Monday, 21 December 2015

Reflection: #WNDB & Beyond a Single Story

Whether they realise it or not, most Australians are familiar with the concept of a single story. It's when foreigners ask us, unironically, about keeping kangaroos as pets. Its the entire sub-genre of Australian Outback romances. I've been polling all my romance reading friends about these, and none of them have ever read an Outback romance. Even though these books are (sometimes) made and distributed in Australia, they are primarly meant for external consumption. It's the advertisements on my cable television provider for a program in which some minor British personality goes bush to search the "real Australia". Cue images of horse-wrangling, cattle stations and crocodiles, and British Guy patronisingly explaining everything despite having a day's experience of the place. It's not that the stories of rural Australians aren't worthy or important - in fact, in our internal media these are often sidelined - but their presentation to international audiences invalidates the 85% of Australians who live in urban environments. 

And countries and regions all around the world have similar experiences. Often, we even encourage the stereotypes of the outside world to brand ourselves for tourism and business purposes, Australia's Where the bloody hell are you? ad campaign being a prime example, but this doesn't make them any less alienating or dangerous.

Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's talks about how we are often lead to believe that one story about a particular place or people is the only story in her influential TED talk entitled The Dangers of a Single Story. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend watching it, or reading the transcript.

She recounts how, on coming to America for university, she realised that people saw Africa as a place of "beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS", and related to her through this lens. It was not their fault; this is what the media and popular culture presented to them with little differentiation between nations, regions, cultures and religions. Adichie, however, was not in the same boat. She says:

...because of America's cultural and economic power, I had many stories of America. I had read Tyler and Updike and Steinbeck and Gaitskill. I did not have a single story of America.
I thought of this quote when I was reflecting on my #WNDB Challenge as it comes up to the end of the year. Despite the fact that I had sought out books featuring characters of varying ethnicities, religions and sexualities, I have realised that 14 out of the 20 books I read were set in the US, and all but two took place in either the US or UK (and when I say the UK, I really mean England with the odd Scottish setting thrown in; Wales and Northern Ireland don't get a look-in). I undertook the #WNDB Challenge to counter hegemony, but ended up perpetuating it in another form. Unless they had immigrated to the US or UK, the people of the periphery were still silenced. No doubt about it, the fault was in my selecting skills, but this also reflects what I was exposed to on Goodreads, Amazon and other blogs.

I'm always loath to buy into romance/'light' fiction vs. 'literary' fiction binaries, but I do feel like the romance world is dragging its feet in this regard. The Man Booker prize has opened itself up to writers from all over the world and novels from all over the world are feted as literary masterpieces (this is has it's own set of problems as well, don't get me wrong). In contrast, all of the 2015 RITA Winners were set in the UK or US. 2014 had more diverse settings: one Outback, one partially set in Bangkok and one set in various European locations (but with the characters based in London). In 2013, we were back to all US or UK, excepting two fictional locations.

I have no doubt there are many romance novels set outside these conventional locations out there, but they are not making it past the literary gatekeepers and so languish in the dusty corners of the Kindle Store. In 2016, I'm making it my mission to find them. The aim is to review books from countries around the world in an aim to help myself see beyond the single story, and I would be grateful for any recommendations. 

As always, there will be an element of working this out as I go along. For example, should the author have to be from the country in which the book is set? The only things I'm sure about is that I would like to read more than one book from each country. After all, it would be pretty useless to counter a single story with a single story.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Review: The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

5 stars

I want you to imagine two things: One, think of Kate and Wills not as clotheshorses, curiousities or stuffy royals, but as flawed twenty-somethings who have to sort their shit out with the whole world watching. Secondly, imagine that Kate wrote a tell-all book about that experience. Because that's pretty much what The Royal We is: a thinly-veiled, no-holds-barred, somewhat sensationalist imagining of the royal courtship. Except instead of Wills and Kate, we have Nick and Bex, an American on exchange to Oxford. It sounds terrible, but it wasn't. And, from a card-carrying member of the Australian Republican Movement who thinks we should ditch the royals, that's quite a testimony. 

The thing that made The Royal We work was its humour. Bex's narration is searingly honest and often very ambivalent, and yet she always remains hilariously droll. Not only do she and the other characters have a sense of humour, they also have funny little quirks, like Prince Nicholas, who loves crap TV so much he votes for people on reality shows. 

And yet, I wouldn't want to give the impression this book was a laugh a minute, because it wasn't. Somehow, I ended up crying. Twice. I blame this on the fact that Cocks and Morgan make the reader empathise with just about every single character in the book, who are all superbly drawn, vulnerable and human. When I started audibly sobbing, I told myself to take a break, and yet I kept reading. There was something compelling about The Royal We, a need to know what happened next, and the ending is far from a foregone conclusion. There was, of course, a HEA, but it was a real-life HEA, an acknowledgement of imperfection and mistakes and a decision to stick together forever in spite of them. 

The HEA is all the more poignant for the ups and downs Nick and Bex and their circle of friends and family go through. As I said, this is no whirlwind fairytale, but a long book set over several years. It took a while to read, and if your response to it is anything like mine, it will need commitment, because it's not the kind of book you put down willingly. 

There was the stray Americanism at which I ground my teeth, and sometimes it also required a greater-than-usual suspension of disbelief, but, ultimately, the level of absorbstion it induced in me makes it impossible to give The Royal We anything but 5 stars. 

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Review: Badlands by Seleste deLaney

2 stars

Seleste deLaney's Badlands is a Steampunk romance, set after an alternative American Civil War that saw the US divided up into the Union, the Confederates and the Badlands. The Badlands is a frontier, where the Union expel their criminals to be rounded up and imprisoned by the Amazonian women who live there. Ever is one of those women, a military commander for Queen Lavinia. When the queen is killed in a brutal attack, Ever escapes and embarks on a mission to bring home the new Queen from her university in the Union before there's a massive power vacuum and whatever mysterious enemy they're fighting manages to wipe the Badlands off the face of the earth. Spencer Pierce, captain of the airship that picks up Ever after she flees her people's settlement, reluctantly assists her in her mission, but he's got problems of his own. The attack on the Badlands has meant he was unable to complete the last cargo run of his indenture, leaving him under the thumb of a powerful Union Senator.

Badlands suffered from all-round poor characterisation. For a start, Ever was an insufferable and nonsensical heroine. There was a massive disparity between her rhetoric and her actions. She was intolerant and judgemental and stubborn beyond belief, and didn't seem to have the good sense God gave a flea. She's meant to be a warrior, but you'd never know it the way the the hero has to coddle her, even though Ever decided Spencer is weak and idiotic when they first meet. (Spoiler alert from here on in). Next time we turn around Ever's got a serious case of insta-love. Which, I'd just like to add, she tries to banish by sleeping with another crew member. Spencer's insta-lust was a bit more understandable, since Ever has some kind of aversion to clothing herself appropriately, but why he puts his crew in danger for her I'm not quite sure.

In fact, the motivations of all the characters were very patchy. The villain of the piece was inexplicably evil, and I can't help but think that there would have been much easier ways achieve his aims. The ship's doctor, Henrietta, wants to marry Spencer, although once again I'll be damned if I can work out why she's set her heart on that. I mean, the guy was the most unobjectionable bit of the whole book, but he doesn't exactly have a lot in the way of prospects and Henrietta didn't actually seem to be in love with him.

It's getting 2 stars, and that's mainly for world-building; I liked the broad strokes of the setting, even if I found some of the smaller details a little incongruous. 

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Review: In Her Closet by Tasha L. Harrison

3.5 stars

The official synopsis of In Her Closet describes it as such:
Entertainment columnist Yves Santiago unapologetically lives her life as carelessly as a man. Her day job keeps her flush in men, with few regrets and even fewer mistakes. By night, she details her exploits on her anonymous sex blog, Lust Diaries.

Yves leads a happy, delightfully filthy life. Until she meets nonfiction editor Elijah Weinstein.

Moss green eyes, sun-kissed shoulders and a mouth so damn sensual that it should have a NC-17 rating, this perfectly suited and coiffed, Fifth Avenue prince is everything she never wanted yet can't resist. He methodically lays waste to the walls she's built around herself, looking to get closer to the real Yves Santiago.

With the the promise of a fairytale turned real, Yves must dig into the depths of her past. But once she shakes out the skeletons in her closet, will she be ready for all Elijah has to offer?
It sounds like a fun, sex positive romp with maybe a wee bit of angst, right? But if you thought that, you'd be wrong, just as I was. In Her Closet was so dark it needed neon lighting, perhaps as massive signs reading 'trigger warning: domestic violence and near-rape'. If someone had told me that when I was looking at buying it, I probably would have steered well clear. However, I actually quite enjoyed In Her Closet and this has left me a bubbling stew of mixed feelings.

Yves is set up initially as an anti-heroine, coming across as a tad reckless and self-absorbed. That's not a coded censure of her sex life, but it is influenced by it. In the aftermath of her encounters with men, she was sometimes quite callous, including towards her brother, who was indignant that Yves would sleep with his boss at the potential expense of his career. As the book introduces the ghosts of her past - namely an abusive, stalkerish ex - it becomes clear that this cognitive dissonance is a coping mechanism. The reader is able to relate to her, even pity her, but the downside of this transition is that the sex positivity also disappears. In fact, Yves goes from "living as unapologetically as a man" to being racked by doubt, shame, guilt and feelings of being complicit in the abuse she suffered. It's an understandable response, given the deeply conditioned social mores that tell us that, as women, we are responsible for the ways men act towards us.

Yves does an admirable job of challenging these concepts, but they remain an insidious undercurrent throughout the book. By and large, I respected Yves as a heroine. She was strong, independent and stuck to her guns. For example, her ex was been a friend of her brother and remained very close to her family, so when his abusive nature is publicly revealed and Yves' mother refuses to believe it, Yves promptly tells her to leave.

If I've talked a lot about Yves and not much about Elijah, it's because there is not much to say. He seemed like a nice guy, but most guys would in comparison to the ex. In retrospect, the two were largely developed in opposition to each other. Elijah cares about Yves' feelings, Cesar doesn't. Cesar was a controlling, vindictive mothereffer, Elijah (mostly) isn't. Cesar continually slut-shamed Yves for her body and demeanor, Elijah doesn't. Elijah's kink isn't really explored that much, and it made me a bit uneasy because Yves doesn't really seem to know what, exactly, she's getting into. But she also has a right to make her own decisions without being judged. It's not my job to label things as problematic - that's been a way of policing women's sexuality for generations - but I will say that there were certain aspects of In Her Closet that produces knee-jerk reactions for me.

Overall, In Her Closet was an emotional and enthralling read. In several ways, it broke and inverted stereotypes associated with erotic romance: Yves is sexually experienced, Elijah is not domineering and the implications of non-consensual sexual violence are discussed. It's left me with a lot to think about, not least of which is whether or not I will read Everything She Never Wanted, the second instalment of Yves and Elijah's relationship. I think not, actually. I don't like the idea of Yves going through yet more emotional trauma, and from the Amazon reviews it sounds like that might be in store.

In Her Closet
also represents the culmination of my WNDB challenge to read 20 books with diverse characters. It's served its purpose admirably, widening and refining my understanding of the world. I don't think I'll be taking part in the challenge next year, but that's not to say I won't be reading diverse literature; I'll be reading diverse because I enjoy and respect it, not because I need to meet a self-imposed quota.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Recommendations: Suffragette Romances

Today, it is 122 years to the day since the women of New Zealand walked into to polling stations to place their vote in a parliamentary election. This might seem like a very small anniversary, but it was the first time any self-governing nation had allowed women to vote. The next day, Elizabeth Yates became the first female in the British Empire to be invested as a mayor. 

Today, the New Zealand's suffragette movement is immortalised in the wonderful pedestrian lights of downtown Wellington, which feature the outline of a woman in late Victorian dress. Similarly, prominent suffragette Kate Sheppard is depicted on New Zealand's ten dollar notes. 

But there is another element to the story of New Zealand's fight for suffrage: thanks to the work of lesser-known Maori suffragettes like Meri Te Tai Mangakahia, Pakeha (white) and Maori women received suffrage simultaneously. To put this in perspective, New Zealand's neighbour, Australia, did not relent and give Aboriginal Australians - male or female - the vote until the mid 1960s,.
To commemorate this turning point in world history, the day it was definitively proven that the sky would not fall in if women voted, I give you some of my favourite romances featuring suffragettes.

The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan
If you haven't read this yet, then I seriously question your life choices. Set in the late Victorian era, it's about Frederica 'Free' Marshall, who runs a suffragette newspaper and is facing off against mounting opposition. She's also a key part of the hero's revenge plan. The hero, Edward, is the ultimate swoon-worthy beta hero, and the two share some of the best dialogue ever written. 

A sweet and fun romance featuring that old trope, the will with the unfair clause. Avery Thorne's uncle has stopped him from inheriting the small property he was expecting, instead leaving it to one Miss Lillian Bede. Avery will only inherit if the determined women's rights activist cannot make the property turn a profit within five years. But since a woman couldn't possibly be successful at managing a property, all Avery has to do is whittle away five years. Except that no matter where he travels, Miss Bede's letters find him, and he can't quite bring himself to hate her. 

When Lucy Greenleaf's employer finds out she's been teaching his daughters about that unnatural woman, Mary Wollstonecraft, she's turned out without a reference. Desperate, she turns to her childhood friend Trevor Bailey. Trevor's fought tooth and nail to leave behind his destitute childhood in the rookery, and he's about to cement his position in London society by opening a fashionable hotel. He wants to help Lucy, but he can't have radical women's groups taking place in his hotel! The Likelihood of Lucy's emphasis on the theoretical basis of the suffragette movement is different to the way most authors approach it, and Trevor and Lucy's battles for supremacy are super hot. 

*Sigh* It's another woman who just wants to run her business in peace but can't because the misogynists feel threatened. During the Great Fire of Chicago, Lucy Hathaway caught a baby someone threw from the window of a burning building. For the last five years, she's raised the girl as her daughter. She meets financier Rand Higgins because she needs a loan for her ladies' bookshop, but quickly realises that he is the child's father, who believes that his daughter perished in the fire. They have to reach an agreement regarding custody, but Rand's position at the bank means he can't be seen to have anything to do with those pesky suffragettes, and Lucy's not about to give up her cause, especially not when she's being pressured to do so by powerful me. The Firebrand suffers a little from precocious child syndrome, but other than that it's a sweet story. 

Emilia Cruz is a thoroughly modern woman; member of the Women's Suffrage Alliance and writer of salacious stories under a pseudonym. When visiting author Ruben Torres disparages the work of one 'Miss Del Valle', Emilia can't help but defend her work, and Ruben can't help but respond to her passion. The setting of the Caribbean in 1911 and the debate surrounding romance literature and its relationship to feminism makes A Summer for Scandal a stand-out. This was a last-minute addition to this list, since I only finished it last night, but I expect a full review will follow.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Review: The Rearranged Life by Annika Sharma

3 stars

The Rearranged Life by Annika Sharma was...fine. It certainly wasn't a page-turner, but it neither was it tedious. Perhaps it is most accurate to say that I wasn't a fan of The Rearranged Life as a New Adult romance novel, but that I did appreciate it as an exploration of cultural conflict.

Nithya hasn't ever really considered breaking out of the mould her Indian parents and culture have created for her. She's not quite sure if she chose pre-med of her own accord, or if it was simply the most palatable of the acceptable options for an good Indian child, but she's committed to becoming a doctor. She hasn't thought overmuch about marriage, but she always assumed that it would be semi-arranged. After all, someone outside her culture could never entirely understand or accept her Telugu-speaking Brahmin family, and this would ultimately lead to conflict. Then Nithya meets James at university, and suddenly images of a different life worm their way into her mind.

The Rearranged Life is not actually a book about Nithya and James so much as it is what Nithya thinks about her relationship with James. The romance between the two was very low-key and completely chaste, and James himself remains more a nebulous symbol of white America than a fully-fledged character in his own right. As Nithya internally explored her options, she rehashed the same things over and over again: He'll never understand my world, I have to think of the unity of the family over myself, I don't want to rock the boat. 

When Nithya's internal debate worked, it worked well. She had a strong voice that demonstrated the difficulties navigating two worlds and two sets of norms and expectations. As another character says, first-generation Indian-Americans "have to be as Indian as the people in India and as American as the Americans" (loc. 650). Nithya doesn't know if, by bringing James home, she will alienate her parents and community, thus also losing the part of herself that values those connections. And the tricky thing is, she will never know unless she actually does it. So, even if I found the writing a bit repetitive at times, I accept that maybe that's the point: Nithya's not just reminding the reader of her situation, she's reminding herself of the stakes. 

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Review: Song of Seduction by Carrie Lofty

5 stars

Song of Seduction by Carrie Lofty was a beautifully crafted romance set in Salzburg, Austria in the early 1800s. Arie De Voss is a composer, renowned for his Love and Freedom symphony. Unfortunately for Arie's conscience, he didn't actually write it. Widowed Mathilda Heidel has always done her best to fade into the background. Her talent at violin set her apart from other young women, so she never pursued it, until her friend insists she attend lessons with Herr De Voss. Mathilda has idolised Arie since she first heard him conduct when she was sixteen, but he's nothing like she imagined. He's prickly and rude and forward...until suddenly he isn't. 

Both Arie and Mathilda were wonderfully complex and imperfect characters. Arie was anxious and hated socialising. Sometimes, he was even mean, and yet somehow the reader is still inclined to sympathise with him. In contrast, Mathilda was running scared from her ability to play music by ear, not wanting to stand out any more than she already does, thanks to her parent's interfaith Catholic-Jewish marriage and its tragic end. She married Jürgen, a local doctor, precisely because he was staid, and I really appreciated that Lofty didn't take the usual tack with this. More often than not - perhaps to justify the 'one great love' ideal and provide tension - widow heroines have had abusive first marriages, but this is not the case with Mathilda. Jürgen was kind and gentle, and after his death Mathilda is left feeling guilty that she hid her musical ability from him. The way Arie helped her come to terms with this and many other things, including her female sexuality, counterbalanced his tendency to be a bit of a bastard at times, and left the reader, ultimately, on his side. Arie and Mathilda's love was no idealised rainbow and unicorns affair, but a more realistic and honest acceptance of the other, idiosyncrasies and all. 

The three-part structure really reinforced this. There was no fade to black as soon as the characters decided they loved each other, and it was moving to be able to watch Mathilda and Arie's struggles. No matter what romance novels tell us, the decision to be together is more often the beginning of a story than the end of one, and I was glad to see this reflected in Song of Seduction.

Lofty's writing is lyrical in a way reminiscent of Eva Ibbotson's romances, and not just because both take place within the German-speaking world. Like so many people, Ibbotson's romances were amongst those that introduced me to the genre, and - until now - I have never found an author who so recreate a world long gone in such an evocative and all-consuming manner. If I occasionally rolled my eyes at Lofty's adjectival descriptions of music, it probably has more to do with me being a musical Philistine than her writing, and even I can appreciate how central music was to the characters and their relationship. 

Overall, Song of Seduction was so good that I've been stuck in a serious book funk ever since finishing it. Nothing is helping, so I'll probably end up reading the Ibbotson book that started it all, The Morning Gift, for about the bazillionith time.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Review: Star Dust by Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner

4 stars

I kid you not, when I first read the blurb for Star Dust by Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner, I actually choked on my own tongue, and that's not a metaphor. From this, we can deduce two things:

1. I owe a lot to modern society because I'd probably be dead if natural selection was still a thing.

Set in 1962, Star Dust the story of two neighbours: Anne-Marie Smith, a divorcee with two young children, and Kit Campbell, famous astronaut and ladies' man. Anne-Marie's just left her philandering husband despite widespread censure, and the last thing she wants - or needs - is to get involved with another man cut from the same cloth. Kit would like to see more of the woman next door, but he's not really one for kids or commitment, and he needs to be focusing on one thing: reaching the stars.

The 1960s conjure up images of Woodstock and Vietnam War protests, but Star Dust reinforces that mainstream society was still extremely conservative, and, for women, repressive. When Anne-Marie discovered that her husband had never been faithful to her, people told her 'these things happen'. When she decided to leave, people implied she'd never make it on her own. And now that she has, men proposition her and women gossip behind her back. To complete the realistic 1960s vibe, there's widespread smoking, conversations about Doris Day and the ominous shadow of the Cold War and 'the Reds' underlying everything.

Although I wasn't particularly a fan of their early interactions, as the book continued I became more invested in Kit and Anne-Marie's relationship. I would have liked this to be more drawn out towards the end of the novel, as things got serious; everything got tied up quite quickly and it left me with the impression that their proclamations of commitment to each other were a tad premature.

I really appreciated Anne-Marie's children were integral to her and Kit's relationship. Often, I find storylines where the hero or heroine has children to be problematic. Sometimes, it seems like the author has never actually met a child of the age that they are writing about, and then there's the 'why, yes, I'm a single parent, but you'd never know it the way my children rarely make an appearance and totally disappear for sexytimes'. Seeing Kit go from warily maintaining he knows nothing about children to taking the kids fishing and helping them with their homework was one of by absolute favourite parts of the book.

Unfortunately, thanks to a misspent youth of middle-of-the-day television re-runs, I couldn't help but picture Kit as Major Nelson from I Dream of Jeannie, which I really could have done without. But since I have had to suffer through that, I've included a picture of Major Nelson in his NASA suit so that you will be forced to do the same.

But joking aside, Star Dust made a fantastic change of pace from more historical historicals, and I hope that it blazes a trail for more 1960s and 70s romances, because I think that there's a lot of untapped potential there.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Review: Him by Elle Kennedy and Sarina Bowen

3.5 stars

This review of Him by Elle Kennedy and Sarina Bowen is going to be short and sweet. I recently read Sarina Bowen's Understatement of the Year, which is also a M/M hockey romance, and in a lot of ways Him is very similar. It makes sense; they share (half) an author and in both novels the heroes are college hockey players who were childhood friends before their diverging paths pulled them apart. I enjoyed Understatement of the Year more, but I can't put my finger on why because I read it too long ago.

Anyway, Him is about Jamie Canning and Ryan Wesley, who spent their summers together at hockey camp as children. They were inseparable, until they were eighteen and Ryan pushed things too far, or so he thinks. But when they come face-to-face years later, playing college hockey for opposing teams, it's clear that Jamie not only doesn't hate Ryan, he's not even sure why his best childhood friend ditched him all those years ago.

Ryan and Jamie's yearning for each other - both as friends and lovers - was well done. However, there was less tenderness between them than the heroes of Understatement of the Year, and this somehow felt like a bit of a missing link between their friendship and romantic relationship. I also enjoyed the second half much more than the first. There's a sense that time is running out, and both Ryan and Jamie are telling themselves that it was never anything serious anyway. 

Both heroes were also both caught up in their own thoughts and interpretations. Since Ryan is out, while Jamie has always considered himself straight, Ryan's internal monologue was very much along the lines of "OMG, I'm taking advantage of him", while Jamie is grappling with the realisation that he is bisexual. Mostly, it worked, but, at times, it came across a bit stream of consciousness-y (I admittedly have a very low tolerance for stream of consciousness, thanks to studying James Joyce in high school). But overall, a solid friends-to-lovers novel.

Friday, 30 October 2015

Review: Sleeping with Her Enemy by Jenny Holiday

4 stars

In a review several months ago, I blasted the current trend in contemporary romances to a) have a power imbalance between hero and heroine, with the hero often being the heroine's boss, and b) construct these so there is an element of coercion or non-consent. I was so fed up with this that I stopped reading contemporaries all together. 

I'd bought Sleeping with Her Enemy by Jenny Holiday at the same time as I bought That Other Book, and it has sat on unopened my Kindle ever since, tainted by association, and by my concern at the implications of the last few lines of its synopsis. Dax and Amy are office enemies until one day Dax comes across Amy weeping because she's just been left at the altar. The blurb ends:
Dax can't help but feel badly when he sees Amy mid-meltdown. Next thing he knows, he's gotten her good and drunk, and they're making out like two teenagers. And since neither of them want anything serious, why shouldn't they be frenemies-with-benefits?
After I lost my patience with contemporaries, I looked at this and I was like "Umm, because she JUST GOT JILTED AND SHE'S DRUNK". Then yesterday, I was doing some Kindle spring-cleaning and, having forgotten my initial objections, started to read. 

I'm glad I gave it a shot, because Sleeping with Her Enemy was sweet and funny and hot. Not only were my suspicions about the hero unjustified, Dax is up there with Rafe from The Shameless Hour as one of the most upstanding romance novel blokes ever. Example A is in the exact scene that is described above, where Amy is drunk and trying to get Dax to take her home for her (not) wedding night:
Although she'd never believe it, he did have some principles. Well, one: consent was essential, and since consent couldn't reliably be given when under the influence, he made it a practice to deflect the advances of any woman more than a little tipsy.
*feminist swoon* 

In short, Dax was a gem and I have a serious case of lovelust. But us mere mortal girls never had a chance, because Amy was a snarky red-lipped, vintage fashion-loving babe. She was a bit of a hot mess - but never too much - and she and Dax shared a wicked sense of humour, which is not as common as I'd like it to be in contemporaries. I also related to the fact that Amy's grief was at losing the life she had planned for herself, rather than at losing her fiancee. This made her desire to have a fling with Dax much more understandable. They declare a temporary ceasefire, but the heat starts rising and they find themselves circling closer and closer to a relationship. However, it was not until the final pages of the book that they formally became a couple, and I would have liked to see an epilogue that provided a glimpse into their lives together. 

After finishing Sleeping with Her Enemy, I looked at the other two books in the same series. Neither stood out very much, but I am certain, like Sleeping with Her Enemy, the blurbs don't do them justice. So I'll read them, because I've learnt from my mistake and now trust Jenny Holiday's ability to spin gold from straw.

How could I not when she writes so wonderfully, and her alter ego on Twitter is the hilarious Trope Heroine, who thumbs her nose at (unimaginative) romance novels? And who also thinks the whole emotionally unstable boss-hero thing has gone a bit far: 

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Opinion: The Goodes Saga and Anti-Indigenous Racism in Australia

In the past few years, much ink and many more bytes of data have been spent discussing Adam Goodes. For those outside Australia or those who can't quite remember how exactly we got to where we are today, Goodes is an Indigenous Australian player of Aussie Rules football. While playing a game in 2013, a young girl - only 12 or 13 years old - yelled out "ape" at Goodes as he ran past. It was not the first time such a slur had been directed at Goodes on the field, but that day he alerted security, and the girl was ejected from the game.

It was a small thing in of itself, but it acted as a massive catalyst. The next year, Goodes was recognised as Australian of the Year for his "elite place in AFL history" and for being a "great role model and advocate for the fight against racism" (NADC 2014). He was featured in a prominent awareness campaign run by the Australian Human Rights Commission, including the below video:

Throughout the 2014 and 2015 AFL seasons, Goodes was booed loudly when he ran onto the field, or whenever he had the ball. This precipitated a massive national debate about whether or not the booing was racially motivated. Many people, the booers amongst them, said that it was just because Goodes was playing for the opposite team, and that really, in a way, it was a compliment. They booed because he was such a good player. Others admitted that - in a roundabout way - they booed Goodes because of his race: by speaking out against racism, he was being divisive, and there was no place for people who tried to stir trouble. There were messages of support as well of course, but they were drowned out amidst the vitriol. Goodes took leave from playing, and later announced his retirement from professional football.

But this week, he was thrust into the spotlight - and the national debate - again, when department store David Jones announced Goodes as one of their brand ambassadors. Their Facebook page was quickly overrun by racist posts and declarations from people saying they'd never step in David Jones again. Once more, there were messages of support, and through counter-mobilisation and Facebook's curation systems, these ended up being the more dominant of the two.

But the question remains, what exactly is Australia's problem with Adam Goodes? We call it racism - and it is racist - but it's not that quite simple. From 2011 onward, Indigenous model Samantha Harris was a David Jones ambassador, and no-one said a peep. But Adam Goodes has become a flashpoint, a litmus test of Australian society's pretensions and self-delusions, our ideas of what we are, and what we are not.

In this massive, bubbling pot of ill-will aimed toward Goodes, racism is only one ingredient. It's mixed in with ethnocentrism, nationalism and Tall Poppy Syndrome. An inherent part of the Australian psyche, Tall Poppy Syndrome is where those who have succeeded in their field or "get big heads" are forcibly humbled or 'cut down' by a begrudging public. Another analogy that is used is the crab mentality, based on the observation that, if one crab attempts to climb the wall of the bucket in which it is confined, its compatriots will drag it back down. However, all crabs are not dragged back down with equal force. There's an undeniable aspect of "knowing your place" that makes attacks against non-white Australians - particularly Indigenous Australians - extra vicious.

So, it's not necessarily Goodes' indigeneity that offends people, it's that he's Indigenous and proud; Indigenous and taking a stand against racism; Indigenous and, ultimately, not playing by society's tacit rule of turning the other cheek. Because it's mostly okay to be an Indigenous tall poppy. So long as you are apolitical and don't make a point of being Indigenous, everything is hunky dory. Australia at large will only acknowledge your ethnicity on its terms, when it wants to hold you up as an example for feel-good moments like this year's rugby league grand final. You'll used by the Patriot brigade to show that look, they are not racist, they don't have anything against Jonathan Thurston, Deborah Mailman or whomever.

But as soon as you become a poppy that is swaying independently of the winds of society, the status quo is upset and everything changes. Society's blindfold is ripped away, and we are forced to look at our own ugly reflection in the mirror. We don't provide a fair go for all, and we are not a shining beacon of multicultural success. And that's when the claws come out, when people's perception of themselves, and the world they live in, is threatened. That's why we have this segue so common it's almost a cliche: "I'm not racist, but...". People are reaffirming their identity, their place in the world, before they launch into an attack on those who threaten it. And no-one is more threatening than Adam Goodes, who reminds Australia that he is not just Australian by miming an Indigenous war dance or refusing to take racist taunts lying down.

We saw the same phenomenon last week, when Indigenous actress Miranda Tapsell, stated on television that, because of the racism she has endured, she "did not identify as Australian". The online response was a textbook case of what I have been describing, with many comments in the vein of this one:
What a divisive, inflammatory show and a hateful, one-sided woman. Address the venom that comes out of "her people's" mouths....Cry me a river...not listening to sooks with thin skin...Broken record, victim, victim.
I couldn't help but from altering spelling and grammatical errors as I came across them, but you still get the picture. The insult of "sook" - meaning a cry-baby or weak, overly emotional person - is a favoured tool to pull Indigenous non-conformers back down the bucket walls and into the mire. The idea is that all the wrongs done to Indigenous Australians are in the past, and "they" should "get over it". As a concept, it is entirely based on the national self-delusion of equal treatment and equal opportunity I have discussed above. It's ironic, given Australia still commemorates the myth of the brave and egalitarian ANZACs one hundred years later. For one, it's "lest we forget", and for the other, it's "you sook, why are you flogging a dead horse?".

By retiring and stepping mainly out of the public limelight, Goodes has refused to be the escapee crab. He's tried to remove himself from the bucket that is the Australian public sphere. Unfortunately, it's followed him to a position at David Jones that has hitherto been so unremarkable it barely receives an inch or two in the business or fashion sections of the newspaper.

The break up between Goodes and the Australian public has been as acrimonious as the rest of their relationship. But, hopefully, one day, Australia will be grown up enough to say "It's not you, it's me", and Goodes will be able to rescind the metaphorical AVO he's taken out on us all. In the meantime, there's always another crab. Australia will turn to ripping them down, and Goodes will be all but forgotten.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Review: The Sleeping Night by Barbara Samuel

5 stars

Most of the time, I choose what I read with the care of someone choosing the paint colour for their house. Instead of holding swatches up again and again before buying sample pots and testing it on some small areas, I read the synopsis and the reviews, and, if it sounds like there's possibility it's a heartbreaker, I sometimes even skim-read the last chapter. Heresy, I know, but if I wanted inexplicable angst and sadness, I'd read the newspaper. And there is that I hate more than when something with a high sadness ratio slips past my vetting system and surprises me, even if there is an ultimate HEA. But this doesn't mean I don't understand the appeal of a emotion-laden book. Once in a blue moon - usually after a run of books that have left me completely apathetic - I pick out a book I know is going to make me feel. 

The Sleeping Night by Barbara Samuel was such a book. Given that it's an interracial romance set in segregated Texas immediately after World War Two, it was never going to be an easy read. At one point, I had to put it down to wash the dishes, and I spent the whole time fretting, because I honestly couldn't see how it was all going to be okay. My angst that there wouldn't be a HEA grew when I visited the author's site, and she had listed it with her 'women's fiction' novels and not her 'romance' ones. But it ultimately did turn out all right, and, in the end, my emotional involvement made The Sleeping Night one of the most moving books I have ever read, half romance and half treatise on violence and discrimination.

As children, Isaiah High and Angel Corey were best friends, despite their different races. But as they grow to adulthood, their parents realise things cannot go on as they are, and Isaiah is forced to 'learn his place'. Worried he'll end up on the wrong side of a mob one too many times, Angel's father convinces Isaiah to join the army, while Angel marries another, 'more suitable' childhood friend.  But when Angel's husband dies in the navy, Isaiah sends his condolences from the frontline in Europe and they start to correspond. The war ends, and Isaiah returns home, and it's here that our story begins. Angel has been ostracised for continuing to run her deceased father's grocery shop, which primarily serves the black community, and for resisting the advances of one of the town's foremost citizens. For Isaiah, Jim Crow is chafing like never before after the freedoms of Europe and he can't make Angel understand that any improperity between them - imagined or real - could mean the end of both of their lives.

The frustration that Isaiah and Angel had at being constrained by race and gender, respectively, was palpable. Isaiah was a tantalizing combination of standoffishness and endearing characteristics like humour, sensitivity and a desire for knowledge. With her baking, love for children and belief in a benevolent God despite the ugliness of the world around her, Angel had the potential to be a Mary Sue. However, Samuel side-stepped this neatly by giving her very human doubts. Given the setting, it would have been unrealistic for Angel not to have been affected by the stereotype of the hypersexualised black male. Several times, she starts to question whether she is safe with Isaiah, before reminding herself that he's Isaiah, her best friend. And they were, first and foremost, friends. I really loved that, and, ultimately, it was their transition from being friends to friends-and-lovers that puts this book on the re-reader shelf.

Because they could interact so little, they they did the old 'love-you-from-afar' thing. It's hard not to pine right along with Angel and Isaiah when each interaction was laden with so much unsaid, and this is why the intermittent inclusion of the letters they sent to each other during the war - along with the more honest versions they discarded - are so touching.

The spectre of the war hovers over the whole book. It obviously transformed Isaiah's life, but there was also a secondary character called Gudrun, whom Isaiah found after she was released from Auschwitz and brought to her aunt in his and Angel's hometown. Watching Gudrun come out of her shell and form a tentative friendship with the lonely Angel was very sweet. I had also never considered that the US Army was segregated, and blacks and whites were given different jobs.

Despite the joy I took in reading The Sleeping Night, I took a while to warm up to it. The Southern speech patterns and language were quite jarring until I got used to them, and while I enjoyed Isaiah and Angel's letters from the war so much, I disliked the prologue and epilogue that had an elderly Angel publishing them. I suppose it provided closure in that it allowed them to come back to the South and put the ghosts of the past to rest, but the 'all is forgiven and forgotten and society has rectified its wrongs' subtext of it just didn't work for me. Also, as nice as it was to see Angel and Isaiah as a devoted old couple, the part of me that hates heartbreak didn't want to deal with the fact that one of them would shuffle off this mortal coil soon enough, and leave the other behind. I'm too much of a realist to imagine a Notebook-style scenario.

Nonetheless, for its emotiveness and beautifully constructed romance, as well as its thought-provokingness, The Sleeping Night well and truly deserved its 5 stars.  

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Review: Angelborn by L. Penelope

3.5 stars

First of all, please take a moment to appreciate the beauty of that cover. Secondly, thanks to that random tweeter who introduced me to L. Penelope. And lastly, let's have a moment of silence to mourn the fact that Angelborn was a novella and not a full-length novel. Once again the format has left me feeling like I accidentally got an appetizer instead of a main meal. I'm still hungry and that's a testament to Angelborn, really. It was SO GOOD, but it all got wrapped up too quickly and I never really got to know the hero as much as I'd like and the epilogue was too short and now I want to cry.

Angelborn was a fresh combination of New Adult and Paranormal. Half-angel, half-human Caleb found his soulmate once, but she died before he could ensure they would be reborn together, and he was banished to the nether realm of the Wasteland. Now, by some miracle, he's escaped back to the human plane and to his reincarnated soulmate, Genna.

Being able to see and interact with the dead has defined Maia's whole life. She's managed to keep a relatively low profile at college, but then Caleb starts hanging around her roommate; sometimes Genna can see him, and sometimes he's invisible to everyone but Maia. Caleb's running out of time, and Maia's running from everything, including the boy who is clearly not meant for her.

Frankly, I found another character, the angel Helix, to have much more personality than Caleb, but I understand that he is an inherently amorphous character, having had his experience as a human constructed around his soul mate and then being stuck in limbo for 70 years. I loved Maia though; she was witty and tough, and yet all too vulnerable.

The world Penelope built for Angelborn was distinct, and I respected that it did not rely on a Judeo-Christian framework. The idea that angels harvest human souls because they act as power sources for their realm of Euphoria was neat, and, like many aspects, I wished there had been more detail.

Partly because Penelope's worldbuilding was so absorbing, my list of unanswered questions is massive. How did Caleb's angel dam meet his father? Why did Maia have the ability to see the dead? How did Wren, who brought Caleb back to the human realm, know how to escape the Wasteland? I get that a lot of these things are meant to be ambiguous and that the character themselves don't understand, but there are so many interesting titbits I want to know! Hopefully, Penelope chooses to expand this world, but even if she doesn't, she's a wonderful storyteller and I look forward to reading some longer works of hers.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Review: True Pretenses by Rose Lerner

4.5 stars

The hero of True Pretenses, Ash Cohen, and his brother Rafe are successful con men, so it's a surprise when Rafe decides he wants to live an honest life. Ash is upset and perplexed but he starts looking for a way to give Rafe what he wants. When he comes across Lydia Reeve, she seems like the answer to his prayers. With her father dead and her brother uninterested in the family's patronage of the local town, Lydia desperately needs her marriage portions released to her so she can continue to fund her charitable and political work. All Rafe has to do is make her like him, and then propose a marriage of convenience. But things become complicated when Lydia decides she would rather marry Ash, and Ash is forced to reveal a long-held secret that sends his brother running.

Even though Ash is the thieving son of a Jewish prostitute (his words, not mine), and Lydia is a aristocratic lady and consummate hostess, the two have a lot in common. They've both spent their lives dedicated to their younger brothers, and are cut adrift when their brothers no longer want such a close, quasi-parental relationship. Both also are used to working hard to ensure that people like them, and are unsure of who they are beneath this. Their interactions were witty and touching and, overall, they were one of the best couples I've read in a long time. I found their honesty with each other particularly refreshing. Unlike many characters, particularly heroines, both Ash and Lydia were mature, sensible and did not dissemble.

However, the stand-out aspect of this book was, for me, Ash and Rafe's Jewish heritage. It places them a precarious position, so much so that Ash has banned them from speaking Yiddish even when they are alone, and stays celibate so that no-one will know that he is circumcised. It was another stark reminder to my privileged little self how the long and bloody history of the European Jews neither starts nor ends with pogroms and the Holocaust. Lydia is forced to confront her prejudices; when speaking to Rafe, she makes a comment about blood libel, the persistent rumours and accusations that Jews stole Christian children to use for nefarious purposes in rituals. Rafe angrily replies:
"Stories like yours aren't real. They're an excuse to murder Jews in the street and feel good about it. What would we want your children for, when we can barely feed our own? If that filthy slander gets out in the town, they'll hang Ash to a lamppost." Loc. 1332
A few days after I finished True Pretenses I came across an article on We Need Diverse Books where 7 Jewish authors speak about their experiences of anti-Semitism, and together these two texts made me re-think the way I thought of anti-Semitism. When there was a prominent incident of anti-Semitism against schoolchildren in Sydney last year, I was befuddled, unable to understand how people could be holding this ugly sentiment when I had never seen or heard it, but I now realise I've just never noticed it before, because it wasn't directed at me and so I was oblivious to the micro-aggressions happening around me, or that I perpetrated myself. 

Moving back to True Pretenses, I felt the ending was not as strong as the rest of the book, but that could have been because it was past midnight and I was bleary-eyed and yet still didn't want it too end. I can't put my finger on what could have been done differently or better, I just felt like it was a fairly standard ending didn't conform to the rest of the book, which had been so devoid of tropes. However, the effect on my enjoyment of the book was negligible, and I'm only really bringing it up as a justification for not giving it 5 stars. I have dilly-dallied between giving this book 4.5 and 5 stars for the last week, and it's made me realise I should probably codify my rating system somewhere, so I'll be working on that next.

Overall, True Pretenses was the second of Rose Lerner's books I've read, and the first, A Lily Among Thorns, was equally wonderful. I'm excited to see what she produces in the future, and I really hope that Ash's little brother Rafe gets his own book.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Review: Trancing the Tiger by Rachael Slate

3 stars

Trancing the Tiger by Rachael Slate is a paranormal romance with a unique premise. It's set in an alternate modern day or near future, where the earth - particularly North America - has been ravaged by the Red Plague. Having lost her parents to the disease, Lucy Yeoh comes from her home in the US to her father's birthplace of Penang, Malaysia to meet her uncle. Unbeknownst to her, she's also walking into Ground Zero of the divine war that unleashed the plague. And fighting on the frontline is Li Sheng, who seems to think that he, Lucy and some other misfits are the hosts of the spirits of animals of the Chinese Zodiac, bestowed on them by the mythical Jade Emperor. To Lucy, it soon doesn't sound as crazy as it seems. But as her relationship with Sheng (and his resident Tiger) heats up, so too does the fight against the rival Kongsi, the Council of Elders, and the agents of the Plague God.

The world of Trancing the Tiger, particularly the setting of Penang and use of Chinese mythology, was well-done, as was the character of Lucy. When Sheng kept trying to convince Lucy that she was one of 'The Chosen' who bear an animal Zodiac, my inner geek started reciting "Into each generation, there is a Chosen One. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons and the forces of darkness...". And even though she wasn't a Slayer, Lucy actually was a Buffy-esque heroine. She was a good combination of diffidence and strength, given she was facing life in a strage place after the death of her parents. It was Sheng who I wasn't so keen on as a character. I didn't really get a sense of him; it seemed like he had almost no character traits outside of his alpha-male Tiger-ness, his desire for Lucy, and his sense of duty to the Chosen who made up his Kongsi.

There were also some other elements I felt didn't work so well. Perhaps it's because I'm not a big reader of paranormals, but there were several things that happened that I found quite weird, such as Lucy's Rabbit randomly deciding to fling herself all the way to the ceiling of a room, where she hung in a manner more befitting a gecko than a rabbit. And although I enjoyed the ending, I felt like there was something of a lull and then a great flurry of action, as opposed to a gradual build toward a denouement. 

On the whole, though, Trancing the Tiger was a solid read, and I'll probably read the next in the series for the freshness of the premise.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Review: The Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale

4 stars

Shannon Hale's Book of a Thousand Days takes its title from a saying of the main character's mother: that you have to spend a thousand days with someone before you can truly know who they are. And yet, the heroine of Book of a Thousand Days, Dashti, has such a strong character voice that I felt I knew her long before our time together was up. 

In Book of a Thousand Days, Dashti commentates her transition from being a 'mucker' peasant to a lady's maid, followed by years of darkness as she is imprisoned in a tower with her mistress, who refused to marry the lord her father had chosen. As her lady slips further and further into depression, Dashti realises their food stores will run out long before the seven years of their prison term and must discover a way to escape before they both succumb to hunger.

The synopsis left me a bit doubtful about how the author would maintain the reader's interest when the characters and setting were so static and isolated. However, Dashti's reminiscences from her childhood and her sketches of their surroundings, as well as the occasional interaction with the world outside, stopped the reader from becoming bored. In fact, if I was to find fault with any part of the plot, it would not be that part of the book at all, but rather the ending. I felt like everything was stitched up too neatly and quickly at the end; Dashti's fate turned on a sixpence, somewhat devaluing the previous complications with her love interest.

From Dashti's descriptions and sketches, the setting of the Eight Realms is lyrically developed as a fictional version of medieval Mongolia, but it is only since I finished the book and did some googling have I come to realise that aspects of Dashti's world that I assumed to be fictional were in fact true parts of traditional Mongolian culture. 

Thanks largely to the strength of Dashti as a character and Hale's Mongolian-inspired world, The Book of A Thousand Days managed to simultaneously be whimsical but authentic, simple but moving. It's meant for an early-teen audience, but it makes a breath of fresh air for anyone looking for something a little bit outside the box.  

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Recommendations: Some Swashbuckling Romances for Me Hearties

Since today be the Nineteenth of Semptember in the Year of our Lord Two Thousand and Fifteen, all ye landlubbers have hereby been given leave to pretend ye are sailing the seven seas...

That's right, Talk Like A Pirate Day has rolled around again. If you are not aware of Talk Like A Pirate Day, you have clearly been living under a rock, but you can get up to speed by reading about its origins here. For those whose seafaring talk is more lacking than the powder monkey's deck-swabbing skills, you can brush up on your lingo and get some first rate pick-up lines here. And for those looking to extend their vocab even further, why not incorporate some German pirate slang into your repotoire? Frankly, I think English pirate lingo can never match the beauty of expressing surprise by saying "Da fällt mir doch der Papagei von der Schulter!" (That makes the parrot fall off my shoulder). In honour of this most important holiday, I have collated some of my favourite seafaring romances that will make the parrot fall off your shoulder: 

To Catch a Pirate by Jade Parker
This book was my introduction to the pirate sub-genre, and was one of the books that made me realise I loved romances. As a YA, it's reasonably chaste, but my dog-earred copy attests that it's still an excellent read. It features Annalisa, the daughter of a British governor to a small Carribean island. When her father is accused of allowing pirates to steal the money meant to build his colony, Annalisa sets off to bring the true perpertrators - including the dashing James Sterling - to justice.  

The Pirate Wolf Trilogy by Marsha Canham
Marsha Canham is the queen of all things pirate, (and her Kindle editions are wonderfully cheap), but the Pirate Wolf Trilogy, following members of the Dante pirate clan, are stand outs.

The Captain of All Pleasures & The Price of Pleasure by Kresley Cole
Kresley Cole is better known for her paranormal romances, but these two novels feature characters and romance that rival any of her later work. In The Captain of All Pleasures, Nicole Lassiter takes her father's place in the Great Circle from London to Sydney, competing against her father's long-time rival Derek Sutherland. The Price of Pleasure centres around Derek's brother Grant, who is sent to find Victoria, an English girl supposedly lost at sea.

Seduced by a Pirate by Eloisa James
A companion novella to The Ugly Duchess, Seduced by the Pirate was a quick and entertaining read, featuring James' characteristically quirky characters. Sir Griffin Barry jumped out of a window on his night of his wedding to an arranged bride. 14 years later, he comes home, unsure of what he'll find.

P.S. In a sentimental aside, I'd like to dedicate this post to Safak, who liked nothing better than making all his classmates swab the decks, fight imaginary 'villian' foes and ultimately get eaten by sharks during our Class IV drama classes. I secretly loved being your captain much more than being your teacher and I'll never find another first mate as dedicated as you.
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