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  • Writer's pictureHannah Zunic

It's Late and I Didn't Like This Book: A Review of Dress Codes for Small Towns by Courtney Stevens.

Updated: Sep 22, 2020

Typically, my reviews begin with funny anecdotes, or I’ll tell you to stay safe during Coronavirus; seriously wash your hands, wear a mask, and stay inside if you can. But today, I don’t have any of that. I don’t have a good opening for this book. And I don’t know my exact feelings for this book if I’m being quite honest. Today’s post is going to be a ride; a wild or tame one is yet to be determined.

Today’s review is on Dress Codes for Small Towns by Courtney Stevens. Published in 2017, this book has a John Green/John Hughes vibe to it. The story follows 17-year-old Billie McCaffrey as she navigates friendship, love, her sexual identity, family, and her faith in God. The book’s synopsis presents this book as a coming out story, but I find the book to be more of a character study on outsiders in small towns.

Book cover of Dress Codes for Small Towns by Courtney Stevens.

Billie is the preacher’s daughter from the small town of Otter’s Holt, Kentucky. She has a belief and faith in God, but she isn’t the stereotype of what a preacher’s daughter should look and act like. She is an artist, she walks to the beat of her own drum, and just wants to have stupid fun with her friends; which tends to lead them into trouble. And sometimes that’s big trouble, I’m talking arson here. Billie’s friend group may or may not have caught a microwave in the church basement on fire…and they may or may not have thrown a towel drenched in vodka onto said fire. This book is off to a great start.

Spongebob SquarePants attempting to put out a fire.
This may as well be how the characters attempt to put out the fire.

As for the other characters of this book, Billie has five close friends; known in the book as the Hexagon. Firstly, there is Janie Lee, the only other girl in the friend group. She is a violinist and comes from a family with a bad reputation. Her importance to this story is that she is one third of this story’s love triangle with Billie and Woods.

Man shacking head.
Janie Lee! You are better than being one-third of a love triangle!

Woods is the wannabe politician. He is a planner, a pianist, and the dad of the group. It feels like once a chapter Billie says that Woods will make an amazing mayor of Otter’s Holt. He also has a handy-dandy whiteboard named Einstein that the group uses a lot throughout the book. A lot of trouble and drama comes out of the use of Einstein.

The only other character in the story who carries any weight is Davey. He currently lives with his mom in her hometown of Otter’s Holt after his parents divorced not long ago. He is also cousins with Mash, another member of the friend group, and their grandfather passes away as they are committing arson. The only other thing of note is he definitely flirts with Billie throughout the book, and he’s a cosplayer having won a con’s costume contest five years in a row. Oh, there are also five random chapters from his POV. They do add to the story, so I’m not mad at them, but the book could have benefitted had the author wrote more of them.

The other two members of the friend group do basically nothing throughout the book. These two are Fifty and Mash. Mash, as previously stated, is cousins with Davey, and pukes like every other chapter. I don’t know why that’s the only personality trait he gets, but it is. Fifty is an ass-hole; there’s no other way to describe him. His ass-holiness is his only personality trait given to him. These two don’t matter; there relevance to the story is none at all.

Sorry not sorry.
Sorry not sorry if these are your favorite characters.

Honestly, all the boys get really muddled in my head. Davey is the only one who is has a bit of a personality to make him stand out. Is that because he has POV chapters? He cosplays? He wears eyeliner? All of the above? I honestly don’t know.

So what’s the plot of this story? If the characters are forgettable then how memorable is the plot? It’s honestly not that much better. The plot of Dress Codes for Small Towns is the story of a small town keeping hold of their most cherished tradition; the Corn Dolly contest and harvest festival. It’s also Billie being nominated for a Corn Dolly while she tries to prove to the town she isn’t just another teenager, and making up for his misdeeds. The plot is about the Hexagon dealing with crushes within the group. It’s about Billie questioning if she is into guys, girls, or both, and who she wants to be with. And it’s about Davey dealing with his dad’s pushing him to come back to live with him in Nashville, but realizing he’s growing to like living in Otter’s Holt.

Salem from Sabrina the Teenaged Witch writing.
I hope you took notes on the plot. There will be a question about it on the test.

This plot is all over the place. Everything I just mentioned is poorly written as there is too much going on. There is no focus in the book as the plot continuously jumps from place to place. Every plot line is glossed over, nothing is ever written about in detail. Stevens needed to edit, edit, edit. Half the plot lines in this book should have been cut, and focus should have been put on the ones that remained.

Billie’s Corn Dolly nomination is a prime example of this. She’s a rarity on the ballot as teenagers tend not to be nominated for the Corn Dolly, and it’s constantly said that no teenager has ever won. The winner is always a woman who has proven herself to the community for the work she does to better the place in which she lives. Just because Stevens consistently makes note of this, it’s glaringly obvious that Billie will somehow end up the winner.

Miss Piggy banging head on table.
It's so obvious it's not even funny.

Stevens never writes about the reasons why Billie has proven she should be on the ballot. It’s actually revealed that Billie’s friends tricked the Corn Dolly committee into putting her on the ballot, so when she ultimately wins in the end there is no reason given as to why she should win. It doesn’t help that Billie’s win is actually a deus ex machina thanks to the real winner. Sure, Billie did a community service project…after she sets the church on fire. She also creates a fundraiser to save the festival the book focuses on…but this is mainly because she enjoys the festival.

Wendy Williams being annoyed.
It's so aggravating to read this!

Everything she does throughout the book is selfish. It doesn’t take much examination of her actions to see what she is doing isn’t truly for the community. I can’t blame Billie for her actions; I still vividly remember what it was like to be a teenager and all my decisions were highly selfish. But the idea is to prove to the reader that Billie is a good person and deserves this Corn Dolly above anyone else.

Way too much fluff and convenience, not enough substance to drive the plot forward.

Somehow, the book lacks in one type of scene. Moments with all six friends together are few and far between. More time should have been spent with the Hexagon while they were performing their community service project or their working on saving the festival.

Elmo shrugging.
I don't know how the main group of characters are never together.

Unsurprisingly, Billie has feelings for multiple people in the Hexagon, and other members are crushing on one another too. Instead of spending time with Billie by herself building a couch out of newspapers, Stevens should have had Billie spend time with the group as a whole. It would have combined the plot lines of saving the harvest festival and the relationship drama. It would have streamlined the book as well as strengthened the believability of Billie deserving a Corn Dolly.

Even Billie’s sexual identity plot line felt glossed over. Again Billie just comes across as selfish as she kisses half of her friend group. She kisses Woods first and the two agree that they don’t have any feelings for one another. Billie also kisses Janie Lee after they both admit they like one another.

All of Billie’s friends however just go along with her kissing half the friend group. There are no ramifications for her actions, even with Janie Lee becomes genuinely upset by what Billie is doing. Billie is just using her friends, and instead of there being any actual conversation about how not okay that is, the entire group just forgives her at the drop of a dime. It makes no sense! By the time this all happens two-thirds of the way through the book, Stevens has written multiple times that there is no tolerance for romantic love between members of the friend group. There are far too many instances of the Hexagon doing things for Billie, but instances of Billie doing things for anyone else in the group are few and far. She’s just so careless with other people’s emotions and feelings.

Woman from the 1920's being disappointed.
I like Billie, but I also want to slap her.

Who Billie ends up with at the end of the book also bothers me. Billie and Janie Lee become a couple at the end. It doesn’t bother me that two women are together. Love is love, and as long are no one is being hurt and both people are over 18 then love whoever you want to love. What bothers me is that all throughout the text, Billie and Davey are constantly shown together whereas Janie Lee and Billie only have a small handful of scene together. Billie and Davey have similar interests, and I feel they have the most chemistry. To me, it makes more sense for a writer to choose a couple with a more developed relationship to end up together, but I’d be wrong.

Again, I have no problem with two women together. Billie is a valid bisexual woman who can have a relationship with whomever she chooses. I only bring up my problems with the final pairing because I felt Billie and Davey showed better chemistry and had more development written by Stevens than the pairing of Janie Lee and Billie. This is fully my personal opinion, and no matter who Billie chooses she is still bisexual character; no one can take that away from her.

"Love is love."

The only thing I have a good grasp on in this book are Otter’s Holt harvest festival traditions. There is the Corn Dolly ceremony and a dance to follow. The town loves its festival, but once the head investor in the festival dies, then the festival itself dies. The book is great at showing the slice-of-life issues.

The harvest festival issues bother me immensely though. If so many people love the harvest festival, then why are the only people committed to saving it are six teenagers? It makes no sense! The harvest festival is a beloved, town-wide event. For crying out loud, there is a giant Corn Dolly statue in town that’s a big tourist spot. And no one in the town cares! The harvest festival is the biggest thing that happens in this town, but nearly everyone is okay with it dying because no one wants to do anything to save it!

Miss Piggy banging her head on a table.
In the distance you can hear my screams.

This book is all over the place and I hate it. There are few things I actually enjoyed about this book.

I really appreciated that this book follows a girl who is an outsider in the town she grew up in. I have experienced first hand what it’s like to not be what people expect of you when you grow up in a tiny community. While my reasons for being an outsider were different from Billie’s, I empathize with her.

I also appreciate that Stevens created a character who is part of the LGBTQIA+ community and still has a strong religious belief. Being religious and being part of the LGBTQIA+ community are not mutually exclusive, yet I feel the media portrays that notion. At the same time, Stevens does make note that a portion of the LGBTQIA+ community are shunned and shut out of their homes upon coming out due to religious beliefs. I’m glad that she included that note while still having a LGBTQIA+ character with a strong religious background.

Sadly, these are the only two things I really liked about this book. I do not recommend picking this up. The language is just as pretentious as what you’ll find in a John Green novel. The characters are dull as hell. The plot was all over the place when you could find it. My time would have been better well spent by doing literally anything other than reading this book.

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