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I have a problem with perfectionism. My problem is that until very recently I thought perfection was attainable. It turns out getting straight A’s year after year can give a person a false sense of herself. And that false sense crumbles under the pressure of real lived experience.

Tiny Beautiful Things was recommended to me a long time ago, but I was sure I’d never read it. Life advice from Cheryl Strayed? It didn’t make sense to me. I had read Wild. I knew the kind of life choices she’d made. Why would I want to take life advice from someone who had shot heroin in a motel room?

Fast forward a few years—I still haven’t shot heroin, but I’ve fucked up in other ways. I’ve done things I’m not proud of, that I cringe to recall. I have memories I try to bury down deep so I don’t have to look at them. When Tiny Beautiful Things crossed my radar again, my perspective had changed. Who better to give advice than someone who has made a crapload of mistakes? What’s the alternative, anyway—find someone who has always done things right? If such an anomaly even exists, what kind of advice would a person like that be able to give? “Oh, you know, just be more perfect, like me.” How is that useful? And more importantly, how did I spend so many years of my life being such a self-righteous idiot? (I’m still a self-righteous idiot sometimes. This I know, now.)

Tiny Beautiful Things was a cathartic reading experience for me. I started listening to it on my way home from work and cried so hard I thought maybe I should pull over because I couldn’t see. Life is hard. Harder for some people than others. But hard for everyone. People are messed up and make bad choices and shit goes wrong. But there is honor in owning our mess and working to make it better. Most of the advice in the book starts from that place.

This was the right book at the right time for me. I’m glad I got off my high horse.

Love stories are going to get me through this crazy year. Outside, the country may be losing its collective mind, but in here it’s warm and cozy and imperfect people still get happily ever afters. Courtney Milan’s books have become my new favorites because of how she incorporates real issues from history. It makes me feel like I’m getting an escape, without a guilt hangover afterward for wanting to disengage. Social class struggles, women’s suffrage, lady scientists, evolution—it’s all in there and it’s all awesome. And unlike a lot of series I’ve read, each book is better than the last. (Needless to say, I have high hopes for the fourth and final installment I just bought in audio!)

If too-good-to-be-true, perfectly beautiful, socially demure ladies are your jam, these books might not be for you. Milan’s characters buck stereotypes and challenge their men and the world around them at every turn. In The Heiress Effect, Jane is a big, curvy girl with ostentatious taste in fashion and a sizeable dowry that makes her a target of all manner of unsavory individuals. A relationship with an up-and-comer in government who is also the bastard son of nobility seems impossible, but…well, you know in Romance World, nothing is impossible.

In The Countess Conspiracy, Violet is a botanist and an expert on reproduction and inheritance, but as a woman she isn’t allowed to present her theories herself. For years, her best friend Sebastian has published her work as his own (and since evolution is such a scandalous idea in 1867, his speeches often result in vegetables being thrown at his head by crowds of angry skeptics). Will Violet ever be able to take credit for her groundbreaking work—and will she be able to overcome the painful baggage in her past and admit her true feelings for Sebastian? Swoon!

In both books, the male leads love their ladies because of their oddness, not in spite of it. Neither Jane nor Violet fits easily into polite society, but both are fiercely intelligent and loyal. Finding someone who loves you for you and doesn’t want to file off your rough edges, that’s the dream, isn’t it? Well, that, and discovering the chromosome.