People We Meet on Vacation

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Emily Henry
Genres: Fiction, Romance
Pub. Date: May 2021 (read Mar. 2022)

So many people told me to read Beach Read, but I just had a feeling this was the one for me. I’m still planning to read Beach Read, but after a slew of enemies to lovers books recently, I really wanted to read one about friends to lovers because I had a sneaking suspicion I would really like it. And I did!

This book is a lot more subtle than some of the other romances I’ve read, but it’s the one that felt the most real to me. Poppy was a more relatable character – as sexy as the enemies to lovers trope was in books like The Love Hypothesis and The Spanish Love Deception (and as compelling as those plots were) – I do really think this is the better book. Every person I’ve ever loved has been my friend first and there’s something so lovely reading about two people that genuinely like each other. 

People We Meet on Vacation is about two friends, Alex and Poppy, and their relationship over the past 12 years. They’ve been friends for a long time and even though they live in different cities, they’ve always taken the time to travel together once a year… until something happens on their most recent trip and they don’t talk for 2 years. Poppy realizes she misses Alex and invites him to take one more trip with her, to which he agrees.

This book is subtle and I liked that about it. It’s not as quick paced as some of the other romance books I’ve read because the present day storyline is constantly interrupted to return to one of their past trips. This slowed the pacing down initially, but as you progress further into the book, you realize this friendship is not quite the relationship you thought it was. There is just as much romance in the development of their friendship, because it never really is just a friendship. Just-friends don’t bring this kind of complicated conflict into your other relationships and you can’t help but root for these two people to be together. 

I say this is a subtle book because it is also very much about loneliness and allowing people the space to say and be who they really are. Poppy and Alex recognize that love isn’t always the most important part in a relationship. Relationships are also about making the space for your partner to communicate their needs and being willing to compromise on your life together. That two individuals still need to take the time to work on their own shit before they can be what the other person needs. I felt like this had a lot more maturity and that they had the kind of solid foundation that a successful relationship would be built on.

I also liked that both characters were well developed and flawed. I really think Alex is one of the strongest love interests. To talk about romance we must acknowledge that they are primarily written by women, for women, and so the men are often a bit more fantasy than most of the men I’ve met in real life. We read romance for the escapism of it – because we are human and we want to read emotional stories about people falling in love. But so many of the men are almost so perfect in their love for the protagonist they become caricatures. Alex felt very real, like someone I could honestly fall in love with myself. He’s quiet and a bit weird. He has anxieties and he’s afraid to put himself out there. He knows what he wants, but isn’t quite sure he deserves it and recognizes the ways in which he’s not willing to compromise. 

Likewise, Poppy is chasing after something she thinks she wants without realizing that it’s really that she’s running away from something instead. We’re sold this ideal and she thinks filling her life with travel and new people will make her happy – that it will compensate for the inadequacies she felt when she was younger. We all like to think our bullies go on to make nothing of themselves, but they are just flawed people too and we are only holding ourselves back by trying to prove ourselves to them later. If you make decisions based on the way you are perceived by someone else, you are still not living for yourself. Was it unrealistic that two friends could be so blind for so long? Maybe, but these two people wanted such drastically different things that I could believe it. 

It’s also a subtly sad book that made me reflect a lot. I really wasn’t sure if we were going to get a happy ending or not. I wish the author had dedicated a bit more time to the ending because she introduced several new themes in the last 50 pages about self care and compromise, that I really would have loved to see explored further. So overall I really liked this book, perhaps even more than The Love Hypothesis. I did rate that one higher because it was so compelling and I couldn’t put it down, but I do think this is the better story. The other books I read were that fun, all-consuming love, this was gentler, but it also felt a lot more real. It’s nice to get swept up in a love story, but it’s also nice to sink into one, and that’s what I feel like I did with this one.  

The Love Hypothesis

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Ali Hazelwood
Genres: Fiction, Romance
Pub. Date: Sep. 2021 (read Jan. 2022)

The Love Hypothesis is making me re-think everything I thought I knew about reading!

I like romance – I know this about myself. But I’ve always preferred it as a side plot, originally in lengthy fantasy series. Then I got fatigued with fantasy and started reading a lot of literary fiction and historical fiction and didn’t really think about romance at all. Every now and then I stumble upon a good love story (the most recent was probably The Simple Wild, which I first read in 2018) and remember how much I do enjoy them.

The market is saturated with romance books with beautiful covers these days and I see popular books shared regularly on bookstagram and booktube (and booktok), for some reason The Love Hypothesis caught my eye. It received a lot of praise and hype in a short time, and when I found out it had a STEM setting and was basically glorified Rylo fanfic (Kylo Ren and Rey, I know right?), I was definitely intrigued. I took a look at the cover (easily saw the character resemblance) and impulsively grabbed a copy at my local indie. 

I got home and joked with my husband about how I’d actually bought a romance book. I told him I’d heard it was good and then proceeded to read the synopsis out loud, laughing because I had to admit, actually reading it, it didn’t sound very good (to me at least). But friends, I could not put this book down! I’m now questioning everything and wondering if I should get more into the romance scene, but the selection is a bit paralysing and the book blurbs always sound bad, so please give me your recommendations because I’m a total newbie and I have no idea what I like!

But let’s get into the book. I gave it 5 stars. Objectively, it is 100% not a 5 star book – there are many other books that I have rated less than 5 stars that were much better than this. But I can’t deny that this was pure joy and escapism and I was so happy the entire time I was reading it, so I think it deserves the 5 stars. We can enjoy things that are not works of art and make us feel just a little bit shallow. I have criticisms, I’ll talk about them – but let’s talk about why this was so great first.

Setting. The Love Hypothesis is set at Stanford University and features a bunch of grad students and faculty advisers and all the drama of the academic world. I have only ever been an undergrad, so I don’t know what it’s like to be a grad student, but I am a woman in STEM and I am married to someone who had a very long and painful grad student experience, so I could definitely still relate. It seems like both a respected and thankless field. Why on earth are our scientists and researchers paid so little and forced to work and move around for so long before gaining any semblance of normality? When my husband finally left academia, we were both relieved and have never once looked back.

Characters. Olive is an excellent character. I loved the demi rep in this book and I felt her to be an extremely relatable every-woman. Likewise, Adam is flawed, but you can’t help but love his sensitive side. The plot of this book is centered around the fake-dating trope and as corny and unrealistic as it was at times, it was also strangely well done and believable. Olive and Adam are funny and more than once I found myself laughing out loud at their witty banter. They’re smart characters that are very much grounded in reality – I say that because it’s obvious that Ali Hazelwood knows this world. She hasn’t fabricated it for the sake of a story, she knows it and as a result, her characters feel very genuine and organic.

Title IX. It’s been a while since I watched the documentary, The Hunting Ground, which is all about Title IX, so I’m a little fuzzy, but it’s basically the law that prohibits sex-based discrimination and harrassment in educational environments, such as universities. At first the joking about Title IX made me a little uncomfortable, but I like that Hazelwood decides to tackle sexism in academia. This is something that exists at all levels of post-secondary education, but I’ve predominantly thought of it in terms of cases like Brock Turner, where young undergrads get taken advantage of at campus parties. This tackles the inherent sexism that is built into the old-boys club of academia. 

It is not easy to be a woman in STEM. There are amazing women like Anh out there that are working to make STEM more accessible to more diverse backgrounds of people, but they are always at a disadvantage and the system is still always working against them at every level. One of the stats that has always made me saddest in my own profession (engineering), is that while the number of female graduates is up in certain disciplines, it doesn’t carry through to the profession and many women leave within the first 5 years of their career. It also doesn’t speak to the diversity of women entering the profession. Hazelwood brings depth to the story with this plotline and it made it more meaningful than just another romance.

It’s a fun and sexy book. It’s predictable, but for me, it had the perfect amount of banter, slow burn, and spice. Not unlike Olive, I’m not really into hook-ups, but spending time with people I trust, and I loved how their friendship developed, it felt natural and authentic. We really get to know both of the characters. It definitely has some spice (I know that’s important for a lot of readers), but in moderation, which is how I personally prefer it. The story builds up to a natural climax, in more ways than one 😉 without being overly indulgent (Sarah J Maas, I’m looking at you). It was cute.

So what didn’t I like? Mostly minor things that I can overlook, but I still think it’s important to acknowledge some of the shortcomings. As I said, this story got it’s start as Reylo fanfic. I don’t really have a problem with that, I’m a bit of a Reylo fan myself and it’s what enticed me to pick up the book, so I don’t fault Hazelwood for that. After reading it, I don’t actually think this is Reylo fanfic, it’s not the vibe I got from the story. The vibe I did get is that Adam Carleson IS Adam Driver. His appearance is described on many occasions and he is Adam Driver right down to his dimples. I wish she had at least given him another name besides Adam to make it a little bit less obvious. 

Which brings me to my next point that Olive is not Rey. In fact, Olive’s appearance is barely described anywhere in the novel. We gather that she is 5’8″ and pale with freckles, but beyond being described as slim, I can’t recall ever getting a description of her hair, face, or eyes. I think she’s written more as a stand-in character, for both the author and any woman that finds Adam Driver dreamy (ahem, me included, lol). I’m not sure it’s a bad thing, but it just made her a bit forgettable to me. Which I didn’t want because she is a strong character and I don’t want her to be a Bella or Ana type stand-in. A minor criticism, but I just wanted the characters to be Olive and Adam unto themselves, not Adam Driver and any stand-in white girl. 

My last complaint involves getting into some spoilers, so don’t read ahead unless you’ve already read the book. 

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My last complaint is about how the real Title IX incident is dealt with. It’s upsetting when Tom comes on to Olive. I thought he was a little over-the-top villainous in that I thought Tom would probably be smart enough to be a bit more subtle with his intentions until a more opportune moment, but I can’t deny the truth in the interaction. I didn’t fault Olive for not wanting to pursue anything or report him. Women are rarely believed and get pulled through the mud for it. At the time, she had no other prospects for her work and potentially would tank her career if she reported him. But once she decided she was going to do something about it, I was disappointed that she let Adam speak for her.

Other people rarely intervene on behalf of sexual harassment victims. Sure it happens and how wonderful to have a powerful ally, but I would have loved to see smart and plucky Olive take Tom Benton down all on her own – be her own saviour. Adam could have supported her, but together her and Anh could easily have made it happen too and it would have given her a lot more agency as a kick-ass female scientist. But I can overlook this shortcoming as well because it is exhausting to always have the burden fall on minorities. It’s why we need more allies. So I can accept that Olive could have gotten Tom fired on her own, but that it’s also great that she didn’t have to.

To conclude, the fact that I’m able to write a review this long about a 300 page romance novel is telling. I did love it and I’m not really sure where I’ll go from here. I may try and seek out some more romance novels, or I may just move on and remember this one fondly, only time will tell!

Grief & Loss & Love & Sex

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Lara Margaret Marjerrison
Genres: Poetry
Pub. date: Nov. 2019 (read Nov. 2019)

Woohoo! First person on goodreads to rate and review this book!

I’ve been going through a bit of a poetry phase and stumbled across this anthology in the Poetry section at Chapters. I had no idea it was a brand new release, but I liked the premise of it and decided to buy a copy. It’s only 50 pages long, so I read through it in 2 sittings.

Grief & Loss & Love & Sex is about all of the above, but mostly grief. Lara’s sister passed away by suicide and this is really her response to dealing with that grief. She includes a prologue about the book and her sister that was really moving, before getting into some of the poetry she wrote about how she was impacted and affected by her sister’s death. I really like her style of poetry. It’s not too dense to read and I like the spoken word feel of it. It has a good beat to it and I like that much of it rhymed. I feel like not that much poetry rhymes these days, which is totally fine, but I appreciate clever and well written prose.

In my opinion, most of the anthology focused on grief and loss, but Marjerrison does start exploring themes of love in the last third. Personally I didn’t find this poetry quite as engaging, but since this anthology very much reads like a personal, healing journey, I don’t think it really matters if it didn’t pull me in as much. There’s a strong emotional theme present throughout the entire anthology and I really do hope that the writing of it helped the author to heal. A great debut – very moving.

The Storied Life of AJ Fikry

Rating:
Author: Gabrielle Zevin
Genres: Fiction
Pub date: Apr. 2014 (read Apr. 2019)

I really put off writing my review for this book, so it’s probably going to be a bit short since the book is no longer fresh in my mind.

Overall The Storied Life of AJ Fikry was a little disappointing for me. Not because it wasn’t good or I didn’t like, but because so many of my goodreads friends have rated the book so high that I went into it with really high expectations, and the story just didn’t quite live up to those expectations. I definitely liked the book, hence the 3 star rating, but it’s not going to make my favourites list.

Gabrielle Zevin has an interesting writing style – I do have an unread copy of one of her other books, Young Jane Young, on my shelf, so I would like to pick that one up soon. This one reminded me a little bit of A Man Called Ove. I wasn’t sure what to think of a lot of the characters initially, but ended up growing to appreciate them all, minor characters included.

It is an interesting book. It’s definitely more of a character driven book than a plot driven book, which I generally prefer, and it was sometimes hard to know where the story was going. I like books that can take the mundane from everyday life and make it fascinating. I really liked AJ Fikry’s character. He’s suffering from the loss of his wife and then loses his fortune, so things are really not looking great for him, but I loved his no nonsense approach to life and the logic through which he ended up welcoming Maya into his life. So I liked that I never really knew where the story was going and that it never really followed any predictable narratives. For example, when Maya showed up, I was like, “Oh, this is going to be a Fredrik Backman type book where Maya opens AJ up to love again”, which she did, but it was never really the focus of the book and the plot went to some places I wasn’t expecting.

As a book lover, it’s hard not to like a story about other book lovers and I liked the way that AJs bookstore became a sort of community centre for the people living on the island. The bookstore wasn’t really doing well after the death of AJ’s wife because people’s pity for AJ kept them out of the store, but after he adopts Maya, I guess the community felt that AJ might need their support and his bookstore became more of a community space as his customers starting joining book clubs.

To conclude, it was a nice story about community and how sometimes misfortune and the mundane can actually end up changing your life.

What the Wind Knows

Rating:
Author: Amy Harmon
Genres: Historical Fiction, Time Travel
Pub. date: Mar. 2019 (read Mar. 2019)

Amy Harmon is such a great writer. She’s written a ton of books, most of which I haven’t read, but I’m pretty sure she started off writing romance. Then she wrote a 2-book fantasy series (The Bird and the Sword), which I really enjoyed, and lately she’s been writing historical novels. So overall I’m pretty impressed with her scope of work and that she’s not afraid to dabble in other genres. I personally love her writing style – it definitely lends itself well to romance because it is a wistful kind of writing – but it really worked well in this book.

What the Wind Knows is a bit of a genre-bending book. I’ve been calling it “Irish Outlander”, because that’s pretty much the closest descriptor I can think of, but it definitely has a very different style than Outlander and that’s really where the comparison ends. This story is initially set in 2001 and focuses on 30 year old author, Anne Gallagher. Anne was raised in America by her grandfather, Eoin, and despite their Irish heritage and the fact the her grandfather grew up in Ireland, she has never been there. When her grandfather passes away, he requests that she finally travel to Ireland to spread his ashes on the loch next to where he grew up.

Eoin was Anne’s only real family and she is heartbroken at losing him. When she rows out into the lake, she finds herself transported to another time, 1921. Her grandfather is just 6 years old and laments the loss of his parents in the Irish uprising. Anne is mistaken for his mother and becomes part of the family. Her reunion with her grandfather provides little incentive to return to future without him, but life in Ireland in 1921 is undeniably difficult as Ireland fights to be free of Great Britain and become her own Republic.

What the Wind Knows is a bit of a slow burn novel, but I loved it. The characters are well realized and the setting and time are enthralling. Books like this are the reason I keep returning to historical fiction. I really wish more authors would branch out from the WWI and WWII fiction, because there is so much other great history to be told in other regions and eras. I should absolutely know more about Ireland’s history than I do. I grew up in Newfoundland and Ireland has had a huge influence on my own history, so I should really know more about it. I knew very little about the uprising and Ireland’s fight for independence and this was a really great introduction. I feel like there’s so much more to be learned, but it does a good job at introducing you to the hardships that existed in Ireland at this time and how Ireland descended into it’s own civil war in the 1920’s.

While this story is fiction (I mean, it has time travel, so no duh), it does feature some pretty well-known Irish historical figures, the most predominant of which is Michael Collins, who signed a treaty with England to give Ireland independent status, while still being a part of the British dominion. Previously the Irish had been united against the English, but the treaty marked a split between the Irish people – those who supported the progress made by Collins in the fight for independence, and those who demanded a full Republic and split from the Brits.

This history provides the backdrop for the story, but at its core this is still a love story. After the death of his parents, little Eoin was looked after by their good friend, doctor Thomas Smith. It is in Smith’s home that Eoin grows up and Anne and Thomas develop a close relationship. Anne had done a fair bit of research about Ireland for a new book she was planning to write, so she is distraught by the history that she knows will come to pass in Ireland and whether it is in her capacity to change it. She is also acutely aware that she doesn’t not truly understand or fit in in this time and sometimes feels a pull from the loch to return to her time.

I think Harmon did a great job at capturing the history and the two sides of this conflict, but she also writes a damn good love story. I love Outlander, but it’s really more of a trashy Scottish romp than Romance with a capital R. This book is much more soft spoken and I really grew to love all the characters. There’s nothing too surprising in the book, yet I still never knew where the plot was going to go. The writing is dreamy, but there’s still a real tension between the characters that makes you both excited and nervous for them. Time travel is cyclical in nature and because Anne exists in both present day and the past, the reader doesn’t know which came first and whether one will negate the other. If this love story didn’t exist in Eoin’s history, then can it possibly exist in his future? You fall so in love with the characters, but fear for them because you don’t know whether their love is destined to survive.

Overall, I loved the book and the ending. Beautiful writing, beautiful setting, beautiful characters!