Red is happy with his life, but uncertain about his future. College is definitely an option and he thinks he’d like to study business. Red likes working at Mom and Pop’s and he loves numbers, but his gran has big dreams for him and she is determined to see them come true. Red isn’t so sure about the idea of becoming a model, something Gran is positive will be a success due his unique look. For Red, his “pretty” face has always been a one way ticket to getting him bullied. Plus, Red is really grappling with his sexuality or lack thereof—he likes girls, just not to date, but one guy, the shy and quiet Mark Woods, makes his stomach do funny things.
When a ritzy group of strangers shows up at the restaurant and one of them takes an interest in Red, things start to happen all at once. Suddenly, everyone is sure Red should go to New York and pursue a modeling career—his Gran’s dream for him. Then he’s attacked one night by the local sheriff’s nephew and Mark shows up to rescue him. Now Red’s faced with some big decisions: pursue a relationship with Mark, who he’s still not completely sure is gay, or give in to Gran’s insistence that he try out the modeling gig in New York with the magnetic and somewhat scary Brock Wolfe, which means leaving the town he loves and the man he’s pretty sure he is falling for.
Better Red is a clever take on the old Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale that falls into the new adult genre with great success. So many elements in this novel come together to make it a fascinating twist on the age old story. First, there’s the wolf in the form of a smarmy modeling exec, Brock Wolfe. He is a dangerous man who manipulates everyone around him and is not above using subtle and not so subtle threats to get what he wants—Red. The part of the woodsman who ultimately saves Red Riding Hood is played by the shy and really just adorable Mark Woods, who has been watching out after Red for so long, unbeknownst to the younger man. And then there is Red—an androgynous and gorgeous waif who at the age of eighteen has the world at his feet, so to speak, but really only wants to stay near home and run a small business.
I went back and forth in this story as to who the bigger threat is to Red, simply because I often feel his Gran is both manipulative and way too controlling. From his diet to his future, Gran seems to have everything already mapped out for poor Red and refuses to accept that he isn’t as on board with it all as she would like. Often author Tara Lain choses to have Gran use emotional blackmail to push Red in to doing something; it caused me to really dislike the character and see very little difference between her and the more obvious bad guy—Brock. Even when Gran does an about face, the remorse she shows comes off as disingenuous. Perhaps I am meant to feel this way because she is set up as such a selfish character from the start and that’s what the author intended. I’m not really sure, I just know Gran is someone who rubbed me the wrong way.
The other odd element of this novel is the mysterious neighbor who appears on her porch at just the right time to warn Red of impending danger. I liked this character until she started interacting with Mark. Then it all got just a bit too unclear as to what exactly she is trying to warn Mark about and honestly I was baffled by the weird comments she makes to him. I understood she seems to be this oracle of a sort, often referred to as a witch by Red and Mark, but I felt the advice she offers to Mark is so obscure that it just became more filler than plot development fodder.
I did enjoy the relationship between Red and Mark—it’s quite lovely. I think the fact that they dance around each other for a bit, unsure if their feelings are reciprocated by each other, made for more excitement than them just falling into bed with each other. Mark and Red are both genuine nice guys, though I did feel they might be a bit young for the strong happy ever after they receive. Still, their romance arc is very sweet.
Better Red marks the beginning of a new series by this author and, based on this first installment, I am eager to read more.