Book Review: Spoiler Alert by Olivia Dade

Title: Spoiler Alert
Author: Olivia Dade
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: October 6, 2020
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Olivia Dade bursts onto the scene in this delightfully fun romantic comedy set in the world of fanfiction, in which a devoted fan goes on an unexpected date with her celebrity crush, who’s secretly posting fanfiction of his own. 

Marcus Caster-Rupp has a secret. While the world knows him as Aeneas, the star of the biggest show on TV, Gods of the Gates, he’s known to fanfiction readers as Book!AeneasWouldNever, an anonymous and popular poster.  Marcus is able to get out his own frustrations with his character through his stories, especially the ones that feature the internet’s favorite couple to ship, Aeneas and Lavinia. But if anyone ever found out about his online persona, he’d be fired. Immediately.

April Whittier has secrets of her own. A hardcore Lavinia fan, she’s hidden her fanfiction and cosplay hobby from her “real life” for years—but not anymore. When she decides to post her latest Lavinia creation on Twitter, her photo goes viral. Trolls and supporters alike are commenting on her plus-size take, but when Marcus, one half of her OTP, sees her pic and asks her out on a date to spite her critics, she realizes life is really stranger than fanfiction.

Even though their first date is a disaster, Marcus quickly realizes that he wants much more from April than a one-time publicity stunt. And when he discovers she’s actually Unapologetic Lavinia Stan, his closest fandom friend, he has one more huge secret to hide from her.

With love and Marcus’s career on the line, can the two of them stop hiding once and for all, or will a match made in fandom end up prematurely cancelled?

Spoiler Alert is a body-positive yet somewhat angsty romance, ultimately a feel-good story but one that makes its characters work pretty hard to get there.

April Whittier is a 36-year-old geologist who’s comfortable in her own skin, despite the constant pressure from parents who’ve always wanted to fix her through diets or exercise or “foundation garments”. As she gets ready to start a job with much less focus on image, April decides to come out as a cosplayer by posting a photo of herself in her full Lavinia glory.

Lavinia is one half of the madly shipped pairing of Lavinia and Aeneas from the hugely popular Gates of the Gods book series and TV adaptation. In the world of Spoiler Alert, Gates of the Gods is the biggest thing on TV, adapted from the books series by author E. Wade — but the author has only published three books so far, and the TV series has moved beyond book content in its later seasons, with plotting and scripts by the showrunners. By most accounts, their work is a disaster, at least according to true fans. Only the cast knows what’s coming up in the final season which has just finished filming (and they’re sworn to secrecy) — but privately, most of the cast feels like their characters have been ruined and given plotlines that destroy or negate seasons worth of development.

Marcus Castor-Rupp is one of the stars of Gates of the Gods, in the leading role of Aeneas. Almost 40, Marcus is known for his gorgeous face, fine physique, sharp acting skills… and lack of intelligence. His public persona is all about his good looks. He’s a truly pretty face, but there’s no there there.

When April posts her cosplay picture on Twitter, the trolls come out. When some particularly cruel comments are posted which tag Marcus, as if inviting him to have fun mocking April, Marcus swoops in in hero fashion and declares April gorgeous and asks her out. It may be a publicity stunt, but April decides to be brave and accepts.

Their date is horrible. April wants to get to know Marcus, and Marcus is dull as rocks (or duller than rocks, since April is a geologist and finds rocks fascinating.) But finally, April starts to realize that the pretty boy facade might hide someone else, a man of intelligence, and almost unwillingly, she’s intrigued.

As April and Marcus get to know each other better, a further complication arises: They are each active fanfiction writers, and their fanfic alter-egos are actually close friends, and maybe even more. While April admits to her fanfic identity up front, Marcus does not, knowing that his writing could get him fired and make him untouchable in Hollywood if anyone ever found out. As they continue dating, Marcus digs himself a deeper and deeper hole — the closer he gets to April, the more he wants to tell her the truth, but that would mean admitting he lied in the first place, which he’s sure would drive her away.

There’s a lot to really enjoy about Spoiler Alert. I liked the fictional world within the world, learning about the plotlines and characters of Gates of the Gods throughout the story. There are snippets of fanfic included in between chapters, as well as some rather hilarious script selections from the truly awful movie and TV productions Marcus was in before hitting it big.

I also appreciated the confidence both April and Marcus have when it comes to their chosen professions. They both have devoted themselves to becoming great at their work, and they have faith in themselves and their own abilities. (Also, it’s kind of awesomely funny every time we find out about yet another skill that Marcus has learned in preparation for roles — not just horseback riding and sword skills, but also how to chop like a chef and even ride a unicycle.)

April describes herself as fat, and she’s okay with that. While others (especially her mother) might try to change her or make her feel unworthy due to her size, April knows she’s an attractive woman and dresses to show herself to best advantage. She’s also clear that she wants to be loved for herself, and not despite or because of her fatness. She’s also very sex positive, understanding what she like and what she wants, and being very upfront about giving and receiving pleasure.

Both April and Marcus carry heavy baggage from the pain of their childhoods. April’s parents fat-shamed her her entire life, and it’s amazing that she grew up to be as well-adjusted as she is. Marcus, the son of two academics, was made to feel slow, lazy, and stupid throughout his childhood and adolescents, because his undiagnosed dyslexia made his schooling a nightmare. His sense of shame from this stays with him and absolutely informs the “just a pretty face” act that he puts on in public. Even though he’s recognized his dyslexia and learned adaptations to help him succeed, the scars have stayed with him.

Other stuff I like:

  • April and Marcus’s hot chemistry
  • How frequently we hear Marcus think about how gorgeous April is and how attracted he is to her
  • April and Marcus’s ages — they’re adults, not teens or early 20-somethings. I like the maturity and the stage of life they’re both in, where they’re both successful, but feel like it’s really time to make changes in their lives if they’re ever going to.
  • The story within a story, particularly when it comes to the Lavinia and Aeneas characters
  • The tongue-in-cheek humor shown in the fanfic and the script snippets
  • The way Gates of the Gods is clearly meant to be a Game of Thrones-type production
  • April’s professional pride and success
  • The celebration of fandom culture as a whole — I loved the positive portrayal of cosplay and fanfiction and cons. The author makes this world rich and vibrant and so much fun.

Some quibbles:

  • SO much pain and angst. I appreciate how thoughtful April and Marcus are and how deeply they feel everything, but the scenes of anguish and mental suffering are way too frequent and long. As April’s fanfic persona points out to Marcus’s early on, some writing should be tagged “misery ahoy”.
  • Perhaps one reason the angst felt like too much to me has to do with the overall length of the book. For a fun, upbeat romance, it’s long. I think the story would have been stronger with about 30-40 pages whittled down, at least.
  • The conflict over secret-keeping is obviously going to cause a break-up. We readers can see exactly where it’s going, right from the start of the relationship. Being obvious isn’t a deal-breaker, but at some point I found myself just waiting for the inevitable.

For those who prefer to know in advance, the sex scenes in this book are explicit, which usually isn’t my taste in romance reading. However, there aren’t so many that it’s overwhelming, so overall I was okay with it.

Whew. This is a long review. I love the positive messages conveyed by this steamy love story: You don’t have to fit some society-determined idea of what perfect is to be attractive, sexy, desirable, and most importantly, to be loved. The body-positivity is lovely, and the plot itself and the charming characters are really enjoyable and entertaining.

I understand that there will be a follow-up novel focusing on Marcus’s best friend and his love interest, and I will definitely be on board!

Audiobook Review: Bookish and the Beast by Ashley Poston

Title: Bookish and the Beast (Once Upon a Con, #3)
Author: Ashley Poston
Narrator:  Caitlin Kelly, Curry Whitmire
Publisher: Quirk Books
Publication date: March 29, 2016
Print length: 288 pages
Audio length: 7 hours, 21 minutes
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Digital review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley; audiobook purchased from Audible
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

In the third book in Ashley Poston’s Once Upon a Con series, Beauty and the Beast is retold in the beloved Starfield universe.

Rosie Thorne is feeling stuck—on her college application essays, in her small town, and on that mysterious General Sond cosplayer she met at ExcelsiCon. Most of all, she’s stuck in her grief over her mother’s death. Her only solace was her late mother’s library of rare Starfield novels, but even that disappeared when they sold it to pay off hospital bills.

On the other hand, Vance Reigns has been Hollywood royalty for as long as he can remember—with all the privilege and scrutiny that entails. When a tabloid scandal catches up to him, he’s forced to hide out somewhere the paparazzi would never expect to find him: Small Town USA. At least there’s a library in the house. Too bad he doesn’t read.

When Rosie and Vance’s paths collide and a rare book is accidentally destroyed, Rosie finds herself working to repay the debt. And while most Starfield superfans would jump at the chance to work in close proximity to the Vance Reigns, Rosie has discovered something about Vance: he’s a jerk, and she can’t stand him. The feeling is mutual.

But as Vance and Rosie begrudgingly get to know each other, their careful masks come off—and they may just find that there’s more risk in shutting each other out than in opening their hearts.

It’s no surprise that Bookish and the Beast is completely charming. After the delightful Geekerella and the lovable The Prince and the Fangirl, how can Ashley Poston miss?

For those unfamiliar with the Once Upon a Con series, these books take us into the world of Starfield fandom, as devoted fans cross paths with stars of the movie reboot, all structured along the lines of classic fairy tales with a modern twist.

Starfield is a (fictional) cult TV series with a huge, obsessed fan base. In Geekerella, Starfield is being rebooted as a movie, and fans are up in arms over what they see as questionable casting and a fear that their beloved characters will be sacrificed in the name of box office success.

Two books later, the Starfield movie franchise has completely filming the second movie, and the fans are ecstatic. Unfortunately, the bad boy of the movie’s cast, Vance Reigns, who plays anti-hero General Sond, can’t stay out of the tabloids. At age 17, he parties hard and gets in trouble endlessly. Finally, fed up and wanting some serious damage control, his parents arrange for him to hide out in a small town in North Carolina at the home of the film’s director, along with a guardian to keep him in check. And Vance is not happy.

Meanwhile, in the same town, Rosie Thorne is entering her senior year of high school. She has two amazing best friends, Annie and Quinn, and lives with her dad (a former punk rocker who causes her friends to swoon, and who they refer to as Space Dad — because “he’s so beautiful that his beauty is out of this world…”. Rosie lost her mother the previous year, and she’s both still deeply grieving and also sick of everyone seeing her as the girl with the dead mother and nothing more.

Rosie and her dad’s finances are shaky, having spent all their savings and then some on medical bills, but they get by. A chance encounter with Vance’s dog leads her into his orbit, and after she accidentally ruins a rare Starfield book from his borrowed house’s library, she agrees to pay it off by working in the house, tasked with organizing and cataloging the cartons and shelves full of books.

What neither Rosie nor Vance realize is that they’ve met once before, at ExcelsiCon, the annual convention dedicated to Starfield. Wearing masks, they spent one magical evening together, but left without disclosing their true names or faces. Neither has been able to shake the memory of their first meeting or the feelings it stirred up, but both have accepted that they’ll never know who that special person was.

Until…

Well. It’s a Beauty and the Beast retelling, so you know where this is going. The house where Vance is living is known locally as the “Castle House” — a vanity project of some millionaire, not usually inhabited, with moats and turrets, located at the end of a hidden lane through the trees. Rosie stumbles upon it (at night, of course) while trying to rescue a dog that ran in front of her car, and when she follows the dog (uninvited and unannounced) into the spooky, dark house, she runs right into Vance, who is outraged by the intrusion and behaves… um… beastly.

I loved all the little B&tB references, from a diner waitress named Mrs. Potts to the rose symbolism to the library as a way to a young woman’s heart. Little lines thrown in made me smile:

They probably got sick of being the middle of nowhere and left to have grand adventures in the great wide somewhere.

… and also:

… it’s pretty, and at least — unlike most of the houses around here — it doesn’t use antlers in all of the decorating.

Then there’s the story’s villain, Garrett Taylor, a handsome, popular jock who can’t believe someone like Rosie could even dream of turning him down. Like Gaston, he’s decided Rosie is the prettiest, therefore the best, and he deserves the best. His persistence goes from annoying to overboard to damaging, and he simply won’t listen to Rosie’s rejections.

The story is sweet and clever, and keeps the Beauty & the Beast storyline going without it ever feeling forced or overdone. At the same time, Rosie and Vance are fleshed-out characters with inner lives, each dealing with pain and emotional challenges, each striving to find a new future.

The author shows us Rosie’s grief and the depths of her loss, and how dramatically losing a parent can devastate a teen’s entire world, leaving her feeling not just the loss, but also the isolation and the rootlessness that comes with being different and losing a mother’s love and support.

I really loved this book, and enjoyed the through-story bits that continue expanding the world of Starfield, its characters, and its plot twists. One of the characters refers to Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, and like Fangirl, the story within the story always leaves me wanting more. Might Ashley Poston actually write a Starfield book? Because I’d love to get more Carmindor, Amara, and Sond into my reading life!

The audiobook is really well done, with two different narrators — one for Rosie, one for Vance. They keep it light and entertaining, and let me feel like I was listening to the characters telling their own stories.

I have one complaint about the audiobook, and it’s a pretty big one that, days later, still makes no sense to me. Vance’s last name is Reigns, which I assume is pronounced like “rains” — there are even some tabloid headline puns about Vance needing to be “reigned” in.

So why, then, does the Rosie narrator (and occasionally the Vance narrator too) pronounce his last name as “re-gins” (with a hard G, kind of like begins, but with the accent on the first syllable). I couldn’t figure out what I was listening to at first, and had to go back to the print version to see if I’d misunderstood. Like, is Vance Reigns his stage name, but the family name is actually Reagans or something? Nope, it’s Reigns throughout the book.

So why does the audiobook have a different pronunciation? No idea. But it’s super annoying, and constantly distracting. Did they finish recording, realize it was wrong, and decided not to go back and fix it? Honestly, it makes no sense at all.

I realize I’m harping on about this, but it was distracting throughout the entire audiobook, so as much as I loved it overall, this one thing made it really frustrating too.

Putting that aside… I wholeheartedly recommend Bookish and the Beast. I think this is my favorite of the Con books, and I really hope there are more to come! And while this could possibly be read on its own, I really recommend reading the books in order, because you might not get the Starfield elements and what they mean otherwise.

Don’t miss these wonderful books!

Me, after finishing Bookish & the Beast

Fans, Fanatics, and Frenzy

So, you may have noticed that I’m an Outlander fan. Right?

Yes, another Outlander post from me… but this one is about fan reactions.

OL pic

It seems to me that fans may very well be a fandom’s worst enemies. Here’s why.

For years prior to the announcement of a TV show, when Outlander was *only* a bestselling series of books with a huge, devoted fanbase, fans spent countless hours and brain cells on fantasy casting. The perfect Jamie! The ideal Claire! Oh, the fights. I swear, I would not be surprised at all to hear that friendships were lost over such important issues. Because we all know that Jamie is the king of men and he is PERFECT.

But it was all a dream, alas.

Until Ron Moore read Diana Gabaldon’s books, put together a TV deal with Starz, and the rest is TV history.

So here we are, two weeks into season 1, part 2, and are fans happy?

If you relied only on social media comments, you’d be justified in thinking the answer is “no”.

I suppose it’s only to be expected, and we need look no further than Game of Thrones for similar fan reactions, but people are more or less going NUTS over the changes from book to screen. And while I used to just roll my eyes and move on, the tone of some of the comments is seriously starting to irritate me and worry me.

Because, oh ye gods above, it’s getting insane.

Yes, there are changes. Sometimes the changes are big, sometimes they’re just minor details. But hey, as Diana Herself said in one of her endless rounds of pre-premiere interviews, “I understand what the word ‘adaptation’ means.” The question is, do the fans?

Early on, before the show premiered and immediately afterward, a lot of the focus of fan complaints was on the physical: Claire’s eyes are the wrong color. Jamie isn’t tall enough. Okay, fair enough in terms of facts, but would you rather have a Claire with whiskey-colored eyes or a Claire portrayed by an actress who can actually ACT? I love Caitriona Balfe as Claire, so I’m perfectly okay with a change in eye color. Anyway, look at the Harry Potter movies or at the Targaryens in Game of Thrones — maybe the eye color is important in the books, but the overall dramatic effect is not altered in the slightest by the fact that Harry’s eyes are blue in the movies or that Daenerys’s are not violet.

Soon after the premiere, the focus of fan comments seemed to have shifted to plot changes:

In the book, Claire does buy the vase!

In the book, it’s Beltane, not Samhain!

In the book, Claire has a certain KIND of sex for the first time with Jamie — she doesn’t do that with Frank! (This isn’t true, according to Herself, but it certainly is many fans’ perception.)

And what about this line, or that line? Wait, the wedding ring is wrong! Jamie’s tartan isn’t red enough! Old Alec is supposed to be old!

Yes, there are variations. ADAPTATION, people. Still, I know some people take pride in spotting every little difference, and that’s fine.

What’s bothering me, though, is that the tone seems to have shifted to a “blame the production team” mentality in some quarters, and that’s starting to feel not okay. I’ve read comments saying that “of course, Ron doesn’t get it” or “they ruined xyz scene” or “the writers don’t care about the book”. I’ve even seen devoted fans say “that’s it! I’m not watching anymore!” And that’s just so frustrating to me, and feels so counter-productive.

Without Ron’s vision and dedication, we wouldn’t have a TV show. Period. Is that really what people want?

Again, yes, there are differences. Any time you change from one artistic medium to another, there are going to be changes. And so long as the new production is true to the important themes, characters, and events, I’m okay with the details that get altered, combined, or skipped. Because it’s a TV show! It’s not a word-for-word reproduction! If you want word for word, go listen to audiobooks!

The Starz production is a representation of Diana Gabaldon’s work, recreating her stories and characters as filmed drama. It has to work on the screen. It has to fit into one-hour episodes within a sixteen-episode first season. It has to attract new viewers as well as appeal to fans. That’s a really tall order.

I hope the fan noise around changes from the books doesn’t get so loud that it starts to drown out the applause and the enthusiasm from people who are just LOVING the show. It would be a terrible shame if Outlander fans themselves were responsible for shifting the tone of discussion into widespread negativity.

We want our show. Right? So let’s support it. We can acknowledge the changes, track them, debate them, and discuss the potential plot disruptions that might result five seasons from now. But let’s try to move the discussion away from “ruining” and “destroying”, and stop casting blame on the magnificent and dedicated people behind the scenes every time we wish a certain scene had happened a wee bit differently. Because the production team does love this story, and they get it, and they want it to succeed. And they’re pouring their hearts and souls into it.

Personally, I  can only say that I’m loving every moment. I know the Outlander books pretty much backwards and forwards by now, and yes, I’m very much aware of the elements that are changed for the show. But I can still love the show, and the show’s differences in no way subtract from my love of the books. They’re two different art forms, and they’re two different pieces of art, and I love them both.

Here’s a cheer for Ron Moore and the cast and crew of the beautiful production of Outlander! And here’s wishing them — and us — many more seasons to come. And to all the fans, all I can say is — maybe it’s time to dial down the upset, sit back, and enjoy TV Outlander on its own merits.

As the T-shirt says:

Keep calm