Discussion: Name that genre! And…does it matter?

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes get genre-burned. I’ll pick up a book, thinking it’s one thing, and then be disappointed when it turns out to be something else. It’s not that the something else isn’t good, or even that I didn’t like the book. It’s that it wasn’t what I was expecting. And while I sometimes welcome the unexpected, like with a juicy plot twist, I find myself wishing sometimes that the book world as a whole — bookstores, bloggers, even authors sometimes — would try to be a tad more accurate with genre labeling.

Also, let me just throw this out there: Young Adult is not a genre. Nor is Middle Grade, Adult, or New Adult. Those are audiences. They encompass the age demographic a book is targeting. But they don’t tell you a thing about what the book is about, other than the relative age of the characters (give or take a few decades, in the case of Adult).

So let’s talk just a minute about genres, what defines them, and which ones tend to have an identity crisis.

These are highlights from the Goodreads definitions. Sometimes it’s just easier than trying to type it all out myself.

FantasyFantasy is a genre that uses magic and other supernatural forms as a primary element of plot, theme, and/or setting. Fantasy is generally distinguished from science fiction and horror by the expectation that it steers clear of technological and macabre themes, respectively, though there is a great deal of overlap between the three.

Science FictionScience fiction is a broad genre of fiction that often involves speculations based on current or future science or technology. Science fiction differs from fantasy in that, within the context of the story, its imaginary elements are largely possible within scientifically established or scientifically postulated laws of nature (though some elements in a story might still be pure imaginative speculation).

DystopianDystopia is a form of literature that explores social and political structures. It is a creation of a nightmare world – unlike its opposite, Utopia, which is an ideal world. Dystopia is often characterized by an authoritarian or totalitarian form of government. It often features different kinds of repressive social control systems, a lack or total absence of individual freedoms and expressions, and a state of constant warfare or violence. Many novels combine both Dystopia and Utopia, often as a metaphor for the different directions humanity can take in its choices, ending up with one of the two possible futures.

RomanceAccording to the Romance Writers of America, “Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending.” Both the conflict and the climax of the novel should be directly related to that core theme of developing a romantic relationship, although the novel can also contain subplots that do not specifically relate to the main characters’ romantic love.

Historical FictionHistorical fiction presents a story set in the past, often during a significant time period. In historical fiction, the time period is an important part of the setting and often of the story itself. Historical fiction may include fictional characters, well-known historical figures or a mixture of the two.

HorrorHorror fiction is fiction in any medium intended to scare, unsettle, or horrify the audience. Historically, the cause of the “horror” experience has often been the intrusion of a supernatural element into everyday human experience. Since the 1960s, any work of fiction with a morbid, gruesome, surreal, or exceptionally suspenseful or frightening theme has come to be called “horror”.

ContemporaryContemporary literature is literature with its setting generally after World War II.

ParanormalParanormal books involve unusual experiences that lack a scientific explanation. Some popular subjects in paranormal books are supernatural creatures, ESP, clairvoyance, ghosts, UFOs, telepathy, and psychics.

SteampunkSteampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction and speculative fiction that came into prominence in the 1980s and early 1990s. The term denotes works set in an era or world where steam power is still widely used—usually the 19th century, and often Victorian era England—but with prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy, such as fictional technological inventions like those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, or real technological developments like the computer occurring at an earlier date.

These are just some of the biggies. There’s tons of genres and subgenres out there, and often authors like to mash them up. For example, romance can be incorporated into nearly all of these genres, which gives you Historical Romance, Paranormal Romance, etc. I think one of the reasons that genres get so muddled is that they’re not mutually exclusive at all. Contemporary is anything that takes place after World War II? Well, that could encompass pretty much everything (except Historical), couldn’t it? And obviously there’s tons of crossover between Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror/Paranormal.

I think the problem happens when we get these main categories confused.  I think the problem is twofold:

1) Certain genres are really popular, and everyone wants their book (or their client’s book, or their friend’s book) to be the next Big Thing. So they say it fits the genre, when in reality, it doesn’t. (I’m looking at you, Dystopian Fiction.)

2) Lots of books are really hard to classify, because the authors have mixed a bunch of genres together in a delicious cocktail of imagination. It’s a bit more understandable how these get confused.

So what’s the trick in figuring out how to classify what you’re reading? Just ask yourself a few questions:

1) What’s the setting? Is it past, present, future, or a made-up world? Is it based in reality, or could it plausibly happen in our reality, or is it in no way related to our reality? Does magic factor into it? Science? Is it based on a historical event that actually happened, or a historical event that might have happened if things were different?

2) If it is the future, what shaped the world? Was it a cataclysmic event? Government conspiracy? Aliens? Magic? Technological advancement? Just because it’s the future doesn’t automatically make it sci-fi or dystopian or post-apocalyptic. Look at why the world is the way it is, and that’s a big clue.

3) What’s the conflict? Is it about whether or not Jim and Sally will get together, or is it about whether or not Jim will save Sally’s a ghost, or is it about whether or not Jim will discover that he’s really a prince and the only one who can free Sally from the dragon? Granted, Jim and Sally may get together in all of these scenarios, but it’s only the main conflict in one of them.

Am I alone in caring about this? I’m not sure. Maybe you don’t care how something’s labeled; a good book is a good book. So what if you were expecting dystopian and got sci-fi instead? Or you wanted steampunk but wound up reading historical fiction? What’s the big deal?

But if you’re like me, it’s kind of like ice cream flavors. If I’m in the mood for chocolate and I get strawberry, I’m going to be disappointed. I like strawberry. Sometimes, all I want in the whole world is strawberry. But if I’m in the mood for chocolate, strawberry won’t cut it.

Here’s some examples of books I’ve seen miscategorized (a lot):

The Dark Unwinding by Sharon Cameron. I’ve heard this book described as Steampunk and Paranormal, but really it’s just Historical Fiction. The automatons in the story are things that actually existed during that time period (you can ask Sharon. It’s fascinating), and there’s no supernatural elements that defy scientific explanation.

What’s Left of Me by Kat Zhang. This one always gets called Dystopian or Sci-Fi. But really, if you look close, it’s neither. It’s a modern alternate reality. So really, it doesn’t fit into any of the above categories. Broadly, it can go under the Speculative Fiction umbrella, but none of the other terms really fit. So there’s really little wonder why bookstores want to label it as something else.

Defiance by C.J. Redwine. This book is a cornucopia of so many genres, it’s easy to see why people can’t seem to label it. I’ve actually had a few discussions with C.J. about what to call this book, and even she is at a bit of a loss. I’ve heard it called Steampunk, Dystopian, Fantasy, and Sci-Fi. It’s marketed as Fantasy Adventure, but there’s no magic (although there is a blind wingless subterranean dragon). What it actually is, I believe, is a Post-Apocalyptic Adventure. I think.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs. I always see this book on the Horror shelf, and it’s just not. It’s not designed to scare or horrify. It’s about magical powers and adventure. It’s Fantasy.

How about you? Do you long to sneak into bookstores and reshelve the books to more accurately reflect what’s in them? Or do you figure, hey, I don’t care why someone picked up the book, as long as they’re reading it? What books do you see commonly misclassified, and do you care? 

Review: Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins (@naturallysteph)

I’ll be honest. I’ve put off reading this book for a while because, much like the Young Boy in The Princess Bride, I feared it was “a kissing book.” Mostly because of the title. And while I don’t mind some kissing in my books — you know, shoved in between the explosions and the dragons — I didn’t think I was really going to be into a YA contemporary centered around kissing.

But then many, many, many people told me that I needed to read it. And I think the straw that broke the camel’s back was this Twitter conversation where C.J. Redwine bullied me into reading it. (Okay, maybe “bullied” is too harsh, since all she did was use ALL CAPS on Twitter, and I am a pushover).

So I checked it out of the library. And I tried to ignore the cover, because the cover makes me think it’s a kissing book. Also, I don’t like the Eiffel Tower.

I know.  I know.

Anyway. I am happy to report that while there most certainly is kissing in this book, it is not “a kissing book,” and it is indeed quite enjoyable.

ALL THE PEOPLE WERE RIGHT.

The Plot (from Goodreads)

Anna is looking forward to her senior year in Atlanta, where she has a great job, a loyal best friend, and a crush on the verge of becoming more. Which is why she is less than thrilled about being shipped off to boarding school in Paris – until she meets Etienne St. Clair: perfect, Parisian (and English and American, which makes for a swoon-worthy accent), and utterly irresistible. The only problem is that he’s taken, and Anna might be, too, if anything comes of her almost-relationship back home. As winter melts into spring, will a year of romantic near – misses end with the French kiss Anna – and readers – have long awaited?

My Thoughts

Reasons I wasn’t sure if this book would appeal to me:

1) It sounds like a cheating book. I hate cheating books.

2) It takes place in Paris. I don’t like Paris. I know, I’m weird, but when I visited Paris, I just didn’t like it. For whatever reason. I don’t know. I just don’t like it.

3) The summary uses the phrase “swoon-worthy,” which makes me cringe. Seriously. Is this anyone’s honest reaction when they hear a British accent?

I should hope not. It is overly dramatic, and inaccurate. You know what’s swoon-worthy? Finding out you just won the Publisher’s Clearing House. Finding out that a loved one’s cancer is gone. Discovering that a loved one you thought was dead is actually alive.

Not a British accent.

HOWEVER.

None of my problems with this book turned out to actually be problems with this book. Which was a pleasant surprise.

I loved Anna. First off, Anna also kind of hates Paris, and thus I felt a kinship with her. She also is socially awkward and goes to painstaking and impractical lengths to keep from coming in contact with other humans, and I was like, YES. I can relate to this!

And then I also liked her friends. So often in books, I wind up liking the protagonist and then hating their friends, and then wondering why they’re friends in the first place. Not so in this book. They had a natural friend dynamic, where every member of the group had a distinct personality and role to play, and you could see why they would all have gravitated toward each other.

Of course, the majority of the plot circles around her relationship with Etienne St. Clair, and her struggle to determine how she feels when she knows he has a girlfriend and she has a maybe-something-or-other back in Atlanta. I was prepared for this to be extremely irritating, either because their friendship wouldn’t feel like a real friendship, or because one of them was going to cheat. And I just can’t root for cheaters. Period.

But. It wasn’t irritating. Or at least, not irritating in a way that kept me from enjoying the book. I was irritated alongside Anna. She berated herself for looking for hidden meaning in his actions, and I could completely sympathize. And while there were a few times I just wanted to throttle St. Clair (who, while not a cheater, was a monumentally crappy boyfriend on several occasions), he never crossed that point-of-no-return line where I simply would not be able to hold out hope for him and Anna anymore, because I’d be too busy thinking he was scum.

I liked that their friendship was real. They were comfortable, their personalities were complementary, and they just worked well together. One of my favorite chapters was their back-and-forth holiday email exchanges, which is normally one of my least favorite book gimmicks. But their banter seemed natural and easy, and I enjoyed it.

Anyway. I could keep talking about this book and how much fun it was and how I loved Anna’s snarky yet awkwardly endearing inner monologue and how happy it made me to read about friendships that felt real and a friendship-turned-romance that didn’t feel forced. Or I could stop talking and you could just go read it. Which you should.

Content Guide: Contains profanity, under-age drinking, implied sexual activity

Review: Pushing the Limits by Katie McGarry (@KatieMcGarry @HarlequinTeen)

Received an advance digital copy from the publisher via NetGalley

If I’m not careful, I’m going to have to admit I like reading Contemporaries. Which just seems weird. I mean, I’m a fantasy/sci-fi gal. I like when things blow up and shoot lasers and travel through time and battle monsters. What is up with me liking books lately that are all about relatively normal high school students? I’m having a bookish identity crisis, people.

But with Pushing the Limits by Katie McGarry, I found yet another well-written and riveting contemporary that I simply could not put down. Really. I tried.

The Plot (from Goodreads)

“No one knows what happened the night Echo Emerson went from popular girl with jock boyfriend to gossiped-about outsider with “freaky” scars on her arms. Even Echo can’t remember the whole truth of that horrible night. All she knows is that she wants everything to go back to normal.But when Noah Hutchins, the smoking-hot, girl-using loner in the black leather jacket, explodes into her life with his tough attitude and surprising understanding, Echo’s world shifts in ways she could never have imagined. They should have nothing in common. And with the secrets they both keep, being together is pretty much impossible.

Yet the crazy attraction between them refuses to go away. And Echo has to ask herself just how far they can push the limits and what she’ll risk for the one guy who might teach her how to love again.”

My Thoughts

Okay, the synopsis sounds hokey. Maybe you don’t think so, but I do. Bad boy reaches out to the popular girl so that she can learn to love again? Um, no. Truth be told, I’m not exactly sure why I requested this book, because I think the synopsis sounds hokey. But I’m glad I overcame that (for whatever reason), because it is not hokey.

From the first page, a counseling session between Echo, her father and stepmother, and her therapist, Mrs. Collins (who I LOVE, by the way), I was completely engrossed in this story. Echo is a complex and well-developed character, and we find out right from the beginning that she suffers from traumatic memory loss, that she deals with tremendous grief over the death of her brother, that she has all sorts of authority issues and trust issues, and that she’s smart. And unlike a lot of books that claim the main character is smart but the character never actually talks or thinks or acts like a smart person, Echo actually thinks intelligently. She’s logical. She’s quick. She’s witty. She made me like her, despite her myriad of issues and struggles.

Then you meet Noah, another case of Mrs. Collins. Noah has been in the foster system ever since his parents died in a fire after his freshman year of high school. Since then, he’s been labeled a “bad influence” and cut off from his young brothers. And while Noah is also a smart cookie, he reacts understandably — he decides to become the bad influence everyone thinks him to be, without really thinking through the consequences. As a reader, I could see that he wasn’t really doing himself any favors there, but Katie McGarry does a fantastic job getting inside Noah’s head so you can really understand how he became the way he is.

Partially through the interference of Mrs. Collins, Echo and Noah wind up thrown together, and although they aren’t each others’ biggest fans at first, they slowly grow to see all that they have in common, and ultimately get together (which I don’t consider a spoiler, since it’s on the cover).

However, unlike many other contemporary teen romances, the romance in Pushing the Limits is not the central focus of the book (Echo and Noah actually get together around the 50% point). Although my emotions were pulled every which way by the romance, the main focus is trying to get Echo and Noah to both cope with the trauma in their lives and move past it. Echo needs to remember what happened on that night two years ago when her mother senselessly attacked her. Noah has to come to terms with how he fits into the lives of his brothers, who he is only allowed to see rarely, and how to determine what is best for them. Both stories tackle difficult subject matter admirably (Noah’s scenes with his brothers made me cry on more than one occasion), and both resolved in a satisfying and realistic manner.

There’s a lot of secondary characters in the book, and while none are developed as thoroughly as Echo and Noah, they all had their own voices and personalities, and I loved reading about how the different relationships worked. My favorites were Noah’s foster brother Isaiah, and the aforementioned Mrs. Collins, who Katie McGarry somehow made me love even while viewing her through the eyes of Echo and Noah, neither of whom really liked her.

The narrative uses the alternating POVs of both Echo and Noah, and each had their own distinct voice. They thought completely differently, and even if their names were never mentioned in the narrative, I would have been able to follow who was speaking when. I thought it was a great use of dual POV, and I was fully invested in both characters.

There were times when some of the dialogue felt a bit forced, or some of the descriptions were a bit unrealistic. For example, according to Noah, Echo smells like hot cinnamon rolls all the time, and tastes like warm sugar. I get that maybe she’s really into the “Warm Vanilla Sugar” scent at Bath & Body Works (because seriously, it smells so good), but unless she’s constantly licking frosting (which she isn’t), I’m not sure how that scent is translating to taste for him.

And then there was Noah constantly referring to Echo as “my siren.” I get that he thought she was irresistible, but I kind of doubt a tattooed, stoner “bad boy” would actually think the words “my siren” every time he sees this girl. They’re minor things, but they took me out of the story just a tad.

That aside, I still really enjoyed this book. I didn’t intend to devour it the way I did, but I couldn’t stop reading. I only got 4 hours of sleep the night I finished it because my bedtime came and went and I couldn’t put the book down. If you’re a fan of contemporary romances that tackle some serious issues, I highly recommend Pushing the Limits.

Content guide: Contains profanity, mentions of child abuse, drug and alcohol use by minors, sexual situations

Review: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (@realjohngreen @duttonbooks)

If you follow any book blogs that are not my book blog, you’ve probably heard that John Green is the best thing to happen in the world of books since Gutenberg. At least that’s the way I understood it. And I wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about, since I’d never read a John Green book.

So I decided to remedy this problem by checking out his newest book, The Fault in Our Stars. All I knew was that it was about kids with cancer, and it was supposedly heartbreaking and life-changing.

The Plot

The Fault in Our Stars is the story of Hazel, a 16-year-old 3-year survivor of Stage IV thyroid cancer. Hazel’s diagnosis has never been anything but terminal, but she still tries her best to live a normal life and stay positive for her parents. And one of the things that helps her parents is for her to attend a support group of other kids with cancer.

One day, Hazel arrives at support group to see a new boy in the circle. His name is Augustus “Gus” Waters, and although he has lost a leg to osteosarcoma, he says he’s mostly there as moral support for a friend. Gus takes an immediate interest in Hazel, who is initially reluctant to open up to anyone new. But eventually, Gus and Hazel decide to take the plunge, even though their future is uncertain.

My Thoughts

First of all, this book wrecked me. Wrecked. Me. I was a sniffling, sobbing mess starting about 2/3 of the way through the book. My husband came in and was like, “Hey, got something in your eye?” (Because he is a heckler and has a heart like a STONE), and I choked out between ugly-cries, “It’s about KIDS with CANCER! LEAVE ME ALONE!” And he skedaddled out of there.

So if you want a book to make you cry, I’d suggest this one.

But this book is not all tears and angst. It’s actually full of humor and sweetness. Considering it’s a book about KIDS with CANCER, I was not expecting to laugh so much. But laugh I did.

The highlight of the book for me was the characters of Hazel and Gus. It’s funny, because I was reading along and thinking “Wow, Hazel and Gus remind me of some of my friends from high school. Especially Gus, who is pretty much EXACTLY like this guy I knew, except for the cancer thing.” And then I went online and read some reviews, and the first ones I read were complaining that Hazel and Gus were unrealistic, and no teens act or talk like them. Just goes to show that how we perceive things is heavily dependent on our own life experiences.

So just for the record, yes, some teens act and talk like Hazel and Gus. Some teens have large vocabularies and use SAT words in everyday conversation. If you take out all the cancer references, I swear I had some of the Hazel-Gus conversations when I was in high school.

Yes, I was a nerd. But that’s neither here nor there.

On top of the great characterizations and dialogue, the storytelling was excellent. I was riveted by the first page, and couldn’t find a good place to put the book down, so I wound up reading the whole thing in a day. Which is no small feat when you have to also be parenting and cleaning and cooking and all those other things responsible adults do.  But it was just one of those books that you have to keep reading, even when you realize it’s going to rip out your heart and stomp on your soul.

I loved the friendships in the book; I loved the sweet and sad way that Gus and Hazel’s relationship developed;I loved the glimpses into their friend Isaac, Hazel’s and Gus’ parents, and the members of their support group. I loved how real and raw and honest Hazel and Gus were about what they were going through. Basically, I loved everything about this book, except for the way it utterly ruined me. And I even kind of loved that.

Some people say this book has a twist. I didn’t really think of it as a twist — nothing in the book surprised me — and I think if you go into it expecting it to shock and amaze you, you may come out disappointed.

However, if you read this book for the great characters, fantastic dialogue, and gut-wrenching levels of emotion, you will be satisfied. At least I hope you will be. I was.

Even though it wrecked me.

Content Guide: Contains sex, profanity, and difficult situations dealing with cancer and death.

Review: One Moment by Kristina McBride (@EgmontUSA)

I received this book as an advance digital review copy from NetGalley

Here’s a confession: I don’t read a lot of contemporary. Shocking, I know. I like most of my entertainment to be a sort of escapism, and I gravitate towards stories that have an element of the fantastic. I love stories that inspire my imagination with things like magic and space and superpowers and monsters. But, on occasion, when the mood strikes, a contemporary will spark my interest.

This was one of those occasions. I was intrigued by the summary for this book — a mysterious death and a case of amnesia? What’s going on? — and thought it may actually be kind of refreshing to read a story based in the “real” world after all the crazy fantasy and sci fi I read. And it was.

The Plot

Maggie’s group of 6 friends has been together since elementary school. They’ve grown up together and shared in all their activities. Cliff jumping is no exception, and the book opens as Maggie tries to gather up the courage to participate in a jump over Memorial Day weekend. Encouraged by her friends, especially Joey, who she has been dating for the past 2 years, Maggie finally summons up enough courage to jump off the cliff with Joey into the water far below.

But one minute Maggie and Joey are holding hands, running for the edge of the cliff; the next, Maggie is disoriented at the top and Joey is on the ground below — dead.

What follows is the aftermath of the accident, as Maggie struggles to remember what happened up on that cliff top, and attempts to recreate the last few week’s of Joey’s life. The five survivors are left with lots of questions and few answers as they all try to make sense of what happened. And their frustrations are exacerbated by the fact that one of them, Adam, has started avoiding them.

My Thoughts

One Moment is actually fairly simple, and although the revelations throughout are shocking to Maggie, they were pretty predictable for me. But that didn’t keep me from enjoying the book.

The story is told from Maggie’s perspective, which means we are treated to the story of her friendships with the others and especially her romance with Joey in brief flashbacks, as Maggie tries to make sense of everything that’s happened to her. The flashbacks help to develop the characters and convey the depth of Maggie’s grief and confusion, and I thought they fit in well with the flow of the story.

Maggie herself is relatable and likable, although occasionally frustratingly naive. It got a little tiring to see all the clues laid out so obviously, but for her to still have no idea what was going on. I could excuse her partly because she’s young, and partially because she’s struggling to get past a major shock, but her continued ignorance (especially when she was offered answers and refused to listen) got a bit grating.

The other friends are developed to varying degrees. Joey is the most developed, through Maggie’s memories, and maybe it’s because I never really went for the mega-popular partying guys in high school, but I just failed to see his appeal. He and Maggie never seemed all that well matched to me, even in her memories. So while I appreciated what Maggie was going through, I didn’t find this book as sad as I was expecting, because I didn’t really mourn Joey along with her.

Her friend Adam was by far the most likable to me, and although I figured out really quickly what was going on with him, I still enjoyed reading about him. Shannon was the epitome of every girl I’ve ever had nothing in common with, and although she was far from one-dimensional, I couldn’t really understand what Adam and Shannon were doing in the same group of friends.

The least developed were Tanna and Pete, who don’t really add much to the character development of the other four, or do much to propel the story forward. It seems like they were mostly there to just establish that this is a group of friends, and not a teen soap on the CW. But I wish we’d have seen a bit more from them, Pete especially, whose main contribution to the story was playing semi-recent pop songs on his guitar (and Nickelback. Huh.)

The pacing was good, and I had absolutely no trouble finishing this book in just a few hours. I was never bored, I didn’t have any trouble keeping up with what was going on (which was impressive considering the frequent flashbacks), and I liked the simplicity of it.

There was an element of the story that I wish hadn’t been there, and I think the story would have been more poignant and bittersweet if the focus had simply been Maggie coming to terms with learning the truth about her dead boyfriend.

Highlight if you want to be spoiled: The love triangle between Joey, Maggie and Adam. I wish Adam could have just been her friend, helping her through her grief, instead of the patient guy waiting in the wings. A story about grief and PTSD doesn’t really need a love triangle to work, and having it resolve at the end almost cheapens everything that Maggie goes through in dealing with Joey’s death. He may not have been a saint, but watching her reactions as she learned more about him was definitely interesting enough. Additional romance was unnecessary.

Ultimately, I thought this was a well-written, interesting, simple story. While it didn’t pack quite the emotional punch I was hoping for, I still enjoyed it.

Content Guide: A disturbing death, some sexual content, profanity