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.
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