Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Review: Game of Hearts by Cathy Yardley

3.5 stars
I received an ARC of this book from the author in response for an honest review. My opinion is my own. 

Game of Hearts is the third instalment in Cathy Yardley's Fandom Heart series, which began with one of my favourite books of 2016, Level Up. It was a cute, quick read with a great heroine, but I didn't love it quite as much as the two preceding books. 

After her brother falls and breaks his arm on one of his frequent holidays, mechanic Kyla hits breaking point with managing her family's auto shop alone. When an upcoming conventions provides her with the opportunity to get her dream costuming business off the ground, she makes the decision to bring in extra help for the auto shop: old family friend Jericho Salomon.

Jericho has no desire to come back to the home town that holds so many painful memories, but he owes Kyla's family a favour, so he tells the biker group he's a part of that he'll be away for a few weeks, and heads back to Snoqualmie. 

When I first read the blurb for Game of Hearts, I have to admit it made me nervous, since I'm not a big fan of the MC hero trope. But after the nuance of her last two books, I trusted Yardley to make it work, and she did. As a character, Jericho managed to embody the bad boy hero without comprising his moral integrity, which sits much better with me than the morally ambiguous hero. In fact, one of the major conflicts Jericho deals with is trying to suppress a revolt led by a member of the group wanting to move into more Sons of Anarchy territory.  

Yardley's previous heroines have been interesting, complex and independent women, and Kyla is no exception. As a female mechanic, she continually up against male customers who second-guess and patronise her as a female mechanic. Her way of handling this - being super chipper and doing Kegels - was both funny and relatable, and I think I might adopt it myself in my day-job, where Joe Bloggs frequently thinks he has a better handle on the healthcare system and medical stuff in general than a mere receptionist (read: a medical administrator who can work in over half a dozen capacities throughout the hospital, although there's nothing wrong with only being a receptionist). 

Another aspect of Kyla that I - and I suspect many other readers - found to be very realistic nuanced was her relationship with her brother. The lack of boundaries and continual giving on her side and taking is something that really closely and poignantly aped a lot of real-life familial relationships. Being my idealistic, total-HEA-craving self, I closed the book wishing we had seen a little bit more of a reckoning on this front, but on another level, I think that maybe that would take away from the realism of it. Maybe it's enough to know that - with Jericho as a support and circuit-breaker - Kyla and her brother will be able to achieve a more emotionally healthy relationship in the future.

Kyla and Jericho were both great, strong characters, and - while I was keen for them to get together - I didn't feel that the romantic arc was as strong as in the last two books. Some parts were as outstanding as always: the two are shown to be very sexually compatible (there are some hot sex scenes), and I liked the way Jericho supported and encouraged Kyla both with regards to her new business and her boundary setting. However, each was caught up with their individual conflict and character arc, which made it hard to see how they would actually function as a couple. This - together with the relatively late introduction of the romantic conflict and the Deus-ex-machina way it was solved - meant that I found the HEA less convincing or satisfying that in the other Fandom Hearts novels. 

As you can see, Yardley's previous work has left Game of Hearts with some pretty big shoes to fill. Even if I feel like it didn't quite achieve that, I still really enjoyed it, and I'd definitely recommend it, especially if geeky, funny and heart-warming contemporaries with great heroines are your thing. 

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Best Reads of 2017: Part 1

It's almost the end of January, and - after a long, stressful end to the year on the academic front - I've finally got my ass into gear to publish my Best Reads. In 2016, I set this post up as my 5 best reviewed reads, 5 best un-reviewed reads and 5 best not published in 2016. Given the marked lack of reviewing in 2017 comparative with 2016, I was unable to do the same this time around. Instead, I've just chosen my best 15 books of the year.

As always, narrowing a year's reading to a handful of books is extremely difficult. I chose the featured books not just because they were outstanding, extremely enjoyable books, but also because they stuck in my mind for some reason. This may be originality or uniqueness of concept, outstanding execution and exquisite worldbuilding and/or characterisation. It is almost always a combination of all of the above, sometimes also accompanied by a sense that a book I loved hadn't been given its due when it came out, or in the end of year Round-Ups. 

So, without further ado, I present you with my 15 Best Reads of 2017. (This post was initially just the first half, but then I never got around to doing my second post, so I edited this one and collated them into August).

1. The Future Chosen by Mina V. Esguerra
(m/f NA romance in fictionalised setting)

Technically, I'm cheating on this one: it was published in the last few days of 2016, but I couldn't bear to leave it off. It's the romance between two young political hopefuls in a fictional country where only one person from each 'family' is allowed to enter the public service, meaning that - in order to have a relationship - one of them would have to bow out of political life. When I reviewed it back in February, I called it "suspenseful and sweet and clever and just so good". To that, I would add, 'extremely feminist' and 'a nuanced portrayal of oligarchy and elitism'. 

2. Peter Darling by Austin Chant 
(m/m fantasy romance with trans MC)

This queer Peter Pan retelling was everything I never knew I needed. When he can no longer bear his life as Wendy Darling in the real world, Peter Pan flees back to his childhood refuge of Neverland, only to find that Captain Hook now inspires an entirely different set of feelings. The initially immature Peter and ennui-stricken Hook offset each other perfectly in a unique rendering of the enemies-to-lovers trope. Chant's Neverland is reminiscent of old Grimm fairytales, both in the trials and suffering the characters must face, and in the sense of hope and possibility offered by a world unfettered by mundane laws and boundaries. 

3. Pretty Face by Lucy Parker 
(m/f contemporary romance)

Parker's second foray into the London theatre world was just as thrilling and fulfilling as her first, the much-lauded Act Like It. I'm a sucker for characters snarking at one another to hide their attraction, and Pretty Face has that in spades, along with a heroine fighting against being pigeon-holed as a sexpot, a grumpy theatre director and an age-gap trope. 

4. Tempting Hymn by Jennifer Hallock 
(m/f historical romance)

The poignant and sweet romance between a missionary workman and a fallen Filipina nurse during American colonial rule in the Philippines, Tempting Hymn was another early-year review before I got dragged down into a vortex by university work. The heroine's story - that of being seduced, bearing an illegitimate child and trying to build a better life for herself and her child after being ostracised - is one of eternal relevance, as is Hallock's exploration of the differences between preaching the tenets of a faith, and living them. 

5. An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole 
(m/f historical romance)

I'm not alone in thinking that this was one of the most outstanding contributions of 2017. The story of Elle, a freedwoman who goes undercover as a slave in the South to spy for the Union during the Civil War, has garnered a lot of praise both inside and outside Romancelandia. That's how it should be, because it's an exquisitely crafted story with so much to say about relationships, race, gender, history and society. 

6. Beauty Like The Night by Joanna Bourne 
(m/f historical romance)

With her lyrical writing style, strong sense of historical place and continually strong central romances, it's hard to imagine Bourne releasing a book that isn't an instant favourite. In my opinion, the Spymasters series is unparalleled in its depictions of self-sufficient, strong heroines and the men who respect them, and - after following Sevie since her infancy - it was wonderful to see this youngest member of the Meeks Street family come into her own and meet her match. 

7. Small Change by Roan Parrish 
(m/f contemporary romance with bi MC)

In the last few months, Romancelandia has started talking about the "Cinnamon Roll hero", a term that calls up the caring and soft hero without implying he is anything less for his lack of alpha-ness. The hero of Small Change, Christopher, is - in my opinion - a total CinRo hero. He owns a sandwich shop, through which he meets Ginger, a prickly bisexual Jewish tattoo artist. Ginger and Christopher's two-steps-forward, one-step-back dynamic - in which Christopher shoulders most of the emotional labour as he attempts to sort through Ginger's relationship hang-ups - was unlike any other portrayal I'd ever read. I umm-ed and ahh-ed about including it because its nothing flashy, but in some ways it deserves its place here even more so for just being a quiet, emotional romance that so beautifully undercuts our cultural narratives about unlovable women and emotionally aloof men. 

8. The Truth of Things by Tasha L. Harrison

(m/f contemporary romance)

If I had to sum up The Truth of Things in one word, it would be 'powerful'. The central romance is between a cop struggling with the racism of his department and a photographer who finds herself the target of that racist brutality. To be honest, I can't really find too many more adjectives to describe it, because it was so many things at once. Just go read it. 

9. A Taste of Honey by Rose Lerner
(m/f historical romance)

Lerner's Lively St. Lemenston series is continually outstanding, and this novella in particular was a breath of fresh air. About a hesitant baker hero and his assertive and ambitious assistant, it's dirty, sweet and showcases the historical realities of the British working and artisan classes. 
(m/non-binary historical romance)

Like Lerner, Charles is an auto-buy author for me, and this conclusion to her 'Sins of the Cities' series didn't disappoint. As always, both the mystery plot and the romance are beautifully crafted, and anyone who says that a non-binary main character is too 'modern' or 'ideological' can bog right off. Pen was gorgeous, and Mark so bloody sweet.

(m/f, m/m & f/f historical romances)

Not being American or particularly into musicals (with the exceptions of a few classics that I grew up with), the whole Hamilton thing has mostly passed me by. But that didn't mean that I couldn't enjoy these novellas set around Hamilton and the Revolutionary War. They were all gems, but my favourite was undoubtedly Rose Lerner's story of a cross-dressing female soldier who accidently comes into her husband, who believes her dead.

(m/f historical romance)

Throughout this series, set around a fictionalised version of the Space Race, readers have seen the dire state of astronaut Mitch Dunsford and his wife Maggie's marriage. This poignant novella is their second chance romance, and watching them try to untangle their misunderstandings and communication break-downs and work out where to go from here is both heart-breaking and heartening, if that makes any sense. 

(m/f contemporary romance)

Wrong To Need You was another popular favourite this year, and it's not hard to see why. Angsty forbiddden romance, long-time love...this hit all my buttons. 

14. Dance with Me by Alexis Daria
(m/f contemporary romance)

Alexis Daria's 2017 debut Take the Lead and the follow-up, Dance With Me, were strong contenders for the Best of list. In the end, I went with Dance With Me because I am a total sucker for Russian-speaking heroes and prickly heroines, not to mention women who are going to do this damn thing all by themselves, thank you very much. 

(m/f/m erotica)

The Boys Next Door is probably my favourite erotica of all time. Eminently relatable characters, a solid plot, plus an off-the-scales heat rating. 

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Review: Sugar Pie Guy by Tabitha True

3 stars

For ages, I've been going between 3 and 3.5 stars on Sugar Pie GuyIt gets full marks for the concept and some aspects of the execution, while other - particularly the insta-love and some of the writing - didn't work so well for me. 

It's set in 1977 suburban Cleveland, where a small, run-down strip mall serves as the centre of the local community. Roberta "Bobbie" Bell's aunt owns a business there, and Bobbie and her friends decide to hold some discos for some good, clean fun, and to help Bobbie's aunt out of some financial difficulties. But when Randy is sent to Cleveland to realise his father's ambitions of turning the mall into something more profitable, the community must rally. Even though Bobbie and Randy are on opposite sides of this fight, they're drawn to each other, and soon Randy's not sure if selling the mall is the best idea after all. 

The romance between Bobbie and Randy developed quite fast, and I found it hard to accept that they could fall in love so quickly, especially given that they are on opposite sides of the campaign to save the mall, and would be entering into a potentially fraught interracial romance (as you can see on the cover, Bobbie is African-American, while Randy is white, of Italian extraction).  

Admittedly, the latter does give Bobbie pause, and constitutes part of the continued awareness of race throughout the book. I thought this was handled sensitively, reflecting both the progress made in the decade since the Civil Rights Movement ended, and the entrenched bigotry that remained. 

The American disco scene is not exactly my area of expertise, but my understanding is that it - like many cultural phenomena - arose from the marginalised African-American, gay and Latino communities, and I was pleased to see that reflected in Sugar Pie Guy. It is together with her cousin Luke, and his DJ partner, Sal, that Bobbie starts the disco, which is always intended to be a safe space for everyone: 
“Vel [the owner of the space where the disco is being held] knows that this is probably going to be a mixed straight and gay crowd, right?”    
“Right.  He doesn’t care. He says he saw everything there is to see during the war.”  Propping her chin on her hand, she warned Luke about the house rules for a private party at the Donuteria.  “No booze, no drugs, no nudity, no public sex…”  (14%)
The distinction between their "safe, suburban disco" (23%) and other, wilder ones is something that I found particularly interesting because of similar cultural phenomena in Australia and New Zealand, from the Blue Light Discos that my parents attended and that are still a fixture for young people in some communities, to the locally renowned "Lav" dances I went to in Sydney as a young teen. 

The 70s setting was expressed in campy dialogue and writing that - to me, as a modern reader - mostly hit a good level of 'cheesily fun'. Sometimes, however, I found myself rolling my eyes, particularly at the flowery, heavily euphemistic way the sex scenes are written. Bobbie and Randy's repeated use of the endearment 'baby' also got old, but I think has to do with my distaste for that particular pet name than anything else.

But, overall, I enjoyed the way Sugar Pie Guy brought both the carefree attitudes and more serious aspects of the 70s to life. It was a novel read, and I'd recommend it for anyone who - like me - is always looking for 'outside-the-box' historicals. I think there's a lot of untapped potential for romances set in the second half of the 20th Century in a variety of setting, and I hope to see more authors taking advantage of this in the future. 

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Overview: October Reading

Books read in October: 23
Books read YTD: 204 (Goodread Reading Challenge completed. YAY!)

Fiction Titles: 
  • 21 (12 historical romance, 8 contemporary romance, 1 paranormal romance)

Non-Fiction Titles: 
  • 1 (Travel/History)

Noteworthy Novels

Noteworthy Non-Fiction

Noteworthy Settings

  • Starling by Virginia Taylor - enjoyed the historic South Australian setting, but you can read my thoughts about the rest of the book here
  • Midnight Feast by Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner - I am continually surprised by how Barry and Turner can make me buy the HEAs in this series, while at the same time showing the sexist and hypermasculine environment of the 60s. 

Kick-ass Characters

  • Take the Lead by Alexis Daria - Professional dancer Gina Morales is a heroine who has set her professional boundaries, and doesn't take kindly to people who think that these are negotiable. Inspiring. 
  • Hamilton's Battalion by Courtney Milan, Rose Lerner and Alyssa Cole
  •  - literally every main character in this anthology deserves a mention. Just read it. 
  • Bountiful by Sarina Bowen - small business owner and single mother Zara has to decide if she should take a risk and open her heart to the father of her child. 
  • Midnight Feast by Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner - I'm still in awe at the authors' nuanced portrayal of a marriage gone sour, particularly their ability to imbue both characters with completely relatable and reasonable struggles, and the way that silence can become so full and heavy with preconceptions, misunderstandings and everything left unsaid. 
  • An Unsuitable Heir by K J Charles - The love story and discussion about gender and sexual identity (sans 21st century terminology) between non-binary protagonist Pen and his partner, Mark were really something.

This Month on the Internet...

Please be aware that some of the links this month discuss abortion, sexual assault and rape. I have added content warnings to the articles that deal with these themes. 

Other Literature, Craft and the Publishing Industry

Other Media

Women, Sexism and Feminism

Weird, Wacky and Wonderful

Friday, 27 October 2017

Review: Starling by Virginia Taylor

2 stars

This is a case where my reading experience and thoughts about the book differ greatly. I read Starling obsessively over the course of a single night, caught up in the crazy-sauce plot and the plucky heroine fighting for a better future. However, even as I did so, I was aware that the whole thing was steeped in toxic masculinity and the Madonna/whore complex. If Starling had been the old-school romance it so much resembles, I probably could have given it a bit of leeway, but it's not and my rating had to reflect the fact that this is a book - published in the Year of Our Lord 2015 - with some serious unchallenged on-page misogyny. 

So, the crazysauce plot is this: Starling Smith is fired from her new job at Seymour's Emporium because her male supervisor - who doesn't believe he needs female employees - tells the owner, Alisdair Seymour, that she is "annoying the customers". However Alisdair offers her another position: posing as his wife. He's had word from his sister that she will be visiting, with a mystery woman in tow. Desperate to avoid her matchmaking, he offers Starling 40 pounds for two weeks of pretending to be his newly-wedded wife, only to have his plan misfire when it turns out that the mystery woman is Lavender, the childhood love who left him to marry another man. As Alisdair's new plan - to use Starling to make Lavender, his real wife-of-choice jealous - also unravels, he realises that neither woman is what he thought, and that he feels much more for Starling than he anticipated. 

The whole thing was set up so that the women were continually played off against one another: Lavender against Starling, but also Lavender against one of Alasdair's maids, because Lavender is your classic immoral, manipulative slut who has to steal everyone's man, even if that man is a gardener. In contrast, Starling is such a shining beacon of pure and good white womanhood she could have stepped right out of a Victorian morality tale. She's orphaned, inexplicably graceful and ladylike despite her rough upbringing, and martyrs herself in silence, declining to defend herself when Alasdair repeatedly lays false accusations at her feet. 

Taylor makes it explicitly clear that Alasdair means to let Starling "set the limits" of  their physical relationship and would never "take her" without her consent, and yet there were several scenes that bordered on rape-y. Since he believes Starling to be an ex-prostitute, there's a lot of "I could have her, she's a whore, she wouldn't stop me"-type thoughts, and times where Starling says 'no', but Alasdair takes a while to respond, or reflects afterwards that she didn't really mean it:
Her fist thumped his shoulder and she tightened her face. He leaned forward and trued to take her mouth, but she turned her head away. "Stop. Let me go."The uncaring beast angled his hips and teased partway into the woman he didn't give a shake of his head for, while outside in the hall, separated from him only by a door, his family and his beloved Lavender made their way to their respective bedrooms.  Starling gasped. Using a whisper of repressed rage, she said, "Any further and I'll charge you five sh...pounds." His eyes flitted over her face. She could see him consider. Efficiently, as though he'd judged the price too high, he buttoned his trousers. (loc. 2490)
Throughout the book, there are practically big, flashing neon signs that point out Alasdair is actually Mr. Rapey McRapeculture. He spends a ridiculous amount of time slut-shaming Starling - either mentally or to her face - and, sometime after the above excerpt, Starling even says to him resignedly "You don't understand the word 'No'. You never have. To you the word means later." (loc. 2831). He is such a catch, even excluding the way he intends to marry Lavender and make Starling his mistress. 

At this point, my rating might seem a bit incongruous, but I gave Starling 2 stars for two reasons. The first was that is was so well-written and engaging, I shamefully almost didn't care about any of this stuff until I thought it over after finishing the book. Secondly, I really enjoyed the historical Australian setting, and historical romances set in Australia are unfortunately few and far between. Despite my overwhelming hatred for him, Alasdair's connection to the Ballarat goldfields has stuck with me, and sparked a desire to read a romance set against the multicultural backdrop of the 1850s and 60s Victorian or New South Wales goldfields. If anyone knows of one, please let me know - I can only think of MG/YA novels: some of Kirsty Murray's Children of the Wind books and A Banner Bold in the My Australian Story series from my childhood, and the newer The Night they Stormed Eureka by Jackie French, and of Zana Bell's gold rush romance Fool's Gold, which I really enjoyed, but which is set on the South Island of New Zealand

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Three on a Theme: Romance Novels for Outlander Fans

For some completely incomprehensible reason, Season 3 of Outlander is currently on a 2-week hiatus, so I thought I'd post a few Outlander-esque romance novels to get us all through this mini-drought. 

You can also use these as alternatives to actually reading the Outlander books, if you love the TV show but also don't want to directly give Diana Gabaldon your time and money, given the way she bites the romance-reading hand that feeds her

All three of the recommendations here are rich in history, setting, characterisation and plot. Two are set - or partially set - in Scotland, while the last incorporates the time-travel element but has an enticingly different setting. 

In terms of content, Midnight Honor is by far the closest to Jamie-era Outlander, as it features the Forty-Five Jacobite Rebellion (including Culloden, just in case your heart hasn't been ripped out enough already!). It's a poignant romance based on the true story of Lady Anne Moy, and her husband Angus, chief of Clan Chattan: he fought for the British, and she for the Jacobites. I suppose because it's set in the same difficult time, it has that same sense of hard-won and potentially transitory HFN/HEA as Outlander (although there is a definite HEA here, don't worry), as do the other two books in the same series, The Pride of Lions and The Blood of Roses

2. Highland Rebel by Judith James
Highland Rebel is set during the Glorious Revolution when the Stuart King James II was deposed in favour of his Protestant daughter Mary and her husband William. While campaigning in Scotland, English spy Jamie Sinclair marries Highland lass Catherine Drummond to keep her safe. As the Revolution unfolds, Jamie and Cat must navigate shifting political and religious alliances, as well as the finer points of their marriage. Jamie can be a bit of an alpha-hole at times, but it has the same saga-like feeling as Outlander, as well as the Scottish and Stuart elements. 

3. Beautiful Wreck by Larissa Brown
Since the previous two have adhered pretty closely to Outlander's Scottish setting, Beautiful Wreck is a bit of an outlier. But it has time-travel and a very Gothic, slow-burn vibe that I find very reminiscent of the first season of the TV show. It's set between the 22nd century, and 10th century Iceland, with the heroine being thrown back in time as she tests a machine that simulates the past. Brown conveys the harsh life and inhospitable environment faced by the early Icelandic settlers extremely well, as well as the sense of adapting to a new life. 

If anyone else has some more suggestions for Outlander-esque romances, hit me up! I'd love to hear from you. 

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Overview: September Reading

Books read in September: 25
Books read YTD: 181

Fiction Titles: 

  • 24 (11 historical romance, 7 contemporary romance, 5 speculative fiction romance)

Non-Fiction Titles: 
  • 1 (History)

Noteworthy Novels

Noteworthy Settings

  • Beauiful Wreck by Larrisa Brown - this does double duty with cool settings. First is an futuristic Earth, where people are grouped by which era of the past they choose to emulate. Then the heroine is accidently sent back in time to 10th century Iceland, where the weather and isolation make for hard living. The whole thing feels wonderfully Gothic. 
  • Deep Diving by Cate Ellink - short, cute story about two professional athletes who meet while on holiday on Australia's Lord Howe Island. 
  • A Queen from the North by Erin McRae and Racheline Maltese - Set in a alternate England where the Yorkist/Lancastrian enmity of the War of the Roses continues into the present day. A young woman of the Yorkist nobility is given the opportunity to marry the Prince of Wales (although I'm not sure that title still holds) and thus improve the lives of Northerners. There were some elements of worldbuilding that I questioned, or that didn't quite work for me, but it was fun and inventive nonetheless.
  • Snowspelled by Stephanie Burgis - Another alternate England this time based on the premise that Boudicea fought off the Romans and established a world in which women deal with politics, and men with magic.

Kick-ass Characters

  • A Taste of Honey by Rose Lerner - I've consistently loved the way this series shines a spotlight on the lives of Regency-era middle and lower classes, but Betsy and Robert struck a particular chord. They had very different ways of approaching everyday business concerns, and watching them figure this - and each other - out both charming and poignant. 
  • Snowspelled by Stephanie Burgis - After losing her magic in an attempt to prove herself worthy, Cassandra is adrift, but by no means powerless.

From the Internet this Month

Other Literature, Craft and the Publishing Industry

Other Media

Women & Feminism

Weird, Wacky and Wonderful
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