Thursday, 24 March 2016

Review: Off the Clock by Roni Loren

4 stars

Off the Clock by Roni Loren was a refreshingly different take on the old sexually-experienced-hero-tutors-sexually-inexperienced-heroine trope, because both the hero and heroine are sex researchers/therapists.

When the reader is first introduced to them, Marin and Donovan are the only two students in a university building overnight. She's manning the sleep lab, and he's (supposedly) working late on a project. Marin helps Donovan out with his research (which is about female arousal) and they wind up having a one-night stand. Years later, they meet again when Marin takes a job as a sex therapist at the exclusive treatment facility where Donovan works. As her assigned mentor, Donovan quickly realises that Marin has a terrible poker face and little sexual experience, so he creates a checklist of sexual scenarios for her and selflessly offers to help her tick them off.

As the blurb implies, the premise could have gone terribly wrong. There's a power differential, but Donovan never pressures Marin into anything. He makes his offer only semi-seriously, and it's Marin who truly initiates things between them. Throughout the novel, I was impressed by the way Donovan respected and encouraged Marin's agency and autonomy. There were no power plays between them - sexual or otherwise - which was refreshing, especially in an erotic romance.

I also relished Off the Clock's frankness, which extended beyond the sexuality into its portrayal of mental health. Marin's mother had bipolar disorder, and this has defined her life in so many ways. She's scared that the illness lies latent within her, and so has always been careful to stay away from anything that might trigger it, including relationships.  It's not uncommon to have a hero living a self-destructive lifestyle, but rarely is it put in terms of mental illness, as it is with Donovan. Nor is it a case where the love of a good woman has the power to heal or cure the hero; Donovan makes an effort to sort through the things contributing to his depression, so that he and Marin can have a healthy relationship.

There was also a subplot about Marin's little brother, who felt as though he'd lost his sister when she began to spend large amounts of time with Donovan. In romance, we tend to focus on the happiness of the central couple at the exclusion of those around them, and I liked the way this acknowledged that new romantic relationships can upset the balance of other existing relationships.

Even though Off the Clock subverts many tropes, there were also those that were not scrutinised. These, I felt, held the book back, particularly the 'malicious ex-girlfriend' character. Overall, a solid 4 stars. 

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Review: Haveli by Zeenat Mahal

5 stars

Haveli is the most exciting thing I've stumbled across since I started making an effort to read literature from/featuring different countriesI have never read anything like it, and I'm not sure I ever will again, since I've gone on to read some of Mahal's other novellas and, while they are all good, none of them has the X-factor found here. 

Set in the early 1970s, Haveli is the story of Chandni (or C., as she calls herself), who has been raised by her grandmother, the widow of the last Nawab of Jalalabad. The begum subjected her spunky granddaughter to strict and antiquated home-schooling, but nothing has prepared her for Taimur (aka Alpha Male). He's the son of family friends, and C.'s grandmother is pushing for a union between them. When C.'s long-absent father returns, offering another marriage prospect, she has decisions to make, and growing up to do. 

Haveli a novella, but it's masterful. There's the spoilt, naive, headstrong heroine with whom one can still sympathise, the Alpha Male hero, who really isn't such an Alpha Male stereotype after all, the family entanglements, the mix of the traditional and the modern, the practical and the quaint, the Western and the--I want to find a less loaded word than 'Eastern', but nothing's coming to me. Subcontinental? South Asian? Desi, maybe. Somehow, Pakistani seems too small; the protagonist twice refers to herself and her family as being Punjabi, and the familiar context once again reminds me that the Partition is more a religio-political division than a cultural one.

The 1970s setting wasn't very tangible, but it was still integral. Without the political talk about Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and the possibility of "civil war" between West Pakistan and East Pakistan (aka Bangladesh), I would have been hard-pressed to guess at a decade, except to say that C. could not have been so unworldly in the internet age. I also assume that the nawab-without-a-title lifestyle that C. and her grandmother live is a product of its time, the 1970s being much closer to the days when the princely states retained technical independence under the British. 

For me, C.'s naivete was one of the things that made her narrative voice so strong and enjoyable, as was her irreverence, which was shown through in her banter with Taimur. The strength of C.'s personality means we only really see Taimur through her eyes, as Alpha Male. The nickname and the marriage-talk initially made me uneasy about C.'s future with him, but this was more the result of unchallenged prejudices than anything else. Once I started looking at the evidence on the page, it becomes clear that Taimur is a sweet bloke under all his bluster, and a good match for the headstrong C.

Towards the end of the story, C. makes an error in judgement, and attempts to fix it by dictating a plan to everyone, assuming that they will play the role she has allotted them. The lack of apologies and consultation means that she that it's only time that her strong-willed nature eclipses her likability, but the responsibility she takes for her actions also demonstrate her growth as a character, so I wasn't really put off by it at all. 

It's C.'s dynamic narration of the people and places around her that makes Haveli what it is. Mahal has managed to cram the characterisation and world-building of a full-length novel into her novella, and there really is no greater praise than that. 

However, as a final aside, I would also like to give her props for her name, which I suppose could either be an awesome pen name or a kick-ass actual name. The original Zeenat (or Zinat) Mahal - the last Mughal Empress of India - was the strong and politically astute wife of the last Mughal Emperor of India, and she basically ruled on his behalf until his deposition following the Sepoy Mutiny/First War of Independence. Seriously though, go and look her up

Friday, 11 March 2016

Review: The Secret Rose by Laura Landon

3 stars
Release Date: 15th of March 2016
I received a free ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. My opinion is my own. 

When I saw The Secret Rose on NetGalley, I thought 'why not?', since I've read a few Laura Landon books and don't remember disliking any of them. I didn't enjoy this one, or maybe I did, but I didn't want to enjoy it. Perhaps it's best to say that I didn't like the content of this book, but I liked reading it.

Abigail Langdon was engaged to Stephen Cambridge, Earl of Burnhaven, until she found him in flagrante with another woman. Now, with Stephen missing, his brother Ethan has had to come from the Caribbean to sort out the mess he's left behind. Thanks to a deathbed letter from Abigail's father, he knows Abigail has the answers. She's is unwilling to share her secrets, but her desperation to stay at her family's estate is obvious to Ethan, so he buys the estate from the new owner and offers her a solution: if they marry, she can have the estate, and he'll gain her father's shipping interests, with which he can pay his absentee brother's debts. But Abigail is no closer to trusting him, and her secrets and his enemies are closing in. 

I made that plot synopsis very melodramatic, but it fits, because this book is super old school. At one point, I investigated whether it was actually a reissue of an old title, because the classic romance vibes were that strong. It was, like, kidnappings, big secrets, affairs, amnesia, menacing villains, near-rapes old school. I wasn't so keen on that, but it did make for weirdly compelling reading. Although the plot was a little crazy, the suspense was skillfully done, so that I kept turning page after page after page, even when I should have walked away.

At the outset of the story, Abigail was a strong and capable heroine. She's alone in the world, struggling with a lot of stuff and just doing what she needs to in order to survive. I looked forward to seeing this develop, but instead she deteriorated, and her strength became overwhelmed by the old school elements. At times, it was almost like there was an inverse relation between her and Ethan, where there was a finite amount of strength and agency, and only one of them could possess these at any given time. When Ethan got increasingly high-handed (and by 'high-handed', I really mean 'kidnaps Abigail to force her into marriage'), Abigail's strength of character just deteriorates. It does make a comeback right at the end, but by then I was too upset at her being so forgiving and taking responsibility for men's actions towards her, that I didn't really care. 

As for Ethan, he wasn't openly domineering, but his attitude towards Abigail was worrying at times. He thinks he has a right to her secrets, and then, as she gradually reveals them, acts exactly the way she feared he would. He comes around, but this process is mainly glossed over, leaving me disturbed that he could so quickly do an about-face from viewing Abigail negatively to deciding he still wants her. He also showed a lack of awareness about Abigail, and what her secrets might be. Despite ample evidence, he never considers the possibility that she was sexually assaulted. Instead, he puts two and two together and gets thirty six, deciding that she spooks at his advances because she is so innocent, and maybe no-one's ever kissed her before. 

I wouldn't go so far as to recommend this book to anyone, but I have to admit that, despite its flaws - or perhaps because of them - it was a compulsive read. However, for anyone who is considering it, be aware that it opens with an attempted rape. 

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Review: Need You For Mine by Marina Adair

3.5 stars
Release Date: 29th of March 2016
I received a free ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. My opinion is my own. 

Okay, so the first thing I want to say about Need You For Mine is please ignore the cover. I don't know what's going on there. The guy looks like a KGB officer on holiday, and, while the woman is less objectionable, she doesn't really evoke our main character, Harper. 

Harper Owens is an art teacher and shop girl in the small town of St. Helena. She's cheerful, bright and a bit of an artistic soul, and because of this, she's been friend-zoned by just about every guy in town. Except Adam. The two have known each other forever, but sparks begin to fly when they have a late night encounter at The Boulder Holder, Harper's grandmother's lingerie shop. Adam realises there is more to Harper than everybody else sees, and he's interested to explore that. In a familiar trope, the two end up faking a relationship so each can achieve something: Adam needs to shed his playboy image if he's to become the lieutenant at his fire station, while Harper needs some man candy to convince a lingerie brand not to drop The Boulder Holder from their stockists. 

It's a pretty standard plot and setting for a contemporary romance, but the formula works here, thanks mostly to the depth of the main characters. At the outset of the book, I was concerned that Harper was going to be one of those Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbow heroines who communes with birds or whatever, but Adair did well in fleshing out her character. Similarly, Adam is more than the shallow guy the town believes him to be. Neither's backstory was flogged to death, but the reader was made aware that the past had a bearing on who they had become. It was a good balance that never interfered with the light-hearted tone of the story. 

Sometimes, though, it was a little over-the-top. Between the cadre of sex-positive old ladies, the intuitive alpacas and the subplot about the lingerie brand, everything occasionally became so larger-than-life I couldn't help but roll my eyes. However, this was window dressing to the central romance, which remained strong. I'm also willing to admit that maybe it's personal; for me, the Greek chorus element of small-town romances often grate.

But, overall, I enjoyed Need You For Mine, and when I want a warm and comfortable romance, I'll gladly go back and read the two previous instalments in the series.  

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Review: The Convict's Bounty Bride by Lena Dowling

2 stars

You could be forgiven for thinking a book entitled The Convict's Bounty Bride would be set in the colony, but you'd be wrong. If you read between the lines of the synopsis, you can see it's set in London, but somehow I still expected that it would end up back in Australia at some point. It never did, but my annoyance at that was quickly overwhelmed by my annoyance at just about everything else. 

Quick plot run-down before I get all rant-y: James Hunter has served his seven-year sentence in the colony of New South Wales, and returned to London to claim his due from the family for whom he took the fall. Lady Thea Willers' father was counting on James dying during his sentence, but now James is back and demanding Thea's hand in marriage. Except Thea doesn't want to marry, instead having entirely unrealistic expectations about what she is going to do with her life (more on that later).

The combination of the writing style and novella-length made the story feel very abrupt. There was little attempt made to orientate the reader or set up the plot and characters, and the results are jarring. The whole thing gallops along, and - to continue the terrible equine metaphor - the reader can barely keep her seat for being whacked by passing plot twists. Literally every development in this book came out of nowhere and made its appearance too soon. 

Because the characters are very one-dimensional, the reader is unable to anticipate their actions, which was probably a blessing in disguise. I probably would have given up altogether if I'd known the heroine would be so horrible. She was, by turns, immature, cruel and criminally stupid. There's a scene where, determined to ruin herself so as not to be forced into marriage, she basically assaults the stable boy in full view of the stable master. And then she's so surprised her father is going to whip the poor boy - who might also lose his position - that she faints. 

The other reason I was completely baffled by the characters' actions is that they just don't act in the way real people do. When there is a Big Tragedy, the affected characters all have very weird and unrealistic reactions. James is the only one who actually shows any sense, but even this doesn't last long, as he proceeds to take Thea's virginity at a totally inappropriate time.  

As much as I disliked the Thea, I also didn't appreciate the way James viewed her as payment for services rendered. He never really gives up seeing Thea as an object; when he realises he cares for her, the reasons that are given are basically her body and her suitability as a colonial wife. 

But the biggest single thing was the lack of regard for the realities of the Regency Era in which the book was set. I mean, I'm no Georgian scholar, but I'm pretty sure random ex-convicts can't get vouchers to Almack's. And then there's Thea. The book opens with her asking her father if she can have a position on the board of their bank, because she wants to have a career. Dowling justifies this by referencing the fact that the famous Regency character Lady Jersey was the primary shareholder in her grandfather's bank, but I'd argue that it's one thing for a married Countess and social arbiter to be involved in banking, and another for the young, unmarried daughter of an Earl. 

The idea of Thea having a 'career' is odd. It is surely anachronistic for a young woman to aspire to such a thing (especially in something like banking, instead of say, writing), and I'm also pretty sure the concept of a 'career' was not commonly used in the same sense as we use it today. One had a profession, or a vocation. Where 'career' was used, it was because one had chosen a calling with steps of advancement, such as the military, rather than just some girl deciding to dabble in banking. 

Supposedly, Thea's desire to be a career girl comes from Mary Wollstonecraft, whom her father included in her education. That, in of itself, is a stretch, but I was willing to let it slide. But Thea's refusal to marry was based on a erroneous belief that Wollstonecraft never married, and I couldn't believe that she would not have known this. Even though Wollstonecraft had been dead for roughly 20 years, she still lived on in the Ton's imagination because of the exploits of her daughter Mary Godwin (later Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein), whose affair with the married Percy Bysshe Shelley was grist for the gossip mill for years. Basically, everyone thought that Mary Godwin was no better than she ought to be, given her scandalous and unnatural mother.

But, if the idea of Wollstonecraft-loving heroine appeals, I'd recommend The Likelihood of Lucy by Jenny Holiday, where the heroine won't give you homicidal impulses. 

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Non-Fiction Review: The Rescuer by Dara Horn


Dora Horn's The Rescuer is a short non-fiction piece about the efforts of an American, Varian Fry, to save cultural and intellectual luminaries at risk from the Nazis, either because they were Jewish, dissidents, or both.

Churchill once said that "great and good are seldom the same man", and Horn illustrates his meaning almost perfectly. Varian Fry was a great man, and he worked within a system governed by great people, all the way up to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. The people he saved were also great people: Marcel Duchamp, Hannah Arendt, Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Andre Breton and Claude Levi-Strauss, to name only a few. But Horn highlights that - no matter how history has recorded these people and their deeds - the term good is sometimes ill-fitting.

Unlike the more familiar story of Oskar Schindler, who, throughout the 1960s, was propped up financially by donations from the people he had saved, those rescued by Fry did not wish to maintain contact with him after the war. Nor did many demonstrate any gratefulness for the immense risk he had undertaken; several even put his operations in danger with their vanity and self-absorption.

And, even though Fry was doing good work and ultimately saved over 2000 people, he was a troubled man, so much so that one of his children still refuses to discuss him. Another ascribes his erratic behaviour to bipolar disorder. As Horn also points out, there is also a certain irony in his position as a Righteous Gentile. He helped people to escape the Nazis' brutal eugenics programmes, but, in order to do so, subjected these people to another form of eugenics; only people making the most important contributions to the "culture of Europe" would be considered. 

As for the statesmen of the American government, they tried to have Fry recalled when his work was no longer in line with their politics (i.e. when they realised they were actually going to have to take in all these people Fry was saving!). When Fry refused to cease and desist, the State Department tipped off the Vichy regime about Fry and his team, leading to their arrests. 

Going in, I thought Fry's story would be presented in a self-congratulatory American-saves-the-world manner, but I couldn't have been more wrong. In fact, for Horn and other who have studied Fry, this is why is story has received so little attention, comparative to those like Oskar Schindler. It blurs the black-and-white binaries through which we see the Second World War. Whereas normally we have the good, heroic Americans (and other Allies) as the counterpoint to the evil Nazis, here the Americans do not come out smelling so fresh. Not only did they dob Fry in to the Nazis' puppet government in France, their actions make a mockery of our two core narratives when it comes to the Holocaust: that we didn't know a genocide was occurring, and, that, even if we had known, we would have been powerless to stop it. This second assumption rests on the fallacy that people would want to do anything, which then, as now, is not necessarily true. 

We like the story of the Righteous Gentile, but the truth is that most Gentiles were decidedly unrighteous, even when they had a level of awareness of what was happening to the Jews across Europe. And, make no mistake, Fry's experience demonstrates that the implementation of the Final Solution was an open secret.

In 1935, Fry witnessed a pogrom along the Kurfuerstendamm in Berlin, which, according to one of his co-rescuers, contributed to his decision to go to France years later. At the time though, Fry reported on the violence for The New York Times. In 1942, he wrote another piece, this time for The New Republic, in which he chronicled a 1935 meeting with Ernst Hanfstaengl, the Nazis' chief foreign press officer. Hanfstaengl told Fry, quite plainly, that he and the 'moderate' Nazis wanted to expel the Jews, while Hitler's 'radical' wing had their hearts set on mass murder. Neither was Fry was not the only person reporting these developments to the American newspapers. 

As for the American government, they agreed to Fry's presence in France, if only tacitly, because they knew that the alternative was losing these great brains to extermination camps. But, even so, they took almost few actions to offer refuge to other European Jews because both the government and the general population were scared of opening the door to 'floods' of Jewish refugees, as the case of the SS St. Louis shows. 

The great strength of Horn's writing lies in her ability to make the reader examine these things in a new light, and she does so by conveying her own conflicted feelings. In one instance, she writes: 
The inevitability of the premise of all narratives of Holocaust rescue - and part of what makes me so uncomfortable with them. The assumption in such stories is that the open maw of death for Europe's Jews and dissidents was something like a natural disaster. These stories, in some sense, force us - people removed from that time by generations - to ask the wrong questions, the kind of questions we might ask about a tsunami or an epidemic. Someone has to die, the thinking goes, and the only remaining dilemma is who will get the last seat on the lifeboat or the last vaccine. But these questions fall short by assuming that the perpetrators were irrelevant. As long as we are questioning the choices that are made, shouldn't we be considering the possibility of the Holocaust not happening at all? If someone was in the position to choose whether to save person A or person B, shouldn't whole societies have been in the position to reject the notion of genocide altogether? Why didn't everyone become Denmark? (Loc. 387-396)
I read The Rescuer in the first days of the new year, but Horn's rendering of Fry's story and the Holocaust in general have stuck with me these past months, invoked by things I come across in my everyday life. First of all, there are the people Fry saved, who have been popping up everywhere, even though Levi-Strauss was the only one I had any awareness of before starting this book.

But then, there is also something greater, something I sometimes wonder when I open the newspaper and read about Europe's current refugee crisis, Australia's despicable treatment of asylum seekers or Trump and the rise of the far right in the United States. If we tell ourselves these comforting fictions that we didn't know, that we were powerless, are we more likely to ignore the cries for help that are occurring now, or in the future? After all, as George Santayana said, "those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.".  
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