Book Review: THE BORDER OF PARADISE by Esmé Weijun Wang

In the 1950s, David Nowak, a neurotic Polish American heir to a piano fortune, marries Jia-Hui Chen, a young woman from Taiwan with nerves of steel, and moves with her to remote northern California. Their relationship is volatile, but its legacy for their children will be much worse. The Border of Paradise is an astonishing historical novel that’s unlike anything I’ve read before, in the best possible way. If you love creepy thrillers like The Vegetarian by Han Kang or intimate portraits of trauma like History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund–or if, like me, you love both of those things–then this novel is a must-read. I deeply enjoyed The Collected Schizophrenias, Esmé Weijun Wang’s nonfiction essay collection, earlier this year. I’m pleased to say I like her fiction just as much.

Content note: Suicide and self harm are central to The Border of Paradise. If those things are triggers for you, then you should consider carefully before reading the rest of this review (or the book itself).

You can read my full review below.


The Border of Paradise Cover
cover description: An illustration of a sickly-looking person in a field of grass being held up by ghostly hands.

The Border of Paradise by Esmé Weijun Wang

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  • publisher: Unnamed Press
  • publication date: 2016
  • length: 292 pages

I’ve never known a man who has taken his own life, and so I’ve never read a suicide letter, seeing as how the final words of such uncelebrated and self-condemned souls are so privately guarded. Still, I can’t help but think such letters all must be the same, because what else can be said but, over and over again, Sorry, sorry, I am so sorry, in the way that someone newly smitten can only say I love you, I love you, I love you…

–from The Border of Paradise by Esmé Weijun Wang

In The Border of Paradise, Esmé Weijun Wang writes in long paragraphs that still feel light and airy, like a dense pastry that fluffs up in the oven. That’s a good thing, because the subject matter of this novel is almost unbearably heavy.

David Nowak, a teenage boy in 1940s-1950s New York, is a brilliant student and heir to a piano factory and accompanying fortune, but he can’t stop strange new neuroses from creeping in. He becomes unable to select clothes and dress himself. When he looks in the mirror, his body is impossibly distorted. He becomes hysterically attached to stuffed animals.

He knows something is wrong, but not what. The word schizophrenia is, to my memory, never used in The Border of Paradise, but we the readers can fill in the blanks.

David’s instability culminates in him being forcibly separated from his childhood sweetheart, Marianne, by her father, who is sneeringly cruel about David’s condition. Heartbroken, David cashes out the family fortune and leaves for Taiwan, where he marries a young woman named Jia-Hui, whom he renames Daisy.

Everyone warns Jia-Hui against David’s moods and volatility, but Jia-Hui has instabilities of her own–ones that have horrifying consequences for the couple’s two children.

I wouldn’t call The Border of Paradise horror, but it is horrifying. There is ample gore, disturbing sex, and piercing descriptions of what it’s like to live with untreated mental illness.

Of course, in the time period in which The Border of Paradise is set, there wasn’t really such a thing as treated mental illness. Wang uses this historical setting in unusual ways. Instead of yoking the story to real world historical events or intricate period detail, she focuses on internal, insular experiences instead.

In one word, The Border of Paradise is about isolation: the absolute isolation of being an immigrant woman of color, or a mentally ill person, or an abused child in the 1950s-1970s, when there was little awareness of these issues in the general public and no internet communities to turn to, either.

This novel is emotionally dense and deeply introspective, but it’s also extremely readable. It’s peppered with plot bombshells, dramatic and cinematic without straining belief. (I do wonder if Wang is trying to say something about the nature of delusion and hallucination here–how real life really can be stranger than the fictions our own brains can tell us.)

I raced to get to the end, using it as motivation to hop on the treadmill at the end of each day, knowing it would absorb me enough to make my workout fly by.

Specific and intense, The Border of Paradise is like a fever dream if your feverish brain were a top notch novelist. This novel is a gift. ★★★★★

Reviews and books you might also enjoy:


I purchased my own copy of The Border of Paradise and was in no way compensated for this review.

*Programming note: Book reviews will appear every Tuesday and Thursday going forward. I look forward to being back on a regular posting schedule!

Book Review: THE PARIS WIFE by Paula McLain

Paula McLain’s bestselling 2011 novel explores Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage, to Hadley Richardson. Told from Hadley’s perspective, it narrates their courtship, marriage, and eventually Hemingway’s affair in Paris that drove the two apart. It’s a gorgeous and melancholy novel and I enjoyed it a lot, even though I wish it reckoned a little more deeply with Hemingway’s toxic legacy and his (to me) inexcusable treatment of Hadley.

For anyone who missed it during its first round of critical acclaim, I highly recommend The Paris Wife for historical fiction lovers. You can read my full review below.


The Paris Wife Cover
cover description: A woman in a blue dress sits at a café table with a man in a gray suit.

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

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  • publisher: Ballantine Books (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
  • publication date: hardcover in 2011, paperback in 2012
  • length: 368 pages

It would be the hardest lesson of my marriage, discovering the flaw in this thinking. I couldn’t reach into every part of Ernest and he didn’t want me to. He needed me to make him feel safe and backed up, yes, the same way I needed him. But he also liked that he could disappear into his work, away from me. And return when he wanted to.

–from The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Biographical fiction always struggles to reconcile accuracy with art. Too accurate, and it might as well be a biography; too much artistic license, and it feels tawdry. That’s why I was so pleasantly surprised by The Paris Wife, which strikes exactly the right balance of the two.

The novel spans from Hadley’s childhood through her early 30s, which makes it all the more impressive that it’s never dry or documentary-like. We quickly learn that her father died by suicide; her mother and sister stifle her. She’s a skilled pianist who’s too listless to seek out a career.

She’s in her late 20s, watching life pass her by, when she meets a ferociously charming but troubled Ernest Hemingway on a visit to Chicago. It’s easy to see why sparks fly between them: their relationship is never artist/muse, but rather a mutual life raft for two unhappy people. The problem is that once they’re married, Ernest refuses to stay afloat.

My bias: I loathe the real-life Ernest Hemingway. I think his writing is fine; I find the mythology of him absolutely poisonous, and ultimately, I think The Paris Wife falls right into that trap: McLain doesn’t sugarcoat Hemingway’s bad behavior, but she also never quite lets him take the full force of the blame. His mental illness, his abusive upbringing, and his genius are always there to take the fall. I wish they weren’t.

Meanwhile, McLain’s characterization of Hadley is subtle and lovely. Hadley is traditional, introverted, unfashionable, and serious; she’d rather be a stay-at-home mother than an artist in her own right, which makes her feel guilty and out of place in modish 1920s Paris. Most historical fiction protagonists chafe against the restraints of their time; Hadley, on the other hand, seems to want to move backwards. It’s an intriguing change of pace.

From the beginning, Hadley is all in on her marriage. She is honest, supportive, and vulnerable with Ernest in the way that you absolutely need to be with your spouse in order to make a marriage work. Ernest, on the other hand, always has one foot out. He belittles her, lies to her, spends her trust fund unwisely, is repeatedly unfaithful, and always seems to be looking for a better option. He loves her, but he’s bad at it. Instead of choosing to be better, he sabotages.

The Paris Wife is peppered with occasional short italicized chapters told from Ernest’s perspective, about how sorry and conflicted he is. I can’t help but think that if The Paris Wife were a pure work of fiction, we wouldn’t have gotten those chapters. We would have been content to see the marriage through Hadley’s eyes only, to feel sad that sometimes we fall in love with people who change our lives but are ultimately not good for us, and to get catharsis when the marriage dissolves at the end. (Historical spoiler, I guess.)

Instead we get too much about Ernest, most frustratingly in a stilted epilogue. That’s the trouble with biographical fiction: no matter how much more I wanted of Hadley, the inevitable truth is that the most notable thing about her was always Ernest. It makes sense that McLain always keeps one eye trained on him, but it chafes anyway.

The Paris Wife is terrific: the very best of its category. It’s just funny how a piece of fiction this good can leave you with a bad taste in your mouth about the facts. ★★★★☆

Reviews and books you might also enjoy:


I purchased my own copy of The Paris Wife and was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: THE GIRLS by Emma Cline

The Girls was a massive critical and commercial success upon its release in 2016, and it hardly needs my voice chiming in on its behalf. Still, I wanted to write about this historical novel–set in late ’60s California, loosely based on the Manson Family and their infamous murders–because it stirred up such a complex array of emotions in me. With Cline’s prose being so luminous that it practically burned into the back of my eyelids, and The Girls‘s electric premise, I should have absolutely loved this novelinstead I only liked it. As its title implies, The Girls is a lovely novel about girlhood, but I have serious reservations about its myopic focus and the liberties Cline takes with historical events. Despite the novel’s raw power, its plot curdles instead of coheres.

You can read my full review below.


9780812988024

The Girls by Emma Cline

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  • publisher: Penguin Random House
  • publication date: 2016 (hardcover) and 2017 (paperback)
  • length: 368 pages (paperback)

It was the end of the sixties, or the summer before the end, and that’s what it seemed like, an endless, formless summer. The Haight populated with white-garbed Process members handing out their oat-colored pamphlets, the jasmine along the roads that year blooming particularly heady and full. Everyone was healthy, tan, and heavy with decoration, and if you weren’t, that was a thing, too–you could be some moon creature, chiffon over the lamp shades, on a kitchen cleanse that stained all your dishes with turmeric.

But all that was happening somewhere else, not in Petaluma…

–from The Girls by Emma Cline

The Girls stars one girl, Evie, who is fourteen years old. Her parents have recently divorced; she lives in her mother’s mansion in Petaluma and is acting out against her mother’s boyfriends, though you quickly get the impression that her strife with her mother runs much deeper than the divorce and new beaus: Evie is ignored and smothered by her nervous mother in turns, never quite in the Goldilocks zone of affection. Her father lives in a distant apartment with his former secretary (and new lover), rarely seen. On top of all that, Evie’s best (and seemingly only) friend spurns her. It seems things can’t get worse.

Except they can. It’s the summer of 1969, Evie is terribly lonely, and that’s when she falls in with the girls. Plural. The Manson ones.

Or they would be the Manson ones, if Cline hadn’t created a somewhat scrambled analogue of the infamous cult “family” for this novel. The Girls‘s cult leader is Russell, not Charles. The Family has a run-in with an apparently famous musician named Mitch, but his band goes conspicuously unnamed (it was actually Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys). They’re in San Francisco, not Los Angeles. Cline creates four composite victims here in place of at least eight real ones.

I’m being pedantic here, I know. But I list these details because Cline is working with the freaking Manson murders here, literally one of the best-known crimes in American history. I wish that Cline had either fudged more details or fewer, because the way she writes about the summer of 1969 in this novel left me cross-eyed, like my glasses weren’t on right. The Girls‘s historical details are always distractingly in the middle distance, even as Cline gets the muggy, dizzy vibe of the thing just right.

It’s unfortunate, a little like if an Investigation Discovery reenactment was suddenly given the auteur treatment. (No disrespect meant to ID, but we all know those reenactments are the pits.) Cline is a gifted auteur, and I loved to watch her work, but I could never forget I was watching her work. The Girls never feels real, too much art and too little life. It’s good art, but it can’t escape an uncanny valley.

If you know nothing to very little about the Manson murders, then this critique is pointless. Go in and love this novel, because there’s an awful lot to love. But I don’t even know that much about the murders–most of what I know comes from Stuff You Should Know’s twopart podcast about them that was released last year–and it was still a strong enough dissonance to bother me. Your mileage may vary.

And I’ll add, in a small and self-justifying voice, that I think Cline’s composite artistry also damages the plot. It leaves Evie’s moves feeling a little too planned, leaves her feeling always in the right place and never quite under her own power, meaning that even when I knew she was in danger, the danger never compelled me. (This novel is not very long, but took me two whole weeks to get through. It’s not a slog, just somewhat impenetrable. I could only give it short bursts of my time before losing interest.)

After all that, let me talk about what The Girls gets right, because there’s an awful lot that it gets right. I promise.

First, The Girls gets girls right, and in that way, the novel’s unreality almost works in its favor. Girls are girls, whether it’s 1969 or now, most of their challenges the same. The novel’s framing device is that Evie, now an adult, is staying at an old friend’s beach house when that friend’s college-age son and his girlfriend Tasha stop by. The menacing gender dynamics Evie witnesses between the boyfriend and Tasha take her right back to 1969, when those same forces pushed her into the cult and kept her there. She narrates the story from there, with brief interludes from the present throughout.

I had a (positive) visceral reaction to the way Cline writes about Evie’s loss of innocence, and the observed loss of innocence of other girls, especially Tasha’s. Evie’s circumstances are extraordinary, and yet her arc is terribly mundane and familiar. At one point, she observes that young girls know instinctively that they are objects to be judged, that whatever opinion they have of themselves is subservient to the opinions of others (i.e., men). It’s such a simple observation and yet it hit me like a heart attack. I shivered. It was otherworldly in its potency, sort of like the “Cool Girl” speech in Gone Girl.

Which leads me to the second, perhaps best thing The Girls gets right: the prose. It’s so good I got a high of sorts. I re-read some pages many times just to marvel at them. Cline writes with a manic intensity that is just right for this material. Every scene was supercharged with detail and energy, especially the ones at the cult ranch. Green potatoes foraged from dumpsters, musty girls’ clothes shared from a trash bag, and the scumminess of an unmaintained pool all take on intense significance here. The drugged-up eyes of the other girls at the compound are at one point described as “bright berries.” That lingers.

There’s a constant contrast between the innocence of Evie’s whitewashed Petaluma life, which she hates, and the drugged-up depravity of the cult’s lifestyle, which she also hates, but models herself after anyway. It’s a contrast that becomes interestingly muddled as the novel goes on, less of a choice between two things than an inevitability. She moves from the first to the second as if there’s no way to move, as if growing up were the same as decaying.

And like Evie, I’m left of two minds here. I like the experience of having read The Girls. I love that its images and observations are now bouncing around my mind. But I can’t get over the fuzzy, somewhat numb experience of actually reading it. It’s long stretches of nothing punctuated with mind-blowing moments. On one hand, I admire The Girls’s single-mindedness, and on the other, I feel a little cheated by it. Focus does not require myopia, and yet in its focus on the girls, this novel feels myopic.

It’s worth noting, to that point, that this book does not mention race at all. To my understanding every single character in it is white. The more I think about it, the weirder that is. Evie certainly lives a fairly wealthy, spoiled, insulated life in Petaluma, but it’s 1969 in California. Near San Francisco. Near Oakland! It seems odd that there isn’t even a throwaway mention of race, especially given that the real Manson murders were considered by the lead prosecutor as attempts to frame the Black Panthers and spark a race war. (Some people today think that isn’t true, but it’s still such a huge part of the case that it’s strange to leave it out entirely, even in its made-up version.)

I’m white, and the narrative of white girlhood that Cline presents here resonated powerfully with me, but it’s very much a story of white girlhood. No novel needs to include every human experience (or even most of them), but in the case of The Girls, it feels like yet another important detail elided or muddled to suit the story’s ends. It makes the scaffolding of this novel feel too visible, though I love the structure beneath.

The Girls is a powerful experience. (A real trip, if you will.) I recommend it, and am glad I own it, since I’ll likely revisit it again. I just wish Cline had channeled its raw, cathartic energy into something that flowed just a little better, felt just a little more well-thought-out. Moment by moment, The Girls is astonishingly good, but its connective tissue falters. ★★★★☆

Books you might also enjoy:


I purchased my own copy of The Girls and was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 8.3.18

FridayBookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

This week I’ve added two slow-burn, thrilling literary titles to my shelf. Let’s dive in!


November Road by Lou Berney

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November Road Coverthe premise: Frank Guidry is a loyal mob heavy in New Orleans, but after President John F. Kennedy is assassinated, all of his associates start turning up dead. Guidry knows too much about the mob’s role in the assassination, so he hits the road in a desperate attempt to save his own life. There, he meets Charlotte, a housewife who’s mysteriously on the run with her two young children. Each takes advantage of the other on their way to freedom; each tries to ignore their deeper feelings. If they’re not careful, they could both end up dead.

why I’m excited: I love literary thrillers and I love historical fiction (especially mid-century stuff). That makes November Road an easy choice for me to be excited about! I’m not really a Kennedy conspiracy theorist, but I’ll admit I’m intrigued by Berney’s mobster take on JFK’s assassination. I see a few places where this could dip into cliché, but I’m really excited about it and grateful the publisher sent me an ARC. November Road is currently available for pre-order.

Sunburn by Laura Lippman

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Sunburn Coverthe premise: Polly and Adam embark on a steamy affair one summer in Delaware, growing more and more entangled in each other’s lives until it all comes apart. Someone ends up dead, and one of them is lying.

why I’m excited: I always have a giant Gillian Flynn-sized hole on my reading list and Sunburn looks like it will fill that right up. Affairs, summers, crimes…I eat that stuff up with a spoon. It helps that this novel is getting glowing reviews across the board. I can’t wait! (Side note: Does anyone know if the character of Laura Lipp in The Mars Room was named after Laura Lippman? It was all I could think about during Lipp’s scenes in that novel.)


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

Friday Bookbag, 5.18.18

FridayBookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

This week I’ve got three short books in my bookbag that each carry a big, emotional, firecracker punch. Let’s dive in!


Straying by Molly McCloskey

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9781501172465the premise: Alice, a young American woman, moves to Ireland in the late 1980s, settles down, marries an Irishman…and then embarks on an affair that shatters the life she’d carefully created for herself. Years later, grieving her mother’s death and recovering from years of working in war zones, Alice returns to Ireland and discovers that her marriage and the affair that ended it may not have been at all what they seemed.

why I’m excited: I’m a big fan of stories that hinge on an affair–there’s so much inherent tension in cheating that it’s no wonder it’s such a trope. Lately, I’ve also been seeking out books set in countries other than the United States. McCloskey is a renowned writer in her native Ireland and part of Straying‘s plot is the alienation and culture shock Alice experiences when she moves away from the United States. Both of these elements add up to a novel I’m really excited about.

9781936787845Cove by Cynan James

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the premise: A man out kayaking at sea is struck by lightning in a sudden storm. He awakes with his memory gone, still adrift in a hostile sea. Relying on instincts and imagination, he sets out for home in an ultimate man-against-nature adventure.

why I’m excited: This is a tiny book: it’s made up of barely 92 pages of spare prose. That’s great for me, since I much prefer short books to long ones (Larissa Pham recently tweeted that “the novella might be the ideal form” and I relate), and I also love nature and survival stories. I’m terrified of open water, so the kayaking element promises to be especially thrilling for me.

9781250113429The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Daniel Mallory Ortberg

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the premise: Ortberg transforms beloved fairy tales into eleven creepy short stories in this collection–“tales of everyday horror” seems to be the perfect subtitle.

why I’m excited: Two reasons: one, I love fairytales, and two, over the course of writing this book, Ortberg came out as a trans man, in part because of the way these stories challenged him to think about gender. (For more on that, you should read this excellent interview with Ortberg in The Cut. ) I would have been sold on this book regardless without that second part, but as a nonbinary person myself, I’m really excited to read a book by a fellow transgender person that pushes gender boundaries.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

Friday Bookbag, 5.11.18

FridayBookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

This week I have three works of literary fiction that toy with gender, optimism, and expectations in my bookbag. Let’s dive in!


The Optimistic Decade by Heather Abel

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9781616206307the premise: Set in the 1980s, The Optimistic Decade takes place at Llamalo, a “utopian summer camp.” As they learn camp survival skills through booms and busts, wars and protests, and dreams and mistakes, the novel’s five central characters push up against the limits of idealism and themselves.

why I’m excited: I love novels set in the recent past, and while there are plenty set in the ’50s-’70s, there are fewer about the ’80s. I think the title–particularly the “optimistic” part–says it all: so much of the ’80s feels both glamorous and naive in hindsight and I like that the premise of the novel (especially the back-to-the-land element) plays around with that.

A Lucky Man: Stories by Jamel Brinkley

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9781555978051the premise: This short story collection contains nine stories set in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Each story probes at the ways the ways men make and interact with power, exploring facets of masculinity from elementary school through adulthood.

why I’m excited: I’m tired of the fact that the entire weight of “gender” fiction is placed on the shoulders of everyone who isn’t a man. That’s why I’m excited for this collection, which promises to not only be interesting from a writing and craft standpoint but also because Brinkley seems to be taking on masculinity from a man’s perspective. That shouldn’t feel fresh, but it does–and the buzz this book is receiving is more than enough to convince me to read it.

Eventide by Therese Bohman

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9781590518939the premise: Karolina Andersson, a solitary art history professor in her forties, becomes entangled in a ferocious, erotic game that threatens to uproot her personal and professional lives. When she begins to advise a postgraduate student whose research could turn Swedish art history upside-down, Andersson finds herself reckoning with much more than academic consequences.

why I’m excited: This is a relatively slim book that promises to pack a big punch. I love translated works (Eventide is translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy) and this one tackles gendered double-standards, academia, and loneliness in a big, fascinating way. I can’t wait.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

Friday Bookbag, 5.4.18

FridayBookbag

Greetings, and May the Fourth be with you!

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With that out of the way, we can get down to the business of Friday Bookbag, a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

This week I’ve got a thrilling spy-novel-slash-marriage-drama and a sweet, funny romance about a fake wedding date that turns into something more. Let’s dive in!


The Italian Party by Christina Lynch

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9781250147837the premise: Newlyweds Scottie and Michael move to Sienna, Italy in 1956. Little do they know that they’re about to uncover explosive and dangerous secrets–ones on an international scale, and more intimate ones they have chosen to keep from one another. The Italian Party is a thrilling spy novel that’s also about America’s messy position on the world stage.

why I’m excited: Spies! Mid-century drama! A dissolving marriage! A sensual exploration of Italy! Thoughtful criticism of American foreign policy! This book has so many ingredients that appeal to me that it’s hard to boil down my interest in this book to a sentence or two. Suffice to say that I’m sold!

The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory

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9780399587665the premise: Alexa Monroe gets stuck in an elevator with Drew Nichols and, though she’s not usually the spontaneous type, she finds herself agreeing to be his fake date for his ex’s wedding. But these two high-powered professionals find that they’re in for more than they bargained for when their fake date turns into real sparks flying.

why I’m excited: Goodness gracious, I love romance. I don’t write about it a lot on this blog because a) I don’t like to review it, since my feelings on romance novels tend to be of the gushy and incoherent type (I don’t know how Smart Bitches does it) and b) I’ve been distracted by other genres for the past few months. This book feels like the perfect stepping-stone back into romance for me: an utterly charming premise, rave reviews, and an author whose nonfiction pieces I love. I can’t wait.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!