Danika reviews The Very Nice Box by Laura Blackett and Eve Gleichman

The Very Nice Box cover

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I will say I think this book works best if you go in without a ton of information, so if you’re up for a kind of weird slowly unfolding character-based queer story, I highly recommend checking this out sight unseen. I listened to it as an audiobook and thought it worked really well in that format!

If you’re still reading this, don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Ava is a designer who works for STÄDA (which is pretty much Ikea), designing boxes. She is devoted to her job, and her life is very neatly regimented. She’s isolated, with basically her only social interaction being a standing lunch date with a coworker, where they talk about a reality show they both watch.

Some of this is her personality — when she’s stressed, she imagines a hex wrench perfectly fitting into a bolt to calm herself down — but the isolation is because she’s still reeling from trauma. She was in a car accident that killed both her parents as well as her fiancée. Since then, she’s buried herself in her work, keeping a strict schedule to keep the anxiety from creeping in. All of this order is upended when her new manager Mat arrives, who offers her a ride when her car breaks down and pries open all her defenses.

Mat is charismatic, transforming STÄDA with his solutions-oriented style and big personality. Doors seems to open for him, and Ava finds herself falling for him and how she feels when she’s with him. She’s finally moving on from the accident and feels like a different person. Then, this character-centric story that has been slowly unfolding turns out to be a different story.

(Vague spoilers) I was having trouble going to sleep, so I decided to listen to this literary fiction, slow-paced story to relax. Then I hit That Chapter and bolted up in bed. (True story.) (spoilers end)

I loved reading about Ava, who is such a distinct character. I can understand people who don’t appreciate her point of view — for instance, she identifies everything around her by brand, and she really is passionate about the Very Nice Box she’s designing. But I appreciated getting to know her, including the walls she’s built up and her vulnerabilities. She dislikes Mat at first, but once she’s fallen for him, she’s defensive against anyone who doesn’t.

I’ve been in an office job (though work from home) for a year now, but before that, I worked retail for more than a decade (and briefly taught), so it still feels like a foreign world to me. My particular job is the best place I’ve ever worked, but now I can see the mechanics behind working a desk job, and I have new appreciation for stories like this that feature office politics.

Before this title came out, I had trouble finding any information about whether it was queer, which is frustrating, because it definitely is. Ava dates mostly women and was engaged to a woman. There’s one scene where she joins a dating app and it asks her which genders she wants to see. She selects all genders, then unchecks men, then checks men again — which is highly relatable. Her best work friend (and really, only friend) is also queer, but they both chafe against the company Spirit Team’s attempts at inclusion with a gaudy rainbow tree put up in the office. I love stories with queer friendships, and this one does a great job.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but suffice to say, this ended up being a great commentary about Nice Guys and male entitlement. It also wraps up in a way I hadn’t expected but was very satisfying. (Spoilers, highlight to read: I love that the Very Nice Box was Chekhov’s gun in this story: as soon as the dimensions were described, I thought it reminiscent of a coffin, but I thought it just symbolized how death was haunting her through her PTSD and grief. The matter of fact way Ava and her friend both shrug at Mat’s fate is amazing, and it’s fits with the ambiguously satirical tone. Also, that the happy ending is Ava adopting that ugly dog is *chef’s kiss* amazing and a perfect queer conclusion. (end spoilers)

Danika reviews My Lady’s Choosing: An Interactive Romance Novel by Kitty Curran and Larissa Zageris

Yes, this is a choose your own adventure romance novel! I don’t read a lot of romance, but I couldn’t resist this premise, at least once I heard that there was a path where you could turn your back on the suitors and run off with a lady instead! This was, above all, super fun. It’s Jane Austen-ish, so if you’re a fan of riffs on Austen, this is well worth picking up (though I’m not an Austen fan and I still loved it.)

I fully expected to find the F/F option and only read that storyline (see the ladies in the bottom right corner of the cover?), but I ended up enjoying it enough that I followed almost every path. Depending on which choices you make, you end up in very different situations and genres, including a Gothic Jane Eyre-esque plot line, or more of a Pride and Prejudice angle.

When I was first making my way through the book, I actually hesitated before pursuing the lady love interest. It just didn’t feel like the way this romance novel would go! It’s one thing to choose between (basically) Mr Darcy and Mr Rochester, but running off with your female friend seems unfathomable. But that’s the whole point! Imagine reading a M/F romance novel: you’re plodding along, all the love interests have been introduced, and your friend (whom you clearly have more chemistry with than the dudes) throws out that, hey, if you want, you can travel to Egypt with her instead. You reach that point in the book and sigh. Image if she had taken her up on that! Imagine if instead of heading to the drafty castle or trading quips with the asshole rich guy, you just skipped town and went on an Egyptian adventure instead! Only this time, you can!

I kind of was expecting the F/F storyline to be an easter egg that you would have to seek out, but it’s pretty obvious. In fact, the chemistry between you and your friend seems more palpable earlier in the narrative than with any of the men. It’s also interesting because while most of the paths you can take are versions of famous romances in literature, the Egyptian storyline is completely different. Search for an artifact stolen from an Egyptian museum, and encounter your lady love interest’s angry ex-girlfriend! Maybe end up in a lesbian, pirate gang! (Yes, you can do that. Definitely try to get to that point.)

One of the fun things is that because this is a romance novel, you can’t really lose. Romance conventions dictate that you have a happy ending, so it’s interesting to see how you can get away with a happy ending no matter what you do. I highly recommend backtracking and following a few different paths, just to see how different they are. I loved this bisexual, choose your own adventure, historical, satirical romance novel. It was a joy to read, even when it was M/F!