Can I See You Again? ~ #JNGReads ~ Highly Recommendable Chick Lit.

Another day, another chick lit. novel read by me! Oh, how consistent I am!

“‘Everything about him is true. He is kind. He is handsome. He is the truest person I’ve ever met. He’s the man I think of when I have a bad dream, a crummy day, when the lights go out and the entire house is dark. But I’ve hurt him.’”

Welcome to yet another review of a romance novel…it seems like all I’ve been reading lately is chick lit. (or YA books verging on chick lit. status), and I am very okay with that. Other than the Victorian novels that form my academic roots, chick lit. is my go-to reading genre, and I don’t see that as likely to change anytime soon. Even the YA and fantasy novels I choose to pick up all have some element of romance to them, and I’m starting to embrace and be less ashamed of this personal preference more and more as I engage with like-minded readers on Goodreads. Chick lit. can be awesome, deep, profound and super entertaining ~ I’m here to shout that from the rooftops!

Anywho, I digress…let’s get back on track for today, shall we?

I just finished the most wonderful story!

~ an actual quote from me today, upon finishing Can I See You Again? by Allison Morgan

(*Yes, also a quote spoken by Belle in Beauty and the Beast…but we’re practically the same person anyway, so let’s roll with it!)

Let’s start with a few things that I know to be true about myself. 1) I don’t usually pick up books based on their covers. 2) When I do, I rarely expect them to be masterpieces because I’ve been burned before by a pretty cover (for example, here). 3) When a book has a gorgeous cover AND is amazingly written, gripping and makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside (as in the case of this example), I am one happy lady and it is very likely that I will become obsessed with said book.

I picked up Can I See You Again? by Allison Morgan on an absolute whim a few weeks ago, solely because the cover jumped out at me in the bookstore. (Check out the Goodreads page for this book here to see said cover, which I unfortunately did not have time to snap a photo of myself.) Was I expecting Can I See You Again? to be sugary sweet and adorable? Yes ma’am. Was I expecting it to be unique, with a witty and engaging narrator/protagonist I loved within pages and a hilarious yet still feasible plot? No sir. I was NOT at all expecting to fall head over heels in love with the main character of the novel, Bree Caxton, and I certainly wasn’t expecting to laugh out loud while reading her narration. Sure, I knew I’d probably find some moments cute and endearing, as I do in most chick lit. novels I pick up (I’m relatively easy to please, except when I’m really not, and then it’s a disaster, as in this case!), but I didn’t think the story would get under my skin quite as much as it did. I was a fan of just about everything about this novel, I would consider it near perfection in terms of the chick lit. standards I’ve come to adopt over the years…and this vehement reaction of mine was what was very surprising.

I really struggle to write reviews of GREAT novels, to be honest. I find it easy to log in detail what I don’t like about a novel when I have a violent reaction to it…but when a novel is GOOD, I find myself just wanting to say, Go and pick it up for yourself! How do you put into words why you loved a novel or why you had such fun reading it? It’s more of a feeling than any one specific thing about the book sometimes, and that’s the case for my experience reading Can I See You Again? these past few days. Yes, the characters, mainly Bree, her love interest Nixon and her best friend Andrew, are creatively depicted and have very distinct voices. Yes, the banter between Bree and Nixon is on fire, and I found myself smiling from ear to ear reading about how Nixon was flirting with Bree (often without her even realizing it, despite the fact that she’s a love guru by trade). Yes, the plot was filled with romantic moments like an unexpected first kiss and enough hijinks to make Sophie Kinsella proud. But, none of those things would necessary make me this excited about a book; even if all these elements exist and are executed well, the novel still has to have that little something special, that extra zing about it (like THIS INCREDIBLE BOOK has in spades!) to make it really stand out among the zillions and bazillions of chick lit. novels I’ve read in my lifetime. And, somehow, Can I See You Again? had this. I can’t put it into words, but what I will say is that I loved every moment of reading this book, found it nearly impossible to put down, and really never wanted it to end. Considering I had never even heard of Allison Morgan before seeing the novel in Chapters, I find this reaction pretty terrific (certainly one to shout about from the rooftops!), and I am definitely intending to pick up her other novel, The Someday Jar, soon.

I also should say that the beautiful cover of Can I See You Again? clearly did its job! As I said, I had never heard of Allison Morgan until I SAW this book in Chapters with my own two eyes, and it was the design of the cover that made me pick it up, turn it over, read the synopsis, and then buy it. It wasn’t the title or Morgan’s name attached to it…it was 100% the cover. So, kudos to the cover designers because they made me into an Allison Morgan fan and I’m super grateful for that!

I’ll be passing Can I See You Again? on to my mom ASAP…which means it is a really darn good chick lit. novel because her standards are high, and if a book doesn’t capture her attention within the first chapter, she’s bound to put it down. This one, though, I think she’ll struggle to put down at all!

“‘I’ve learned what it’s like to kiss a man with every bit of my body and mind. To be stilled by his touched, silenced by his breath on my skin, honored by his smile. I’ve learned what it’s like to feel. I’ve learned what it’s like to lose him.’”

❥❥❥❥.5 (out of 5)

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

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By Your Side ~ #JNGReads

“I knew it was the extreme amount of stress I’d been under lately. Something had to give. I needed an outlet.

Under no circumstances should it have taken me almost a week to read a 350 page young adult book. But, I had an unexpectedly rough week, which is fitting for this reading experience in so many ways.

By Your Side by Kasie West is a novel about a teenage girl, Autumn, who gets stuck in a library over a long weekend with a misunderstood guy from her school, Dax. A common criticism of this novel that I’ve come across is that the setting of the library seems totally inconsequential, as neither of the characters actually read when they’re trapped in there, and that the portion of the novel when Autumn and Dax are trapped in the library is too short. These two things are true. However, they did not affect my rating of this novel whatsoever, and I will explain why.

“Just talking about rules right now was relaxing me. Structure sometimes helped me feel safe.”

By Your Side was unlike anything I expected from reading the synopsis, and yet, in so many ways, it surpassed my expectations. This is all down to the fact that Autumn suffers from anxiety.

I had an anxiety attack this morning. There’s a long story behind it, related to the long week I had, but to make that story short, I found myself crying in bed this morning as I thought about all the obligations (mostly social) ahead of me this weekend. I eventually calmed myself down (I’ve been told that anxiety attacks are not supposed to last for more than 20-minutes, even though they often seem to go on for an eternity), and when I did, I was able to get back into reading By Your Side right at a spot in the book when Autumn is also coming to terms with her anxiety. Autumn becomes easily overwhelmed when in certain social situations with her friends, and she slowly learns, through the course of the novel and with the help of her new friend/love interest Dax, that saying No is okay and important, particularly when she is being pushed beyond her limits.

“‘Have you ever felt trapped?’

I gave a single laugh. ‘Yes. I have anxiety.’”

Saying No is something I wish I was better at…but I’m working on it. I have felt exactly what Autumn has, that urge to give into people, to always say Yes to them even if you feel yourself starting to break. What I appreciated about West’s treatment of anxiety was that she focused on the sense of responsibility some people with anxiety feel, this burden of not wanting to disappoint other people or let them down. West focuses much of her portrayal of anxiety on Autumn’s family members and Dax reminding her that she has to keep herself healthy, that it is okay for her to admit her limitations, step back, and take some time alone to focus on her mental well-being. I don’t think this sort of thing is talked about enough in society, even with the current move toward focusing on anxiety disorders and mental illness. I believe that many people who don’t suffer from anxiety would find it hard to wrap their mind around why a person may feel uncomfortable about going to a particular social engagement, or why the thought of doing a certain social thing would bring them to tears. But, I have been there, most recently this morning, and I can say with conviction that for individuals who suffer from certain types of anxiety, there is no rhyme or reason; all we know is that some things, on some days, by no logic or rule, are simply beyond our power.

“‘Thanks for letting me stay home this week.’

‘Of course. You need to take care of yourself.’

‘I know. That’s why I’m staying home from the basketball game tonight too. Just the thought of it makes me cringe.’

‘There’s nothing wrong with that.’”

Autumn eventually gets to the point where she can say No to her friends, based on how she is feeling and by gaging her own mental health, and she is lucky in the sense that her friends are supportive of her and open to learning about her anxiety disorder. Believe me, not everyone in the world is that understanding. Having said that, I personally appreciated that West emphasizes the importance of taking care of yourself, of doing what is right for you. Anxiety is just as real as any physical illness, and I agree with West that it has to be treated as such: sometimes, a person with anxiety simply isn’t feeling well enough to do something, and that feeling should be viewed as just as valid as if someone couldn’t make it out because of a stomach flu or throat infection. We all have our boundaries and barriers, and not every day is going to be an anxiety-filled one…but the ones that are need to be taken slow and easy, and Autumn is conscious of that towards the end of her story.

Is By Your Side the best young adult novel I’ve ever read? Probably not. Don’t get me wrong, it would make an adorable, light-hearted move and I really liked Autumn and Dax and their cute banter. That, I would only give 3 stars for though…for West’s portrayal of anxiety, however, I’ll up my rating a touch.

I would encourage any teenager who suffers from anxiety to pick up this book, because not only is it enjoyable, it will also remind you that what you’re feeling is perfectly valid and should be respected.

❥❥❥❥(out of 5)

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

Summer at Tiffany’s ~ A New Favourite ~ #JNGReads

Note (written after proofreading this review): This “review” marks the return of the real Janille N G, an absurdly emotional booklover who apparently can’t say anything concrete or constructive about a book and is instead so overwhelmed by feeling that her reviews are just a gush fest…enjoy! 😉

Remember when I read Christmas at Tiffany’s by Karen Swan last year and absolutely loved it? (If not, you can read my review here – haha!) Well, I just finished reading the sequel, Summer at Tiffany’s, and…and…I ADORED IT!!! I. Can’t. Even.

Okay, time to calm down for a minute so I can get this review out.

Summer at Tiffany’s is an adorable, exciting, heart-warming, intricate, realistic, HUMAN novel. It is chick lit. at its absolute finest, combining a fun, flirty plot and hilarious, gorgeous, glamorous characters with a warm and fuzzy feeling that simply cannot be beat. Truly, reading Karen Swan’s novels (granted, I’ve only read the two, but I have a feeling all her books are this way) always give me a warm feeling – they are the literary equivalent to sipping on a hot earl grey tea in a moderately crowded Starbucks in your favourite city. Actually, I think I said some variation of that exact sentence in my review of Christmas at Tiffany’s, and it is no less true about Summer at Tiffany’s. This amazing and intoxicating novel features dangerous expeditions and a dashing explorer, a beautiful English woman and three of her equally beautiful best friends, a sparkling Tiffany solitaire engagement ring and the most simple, intimate and fairytale-esque seaside wedding. All. Of. The. Heart. Eyes. For. This.

I’m an incoherent mess, so sue me. Summer at Tiffany’s was a damn good book that woke me up out of a fog in so many ways, during a particularly stressful week. It is the perfect companion to Christmas at Tiffany’s because both books gave me wanderlust, reminded me of the power of a great romance, and instilled in me the importance of quality, lifelong friendships.

I texted my best friend of almost two decades when I was halfway through Summer at Tiffany’s and told her that Cassie’s relationship with her best friend Suzy reminded me of my relationship with her. Well, in truth, Cassie’s relationships with her three best friends remind me of my relationships with my three best friends, who were also the bridesmaids at my recent wedding. When my best friend asked me why this book reminded me of her, I couldn’t quite articulate why (okay, except for the fact that she also lusts after a Tiffany solitaire engagement ring, but that’s a story for another time!). Now I think I’ve come to it: reading Summer at Tiffany’s, and Christmas at Tiffany’s as well, gives you that comforted, joyous and calm feeling that a night out with your best friend does. You know when you’re seated across from your best friend in a fancy restaurant downtown and you just look at her, her gorgeous face that you’ve seen age over the years, her dazzling blue eyes and her perfectly curled hair, and you just get this excited feeling, this overwhelming feeling of happiness that she is your best friend, always has been and always will be, and you are just the luckiest person in the world for it? You know that feeling you get when you see your best friend’s name appear on your phone, a new text, and even though you last texted her last night, you realize you’ve missed her a ton since then? You know that sort of friendship that’s more than just common interests…it’s blood, it’s a lifetime? That’s the sort of friendship both Christmas at Tiffany’s and Summer at Tiffany’s portrays, and that buzz you get from being around your best girlfriend is exactly the same feeling sitting down with one of these books will give you. It’s calming, reassuring, peaceful, but also heart racing and exciting.

Maybe none of that made sense – it probably didn’t – but that’s mainly because the magic of Karen Swan’s writing is better experienced than described. She writes female characters oh so well, with complexity and intricacy and respect. You won’t get a vapid, wishy-washy heroine in Christmas at Tiffany’s or Summer at Tiffany’s – you have to be ready to meet some strong and spirited women, as well as the men who support and adore them. I don’t know what better way there possibly could be to spend a Friday night than reading about those sorts of characters and relationships…except for spending it with my best friend… Enough said.

❥❥❥❥❥(out of 5)

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

Don’t Touch ~ #JNGReads

I got Don’t Touch at Chapters 3 days ago, on sale for $1.50. That is both a travesty and a blessing.

It is a travesty because Don’t Touch by Rachel M. Wilson is an excellent young-adult novel and it is worth much more than $1.50. So much more.

It is a blessing because if the book wasn’t on sale for $1.50, I never would’ve spotted it and decided to pick it up. And, I am lucky to have had the chance to read it.

Don’t Touch is a complex, intricate and deeply moving story about a high school student and aspiring actress, Caddie, who suffers from severe anxiety and OCD. Caddie’s anxiety is so all-consuming that she has convinced herself, after her parents’ separation, that she cannot touch anyone without dire consequences. Caddie purchases gloves, she wears long sleeves and pants even in the oppressive heat of summer, and when she develops a crush on her classmate Peter and is cast as Ophelia in her school’s production of Hamlet opposite Peter in the title role, she does everything within her power to avoid getting close to him. Caddie is the narrator of Don’t Touch, and so the reader is able to develop a very intimate relationship with her, hearing her innermost fears and turmoil at wanting to engage with Peter and her other friends, but not feeling as though she is able to.

There were moments in Don’t Touch that brought tears to my eyes. I don’t suffer from severe OCD, but I have friends who do, and I myself suffer from anxiety. I am learning recently that my struggle with anxiety (which began at the start of high school) is so much less severe and difficult than what so many of my peers have to endure on a daily basis, but I do believe that mental health is all relative, and my anxiety sometimes feels like the most horrible thing in the world, at least to me. I luckily have never been in Caddie’s position where I fear touching others, but I do understand the frustration that comes from having this one fear playing over and over in your brain, no matter how hard to try to get it to stop or how logical you try to be. Anxiety isn’t really logical at all, or at least it isn’t in my experience, and I was deeply touched by Caddie’s narration of her inability to calm herself down even when she knows her anxieties are nonsensical, silly and impossible.

Rachel M. Wilson writes about anxiety well, with heart and respect. She mentions in her Author’s Note that she herself suffers from OCD, and that is clear in her careful treatment of mental health struggles that she is familiar with them. I only wish her book got more hype because I believe it is the exact sort of text that teenagers need to read. If I had read something like this book in high school, it may have helped me comprehend my anxieties and understand that they are not as uncommon or embarrassing as I originally thought. I don’t mean to say that a book like Don’t Touch would’ve cured me, but it would’ve made me feel a bit more “normal”…whatever that even means.

Caddie is a strong character, despite her anxieties, and what is most profound is the message that ailments like anxiety or OCD do NOT make a person weak, but rather they can make them impressively strong. Caddie goes through a lot and she doesn’t always come out on top of her anxiety, but in the end, she has developed methods to cope with it and she is able to touch people and enjoy this proximity. She comes a long way, but what is most special and poignant about her progress is that she seeks help, from her mother, from her friends, and from a trained professional. She eventually realizes that power comes from talking about her anxieties, from taking the power away from them, and she becomes vocal and unselfconscious in her discussion of what is plaguing her. This was beautiful to see and an incredible message for anyone who suffers from anxiety or OCD to be left with: that speaking about it, owning up to it and in a way embracing it, is the first step toward wellness.

“Talking about fear takes its power away.”

I would highly recommend Don’t Touch to anyone and everyone because it truly blew me away. I wasn’t expecting to find it so sharp and touching, but it was, and I think it is worthy of a lot more attention. Spend $1.50 on it, spend $15.00, spend $50.00…but whatever you do, pick up this book!

❥❥❥❥(out of 5)

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

Neverwhere ~ #JNGReads

Neil Gaiman is quickly becoming my new favourite author.

To be honest, I’ve only read two novels by Gaiman: Stardust and now Neverwhere. My husband, however, is an avid graphic novel reader and he recently finished the entire Sandman collection, as well as several collections that take place within the Sandman Universe (such as Death and Lucifer). Although I haven’t read these stories myself, discussing them with my husband and having him show me bits and pieces of them has convinced me that Gaiman is a genius storyteller. My brother also spoke very fondly of The Ocean at the End of the Lane (which I think will be my next Gaiman endeavour) and American Gods. Neil Gaiman seems to be all around me lately, and I can’t say I mind!

Neverwhere is one of those books that I will never be able to describe or summarize. There is a lot going on in this relatively small (only just over 400 pages!) text, and much of what occurs is fantastical but still somehow totally realistic and mundane. It’s hard to put into words the vibe and tone of Neverwhere, but trust me when I say that if you love unique characters, thorough world-building, and the city of London in general, you will enjoy this wild ride. I can’t say too much about the plot because I feel like everything would be a spoiler since so much of the novel’s magic is down to the creation of this insane and yet wonderfully recognizable world, and I would urge anyone who has read any Gaiman and enjoyed it, or anyone who is interested in getting a feel for what Gaiman’s work is all about, to pick Neverwhere up. I feel, personally, that it gave me a truer sense of who Gaiman is as a writer than Stardust did because, rather than adhering to genre specific criteria as he did in creating Stardust, a fairytale, Neverwhere seems to be entirely of Gaiman’s own invention.

What I can comment thoroughly on, though, is Neil Gaiman’s mastery of the English language. The man can write, there’s scarcely any doubt about that, and what’s more, he seems to have mastered many different styles and genres of writing. Neverwhere felt exactly, to me, like it could’ve been written by Dickens and that is what I adored about it! Several of the scenes reminded me of something from the pages of my favourite Dickens novel Our Mutual Friend, and the way Gaiman constructs and describes his characters is very reminiscent of Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. I am particularly thinking of characters like Mr. Croup, Mr. Vandemar and the Marquis de Carabas, who are gritty and dirty and devious enough to have been created by Mr. Dickens himself. I believe that Gaiman was very much aware of how he was emulating Dickens’ style, but I also was amazed to find that the text felt so totally his own; it wasn’t a parody or an imitation at all, but it was certainly an homage to the great works of Victorian past.

“There are four simple ways for the observant to tell Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar apart: first, Mr. Vandemar is two and a half heads taller than Mr. Croup; second, Mr. Croup has eyes of a faded china blue, while Mr. Vandemar’s eyes are brown; third, while Mr. Vandemar fashioned the rings he wears on his right hand out of the skulls of four ravens, Mr. Croup has no obvious jewelry; fourth, Mr. Croup likes words, while Mr. Vandemar is always hungry. Also, they look nothing alike.”

“They walked down some impressive lobby. Then they waited while the footman lit each of the candles on a candelabra, of the sort normally only seen on paperback book covers, where it is traditionally clutched by a young lady in a flowing nightdress who is fleeing from the kind of manor house that only has one light on anywhere, burning in an attic window.”

Neverwhere is worth picking up for the beauty of its language. But what’s even more impressive is that the plot is exciting and the characters are both hilarious and feisty. The protagonist, Richard Mayhew, is a bumbling average guy who happens upon this totally outrageous adventure, and as a reader, it is so enjoyable to watch him navigate his way through circumstances that are outlandish and dangerous.

I thoroughly enjoyed everything about Neverwhere and I will not hesitate to continue plowing through Neil Gaiman’s catalogue. Highly recommend this one!

❥❥❥❥❥(out of 5)

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

The Wedding Date ~ #JNGReads

GRRR!!!

This is the sound of frustration, of dashed hopes.

I should’ve loved The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory. I didn’t. The end.

If only I could end my review there, but I feel like that would be cruel. I really should explain my frustrated outburst.

I should’ve loved The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory. The plot is right up my alley, it’s a story that I myself could’ve written and have always wanted to write. Hot guy and cute girl meet in a stuck elevator, hot guy asks cute girl to be his date to his ex-girlfriend’s wedding, hot guy and cute girl fall in love. Does that not sound like the SWEETEST thing ever? It’s better than a Hallmark movie…and to be frank, it’s extremely similar to the plot of one of my all-time favourite romantic comedy films, The Wedding Date (coincidence?), starring Deborah Messing and Dermot Mulroney. (Sidenote: Can we consider Guillory’s novel to be plagiarism of this movie? I won’t go there, but I’ll leave you with that thought to consider, if you’ve seen the movie and read the book.) Really, I should’ve absolutely adored this short and sweet story.

But, I didn’t. (The end?) And believe me when I say I’m pretty disappointed. Why didn’t I love this story? Well, there’s a lot going through my mind right now, so I thought it best to compile a list of reasons…

1) The characters were FLAT! Excuse me for expecting some depth to the hero and heroine of a chick lit. novel. I know books of the romance genre don’t always put forth the most complex characters, but I’ve come to expect something a little bit more substantial. The dialogues are basic and generic, Drew and Alexa have possibly the most cliché jobs and personalities for a romance novel, and the side characters pop up to make occasional cameos but are not at all fleshed out. I struggled to figure out why characters like Alexa’s sister, Olivia, and her best friend Maddie were even in the novel because they were hardly significant. After reading romance novels like Sally Thorne’s The Hating Game with witty and engaging and human characters, I’m over this flat nonsense.

2) Drew and Alexa had NO chemistry! Seriously, their conversations were stilted and felt forced, the sex scenes were very awkward and weirdly described, and their texts left much flirtation to be desired. I’ve read romance novels that were entirely written through texts and correspondence, like Meg Cabot’s The Boy is Back, and loved them, so the interactions between Drew and Alexa left much to be desired.

3) The writing did NOT flow! The narration jumped around a bit too much for my liking, from third-person perspective focusing on Alexa’s point of view to third-person perspective focusing on Drew’s point of view, and there were often random jumps in between, either mid-sex scene or mid-conversation. I felt like things jolted around too quickly and everything was sort of written like a summary. I never felt settled in one particular scene long enough to enjoy it.

4) Clichés ABOUND! 90% of things that happened in this book have been done in other novels or in films or TV shows. Case in point, the movie The Wedding Date…even the title is a cliché.

Really, that’s about it, and maybe those seem like things that can be overlooked, but when a novel is only just over 300 pages, I expect for things to be more perfected and to feel tighter.

What I will say is that I really enjoyed two things about The Wedding Date: 1) the diversity of the characters and its treatment; and 2) the emphasis on body confidence. The stand-out aspect of this novel is that it features an African American female character and a white male character. I can’t say I’ve ever encountered a novel that featured an interracial couple, and it was very refreshing! I know this isn’t something I should even have to comment on because it should be much more commonplace, but in my experience, it isn’t and I am so happy that this novel is getting some hype because of it…very well deserved! As far as #2, I absolutely loved how Guillory treats Alexa’s self-consciousness about her body. I’m going to come right out and say that I have pretty big hips and a rather large (and impressive, if I do say so myself!) butt, and while these are two of my husband’s favourite things about me, they are definitely aspects of my body that I have always been self-conscious about. I really appreciated Alexa’s occasional, but NOT heavy-handed, reflections on her body, on how her stomach and hips look to Drew. Alexa is still a very confident woman, but she has her insecurities, and I particularly liked that Guillory portrays that a woman can be confident in terms of work and her interactions and personality, and about her physical appearance in general, and yet still have certain hang ups about her body. Alexa never dwells on them for too long, and I thought that was incredibly realistic and that her anxieties were well handled. I also love that she is still super confident in her intimate moments with Drew, and that this sexy and sensual side of her takes over and quiets that self-doubting voice. It was gratifying to read about a female character in a romance novel who doesn’t have this teeny tiny body and who is aware of that, but also not at all limited by it.

Okay, so, now that I’ve taken account of the good and the bed together…let’s go with an average rating, shall we? Not the best romance novel I’ve read by any standards, but it had its own redeeming qualities for sure!

❥❥❥(out of 5)

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

Fifty Shades

“‘Enlighten me, then.’”

*This “review” will include my thoughts on the Fifty Shades series as a whole, including a discussion of the film adaptations.*

How to put into words the way I feel about the Fifty Shades series? I don’t even know where to begin.

I should start with a short description of my personal experiences with the series…

I first attempted to read Fifty Shades of Grey when I was in my second year of university. I say “attempted” because I got through very little of the book before refusing to read any further. I’ll let you in on a little secret: at that point in my life, I was pretty inexperienced in the ways of love and intimacy. I hadn’t had my first kiss yet (yes, it’s true, that wouldn’t come until the summer AFTER my second year of university), and I didn’t know very much at all about interacting intimately with the opposite sex. I was as innocent and naïve as Miss Anastasia Steele, and my first attempt reading Fifty Shades of Grey was so abysmal because I was filled mostly with fear, uncertainty and anxiety about every aspect of Christian and Ana’s relationship. It just wasn’t the right time for me to encounter such a graphic, shocking novel, and I remember actually being disgusted and close to a panic attack when I read the scene where Christian and Ana have sex (I should probably get used to not using euphemisms when talking about this series, eh?) for the first time. I just couldn’t stomach it, so for the first time in my life, I DNFed a book.

Fast forward to two years later, when I was in my final year of my undergraduate degree. I was a bit more experienced at this point (although nowhere near where Ana is by the end of the first novel), so I decided to revisit Fifty Shades of Grey from a more, shall we say, mature perspective. I finished it within days and moved onto Fifty Shades Darker very quickly. I never went on to Fifty Shades Freed because, being totally single at that point, I found it hard to relate to Ana as she was preparing to get married. But, I had read the first two novels in the series without incident, and I felt wiser and more knowledgeable because of it. I would learn about a year later that I wasn’t as knowledgeable as I thought, but in that moment after finishing Fifty Shades Darker, I felt accomplished and like I had been let into one of the world’s greatest secrets. I guess you could say that I was curious about these things that existed in society but that I wasn’t yet a part of. I was, no doubt, craving some sort of intimacy and physical connection myself that I had yet to find, and I devoured the book more out of wanting to learn than anything else.

“That means I’m competing with Darcy, Rochester, and Angel Clare: impossible romantic heroes. Here’s the proof I needed. She’s an incurable romantic, like her mother – this isn’t going to work.” ~ Grey

Were these two books literary masterpieces? Absolutely not. Don’t misunderstand me please…I am a lover of Charlotte Brontë and I knew the difference between a cheesy, cliché erotic romance and the classic romances of times past. I wasn’t comparing Fifty Shades to Jane Eyre or anything of that nature whatsoever, and I scorned E.L. James’ allusions to Victorian novels because my somewhat pretentious English Lit. major self was offended that she would even utter the name Brontë in her text. I’m now much more versed in the contemporary romance genre and I appreciate its merits, but of course, I always knew the difference between it and those literary classics that have been revered for centuries. That being said, what Fifty Shades offered curious JNG that Jane Eyre did not was detail…it provided me with a glimpse into what happened to Jane after she married Rochester, what would happen to me one day, what came after that first kiss I had finally had. My curiosity, my yearning to know more of intimacy in some capacity, was…sated.

Then I met my now husband, and we started a relationship that blew my mind in so many ways. It was my first relationship of any kind, and as you can imagine, many other firsts came with that. Believe me, Fifty Shades was faaar from my mind when presented with a real, live man to call my own, but of course, I did at least know a thing or two about intimacy because of that popular series that I wouldn’t have known otherwise.

What complicated things a bit, though, was the release of the movie adaptation of Fifty Shades. I went to see it with a girlfriend in the theatre, and although I had my own boyfriend and wealth of experience by that point, I was still shocked and disturbed and uncomfortable. I couldn’t figure out why I could apparently read about all these acts, and do some of them, and then not witness them on screen, but something about the movie really put me off, and I left at the end in utter panic, texting my boyfriend frantically out of confusion and uncertainty. The issue was (and my boyfriend was quick to identify this and help me through it) the representation of a relationship unlike anything I had ever had or seen: a BDSM relationship that I wasn’t ready to see for myself. Now, I’ve come to understand through more encounters with these sorts of novels and through a better understanding of sex in general, that Christian and Ana don’t necessarily do a BDSM relationship properly…but at the time, it was my only frame of reference, and while reading about it was one thing, seeing it played out before me was quite another. Christian’s urge to possess Ana, her willingness to submit to him, her lack of confidence and pride in herself, all made me very uncomfortable. I left the movie, had some confused and emotional discussions with my boyfriend about all I had seen, and then tried to put it behind me.

Two years later, I was even wiser and more knowledgeable, but this time because of my own experiences, because I had grown to understand myself, develop my own confidence and preferences. I was moving closer and closer to the woman I am today, and something told me that I could handle watching Fifty Shades Darker…so off to the movie theatre I went. And, I’ll be 100% honest, I LOVED this movie! Maybe that sounds ridiculous, but for some reason, I really enjoyed it, and I’ve seen it probably a dozen times in total by now. I can’t really explain what I like about it, but I think it has a lot to do with the fact that this intimacy is established between Christian and Ana that finally isn’t just physical. It reminded me, in some ways, of my own relationship, and I was touched by the idea that only the people in a relationship can fully understand it. I liked the concept that people in a relationship necessarily have secrets, these private feelings and preferences that they hide from the world and keep only to each other. I had experienced that firsthand myself, that “You and I vs. Everyone” mentality, and I thought it was depicted well on screen. Fifty Shades Darker is still the movie I turn on when I’m bored at home on a Friday night, and I’m happy to say that I also watch Fifty Shades of Grey sometimes, without any anxieties or uncertainties.

Anastasia Steele, what am I going to do with you?

So, when I stumbled upon Grey (Fifty Shades of Grey told from Christian’s perspective) in the bookstore a week ago, I felt that it was time for me to try reading the series again, this time as a married woman with more confidence, self-assurance and self-respect than I have ever had in my life. Much of the novel annoyed me, and I still didn’t like the rhetoric of possession and inequality. I was frustrated all over again with Ana’s innocence and her lack of self-esteem, and I hated Christian at many points. But, I felt that I understood the characters and the concepts so much better (even if I do still think they do BDSM very wrong!), and so I was able to enjoy the novel as a source of entertainment. I appreciated that I had issues with it, because I found that I thought about all those old anxieties from the past in a new light, but I also found myself enjoying the novel for its own sake, as a cheesy, light romance. I had grown a lot since my very first reading of the novel, and the experience of reading Grey was more a recognition of my own growth and understanding of myself than anything else.

Maybe it’s totally absurd to have this extreme of a reaction to a series like Fifty Shades, but I’ve never been able to control how I feel, especially when it comes to novels. The idea of Fifty Shades will always make me a little sad and wistful, maybe because of the intimacy it portrays and how overwhelming and all-encompassing I know that can be. But, whatever the reasons for my strange attachment to this series, Fifty Shades had a hand in my own awakening…and for that, well, it will always have some sort of place in my heart.

❥❥❥(out of 5)

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

The Idiot ~ #JNGReads

The Idiot by Elif Batuman is a book I can say I REALLY liked, without hesitation. Although I expected to LOVE it when I began (and probably give it a 5-star rating), the narration and plot started to drag a little for me toward the halfway point…however, I still thoroughly enjoyed this debut novel and found many moments to be laugh out loud funny and highly entertaining.

The Idiot is a novel that I think recent college and university graduates would find very compelling. I graduated from the University of Toronto only a short while ago, and so the experiences of attending lectures, completing long and arduous research papers, and developing friendships with a wide array of likeminded individuals are fresh in my mind. This meant that I instantly connected with the main character and narrator of The Idiot, Selin, and I found her interactions and anxieties to be relatable and realistic. Selin immediately comes across as very intelligent, if a bit socially awkward, and I enjoyed reading about her various classes, particularly her linguistics course, which reminded me of my own first-year linguistics class, and some of her stranger seminars like the Crooked Worlds “art” class she finds herself a part of. I also found it ingenious on Batuman’s part that she included samples of Selin’s required readings in the text of the novel: the references to Noam Chomsky’s theories brought me right back to Linguistics 101, and I particularly enjoyed the short “novel” Nina in Siberia that Selin is required to reading for her Introductory Russian course and which the reader is invited to study along with her. Pieces of Nina in Siberia became my favourite aspects of the novel, and I found it interesting to receive Selin’s thoughts about the text, from her academic perspective, because it felt as though Selin and I were fellow students, working through our course text together before a big exam. Batuman expertly writes about the college/university experience, and this was a topic I for one really appreciated. Obviously, this sort of text won’t be for everyone, but it definitely was one I easily became immersed in.

“It was hard to decide on a literature class. Everything the professor said seemed to be somehow beside the point. You wanted to know why Anna had to die, and instead they told you that nineteenth-century Russian landowners felt conflicted about whether they were really a part of Europe. The implication was that it was somehow naïve to want to talk about anything interesting, or to think that you would ever know anything important.”

As I mentioned previously, Selin is also a deeply self-conscious character, and this made her all the more human. Selin is confident in many academic ways, trying out classes that I never would’ve had the courage to enroll in during my own university years. She is, however, very self-conscious when it comes to her interactions with her fellow students, particularly her friend, Ivan. Selin and Ivan first begin their communications over the newly invented email, and although they have Russian class together, most of their conversations for two thirds of the novel are entirely in written form. This puts Selin in a peculiar position of being in love with Ivan, but of also being totally unable to speak to him in person. Both Selin and Ivan have difficulty navigating this “relationship” that they’ve created, and a large portion of the novel is devoted to Selin trying to figure out how Ivan feels about her and existing in this sort of limbo full of unrequited and confusing emotions. In this way, Batuman does an excellent job of portraying the uncertainties of being a first-year university student – the fact that you are treated like an adult, and yet still maintain the uncertainties of an adolescent life of the not so distant past. Selin is at once an adult with responsibilities and freedoms, but from an emotional perspective, she is still very much a child, a high school student, and so Batuman is able to explore the complexities of first love and of finding oneself in an environment of people with equally complex personalities.

“But, to me, nineteen still felt old and somehow alien to who I was. It occurred to me that it might take more than a year – maybe as many as seven years – to learn to feel nineteen.”

Selin’s friendships are also explored, and it is interesting to watch her interact with female characters like Svetlana and her roommates. Selin’s dry wit and humour make her interactions with her female friends often seem stilted and one-sided, but it also becomes clear very quickly that Selin is well-liked, especially by Svetlana, whose personality is so markedly different from Selin’s that it is very interesting to watch their friendship blossom and to witness the ways that these two young women support each other. I found the interpersonal relationships in this novel to be fascinating, and I even enjoyed the brief moments when Selin interacts with her mother and feels as though she must justify her decisions and actions, particularly those involving Ivan, to this thoroughly adult figure.

“‘I’m afraid I’ll accidentally eat it all before I get there,’ I said, following the rule that you had to pretend to have this problem where you couldn’t resist chocolate.”

My major qualm with the novel is that it began to feel a bit long towards the end. This is pretty paradoxical because the entire novel is only just over 400 pages, but I started to feel at around the 250-page mark that it was crawling by. Maybe this is because not much happens and the novel seems to be more of a character study than a plot-driven story, but I found that as Selin becomes more involved with Ivan, her narration becomes less interesting and engaging. This is somewhat fitting because Selin discusses how she is beginning to lose her language and her ability to communicate the more she becomes invested in her “relationship” with Ivan, but it also made it harder to be invested in her, as a reader. I missed the wit and sarcasm that she articulates in the first half of the novel, and I found myself laughing much less as the novel went on. (Sidenote: I literally burst out laughing while reading the scenes when Selin is teaching her ESL student…and where were the moments like this in the last half of the novel? They felt non-existent!) By the end of the novel, I felt as though I was just plugging away, trying to turn the pages as fast as I could to get to the point where something would happen. Again, I realize that this is more of a character study, and I appreciate that, but I felt as though Selin’s distinct character was what was lacking in the latter half of the novel. The last 100 pages just felt like more of the same, and I guess I was craving some spark or insight, some profound statement that I don’t feel I ever really got.

All in all, though, I would highly recommend The Idiot to current or recently graduated college/university students because I believe they will relate easily to Selin’s character and be able to insert themselves into her experiences. There is no doubt that The Idiot is well-written and I look forward to reading whatever Batuman produces next, as well as delving into some of her non-fiction, which I have heard great things about.

❥❥❥❥(out of 5)

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

When It’s Real ~ #JNGReads

“‘You’re the one person in my life who wants nothing but me and it’s terrifying and awesome at the same time. Don’t ever leave me. I love you.  You’re my heart.’”

When It’s Real by Erin Watt is an adorable novel, and I’m not even a little bit ashamed by the number of stars I’m giving it. I will admit that it took me a little while to get into When It’s Real, and it wasn’t a totally addictive read right from the start, but once I did get into the meat of it, I found I couldn’t put it down. It genuinely made me smile while reading.

This feeling has everything to do with the characters and how cute and relatable I found them to be…which is saying a lot, considering the male lead is a pop star. Let’s be honest with ourselves, the plot of When It’s Real – a pop star hiring a “normal” girl to pose as his girlfriend to mend his image – is one we’ve seen countless times before. I am a fan of romance novels that have something to do with the creative arts, whether it’s tattooing (as in the case of the Sin and Needles series by Karina Halle), book publishing (as in the case of my all-time favourite, The Hating Game by Sally Thorne) or, as in this case, the music industry. But, I will say that the plot and structure of When It’s Real, with its alternating narration that allowed both the female lead, Vaughn Bennett, and the male lead, Oakley Ford, to have their say, was nothing special or out of this world. Vaughn and Oak, though, were. Particularly Oak, who comes across as sweet and kind and vulnerable right from the first chapter. I liked Vaughn a lot as the typical, seventeen-year-old “girl next door” character because her relationship with her older sister and younger twin brothers was extremely endearing and her insecurities about her future were realistic and human. Oak, however, was the real star of the novel for me because he is a surprisingly multi-faceted character, a hugely successful recording artist who secretly harbours just has much fear and insecurity as Vaughn. I appreciated that Oak wasn’t this one dimensional male lead in the sense that he wasn’t a cocky asshole who just wanted to manipulate and deflower Vaughn – he was a strong character in his own right, with a lot of heart and with a soft side that made him the perfect match for Vaughn. He not only uses his confidence to bring Vaughn out of his shell, he also sympathizes with her anxieties about relationships and getting close to someone, and so he never rushes, uses or manipulates her. This is refreshing to see in a romance novel because all too often we, as readers, are presented with these men in privileged positions (think Christian Grey, as an example) who do fall in love, no doubt, but who never fully seem to understand their female counterparts or respect their decisions, hesitancies and complexities. Unlike all these overly pushy and possessive romantic heroes, Oak takes the time to unpack why Vaughn is hesitant to get close to him, both emotionally and physically, and he gives her the time she needs to develop a sense of comfort with him and a confidence of her own. Obviously, this is classified as a young adult novel so there wasn’t too much digging into the psychologies of Vaughn and Oak (more on this in a moment), but I generally felt that Oak was a better male lead than most I’ve encountered in romance novels in the past. I also found his dialogue to be super flirty and cute, and it gave me this tingly feeling because the things he said often reminded me of things I’ve heard come out of my husband’s mouth. I really think Erin Watt nailed the male voice in this particular story for that reasons.

That all being said, my major qualm with When It’s Real was the fact that it didn’t seem to distribute its time properly, in terms of plot. The novel is about 400 pages which I think is a good length. Unfortunately, most of those pages are taken up by Vaughn being in a relationship with her high school boyfriend and her and Oak feeling antagonistic toward each other. I’m all for hate-to-love relationships, as they are some of my favourite, but I did feel that too much of the plot was spent establishing a connection between Vaughn and Oak and not delving into their relationship enough. There aren’t many steamy or sexy scenes at all, and I don’t mean to say that a YA romance novel should necessarily have a ton of these, but it just sort of felt anti-climactic to me because we are waiting for Vaughn and Oak to get together and it is supposed to be this huge moment for Vaughn (one that she’s been waiting for and thinking about for a long time), and then it’s sort of rushed and the plot moves on very quickly. The “conflict” or, I should say, misunderstanding at the end of the novel is also very rushed and seems to be there just for the sake of it. Instead of having a red herring like this, though, I would’ve preferred to get more of Vaughn and Oak together because there simply didn’t seem to be enough of that throughout the novel. There are also so many unresolved issues, such as Vaughn’s decisions for her future, and while I understand that the whole point of the novel is that Vaughn should get to find out what her passion is, in her own time, I think the story would have had a more powerful message if she was on her way to finding that passion towards the end. Instead, she still seems mostly directionless.

Overall, I would recommend When It’s Real, particularly for teenagers in grade 11 or 12. As I said, there wasn’t anything too racy or inappropriate, and I think the fun, cute and flirty romance is ideal for young adults just wrapping up high school and looking for a light beachy read. When It’s Real is seriously the perfect story to read over summer vacation!

❥❥❥.5 (out of 5)

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

Bonfire ~ #JNGReads

Just in time for Jessica Jones season 2 to be released on Netflix next week (you can read my review of the first season here), I decided to crack the spine of actress Krysten Ritter’s first foray into literature, the thriller Bonfire.

Bonfire is a good novel. I have to say, I was surprised by how easy it was to read and how well it was paced and constructed. I’m embarrassed to say this now, but I wasn’t expecting much from Ritter in the way of creating a strong narrative voice or a well-composed plot, and I certainly wasn’t expecting her writing to be as good as it was. But, I am happy to say that I was pleasantly surprised on all fronts and I really do think Ritter could have a career as an author. Bonfire was fast-paced and compelling, and even a reader like me, who isn’t all that knowledgeable about environmental law, will be enticed to continue reading and get to the resolution of the crime. I also liked Abby as a character and narrator, and I was very intrigued by Abby’s continued reflections on her past life in her hometown of Barrens. I really liked that the plot didn’t feel linear and instead at times felt like a stream of consciousness, with memories bombarding Abby at inopportune and frequent moments. I think Ritter has this knack for creating an atmosphere of confusion and uncertainty and personal darkness.

My main issue with Bonfire, though, is a pretty big one and is something that made it so that I could only ever call Bonfire a good novel and not a great one. I believe that the plot and characters of Bonfire are extremely cliché. I should qualify this assessment by admitting that I don’t read very many novels in the thriller/mystery genre. However, I know enough about the genre to recognize over-used clichés and to be annoyed by them. For example, the fact that Abby is a young woman who left her rural hometown right after high school to escape bullying and has now become a lawyer, forced to return to said hometown to investigate the criminal negligence of a large corporation, is a plot I have heard and seen recycled many times before. Abby’s evident drinking problem, her strained relationship with her religious father and her reluctance to become friends with her high school enemies are further stereotypes that I have witnessed used countless times in both books and films. Finally, the plot of a large company contaminating the water supply of a small town also seems to not be very fresh or original, and it reminded me heavily of the plot of the movie Erin Brockovich in so many ways that were distracting and frustrating. Yes, Ritter does succeed in writing a very atmospheric novel that has its intriguing and chilling moments, but I think her reliance on popular clichés and plot devices distracts from her skill as a writer.

Would I read another novel by Ritter? Sure! But I would like to see Ritter challenge herself to come up with a story that is a bit more unique and creative. Again, her writing of characters and her first-person narrative style is well done, but I was looking for something special in the actual plot of the story that was severely lacking. I hope that Ritter will take a few more risks with her next novel because I feel that she has a lot of potential as a writer…and while Bonfire is a good first attempt at a novel, it is sadly nothing more special than that!

❥❥❥ (out of 5)

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart