Conversations with Writers: Rana Haddad

Nektaria Anastasiadou, author of “The Way to Baghdad,” which was featured in our 2019 publication of American Fiction Volume 17, recently interviewed fellow writer, Rana Haddad, about her novel, The Unexpected Love Objects of Dunya Noor.

More information can be found on Anastasiadou on her website: http://nektariaanastasiadou.com

Nektaria Anastasiadou’s first novel, A Recipe for Daphne, will be published in the US and Canada by the American University in Cairo Press in February 2021. Her contemporary literary novel is set among the Rum, Greek Orthodox Christians, who have lived in Istanbul for centuries. Anastasiadou is the 2019 winner of the Zografeios Agon, a prestigious Greek literary award founded in nineteenth-century Constantinople.

Haddad can be found on Twitter: https://twitter.com/SyrianMoustache

Rana Haddad is the author of The Unexpected Love Objects of Dunya Noor, a social satire and coming-of-age story about a curly-haired, rebellious young photographer. The novel is set in Latakia and Aleppo, Syria during the Hafez al-Assad dictatorship (1970s-1990s).

Rana and Nektaria first met beneath the fretted iron awning of a café in a restored Neoclassical building in the Monastiraki market district of Athens on a summery day in April 2019. They met again on a warm October afternoon at a vegan restaurant near Syntagma, Athens’s central square. Their conversations about their work, humor in Middle Eastern novels, and freedom continued in correspondence between Athens and Istanbul after their meetings, and well into the 2020 Corona months.

“Many Middle Eastern readers were happy to read a novel that described their lived experience of Syria, rather than only what one hears about it in the Western Media.”

ANASTASIADOU: Can you talk about the genesis of Dunya?

HADDAD: It took me a few false starts before Dunya was born. The way I knew I had found her was when I stumbled upon her name, which I typed out not knowing where it came from. I was typing different names for days on end (maybe even a month) and none of them felt right, until I finally saw her name on the page and it had the ring of truth or inevitability to it. After deciding upon her name, I started experimenting with book titles, many of which were really silly and had a fake self-conscious ring to them. Then one day among the pages and pages of false starts I typed out these words: The Unexpected Love Objects of Dunya Noor, and then I knew this would be it—that I was no longer making the book up but that I would now be listening to her voice typing out her words. From then on, I felt as if Dunya was now writing the book, and I was more like her editor or typist. This was the first step.

ANASTASIADOU: What difficulties did you face in writing the book?

HADDAD: The biggest difficulty was to trust my own instinct and taste and not comply with the invisible pressure to fit into contemporary expectations of what a novel should look or sound like. Whenever I caught myself self-censoring or “copying” other writers, I deleted what I had written and continued to try to find my own voice. There was pressure to write an “Arab novel” or an “English novel,” a “literary novel” or a “chick lit novel.” You know all the new and endless categories created by marketing executives and PR personnel, academics and literary critics, not by writers themselves. In the UK, publishing has become an industry subjugated to market forces and academia, each creating what I think of as a straight-jacket for writers, who are being told by people who are not writers how they must write, or else. The pressure to conform is strong and counter-productive.  

ANASTASIADOU: While trying to get A Recipe for Daphne represented and published, I was told by two agents that the book “needed some bombs” because “Western readers think of Istanbul as a place with terrorism and bombs.” I found this ridiculous and refused. Istanbul is an exceptionally safe city. I wonder if you faced similar difficulties while trying to publish Dunya?

HADDAD: Yes, it’s strange to be put under that expectation as a writer, to always have to include bombs, terrorism, torture etc. simply because your book is not set in Britain or the USA or Europe and your world must be so “unfortunate” and “traumatic” and “our readers would like to feel sympathy for you and thank their lucky stars that they don’t live in your country.” One publisher said, “It’s too humourous for a book set in Syria, can you rewrite it to make it sad like The Kite Runner?” Another: “It’s too serious for a commercial novel but too playful for a literary novel, it won’t be easy to market it.” And another: “Can you take out all the ideas and thoughts and just stick to the plot, show don’t tell…” Etc., etc. There was a lot of interest from publishers, but it was conditional upon re-writing the book in a way I disagreed with. It became a matter of principle for me not to do what they asked me to do despite the fear I may not be able to find a suitable home for my novel. Then after much to-ing and fro-ing I found Hoopoe Fiction, a publisher who did not want to change Dunya to suit their own theories about how novels must be written, not only in terms of style and structure but also world-view, mood and ways of presenting the world. The editing process with Nadine El-Hadi, my editor, enhanced and improved what I had already written. It did not detract from key elements, de-form the novel, or turn it into something that fitted into a ready-made box.

ANASTASIADOU: Previously you mentioned that Western editors had trouble with Dunya because it doesn’t play into the Western media’s conceptions of the Middle East. Could you talk about that?

HADDAD: I was told by one editor that people would be offended that I’d written a book about Syria which did not focus on the tragedies of war, but was primarily about love, as well as dictatorship and also had a humorous tone and upbeat mood. As this communication happened through my agent, I wasn’t able to reply that, first of all, the book was set in another historical era, not during the current war. (I had written the first draft before the war even started). Even though the UK, Germany, Greece, Spain, Italy, and even Russia went through devastating wars and/or dictatorships, many humorous and romantic books and films were set in those countries during these times. Why is it that if a story is set in the Middle East (or somewhere in the so-called Third World), it has to be tragic to be considered authentic? Without a victim narrative, a story from the Middle East would apparently cause offense.


ANASTASIADOU: What kind of reception did you have from American and European readers as opposed to Middle Eastern readers?

HADDAD: I had a lot of positive reactions from both. I felt many readers from the West had never read something of that nature about Syria or about the Middle East and found it refreshing to read something different. Some people told me that they felt it had a universal quality to it and so it did not matter that it was set in Syria or that the heroine was a young woman. I’ve had a lot of male British and American readers (the last one an 84-year-old poet from the States) who said they could identify with the novel and enjoyed reading it, and it made them smile.

Many Middle Eastern readers were happy to read a novel that described their lived experience of Syria, rather than only what one hears about it in the Western Media, so I had a lot of positive reactions. One Arabic bookseller in London told me that “it must’ve taken a lot of courage to write a book like that.” Because he thought it would offend certain types of people or annoy them, and that’s what I was expecting to happen and was nervous about it. But I was surprised at the lack of any negative reactions so far. I think the humor makes it an easier pill for swallow. Or perhaps none of the old-school authoritarian types have yet got their hands on a copy of it. My dentist in London, who is a young Saudi woman, read it and smuggled a few copies back to Saudi Arabia to distribute to her friends and relatives. She told me they all enjoyed it and shared it around. Also a few students at the American University in Beirut have written their final year papers about it, which I read and found fascinating. The book has not yet been translated into Arabic, if that ever happens it would reach a wider audience and the reactions might be rather different. I don’t know.

ANASTASIADOU: One of my favorite aspects of The Unexpected Love Objects of Dunya Noor is its brilliant use of profession for characterization. Dunya is a photographer, Hilal an astronomer, Joseph a heart surgeon, Hilal’s parents tailors. How did you choose their professions? How did you delve into them?

HADDAD: It’s difficult for me to remember how that came about! Most of it by accident to be honest, but then slowly I started to find meaning in their professions and link it to the narrative. It wasn’t all thought out in advance, it grew somehow organically. Maybe I do write and think in a slightly metaphoric way and this can lead to strange synchronicities.

ANASTASIADOU: On my second reading of Dunya during the corona quarantine, I was especially impressed by what the book had to say about freedom. In your characteristic blend of humor and gravitas, you write: “Was freedom, then, just the freedom to shop? Dunya wondered during that time. Or was it also the freedom to open your mouth and say whatever you liked without anyone taking any notice of you?” Ηow would you relate Dunya’s thoughts to our current experience?

HADDAD: Having left Syria when I was almost 16, I felt a huge sense of relief that I was no longer living in a dictatorship but rather a democracy like the United Kingdom where anyone could express their thoughts and disagree without fear of consequences or retribution.

I have found the last two months of corona quarantine very disturbing indeed. I understand the world is having a health crisis, but I simply cannot see the link between that and handing over the power to control our movements to the police, or the power to control our thoughts to tech companies who can now censor willy-nilly what they like. Overnight we live in a state run by the police and tech companies, while a large proportion of people don’t seem to mind that—rather, they are asking for more. The rhetoric of anger and even hate towards anyone who questions is alarming and has turned into open bullying. Seeing how fear can make even the most “democratic” nations shift overnight to demanding controls on their populations and harsh punishments for anyone who transgresses, I’m finding this hard to accept. It’s extraordinary how many are ready to throw away liberty for security when Fear rears its ugly head. The art of listening to others is fast disappearing, and this is the psychological hallmark of authoritarian societies. I always felt dictatorship is first and foremost an emotional problem before it becomes political, that politics are a reflection of a state of mind and emotions. Freedom requires courage and maturity in a large segment of the population. When fear becomes the norm, it’s harder to keep the right psychological balance.

ANASTASIADOU: Joseph Noor says to his daughter Dunya: “Because in this city, in this country, in this house the art of keeping secrets is an essential survival tool and a highly prized social skill. The price of failing to suppress the truth is very high, my dear, anything—from social ostracism to prison. Are you prepared to pay this price, Dunya? Well, even if you are, I am not.” Do you feel that there is a connection between Joseph’s words and the restrictions that we are now experiencing during the quarantine?

HADDAD: Things are not yet as bad as they are in countries with full-blown in-your-face authoritarian regimes, but there has been a sudden and very dramatic loss in freedoms of speech and thought. What I find odd and even disappointing about it, is that so many people want that and are calling for it. It’s not coming just from the authorities, but from people turning on each other and refusing to listen to differing points of view. This can still look like “democracy,” because it may be the will of the majority in a time of great fear, but it’s a sign of a psychological state that can easily lead us to a drastic loss of freedoms…rather quickly. I’m very surprised that this is how people are reacting. Having grown up in a dictatorship, I don’t find it easy to want to let go of freedom simply because I’m afraid. I fear the loss of freedom, more than anything—because freedom is hard to gain and very easy to lose. Also, I feel there are many ways of dealing with the threat of a virus that do not entail being aggressive to other people or using the Police to enforce health recommendations. It seems surreal and maybe it’s the reaction of a population who have become unable to live with any uncertainty and want all of life to be controlled so they can feel safe. With such a mindset, freedom becomes an unimportant detail or a luxury easily dispensed with. Imagine if some historian of the future writes these words down: “The nation of XX devolved into a police state as a response to a contagious virus…The people of XX accepted all new laws—many of which had no relation to health—without question or debate, because they were too worried about catching the virus and too busy purchasing toilet paper.” If we continue on this trajectory, our grandchildren will not thank us.

ANASTASIADOU: As someone who grew up during the Syrian dictatorship, can you tell me if any other alarm bells are going off in your head now?

HADDAD: I’m very worried about the role of the media. When I read the newspapers these days or listen to broadcasts, I have to pinch myself: “where am I?” The media more often than not describes or reports events in a way that increasingly reminds me of how events were and are reported in a country like Syria. Any opposition to the mainstream view is portrayed as extreme even if it isn’t, and regularly mis-represented and made to look insane, to justify a crackdown or to demonize certain points of view and intimidate people into silence. This is how bullying works between individuals, in small and large groups and politically, and this is how you divide a population to rule them, rather than how you encourage dialogue to bring about real solutions and progress. As I worked in the media myself for more than a decade, I could write an entire book about that, but luckily for you I won’t!

Conversations with Writers: Sam Caton

Sam Caton is a poet, screenwriter, novelist, and actor from Fargo, ND. His screenplays have received awards in international festivals, and his most recent work is currently in production with the company he founded, Quiet Minds Productions.

Caton’s writing is an ongoing journey of learning about himself and how to be a part of this changing world.

He finds both peace and turmoil in writing, just as all passions and work, and believes that, just as stories in myth and fiction and history are the maps we have to follow as we work on growth and piecing together a future of peace, his own writing is a means to a similar end.

“So get started. Write. Go to bed. Wake up. And then get started again.”

When did you first express an interest in writing?

The first time I remember writing for pleasure was when I was six years old. I was a bit of a geek in my early years, and I had just finished a family road trip visiting historical sites, including several battlegrounds from the Civil War, such as Shiloh and Gettysburg. My Grandfather, Pap, was a huge influence in my life at that time and remains as one to this day, although he passed a few years back. It was his birthday, and, being the six-year-old geek I was, I thought a six page essay on the Civil War would be a great gift for him, so I wrote one for Pap. 

You write an array of genres—how do you go back and forth between screenplays and poetry?

It’s hard to say. I have a pretty wild imagination, which isn’t always a good thing, and whichever world I’m writing about at that time I get fully immersed. However, all my work, whether it be a black comedy screenplay, a psychological thriller, my novel (which is a western that entails the lore and mythology of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan Faeries), or my simple “non-fiction” poetry, all my writing is a direct result of how I view the world, how I view myself. What I mean is that I think I, in a way, write in just one genre, and that genre is Sam Caton, and sometimes I’m in good moods and sometimes I’m in foul moods, and sometimes I’m anxious, for in all writing, the basic humanity of the writer lies present within the breakdown of his or her own characteristics into the splintered caricatures of the characters being written.

Printed out versions of screenplays and books that Caton has written.

You are a founder (and writer) of Quiet Minds Productions—what is your mission for your company and where do find inspiration?

Quiet Minds Productions is a film production company focused on using fictional narratives in movies to bring to light the struggles that we all so often hide from others, such as addiction and mental illness. We, as artists, know that if we are going to tell stories, there must be purpose, and if we can bring about awareness and change in the stigmas of addiction and mental illness, then it’s our duty as artists to do so—to have a purpose with our imaginations. As the writer of our team, I find inspiration, as many writers often do, in the stories and struggles and hardships and suffering of people I know, have known, have met, whether it be for an hour or a lifetime, and, as always, from myself, for I, too, struggle with a difficult amount of mental illness.

Do you have a writing routine?

One of my favorite poets is William Blake, and one of his “Proverbs of Hell” from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is: “Think in the morning. Act in the noon. Eat in the evening. Sleep in the night.” I tend to follow this to some degree. The morning is for poetry, the afternoon is for other projects, screenplays or novels, a big meal, and then bed. On top of that, and although it may be odd, I have written three full notebooks of poetry almost entirely at The Empire Tavern as a regular for a period of my life. Maybe not typical for 2020, but I feel if you time-traveled to a Greenwich pub in the sixties, you’d find quite a few people enjoying a whiskey as they write poetry.

Caton has two writing spaces; one in his apartment and one in his garage (pictured).

What advice do you have for writers?

I guess my advice to writers is to write. Just write. Write because you long to write. Write because it’s therapy, it’s hope, it’s activism. I know many people who want to write, or perhaps want to want to write, and I know how this is because I have had many dry spells as well. But, as with many things, one of the hardest things to do is get started. So get started. Write. Go to bed. Wake up. And then get started again.

Conversations with Writers: Oscar De Leon

Greetings, New Rivers Press fans! I hope you are doing well and finding the opportunity to express creativity amidst the chaos.

Our first conversation is with Oscar De Leon. De Leon is a Mexican-American filmmaker based out of Fargo, ND. He has been working independently since the age of 18, eschewing film school to pursue his passions. He has since gone on to write, direct, and edit award-winning short films and documentaries.

De Leon often operates under his artist name, “Guero,” which roughly translates to “white boy,” a nickname he grew up with.

As an artist, De Leon changes styles depending on the subject he’s working on. His portfolio includes a vast array of work ranging from personal music projects, podcasts, commercial writing, and screenplays.

In 2014, he and Kevin Ackley created Chamber Six Media, a media group doing both commercial and artistic work that serves as a form of expression for both artists. Together they have had success as independent filmmakers with their work being accepted into international film festivals. 

Let yourself fail. What failure teaches you is that every mistake opens up a new road.

When did you first express an interest in screenwriting? Was there a specific event, person, film, or epiphany that inspired you? What inspires you now?

I knew I was a storyteller when I was about 12 or 13. I had all these elaborate scenarios in my head that when I figured that I could write them down, it was like opening a secret door or something. I quickly started writing little scripts for my stories and basically taught myself how to format by finding stuff online or watching movies with subtitles on so I could understand the rhythm of dialogue. As I’ve gotten older, the process has been refined but for the most part it’s the same as it was back then. 

You are of Mexican-American descent—how does your heritage play a role in your writing/directing, and overall involvement in the film community?

Being Mexican-American is something I’m really proud of and something that I consciously try to incorporate in any film I make or screenplays I write. Most of my main characters are Latino and are morally and emotionally complex people—like human beings. My artist name is “guero” because that’s what I was called growing up and I think it’s important to show that any art coming from people (especially Chicanos) as being multi-faceted, complex, and worth diving into is because that was my experience growing up and feeling like I don’t really belong on either side of the cultural war. 

How would you describe your writing, directing, and editing aesthetic? 

I like to think that everything I make is coming from an emotional point of view. Whatever I do, I ask if it is speaking or communicating a specific feeling or emotion. To me, a lot of art falls flat if you can’t sense the emotional framework of the creator’s mind. There’s plenty of stuff out there that rings hollow because a character will say something that they (the writer) thinks should be said as opposed to what they actually feel should be getting across. I like to think that anything I create is a pure reflection of what’s in my heart/soul at the moment and that communicates for better or worse. 

An excerpt of an unfinished screenplay of De Leon’s called WOVEN.

Do you have a writing routine?

My routines are changing with age but I have a little “ceremony” I perform before I write: I typically wait for around 11pm-1am, play some ambient music, turn down all the lights, and “allow” myself to “open up.” It may seem like new-age bullshit but I really do think that we’re not in full possession of our ideas and sometimes we need to let them pour in from “wherever” that is. I think everyone defines it differently but I think it’s all the same. 

How much do your screenplays change during filming? 

In my experience, you’re always adapting what you write. You’ll almost NEVER see what you wrote on screen as is. What’s so great about filmmaking is that you adjust to fit the flow of the movie. The movie will become its own thing in three separate ways: there’s the movie you’re writing, the movie you’re shooting, and the movie you’re editing. You basically have to let go of any sort of preciousness you have about the word and be willing to let it adapt to the people who are helping you make it. 

“WOVEN is structured like a braid where the past and present interweave seamlessly throughout the picture. I think the excerpt I included is a pretty good example of the type of mood I write in which is sort of a shiny-somber combination.”

What advice do you have for aspiring screenwriters or writers of any genre?

What I’ve learned is that you have to write it all. Even the bad stuff. Let yourself fail. What failure teaches you is that every mistake opens up a new road. New solutions present themselves if you get stuck and all you can do is keep it going, sometimes you will surprise yourself. And, all things considered, I’m a terribly lazy writer: I only work when I have something to say. I will spend months just THINKING of an idea and won’t write. This is a bad approach. In order for you to find solutions to the problems you might be facing, you have to strike while the iron’s hot and write, write, write! 

Celebrating World Poetry Day

BY JAEDA ENGBERG

With World Poetry Day approaching on Saturday, March 21, now is the time to reflect on why poetry is so important. Founded in 1999 by The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to “support linguistic diversity through poetic expression and to offer endangered languages the opportunity to be heard within their communities,” World Poetry Day is celebrated by diverse and talented individuals all around the world. Poetry not only encourages us to read and write, but it evokes a sense of emotion that is unique to its genre. 

As a poet myself, I gain inspiration, knowledge, and a well-rounded awareness of different forms of poetry by reading any and all poets, subject matter, and forms. Poetry is a beautiful way to release your inner thoughts and emotions without restrictions or specific guidelines. Don’t think you can be a poet? Think again. Poetry can be complex and intuitive, but it is also extremely versatile and approachable for anyone who enjoys writing. Don’t worry about rhyming, play around with your form, talk about the vulnerable or talk about the mundane, take risks, get weird, and stay true to yourself.

March is also Small Press Month, so here are five must-read unique and diverse collections of poetry (also independently published!) that will inspire you to start writing and reading something new:

I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood by Tiana Clark
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Published by University of Pittsburgh Press, Clark’s bold and electrifying compilation illustrates black history, pain, racism, identity, and the inability to escape the terror of the bloodied trauma of the past. Her voice rises from the South as she presents soul and integrity in her poems. Her striking language and vivid imagery will paint a picture that will leave you feeling redeemed and put you in each scene. 

Odessa by Patricia Kirkpatrick
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Published by Milkweed Editions, Odessa is a stunning personal narrative of the speaker’s discovering of brain cancer, leaving her facing the biggest fight for her life. Kirkpatrick’s haunting and visceral poems are also brave, filled with rage, sorrow, suffering, and a deeper understanding and acceptance of what it’s like to not know what tomorrow will bring. 

Thieves of Paradise by Yusef Komunyakaa
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Komunyakaa’s collection is published by Wesleyan University. As a Vietnam vet, his disorienting compilation of poetry focuses on a soldier’s return to home after war and the shock of separating war from peace. This collection is full of soul, jazz metaphors, and raw recollections of war. Komunyakaa also includes an array of forms, such as quatrains to prose poems. 

There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker
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A Tin House publication, Parker’s pop culture-infused look at African American women in the twenty-first century fervently tackles issues that are present in everyday life, such as racism, mental illness, tragedy, desire, and the vulnerability of living. Her visions are badass, inviting, hilarious, real, and unfiltered. You’ll finish reading wanting to change the world while listening to Beyoncé.

Virgin by Analicia Sotelo
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Another Milkweed publication, Virgin is an outstanding and jarring look at womanhood from Sotelo’s own experiences. She combines mythology with biography as she conquers the tropes of femininity and explores Latina sexuality. Virgin will leave you wanting more of her gorgeous and flawless sensory imagery, such as grilled meat, golden habaneros, and burnt sugar, and a taste for exotic life experiences. 

Romance is Canceled; Emotionally Investing Yourself in Books is in

BY DELANEY NOE

It’s Valentine’s Day, a day to celebrate love. (Insert groan or “yay!” here.) It doesn’t matter if you’re in a relationship, single, or it’s complicated. Books are always a good idea (though chocolate is, too).

Here are some books to emotionally invest yourself in this Valentine’s Day:

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling

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If you didn’t read these books when you were a child (or you did), there is never a good time to not read these books. Get ready to start an adventure with Harry, Ron, and Hermione at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. If you are just starting, don’t start with Prisoner of Azkaban, as it is the third one, but it is my personal favorite. By the end you of these books, you’ll understand what Hufflepuff actually is.

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Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Peak Romance. Mr. Darcy, AKA the original fictional boyfriend. Also, he’s relatable in that I, too, die inside when I’m in public.

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Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

This is magical realism mixed with romance, food, and a crazy mother. You might have one of these things in your life (most likely food), and if you’re lucky, you have two out of three. Each food dish described connects to a different part of Tita de la Garza’s life and her romantic troubles.

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Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

This book tells of the story of a fictional band in the 1970s. Told in interview format, the story draws you in with the band members’ accounts leading up to their final concert and how the band fell apart. Once I picked up this book, I couldn’t put it down.

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The Dinner List by Rebecca Serle

You can have dinner with five people dead or alive. Who do you pick? Sabrina spends the evening of her birthday with her best friend, an old college professor, her father, her ex-boyfriend (Tobias), and Audrey Hepburn. The story alternates between the dinner and her relationship with Tobias. It’s a story of love, loss, and moving on. I cried once I reached the end and was also left with a feeling of hopefulness.

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The Unhoneymooners by Christiana Lauren

When the entire wedding party gets food poisoned, Olive gets the opportunity to go on her sister’s honeymoon in Maui. However, there is a catch. She has to go with the groom’s brother, Ethan, whom she has hated since their first meeting. For the trip, they must fake being newlyweds, and Olive realizes that being fake married to Ethan isn’t so bad. This book is funny, charming, and heartfelt. You’ll wish you had this romance.

There are plenty of books out there to get emotionally invested in. Just visit a bookstore or a library; you’ll be able to find anything. If you want, you can even take your significant other or your friends to help find the right book for you.

Remember that this Valentine’s Day, you aren’t alone, and that there are plenty of books in the bookstore.