Thursday, 28 January 2016

Review: Level Up by Cathy Yardley

5 stars

Level Up is a self-proclaimed "Geek Romance". The hero and heroine are flatmates and colleagues at a company that develops video games, but Adam is in the cadre of game engineers while Tessa's stuck in a dead-end audio job. They aren't close, but Tessa needs Adam's help to code a project for some potential friends of hers, and to crack her work's bloke-y culture so she's considered for an upcoming promotion. 

When I stumbled across Level Up, the reviews were remarkably consistent: words like fun, light-hearted and cute popped up again and again. All of those adjectives are applicable, but they seem like lukewarm praise, and they certainly don't accurately cover the depth of my feeling for this book. It's a delight on so many levels.

First, there's Tessa and her struggles with the sexist structures at her workplace, which will resonate with any woman who has ever come up against an Old Boys' Club. But, in Tessa, Yardley has also created a compassionate and masterful portrait of introversion and social anxiety; it's not just Tessa's gender that's holding her back, it's also that she keeps to herself.

Adam is an excellent hero, striving to find a balance between sticking up for Tessa, and respecting her desire to fight her own battles. He doesn't always get it right, but he's thoughtful and has a growing awareness of precisely what it is his female colleagues are up against.

The secondary characters were also great, and I really appreciated the portrayal of the game engineers who were Adam's friends but Tessa's adversaries. Despite their latent sexism, they weren't misogynistic trolls who bore women conscious ill-will. They were just guys who hadn't really challenged their worldviews, and had quasi-rational justifications for why they weren't sexist, and why Tessa's problem wasn't their problem. To me, their nuances really reinforced how insidious this stuff is: with the horrifying open aggression of Gamergate still fresh in people's minds, it's sometimes hard to remember that the fight can be sometimes be against something as a benign as a lack of awareness.

I was a tad worried that I'd be put off by constant pop culture references, because while I know my Doctor Who as much as the next gal, I'm not into all the fandoms. But such references were skilfully managed so that they never alienated someone who didn't understand them, or took away from the story at large.
I've focused on gender throughout this review, but it's not pushed as strongly as I've probably implied. As Adam and Tessa's romance heats up, it fades into the background, and that brings me to my last (and most important) point: the sexual tension between the two of them was off the charts! Sometimes, when characters use the "oh, but we work together so we shouldn't sleep together" thing, I find it a bit contrived, but here it worked. Oh boy, did it work!

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Review: The Highwayman's Daughter by Henriette Gyland

2.5 stars
EDIT 19/03/17: I was randomly looking through highlighted excerpts on my Kindle the other day, and I think that, if I was rating the same way I do now, this would be 2 stars. However, it seems futile to change a rating over 12 months after posting the review, so I'm leaving it as it is.

Class differences in historical romances alway pique my interest, and the The Highwayman's Daughter had a farm labourer heroine, while the hero was the titled son of an earl. The heroine, Cora, took to robbing coaches to pay for medicine for her father's rheumatism. When she holds up Jack and his cousin, they both notice that the highwayman is a woman rather than a lad, and make a bet as to who can track her down first. Only, once Jack finds her, he's not sure he wants to hand her over to the magistrate, both because she intrigues him, and because he thinks the that there is more to her story than she's letting on. 

The premise was good, but the reality was disappointing. It was like a snowball that just...kept gathering tropes as it rolled along: cross-dressing heroines, insta-love, old secrets, baby switching, unremittingly evil villians-slash-family-members and apparently unresolvable complications that are easily resolved. 

Combine the simplistic and unoriginal use of tropes with large doses of melodrama and convolution, and the result was like an early Georgian Bold and the Beautiful.  

And don't even get me started on the characters. The heroine ran away from the hero about a bazillion times, and while this made for predictable and repetitive reading, it was the most sense she showed in the whole book. Jack was the 18th century equivalent of a spoiled loafer-wearing Ivy League boy: Oh, poor me, I have to accompany my cousin whoring and gambling because who else will keep him in check if I don't? The male characters' attitudes toward women - while undoubtedly realistic - were dealt with heavyhandedly, although Jack did show some improvement in this area. 

To top it all off, I had trouble buying the ending. The class barrier between Jack and Cora, which had seemed so insurmountable and preoccupied all of the characters throughout the novel, just melted into thin air to allow for a HEA. 

It's getting 2.5 stars, for the premise, the cover and the first half that didn't send me completely round the bend. 

Monday, 18 January 2016

Review: Antonia Barclay and Her Scottish Claymore by Jane Carter Barrett

3.5 stars
Release Date: 9th February 2016
I received a free ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. My opinion is my own. 

The first thing I’ll say about Antonia Barclay and her Scottish Claymore is that if your pedantry for historical accuracy has no ‘off’ switch, this probably isn’t the book for you. It’s intentionally anachronistic, with references to modern cultural touchstones, practices and scientific understandings overlayed on a setting of 16th century Scotland. 

The heroine, the eponymous Antonia Barclay, has grown up as the daughter of Lord and Lady Barclay in the Scottish border region, but at nineteen discovers that she’s actually the legitimate daughter of Mary, Queen of Scots and her third husband. Unfortunately, Basil Throckmorton, evil slimy Englishman, has also discovered Antonia’s true heritage and hopes to secure the Scottish throne for himself by marrying her. When Antonia sets out to rescue her mother from house arrest in England, she is kidnapped by Basil and his even slimier son Rex. Luckily, Antonia's suitor – Mr Claymore, creator of Claymore Swords (TM) – is hot in pursuit, determined to save his beloved. 

If it sounds overblown, that’s because it is, but a light-hearted awareness of its own incredibility made it funny instead of eye-rollingly stupid. Stylistically, the only comparisons I can make are to George MacDonald Fraser’s old comic novels and The Princess Bride (which might well be an influence, since it is referenced several times).

As a whole, Antonia Barclay and Her Scottish Claymore is a humorous breath of fresh air, but I still found it overcooked in some areas and underdone in others. In the overcooked column was some of the action, plot devices and descriptions. As much as the novel uses its OTT nature to send up some common tropes of both historical and contemporary romance, it also sometimes falls victim to its own hyperbole. Having made the point that a particular character is fashionably dressed or extremely stupid, the author can't help but reiterate this point ad nauseum.

On the other hand, the relationships between the characters were underdone. The reader doesn't meet Mr Claymore until 11% of the way through the book, at which point he instantly falls in love with Antonia, and she with him, despite the fact that she (or the reader) knows nothing about him except the fact that he has nice blue eyes. I don't mind that he's a bit of a mystery 
 after all, the story isn't really about him – but I was unable to suspend reality enough to believe that he'd go to all this trouble to rescue Antonia when he's had about two conversations with her. As for the other characters, their interactions often came across as one-dimensional. 

However, despite my criticisms, kudos must go out to Carter Barrett for such an original debut, because the book's synopsis was right when it said that "readers of historical romances will enjoy the feisty heroine, her outrageous adventures, and the humorous take on a well-loved genre". 

Friday, 15 January 2016

Review: Welcome to Envy Park by Mina V. Esguerra

4 stars

Welcome to Envy Park is that rarest of all things: a novella that felt like a full-length novel. The narrator and protagonist, Moira Vasquez, has moved back to her hometown of Manila after working abroad in Singapore for several years, but she only intends for it to be a temporary stopping place before she moves on to another overseas destination. That's the plan, and having a good apartment and the possibility of a relationship with her neighbour Ethan isn't going to change anything. Neither is the realisation that, whereas all her friends have careers, moving around means Moira only ever has jobs. After all, this is what she wants, isn't it?

The 'heroine trying to figure out her life' is a familiar starting point for chick-lit books, but Moira is wonderfully nuanced and never strays towards trainwreck territory that is such a mainstay of the genre. Her quarter-life crisis was believable and - for me as a twenty-something - eminently relatable. I particularly appreciated Esguerra's understanding that adjusting our preconceptions about how - and where - we will live is often a fraught process. 

Ethan is going through a similar transition. While Moira has her life planned out to a T, he has always just gone with the flow. But he's realising see that, maybe, if he wants something (or someone) he might actually have to go out and get it (or her). 

Despite the fact that the characters and plot were as well-developed as one would expect from a novel, I'm still left with a little of my classic novella complaint that things were wrapped up too quickly. Once Ethan had his lightbulb moment, it was "okay, we'll be together, THE END" and I was looking forward to actually seeing him and Moira as a couple.  

Esguerra also overturned my nebulous preconceptions about Manila, which is only ever featured in the Australian media when a typhoon hits, at which point our 7 o'clock news has some 10-second clips of corrugated iron being ripped from shanties and people walking waist-deep in water. In my ignorance, I'd failed to appreciate that, as with many other Asian cities, Manila is home to a burgeoning middle class and the infrastructure that accompanies them.

That's the point of me undertaking my Beyond a Single Story Challenge this year. I'm still ironing out the details, but I hope to fill out my understanding of the Philippines a little bit by reading at least one historical set there, and one non-fiction book. If anyone has any recommendations or suggestions, particularly for the NF, I would be most grateful.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Opinion: Race, Gender and the Cologne New Year's Eve Attacks

When I decided to take a white-saviour volunteer position as a boarding mistress and teacher in an Indian school at the grand old age of eighteen, I experienced a variety of reactions from family, friends and complete strangers. However, two months before I left, when the Delhi gang rape and subsequent protests hit headlines across the world, that all changed. The nigh universal response became: “Have you really thought this through? Do you really want to be a single woman on your own in India?” The company that had facilitated my placement even sent a carefully-worded email essentially offering me the chance to renege. The collective anxiety was contagious, and I started to wonder if they were right.

The internet, however, was quick reassure me: the stats that were being quoted were not indicative of the ‘rape crisis’ the media were reporting, but of more women (and men) feeling they were able to report sexual assault. In fact, the widespread sense of outrage made it seem like it might be safer to go to India now than in any time in recent history. People’s blindfolds had come off, and they weren’t willing to be passive about the problem any longer.

Today, we are seeing a similar sense of outrage over the mass sexual assaults that occurred on New Year’s Eve in Cologne, but whereas Indian society stared into its soul and came away with conclusions about the way it treats women, Germany is coming to conclusions about race and immigration. It’s hardly surprising that the attacks – with their North African and Arab suspects – have become a flashpoint for these issues, given that their multi-kulti policies and openness towards asylum-seekers have been causing spiralling angst and concern about retaining German culture (Heimatkultur) in the face of unprecedented immigration.

However, the focus on race detaches the Cologne attacks from what they actually were: sexual assault against women. Instead of recognising that we still have problems with the way women are treated in supposedly egalitarian Western countries, it becomes a matter of us and them: they treat women like this, but we do not. It’s a national exercise in cognitive dissonance that prevents any awareness of institutionalised sexism and violence against women, and reduces blame to individuals of other races.

But, if it’s them and not us, then why is does my office building have codes on the doors to the women’s bathrooms, but not the men’s? Why do my male friends have to step in to deter unwelcome advances after my own refusals are ignored? Why is it standard practice for women text each other after a night out to confirm they’ve all got home safely and without incident?

If it can’t possibly be us, then why were the police so vastly unhelpful and dismissive that night, apparently telling one woman who had been stripped of her clothes and underwear to “keep a good grip on your champagne bottle to use as a weapon”? Why did an initial report filed by the police in Cologne record a “mostly peaceful New Year’s Eve” that was “relaxed” in atmosphere?

The answer to all those questions is that, as Western countries, we are still far from perfect at ensuring that women are treated as worthy of respect, and violence against them – whether sexual or otherwise – is taken as seriously as other crimes. At the end of the day, whether the attacks in Cologne were perpetrated by them is irrelevant, because they’re definitely a result of us and the way we see women

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Review: Switch by Janelle Stalder

3 stars

Maybe it's my secret desire for a catastrophic event that mysteriously wipes out people who can't queue, but I've developed some strange need for dystopic romances during these last few weeks of travel. Switch by Janelle Stalder was my most recent indulgence, read while navigating the Peruvian rail system. It was a mixed bag (Switch, that is; the Peruvian trains have actually been very nice), but it was intriguing enough overall that I instantly downloaded the sequel, despite having the wave my Kindle around to get the necessary bars of 3G. 

Switch take place in 2035, after some guy called Ludwig has taken over the world (or at least Europe). Mind-reading Charlotte-slash-Dinah is drawn into the politics of it all at sixteen, when her house is raided on the suspicion that her father is involved in the resistance movement. She accidentally lets Ludwig's second in command know about the whole being able to hear thoughts thing, and when we flash forward a few years, she's become the autocrat's mysterious and feared 'Weapon X'. 

Ludwig sends Dinah to spy on a rebel faction, because we know that always works out a treat. Sure enough, she meets Pete McKay, a rebel leader with secrets. Pete was a decent hero, but it was hard for me to get past the most overdone Cockney accent since Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. Seriously, the guy referred to everyone - even his brothers - as 'mate'. 

But back to the storyline. Or the would-be storyline, since the constant changes between four different narrators mean it's not apparent that Dinah and Pete are the protagonists for the first third of the book. Neither was this slow start filled in by detailed world-building; I still have no clue how or why Ludwig decided to take over the world, for example. 

If it's becoming clear that I have a bee in my bonnet about this whole world domination thing, it not just because it was all very flimsy.  It really pissed me off that, in the absence of any overt motive for Ludwig or any explanations of his ethnic or national affiliations, London had been renamed 'New Berlin'. Because using Germans as inexplicable and one-dimensional villians is not at all a lazy trope-tastic cop-out! I hope that Ludwig will be fleshed out in the second book, which features the other two narrators from Switch, who actually captured my interest more than Dinah and Pete. 

However, I was drawn into the book as it gained momentum, and it ultimately found its feet in the moral ambiguities of the second half. Ironically, however, the reason I liked it is also the reason I come down so harshly on Ludwig as a villian; his charisma was supposed to contribute to the moral confusion of it all, but in the absence of detail, it actually detracted from it.
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