How a Writing Community Helped Me Understand “The Bachelor”

It occurred to me the other day how similar my life is to a season of The Bachelor. Okay, it isn’t really, but just bear with me. I’m part of this online writing community called Scribophile, where we upload chapters of our works-in-progress, and read and critique each others’ works. It’s amazing and encouraging and so so helpful.

But. Sometimes I feel a little guilty about how long it takes me to return a critique. I get wrapped up in some stories and just want to keep reading them, other relationships be damned!, but I try to be fair about returning the attention I receive. If someone takes the time to offer me feedback on a chapter, I want to show my appreciation by offering the same. Also, there are several stories I’m really into–not just one. I’ve established critique relationships with a bunch of people and enjoy the dialogue we maintain about our works on a regular basis, so I feel like I’m missing a friend when we go too long without conversing.

So anyway, I was chatting with one friend about his story and thinking about how I want to just charge ahead and finish his book so we can have a full, big-picture type discussion (and because I’m very excited for the developments I know are coming up because I totally peeked ahead–don’t tell my mom, I hate it when she does this!). Meanwhile, I have the first chapter of a whole new story/crit-relationship pulled up to start on, and I got this irrational thought that it was almost like cheating on his story, because I felt so excited about this new one. And that’s crazy, because loving a new story doesn’t make previously-read stories any less loved (I’ve got several bookshelves of proof).

Maybe it’s because The Bachelorette recently started its newest season, but my mind instantly went to the show, and how one person seems to genuinely enjoy her time with every guy when it’s his turn. It’s always seemed odd to me, like can she really be so *into* this one when she was just laughing so hard with that one?

Obviously this is a very different scenario. I’m just saying that I see now how something can be absorbing and delightful and take up a person’s full attention, only for the same to be true of something similar (and yet, completely different).

Rambling Recommendations: Brightly Burning

Brightly Burning by Alexa Donne was the 5th book I finished this year (because OF COURSE I’m counting) and it was such a delight.

It takes my favorite classic: Jane Eyre, teases out all the modern-day young-adult themes I know and love, and plops the storyline on a futuristic space ship orbiting Earth.

Stella, our main character, is a delightful young woman who is both bold and understands her “place” in terms of social structure. I could relate whole-heartedly to her, preferring to keep to her quarters and read or draw rather than socialize with her peers, getting brazen only under the influence of a few strong drinks, or once she’s comfortable. Hugo, the love interest (yes, that’s the role I’m designating for him–I suppose he could be a quasi-antagonist much like the Mr. Rochester he’s based upon), is mysterious and broody, maybe more handsome than the original but I let that slide. Personally, I liked the mysterious Mr. Rochester being so much older (maybe it’s my thing for Bruce Willis making age gaps feel so irrelevant), and so was a touch disappointed Hugo was around Stella’s age–but then I figured it’s way less ok for a 17-year-old to start a love affair with her older employer in this day and age than it might have been in Charlotte Brontë’s time.

I loved that this story had that comforting familiarity of a well-loved story, yet enough new twists/plot points to keep things fresh. More than once I found myself thinking “well Jane Eyre went this direction, but there’s no way for that to happen here” or “how will she handle X if Y is so different in this version?” so nothing felt stale.

If you like SciFi YA (that’s science fiction young adult, mom), hundo p–this book is for you. If you’re a fan of Jane Eyre, I’d also highly recommend this novel.

Rambling Review: A Study in Charlotte

If you love Sherlock Holmes, you will love this book. A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro is the first in an amazing, 4-book series. I am 100% obsessed.

This story begins when Jamie Watson, the however-many-greats-grandson of Dr. John Watson, ends up at a boarding school with Charlotte Holmes (the however-many-greats-granddaughter of Sherlock Holmes, keep up). The way Cavallaro has entwined the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (famed biographer in this world) into the plot and explained the generations of Holmeses and Watsons since is captivating. Jamie is such a lovable character, and (his) Holmes is intoxicating in her mysteriousness as well as her prickly vulnerability.

There are some more “adult” themes that (if memory serves) are only slightly touched on in the original Sherlock Holmes series (i.e. drug abuse), so just a brief note of caution, a “trigger warning,” if you will: this story does deal with such things as the trauma after a sexual assault and teen drug use (it also has some swearing, Mom). On the whole, I think the subject matter is very well-managed and real without being coarse or insensitive.

If you have an Amazon Prime account, right now A Study in Charlotte is free on Prime Reading, so you can dip your toes into this series without the commitment of purchasing the book — but I am confident you will end up devouring it and immediately stocking your library shelf with the next two books (book 4 comes out in March 2019). This is honestly such a well-written and enjoyable series — I would go so far as to say it is one of my favorites.

Rambling Review: Love, Lies and Spies

From the opening page, Love, Lies and Spies by Cindy Anstey is such a delight. The prose is fast-paced, the banter witty, the characters immediately enjoyable. I haven’t figured out why, but I’ve already mentioned how much I love chapter titles that tell me what will happen in a clever way that follows “In which…”

This book is chock full of just such chapters.

As for plot, I’d say it’s somewhere along the lines of Pride and Prejudice meets any spy thriller ever. Juliana is a scientist on her way to London for the Season when she is saved from a mishap by a mysterious, handsome gentleman. Neither of them is interested in marriage, but both have their reasons for attending the various outings and events of the Season.

Despite the fact that there are enemy spies and sinister dealings, the book remains lighthearted. I devoured it in about two days. The story is engaging enough to keep the reader turning page after page to see what happens next, yet easy to set aside when life demands it. Still, it’s easy to dive right back in the next chance you get.

This is the perfect vacation read. Whether you’ve got a late-season beach trip, family reunions, or maybe a honeymoon (*eyebrow raise/wink-wink* Erin), I’d highly recommend such a delightful, easy read!

Lou Brew Reviews: U.R.B.

While not technically its own brewery, URB is a place of legend around here. It’s Urban Chestnut’s Research Brewery, and for $1, you get to sample 3 unreleased beers and provide feedback on each one. The pours are sizeable for samples, and the questions in the survey help enhance the experience by making you think about the flavors and aromas of each sip. For $5, you can take the survey and follow up the research brews with a full draft pour of any of their beers on tap.

Leaving aside the different–yet delicious–drink options, URB is also known for its pizza. In a city where pizza is hotly debated (St. Louis-style pizza has cracker-thin crust and uses provel cheese in place of mozzarella), we have been searching for the familiar comfort of hand-tossed dough and “normal” cheese.

I fell in love with URB’s pizza. The sauce is a little spicy, and their margherita pizza is a little light on cheese for my taste (nothing a heavy-handed sprinkle of parmesan couldn’t take care of) but this is the closest I’ve found to Two Amy’s pizza in DC (which was the standard my husband and I began judging pizza against before we moved).

We had a spontaneous date night here on a Wednesday night, and it was a little crowded around the research bar when we arrived, but we were easily able to get a table after ordering a whole pizza. By the time we finished dinner and moseyed over to the research bar, it had cleared out a lot and we got seats right at the bar.

I highly recommend URB if you’re looking for a fun twist on the old “grabbing drinks” standby, for an easy date night, or if you’re just craving good pizza. You can’t go wrong at URB!

Rambling Review: The Chemical Garden Trilogy

Because of my current lack of work, I’ve had a lot more time to read. I’ve devoted a lot of this time to the Outlander series per a good friend’s insistence, but now that I’ve made it through to the fourth book, I’ve taken a break to return to the world of young adult, which I love so much.

Since the move, I’ve been staring at our beautiful bookshelf full of my beloved YA series.

And so, I thought, why search for a new book or series to get involved in, when I have so many I know are great just waiting to be re-experienced?

I know a lot of people might not re-read books. I am not one of those people. Granted, I like to let enough time pass by that I forget the minute details and get to rediscover the little things that make a story great.

This past week, I read the Chemical Garden trilogy by Lauren DeStefano. The first in the series is available on Kindle for $4.99, and you can buy the whole series for $20-23, depending on print/digital.

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The trilogy centers around Rhine, a lovely sixteen year old who’s been kidnapped and forced into marriage. Usually, marriage is the best a girl can hope for in her short life — females die at age 20, males at age 25. Rhine, however, just wants to live out her days with her twin brother, and she’s desperate to escape and return to him. The series follows her through escape attempts, adventure, budding romance, and learning all different ways to define the term “love”.

I read DeStefano’s Internment Chronicles series first — also highly recommend — before returning to her debut series. The writing in the first novel is a bit stilted at times, but I can’t say if it’s simply because she was a new author, or if it was because of the character. Sometimes the prose felt a bit distant, but that actually works for the story, since Rhine is clearly trying to distance herself from her current situation. As the story progresses and she falls deeper into the messes she and others have made, the narration is tighter, more internalized, and feels more true to who she may actually be.

As I’m sure I’ve made clear through my previous reviews, I love a good love interest. This series is particularly great at giving little snippet-views of a possible romance, without the love story overtaking the action and adventure of the actual plot. Unlike a lot of YA that has a love triangle, there isn’t an exact shape drawn between two obvious choices. Rather, much like real life, my feelings towards her “options” were fluid, rising and falling with each good and bad experience, inevitability wrapped in “what-if”s and “if only”s.

There are some great twists, and anything that might seem too coincidental I think is explained very well with enough plausibility. The ending is bittersweet, life balanced with death, joy measured through pain, and I think that might be what I like best.

 

Rambling Reviews: Secondborn

**This contains a few spoilers, though — as I’ll go into more below — nothing really felt like a “big reveal” enough to qualify protecting the details**

For July’s “Kindle First” book, I chose Secondborn by Amy Bartol. An aside — Kindle First is possibly my favorite part of being an Amazon Prime member, since I get a free book each month before it’s released to the public. It’s currently $4.99 otherwise.

I love the concept of the story: Firstborns are basically royalty, secondborns are servants and soldiers, thirdborns are illegal and therefore destroyed. Of course, Secondborn follows one such secondborn, Roselle, as she acclimates to her new life as a member of the Fates Army. Since she’s the daughter of one of the highest leaders of the society, she’s something of a celebrity, making her transition into the ranks that much harder.

Bartol’s world-building is pretty phenomenal. I love the different “trees” everyone lives in, and the imaginative technology. After finishing this book, I read that she is well-known for her fantastic worlds, and this time was no exception.

World-building aside, this book felt more like a rough first draft than anything. The relationships are hurried and there is very little depth to Roselle. I liked Hawthorne as a potential love interest, but as soon as I’d thought that, he was declaring his love and they were in this intense physical relationship that just felt strange. Then a year passes (denoted by “one year later”), in which an actual relationship could have developed more naturally between them — complete with the slow, delicious build up of more and more physical affection — and I might have felt more invested when he was suddenly ripped away from her.

She seems to attract every handsome male in her vicinity. That didn’t exactly bug me — after all, her life had been broadcast since a child, and it’s insinuated she’s very pretty — but I couldn’t tell how she felt back. There’s a lot of exposition and “telling” rather than showing, but I don’t feel like I ever really saw inside Roselle’s head.

The whole thing ends rather abruptly, in what feels like the middle of a conversation. There’s no resolution of a goal — and in retrospect, I’m not even sure what Roselle’s goals as a character were for this story. Too many questions were left unanswered, and more cropped up with such a quick ending.

All that being said, if the second book shows up as a free option, I might check it out. There’s so much potential for a great series. The characters can be fleshed out more, given actual motivations and backstory and their relationships and interactions to flow more naturally. The underlying concept of the story has potential to generate enticing plot lines. And like I said earlier, the world itself is fascinating. The first book was just too rushed and disjointed for me to recommend it.

Rambling Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood was very hard to read. Not because it was poorly written or boring — that’s not the case at all. The story was intriguing and I was invested in the narrator’s plight. The end felt like such a cliffhanger that I audibly yelled “are you serious!” which scared my husband, but then I realized there was more to the story in a new section with a different perspective (so if you hit a snag near the end, keep reading — it’s not just end of book acknowledgements!).

No, the reason this book was so hard to read was its terrifying plausibility. Most dystopian novels are set in a far off future, after wars and bombs and viruses and apocalypses have utterly changed the face of the earth and how society runs. Some dystopian novels are a chilling commentary on where the world could be headed (think: 1984), but this is so much more immediate. The changes, the leeching of power from the people — or from certain types of people — are so subtle at first, so insignificant that by the time enough people start to question things, it’s far too late.

In a lot of dystopian stories, there is one dictator or a small group of “bad guys” lording it over the masses. The majority of the people don’t agree with their leadership, but are too downtrodden and tired to fight back. In The Handmaid’s Taleplenty of people agree with the new society. There are rumors of underground movements, sure, but most people seem supportive of the new order’s ideals.

The story is both intense and detached, told by a narrator who has nearly given up on everything that mattered to her in the world before. It is both resigned and angry, rebellious and cautious, disgusted and apathetic. It is a desperate warning wrapped up in inevitable possibility.

I had to take a lot of breaks while reading this one. It isn’t something you’ll binge-read for hours or enjoy while lounging on a beach. It’s a tale best told in snippets and whispers, with long silences to digest each piece of new information. It’s heavy with real-life foreboding, but I’m so glad I read it.

Rambling Review: Garden of Thorns

Recently, I’ve been reading more “adult” books (Slaughterhouse-Five, The Handmaid’s Tale — reviews to come), modern classics that make me sound more cultured and grown up than the usual YA fiction I prefer. I do feel more well-rounded, but I’ve missed the adventure and angst and inevitable romance that all winds together into nearly every young adult novel.

Garden of Thorns by Amber Mitchell popped up on my Amazon recommendations, and I couldn’t resist. In all honesty, I was fully prepared to re-read any one of my favorites I already own, but currently they would need to be fished out of boxes, and Garden of Thorns was only $3.99 on Kindle, so I figured I’d take a chance on it.

The story is about a girl, Rose, who is part of a traveling entertainment troupe called the Garden — in which the Flowers dance and the Wilteds are punished for any infraction the Flowers make. The Gardener is cruel and abusive, and very early on we get to see just how devastating life in the Garden can be. Rose manages to escape, only to find herself in a rebellion against an emperor every bit as cruel and emotionless as the Gardener. All she wants is to free her sisters from the Garden, but first she has to prove herself worthy of the rebellion’s help.

Her growth throughout the novel is a beautiful thing. She struggles with trust issues and hope, vacillating between the two nearly constantly. Frustrating and relatable, it sometimes seems like one step forward is met with two steps back. I soared with her triumphs and screamed (internally) when she seemed to have run out of chances for success. As a reader, her fears seemed objectively ridiculous but also extremely valid at the same time. The frequent reminders of her past felt repetitive at first, but were necessary to continuously explain her hesitations.

I’m not sure if this is a stand alone novel or part of a series. Unlike most series, the ending was satisfying and didn’t hint at another story waiting to be told. I’d be perfectly happy with this as its own novel, but I can’t deny I’d love to see Rose and the others back for another adventure.

Rambling Review: The Virgin Suicides

Virgin Suicides

References to The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides kept popping up around me recently, so I decided to check out this modern classic for myself. I can’t deny I’m into darker/heavier stories like the synopsis suggests (5 sisters kill themselves within a single year) and was intrigued right off the bat by a collective narrator (the story is told by the neighborhood boys as a whole).

Because it’s a relatively slim paperback, I brought it along on vacation, intending to read it on the beach or during down-time between activities. This encouraged a lot of horrified feedback from my friends, who always ask what I’m reading. They then spent the week checking in by asking “how many girls have died now?” then following my answer up with a head shake and a “why do you read stuff like that?”  That’s how I discovered pretty much my entire group of friends consists of happy, shiny people like my husband who prefer little depth and pain in their entertainment.

Leaving aside my friends’ responses, this is not a good beach read. In the way of most classics, the story needs your attention for good chunks of time. I found myself re-reading sentences and chapters and getting frustrated because I couldn’t devote more focus to it.

The story is beautifully written. There are some of the lovely descriptions and word-pictures that I love, and the fact that it’s like the neighborhood boys have sat me down to tell me their observations adds a touch of near-innocence to a tragic experience. Rather than being a novel about suicide, it’s more of a love letter to the sisters from the boys who grew up watching them.

It is sad. The parents are misguided and in my opinion arrogant in their negligence. The novel does discuss suicide, the ways the sisters end their lives, in just enough detail to make the reader uncomfortable without turning it into a caricature. Suicide should make a person uncomfortable to read about.

But it’s also a subject that is treated with respect. Eugenides captures the bewilderment and guilt and shock and grief that lingers over those left behind. The narrator shows how suicide affects a neighborhood, the process one goes through to try to understand something no one will explain outright.

It is a heavy book. It’s tragic and inevitable and beautiful. A modern classic, indeed.