Overall Rating: 2/4
Proceed with caution.
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Book Title: First Night
Author Name: Carol Sabik-Jaffe
Publication Date: November 10, 2020
Summary (no spoilers): Maria and Hunter are both big-city professionals who hardly take time for themselves, let alone their love lives. When Hunter is convinced to go home to Philadelphia for a reunion with his friends on New Year's Eve and Maria is called home on the same night to help with a family tradition, the two cross paths. A spontaneous night follows as Maria tries to save her family's legacy with help from her new friends.
First Night is an easy read. If you like cozy romance with relatively low stakes, this is the book for you. There's also a sequel released in October 2022 (A Second Chance for a First Date) if you're someone who likes to stick with the same characters for a while.
I say questionable because, while our scorecard aims for as much objectivity as possible, reviewing a book is inevitably a very subjective experience. Though this book had the premise of a Nora Roberts classic, it underdelivered in a few key areas: sentence structure, distracting grammar issues, and underdeveloped stakes.
Sentence Structure: This book is full of awkward sentences that distract from the flow of the story. Words are often repeated too many times and too close together which interrupts the flow of the story by drawing unnecessary attention to the wording. Rather than use the environment or the character's actions to pull the reader through the emotional arc of the protagonist, the author often chooses to dictate what the character is thinking or feeling through internal dialogue which can sometimes feel clunky and slows the momentum of the narrative.
Grammar: There are several grammar issues throughout the text. While grammar rules can often be broken to enhance the prose, the grammar issues in First Night feel clumsy and unintentional.
Underdeveloped Stakes: 'Cozy' reads (AKA books that are light-hearted and unlikely to cause any real anxiety with violence or gratuitous scenes) have become increasingly popular in a world where readers are looking to escape the stresses of their lives through reading; however, at Big Cheese Books we hold the belief that stakes can be well-developed while still being cozy.
*Spoilers Ahead* First Night requires the reader to read a lot of conflict into the plot; Sabik-Jaffe tells us repeatedly how important it is for Maria to continue her family's tradition of winning the Mummers parade but fails to provide depth to her reasons for doing so. She tells the reader repeatedly that it's important to her family and that Maria worries about letting her parents down (even though they seem like decent people who she couldn't let down if she tried); however, these emotions don't come through in the text itself. The reader just has to believe what they're being told--that winning the parade is important.
There are a few main things an aspiring writer can learn from First Night:
(1) Develop your prose. Even if you don't aspire to be literary with your writing, sentence structure can be the difference between a reader connecting with your characters or adding your book to their DNF pile. Good prose doesn't require elevated metaphors or the use of an extensive vocabulary. It also doesn't mean that every sentence has to be grammatically perfect. However, you need to know the rules before you break them. The book Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer (Roy Peter Clark) is an incredible resource, even for seasoned writers looking to upgrade their prose.
(2) Grammar rules can be broken, but you need to have a good reason for breaking them. Joan Didion once said, "Grammar is a piano I play by ear." That's to say that art is subjective, and while grammar provides a foundation for good writing, it is not imperative that it be followed to the letter. That being said, having a strong understanding of grammar conventions and how they change the readability of a sentence will help you break the rules in ways that add substance to your story rather than distract from it.
Try reading your work out loud to hear how your word choices and grammar use affect the tempo and cadence of your writing, then ask a friend to do the same to understand how the grammar choices in your story might read differently to others. It's an investment of your time, but the things you learn through this exercise can be applied to future writing, further honing your craft.
(3) Understand conflict. Even if your story is a 'cozy' one, it still needs to have well-developed conflict (AKA stakes) to excel. One of our favourite writing resources is a video by Michael Arndt (link here) exploring what makes the ending of a story good, bad, or great. We encourage you to watch the full video, but as a starting point, the video explains that amazing stories don’t just have one conflict driving the story, they have three―the internal, the external, and the philosophical.
The internal conflict relates to the protagonist's internal needs. Why do they want what they do? What change are they hoping for through their actions and why? What need are they trying to meet? It's not enough just to tell the reader what the character's needs are through exposition, you need to create situations that reflect and challenge their desires (in the case of First Night, the story could have benefitted from more internal conflict driving the importance of winning the parade, e.g. as a hypothetical example, maybe Maria feels guilty she isn't home more, her family members keep hinting at times she wasn't there for them, she wants to change how they see her, etc.)
The external conflict is the plot that drives the story forward. How is the character trying to fulfill their needs and what are the obstacles that stand in their way? This was fairly well established in First Night...win the parade; however, in the final chapters the external conflict felt drawn out. Without a well-established internal need driving her desire to win, the desire to win the parade simply because her family always won in the past felt almost toxic for the character.
And finally, the philosophical conflict takes the central conflict of a story and universalizes it. Instead of the conflict only relating to the protagonist’s situation, it touches on more universal conflicts that are fundamentally human. In the case of a cozy story, this can be a fairly simple conflict (e.g. it seems like the philosophical stakes of every Hallmark movie relates to city life versus rural life and/or love versus career).
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