Book Review – ‘The Problem With Forever’ by Jennifer L. Armentrout

Taking your life back can be hard… but it’s easier with a hunk at your side.

Genre: YA, Contemporary, Romance

No. of pages: 474

A story about friendship, survival, and finding your voice.

Growing up, Mallory Dodge learned that the best way to survive was to say nothing. And even though it’s been four years since her nightmare ended, she’s beginning to worry that the fear that holds her back will last a lifetime. Now, after years of homeschooling, Mallory must face a new milestone—spending her senior year at a public high school. But she never imagined she’d run into Rider Stark, the friend and protector she hasn’t seen since childhood, on her very first day. 

It doesn’t take long for Mallory to realize that the connection she shared with Rider never really faded. Yet soon it becomes apparent that she’s not the only one grappling with lingering scars from the past. And as she watches Rider’s life spiral out of control, Mallory must make a choice between staying silent and speaking out—for the people she loves, the life she wants and the truths that need to be heard.

A realistic tale of child abuse survivors attempting to live in the real world, finish high school, and reconnect.

To summarise my roller-coaster of feelings while reading ‘The Problem With Forever’ : a little long. Pacing was good. Nearly ugly cried at the end. Some melodrama (as expected). Loved the characters and character development, felt fresh from JLA, not a lot of surprises, but an enjoyable read. Shocked me once.

It’s been a minute since I’ve read anything from Jennifer L. Armentrout, I think I’ve been avoiding her titles because at times her writing feels too melodramatic and over-angsty. I actually love those elements in a story, but many times after reading one of JLA’s books I got the impression that it was heavy-handed (and sometimes repetitive) with theses story elements. ‘The Problem With Forever’ felt like a refreshing take for Armentrout in the context of my reading experience. I guess removing any science fiction or fantasy elements, we get more of her core writing skills with character development and dynamics. Admittedly I’ve only read a handful of her steamy contemporary romance stuff at present, so it’s hard to draw that comparison. But overall I really enjoyed ‘The Problem With Forever’ showcasing a unique protagonist, Mallory ‘Mouse’ Dodge attempting regular high school after years of home-schooling and dealing with the mental and physical aftereffects of abuse.

This was paced really well, but at times felt like it was dragging, or the story a little too long; but I think that comes down to the author liking to indulge in the romance and angst (and sometimes repeating a lot of what is already established) typical of YA and JLA’s writing style. But this did not detract from my enjoyment of ‘The Problem With Forever’ that much.

I enjoyed reading about a protagonist who was attempting to grow and push herself, to start using coping mechanisms for her PTSD, anxiety, and depression and get out in the world, function efficiently rather than living cooped up inside and away from crowds. I did get a sense of the love interest, Rider (ugh, that name) playing protector too much, like she was broken and needed a saviour. Setting up a premise of Mouse conquering her fears only to have Rider swoop in many times rubbed my skin the wrong way. I would have liked to see him in a more supportive role than the man who comes in to fix the problem… I don’t mind a damsel in distress moment, but as long as it is not set up as a repeating trope.

Rider is that cool, bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks. JLA loves this trope, I see it a lot in her books. It’s a fun fantasy, and at least he wasn’t being mean or aloof ‘for her own good,’ and even though I cringed a bit at this trope, Rider grew on me as we see more and more of his motives come to light. The fact he has his own demons to wrestle from the same childhood abuse redeemed his character in my eyes.

You get the sense of some real underlying research into child abuse, mental illness, and how children cope, adapt, and it’s repercussions in later life. I would have liked to seen more practical advice and support presented in the narrative, but the story was pretty solid. It goes without saying that there should be a big trigger warning around child abuse for ‘The Problem With Forever.’

Mouse gets bullied – there is an element of girl warfare we see all the time in high school, it adds some great tension, and a worthy antagonist for the story, but something about Rider’s excuses, Mouse’s tendency to brush it off, and Paige (said antagonist) felt a little two-dimensional, painted as the villain a little too heavily. We also get a lot of holding back of information, and misunderstandings to amp up the drama which lost a little bit of realism for me.

The plot is fairly simple, though it has a great reveal at the end which really squeezed my heart. Jennifer L. Armentrout’s writing style is breezy, lending to a quick read despite its 474 page length. As with most contemporary romances the plot was easily predictable, but it is a satisfying ending that wraps up the plot points nicely. I’ve seen chatter on the blogs about wanting a companion novel following Ainsley (Mouse’s bff from home-schooling online) and Hector (Rider’s foster brother) and I can see the opening for that – their story is left up in the air, and I’d be down to read that book if it is ever written and get more of a glimpse into Mouse and Riders future.

An interesting, heart-wrenching, realistic contemporary that I thoroughly enjoyed. Definitely recommend this one.

Overall feeling: She’s back in the saddle

© Casey Carlisle 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Casey Carlisle with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Book Review – ‘Heartstopper : Volume Three’ (#3 Heartstopper) by Alice Oseman

Love is in the air with a field trip to Paris.

Genre: Y/A, Contemporary, Romance, LGBTQIA+, Graphic Novel

No. of pages: 384

 The Heartstopper gang go on a school trip to Paris! Not only are Nick and Charlie navigating a new city, but also telling more people about their relationship AND learning more about the challenges each other are facing in private…

Meanwhile Tao and Elle will face their feelings for each other, Tara and Darcy share more about their relationship origin story, and the teachers supervising the trip seem… rather close…?

This volume of ‘Heartstopper’ just upped the adorable factor! We start to get developed side characters and their own arcs, there’s more complexity in the plot, and Charlie and Nick are facing greater challenges. Again this is not a self-encapsulated story, rather just an episode in the growing closeness of Charlie and Nick.

The representation is handled with kitten gloves, but does not water down the fears minority groups face. ‘Heartstopper’ still manages to encapsulate that innocent charm from the previous volumes.

’Heartstopper : Volume Three’ deals with more issues around Nick’s coming out to a wider circle of people, and the pair heading off on a school trip to Paris. There they also start to address intimacy, and how far they are willing to go… and getting close to using the ‘L’ word. It’s nice to read a story that builds the relationship at a more realistic pace and have frank honest discussions about becoming intimate, and comfort levels. It feels like such an intelligent approach and is a great example for today’s youth. I’m sick of the trope when teens get into relationships and weeks later (sometimes much sooner) they sleep together and it’s a magical experience and like a love they could never imagined. That is so unrealistic and robs the characters of being able to grow the foundations of real (loving and intimate) relationships.

Queer relationships from others characters in Charlie and Nick’s immediate circle are also getting air time in the narrative, again giving examples of the many different hues of the rainbow. Tao and Elle. Tara and Darcy. Mr. Ajayi and Mr. Farouk.

We also get a touch on the bullying that Nick suffers from his older brother, and I’m interested to see how the family is going to handle this issue. There is a little more about Charlie and his eating disorder. And the friendship dynamics the pair face in their separate friend circles. There is a lot to unpack from these graphic novels – Such a master of subtext and frank observations on the issues raised.

I’m loving the complexity and scope of this series now, and am eagerly ready to jump into Volume 4. Also with all the updates coming in about the screen adaptation by Netflix with casting and shots from filming on set, I’m incredibly eager to see what they churn out. Looks like we are getting eight 30 minute episodes, but no release date as yet.

Again, ‘Heartstopper : Volume Three’ was another quick paced tome I finished in about an hour. So sweet. I’ve become a major stan.

Overall feeling: Gushing over this!

© Casey Carlisle 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Casey Carlisle with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Book Review – ‘Bookish and the Beast’ (#3 Once Upon a Con) by Ashley Poston

Another hilarious addition to the CONtemprary twists of fairy tales.

Genre: YA, Contemporary, Romance, LGBT

No. of pages: 320

Rosie Thorne is feeling stuck—on her college application essays, in her small town, and on that mysterious General Sond cosplayer she met at ExcelsiCon. Most of all, she’s stuck in her grief over her mother’s death. Her only solace was her late mother’s library of rare Starfield novels, but even that disappeared when they sold it to pay off hospital bills.

On the other hand, Vance Reigns has been Hollywood royalty for as long as he can remember—with all the privilege and scrutiny that entails. When a tabloid scandal catches up to him, he’s forced to hide out somewhere the paparazzi would never expect to find him: Small Town USA. At least there’s a library in the house. Too bad he doesn’t read.

When Rosie and Vance’s paths collide and a rare book is accidentally destroyed, Rosie finds herself working to repay the debt. And while most Starfield superfans would jump at the chance to work in close proximity to the Vance Reigns, Rosie has discovered something about Vance: he’s a jerk, and she can’t stand him. The feeling is mutual.

But as Vance and Rosie begrudgingly get to know each other, their careful masks come off—and they may just find that there’s more risk in shutting each other out than in opening their hearts.

This was an adorably cute, saccharine sweet tale inspired by ‘Beauty and the Beast’ for the Once Upon a Con series. If you love to indulge in the fantasy, then this title will tickle you pink. Being based on a tale as old as time expect to read a lot of tropes, but tropes done in a fun campy sort of way. The narrative definitely lends to a quick read with chapters alternating in perspective between love interests/protagonists Rosie and Vance. I took a little longer to read ‘Bookish and the Beast’ to have a short break every now and then because of the cuteness overload. Especially if you’re not in that mindset…

Rosie is a small town geeky type dealing with grief after the loss of her mother. She and her mother shared a love of the Starfield extended universe – the films, the television show, and the novels released under the franchise, and finds comfort amongst the collection her mother had amassed… but then they hit financial hardship and had to sell off all the collectibles to keep their head above water. So Rosie is clambering, feeling the loss, trying to shape an uncertain future after she graduates high school. I love how Rose is unapologetically a book nerd, and sci-fi geek, and have friends and family equally invested in these things. I really feel a modern twist on the wallflower trope. I loved her growth in learning how to feel deserving of things, and go out and grab them.

Vance in our bad boy. Aggressive attitude, rude, media fodder, and exiled to a small town mansion to decompress and let the string of bad press cool so he doesn’t destroy his acting career. He’s been burned by so-called friends many times when they cash in on his fame; he’s like a punching bag for social media. He’s sarcastic, sullen, and is always putting up a front. I seriously had a lot of eye-rolling in his chapters, but hey, it fit with the character and wasn’t without its comedic moments. In fact I laughed a surprising amount throughout ‘Bookish and the Beast.’ Vance has a great character arc in learning to let people in, be confident in himself instead of a persona he fronts in the public eye… and to stop punishing himself for his mistakes.

I love dogs, so the German Shepard Sansa was a great inclusion in the narrative and had me clucking at the pages every time he appeared.

I also like the topic of consent and how boys sometimes don’t really listen to girls, instead doing what they think girls want, and how this was approached through the character of Garrett.

We get a lot of pop culture references in ‘Bookish and the Beast’ that readers and Con enthusiasts alike will identify with. Though, this book does not indulge in the Con events like its predecessors.

As we are following a very over-represented tale in the media, it was so very easy to predict the story, but it was an entertaining modern twist. I loved Ashely Poston’s writing style, some of the phrases she uses are delightful and really stood out to me. My enjoyment for this series has definitely increased with reading ‘Bookish and the Beast.’ Though I would have liked a bit more complexity in this book to really push it over the edge.

Again we see some great representation of the LGBTQIA+ spectrum in a positive light that is a part of the characters – not their defining trait.

A pleasant ride through an old classic for anyone who loves retellings, cutesy contemporaries, and anything to do with nerd culture around conventions and reading. I’d recommend this, but make sure you read the two sequels as each book deals with other characters from the same universe and you may lose some context.

Overall feeling: hilarious contemporary tale!

© Casey Carlisle 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Casey Carlisle with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Book Review – ‘If We Were Us’ by K. L. Walther

Cute premise, but flat delivery.

Genre: YA, Contemporary, Romance, LGBT

No. of pages: 368

Everyone at the prestigious Bexley School believes that Sage Morgan and Charlie Carmichael are meant to be….that it’s just a matter of time until they realize that they are actually in love.

When Luke Morrissey shows up on the Bexley campus his presence immediately shakes things up. Charlie and Luke are drawn to each other the moment they meet, giving Sage the opportunity to steal away to spend time with Charlie’s twin brother, Nick.

But Charlie is afraid of what others will think if he accepts that he has much more than a friendship with Luke. And Sage fears that things with Nick are getting too serious too quickly. The duo will need to rely on each other and their lifelong friendship to figure things out with the boys they love.

I had a lot of hopes for ‘If We Were Us,’ the blurb sounded like this would be a cute contemporary with a touch of diversity, and the cover art matches some similar titles in this genre, but that comparison left me wanting a whole lot more from this story. The narrative felt discombobulated. A lot of info dumping. And the fist chapters introduces a lot of characters on the way side. I felt like I was scrambling to catch up and make sense of what was happening in those opening scenes. The tone did not grab me… felt like smarmy teen characters without any likeable traits. ‘If We Were Us’ was really difficult to get into.  The story is told in alternating perspectives between the ‘it’ couple Charlie and Sage. But there was something about the way closeted Charlie was written did not feel genuine – I feel like an #ownvoices author would have done him a lot more justice. 

The pacing was really slow. So much info dumping. A lot of telling and not showing. The narrative felt flat – like a bunch of descriptions of college students going about their menial lives without any strong emotion behind it. It also did not feel like an authentic coming out. K.L. Walther missed so many nuances that on #ownvoices author would have given the story, or even an author who had done some proper research into real-life experiences of young adults coming out in college. On the plus side, there were some good scenes dealing with anxiety near the end, and the overall plot was cute – but it took way too long to get there, and the entire plot was handed to the reader in the first few chapters… no surprises were dealt along the way. This story would have greatly benefited from some sub-plots, a few unexpected twists, less descriptions of college life and more emotion driven scenes.

If We Were Us’ was okay, but not one I want to recommend to anyone. It felt like the author was trying too hard to look young, or appeal to a young audience and missed all the best things about that age – the uncertainty, angst, the adventure. And the college life was a little white-privileged experience to me.

Protagonist Charlie was stubborn and annoying, self-sabotaging. While interesting because of these conflicts, I found myself wanting some part of his personality and passion (outside of the relationship) to balance this character out. But unfortunately that’s all we got. So that, combined with the ‘telling’ of history and college, Charlie didn’t feel like he developed too much, his story felt flat despite his journey with anxiety and coming out.

Sage, though fiercely loyal, had little going for her other than pining for Nick. I grind my teeth thinking that female characters commonly come across as all about the love interest. I wanted more dimension form Sage. She felt like she was written as a much younger version of herself, like she was 13 or 14 years old.

This story was solely two dimensional about their relationships… there was no other complexity to the story or to the characters.

I also wanted to take out my red pen in parts because the editor had seriously let the author down with some amateur sentence structure. There was nothing particularly individual about K.L. Walther’s writing that made her stand out. This felt like I was reading one of my year 11 student’s English prose. I know this sounds harsh, but a decent editor/publisher team would have worked with and developed the story to shine Walther in her best light. I feel like they really dropped the ball with this one. I can see the bones of a good writer – hints of interesting and engaging characters, perplexing situations, a romantic notion, imaginative settings – it just needed to be pulled together more effectively. A good developmental editor would have pointed out the pacing issues and maybe suggested to increase the level of complexity for the plot.

It was a struggle to read apart from a few chapters near the end when all of a sudden there was tension… but besides that, ‘If It Were Us’ was relatively boring… and ultimately forgettable. Given this was K.L. Walther’s first published novel, I’m expecting her writing prowess to grow and develop and am interested to see how it presents in her second novel ‘The Summer of Broken Rules’ and the fact that it is not dealing with queer characters may play in her favour, but I’m not going to be rushing out to purchase it.

Overall feeling: a bit of a snooze-fest.

© Casey Carlisle 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Casey Carlisle with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Book Review – ‘Leah on the Offbeat’ (#2 Creekwood) by Becky Albertalli

Another coming out story from the Simonverse… .

Genre: Y/A, Contemporary, Romance, LGBT

No. of pages: 352

Leah Burke—girl-band drummer, master of deadpan, and Simon Spier’s best friend from the award-winning Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda—takes center stage in this novel of first love and senior-year angst.

When it comes to drumming, Leah Burke is usually on beat—but real life isn’t always so rhythmic. An anomaly in her friend group, she’s the only child of a young, single mom, and her life is decidedly less privileged. She loves to draw but is too self-conscious to show it. And even though her mom knows she’s bisexual, she hasn’t mustered the courage to tell her friends—not even her openly gay BFF, Simon.

So Leah really doesn’t know what to do when her rock-solid friend group starts to fracture in unexpected ways. With prom and college on the horizon, tensions are running high. It’s hard for Leah to strike the right note while the people she loves are fighting—especially when she realizes she might love one of them more than she ever intended.

Many of my book friends did not like ‘Leah on the Offbeat’ but I thought it was a comical romp through coming out.

Maybe if so much time hadn’t passed, and I was comparing it to ‘Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda,’ then yes, I would have rated it lower. For this sequel, we follow Leah coming to terms with her bisexuality and crush(es). We get all the comedic timing that was in the debut of this series, though I have to admit our protagonist fell a touch flatter. I think because we never get any deep exploration around the relationship with her mother (and mother’s new boyfriend,) or any resolution to the issues these two share. It’s all very perfunctory. Also, with ‘Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda’ we get how Simon and Bram’s relationship affect the gang – and the larger circle of friends they share. Again, we don’t get this exploration in ‘Leah on the Offbeat.’

Leah is a very private, closed-off, and sarcastic protagonist. She’s confident but self-depreciating. So it makes a bit of sense that the plot is a little reserved. We get teen angst, but it felt understated in comparison to ‘Simon and the Homo Sapiens Agenda,’ but again, it fits the character profile of Leah. I loved how she is sensible. Practical. Considerate of others. Too often in YA we get self-righteous or self-absorbed protagonists who’s character arc is the realisation of their small worldly view, or selfish actions affecting others… not so in ‘Leah on the Offbeat,’ it’s kind of the reverse. Leah learning to take care of herself, and become a little selfish. Letting others in.

It’s a testament to what happens when someone gets bullied for the colour of their skin, their weight, their sexuality, or any other challenge a person may face. They build up walls to protect themselves. In this case, Leah keeps everyone at a distance and deals with the world through sarcasm and dry wit. It’s hard to let people get close to you again because your heart is still in pain from the past.

We get a lot of Simon and Bram and see the progression of their relationship. It fill in the gap between ‘Simon and the Homo Sapiens Agenda’ and the television show ‘Love, Victor.’

Leah on the Offbeat’ is easily predictable, falling into the trope contemporaries are famous for, and I’m not mad at it – it’s the reason I picked up the novel in the first place. I’m glad I had left so much distance between reading this and the debut of the series to let it have headspace in its own right. Becky Albertalli has an expert writing style that really gets into the head of an angsty teen facing personal obstacles around love and identity. I would have loved her to delve into the subject of bisexuality and the stigma the label faces in the wider community, or even bring in more support for Leah from the bisexual community in the story.

There are many missed opportunities in the narrative, but overall it was a hilarious tale of a girl overcoming anxiety and embracing her sexuality while on the verge of that tenuous time when we graduate high school and the fear of losing your friendships as everyone scatters into adulthood.

Overall feeling: A little flat, but cute.

© Casey Carlisle 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Casey Carlisle with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.