Him & I by Melia A.

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday, or maybe Wednesday? This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

What’s the difference between a sex predator and a hunky dreamboat? Depends on whether you’re asking about the length or the girth. Him & I is a dark romance about an eighteen year old American girl named Hailey, who has a long, hard, journey into adulthood.

Hailey lives a celibate life to focus on her student career, which seems to be going great but this is the last you’ll hear about it so who knows. She is best friends with Kevin Smith’s daughter from Cruel Summer, and has two siblings: a twin brother, and a younger sister who is apparently evil. We are just told this by the main character, and whenever the sister appears, Hailey is immediately screaming at her for being a horrible person and ruining everything. One day on the set of The Office, Steve Carrel decided “I’m just going to hate Toby.” And that became an unexplained recurring joke. Michael Scott says things like “I were in a room with Hitler, Stalin, and Toby, and I had a gun with two bullets, I would shoot Toby twice,” and it’s never explained. It’s the same kind of energy with the sister. But I’m getting bogged down in the details.

Hailey is still in love with her ex Kayden, or Jayden, or Ayden, or whatever. Mid-conversation with Kevin Smith’s daughter she gives us a flashback about how they met at a gazebo (seriously, am I being targeted by big gazebo?). She assures us she is not naive, but she was “on cloud nine” because they were “written in the stars.” That’s a recurring theme: cliché metaphors, mixed and sprinkled at random. At one point we are asked to “imagine being on the same path as someone and suddenly you’re on different pages of the same book.” Whatever. Teenagers repackage awkward groping at the movies as unprecedented romance all the time, so this is just a window into the mind of our protagonist.

One fact we establish right away about Hailey is that she is eighteen. You hear that? Eighteen point zero years old. Fully legal. This means the she can celebrate her birthday in her dad’s club, where alcohol is served (The author is not American, which will become obvious later if it isn’t already). I assumed Hailey’s age was signposted to assure the reader that all the steamy high school sex antics aren’t creepy, but it turns out this is a dark romance, so the shit that Hailey is subjected to mostly does not have an acceptable age threshold. Speaking of wacky sex horse play (I should go back and hyphenate that, but I’m not going to), Splayden is at the party, in accordance with narrative tradition. Now we get to see this beefcake in action. How does he sweep her off her feet? Mostly he just ignores whatever she tells him, coerces her into a dark room where he pulls off her clothes, and generally acts like what pickup artists tell you is supposed to work on girls. Of course, it works on Hailey because surprise! Pickup artists were right the whole time! Just treat women like something a movie theater janitor would scrape off their shoe at the end of the day, and achieve success! But before Fnayden can neg her about her back rolls, evil sister shows up, causing a ruckus. This calls for apoplectic screaming from Hailey, before 7ayden and Hunter join forces to calm the situation.

Oh yeah, Hunter. Stupid sexy Hunter. He thinks he’s so great just because he’s so great. On the way to the extremely American discotheque party for drunk babies, Hailey drives her BMW into Hunter’s Ferrari (it’s never explicitly mentioned that these people are all rich, so I’m going to assume this is just supposed to be how normal Americans get around town. Or maybe Hailey is rich because “club owner” is the highest echelon of European society, as opposed to in the States, where it is one rung above “man who owns his own shovel”). Stupid Sexy Hunter insists on repairing the damage to her car to keep it a secret from her dad, and takes the keys right out of her ignition. People are constantly taking things from Hailey in this story.

See, the thing is this is a dark romance, which is a genre for people whose fetish is red flags. I’m not trying to shame, but it’s difficult for me, because projecting is my main defense mechanism when there is something I fail utterly to understand. The sexy man-chunks in this story are constantly gaslighting Hailey, inserting things in her without consent, and delighting in treating her like an old gym sock. And she loves it, because this is your fetish, too, dear reader. Case in point, Caleb. Caleb is a pushy, violent misogynist. Jackpot, right? No! Caleb is an antagonist. What separates him from the guys who are playing dick-pong with Hailey as the ball? If shock, hate, and fear are Hailey’s aphrodisiacs, how does she distinguish the good and bad love interests? It’s the same way you know that Malfoy making fun of Molly Weasley’s weight is bad, while Ron making fun of Dudley’s weight is good fun; the value of actions is a function of which team a character has been sorted into during the drafting stage.

To get back to the plot, there’s an extended will-they-won’t-they-get-on-with-it between Hailey and Aydnayden, an obligatory love triangle with SSH, some cloak and dagger drama around Kevin Smith’s daughter that ends with people getting killed. Oh yeah, throughout the book people just whip out guns, because America I guess, and the climax is like the end of Hamlet, but all the characters have guns, and all the actors are guns, and Denmark is a gun. Hailey gets almost as many guns shoved in her face as dicks, and she’s equally blasé about it. Honestly, after a hundred pages of our leads being cute and coy to one another, it was a nice change.

Melia A. made a name for herself in the world of online long-form fiction, i.e. modern LiveJournal but we all agree not to call it that. Currently she is very active on Episode, which I gather is Wattpad for zoomers, but more polished and less collaborative. Given that your intrepid author’s attempts to understand the youth are about as successful as Praeger U’s efforts to convince me I should be grateful for landlords, it’s hard to give my usually brilliant analysis on the literary origins of this book. I get a little Cruel Intentions, with the rich, violent teenagers. There’s also an attempt at a certain kind of narration, with a casual, “Oh, I didn’t see you there” style. We’re constantly being told things “by the way.” What by the way, narrator? You’re in charge of this five cent pony show; is this detail important or isn’t it? You made us sit through a finger-banging scene between two people who hate each other, but you’re hesitant to overshare now? I haven’t talked much about the parents. The way they are always on their kids’ level when it comes to drama feels very Disney movie to me (When mom sees one of her daughters screaming at the other to point of dry heaving because so-and-so kissed such-and-such, the adult’s response is “Gasp, did you really kiss him?!?”).

As usual, I sound way more negative than I feel about Him & I. The sexy parts come out of nowhere and are probably triggering for anyone who’s not into dark romance, but if you can turn off the top and bottom of your brain (i.e. the parts that are telling you consent is important, and that there is danger), the middle part will tell you that these scenes are very well written. I can see why Melia A. has a following when it comes to good, smutty fun, and I’m well aware I’m not the target audience. If you’re… doing whatever nasty things go on over at Episode (am I even saying that right? Can someone tell me what “bet” means?), and you want to upgrade to a thick, juicy book, Him & I is probably for you.

Here in America, the drinking age is guns.

Into the Wind by Abigail Jeanne

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday, or maybe Wednesday? This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

Normally, when one goes mad with power, a crucial prerequisite is to have actual power. Never keen on reading the manual, I have decided to skip a few steps and drag a seventeen year old author into the pathetic kangaroo court I call a review blog. That’s right, your girl is now dunking on literal children on the internet for your amusement. I cannot sink any lower without dressing up as a cat and making ASMR sourdough tutorials, so don’t give me any ideas. Into the Wind is a YA fantasy domestic drama in which Zephyr and her friends restore proper order to their village.

Zephyr, who is the daughter of the chief and who may or may not be the last airbender, is overdue to be married. Mom is dead, in keeping with local custom, and Chief Dad is tasked with finding a man sturdy enough to become chief one day. In the mean time, Zephyr plans to move in to the sorority wigwam with her besties so they can have some privacy while they watch Meg Ryan movies and have pillow fights. That’s a little anachronistic, but maybe the pillows are raccoons. Zephyr is stifled by the demands of propriety, the pressure to work in a certain way at a certain time, with no breaks to dance like an idiot over a bowl of porridge. At the same time, she dreams of a “godly man who loves the Protector,” and she shows no compunction against one day becoming “Chieftess” (a word which, for once, my spell check and I are in agreement about).

That’s the bird’s eye view, but on the ground what we get is a dinner scene where our principle characters hide from the rain, then a breakfast scene where everyone decides what kind of porridge they want, and an extended scene where villagers are going around repairing minor damage caused by last night’s rain. Once the buckskins get hung up and the dogs get wrung out, Chief Dad has made his decision. Zephyr is to marry the Head Warrior, an arrogant, unlikable man. I don’t remember his name, so we’ll call him Chakotay. You can see what this setup is. It’s just Pocahontas. We’re reading the novelization of Pocahontas. Take that, you filthy Zoomer! You think you’re so great for being able to bend over without waking up the cat. Wither and wince as my vorpal red pencil goes snicker-snack across your precious manuscript!

Except it’s not Pocahontas, though. As soon as Zephyr draws a dick and balls on the marriage contract before handing it back to the men planning her future, another character steps into the spotlight, Stiff Arrow. Abigail Jeanne snuck this guy in as the obligatory hometown friendzoned twerp, but then a couple chapters in reveals that Stiff Arrow eschewed the position of Head Warrior so he could be assigned to the heir apparent’s personal detail. So that’s our real setup, right? Zephyr has to figure out that the right guy for her was under her nose the who- oh, no. She figures out immediately that she likes him better. If I had a nickel for each fake-out inciting incident in Into the Wind, I would finally have a book that earns me money.

Without spoiling too much, John Smith never shows up; the giant dome hiding them from modern society doesn’t collapse; the framing of the story never becomes anything other than the dynastic politics of a small village. That, on top of an agonizingly slow build up featuring several flavors of porridge, should add up to a slog. But it mostly avoids that fate. Mostly. There were plenty of chapters where I wondered “is this the point? We’re just cooking porridge? Is this porridge porn?” It’s not a typical coming of age fantasy novel where the curtain pulls back on a larger world, nor is it a quick and easy “let’s all share Virginia” Disney story. But it also isn’t one of those painfully slow slice of life animes where the main character is always running to nowhere with toast in her mouth.

As an aside, I’ve broken my own rule comparing Into the Wind to Pocahontas. I hate it when people compare things to Pocahontas, because Pocahontas is nothing; it’s like saying that something tastes like chicken. Case in point, Avatar. When people aren’t calling it “Dances with Blue Wolves,” they’re accusing it of being a Pocahontas rip-off. But Avatar is so much less than that. It’s a nearly verbatim copy of an early Ursula K LeGuin novella called The Word For World Is Forest. Whenever I see someone compare Pocahontas to anything, I think “you could be peeling back so many more layers of this onion,” and now I’ve done that very thing. I guess I’m just salty because Pocahontas was the first Disney movie to disappoint me. For me, as one single disgruntled child (imagine me as I am now, but even smaller and holding a balloon or whatever it is children do with their time), the Disney renaissance ended when Pocahontas failed to live up to the hype.

Into the Wind does not disappoint. While the main character is clearly a power fantasy author insert, she never reaches the level of a Mary Sue, partly because she has her own complex inner life. In general, young people in this book have a complicated relationship to tradition, embracing parts while balking at others, and it works pretty well. The world building is a sometimes cringy Native American analog, and the names are all over the place (I blame Eragon for establishing the precedent that one village may contain people named “Galadyrionx of the Crimson Blade” and “Steve”). The constant made-up words for things that could just be English is a little try-hard. But usually I find myself flipping through a terrible fantasy story that is carried along by its world building, and this was the opposite; I didn’t care that the continent people live on is literally called “The Continent,” because for once the story was actually engaging. Am I bitter that someone still picking amniotic fluid from their hair can write better characters than me? Shut up, no one asked you. Just read Into the Wind by Abigail Jeanne. It’s four dollars on Kindle.

Ursula K LeGuin is a ripoff of a short story by Ursula K LeGuin.