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.
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