Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Review: Fearless by Nicola Claire

2.5 stars

For the most part, I didn't connect with Fearless by Nicola Claire, and I think the Gothic element had a lot to do with that. Fearless trades in the suspense of old-school Gothics, but I've never been someone who liked or was drawn in by that atmosphere of generalised fear. In fact, it's because I dislike being scared, upset or uncertain that I read romance. So when Fearless was described as the first in a "Gothic romance series [that] introduces a dark and sinister early settler New Zealand", I knew it was a risk. I took it anyway, because a) New Zealand setting and b) suffragette heroine. In the end, my relationship with it turned out pretty much as you'd expect.

The set up is that there's a Jack the Ripper copy-cat killing Suffragettes in Auckland in 1891. Anna Cassidy was trained as a surgeon by her father, who was the Chief Surgeon of the Auckland Police. However now that her father's dead, the Police Force won't have anything to do with a informally trained female doctor, even when the victims are her friends and fellow suffragettes. Inspector Andrew Kelly is investigating the deaths, and is finding it hard to turn down Anna's involvement, especially since the actual new Surgeon General is a drunkard. It also becomes increasingly obvious that, whoever the killer is, he has some kind of twisted obsession with Anna, so Kelly needs to keep her close. 

For me, the Gothic-ness made it feel very long and drawn out, because there's that slow build up of tension. I started off reading the descriptions of horribly mutilated bodies, but I ended up mainly skipping over them for my own peace of mind, which probably further reduced my ability to buy into the suspense and my investment in the characters finding the killers. But, really, there's only so much a girl can take. However, I did find the medical aspect quite interesting: the autopsy and crime scene stuff (where I read it), the use of opiates with other drugs, the movement of medical knowledge from Britain to the colonies. 

I rather liked Anna as a heroine, but I also didn't feel like she progressed very much, because the same character traits are brought home to the reader time and time again: she's fearless, clever, medically detached and strong. I didn't find it implausible that she was medically trained, but I was unsure about the way she laid claim to the title 'Dr.' and her faith that the Surgeon General position should be hers. This seems like a big step up from wanting the vote or wanting to be accepted a doctor in general; New Zealand's first female medical student, Emily Siedeberg, who began her studies in 1890, the year before the book is set, and graduated in 1896, mainly treated women and children, because this was what was acceptable. Her friend and fellow student, Margaret Cruikshank, the first woman to formally qualify and register as a doctor in New Zealand, did treat the whole community in Waimate, but only after her male colleague left to fight in WWI, and also attended to domestic tasks on house calls, such as cooking, feeding children and milking animals. So far as I know, neither ever held any position of authority, let alone one of the highest in the land.

It annoyed me that Inspector Kelly was so paternalistic to Anna, even as he recognises her strength of character and medical capabilities. To be honest, that's probably quite realistic, I just wish it had been more offset with other endearing traits. Instead, it was all 'Anna, be more ladylike', 'stay at home and knit something' and 'I'm cold and distant to you for your own good'. 

On that last note, potential readers should also be aware that this is a series, like a we're-going-to-be-following-these-same-characters-for-multiple-books series, because that sure shocked the hell out of me in the final pages. I just thought that Inspector Kelly was super belated getting his ass into gear, but there's no HFN/HEA here. So I read 355 bleeding pages of death and dreariness, thinking that at least there would be some happiness and romance at the end and then I didn't even get that. Some warning would have have been nice. 

Anyway, I've been slightly more lenient in my assessment of Kelly and Anna's relationship now that I know it wasn't meant to be a full romance arc, but at the same time, I still feel like there should have been more of a connection between the characters. The book opens with them already knowing and pining for each other (so there's not really any forward movement there, since they're still pining at the end), and while I felt like I had enough understanding into Kelly's attraction to and love for Anna, I didn't have the same insight into why she felt the same about him. 

The Auckland setting was primarily why I chose to read this book, and while that was the aspect of it I enjoyed the most, I still feel like it didn't reach its full potential. There was of course mentions of familiar places - Grey Street, Constitution Hill - and vague mentions of historical events - 'trouble in Northland' - but overall I still wasn't massively impressed. The suffragette angle was interesting and geographically and temporally linked it to late-1800s New Zealand, since we were the first to seriously campaign for and win the the vote, but apart from that, Fearless could have easily taken place in London. The author aimed for it to be "Whitechapel meets early settler New Zealand", but its dark vibe and mean streets push it towards Whitechapel and prevent it from developing Auckland as a growing colonial town. Maybe I normally wouldn't have noticed this or felt its absence so much, except that I recently read such strong portrayal of colonial Sydney in Jasper and the Dead

This was primarily a case of me not gelling with a book, but I also do feel like the lack of romance arc and the unadvertised lack of a HEA will be a potential stumbling block for a lot of other romance readers. 

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Review/Reflection: Skybound by Aleksandr Voinov

Skybound by Aleksandr Voinov had its merits. It's a very short novella (only 44 pages), so the plot was a bit rushed, but the characterisation was solid and the relationship arc was reasonable. It's very lyrically written. However, I also have some reservations about Skybound, if my thoughts are concrete enough to be called that. Maybe a better way of phrasing it is that there are some things that sit uneasily together for me, and which people definitely need to consider when thinking if this book is right for them. 

This is largely because it's set in the last days of World War Two, and is the romance of a German Luftwaffe pilot, Baldur Vogt, and Felix, a mechanic who works on the planes. Felix has admired and loved the flying ace from afar, but after he pulls Vogt from the flaming wreck of his plane, the two develop a friendship with undercurrents of something more. Vogt and Felix escape the airfield for a weekend, only to return to to the realities of the Russian advance on Berlin. 

As much as the central romance itself was well constructed, I think I would have felt a lot easier about the characters and their setting if they had shown more emotional angst. There was some, but it was brief and low-key and I didn't feel it was in proportion with the fact that Felix and Baldur are two gay men (and, later, a gay couple) in Nazi Germany. While they had some concerns about being outed, these were less in, say, The Imitation Game, set in Britain during the same period. Even if the mechanisms of the state had broken down at this point and people were no longer being prosecuted for homosexuality, I feel like 10+ years of living in a toxic, openly homophobic environment would have had an effect on the characters, both in terms of paranoia about being outed and their own acceptance of their sexuality. There is brief mention of the latter with regards to Felix, but by and large, I didn't see this, and I feel a bit uncomfortable about that, like it's an erasure of the Nazi regime's genocidal homophobia. 

The lack of more than low-level fear or angst extends to more aspects of the book as well, particularly the Russians closing in. While this drives the plot in the final scenes of the book, it is very underdeveloped until then, appearing like a bolt out the blue. 

I respect that it's a novella, so it can't include masses of content or suspense-building, but I felt both these areas were pretty essential if you are going to have an M/M romance set in Nazi Germany that uses fear of the Red Army's brutality to move your plot along. 

Voinov puts a lot of effort into painting a picture of the airfield, with details of the Luftwaffe and planes, but there is none of the same effort put into recreating other parts of the society. On some level, I think this was a conscious decision, part of efforts to portray Felix, Baldur and their ilk as citizens and soldiers of Germany and distinguish them from the Nazi establishment. But part of what did make me uncomfortable with the story is that the airfield is presented as a bubble, with little external input or output, even from other military establishments. But focusing on the technical aspects of the planes and not mentioning where Baldur's orders were coming from doesn't change the realities of the situation. 

And this is where my mind gets stuck, because an idealistic part of me wants to believe multiple experiences of the war can exist side-by-side without impinging on each other, but another part also recognises that in order to focus on a story like Felix and Baldur's, a thousand others are pushed out of the frame. Reading Elie Wiesel's Night after I read Skybound, but before I wrote this review, I was reminded that, at the same time that Baldur and Felix took that weekend away with ample food and warmth and petrol, the survivors of concentration camps were being forced to make death marches through snow-covered Poland and Germany ahead of the liberating forces. 

These are all just jumbled thoughts, and I'm not the person to give them any weight or validity, if they're to have any at all. But I do think that maybe 44 pages are insufficient to tackle all the context that needs to be addressed in a romance with a Third Reich setting. I think that would be the case with a heterosexual romance, but it's doubly so with a gay romance.

In the end, I haven't rated Skybound, because I don't feel like my thoughts are enough of a cohesive critique to rate it negatively, but I would also feel uncomfortable giving it a rating that was divorced from them. 

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Review: Stirred by Tracy Ewens

3 stars
I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. My opinion is my own. 

I quite enjoyed the middle third of Stirred by Tracy Ewens, but it took me a while to get into, and my engagement dropped off again towards the end. I've only read one other in the series (Candidate, #2), but I definitely didn't enjoy Stirred as much as that one, which was at least a 4 star read.

The heroine of Stirred is bartender/mixologist and former mechanical engineer, Sage Jefferies. She's been loving her friend's brother Garrett from afar, and one night, after she accidently drunk texts him to pick her up from a date gone wrong, she tells him that. The two agree to put Sage's confession aside, but Garrett can't deny that it has changed the way he sees Sage. He wants her, but he's used to being on his own, running the family farm, and Sage can't bear to be involved with Garrett only for something superficial. 

The characters were well fleshed out, and the part of the novel I enjoyed was where the author spent time drilling down into their hang-ups. Unfortunately, the drill then got stuck to 'on' and started going sideways into the bedrock. All character development and forward movement of the romance arc ceased, and we were left with this awful broken record of "this isn't going to work", "I'm meant to be on my own" et cetera et cetera. Then - SPOILER - they break up, get back together, break up again, and then Garrett makes a big gesture and proposes. That really didn't do it for me, because Garrett's issues were never resolved (hence the second break up), nor did he explain to Sage how he was going to address them or how things were going to be different. I guess the fact that he was offering commitment was meant to be enough, but commitment does not prevent dysfunction, and I could easily imagine them in exactly the same position six months down the track. 

I was really backing Sage for a while there, particularly liking the way she cherished her autonomy. Then this strong character who believed that no Garrett would be better than emotionally-unavailable or casual-sex Garrett turned anaemic and gave me this unsatisfying HEA, which totally was not what I signed up for. However, I also respect that different readers react to these things differently, and I will be the first to admit that I have a low tolerance for endings that are - for me - unfulfilling. 

Perhaps because I wasn't feeling the plot and had lost my connection to the characters, aspects of the writing also started to annoy me, something I don't recall from reading Candidate. Anecdotes are fine, but it seemed that every second page was "so-and-so remembered one time when this happened" as a metaphor to make a point. Similarly, I felt that characters using their parents' or siblings' favoured phrases with the addendum "as her mother would say" or similar was much overused. I could handle the fact that the characters' egos and bodies shared their individual thoughts with the rest of the character - that's not that unusual - but I was bugged by the formatting that made this look exactly as if an actual person was talking out loud: 
"What the hell is wrong with wanting his body?" her own body screamed. 
I just couldn't get used to it. Every single time, I'd go, "wait, what, who is this talking?", only to reach the end of the speech marks and realise that nobody was actually speaking, it was just weird anthropomorphism again. 

I don't think Stirred was necessarily a bad book, despite all my griping, but rather that it and I were just a bad fit. It pushed some of my buttons, and then, because of that, I started nit-picking. Overall, trying to separate myself as much as possible from my dissatisfaction, I'd classify it as reasonably lightweight read, maybe good for holidays, but I'd definitely recommend trying others in the series first. 

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Review: Jasper and the Dead by R J Astruc

4 stars

Several months ago, as I walked along the Sydney foreshore that bears his name, I wondered why more people haven't written books about Billy Blue, since he was such a legend of the early colony. At the time, I thought Blue's daughters would be wonderful romance inspiration, since they married into the creme-de-la-creme of English settler society despite (or because of) the fact that their father was an eccentric, Black businessman who was an ex-convict and probably also an ex-slave. Little did I know that Astruc had already written a romance featuring Billy Blue and his family, one beyond my wildest imaginings. 

Jasper and the Dead takes place in an alternative colonial Sydney, where one of the convict ships arrived with a cargo of infected zombies. In the three years since, there's been a constant battle to control the hordes and keep Sydney safe. The town's been quarantined, and although Governor Macquarie sent word to England, no help has arrived, until one day an emissary sails through the heads. Macquarie calls on Billy Blue, both in his capacity as ferrymaster and as a friend, to get him safely through town and out to the ship, and Billy entrusts the job to his secretary, Pape Sassoon, and son, Jasper Blue, a seasoned zombie hunter. It's intially a mystery to Jasper why his father insists the bookish Pape needs to be involved, until he realises that this is another one of his father's elaborate matchmaking schemes, only this time his father has actually got the gender of Jasper's potential partner right. 

It's an unique set-up, made amazing by the all the world-building Astruc manages to cram into a novella-length piece. As a native Sydneysider, I enjoyed being able to relate to a city that is portrayed in such an interesting and dynamic way. In the final pages of the book, Astruc hits on something that I think is somewhat an eternal feeling in this changeable city of ours: 
It is a strange thing, but it occurs to Pape that Sydney has grown into its cityhood as he has grown into adulthood. He has watched the city spread its crude convict roots into the hub of life it is today. Pape has never fought for anything in his life, but he wonders now if he could fight for Sydney. 
Australians who know their history will also be delighted by the colonial personalities - both real and semi-fictionalised - that are interwoven throughout the story. However, these elements are not essential to understanding the story, and I think someone not from Sydney or Australia would still find Jasper and the Dead engaging, just in a different way.  

As you can also see from the above excerpt, the story is written in present tense. It's a testament to Jasper and the Dead that I made it through at all, because usually I end up going completely batty and DNF'ing about 20% of the way through present-tense books. Its use did pull me out of the story, and make it seem as though the characters' thoughts are being relayed simplistically and didactically. Despite this, I found the relationship between Jasper and Pape to be fulfiling, if low-key, and I loved that everything ended on such a sweet note. 

Jasper and the Dead originally appeared in the Under the Southern Cross anthology, but today there's the annoying choice between buying an individual online copy of each novella or buying a physical copy of the whole anthology. Nonetheless, after Jasper and the Dead I'm excited for the other novellas. 

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Non-Fiction Review: The Long March Remembered by Edward Stourton

 The Long March Remembered was very short and very basic introduction to Communist China's founding myth, the Long March. The information provided was good, but it almost felt like the author was constrained by a word count or something. He'd touch on something really interesting for a page, and then flit on to the next thing. Nonetheless, starting with a base knowledge of a) the Long March happened and b) it had something to do with the Communist Party and the Civil War, this book helped fill in the blanks. 

Nominally, The Long March Remembered looks at the differences between the official, founding myth of Communist China, the historical record (what little there is of it) and oral and physical sources. It throws up some interesting contradictions in the process, but they are only dealt with very superficially. 

Another focus of Stourton's is how the historical representation of the Long March has been constructed from the top down, with the focus on its significance for Mao Zedong, the Party and the brewing Civil War, rather than centralising the experience of the everyday men and women in the Red Army. 

He relates some personal stories that are heart-rending: the female soldiers who were left barren because of the toll the March took on their bodies, families who never found out the fate of their loved ones, marchers who were so hungry that they would search through faeces for pieces of undigested grain. However, once again, he doesn't really delve into these stories very deeply, almost as though they are incidental to his main point (although his main point is supposedly how the Average Joe is forgotten in The Long March mythology, so that's a bit of a problem). 

Supposedly, the reason so little personal history is included is due to a lack of sources, since the Marchers were mostly illiterate, and are now almost all deceased. But one of the most interesting parts of the whole book was Stourton's discussion with the child of two veterans of the March, who retells her parents' experiences. I would have liked to see more of this intergenerational reminescence and memory, especially to see how these families reconcile the 'official' version of the March with what they have heard from their parents or other family members. Or, if their parents didn't speak about it, as many people don't after such things, to what extent the spectre of the March was present in their upbringing anyway. 

Ultimately, I think The Long March Remembered was trying to do too many things in too little space. But, because it glancingly covers so many disparate aspects of the March and the Civil War, it is useful as a primer.
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