I’m a big fan of stories. I’m always consuming some kind of story, whether book or TV show, magical realism or Grimms-inspired sci-fi, anything I can react to, analyze, or write about.
Come watch me write about stories, even if you should be writing yourself. Especially if you should be writing yourself. Reading about writing isn’t writing, and reading other peoples’ writing isn’t writing, but it’s a lot of fun.
I have yet more literary disappointments to unearth.
Thankfully, queer literature has never let me down.
HAHAHAHAHA just kidding.
Ash by Malinda Lo
I’m using Ash to represent all of Malinda Lo’s books.
Malinda Lo writes excellent nonfiction; I keep entire anthologies for her essays alone.
Her fiction is just so boring.
This book appealed to my love of retoldfairytales and came out right as my interest in queer literature began. Imagine a magical, gay Cinderella who falls for the king’s huntress.
Right? Sounds awesome.
I just reviewed the plot summary on Lo’s website – apparently there was an evil fairy in this and I COMPLETELY FORGOT.
Nothing about this story felt urgent or exciting. What could have been a fresh take on the Cinderella tale came off as dry and lifeless as ash.
Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst
I am often, though not always, swayed by aesthetics.
If I’m going to buy a book, I need an eyecatching cover and an interesting cover blurb.
As soon as I read this book’s plot synopsis, I had to have it. You couldn’t have engineered a more perfect story for me: princesses, queer romance, elemental magic, and HORSES? Cap that off with mystery, action, and intrigue and I was MORE than sold.
Too bad the book failed to deliver on the last two points. I got almost halfway through this clunker without anything of interest happening. All the plot points felt mechanical, like the author ran through a checklist of what she thought she needed for an interesting story. It felt similar to “The Greatest Showman,” full of tropes added for manufactured authenticity.
Which, with such a refreshing plot, is a SHAME.
I go into more detail with this idea later on, so I’ll be brief: it bothers me when authors receive praise for unique ideas or props for representation with no consideration given to the story’s execution.
The romance between Mare and Denna hits so many familiar notes. You can’t rely on the novelty of same-sex YA romance to make your relationship compelling. Novelty is not enough.
This book reeks of wasted potential. Someone PLEASE rewrite this.
Get it Together, Delilah! by Erin Gough
Whoever designed this book deserves a medal. Overlarge, with weathered pages and a pleasing weight, this book felt right in my hand.
Reading the plot summary, I came away thinking this book would be a zany comedy about the wacky hijinks of a gay teenager. I mean, come on – the coffee stain? The cutesy font? The exclamation point? The use of the phrase “how in the name of caramel milkshakes?”
I was so, so wrong.
This book isn’t bad so much as different from what I expected. Yes, the cover blurb mentions Delilah managing her father’s cafe while he goes on a trip. I didn’t realize he was depressed – as in, get your doctor to prescribe some Citalopram STAT. I didn’t think Delilah would hide her various struggles to keep from aggravating her dad’s mental illness. NO PART of me expected my own daddy issues to be triggered. If I’d known THAT, I WOULD NOT HAVE PURCHASED THIS BOOK.
I went in expecting laughs and found myself STRESSED OUT. The story’s combined stresses of parental abandonment, financial insecurity, failure, and hostile work environment proved too much for my psyche. Know what’s hilarious? Employees taking advantage of their teenage bosses. Here’s a joke for you: CULTURAL HOMOPHOBIA. Isn’t it hysterical when closeted lesbians make others’ lives hell? The onslaught of misery never ended.
As soon as I finished this book, I hurled it onto my Books to Sell pile and never looked at it again.
Zodiac Starforce by Kevin Panetta and Paulina Ganucheau
For someone with no interest in astrology, I have a pretty huge obsession with the zodiac. I buy pretty much anything zodiac-related, including fiction.
I’m also fond of the magical-girl genre, having grown up on “Sailor Moon.” As a kid, I loved watching powerful women fight the forces of evil and win the hearts of tuxedoed men. This series may have fueled my not-so-secret desire for a magical girl squad, a dream that dies a little bit every time one of my friends gets married. (#stop)
I drooled over this graphic novel for months. Star signs AND magical girls? COULD THIS BE??
The store I frequented shrinkwrapped their copies, so I couldn’t peek at the pages. I ended up buying a copy for my best friend’s birthday, telling myself I would borrow it once she finished.
A week later, I decided I couldn’t wait that long.
This novel isn’t…bad? I guess? The art is great? The concept is interesting?
I just don’t care.
My friend and I tried to play “Who Would You Be?” and found we couldn’t remember the characters’ names. A huge plot twist happens near the end and I could only think, “Wow, this would have been more interesting had I been invested…”
It breaks my heart to think this idea was only ever good in theory.
And now my squad dreams are completely dead.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz
Before we talk about this book, we have to talk about infamous YA author Alex Sanchez.
Alex Sanchez wrote the Rainbow Boys series in the early 2000s. While researching my thesis, I found out his books have been banned numerous times, making Sanchez something of an anti-censorship hero. Sanchez’s books have been praised for tackling the topic of homosexuality in the mainstream at a time when not much queer YA literature existed.
Unfortunately, Sanchez doesn’t write…well.
Granted, I read his books more than a decade ago. My dislike can be attributed to my age, the timing of my reading, or my style preferences. Even though I don’t like his books, I don’t want to dismiss what Sanchez has done for the queer canon.
However, reading Sanchez’s work has left me with an impression of Sanchez as an author more valued for subject matter than skill.
What the culture considers groundbreaking isn’t always good.
So, when I read Benjamin Alire Saenz’s award-winning 2014 novel about gay teens, I found myself feeling the exact same way.
LOOK how many awards grace that cover!
James Howe called this book “breathtaking.”
The friend who recommended it to me used words like “beautiful” and “precious” and “perfect.”
BookTubers I respect cite this book as one of their favorites.
I hated the clunky prose as soon as I started reading.
I often hear the argument that simplistic first-person YA prose “nails the teenage voice.” “Real” teenagers don’t sound like award-winning novelists; they sound like teens with underdeveloped frontal cortexes. So you can’t blame writers for coming off as awkward, dramatic, or stupid – that’s just how teens ARE.
To convince me with that argument, you better back a strong character. Well-written, believable characters can excuse “simplicity” in voice, tone, style, or plot.
I don’t find Ari compelling enough to carry an entire story. Much of the time, I found it hard to sympathize with him. I seemed to be missing the emotional connection others felt.
I also think the “teenage voice” argument misses the fact that writing is an art. It’s not enough to have your narrator say, “I feel sad sometimes.” Sure, real teens feel sad sometimes, but this narration doesn’t fully portray their perspective or capture the nuance of the teenage experience. Stating facts doesn’t make a work feel real.
So while I tried to connect, I found the writing too simplistic to enjoy. I’ll be avoiding Saenz’s work in the future regardless of the awards it wins.
In this area of my life, I value quantity over quality, blowing my budget on thrifty, vaguely-interesting paperbacks rather than the one or two pricey hardbacks I really want. Why bother when I’m going to switch them out for cheaper, less bulky, better-looking copies in six months?
If I feel I can’t live without a book, I’ll splurge. Sometimes I’m too impatient to wait for the paperback release; other times I buy on impulse, swayed by a perfect plot summary or a pretty cover.
When these books disappoint, it’s agony. It feels as bad as a breakup; all that effort and emotional energy for nothing. WE COULD HAVE SOMETHING BEAUTIFUL, AND YOU RUINED IT.
Though this isn’t a complete list of past offenders, be warned: these books broke my heart.
Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton
The fact that I talked this book up to my friends before I read it makes the the memory of this purchase especially embarrassing.
I bought what sounded like a female-led remake of “A Horse and His Boy” with foreign fugitives, fleshed-out romance, magical mounts, and GUNSLINGERS. Make no mistake: throw ANY of those elements in a book and I’ll whip out my debit card. Add all four and you find me saying things like, “I feel like this book was written for me!” to my skeptical friends.
As always, the cover played a big part in my decision. In my heart of hearts, I prefer pretty books. And LOOK AT THIS THING.
(Author’s note: Free punch in the face to anyone who smugly comments, “That’s why they say, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover!'” No one wants to read a $2.00 copy of Pride and Prejudice; Barnes and Nobles makes special editions for a reason.)
I gave up after 80 pages. I didn’t even make it to the horse. (I don’t think. See? I CAN’T EVEN REMEMBER.)
I didn’t enjoy the world or the characters, and I DEFINITELY didn’t appreciate the rushed romance with a heavy helping of denial.
A year later, I saw this book on Barnes and Nobles overstock table for $6. No one should have to pay that much for this letdown.
The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi
I find it harder and harder to like YA romances.
I had a heartbreaking moment the other day when I realized one of my all-time favorite ships isn’t healthy. I’ve become a more moderate shipper and I don’t like how it feels.
All that to say I hated the romance in this book.
The protagonist ends up married to a mysterious man who claims they were a couple in a past life. Whenever she asks for details, he says, “Just trust me.” RED FLAG #1.
The guy gets way too intimate way too fast and repeats the same justification: “No, we used to be in love! Trust me! I’m not a bad guy!” RED FLAG #2.
Nothing he did showed care for the protagonist. She spent the bulk of the novel confused, avoiding his touch and flowery sentiments. Yet he never apologized or agreed to take it slow. He practically begged her to sleep with him with the argument that he can’t help it – he loves her too much. RED FLAG #3.
Halfway in, I decided he was really the villain. The narrative purposefully muddied the waters, casting this creepo in a suspicious light.
I wish the author had followed through.
Listen, love interests: The best justifications and purest feelings don’t excuse overwhelming your partner. If she feels uncomfortable orconfused, BACK OFF.
The creepy persistence paired with self-centered reasoning turned me off this series.
I won’t be picking up a sequel, no matter how pretty the cover.
As You Wish by Chelsea Sedoti
Fine, let’s get this cover out of the way:
Not only is the cover WONDERFUL, this book was released around my birthday; looking at it felt like a celebration.
I loved Chelsea Sedoti’s first novel, the deeply-weird-yet-emotionally-affecting The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett. When I heard she’d written a follow-up, I was immediately on board.
I have nothing good to say about this book. I read it while on vacation and found myself becoming more and more disillusioned.
Compared to Hawthorn Creely from Lizzie Lovett, this protagonist had nothing going for him. I can’t even remember his name. Connor, maybe? I don’t often notice when authors write from an opposite-sex POV, but Sedoti’s writing of Connor felt particularly self-conscious, i.e., “Yo, I’m a dude, this is how dudes think.”
If I had to sum up the plot, it would be “Brainwashed town keeps magical secret on orders from power-mad mayor and everyone learns a lesson at the end.”
That sounds more like a TV episode I’ve seen 1000 times than a compelling idea for a novel.
This concept had so many possibilities and Sedoti chose to tell a standard fable. Too bad.
I love alternate histories. I find speculative fiction fascinating because it examines extremes. I don’t remember the exact plot of this book, but I remember the ban on caffeine being part of a religious revival. The ban results in a new Prohibition era with Mafia members smuggling chocolate and opening coffee shops around the city.
Also, a girl becomes a crime boss, which is in no way a power fantasy of mine.
The first third of this book was solid, with a great set-up, interesting characters, and the promise of romance.
I hate, hate, HATE when an author rushes a potential romance. The star-crossed, slow-burn sexual tension ramped up to true love way too early, shunting aside the more interesting crime plot.
AUTHORS! Stop using your plots as elaborate vehicles for more typical fare! ENOUGH WITH THE FALSE ADVERTISING.
I wouldn’t have been bothered if this had a been a romance/crime combo. Had both parts been equal, I could have maintained my interest. But the crime plot became an afterthought, the stakes plummeted, and the leads wasted their time on dramatics.
In an extra disappointing twist, I love (er, loved) Gabrielle Zevin’s work. In the past, she’s delivered high concept character studies. I took her name on the cover as a sign of quality.
This is why I have trust issues.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Get out of here with your stupid cover and your stupid circus, you worthless, worthless book.
Of all the books on this list, this one makes the angriest.
I love the hell out of magical realism, okay? Magic and romance and circuses and book covers inspired by The White Stripes are my favorite things.
I saw this book everywhere for TWO. YEARS.
Every time I went to Target, I glimpsed it on the shelf.
Every time I turned around, it had won another award.
I WAS SUPPOSED TO BE MOVED BY THE CHARACTERS AND INVESTED IN THEIR LOVE BUT ALL I FELT WAS EMPTINESS AND RAGE.
IT REALLY MADE ME BURN.
My low-level annoyance didn’t escalate to blinding anger until the climax.
First of all, I COULD NOT understand what was going on. It felt like hearing a bomb go off without being sure it was a bomb. The other characters kept reacting as if to tragedy without ever revealing what had happened. I felt panicked, scouring for clues and not finding any. Something big had happened in the climax; I just didn’t know what or why or how.
Then one of the characters, a creepy redheaded child (let’s call him Pickle), sat down and preached the theme of the novel to me. Nothing Pickle described matched the events I’d witnessed. WERE WE READING THE SAME BOOK, PICKLE?
(I want to say this is the moment I turned against ensemble casts.)
AND YOU, ERIN MORGENSTERN: YOU DON’T JUST PICK A THEME OUT OF THE BLUE. YOUR ENDING HAS TO MATCH WHAT CAME BEFORE.
I remember throwing this book across the room during Thanksgiving dinner.
Forget this book. Forget the glowing reviews. Forget its best-seller status. I curse this story and all its success. MAY YOU NEVER KNOW TRUE LOVE OR FRIENDSHIP.
The intent was to help (I think.) Sex is a big deal and the church SHOULD be talking about it.
By “talk,” though, I mean “dialogue,” and no such conversation existed at the time.
Adults told teens “DON’T HAVE SEX” without telling them how or why. They squeamishly avoided listing potential consequences of unprotected intercourse, making high school Sex Ed look competent by comparison.
More embarrassing was a series on married sex taught by the three senior pastors. They lauded their bravery for talking “openly” about the subject without using medical terminology or addressing the “how” of how to improve your sex life. They discussed sexual pleasure with extreme discomfort, transmitting their shame to the rest of the congregation.
I learned that porn is a fantasy without learning about the reality of sex.
I heard over and over the gender myth that men like sex and women don’t.
College proved worse; Christians shut down honest conversation with red faces and whispers of “inappropriate.”
Finding Debra Fileta’s website in 2014 came as a huge relief.
You mean to tell me Christians can honestly discuss sex?
Debra posted an excerptfrom her newest book about why we save sex for marriage. I find it helpful having a reason aside from “JUST DON’T” or “WOMEN DON’T LIKE IT.” It helps, too, that she’s honest, ratcheting down the expectation of the Super Awesome Pinnacle of Experiences many Millennials were promised in youth group.
I so appreciate an author willing to tackle lies and point to Scripture instead of bolstering false teachings.
Debra Fileta’s new book drops today at Amazon or your favorite book seller.
I don’t often recommend Christian relationship books.
I’ve found Christian authors take one of two tacks: either the author treats love with a measure of whimsy that makes them sound stupid, or they quote, “Marriage is HARD,” enough times to show they have no faith in the reader’s ability to retain information.
Licensed counselor Debra Fileta embodies a perfect combination of practicality and hope. Combining Scripture with modern psychology, she finds a balance between empowering readers to make good choices and encouraging them to trust God.
Her perspective is both realistic and refreshing. She never presents formulas, hoping instead readers will take the path toward health. Using examples from her own life, Debra outlines common difficulties that come up in marriage and how to solve them. Unlike others, however, she doesn’t make her experience The Standard; she acknowledges often that every marriage is unique and couples need to find what works for them.
I can tell Debra loves her husband, Jon. That’s what has turned me off about marriage advice in the past; Christians can fall so heavily on the “difficult duty” view of marriage that it’s hard to tell they even like their spouse. Debra writes about the differences between herself and Jon without dinging her husband. As she writes in her book, she and Jon are a team, a fact evident with every page.
The best part of the book, a true miracle in Christian writing: with Debra’s readable style, the 200+ pages fly by.
Want a good marriage, either present or future? Say hello to your new best friend.
Background Anakin Skywalker feels very attacked right now because EVERYONE KEEPS TREATING HIM LIKE A CHILD. Thought to be the Chosen One, Anakin excels in acting rashly and crying about it later. His flirting skills need WORK.
Forced out of Lunar society, Cress Darnell spent most of her youth on a satellite hacking Earth’s security feed. Easily impressed, Cress swoons over scoundrels and expresses delight in mundane things like sand. Her flirting skills, along with her life skills, do not exist. Girl is DUMB.
The Couple Alas, Anakin’s hatred for sand might keep these two apart.
I find it hard to ship someone as unlikable as Anakin. Who wouldn’t be disillusioned by all that child murder? Or, you know…regular murder?
But come on. These two have plenty in common, including childhood enslavement and a love of space travel.
Sure, there are things to dislike about this pairing. Rage. Jealousy. A disturbing height difference.
And, yes, the character Cress fears most is an angry giant with murderous instincts…which pretty much describes Anakin.
Remus Lupin from The Harry Potter series and Henry Tilney from Northanger Abbey
Background Remus Lupin taught at Hogwarts until Lucius Malfoy outed him as a werewolf. He loves chocolate, books, and acts of bravery. He also briefly abandoned his pregnant wife and I’m still not over it.
Perfect party host Henry Tilney flirts with everyone without making it weird. He teases without overstepping. He even puts up with idiotic heroines for the sake of romantic resolution. That takes class.
I can’t think of a more boring couple.
What would they do together? Drink tea? Talk about books? Hide Lupin’s monthly transformations from Henry’s family?
You KNOW a ship is boring when I have to use CATHERINE MORLAND as my punchline.
Sure, Henry’s shares personality traits with Remus’ closest friends…but is that enough?
And Remus used to be a notorious prankster…but now? He’s so stodgy! He would grade papers during Harry’s parties…while wearing a cardigan. (Sidebar: Why was Remus friends with the Marauders? Why am I questioning canon? THIS SHIP IS DESTROYING MY LOVE FOR HARRY POTTER!!)
Until this pairing, I didn’t think anything could be worse than both these characters’ ACTUAL CANON SHIPS.
Background Kate runs away from things. She dedicates her painting portfolio to a girl she won’t speak to and ditches a lifelong friend for an understanding acquaintance. She freaks out and changes her mind over and over but rarely tells people why.
Shigure plays dumb so well almost no one suspects him. He uses his trashy romance novels as a cover for more devious schemes. His closest friends don’t know what he wants; they just know he’s up to something.
One of Shigure’s exes described him as a ripple on water; every time you try to get close, he moves away. Now that I think of it, he embodies the lyrics to “Marry Me A Little” almost perfectly. I didn’t think that was possible.
Kate admits she’s kind of a mess. Romance terrifies her; college freaks her out. She buys people artichokes instead of flowers…when she decides to show up. With the amount of overwhelm she experiences, Kate can only handle one day at a time. (There were severalsolidtitle puns in that sentence, but I resisted.)
Luckily for her, Shigure wouldn’t care. He wouldn’t invest either. Shigure’s not one for moving forward; he stays firmly in the moment. Others running away has never bothered him; he’s good at biding his time.
These two wouldn’t help each other grow. This pairing doesn’t burst with health. I don’t want to be on board, but the rapport between these two makes sense.
To be clear, I don’t condone settling. AT THE SAME TIME…these characters both struggle to make healthy choices. Why push them to do better when this easy dynamic exists?
IN CONCLUSION, these characters are confused…and so am I.