Books With Dresses on the Front: an Overview

Okay, I don’t really have the right to that title since I read exactly 2 of these books this week (and several previously, all from the Luxe and Bright Young Things series). But I find them hard to resist at the bookstore. That is some damn good marketing.

As I review books you’ll find a few of things about me:
1. I’m a sucker for tough female characters
2. I have a low tolerance for self-indulgent literature (although I don’t knock it, it’s just not my thing)
3. I love it when a book challenges me
4. I get really moody when books ask questions and don’t answer them

Before I get to reviewing, I’ll say one more thing: I loved every Luxe book. They were indulgent enough to be fun but not so much that it felt like fanfiction. The girls had agency. The covers were pretty. And the writing was passable. That’s what I was looking for when I picked up Selection and Starcrossed.

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The Selection

I chewed through this baby in a matter of hours – first at the airport, and then on a plane. It was more of a snack than a meal, and I finished it before I could figure out whether I liked the taste or not.

But like most airplane food, it left a bad taste in my mouth. Simply put, this book was bad, and not forgivably.

First of all, as many Goodreads reviewers put more eloquently than I’m going to, the world was silly. This is a classic case of “less is more”, in that less fear mongering about Chinese and Russian invasion would have been a much more palatable read. When your world building makes a group feel unwelcome, you’ve messed up. I’m neither Chinese nor Russian,  but reading the world’s history had me chewing on my lip. Imagine if I was? No thanks.

How could she have done better? Be like most Dystopian writers and keep it vague. Nuance is way more powerful than name dropping real countries. Drawing from real life can be a useful tool for a writer, but it has to be done with enough subtlety that you don’t shatter the reader’s suspension of disbelief. When things get too real, we start to expect more from you. (See: The Hunger Games. Also see: Queen of the Tearling, to a lesser degree. Also see: Rowling’s disastrous integration of Indigenous culture. If JKR can mess this up, anyone can.)

Aside from the fear mongery undertones, the other thing I found unforgivable was the messed up discussion of privilege. Including a caste system was questionable at best considering that is an actual system used currently in parts of the world which Cass is not from,  and she had to tread carefully to do it respectfully. She did not. America was a caste higher than her boyfriend, Aspen, and America’s outright refusal to understand his circumstances was written as him being insecure about his masculinity, feeling like he should provide for her because he was a man. That’s a real problem that many men experience, and I won’t invalidate them by saying masculinity doesn’t come with harmful expectations. But that’s certainly not all there is to poverty. A relationship between a five and a six would be a much more complicated thing than Cass seems to believe.

Then America meets Prince Maxon, and explains to him that people are hungry. His response is to open some soup kitchens immediately. Gee, didn’t realize world hunger was this simple. Why haven’t we done this in real life? Hop to it.

Okay, that’s slightly unfair. I believe Cass meant well, by having Maxon make an effort to help the impoverished people he rules over. But here’s the thing. If politics aren’t your thing, and you’re not prepared to face your own privilege head on, don’t write a book centered around politics and privilege. The results are weak at best, problematic at worst. Okay? Okay.

I can see why this book reached the level of popularity that it did, having said all that. Despite being stubbornly un-challenging and refusing to tackle the issues it presents, the concept is decadent and the story that unfolds is harmless fun. I still can’t believe that history lesson made it through editing, though.

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Starcrossed

Okay, now that I’ve ranted and raved, I’m going to admit something that will forever damage my integrity: I have never read the Twilight saga.

Believe what you will about the Twilight saga, but you can’t deny that this was world-changing literature. If you do, I’ll defend the saga to the death, even though I couldn’t get through the first book. There’s a lot in those books for us to interact with, and isn’t that the entire point of books? That’s why I’m shamefaced in admitting that I never pushed through book 1, not even for a taste of what everyone else was talking about.

Why am I suddenly going on about Twilight, you ask? Because Starcrossed was, from my limited knowledge of Twilight, basically Twilight, if Bella had been a vampire from the start and there was no Jacob. Observe:

  • Helen goes to school in a Nowhere town where Nothing happens.
  • Helen lives alone with her dad who she calls by his first name.
  • A strange and beautiful family comes to town, and they don’t seem quite human. A group of them begins attending Helen’s high school.

Does this feel very, very familiar? Anyway, it’s not really a problem, just something fun that I noticed. If you’re a Twilight fan, you should probably read this; you’ll like it.

This book was higher quality than Selection, but as I read I couldn’t help but slowly lose patience with the story I was being told. It felt too self-indulgent. It has a horrifyingly large number of similarities to a badfic I’ve basically memorized, Forbiden Fruit: The Tempation of Edward Cullen. That is a famously terrible Twilight fanfiction about a girl who moves to Forks and discovers she’s a vampire from her mysterious missing parent, can’t have sex with Ewdard or bad things will happen, and kills a rapist accidentally with her powers. (These are all things that happen in Starcrossed. Okay, sorry, I’ll stop.)

In comparison to Selection: More research was done. More thought was put into the story. The themes carried through. The characters developed. The lovers had chemistry. This is simply better writing, and I appreciate that! But the story didn’t have enough stakes and challenges for me to feel invested in the series, so I probably won’t read the sequel.

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