I Was Born for This

For Angel, life is about one thing: The Ark – a pop-rock trio of teenage boys taking the world by storm. Being part of The Ark’s fandom has given her everything she loves – her friend Juliet, her dreams, her place in the world.

Jimmy owes everything to The Ark. He’s their frontman – and playing in a band with his mates is all he ever dreamed of doing.

But dreams don’t always turn out the way you think, and when Jimmy and Angel are unexpectedly thrust together they find out how strange and surprising facing up to reality can be.

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Because I am hopelessly out of the loop, I was perhaps the last person to find out that Alice Oseman had a new book coming out, but when the news finally reached me, I was thrilled. After avoiding her work for a long time because her age-to-success ratio made me feel like a failure (if you don’t know, the woman got a book deal when she was seventeen. SEVENTEEN. When I was seventeen I got turned down for a job at the zoo because I didn’t have any retail experience), I finally picked up Radio Silence (which she wrote at university. When I was at university I got turned down for every internship I ever applied for) and I fell in LOVE. In a similar style to my eventual acceptance of Tavi Gevinson into my life, Alice Oseman’s talent overrode my own sense of personal failure. (Also, I got a job, which I’m not going to lie, helped a great deal.)

And funnily enough, as it turns out, I think it is Oseman’s age that plays in a big part in what makes her books such a joy to read. No shade to older YA authors, but there’s really no one who can write about the experience of being a teen growing up on the internet better than…. you know, an adult woman who spent her teen years on the internet. In I Was Born For This, much like Radio Silence (and, I assume, Solitaire though I haven’t read it yet) Oseman crafts an authentic story of coming of age online, this time through the intensity, joy and misery that comes with being part of a fandom.

She writes about The Ark fandom, in which Angel, one of the two narrators of the story is heavily involved, with authenticity and compassion, easily incorporating the positive and negative sides of online infatuation. Oseman made clear that the obsession with these three boys wasn’t so much rooted in sex for Angel, but the need to escape from her day to day. Her involvement in the fandom wasn’t  a sign of having ‘no life’, but of having one that she didn’t want to deal with. Thinking about The Ark was a means of avoiding herself, something I think a lot of us bookworms can probably relate to (I certainly could – I think it’s how a lot of unhappy kids who aren’t so much into drugs or drink tend to deal with their feelings).

Oseman’s use of dual point of view, something I usually don’t like at all, worked perfectly in I Was Born for This. Chapters alternating between Angel, the fangirl and Jimmy, member of The Ark and object of Angel’s obsession came together to show two people in radically different situations dealing with the same issue: desperately avoiding confronting their problems, often in ways that meant being wilfully – and hurtfully – ignorant of the people closest to them. It’s really mature subject matter for a YA book – the consequences of avoiding problems/feelings isn’t something I really confronted until I was well into my twenties.

As in Radio Silence, I Was Born for This is a space of complete acceptance of all people – no matter race, sexual orientation or gender identity. I have slightly complicated feelings about this. On the one hand, I love it, because it’s fun to live in such a safe space for a couple hundred pages, but on the other, having a book in which one lead protagonist was a Muslim girl and the other a transgender boy that is pretty much apolitical felt, frankly… unrealistic.

That said, though there was a serious lack of politics, something that did feature was characters’ religions. Which I loved. Angel, as I mentioned, is a Muslim and Jimmy is a Christian and for both of them their religion plays an active and positive role in their lives. Religion is seen by a lot of people as a profoundly negative influence on the world*, but the truth is, though the voices of crazies are loudest, most religious people are just getting on with their lives, following their religion and trying to be the best people that they can. I Was Born for This reflected that in a way you don’t often see and it made me very happy.

I Was Born for This is a delightful read. Oseman builds characters you can’t help but root for, despite their flaws, perfectly nails the fandom experience and leaves you feeling all warm and squishy on the inside. Her writing is YA at its best.

*My feelings about religion that no one asked for: Sometimes scientists build weapons that are used to kill and maim thousands of people while others are out there finding a cure for polio. Religion, like most things, really depends on the person practising it.

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Love, Hate & Other Filters

Maya Aziz dreams about kissing boys and going to film school in New York, but miles away, an unknown danger looms. A terrorist attack in another city unleashes fear and hate in Maya’s small town, changing her life and disrupting her future.

A stunning debut novel that celebrates the power of personal choice in a world that wants to put labels on us all.

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Love Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed is a charming read that packs a serious emotional punch. It reads like a Carly Rae Jepson song, all inexperience and desires, as yet unfulfilled. Maya is full of typical teenage girl fantasies – consumed by the idea of being loved and being in love (those are, at least in my opinion, different from each other), of independence from her parents and, her biggest and most secret fantasy of them all: moving to New York to pursue film making.

I love to read about teenagers with ambition, and Maya has that in spades. She wants to be a film maker, and there are few chapters where she doesn’t have her trusty camera with her, so she can, as she puts it, look back on herself when she’s an old lady and remember what it was like to be her now. Unfortunately for Maya, her desire to make film-making her career is one of the many areas where she clashes with her strict parents. Maya is Muslim American and a child of immigrants – her parents moved to America from India and have pretty traditional values and a strong idea of the path they want Maya to take, and it involves studying close to home, studying something that will ultimately lead to a job (this may just be because I am getting old or cynical or both, but I felt like I understood where her parents were coming from on this – who would want their kid to doom themselves the life of frustration and disappointment that is pursuing a creative career?!) and marrying a nice Muslim boy.

I really enjoyed how Ahmed approached Maya’s relationship with her parents. Though they were very strict, and, at times, SO frustrating, they were always sympathetic characters. It wasn’t that they wanted to hurt Maya with their actions any more than Maya wanted to hurt them with her own, it was more that there was a fundamental misunderstanding between them of their roles in each other’s lives – one that they spend much of the novel trying to navigate to various degrees of success.

And then, the bombing. Ahmed’s writing of the terrorist attack that kills dozens in the town over from Maya’s was painfully realistic. There was a real sense of that sad, suspended state of disbelief – this happened again? – you live in on the outside while the attack unfolds, and subsequently names and pictures of victims fill the news and us with all this loss from one senseless act of terror. Maya’s fear and sorrow over the attack is compounded by fear of the consequences if the bomber was Muslim – which the police suspect is the case. Suddenly her status as the only Muslim girl in her overwhelmingly white high school feels like a greater weight than usual – and that’s before the so called ‘revenge’ attacks on her and her family even start.

In Love, Hate & Other Filters, Islamaphobia is kind of like the monster under the bed. There are times when you can ignore it and go on with your life, but at the slightest change it won’t hesitate to pull you under with its claws and rip you to shreds – usually with an audience studiously looking the other way as it happens. The things Maya is subjected to after the terrorist attack are frightening and sickening – the sort of assumed safety we walk around with for much of our lives is totally taken away from her and her family as they become the objects of hate and revenge for crimes that have nothing to do with them.

I think what makes Love, Hate & Other Filters quite such a revolutionary book is that it’s a story about hate that actually isn’t about hate at all. It’s about a young woman fighting hatred, finding her way and claiming her space in a world she has just as much right to as anyone else

In this fantastic debut (!) novel, Samira Ahmed will put you through the emotional ringer – from the maddening, insulting and deeply sad state of current Western society to the heart-racing, anxiety inducing possibilities of first love and the future, it’s a novel into which you can’t help but throw your entire heart.

The Belles

In the opulent world of Orléans, the people are born grey and damned, and only a Belle’s powers can make them beautiful.

Camellia Beauregard wants to be the favourite Belle – the one chosen by the queen to tend to the royal family. But once Camellia and her Belle sisters arrive at court, it becomes clear that being the favourite is not everything she always dreamed it would be. Behind the gilded palace walls live dark secrets, and Camellia soon learns that her powers may be far greater – and far darker – than she ever imagined.

When the queen asks Camellia to break the rules she lives by to save the ailing princess, she faces an impossible decision: protect herself and the way of the Belles, or risk her own life, and change the world forever.

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The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton is one of the most hyped releases of the year so far, and for me, at least, it did not disappoint. It has been a long while since I’ve lost myself in a fantasy world so completely. The novel is the epitome of slow burn, a choice that is vital to a narrative in which absolutely nothing is what it initially seems.

Clayton has packed so much into these pages: a riveting mystery, a terrifying villain, deep analysis of the commodification of women’s bodies and how the idea of beauty in itself can be monstrous. It’s a book about high status people, and people who were taught to believe they had such status while actually never having any power at all. There are two hot guys in it: a charming prince and stern, disapproving guard. I would have both, and I hope by the end of the series, Camellia does.

In the world of Orléans, beauty is the most valuable commodity available. Everyone except the Belles is born grey and shrivelled with red eyes, but with the power of the Belles they are able, depending on their resources, to turn themselves into either a regular looking human or a spectacularly ‘beautiful’ one. In this story, the regular humans we spend time with are all either royals or noblemen and women and so their lives are consumed with keeping up with the latest beauty trends – everything from blue skin to metallic golden hair. Each procedure is incredibly painful, but people go back time and again because living in their natural grey form is completely socially unacceptable. Their lives and resources are all consumed by achieving beauty.

Sound familiar?

The ideal of beauty is a trap so thoroughly entrenched in how society functions that its value is never questioned, an idea Clayton personifies with the Belles, who initially believe they are and very much appear to be of the highest status in society, but are in fact little more than slaves. When we first meet Camellia and the other Belles they are travelling from where they grew up, completely cut off from the rest of the world, to take on their roles in society. They’re (mostly) excited to start, and (mostly) don’t question their role or status, believing as they have been taught that they are vital to society’s function – that makes them really important, right? If ‘important’ means working long hours with no days off for no money in a way that slowly destroys your body and depletes your powers all while being totally cut off from everyone you’ve ever known AND never allowed to leave your new ‘home’… then sure… *side eye*

This is where Clayton’s slow burn style truly comes into its own. Even while as the reader you’re thinking ‘there is something seriously wrong with this situation’, the Belles aren’t, because this is all they’ve ever known. They are slaves who have been tricked into believing they’re Goddesses, and it takes some serious time – and trauma – to de-programme themselves from the propaganda they have received for their entire lives.

Oh, it’s just SO GOOD.

I have not been this excited for a sequel in ages. You know that bit at the end of Handmaid’s Tale season 1 where June and the other handmaids refuse to murder Janine as ordered, then they all march off together and June thinks “they should never have given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army”*? I CAN’T WAIT for the Belles to have that moment.

Bring on book 2!

*side note, almost a year later I cry EVERY TIME I even think about that scene and, in fact, had to pause writing this post to go compose myself. I don’t know about you, but that was probably the greatest moment of fictional catharsis I have EVER experienced.

Down and Across

Scott Ferdowsi has a track record of quitting. His best friends know exactly what they want to do with the rest of their lives, but Scott can hardly commit to a breakfast cereal, let alone a passion. With college applications looming and his parents pushing him to settle on a “practical” career, Scott sneaks off to Washington, DC, seeking guidance from a famous psychologist who claims to know the secret to success.

He never expects an adventure to unfold. But that’s what Scott gets when he meets Fiora Buchanan, a ballsy college student whose life ambition is to write crossword puzzles. When the bicycle she lends him gets Scott into a high-speed chase, he knows he’s in for the ride of his life.

Soon, Scott finds himself sneaking into bars, attempting to pick up girls at the National Zoo, and even giving the crossword thing a try – all while opening his eyes to fundamental truths about who he is and what he wants to be.

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I was all geared up to love Down and Across by Arvin Ahmadi. The first chapter was great, all my blogger buds love it, and it’s the story of a kid panicking about his future – all elements that usually add up to love for me. Unfortunately though, as sometimes happens, me and this book did not click. It’s kind of like when I read Mosquitoland (David Arnold, incidentally, is thanked in Ahmadi’s acknowledgements), I could see at a distance why other people loved it, but the disconnect between that and me was just too great to bridge. It took me two weeks to get through it – and it’s really not that long of a book.

It wasn’t all bad. Saaket “Scott” Ferdowsi is a fairly endearing character. It was refreshing to read about a fellow quitter – there are far too many naturally talented and committed fictional teenage role models in my opinion – someone who had been led to believe that a lack of a specific passion meant that he wasn’t a passionate person, something anyone a little further on in the whole life process than Saaket will have discovered (or will discover) isn’t true at all. The novel explores the universal truth that life isn’t so much a straightforward plan you execute as something that you stumble into. That just because a person isn’t in your life forever doesn’t make them any less important.

My issue with the book – something I should have seen coming from the blurb – was with Fiora Buchanan, the ballsy college student whose life ambition is to write crossword puzzles. From her name to her crosswords, Fiora is a worthy addition to the canon of manic pixie dream girl, the trope that apparently will never die. Fiora is a classic boundaryless, non-specifically angry, manipulative, beautiful mess with, apparently, no female friends to speak of, who leads Saaket on a journey of discovery. The weird part is that Ahmadi tries to head off this criticism early by making a joke about the very trope the whole of the rest of his book is built on. When Saaket and Fiora first meet (on a bus on the way to DC where Fiora implies she has deep life problems and pain but refuses to get specific about it), Saaket thinks to himself:

“I couldn’t resist imagining my life as one of those coming-of-age movies – and Fiora as the quirky, two-dimensional female character, written solely to help me discover my own full potential. The idea was nice… But that wasn’t Fiora’s job.”

And yet, Fiora did not do one believable thing throughout the entire book. She did a series of ridiculous things to inspire Saaket to do character-develop-ey things, which is the definition of the thing that Admadi says that she wasn’t.

She is at various points described as a sexy, manipulative tease and primarily hangs out with teenage boys and middle aged men.

Sigh.

My patience with this particular trope has worn so thin as to be non-existent, and though I did try to move past it and enjoy the story, unfortunately I could not. Like Fiora’s apparently ginormous lips, it was impossible to look away from.

Down and Across is an okay novel. It takes something that has often been a very white story – a young man trying to find himself – and looks at it instead through the lens of the child of Iranian immigrants. Trying to determine a solid sense of self while dealing with the clashing cultures of home life and school life while also dealing with the pressure of his parents forever reminding him of the sacrifices they had made for him isn’t easy for Saaket, and his journey throughout the story is an engaging one. However, for me anyway, Down and Across fell down through an over reliance on tropes, and, without getting into spoiler territory, a resolution that felt a little bit too easy, under the circumstances.

Solid three stars. Unlikely to reread.

Genuine Fraud

IMOGEN: is a runaway heiress, an orphan, a cook and a cheat.

JULE: is a fighter, a social chameleon and an athlete.

Imogen and Jule. Jule and Imogen.

An intense friendship. A disappearance. A murder, or maybe two. A bad romance, or maybe three.

Blunt objects, disguises, blood and chocolate. The American dream, superheroes, spies and villains. A girl who refuses to give people what they want from her. A girl who refuses to be the person she once was.

A girl who is a… genuine fraud.

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Spoilers ahead.

I adore E Lockhart. There are very few authors who have been with me as long as she has, and many of her books were very formative for my younger self. I picked up The Boyfriend List when I was in my early teens, and it cemented forever my love of contemporary YA fiction. A series about the heartbreak of broken female friendships, mental health and first love, it was everything I needed at that point in my life. Then she released The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, which remains one of my favourite books to this day. The feminism, experimental writing – the way she manipulated language in that book really woke me up the possibilities of what writing can be – and complicated characters marked a shift in Lockhart’s writing career that she has expanded on in fascinating and often heartrending ways in subsequent novels.

Almost all of Lockhart’s work is concerned with female outsiders. Whether it’s Ruby becoming a social pariah after losing her boyfriend to her best friend, Gretchen Kaufman feeling like the only boring girl in art school or Frankie Landau-Banks tearing her boarding school apart proving her superiority to the boys who discounted her, all of her books are somehow concerned with women on the fringes – by choice or otherwise.

Then she released We Were Liars, and further built on her evolving writing style, creating a female outsider so alienated from everyone around her that even the reader didn’t realise she was lying to us until it was too late.

In Genuine Fraud, she’s done it again. Jule is perhaps the most unreliable narrator of them all, but unlike Cadence in We Were Liars, she isn’t trying to hide it. We know that Jule is a liar, it’s what she’s lying about that remains mysterious.

Genuine Fraud is a book told backwards, with fascinating consequences. To read it is to have constant whiplash, as every truth you’ve taken for granted is turned on its head, picked apart and then re-established as something else entirely. Jule tells stories about herself to craft an identity that she can live with, and has so completely assimilated with these adopted identities that it’s all but impossible to differentiate between the truth of Jule and the illusion she has thrown up for us and everyone else – but most crucially, for herself.

In her latest offering, E Lockhart has crafted yet another novel that keeps up guessing throughout. Her rejection of chronology creates a story filled with tension, manipulation and the occasional explosion of violence. It looks at how one snap decision to lie can change the direction of your entire life.

It’s quite an experience.

 

Wonder Woman: Warbringer

She will become a legend, but first she is Diana, Princess of the Amazons. And her fight is just beginning….

Diana is desperate to prove herself to her warrior sisters. But when the opportunity comes, she throws away her chance at glory and breaks Amazon law to save a mere mortal, Alia Keralis. With this single heroic act, Diana may have just doomed the world.

Alia is a Warbringer – a descendant of the infamous Helen of Troy, fated to bring about an age of bloodshed and misery. Diana and Alia will face an army of enemies, mortal and divine, determined to destroy or possess the Warbringer.

To save the world, they must stand side by side against the tide of war.

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I picked up Wonder Woman: Warbringer a little while back on the theory that if Bardugo wrote it then it must be good, but despite that, found myself lacking enthusiasm to actually read the thing. What would it be, I asked myself? Would it just be a straight up retelling of the movie? Don’t get me wrong, I liked the movie, but I couldn’t see the point of reading it again in book form. Then I’d wonder, how does a comic book translate into a novel?

Eventually I started actually reading and realised the truth I had known all along: always trust Leigh Bardugo. She knows exactly what she’s doing.

Wonder Woman: Warbringer in many ways satisfied me in all of the areas that the movie didn’t. Far from being a rehash of the plot I was already familiar with, Bardugo took the story in a completely different direction. While there were some similarities between the two, where the movie leaned towards romance and the only girl in the gang thing (after the first fifteen minutes of the Wonder Woman movie, Diana didn’t spend a lot of time with other women, and I never saw Justice League but it looked much the same) – Warbringer was an ode to female friendship and power in various forms.

Diana has spent her whole life feeling like an outsider. Born of the earth of Themyscira, a kind of heaven for women killed in war, she is the only Amazon not to have earned her place there through battle – and death. Her mother, Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, hopes that Diana will one day take over her rule, but a question mark hangs over whether she’ll ever be ready. Or worthy. Diana has never known battle or sacrifice. She isn’t as strong as her fellow Amazons.

None of them will let her forget it.

So yeah, Diana is a woman with something to prove. Problem is, when you live in what is essentially heaven there aren’t a whole lot of battles to fight, so she’s stuck desperate to prove herself but unsure how to do it, until one day fate intervenes, and Alia Keralis’ ship explodes right as it passes Themyscira.

Alia has also spent much of her life feeling like an outsider. After her parents were killed in a car accident a few years ago she was separated from her peers by her grief, and then her overprotective older brother, Jason, who became convinced that someone was trying to assassinate them both. She’s one of only a few brown girls in an overwhelmingly white school of kids who won’t stop asking her if she’s a scholarship student. And she’s kind of the embodiment of the apocalypse, which causes people to literally start beating the shit out of each other simply because she’s nearby. She’s the Warbringer, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like.

Both Diana and Alia were strong in different ways, and watching them go on their journey and develop separately and together made me so damn happy. It’s rare we get to see super-powered woman hanging with their female friends. Yes, Jessica Jones changed things up a bit, but The Defenders took things right back to the status quo. I get the feeling that often creators don’t know how to integrate the ‘super’ element with the ‘is a woman’ element and so balance out her superness by surrounding her with masculine energy. Seeing an alternative, the friendship of two burgeoning badasses made this such a joyful read for me.

Wonder Woman: Warbringer is a pacey adventure and coming of age tale about strong women fighting for what is right and the evil that might be lurking in those closest to you. It’s a super fun read and a worthy edition to the evolving canon of Bardugo. I’m glad I finally got around to reading it.

Once and for All

Is it really better to have loved and lost?

Louna spends her summers helping brides plan their perfect day and handling all kinds of crises: missing brides, scene-stealing bridesmaids and controlling grooms. Not surprising then that she’s deeply cynical about happy-ever-afters, especially since her own first love ended in tragedy.

When handsome girl magnet Ambrose enters her life, Louna won’t take him seriously. But Ambrose hates not getting what he wants and Louna is the girl he’s been waiting for.

Maybe it’s not too late for a happy ending after all?

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I am a huge Sarah Dessen fan. I must have been around 15 or 16 when I read my first Sarah book (I just turned 25. Whaaat?!), it was Just Listen and I fell hard for it. It’s a book about trauma, speaking up and figuring out how to express your emotions – cause if you don’t, they’ll find their own way out regardless – and I identified incredibly strongly with it for reasons I wouldn’t be able to pinpoint until after graduating school, then university and starting my (semi) adulthood (feeling feelings is not a strong point of mine. I would much rather watch excessively violent shows on Netflix than, say, deal with my daddy issues). All of which is to say I LOVE Sarah, I have read all of her books and will continue to do so for as long as she’s writing them. But, fact is, when an author has written 11-some novels, chances are not all of them are going to be 100% for you. I ADORE Just Listen, Saint Anything, This Lullaby and Keeping the Moon, for example, but I have much more lukewarm feelings toward Lock and Key and Someone Like You.

The drawn out point I am ever-so-slowly getting to is that, while the majority of her books are hits, her latest, Once and for All, was a miss – for me, anyways.

Once and for All is a book about weddings and the notion of ‘forever’ love, an idea all of the characters in this novel are somehow sceptical of. It being a Sarah Dessen novel, romance takes centre stage and by the end, all of the now former sceptics are nicely coupled off and at the beginning of their happily ever afters. While I usually enjoy this kind of thing – I am myself a highly sceptical individual who definitely day dreams of being persuaded of the error of my ways – something about the approach in this one felt a little… off, for reasons I will get more into later.

There were aspects of the book I liked a lot – primarily Ambrose, obviously. The funny, sweet talker with commitment issues is totally my type (I mean who isn’t into that, really?). Every moment between Ambrose and Louna went straight to my squishy heart. They reminded me of Rory and Tristan in Gilmore Girls season 1. Ambrose had the kind of swagger typical of a boy in his mid-twenties rather than his teens and a love of dogs that would have endeared him to me immediately even if the rest of his personality weren’t so appealing.

I really liked Louna’s family – also unsurprising as Dessen writes family with empathy and complexity 100% of the time. Louna was raised by a single mum and major straight male-sceptic in the particular way single mothers tend to be (anyone raised by such a woman will know exactly what I’m talking about), and so even as a teen who had never been in love, Louna was going into the romantic arena with a good deal of (largely unearned) scepticism.

As I was definitely the kid who, at the start of secondary school when my classmates started dating would say things like, “psh, that won’t last” as if I were Joan Collins-type old broad smoking in the corner of the bar, and not actually a 13-year-old who believed Janis Ian style black eyeliner was a strong look and one I would likely wear for the rest of my days – this amused me greatly.

But despite all this, Once and for All left me cold. Generally speaking, I’m a huge fan of a happy ending, but I also believe that what that is looks different for everybody. In Once and for All that looked like being in a relationship – for every single character. And that would be fine, were it not for the fact that at the beginning of the book, Louna’s mother and her business partner William, were both very happy single. They remain happy in that state until the last quarter of the book, when they suddenly meet people (her, some kind of self-help mogul and him, a cute guy from the deli) and realise that they’re supposed single happiness was a farce, and that being one of a romantically entangled pair is really only the way to go.

And… I don’t think that’s true. The idea this book presented, that long term monogamy is *the* route to happiness, made me uncomfortable. And yes, I know this is the premise of most contemporary YA, and yes, I know it ordinarily doesn’t bother me, but to have every major character in the book come to conclusion that single = unhappy… did not resonate with me. At all. This may have been partly owing to the fact the resolution of the book felt quite rushed anyway, but more broadly it’s that, to me at least, the idea that everyone finds happiness in the same way is incredibly reductive. What I would have really liked from this novel is a much more nuanced portrayal of happiness and the pursuit of it, and unfortunately on this occasion I didn’t get that.

Even though this book was not, ultimately, for me, I still can’t wait to read whatever Sarah does next. Though not everything she writes is completely to my taste, I am a fangirl forever, as far as her writing is concerned.