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!

Book Review: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Book Review: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

FangirlFangirl is so adorable, I didn’t know whether to read it or hug it.

This sweet, funny, charming novel tells the story of Cath Avery, a college freshman who just isn’t quite ready to leave her childhood comforts and touchstones behind. Cath is a twin, and she and sister Wren have been inseparable their entire lives… until Wren abruptly informs Cath that she wants them to live apart in college, try something new and meet new people. Cath is devastated. She has no interest in making friends and meeting new people; she and Wren have lived together for eighteen years — why stop now?

On top of that, their dad is not the most stable of guys, tending toward the manic end of the bipolar spectrum without someone around to make sure he’s eating, sleeping, and generally keeping it together. Ever since their mother left, just after 9/11 when the girls were eight years old, Cath and Wren have kept their dad on an even keel, and Cath is terrified that he’ll lose it without them around every day.

Now that she’s lost Wren as a roommate and built-in best friend, one of the unwelcome adjustments required in Cath’s new college life is her brash and irritable roommate Reagan, who seems to be constantly shadowed by her best friend Levi, a sunny older boy who is just always around… and who somehow manages to work his way into Cath’s reluctant heart.

The biggest change of all is the impact of college life on the twins’ obsession with Simon Snow. In the world of Fangirl, Simon Snow is the fictional main character of a series of books set in a magical world. Think Harry Potter, with a few twists. Simon Snow is simply the biggest thing ever, with a huge fanbase that’s getting crazier and crazier as the publication of the 8th and final book in the series approaches. Cath and Wren have always loved Simon Snow and are immersed in the world of fanfiction — or at least they were. Wren seems to have left it all behind in her quest to grow up and be a “normal” college girl, with all the drinking, partying, and boyfriends that entails, while Cath wants nothing more than to live in her Simon Snow “fic” world for as long as she can.

Cath isn’t just a regular old fan, though — she’s the incredibly popular author of Carry On, Simon, which has become the hottest fanfic in the Snow-verse. Each new installment by “Magicath” gets tens of thousands of hits, and Cath can think of nothing better than spending hours writing about Simon and the boy-on-boy romance she’s created for him with his archnemesis Baz.

Fangirl follows Cath through her first year of college, through the ups and downs of her relationship with Wren, her worries about her dad, her growing romance with Levi, and her struggles to define herself as a writer, both in the world of Simon  Snow and in the context of her advanced fiction writing course — presided over by a professor who just doesn’t “get” fanfiction and won’t allow it in her students’ writing.

This is the third book I’ve read by Rainbow Rowell, and once again I’m just incredibly impressed by her talent. In Fangirl, she’s created not one but two fictional worlds. The story of Cath and her growth and development at college is convincing and feels authentic, and at the same time, Rainbow Rowell has created a fiction-within-fiction world for the story of Simon Snow that makes it feel like a real, well-thought out book series. Actually, I suppose you could say that there are three worlds going on in Fangirl, because I don’t see how you couldn’t count Cath’s fanfiction creation as a story all its own. By the end of Fangirl, I wanted to know not only how Cath’s life would work out, but both versions of Simon Snow’s as well!

Cath’s inner life is well-described throughout. She’s scared and reclusive, yearning for connection but afraid of it too, wanting to write but not willing to leave her fanfic behind or relegate it to 2nd place. I loved Cath’s insecurities and fears, her love for her father, her anger toward Wren even while she misses her sister desperately. Perhaps most charming of all is Cath’s friendship with Levi. Levi is the boy everyone wishes they met in college. He’s sweet and smart, caring without being controlling, always there for Cath when she needs him, and funny and positive to boot. I loved that Cath and Levi could explore their feelings, not without complications or issues, but at least without the trite contrivance of an unnecessary love triangle. In fact, I thought early on that the plot was setting up a triangle, and when that didn’t turn out to be the case, I felt like raising a banner with a big “THANK YOU RAINBOW ROWELL” on it. What a relief!

Rowell’s writing is full of sparkling humor and zippy dialogue. Even when serious matters are arise, there are plenty of funny and quirky moments to lighten the mood. I love this moment, among many, which uses a pop-culture reference point as almost a throw-away quip, yet really sets a great tone (and made me snicker):

Reagan was sitting at Cath’s desk when Cath woke up.

“Are you awake?”

“Have you been watching me sleep?”

“Yes, Bella. Are you awake?”

Probably my only quibble with Fangirl has to do with names. Cath is short for Cather, and it took me the longest time to realize that yes, Cather is in fact her name and not a nickname. The explanation for Cath’s name (and Wren’s too) was just too cutesy by far for me to believe, and felt like a forced joke that didn’t work at all in the context of an otherwise totally believable (if not terribly functional) family dynamic. This is a small complaint, however, and certainly didn’t detract from my enjoyment of Fangirl for more than a moment or two.

Overall, I loved Fangirl. It doesn’t have the emotional punch of Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park, which took my breath away with the sorrow and hurt of its characters. In Fangirl, Cath goes through quite a lot, but it’s mostly a happy book about a young woman coming into her own, finding out who she is and what she wants, and learning how to be her own person. Cath’s experiences during her freshman year of college include unique elements, yet feel universal. For anyone who has suffered through meeting strange new roommates, figured out to maneuver through a dorm dining hall, or confronted a professor who just doesn’t get your work, reading Fangirl will be a nostalgic, emotional journey back to those days of excitement and confusion.

Filled with strong writing and original, well-developed characters, Fangirl is a joy to read — and it’s sure to especially delight readers who, no matter their age, still get a secret thrill from flipping back through their Harry Potter collection… again and again and again.

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The details:

Title: Fangirl
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: 2013
Genre: Young adult/New adult
Source: Purchased