February 22—in review

I’ve been wanting to start a blog series featuring books I read each month and talking about what I think works in them and why. Reading is the best way to learn the craft of fiction, but reading for fun isn’t the same as reading to learn. So this series will be a place where I can record what I’m taking away from these books, and hopefully you can take something away from them, too!

I read five books in February, which, considering that we moved to another country this month, isn’t too bad. Since I’m sticking to books that I think “work,” I’m going to look at four of them today:

A History of Wild Places by Shea Ernshaw
Weather Girl by Rachel Lynn Solomon
Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert
Gallant by V.E. Schwab

*I try to keep these as spoiler-free as possible, but sometimes that’s unavoidable if you’re talking about craft elements and examples. So, minor spoilers ahead!

A History of Wild Places by Shea Ernshaw

Travis Wren has a unique ability to find missing people. He’s hired to find Maggie St. James, author of dark children’s books, who went missing five years ago. But he soon goes missing as well, and three people living in a reclusive community try to figure out what happened to Maggie and Travis.

I’m always fascinated by books that are “quiet” (i.e., not a whole lot of external plot) but still compelling, still page-turning.

The core mystery—what happened to Maggie St. James, and Travis Wren?—is what kept me reading, even when things got a bit slow in the middle. This book is a great example of how to maintain tension and suspense throughout by having this overarching question, this story question, always in the back of your reader’s mind, and revealing details and clues in bits, slowly adding to final answer.

There was also this pervasive sense of dread throughout the novel, which I loved, and overall it was beautifully written. The evocative, extremely sensory prose helped immerse me in this world.

Weather Girl by Rachel Lynn Solomon

Ari Abrams, Seattle meteorologist, loves her job. She doesn’t love her work environment, however, made toxic by the fact that her bosses, Torrance and Seth, have been divorced for five years but can’t stop fighting. After a truly bonkers showdown at the office holiday party, Ari hatches a plan with sports reporter Russell Barringer to help their bosses find love again—in each other.

Yes, just like the Parent Trap, except instead of twin girls, it’s office buddies-to-lovers.

I read Rachel Lynn Solomon’s The Ex Talk last year and loved it so much, so I was really looking forward to Weather Girl, released in January 2022. While it didn’t have the chemistry of The Ex Talk, I did love Ari and Russell. They felt like real people with real problems, and I was rooting for them the whole time. And I loved Weather Girl‘s discussion of depression. Not something you’d expect for a romcom, but it worked. I prefer my romance/romcoms with a healthy balance of serious, real-life struggles (like mental illness) and joy, and this novel did that really well.

Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert

Dani Brown doesn’t do relationships—unless you count friends with benefits. The problem is, her last FWB situation ended when her friend caught feelings, so Dani’s been SOL for too long. Zafir Ansari, former rugby star, current campus security guard, runs a sports charity for kids that’s not getting the traction he wants. When a photo of Dani and Zaf goes viral, they both see an opportunity: Zaf can harness his new internet fame as publicity for his charity, and Dani can get a new FWB. No feelings need to be caught. Until they are, of course.

I’ve only read two Talia Hibbert books (so far)—the first one in the Brown sisters series, Get a Life, Chloe Brown, and this one—but I’m convinced she can do no wrong. She writes characters and their emotional journeys SO WELL. They feel so real, they practically leap off the page. All her characters’ GMCs (goals, motivations, and conflicts) are solid, which make for realistic and believable characters, and I love how she writes very un-stereotypical male characters in particular. Zaf is a romantic—he reads romance novels! It makes for a fresh reading experience. And the Brown sisters are amazing. They are so voicey (I haven’t read the third book in the series about the third sister, Eve, but I bet she’s just as voicey), so funny, so real sounding. I need to connect with the characters in order to care, in order to read/finish a book, and Hibbert makes it so easy to connect with her characters.

p.s. this book is also extremely steamy, so just know that going into it!

Gallant by V.E. Schwab

Gallant is one of those books that I actually recommend not reading much about before diving in. I don’t even think I read the description before requesting it on NetGalley; V.E. Schwab is just an auto-read for me.

And it absolutely did not disappoint. I finished Gallant two days ago and I’m still processing it. It’s definitely going to be one I reread and take copious notes on to glean everything I can about craft.

This was an incredible Gothic novel. Loads of atmosphere, pervasive dread; I could practically hear the bleakness of it. Schwab’s books are masterclasses in worldbuilding, littering details here and there, never overwhelming with info-dumps or pages of telling. It’s so smooth and seemingly effortless (though, as a writer, I know it absolutely is not effortless) yet evokes such clear images.

Olivia, our protagonist, is mute. When I realized this, I admit I was concerned to see how it would play out, as you cut out a lot of dialogue if your protagonist can’t speak. But of course, in Schwab’s masterful hands, it worked. I’m thinking it worked because the point of view was a little distant, so we weren’t so entrenched in Olivia’s head the whole time. These kinds of choices by an author fascinate me, and it’s something I’ll be revisiting and studying to understand better.

The emotional range I felt while reading this was impressive. Dread throughout (necessary when reading a Gothic novel), then I felt truly hopeless during the dark moment—I could not see how Olivia was going to get out of it, but she did in a way that I never saw coming but that was inevitable. Brilliantly crafted. And I cried at the end, and they have a saying in publishing: if you cry, you buy.

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