megastars, the middle focusses on their time hiding out together following the outing of their fake romance and the ending is set at a Shakespeare festival, where they have been cast as Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. The difficulty with this is that each section felt quite distinct and I had mixed feelings about the book as a whole. The first part was fun, the second part dragged a bit and the final section was far more my kind of thing. There’s still a focus on the relationship between Charlie and Aaron (after all, this is a romance), but there’s a strong coming-of-age element as well, and the two protagonists are allowed some real character development, which was lacking in the earlier part of the book.

Although the novel draws its ideas from Much Ado, it is not really a modernisation as such. Certainly, there are some strong similarities between Charlie and Aaron and their Shakespearean characters, but this is not really played up until the final section of the book. At most points, it reads like a standard fame-based contemporary romance, which I think is a positive. Connecting Jenna & Jonah’s Fauxmance too closely to Shakespeare’s work would undoubtedly highlight the former’s shortcomings, whereas it stands on its own as a fair example of its genre.

Jenna & Jonah’s Fauxmance switches between chapters told from the first person perspective of the two protagonists. I am not sure whether Emily Franklin and Brendan Halpin took on a character each, as some other collaborations have done, or whether they contributed equally to each perspective, but I did find that the two character voices could seem a little indistinct at times. The biggest difficulty I had with this style of narration, however, was the fact that occasionally the reader is subjected to reading about the same events twice, but from different points of view, which often meant jumping backwards in time with the change of chapter. This seemed to happen more and more towards the end of the novel, and I found it quite a clumsy technique, which really took me out of the action rather a lot.

When it comes to likeability, I think that Aaron will be the more popular of the two main characters. Charlie is very realistic, and I enjoyed the way that she allowed herself to be more vulnerable as the story progressed, but she has an edge to her character that makes her initially more difficult to like. Aaron, on the other hand, always seems more down-to-earth. I’m not sure that he’ll end up a major fictional hearthrob, but he’s an interesting character who is not as distanced from readers by his television stardom as Charlie is.

If you’re looking for a light romance, you could definitely do worse than Jenna & Jonah’s Fauxmance, especially once the character development starts to kick in. It’s not the kind of book that will stick with me forever, but it was a pleasant way to while away a train trip.

Review: A Long, Long Sleep – Anna Sheehan

When Rose wakes after spending 62 years in stasis, her body is wasted and her organs damaged. Much worse, however, is the knowledge that her parents and Xavier, her best friend and first love, are long dead. As she learns to adapt to a world that has changed greatly after the Dark Times that occurred while she was asleep, she discovers a deadly threat to her safely – and some life changing truths about her own past.

After finishing A Long, Long Sleep, I jumped online to see whether Anna Sheehan had written anything else and was amazed to discover that this had been a NaNoWriMo project for her several years ago. Having participated in NaNo myself and making the word count target but otherwise ending up with an unfinished mess of writing, I’m amazed and impressed that such a great book was the product of her own NaNo efforts.

Because A Long, Long Sleep really is a fantastic book. I made it through right to the end of December thinking that Divergent was going to be the best YA book I’d read in 2011, and then I finished A Long, Long Sleep and felt like it just squeezed Divergent into second place. This isn’t as action-filled a novel, and the action scenes that are here aren’t quite as gripping, but I loved the way that the truth of Rose’s former life was revealed, layer by layer, eventually revealing a darkness that I would never have expected at the beginning of the novel.

It’s hard to name a definitive genre for A Long, Long Sleep. It’s futuristic science fiction, complete with all the tech, off-planet colonies and aliens that you would expect from that genre, but its heart isn’t in these elements as much as it is in the exploration of Rose’s character and the ways in which humans treat – and fail – each other. The tech is intrinsic to the storyline, but the characters can be recognised just as easily in the present era as in a future setting.

Rose is not a simple protagonist. The holes that Otto sees in her mind distance her a little from the reader at first. Although the novel is told in first person, we learn more from flash backs than from Rose’s own accounts of her feelings and personality. While this means that she is not immediately likeable, it also means that we discover who she is as we discover why she is. As the book progresses, she becomes more and more sympathetic and more and more impressive as the novel’s lead.

Xavier is seen mostly in flashbacks, and entirely through Rose’s eyes, which makes him something of an enigma, even by the end of the book. I felt very much that his value was in who he was to Rose and what he represented in her life, rather than in his own personality and actions. In contrast, I adored Otto. I thought he was the perfect foil to Rose and, while I was a little doubtful about the text-based conversations between the two at first, I do understand the benefit of this technique with regard to the progression of two characters who are closed to their peers in very different ways. I thought Otto was good for Rose and very important for Rose and I feel that his story serves to temper her own in a way.

I picked up A Long, Long Sleep because it looked mildly interesting and I thought it might be something that my partner would enjoy. I’m glad I did so, because it was clever and thoughtful and dark and hopeful – all the things that I love to see in a book. A fantastic debut by Anna Sheehan. I hope to see more from her very soon.

Review: Finding Freia Lockhart – Aimee Said

Finding Freia Lockhart book coverFreia knows she doesn’t really fit in with the ultra-popular Bs, but her best friend Kate is so eager to become a part of their clique that Freia can’t help but be pulled into their circle as well. When her reluctant participation in the school musical helps Freia to make a few new friends – and actually talk to boys – she is forced to think about who she really is and where she belongs.

Aimee Said has such a talent for making her teens seem real – so much so that I cringed a few times while reading Finding Freia Lockhart, because Freia reminded me a little too much of myself at fifteen! The situations here are all very realistic as well. School musicals are notorious for causing drama (and gossip), and struggles with personal identity and changing friendship groups are ones that will ring true for most readers.

Freia is a wonderful protagonist, simply because she is so very real. Her struggles with her parents are particularly well described, as the reader can feel both Freia’s frustration and understand the place her parents behaviour comes from. Freia grows a lot throughout the novel, and this growth is largely due to the changing relationships she experiences with both her parents and her peers. Freia comes across as someone who is just starting to think about her place in the world, and her journey towards independence is a pleasure to follow.

The three Bs are all very fun characters. Said gives them all distinct characters, with Brianna being the most likeable and Bethanee seeming like a Mean Girl to beat all Mean Girls! I would have liked a little more discussion of Belinda’s extreme dieting, in terms of showing just unhealthy it is (in both mental and physical terms), but realise that Finding Freia Lockhart is not meant to be a book about eating disorders. I thought Kate worked very well too, even if I couldn’t like her. Just as the novel is about Freia finding herself, it seemed to show Kate losing herself in her quest to be popular, which makes her a great foil to her best friend, but also reduces her likeability a little.

My personal favourite character was the fantastic Siouxsie. I loved how she’s always there in the background, quietly offering friendship to Freia, even when Freia is completely oblivious to it. She is sweet and interesting – and I pictured her looking like Siouxsie Sioux all the way through the book! A rather more terrifying mental image was provoked by the book’s descriptions of Daniel, who I ended up picturing as Skeletor with emo hair and Mick Jagger lips. He works well as a character, however, and I can picture him being a hit with younger readers, especially once the truth about him becomes clear.

Finding Freia Lockhart is an enjoyable coming-of-age tale that focusses on changing friendships, family dynamics, first romance and, most of all, the process of working out who you really are. A great Australian addition to the contemporary YA genre.

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