Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Review: Luck Be a Lady by Audra North

3 stars
Release Date: 23/01/16
I received a free ARC of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review. My opinion is my own.

It took me a while to get into Luck be a Lady, and I didn't enjoy it as much as Audra North's other books, particularly my gold standard, Giving It Up

Set in Ireland, Luck Be A Lady is the story of Aoife Gallagher and Michael Faraday (like the scientist). They were childhood friends, until Aoife overheard something that sent her running. Fifteen years later, after Aoife has built up an internationally successful cosmetics company based in the US, the two are in Dublin. Michael makes contact when he thinks Aoife might be able to help him professionallly, but he soon realises that he's interested in more than her connections.

My main problem with with Luck be a Lady was that the relationship between between Aoife and Michael was on the weak side. First, a miscommunication kept them apart for 15 years. To North's credit, the two of them got this sorted out quickly and in a pretty straight-forward manner. However, after that, we keep being told that they really enjoy being together, but their purported connection is told and not shown. To me, it doesn't feel like there's much extended dialogue or many extended interactions between Aoife and Michael shown entirely on the page. We're not shown that they have a good time together, instead Aoife informs us that when she is "with Michael, [they] hav[e]...fun simply talking" (loc. 1242) and "it was amazing to her, how easy it was to be with him....She loved talking to him, laughing with him..." (loc. 1651).  And big moments, like the one where they essentially formalise their relationship and decide that they're together, even if it's long-distance, take place off-page: 
They were going to try to make it work, though.  They'd agreed it was worth a shot, even if it meant a long-distance relationship and they'd only been together for a few weeks....They'd barely slept last night, talking and trying to store up enough moments to last them through the next few weeks apart. This morning, they'd said goodbye....
If I'd actually seen this conversation and some tender goodbyes play out, I think I would have been much more emotionally invested in the black moment and resolution of their relationship. 

As it was, much of the interesting, potentially hashing-out-a-relationship stuff got skipped over in favour of drama from external sources, which I didn't like, but which prompted both Michael and Aoife to think about themselves, their emotions and their relationships, which I did like, although I still felt this was somewhat inhibited by the weakness of their romance.

Although their relationship wasn't everything it could have been, both Michael and Aoife were characters with interesting facets. Michael's passion for Ireland and her history was sweet, while Aoife's experience as a teenager has led her to value and prioritise phyiscal beauty. The exploration of this theme was well done, as Aoife slowly challenged this mentality with Michael's help. Similarly, I enjoyed the way Aoife, having built her business up, slowly comes to terms with the fact that she is no longer enjoying her work and explores other options.

Overall, quick and easy summer (or, I suppose, winter if you are in the Northern hemisphere) read but not all that I'd hoped, given the strength of North's previous work. 

Friday, 23 December 2016

Reflection: Concluding Thoughts on Beyond a Single Story

At the beginning of the year, I dedicated myself to try and read more books set in different locations with something I called Beyond a Single Story. The initial idea was to read one historical, one contemporary and one non-fiction book set for a bunch of countries or regions. In the end, I didn't end up reading all three categories for any one country, because, as the year wore on, I became increasingly disillusioned with the way I'd set the whole thing up. It was, at best, arbitrary and, at worst, promoting bad representation. 

I had pre-set categories, and I wanted something that checked a particular box. But there were often slim pickings in a particular category, especially when it came to historicals. I had called the category 'historicals' because I knew that it was unlikely that I would be able to find historical romances for all the countries, and was expecting to have to branch into general historical fiction. This plays into the lack of diversity and ownvoices in historical romance, but also the the tension that romance writers - particularly POC - feel between the HEA requirement of the genre, and the stark realities of life for POC in many historical periods.

The work of Beverley Jenkins, Alyssa Cole, Piper Huguley and other authors writing romances with African-American protagonists demonstrate that the two can be successfully and beautifully reconciled, but it can be a delicate balancing act. And perhaps this example does not necessarily translate to other parts of the world; there is not always the historical continuity and modern relevance that underscores African-American historical romance, (and some other romances set outside the white European(-descended) default, such as Jeannie Lin's Tang Dynasty romances). However, for countries where the recorded past is largely associated with colonialism, but where independence has since been achieved, there may be less desire to reopen those old, painful chapters of history. Or, where the colonial past is being written about, there may be a desire to present it warts-and-all, rather than placing a HEA at its centre. 

That is a lot of speculation, and it must be noted that I read a wonderful romance novel for this project, Under the Sugar Sun by Jennifer Hallock, that managed to balance a HEA with conveying the horrors of American colonialism in the Philippines. But, although Hallock has lived in the Philippines, it wasn't ownvoices. And, when I was looking for ownvoices historicals for any of the countries with colonial pasts, I consistently noticed that there were few to none set during the colonial era. (In some instances, I'm willing to admit there may be issues in what gets translated or released internationally, but in many countries, as a result of this very same colonialism, English is a national or official language, and literature is originally written in English).

For example, looking for historical fiction set in Ghana, the books I found by Ghanaian authors were mostly set in the post-Independence era or in the transition period from colonial rule to Independence. It was books by white or outsider authors that were set during the colonial period. One featured a British couple living in a seaside fort that I can only assume would have been a slave castle, where slaves were taken before boarding ships. Another was about the Fifth Anglo-Ashanti War, and a review I read expressed an Ashanti character's desire to "kill all the white people", despite the fact that the conflict was very specific and was born of a British administrators lack of awareness (or care for) Ashanti protocol. Ultimately, I decided that it was better to leave that category blank than to read and review something like that. I had wanted to read these books to counter my lack of knowledge, and even if I read and reviewed books with bad representation critically, this lack of knowledge would mean that there would still be things I didn't pick up on and subconsciously absorbed, and I didn't want that. 

This brings me to the second critique of this project, which was touched on in the point above. It promoted a lot of false equivalence:
  • Between ownvoices and non-ownvoices authors
  • Between Western and non-Western countries
  • Between modern states and their predecessors
  • Between countries/regions with histories of colonial and other forms of oppression and ones without
This was inadvertent, but intent does not equal or excuse impact. I created, framed and implemented the project in a way that was less than ideal, and I am sorry for it. I am the product of two white settler societies who have both been very successful at whitewashing their histories, and that affected the way I thought/think about other nations and their histories. I wanted to educate myself more about the different parts of the world, but this too is an idea deeply ingrained in whiteness, from the 19th century armchair ethnologists and anthropologists, who became "experts" on races on the other side of the world from their comfy London townhouses, complete with racist theories like phrenology and social Darwinism. 

These realisations came slowly over the course of the year, as I listened, learned, grew and reflected. As my unease built, my enthusiasm and the desire I had to see the project through to a "successful" (i.e. completed) end waned. Therefore, the gaps in what was read do not only represent where I could not find anything appropriate to read; they also reflect where I did not find or even search for something to read because of my disenchantment. However, there are still a few books sitting on my Kindle that were originally meant for Beyond a Single Story, and which I will hopefully get around to reading and reviewing in the new year, although not as part of the project.

Despite my disillusionment with Beyond a Single Story - and with myself for undertaking it - it was responsible for bringing me into contact with some seriously cool books, publishers and resources. I'd particularly like to note:
  • Romanceclass - Independently published romance novels by Filipino authors, with a wide range of titles, sub-genres and settings.
  • Ankara Press - An African romance imprint. As they say, their stories feature "self-assured women who work, play and, of course, fall madly in love in vibrant African cities from Lagos to Cape Town".
  • Indireads - Publisher of South Asian popular fiction, including lots of romance.
  • WOC In Romance - I hope most of you already know about this resource for finding romances written by WOC. I discovered it before I started this project, but it was certainly useful.
Reflecting on my experience, and looking forward to 2017, I think that the most appropriate for me to do better in the new year is to keep in mind the two resolutions from my Best of 2016 post (be better at reviewing diverse books I read, especially when I enjoyed them, and read and review more Antipodean authors and books), while also reading diversely without a prompt, challenge or other such device (which is essentially what I ended up doing when this project bit the dust mid-year). However, this does not mean a lack of awareness or self-accountability about what I read. Just like this year, I will keep track of what I read through Goodreads, allowing me to reflect, find and fix holes in what I am reading. I still intend to read as widely as possible within romance (and non-fiction). If, part way through the year, I feel that this isn't keeping me on the course I would like to be on, then I will reassess then. I have also recently classified my reviews by setting, and intend to use this as another tool for self-assessment (you can know that most of the books you read and review are set in the US, but it's much more shocking to see the extent to which this is true!)

Lastly, the paragraph above has framed reading diversely in terms of responsibility, and I want to clarify that: as a blogger who has the potential to influence other people's reading decisions and as a person with privilege on many different axes, I do feel that I should read and review diversely. However, I also do it for my own enjoyment, and because it reflects the world I live in, and next year I hope to focus on this "Here's what I liked about this book, and it had [POC/disabled/queer/etc.] representation", rather than the approach that underlaid the Beyond a Single Story project, which was a questionable "I read this book because it had a diverse setting, and here's what I thought about it". 

Apologies for the navelgazing, but I think that transparency, self-reflection and -growth are important tools for making myself and the blog better, and I wanted to be clear on where we stood at the end of one year and the beginning of the next. As always, feedback is more than welcome.


Monday, 19 December 2016

Review: The Centurion's Choice by Sandra Schwab

4.5 stars

I can't remember where I stumbled across The Centurion's Choice, but since it only came out at the beginning of this month, I guess it must have been on a new release list somewhere. Anyway, I'm grateful I saw it, and decided to take a chance on it, because it was delightful. It has great characters, with a tender romance between the heroes, and the setting is amazingly rich in historical detail.

Although Lucius Satrius had hopes of being promoted to centurion, when Caius Florius Corvus is brought in instead, Lucius swears his loyalty to him as the unit's optio. But Florius - or 'Cranky Centurion Florius' as the centuria call him - is wary of his second-in-command. But, as their campaign in Germania drags on, they find themselves growing closer, and questioning whether their different ranks really mean they can't be together. 

It occurred to me after I bought The Centurion's Choice but before I read it that it might be annoyed if it anachronistically adhered to modern ideas of heterosexuality and homosexuality over Roman constructs of penetrator/active partner vs. person being penetrated/passive partner. But I shouldn't have worried. Not only has Schwab done her research, the question of Roman sexual norms and prejudices make up much of the romantic conflict between the heroes:
Romans didn’t fuck other freeborn men, though a man from one of the provinces and without Roman citizenship might be just about acceptable—as long as he let the Roman do the fucking, of course. But alas, Centurion Florius was Lucius’ superior officer, and if Lucius had gotten the man’s true measure, he’d say Florius would never do anything that might be construed as taking advantage of, and dishonoring, a man serving under him. (32%)
Most of the book is from Lucius' perspective, which worked well, because it saved Florius' point of view for pivotal moments that contained powerful emotion. For the most part, I thought the men's transition from wary colleagues to friends to lovers was excellent. I would have liked to have seen one or two more interactions with them as friendly colleagues or affectionate lovers, just to have a bit more of a basis to imagine the rest of their life together, but it is a novella, and Lucius' and Florius' romance was very well developed and satisfying even without these extra moments. 

Lucius' and Florius' lives in the giant Roman military machine is very interesting, and this really shapes the story, as well as providing a strong sense of place and time. However, even more than the military stuff, I loved the way that Schwab conveyed the breadth and diversity of the Roman Empire. Lucius and Florius serve in an auxiliary unit mostly made up of Gauls, while Florius - although a Roman citizen - has been raised in Caledonia (aka Scotland) and Lucius is from province of Syria (although his hometown is now located in modern-day Turkey). 

At the beginning of the book, Schwab provides a brief Author's Note to orientate the modern reader to the present-day names of the places mentioned in the book (for example, Vindobona is Vienna; Danuvius is the Danube). There is also another, more extensive, Author's Note at the end that provides more information about the military aspects, as well as Roman male-male sexual and romantic relationships. It's all fascinating, and the provides just the right amount of context to the novella itself.  

The Centurion's Choice was such an excellent read - especially for a novella - and I'm excited to see what Schwab has done with the full length novels in the series, Eagle's Honor: Banished and Eagle's Honor: Ravished.

Monday, 12 December 2016

Recommendations/Reflection: Best Reads of 2016

EDIT 12/3/18: In light of recent revelations about Santino Hassell, I am no longer comfortable featuring his co-written book Fast Connectionas on this post. it has been removed from the 'Top 5 Unreviewed Reads' section, leaving it with only 4 items, instead of the original 5.

It's that time of the year where wrapping-up-the-year's-reading posts are a dime a dozen, so here's mine. My best 10 books of 2016 - five that I reviewed, and five that never got reviewed - plus an extra five that I read this year, but were not published in 2016. They're listed 1-5 in each category in terms of reading order, not as an internal ranking within that category. In instances where I haven't reviewed the book, I've linked to other reviews where the reviewer has felt the same way about the book that I have. Looking back, I've had a really good reading year, with lots of great discoveries, but there are also some things that I'm looking to change and refine as we move towards 2017.

Top 5 Reviewed Reads of 2016

1. Level Up by Cathy Yardley
Sweet, geeky flatmates-to-lovers story between two colleagues at a video development company. Light-hearted, but nuanced. Read full review

2. Earth Bound by Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner
1960s space race romance, with female computer engineer squaring off against misogynistic sausage fest. Grumpy chief engineer hero who's her adversary during the day, and her lover once they clock off. Atypical romance arc makes it very engaging and satisfying. Read full review

3. The Hating Game by Sally Thorne
This office romance was one of the year's most loved romances, and I was a definite fan. Funny, off-beat with a great slow-burn enemies-to-lovers romance at its core. Read full review.

4. The Gossip by Jenny Holiday

It's campus cop versus popular college girl in this swoony 1980s novella that packs a massive emotional punch despite its short length. Read full review.

5. Summer Skin by Kirsty Eagar
An Aussie YA/NA romance where the hero and heroine are young, imperfect and at competing university colleges. Raw, honest and feminist. Read full review

Top 5 Unreviewed Reads of 2016

1. Let it Shine by Alyssa Cole
Bittersweet novella about the romance between a young black woman and her Jewish childhood friend, set in the 1960s against the background of the Civil Rights Movement and Freedom Rides. Read review by Rudi at Book Thingo.

2. Sofia Khan is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik
Chick lit-slash-contemporary romance told through diary entries. Sofia's attempts to chronicle Muslim dating for the publishing house where she works are hilarious, insightful and leads to a very sweet romance! Read review by Carrie at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.

3. A Gentleman's Position by K J Charles 
Inter-class romance between a lord and his valet in another strong book from K J Charles. I truly admire the way that she can take a situation and spin it so that the reader empathises with each character's perspective. Read review by Jay at Joyfully Jay

4. The Horseman by Charlotte Nash
The mystery sub-plot and well-developed characters in this rural romance set in Victoria make it a real page-turner. Read review by Lee at Scandalicious Book Reviews

Top 5 Not Published in 2016

1. Under the Sugar Sun by Jennifer Hallock (2015)
In the Philippines at the turn of the century, an American schoolteacher meets a kind-hearted mestizo sugar baron. Heart-squeezy romance and heart-wrenching exploration of colonialism ensues. Read full review

2. Act Like It by Lucy Parker (2015)
Probably one of the most praised books of this year, even if it was published in November last year. Fake romance trope-y goodness between a Darcy-esque West End actor and his castmate to counteract bad publicity. Read review by Sarah by Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.

3. Haveli by Zeenat Mahal (2013)
In 1970s Pakistan, headstrong Chandni resists her grandmother's attempts to push her into a union with a family friend's son, Taimur a.k.a 'Alpha Male'. Masterful novella with such strong characterisation. Read full review

4. Jasper and the Dead by R J Astruc (2013)
I only gave this M/M AU romance four stars (damn third-person present tense writing style) but the original yet familiar worldbuilding of Astruc's AU colonial Sydney has stuck with me over the course of the year, and I've recommended it to several people since, so I think it deserves to be here. Read full review

5. Chocolate Cake for Breakfast by Danielle Hawkins (2013)
Small-town New Zealand romance with All Black hero and vet heroine. Quirky but so emotional. Read full review.

Concluding Thoughts

The Top 5 unreviewed section is the most diverse, with 2 M/M romances, Cole's Let it Shine with a Black heroine and Jewish hero, and Malik's Sofia, a British Muslim of Pakistani extraction. This is disturbing and - quite frankly - not good enough. It's not good enough to be reading diversely if my blogging doesn't represent the full extent of this, especially when they are books that I could have reviewed positively. Clearly, next year, I need to more closely examine what I choose to review, what I choose not to review, and the unconscious bias or reasoning behind it. 

Recently, classifying my reviews by setting, I realised how few books I'd reviewed that were set on my own turf, which prompted my to check how many books from Australia and New Zealand I'd actually read this year. The results were dismal: 7 entirely set in Australia, and 5 in New Zealand. Given those stats, the Antipodes is grossly over-represented on this list, with 3 books set in Australia, 1 in New Zealand and 2 more (1 each) by Australian and Kiwi authors that were set elsewhere (Act Like It takes place in London, and The Hating Game in a unspecified New York-style city). Good books set in Australia or New Zealand bring with them a warm, familiar feeling, and every time I experience that, I wonder why I don't read more local fiction. Next year, I will. 

Lastly, thank you to everyone who has read and supported this blog over the last two years. It's been a blast. 

Onward and upward to 2017!

Monday, 5 December 2016

Review: Summer Skin by Kirsty Eagar

5 stars

Summer Skin by Kirsty Eagar lies somewhere between young adult and new adult romance. It's raw and unflinchingly honest, a feminist exploration of Australia in the social media age, where young, imperfect characters are both shaped by and fighting against the norms of their world. 

The synopsis says: 
Jess Gordon is out for revenge. Last year the jocks from Knights College tried to shame her best friend. This year she and a hand-picked college girl gang are going to get even. 
The lesson: don't mess with Unity girls.
The target: Blondie, a typical Knights stud, arrogant, cold . . . and smart enough to keep up with Jess.
A neo-riot grrl with a penchant for fanning the flames meets a rugby-playing sexist pig - sworn enemies or two people who happen to find each other when they're at their most vulnerable? 
It's all Girl meets Boy, Girl steals from Boy, seduces Boy, ties Boy to a chair and burns Boy's stuff. Just your typical love story.
Basically, last year, Knights College had a challenge to see who could be the first to sleep with a Unity girl, and Jess' best friend Farren ended up having her sexual encounter with a Knights boy streamed to other members of the college. This year, Jess isn't going to let sleeping dogs lie. Behind Farren's back, she and her friends set up an alternate challenge: the first Unity girl to get a Knights boy back to her room and give him a "make-over" wins a defaced Knights jersey that Jess has stolen from a Knights boy. Her meet-cute with the hero, Mitch, is when she is in the process of stealing that jersey from the Knights laundry. Jess writes him off as just your average Knights-attending dick, and in some ways she's right, but Mitch is also dealing with the aftermath of a personal tragedy that made him take a year off uni and reevaluate his life. Despite the fact that Jess and Mitch are two very different people with two very different experiences of the world - reflected in their very different college choices - they just keep crossing paths at inopportune moments. Or are they really opportune moments?

Summer Skin is set in Brisbane (implicitly at the Uni of Queensland), and, in some ways, it's quite Queensland-y, with lines like this: 
"Sugar mill, hates the smell of rum...You're not from Bundaberg, by any chance?" (p. 57)
However, it could just have easily been set in Sydney - where the University of Sydney's all-male St Paul's College is well-known for sexual assault, it's pro-rape Facebook pages, making young women drink toxic mixtures that see them hospitalised and, most recently, for refusing to comply with a University review into college culture - or any other major Australian city with an old-school university. 

I read Summer Skin in short increments, partly because it was one of the best books I have read this year and I wanted to savour it, but partly also because it was so close to home. I never went to college - one of the reasons I chose my uni is because it didn't have colleges -but this is the story of many of my friends and family members' college experiences. This is the story of my younger high school years, when I went to a private girls school, and our brother school had the exact same motto - and misogynistic mentality - as the Knights boys. Virgil AgiturDo the manly thing. This is the story of my experience with some uni societies. I ended up massively conflicted by paragraphs like this:
At that moment, a stocky guy with curly hair...blocked Blondie's path, addressing him as 'Killer' and telling him it was the Paddington Tavern for afters, acting like he couldn't see Jess, tucked under Blondie's arm. He probably thought he was being subtle. And Blondie played right along: widening his stance as if experiencing a sudden and significant surge in ball size, speaking in the drawl used by guys who are fluent in Brah.
"Yeah, right, the Paddo. Not gonna make it, hey."  
At that, the other knight finally focused on Jess, and she decided she didn't like his eyes. "Roger that." He smirked. "Killer." (p. 45)
You can't help but smile and even laugh because it's so spot on; "guys who are fluent in Brah" is pure genius, and I will be adding that to my vocabulary, thank you very much. But at the same time, it's also a bit painful. This representation can only appear on the page because it reflects widespread attitudes and behaviours and that, frankly, is depressing. 

And it's not just the sexism that Jess is fighting - even, and especially, in Mitch - that resonates. In the same piercing way that Summer Skin deals with gender, Eagar also talks straight up about class in a country that supposedly has none. Mitch is a rugby-union player from a well-off background, and, as Jess describes her family to him: 
"My family are probably your family's worst nightmare. Self-educated rednecks. Bogans with books. Other people worry about climate change; we worry Ford will stop making V8s. I'll know I've arrived when I buy a jet-ski."  (p. 109)
All of these things are so specific to the Australian context, but stripped of its quintessentially Australian characterisation and writing, at Summer Skin's heart is a story about hook up culture and binge drinking, rape culture, objectification of women, male entitlement and feminist push back that could occur in any number of countries. A story about women developing a take-no-prisoners approach because the establishment is just so weighted against them. It's the same story that saw a Columbia student carry her mattress around with her in protest after the university dismissed three complaints against her rapist, the UK's National Union of Students call for a summit on 'lad culture' or protests at University of Sydney's Open Day against the university's handling of  campus sexual assault. 

If I've spent too much of this review talking about myself or society, it's only because Summer Skin is so unapologetic about being a book about - and for - a particular generation of Australians, from the music references to the public/private school divide to the use of Instagram to the game of Classic Catches. It tackles love, sexism, class, body image, men's right to women's bodies and a bazillion other relevant themes with wit, grace and strength. It's sex positive, subversive and thought-provoking, and it has wonderfully complicated characters - both male and female - who don't get written off for being morally grey (too often it's only the guys who get a free pass on this). 

But potential readers should rest assured that the romance between Jess and Mitch is smart and funny and sexy and poignant. I was going to say 'equally engaging as the rest of the book' but that is misleading: the romance between Mitch and Jess does not exist outside all of these themes that Summer Skin deals with, but is inherently a part of them, and I love it for that. There can be no true exploration of sexism and objectification without a hero who, at times, displays sexist and objectifying behaviours, and more power to Eagar for somehow managing to make Mitch a attractive and sympathetic hero, even when he's being a bit of a dick. And if somebody could please give me the strength to stand up for myself and call these things out as strongly and coherently as Jess and her friends do, that'd be super.

I don't think I've ever called a book a must-read on this blog - people have a right to read what they like without being prescribed to - but I genuinely think that if there ever was a must-read piece of fiction for Australians of my generation, Summer Skin is it. It's like looking in a mirror, and while we may not always like what we see, it's ultimately a hopeful portrayal of what love and our microcosm of society can look like if we - both guys and girls - take no shit and accept that, as Jess says, "being human isn't two different experiences" (p. 214). 

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Review: That Potent Alchemy by Tess Bowery

4.5 stars

Regency romances bring to mind the racially homogeneous and strictly gendered world of the Ton, as portrayed by Heyer and so many of her successors. But That Potent Alchemy was a Regency romance in the new mould, featuring POC, working class and genderqueer characters. It was engaging and touching, and I really enjoyed it. 

When the Surrey Theatre finds out that a rival establishment is putting on the same comedy they were planning to perform for the Season, they have to stage another production at short notice, thrusting actress Grace into the world of ballet. As an child prodigy, she danced the stages of Europe to line her father's pockets, and strapping her pointe shoes brings that experience of male exploitation to the fore, along with feelings of wrongness about her female body. 

Isaac, the stage machinist, is fascinated by Grace, who switches between breeches and dresses, and who has no patron. But, for him, the stakes on the new production are higher than ever: he's bet a month's wages against his counterpart at the other theatre as to who can come up with the most spectacular effects for his production. As the Surrey's production of Macbeth (complete with ballet!) gets closer to opening night, Isaac knows that he wants nothing more than to be at Grace's side, but first he'll have to prove to Grace that she can trust him. 

That Potent Alchemy was very much about trust and boundaries, and both themes were written in such an affecting and beautiful way. I was a bit wary of Isaac at first, because of his persistence in pursuing Grace, but the way that he respected Grace's needs and boundaries quickly won me over, as did other little things that demonstrated his lack of toxic masculinity, like this exchange: 
“Ask your sister how half-grown I am,” Thilby leered, and the very notion of Thilby ever getting within arm’s reach of Isaac’s sister, never mind having the chance to despoil her, was so absurd that Isaac laughed along with him. 
“She already told me—how d’you think I know?” (9%)
But this doesn't mean he's an infallible feminist man. He stuffs up, but when he does, he either addresses his mistake immediately and corrects it:
"...you complete me.” She recoiled, as though his answer offended her.  
"No, never say that! I’m not a rib, to be put back into place in someone else’s chest.”  Oops.
“A fair point,” he conceded. “You are certainly no one’s spare parts.” Isaac sat for a minute, rethought the words he had been going to say. (98%)
Or he apologies, grovels and says the right things when the misguided nature of his actions become clear to him (no example here, just read the book!). Marriage brings up conflicted feelings for Grace because of her gender fluidity, but Isaac gives her enough space to sift through them, saying that he'll wait, or if she doesn't want to get married, then that's fine too. For her part, Grace was a very relatable heroine, with whom I could empathise. Her experiences of being a workhorse for her father at such a young age, and losing her family when she broke ties with him, has made her strong, no-nonsense and assertive, but also vulnerable and starved for affection. 

Grace's gender fluidity was neither gratuitous plot-point nor put aside in any way. Consistently, throughout the book, the reader is reminded of the way that Grace relates to her body and her birth-assigned gender: 
A man’s face had looked back at her in the mirror this morning (3%)
“Some days the world is only right if I move through it as a man.” And some days it seemed just as wrong. Those were days when frills and silks were called for, setting her curls with pale ribbons and taking long walks with Meg. (34%)
There would be no escape from the wrongness with a child inside; no way to see anything but a swollen belly and breasts that didn’t belong to her. (39%) 
It was hard to see where his body ended and hers began, his cock rising from the space between them. It could be hers, this way, a missing limb slotted back where it should have been. (43%) 
Half the time she wasn’t a girl inside at all, and that certainly wasn’t what your average fellow was searching for. (97%)

However, some reviewers on Goodreads - some of them genderqueer - felt like Grace's gender identity was not acknowledged enough. I'm reading from a non-queer perspective, so my judgement here is not the soundest, and should be taken as secondary. One or two reviewers speak of a lack of internal understanding or insight from Grace about her gender identity, but I wonder if some were also referring to something that I thought was odd: Grace - to my memory - never outright expresses her gender fluidity to Isaac. He accepts that, some days, she is going to wear breeches, and that she doesn't want children, but I don't think they ever discuss it directly at any length. I will admit to being unsure about how to regard this. On one hand, it seems as though Grace is omitting a essential part of herself when she shouldn't have to, but on the other, no-one should have to explain or justify their gender identity except of their own volition, and perhaps it is enough for Grace that Isaac has promised to love and accept her as she is

I've said before that I'm a sucker for a well-drawn setting, and That Potent Alchemy was a real treat. Through the cast and crew of the Surrey, the reader is immersed in the world of the Georgian theatre - of Royal patronage, The Scottish Play, primitive stage effects and ghost-lights - while the characters' lives outside the theatre provide insight into a broader working-man's London. Isaac lives with his inn-keeping parents, who were my favourite secondary characters for the way they take Grace under their wing. Isaac's father is the descendant of freedmen from Scotland, while his mother is a white Englishwoman, and their interracial marriage and past in the abolition movement are subtly woven in.

Despite all that I loved about this book, I did find that some of the descriptive writing was not to my taste, particularly at the beginning, with passages like this:
The tent itself seemed to draw closer around them, get smaller, though the furniture didn’t shift at all. Lucy and Raiza’s voices seemed to soften and come from very far away, as though they had gone in to a cave. Grace’s head swam. A moment later (only a moment? It felt longer), Lucy was standing and heading for the tent flap, and Raiza was pinching out the candle wick with long-nailed fingers.
However, this either got more to my taste as the book progressed, or I became more used to Bowery's style (probably the latter). Towards the end, there were some descriptive passages that I thought were beautifully written, and I always connected with the dialogue (the banter between Isaac and Grace was wonderful!) and the characters' introspection. 

This has been a long and quote-heavy review, but consider yourselves lucky, because I highlighted 72 passages on my kindle, which is about 3 or 4 times what I normally do. Between the characters, the setting, the romance arc and the plot (which I haven't even spoken about, but it's good), there was just so much in That Potent Alchemy

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Review: My American Duchess by Eloisa James

3.5 stars

My American Duchess wasn't Eloisa James' best, but an average Eloisa James is still an above-average book. 

American heiress Merry Pelford has been brought to London to find a husband, since her two previous broken engagements have limited her chances in Boston. When Lord Cedric Allardyce proposes, she initially thinks that he's everything she could want in a husband, but quickly comes to realise that that she may have made another mistake, especially since it's his brother, the Duke of Trent, who really interests her. But to break another engagement would bring down even more scandal on herself, and even if she did, it's unlikely that Trent would want a ruined American who doesn't understand the intricacies of Ton etiquette as his Duchess.

This was a book of two halves, each of which had elements that were classic Eloisa James. The first half, where Merry is engaged to the hero's brother, offers the conflicted lusting that James always does so well, while the second half capitalises on the emotions of their marriage, which they initially both consider to be stronger if they don't fall in love. Merry's realisation that she is in love with her husband and the renegotiation of their marriage that follows was gut-wrenching in the same way that we've seen with other already-married couples of James'. 

However, each half also had some things that didn't quite work. While the chemistry between Trent and Merry was strong throughout, the first half featured a lot of pining and not much action, while the early second half had - God help me, I never thought I'd say this - a lot of sex and not much else. Then there's a big emotional disconnect and the moment of darkness that makes the hero realise he loves the heroine. The end.  

And the transition from engaged-to-the-spare to married-to-the-Duke. Man, I do not even know what to say about that transition. For a start, it made absolutely no sense until the epilogue, and even then I remain sceptical about Cedric's redemption. Secondly, having this part in Merry's perspective, when Trent is the one out there arranging things so that he can marry Merry instead of his brother - which nobody tells her about until after the ceremony, by the way, so be prepared for that removal of agency - means that it comes as a massive Deus ex Machina moment. One minute, Merry's being blackmailed into marrying Cedric, the next minute - ta-da - she's actually married Trent and Cedric's left the country. Cue second half about married life. 

Despite the narrative issues, James has retained her ability to tug at the old heartstrings, and that's the reason I can't give this a lower rating than I have. Merry's out of place, first as an American debutante, and then as an American duchess, and there is a lot of poignancy in watching her trying to remake herself into the duchess that she think Trent wants after he rejects her love. Trent doesn't put much stock in romantic love, especially since Merry has already declared herself in love with her previous three fiances, and it's only slowly that he starts to realise the effects of basically telling his wife that she's fickle, a slut for emotional instead of physical intimacy. Her is also dealing with the legacy of his mother's favoritism towards Cedric, which has strained the brothers' relationship, and his father drunkenness, which caused his parents' death in a carriage accident. There's a lot of pathos in this backstory, but it's not used heavy-handedly to make him a tortured hero. 

If My American Duchess had been by a new-to-me author and I'd picked it up, I probably would have been satisfied. But Eloisa James is an auto-buy for me, because I can always rely on her to put forward the perfect escape read, and this wasn't up to that usual standard.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Opinion/Reflection: On Pygmalion, Gender and Emotional Labour

After weeks of particularly bad chronic pain, I turned to one of my all-time favourite comfort movies, My Fair Lady. However, as much as I love it, I am also very aware that the Pygmalion story is part of deeply embedded sexist societal discourses that seek to control and mould women and their behaviour so that they are desirable to men, both sexually, and as people to be around.

For all that Henry asks Eliza to marry him, their relationship is extremely ambiguous, and I've always wondered if he actually has any romantic interest in her, or if he simply wants to secure her emotional labour. Because women's emotional labour is one of the key things behind these discourses: when a random man tells a woman to smile, what he is actually saying is that she must appear happy and at ease so as not to discomfort him, regardless of what she is actually feeling or her right to bodily autonomy. The most important or salient thing about a woman is how she appears to a man, as Henry so astutely realises: 

So, Eliza must not only do the work of transforming herself into a 'lady', but also take on large amounts of emotional labour for Henry, which goes unrecognised, and this is why Henry is so desperate to get her back when she 'runs away'. He doesn't know where anything is, and nothing is running 'as it should'. It is irrelevant that she occasionally objects to taking on this role, because it doesn't change the latent expectation that she will, and the ending - where she returns and all Henry says is "Eliza, where the devil are my slippers?" - implies that she accepts it as necessity. 

There is also the implication that she should be grateful to do this emotional labour, and grateful for her transformation in general, because it represents 'betterment'. In a situation familiar to many a corporate woman, it is Eliza who does all the work, and Henry who gets all the credit. Nobody acknowledges her achievements, or recognises the legitimacy of her anxiety about her future, to the point that she discusses her own death as a means of escape, which is dismissed merely as female hysteria. However, the film does also show sympathy for Eliza's plight, contrasting Pickering and Higgins' casual misogyny and self-congratulation with Higgins' mother, who understands Eliza's grievances and concerns perfectly. But this still perpetuates a gender divide: women are emotionally intelligent, while men are not. This is the very social stereotype that causes women to have to take on emotional labour in the first place.

Naturally, My Fair Lady takes it's cues from its source material, George Bernard Shaw's play PygmalionDespite the fact that Pygmalion was subtitled 'A Romance', Shaw was apparently horrified at the way stage productions, audiences and critics interpreted and amplified a romantic subtext between Eliza and Henry, and wished the emphasis to remain on his satirisation of the themes of class, independence and transformation. To the modern audience, all of these themes evoke Eliza more than Henry, but Henry's independence as a bachelor was also important to Shaw (McGovern 2011). In order to get rid of "any suggestion that the middle-aged bully and the girl of eighteen are lovers" (Berst p. 22, cited in Ross 2000), Shaw added a footnote to the play, in which he elucidated the fate of the characters after the curtain closed (Eliza marries her beau Freddy and opens a shop, all the while remaining friends with Higgins). The post-script also contains much long-winded philosophising, and is an oddd mix of proto-feminism and misogyny, awareness of class and classism. (According to his Wikipedia page, Shaw was a man of many contradicting opinions, including racial equality and intermarriage and eugenics). Shaw writes of Eliza: 
Such transfigurations have been achieved by hundreds of resolutely ambitious young women since Nell Gwynne set them the example by playing queens and fascinating kings in the theatre in which she began by selling oranges. Nevertheless, people in all directions have assumed, for no other reason than that she became the heroine of a romance, that she must have married the hero of it. This is unbearable, not only because her little drama, if acted on such a thoughtless assumption, must be spoiled, but because the true sequel is patent to anyone with a sense of human nature in general, and of feminine instinct in particular.
He's working his way up to saying that it should be obvious to the audience, especially women, that Eliza chooses Freddy. After all, he loves her, and is not likely to dominate, bully or beat her. What more can a gal ask for? 

I know very little about Shaw himself, but it strikes me that if he had lived today, he would have been a massive mansplainer, who thinks his work is the best thing since sliced bread, but bad-mouths everything else in the same genre, or using the same archetypes and tropes. Although the name Pygmalion refers to a myth where a sculptor falls in love with his creation and Shaw subtitled the bloody thing 'A Romance', when he wrote this clarifying footnote, he shits massively on romance: 
The rest of the story need not be shown in action, and indeed, would hardly need telling if our imaginations were not so enfeebled by their lazy dependence on the ready-makes and reach-me-downs of the ragshop in which Romance keeps its stock of "happy endings" to misfit all stories
He then works up to the inevitable stereotypes that we still see about romance readers and people who value a good HEA: 
[Higgins is] a standing puzzle to the huge number of uncultivated people who have been brought up in tasteless homes by commonplace or disagreeable parents, and to whom, consequently, literature, painting, sculpture, music, and affectionate personal relations come as modes of sex if they come at all. The word passion means nothing else to them; and that Higgins could have a passion for phonetics and idealize his mother instead of Eliza, would seem to them absurd and unnatural.
When I read that, I'm kind of happy that the romance between Eliza and Henry was drawn out against his will, despite my discomfort with it. It's a beautiful comeuppance to someone so holier-than-thou, not to mention the weird Oedipus complex thing going on. 

But Shaw is long dead, an it's his rendering of the Pygmalion myth that remains. There are numerous films, TV shows and books that have put their own slant Shaw's work, from the original 1935 German film adaption to the 1956 original Broadway production of My Fair Lady and modern adaptations like She's All That and Selfie. There's a post of the top 10 at Heroes and Heartbreakers

Many of the contemporary adaptations have feminist leanings, such as Jeannie Lin's My Fair Concubine, which I reviewed recently and absolutely loved. While these make explicit the fact that pre-transformation Eliza is worthy in her own right, the narrative structure still means that the hero will only discover this once he has forced her to undergo the transformation, which sometimes annoys me because it's so emblematic: men want women to change for them, and then women have to do more emotional labour when men don't like the results they asked for. 

No matter how feminist, I think that a Pygmalion tale with a female Eliza and a male Henry will also contain perturbing implications about the social control of the female person. Perhaps the only way to get rid of these is to gender-swap the roles (please someone write me some gender-swapped Pygmalion romance that are less problematic than Judith Ivory's The Proposition) or to make it into a M/M or F/F, like K J Charles' A Fashionable Indulgence. Charles' work shows that the romance between a Pygmalion and his Galatea does not have to, in any way, detract from the original and central themes of class, independence and transformation. In fact, they augment each other beautifully. Shaw was cremated, but if he'd been buried, I'm sure he'd be turning in his grave at that, the old, anti-romance bigot. 
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