Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Group Review/Discussion: Thrall

Group review / discussion, ahoy! Jen, Kat, and Melinda all read Roan Parrish and Avon Gale's newest queer release, THRALL, and have some thoughts on it. Hope you enjoy! :)

Thrall by Avon Gale and Roan Parrish
Publisher: Philtre Press (September 27, 2018)
Genre: Queer Fiction / Mystery w/ Romantic Elements

Dating Sucks and Love Bites 

Happy couple Mina Murray and Lucy Westenra have begun to garner national attention for their quirky New Orleans true-crime podcast, Shadowcast. When Lucy's brother Harker disappears while researching the popular new dating app Thrall, they're thrown into a real-life mystery. Aided by their social media expert, Arthur, and Harker's professor, Van Helsing, they follow the trail, hoping to find Harker before it's too late.

When their investigation crosses the path of a possible serial killer, the line between fantasy and reality begins to blur. And as they race against the app's countdown clock, so does the line between friendship and love. What starts as a flirtatious rivalry between computer-savvy Arthur and techno-averse Van Helsing becomes much more, and Mina and Lucy's relationship is tested in the fires of social media.

As they get down to the wire, the group discovers that nothing on their screens is as it seems—including their enemy.

A modern retelling of Bram Stoker's Dracula

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Group Review / Discussion:

KAT: I really like reading modern adaptations of the classics.  I love the sense of familiarity with the characters and the story, but seeing a new twist, whether it’s a different culture (Bride and Prejudice) or just updated white girls (Clueless).  (The fact that those are both Austen books probably means something.)  So, I was definitely intrigued by the premise of Thrall.  Admittedly, I’ve never read Stoker’s actual book, but I have seen movie adaptations, and read wikis, and feel relatively solid on the plot and the characters.  That might have actually worked against me in this case, though, because part of me was always looking for aspects of the story to fit into the my Dracula schema.  I was trying to map Thrall onto its source material, and often did not have an easy time of it.

JEN: At some point in the past ten years, I did read Dracula. I am not a person who loves the classics, but I remember being really pleasantly surprised at how creepy it was. So when I started, I was looking forward to seeing how it matches up with my memory of the original.

MELINDA: I have read the original, but honestly I can’t remember when...I feel like it was most likely in college. I did take a whole semester class that was focused around the Dracula and how pop culture had taken the material and revamped it. The class focused on different media though - mainly film and television. Oh, how I wish I could revisit that class now! Regardless, that was about 14 years and hundreds of books ago so my memory is hazy at best. But I did find myself constantly trying to remember - wait, who was that in the original again?

KAT: I’m sure Melinda and Jen will add their thoughts about the style of the book, but it is epistolary in nature - it’s told entirely through observations, not through narrative (aside from some narrative-style emails and journal entries).  So readers find themselves scrolling through chat logs and twitter threads.  Some will find that delightful or enjoyable, while others might find it frustrating.  More often than not, I found myself in the latter camp (some of which is due to my issues in processing), which reduced my enjoyment because it was difficult to process, but in a way it felt like I was more distanced from the characters.  I’m not sure to what extent this was part of the overall message (the voyeuristic nature, feeding on the thrill of watching the lives of others, etc.), but reading texts and chats between the characters was a little like reading a Bored Panda post or something.  Maybe because I wasn’t in the conversation, I felt more removed, more transgressive.  I also think this would have been a much different book if it had been written in a traditional narrative style, so.

JEN: A quick reminder that the original Dracula is an epistolary novel, so it’s an interesting challenge to see the authors update the story within that format.

The style was hard for me as a reader, because I think it required me to believe people send text messages that say things like, “I’ve wanted this for so long---wanted to shrug off the mantle of SHOULD that has always felt like both armor and noose.”

I don’t know, maybe everyone writes way more literary text messages than me, but that last clause made me roll my eyes. I just imagined Harker typing that out, deciding he didn’t like it, going back and doing some editing, finally getting it to how he liked it, and pressing send. When authors choose to write in this style, the FORM has to match the content. This didn’t feel like how text messages really work to me, and it was off-putting for me at the beginning. I guess this is just who Harker that how text messages are?

I also found the pacing to feel off for a romance...when do we actually get Arthur and VH together as the love interests? A lot longer than I would have expected is the answer. However, once they do, I was so charmed by their chatter and back and forth. When VH called him “Sweet Arthur” my heart was all aflutter.

MELINDA: I do agree with Jen however about the nature of the text messages. I can see how one could be thrown off because of the more literary style of those. Harker’s are stilted and formal. I think that I accepted that this was part of his character and that he was just formal and stilted all together.

KAT: The authors really excel at characterization.  Like, wow, are those voices different.  While I found it difficult to keep some aspects of characters straight, because I had so little to go off in terms of their actual descriptions, their personalities really shone through in their text.  I loved the interplay between Mina and Lucy, and also between Arthur and Van Helsing.  Van Helsing (or VH as he is often called) was probably one of the truest representations of an academic professor I’ve ever seen in romance.  I’m one of those readers who will DNF a book when it’s apparent the author hasn’t done basic research for representing a character’s job.  While I’m a psychologist, not an anthropologist, there’s enough social science overlap that I identified easily with VH.  And someone definitely did their homework here.  There’s a joke about a book review that I literally laughed out loud (I’m super fun at parties, I promise).  (Actually, I never go to parties, so that’s totally a lie.)

The amazing and sweet character development is one of the book’s strengths, but also a source of some of my frustrations with it.  It’s not quite clear what genre this book should fall into - romantic suspense? Regular contemporary? Certainly it features two queer couples, one of whom is already established, and the other is just beginning.  I wanted more narrative time with them.  I wanted more adorable descriptions and hot descriptions and dialogue with tags.  Don’t get me wrong - the authors are brilliant in how they can convey emotional reactions just via chat logs.  But I missed the third person omniscient voice describing the scene.

MELINDA: This is the one area I found myself left thinking about quite a bit after I finished this. What genre would I even put this in? I personally really enjoyed the book - and I absolutely loved that we get to follow two queer couples. But I wouldn’t call this a romance exactly as we’re not exactly following a couple through their trials and tribulations to get to their HEA. The ending left me scratching my head though as it wasn’t what I was expecting at all.

JEN: I completely agree that although this is a super fun and charming read, it didn’t really “feel” like a romance. The human connections felt so lost  becuase there is no way to “translate” their actual, live interactions with each other into the book. Arthur & Van’s first date was filtered through the Thrall app, and it just felt terrifically disappointing. Especially since Van later discusses a failed love distance love affair by talking about how he missed “the small daily things that create intimacy.” And I found myself thinking----ME TOO! LIKE WITH THIS BOOK! ACTUAL INTIMACY NOT FILTERED THROUGH GOOGLE HANGOUTS!  Lol.

But once I just decided to go with it, I enjoyed it for what it was. That being said, I found myself thinking a lot about the nature of the epistolary novel in the age of cell phones and the internet---there’s something structural about it that really didn’t work for me.

For example, there’s whole sections where the exact commenting structure of internet comments is faithfully reproduced (with the [symbol] indicating threaded comments and the silly user names), but I found myself wondering: why not have picture icons next to each person as they text? There are references to video and the podcast, etc, but obviously those aren’t reproduced. So it’s this hybrid where THE TEXT of the internet and google hangouts is reproduced, but none of the images, video, or sounds of the internet. And it’s just...weird. At some point, if we’re really going to go all in on the modern epistolary novel, it’s going to have to be a multimedia experience.

In other words, can epistolary novels be successful when no one really writes letters anymore?

MELINDA: So, for me, I absolutely loved the format of the book. I have a thing for epistolary books and I really enjoyed how Thrall took the typical epistolary novel, and tweaked that format and added to it. The pieces that I enjoyed the most were probably the ones that were more unusual to have - the twitter feeds, and the online community message board postings. Those in particular moved the plot along but also felt realistic in style to what one could see in real life.

The [symbol] and the silly user names just didn’t bother me at all...I don’t know why that is? I actually thoroughly enjoy that hybrid Jen mentions and honestly it reminded me of what I love about the evolution of other types of pop cutlure. I’m a big musical theatre fan and when I saw Dear Evan Hanson on Broadway last year I was blown away at how they incorporated the internet in such a new and revolutionary way. I see a lot of shows and it was just so original, and reminded me of when I had seen Rent for the first time. Now, I’m not saying Thrall was the first to use tweets, DMs, or journal entries in a book, but I love to see authors playing with these things and trying them out to see what works. So, I think this is a case of your mileage may vary.

JEN: I don’t even know if I’d say I didn’t like it! It just raises a lot of questions for me about how we “transcribe” the multi-sensory experience of the internet into the single-stream of a text-only book. all of the search terms, and url strings, etc...I couldn’t help but wonder why they were there? They didn’t advance the plot or characterization in any meaningful way. Mostly I just felt like it’s there to be “cutesy” and that was tiresome after a while. But, like Kat, mostly It just made it really difficult for me to “tune in” to each character, especially at the beginning. Also, did I miss Google Hangouts being big? I never it. Please advise.

KAT: In sum, I mostly enjoyed Thrall, and I really liked the message, which is so relevant for the time.  (Although, my quantitative psychology side drooled a little at the thought of *all that data.*  So many data…. So many predictive models you could run….  But definitely could be used for evil, so I also appreciated the targeted demographic commentary, too.)  The style of the book gave me issues, though.  I wanted more narrative time with the characters, wanted to watch the falling in love in real-time description, not just through text dialogue or in emails or in journal entries.  But I’m intrigued to see if this style catches on across Romancelandia. 

KAT: 3.5/5 stars

MELINDA: I think I must just be the odd one out here because I’m the opposite of both Kat and Jen in that I really liked the style - almost more than the story. I did like both couples - although Mina and Lucy were the best and I could read a whole other book about their origin story - but for me the style made me very happy. I’d love to see more of this hybrid style.

MELINDA: 4 /5 stars

JEN: I liked Thrall as a book, but not as much as a romance. The format didn’t really give me enough sweep me away into the love story. But, it was still a cool book and I enjoyed reading it, and I enjoyed all of the ways it made me think about the future of the epistolary novel (Have either of you read Where’d You Go, Bernadette?--it’s not a romance, but I think it’s really a master class in how to use the epistolary form to tell a  story.) What I really want to say is a 3.5 for the romance and a 4 for the book, is it too super obnoxious to give it a 3.75/5? I WANT IT THE WAY I WANT IT.

3 1/2 STARS! 

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Source: eARCs

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Thanks for the discussion, ladies! 


Until Next Time,

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