Saturday, 27 February 2016

Review: Fly In Fly Out by Georgina Penney

4 stars

Georgina Penney's Fly In Fly Out (previously titled Unforgettable You) was a solid romance, made extraordinary by its nuanced portrayal of Australia and her dichotomies: rural and urban, old and new, good and bad. It's set in Perth and the Margaret River region, as well as on an oil rig off the coast of Mauritania, where the heroine works as an engineer.

Yes, you read that right: the heroine, Jo, is an engineer. She's a FIFO; someone who flies in and out of their job in mining, petroleum extraction or another insanely profitable natural resources industry. But Jo's migratory lifestyle means that her sister and her best friend, Scott, are left to look after her cat. When Scott's cousin Stephen needs a place to live, Jo's empty apartment seems like a good idea.

Stephen and Jo knew each other as children, and Stephen still feels bad about something that happened when they were teenagers, something that caused Jo to leave their hometown in the Margaret River and move to Perth. He's keen to make amends, and he feels like looking after her apartment is the way to go about it. After a rough start, they settle into a tenant-landlord relationship, which grows into something more. But, even then, Stephen's attempts to delve into their shared past are rebuffed.

Whereas normally we have the closed-off hero, and the coaxing heroine, here it is the other way around. Jo is emotionally closed off, having learnt the hard way to keep her problems to herself. Stephen, on the other hand, is so scarred by this defining incident of their youth that he is hesitant when it comes to women, careful not to push too hard. This made him a really interesting hero, just as Jo's down-to-earth nature made for great heroine material. All of the characters, right down to Jo's cat, Boomba, are well-rendered.

Without wanting to give to much away, the characters came together in a particularly nuanced portrayal of Australia's problem with alcohol abuse and domestic violence. Old attitudes of "don't talk about it" are contrasted with new, more open understandings. In a similar way, the old, rural Australia acts as a foil for the new Australia, where disposable incomes have risen on the back of the mining boom.

In Fly In Fly Out, Penney brought to life one aspect of new Australia I've never known much about: the mysterious world of oil rigs. Until now, my only point of reference has been that line from Cold Chisel's Khe Sanh: "I held a job on an oil rig, flying choppers when I could, but the nightlife nearly drove me 'round the bend". Studying that song in high school history classes about the Vietnam War, I never understood if it was a lack or surplus of nightlife that drove the song's narrator 'round the bend. But now I think I know: it was the lack thereof. It sounds like gruelling work: long shifts interspersed with bad food and sleep.

Weirdly enough, while writing this, I flicked over to Twitter, only to find Yassmin Abdel-Magied, well-known social activist and little-known mechanical engineer, talking on Radio National about her experience on oil rigs. According to her, there are usually only three to four women out of the 150 workers on a rig, but she also says that the dynamic can be different than those numbers suggest.

Regardless of what the reality might be, I liked the way Penney constructed Jo's work environment. She's friendly with the guys, but she'll never be one of the boys, and with an incompetent junior engineer and Stephen playing house in Perth, she becomes increasingly discontented with her job.

I picked up Fly In Fly Out the day after having my wisdom teeth removed. I guess I thought that, since it seemed light and had a familiar setting, I could read it through the fog of industrial-strength painkillers. If it had been a lesser book, I think I'd probably have mostly forgotten it by now, but the emotion of Fly In Fly Out is hard to forget. All those feels could have been the result of the oxycodone, but I'm pretty sure it was just good writing. 

Monday, 22 February 2016

Review: The Things They Didn't Bury by Laekan Zea Kemp

3 stars

Assigning a star rating to The Things They Didn't Bury has been hard. I have such drastically different feelings about different aspects of this book, it's hard to weigh them up and shape them into a coherent whole. The story was good, as was the recreation of war-torn and recovering Argentina, but the central relationship was mediocre and the writing and characterisation were mixed bags. 

The Things They Didn't Bury follows Liliana, who returns to her homeland of Argentina with her father and sister in the early 1990s (by my guess - a date is never given), after fleeing to the US during the Dirty War. Liliana's mother, Isabella, was one of los desaparecidos - the disappeared - who were arrested by the military junta and never heard from again. For Liliana, returning to the property where Isabella grew up is a chance to learn more about her mother, and she enlists Diego, the son of the property's caretaker, to help her. Interspersed throughout the novel are Isabella's diary entries and narration of the events leading up to her arrest, so that it becomes the story of both mother and daughter, of the intensification and aftermath of  the war.

It's meant to be all-consuming - and at times it is - but it could have been far more so if it had been proof-read more thoroughly. I understand indie authors work under different constraints, but the difference between their/there/they're and your/you're is fairly fundamental and it is extremely hard for the reader to ignore the wrong one being used. Every time I came across such a misuse - and there were many - it pulled me out of the narrative, and made me more aware of other errors (such as conscious instead of conscience) and the writing style as a whole. 

Perhaps this explains why I found the writing to be very variable in quality. In some places, it was beautiful and lyrical, while in others it was an odd combination of too descriptive and not descriptive enough. In one instance, a tree is described at length, but I couldn't work out where the characters were, relative to the tree. There was also some confusing head hopping, which sometimes lessened the intended emotional impact. 

Nonetheless, The Things They Didn't Bury was still plenty emotional.  The depiction of the war was outstanding, and by far the strongest aspect of the novel. The details of the atrocities committed by the junta, and also its opponents, can be stomach-turning and heart-wrenching, but they are integral to the lives of the characters, so much so that the name of the novel is taken from one particularly inhumane practice. The junta would get rid of dissidents/activists/anyone who looked at them sideways by throwing their weighted (but still alive) bodies out of a plane into the sea. The psychological scars this caused to those left behind, and those who witnessed the planes drop their 'cargo' are touched on in the book, and in more detail in this 2013 article by the BBC

While Liliana escaped witnessing most of the war, first because she was too young to remember and then because she was in the US, Diego saw it all, including the plane drops. He had so much potential as a character, and yet he's pretty much just a stoic cardboard cut-out who exists to drive Liliana places and provide a shoulder for her to cry on. While we hear of his experiences during the war, they are imbued with little emotion and often are relayed only so that Liliana understands the context of something. He always followed Liliana's lead, even when he knew she was dragging him into something dangerous. I held some resentment toward her for being so stupid and headstrong, but as I'm writing this, I realise that it was Diego who understood the potential ramifications of their actions, and who should have spoken up. I guess it's a sign of devotion to her that he didn't, but getting yourself and your potential girl into near-death scenarios isn't really very cool either, for all it moves the plot forward. 

Diego's passiveness contributed to the overall lacklustre relationship between himself and Liliana. There was a curious lack of conflict between the two of them, partly because Diego just did whatever Liliana wanted to do, without comment. This, along with the absence of any romantic intimacy, meant the romance was less than satisfactory for me. Don't get me wrong, YA romances with little actual physical interaction between the characters can be very fulfilling, but The Things They Didn't Bury didn't have the deeper connection or sense of longing between the characters that is usually used as a substitute for physical intimacy in YA, and without this the declarations of love at the end felt forced and premature. 

Although the romance reader in me found the central relationship and HFN were lacking, on an intellectual level I recognise that the absence of a concrete HEA reflects the uncertain times the characters have lived through, and ways in which they are unable to find closure. The book's lack of moral justice also made it uncomfortable for me, but this too reflects the reality. Few people have been held to account for their actions during the war, and, as a result, my impression is that Argentine society bears a wound that might have scabbed over, but certainly hasn't healed.

To top off that piece of postmodern nihilism, I'm going to say this is a case in which the rating at the top of the page means absolutely nothing. Overall, I would recommend The Things They Did Not Bury for people who would be interested in learning more about the Dirty War, but not for those who are simply looking for a romance with a different setting, because it is a exploration of war first and a romance second. Regardless of my ambivalent feelings towards story itself, it did provide a unique opportunity to learn more about something I knew very little about, and I'm grateful for that. 

Monday, 15 February 2016

Review: Pairing Off by Elizabeth Harmon

4.5 stars

I was ambivalent about the premise of Pairing Off, given that it's the romance of two professional figure skaters, and my interest in figure skating is non-existent. In fact, after two years of working with a Serbian woman who talked about nothing but figure skating, I think my interest could be actually classified as sub-zero. In Australia, we pay very little attention to winter sports at all, really, except that one time when we won gold in some speed skating thing because there was a pile-up that knocked down all the other competitors: 

Anyway, I can't remember now what possessed me to buy Pairing Off, but I must have weighed up a Russian setting and the prospect of an old-lovers-reunited romance against tight, sparkly costumes and a dignity-less hero and decided it was worth it. It was totally worth it, and my apologies to Anton for ever doubting his masculinity. 

After her partner created a scandal that rocked the figure-skating world and implicated her, Carrie Parker is banned from competing in the United States, and no-one in the skating world will touch her with a ten-foot pole. She takes a mysterious offer to skate in Russia, only to find out that her new partner is Anton Belikov, the first man she ever slept with. 

Anton doesn't realise Carrie was that girl in Amsterdam all those years ago, but he feels some strange pull towards the disgraced American, enough that he's willing take a chance on her. As they try to fit years of training into only a few months, their feelings for one another grow, but so do the things keeping them apart. 

The thing that impressed me most about Pairing Off was Harmon's ability to hit both the lighthearted high notes, and poignant low notes, sometimes simultaneously. The reader is inclined to sympathise with almost all the characters, even when their emotional struggles take a backseat to more lighthearted scenes. Carrie is burdened by her mother's death and her fractious relationship with her politican father, made worse by her 'defection', while Anton's just trying to make the best of a bad lot and do right by everyone. 

The romance between Carrie and Anton is low-key for much of the first half, because Anton is still in a relationship with his former skating partner Olga (even though she left him in the lurch by partnering elsewhere). However, there was some top-class yearning on both sides, and I liked that their romantic relationship was based on a thriving friendship, and that they were far away from cheating territory.

Anton's reluctance to break up with Olga should have been frustrating, but it wasn't, because it was testament to his earnest and thoughtful nature. He was dedicated to Carrie and both their personal and professional relationships, and showed great patience with her reluctance to trust him. His unconventional profession was handled with self-effacing humour, such as his distaste for "man-wax".

Writing accents can be a tricky business, but Harmon managed the Russian tendency to omit articles when speaking English without making her characters seem cartoonish. I also greatly appreciated that Carrie took the time to learn Russian, as opposed to other romance heroes and heroines who move overseas but never seem to learn the language.

In fact, I loved the Russian backdrop all together. Carrie's decision to skate for Russia brings to the fore old Cold War prejudices, while the scenes with Anton's family really captured the generational and ideological divides of today's Russia.

While the second book in the series was good, its setting in in mainland U.S. and Puerto Rico didn't capture me the same way, and I am keen for the release of the Russian-set Getting It Back, which features Anton's playboy friend Misha as the hero.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Review: Finding Gabriel by Rachel L. Demeter

2 stars
Trigger warning for attempted suicide

Once again, the universe is sending me reminders that being a pessimist is the way to go. This book might have well been a giant neon sign reading: Don't get excited about things, you stupid bint. You'll just be disappointed. 

(Romantic) literary depictions of the Napoleonic Wars from the French perspective are rare, as Regency romances are usually too busy following English roses and the tortured aristocratic officers they cure with their love. So, I was excited to see that Finding Gabriel was set against the backdrop of Napoleon's (first) exile, and the Hundred Days, even if the romance element was still very familiar: French fleur-de-lis cures tortured aristocratic officer with her love.  

There were some twists to the premise, though. The anguished hero in question, Colonel Gabriel de Laurent, doesn't have a physical injury (to begin with), only a solid case of survivor's guilt, which causes him stick his flintlock in his mouth and pull the trigger. The heroine, Ariah Larochelle, finds him washed up on the bank of the Seine with half his face blown off. Miraculously, he survives - more on that later - and Ariah coaxes him back to health with the help of her six year-old daughter Emmaline. Playing happy families starts to heal both Gabriel and Ariah, but then - surprise! - there is très drama and everything falls apart.  

Despite my high hopes for Finding Gabriel, it shot itself in the foot early on with florid and obtuse language. Here's a particular stunner, which reminds me of the mangled sentences you get when you translate something into another language in Google Translate, and then back again to English: 
Hours later, the hearth gently crooned, casting transient shadows along the walls and floorboards. Outside the home, the wind chime jingled as it was manipulated by a harsh breeze. (loc. 1586)
But it wasn't just the terminal overwriting, unfortunately. Other writing choices were equally inexplicable, like having the bulk of the story in third person past tense, but the flashbacks in first person present tense.  The past perfect was sometimes used when the simple past was the logical choice, and I needed to read the odd sentence two or three times before I caught its meaning. I get that incomplete and truncated sentences are useful in creating suspense, but sometimes it just seemed like the author couldn't be bothered to string some words together more coherently, like when Ariah first comes across Gabriel:
The shadowy figure materialized with each of her steps until she saw the things for what she was. A man. Ariah's first thought: he's surely dead. (Loc. 266)
Well, Ariah, it's funny you should say that, because he surely should be dead. Gabriel's face is described as half-gone, and having bone shards poking through the skin. In the days when even a scratch could lead to septicaemia and subsequent death, it does seem unlikely that Gabriel survived, and even if he did, splintering his cranium outward means that there would be nothing between his skin and his brain, leaving it constantly vulnerable to accidental trauma. Demeter was vague enough about the details of Gabriel's recovery and disfigurement that I was able to suspend disbelief at first, but as miraculous occurrences, dire circumstances and unlikely coincidences piled up, I found this increasingly difficult to sustain.  

It didn't help that some of the tragedies inflicted on the characters seemed a bit arbitrary. I found great poignancy in Ariah's backstory, whereas, with Gabriel, it was almost as though he author decided that a decade of military service wouldn't make him tortured enough, and so added some familial tragedies to the mix. But, for all the talk of Gabriel being a tortured hero, he was actually pretty low-key, especially when held up to the self-flagellating hero of the same name in Judith James' Broken Wing, a comparison made in the synopsis. Gabriel's transition from tortured hero to not-so-tortured hero is largely uneventful, and yet this was the part I enjoyed best, as we got to see the characters develop away from the more manufactured drama of the beginning and denouement, when a whole lot of external conflict is introduced. 

Overall, I didn't hate Finding Gabriel. It is, however, one of those cases where I am not sure I actually read the same book everyone else is describing. From other reviews I'd read, I had expectations of a lush, history-heavy story à la Joanna Bourne, but that just set me up for disappointment. Story of my life.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Review: Frosty Relations by Tara Quan

4.5 stars 

Frosty Relations was so, so short, and yet it was the most well-rounded and enjoyable paranormal novella I have read in a long time. 

On Christmas Eve, HR assistant and supernatural familiar Mina Mao is sent on a blind date-slash-one night stand, only to find that her date is no other than Jack Frost, her boss and oldest family friend. 

In Jack, Quan managed a jackass hero whose behaviour I bought, but whom I didn't hate (although that's not true of his appearance in the preceding novella Flirting with Fire, when he came across as a Grade-A dick). He's a warlock, and warlocks can't properly contain and channel their power without a familiar. Mina's dad had long been Jack's father's familiar, and she was expected to take over that role for Jack, only it never happened. Nevertheless, she's ended up working for the Frosts anyway, and Jack's behaviour is simply him trying to draw her attention. A wee bit more redemption on Jack's part wouldn't have gone astray, neither would have some indication of how he and Mina would function as a couple, but we all also know novellas take no prisoners. 

Both Mina and Jack were very witty, and their shared history, which informs much of their present interactions, was sweet and poignant. Given its length, the backstory is remarkably nuanced, as is the worldbuilding surrounding magic. There's also just the right balance of story and page-turning sexytimes, which is something I often find skewed in paranormal novellas. 

Quan has found a really great formula, and she uses it to effect here and in the other stories in the series (though this one is definitely my standout).  I look more to reading more from her. 

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Review: Under the Sugar Sun by Jennifer Hallock

4.5 stars

Shortly after arriving in the Philippines, the heroine of Under the Sugar Sun makes the observation that "the most dangerous part of colonialism was just how easy it was to get used to" (loc. 1279). Truer words were never spoken, and that's exactly why we need more romance novels like Under the Sugar Sun: because we are used to the ongoing symbolic violence that stems from colonialism. In our literary worlds, whiteness and Western settings are normal, and these things are not challenged as much as they could - or should - be.

So, even though it shouldn't be exciting to find a romance like Under the Sugar Sun, it is. The paternalism, casual racism and focus on the horrible realities of colonialism make it a difficult read at times and I do have mixed feelings about some aspects of their presentation, but I also feel like that's partly the point. And, quite apart from all this theoretical stuff, Under the Sugar Sun was also just a great romance, the kind that makes you feel squiffy in the stomach when you remember it at odd moments during the day.

It's 1902, and Georgina Potter has arrived in The Philippines, nominally to join her fiance in a teaching position on the island of Negros. However, she also has another agenda: finding out what happened to her brother, a US soldier missing, presumed dead, after the Balangiga massacre. While in Manila, she meets Javier Altajeros, a mestizo sugar baron and landowner from the village where she will be teaching. They rub each other up the wrong way; Javier thinks Georgina is an imperialist interloper, while Georgie thinks he's little more than a feudal lord, standing in the way of progress.

Once on Negros, the dynamic between them starts to change. Quite apart from having to deal with a conceited fiance and the prospect of being unable to find her brother, Georgina is adrift in a world she doesn't understand. But it's Javier's world, and helping her come to terms with it is a welcome relief for a man struggling with family responsibility, debt and a very uncertain future.

This historical background of the American-occupied Philippines was one of the most intriguing things about Under the Sugar Sun. Some readers felt that the level of historical detail detracted from the story at times, but I disagree; Georgie and Javier's story was so bound up in these circumstances that to lessen their prominence would have lessened the impact of the romance itself.

I also feel like the inclusion of violent and horrific acts on the behalf of the Americans - one in which a general orders all males over the age of 10 killed to stop insurgency, and another where the colonial authorities simply raze settlements to stop the spread of cholera - are important because they disabuse us of one of our central fictions about colonialism. We like to think that, after the initial dispossession or subjection, colonial overlords were mostly benevolent tyrants. We skim over any subsequent injustices so we can have a clear distinction between the racist then, and the patently not-racist nowAh, yes we took their land away and poisoned their waterholes *mumble mumble* Stolen Generation *mumble mumble*...but look, it's all so far in the past now, or Oh, sure, we pillaged India and her people *mumble mumble* Jallainwala Bagh massacre *mumble mumble*...but wasn't that Ghandi guy really an inspiration to us all??

But such atrocities were still common occurrences in my great-grandparents' and grandparents' lifetimes, and they probably would have supported the 'pacification' measures described in the novel. The white characters in Under a Sugar Sun certainly do, and, while the reader is able to project most of her disgust and hatred onto Georgie's erstwhile fiance Archie, Georgie herself is not immune. It's conflicting at times, but kudos must go out to Hallock for not creating a sanitised heroine who somehow magically avoided any and all racist socialisation.

For most of the story, Georgie succeeds at walking a fine line between being a realistic woman of her time and being aware of the Americans' adverse impact. Her understanding and compassion towards her students and their families was my favourite aspect of her character, and I enjoyed watching her shed her prejudices and begin to challenge the status quo. I was disappointed that this character growth didn't continue through to the conclusion; in the last quarter of the book, Georgie became pig-headed and blind to the consequences of her actions. Javier saves the day, of course, but I was left feeling that he deserved better, or should have at least held out for some grovelling.

But Georgie never really grovelled, or apologised very much at all, and this brings me to the heart of my beef with her: as a white woman and American coloniser, the balance of power was always in her favour. Javier essentially just had to wait until she deigned to be with him, but she never really acknowledged this disparity, or attempted to redress it in any way. Instead, she was perfectly happy to reap the benefits of this situation. As realistic as that may have been, it made me angry.

It's the reason I abandoned my original 5 star rating, but I also acknowledge that I am probably being harsher than I would in other incidences where the characters and setting were more run-of-the-mill. Given the harsh social and economic realities the characters were living with, a level of self-absorption that I would normally find acceptable became much more difficult to forgive.

But, when I think back on the majority of the book, I remember that I did truly love Javier and Georgie as a couple. Their interactions were replete with humour and a sense of comfort gained from the others' presence, both of which carried over well to the bedroom.

Overall, Under the Sugar Sun was a exemplary reminder of all that I love in romance, and all I wish there were more of. It's grand in scope in the same way old-school romances were, but with a very modern presentation of race, class and gender. Between Javier and Georige's romance, the setting and the writing, it's a deeply affecting book and one that I'd recommend almost universally, no matter my gripes.

Having said all that, I do still have one burning question: If Javier's brother Andres didn't take a vow of poverty, did he take a vow of chastity?? Because that man needs his own romance, like, ahora.

EDIT: I've discovered that Andres will have his day!  Huzzah!
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