Monday, 25 July 2016

Review: Imperfect Chemistry by Mary Frame

4.5 stars

Imperfect Chemistry was the most enjoyable New Adult romance I've read in a long while (not that I read masses of them), and I loved it. Somehow, it managed to strike a near-perfect balance between light-hearted romantic comedy and serious NA issues like consent, parental approval and emotional dependency. It also provided several genuine surprises  along the way that were really delightful and brought the story away from cliche genius-girl-and-hot-boy territory. 

Having started university at the age of thirteen, Lucy is in the unique position of being a 20 year old with a PhD in microbiology. She's received a research grant to study emotion as a pathogen, but she's having trouble coming up with a hypothesis and methodology. After a disastrous stint in the university's counselling clinic leaves her no closer to an answer, she decides that maybe her neighbour, the mysterious Jensen, can help. The gossip on campus is that he's gone through a bad break-up, and done some serious rebounding, and Lucy thinks he can move her project forward in two ways. Firstly, she can ask him about these experiences, and then, since she seems to find him attractive, maybe he could help her experience some more personal emotions. 

Lucy's voice was very distinct, straightforward and scientific like the character herself. However, it changed over the course of the novel, as Lucy becomes less clinical and more accustomed to interacting with others. Throughout, the light relief that Lucy's friend Freya, Jensen and, increasingly, Lucy herself, provided was essential to counterbalancing the cerebral nature of Lucy's commentary. 

This leads to the not-entirely-positive thing I have to say about Imperfect Chemistry. The whole thing occurred in Lucy's POV, but the conflict in the romance arc comes from Jensen's side. Because of this, the conflict seems to come about very abruptly, and I felt some foreshadowing or set-up to this would have been well served. Quite apart from that, Jensen was just a very sweet hero, and I would have liked to have more insight into his thought processes and feelings about Lucy. The second book, about Freya, is dual-POV, and I have to say I did appreciate that. (I'm not going to write a review for Imperfectly Criminal, because it would be much in the same vein, also being a really good NA read with quirky characters). 

Usually, I read other books between instalments in the same series, because I find I engage less if I read one in a series straight off the back of another, but this is one case where I just had to keep going. So I read the second in the series, then I read one other book (which was a disappointment) and now I'm going to move on the third for another hit of funny-and-feelgood-but-not-fluffy. 

Frame has worked some serious magic so far in this series, and I find myself wishing she had more books in print. She must know she's going to get the reader hooked as well, because Imperfect Chemistry is free on Amazon (I repeat: FREE), and then the other two in the series...aren't (although they're still very reasonably priced). But even if it weren't free, I'd still recommend you pick it up. 

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Review: Most Eligible Bachelor by Empi Baryeh

2.5 stars

There were aspects of Most Eligible Bachelor I really liked, and others I had serious problems with. I started off thinking it was definitely a 4 star read, then I revised to 3, and now it's ended up with a 2.5. In a nutshell, the hero exhibited some really worrying, dickhead behaviour and I can't move on from that. 

Set in Ghana, Most Eligible Bachelor is the story of Chantelle Sah, a journalist with a well-respected national magazine, and her interviewee, Lord McKenzie, a construction juggernaut with a playboy reputation. Unbeknownst to Chantelle, Lord has been following her work and specially requested that she be the one to interview him, on Valentine's Day, no less. Valentine's Day has been pretty shitty for Chantelle since her fiance died - with another woman - three years before, but that doesn't mean she's going to fall for Lord's smooth lines. 

For the most part, I enjoyed this take on the arrogant businessman meets resistant woman set-up, and Chantelle's backstory provided some good depth to this, as did Lord's desire for a loving relationship like his parents'. At first, I worried that the stiry relied too heavily on the use of conventional tropes, but the Ghanaian setting and relative strength of Chantelle as a character provided a good balance.

However, as I mentioned earlier, I had some serious issues with the Lord's behaviour, in particular his decision not to tell the Chantelle the condom broke when they first had sex. I read romance for escapism, and men robbing women of their agency is one of the most real life scenarios there is. It's depressing, it's frustrating and it's very hard to keep backing a relationship where it occurs. Even though the reason a man treats a woman this way is, by and large, irrelevant, Lord's rationale somehow does make it worse. He calls Chantelle to tell her, but she doesn't pick up, so he convinces himself that it'll be fine, she's probably on the pill anyway. Then the issue is dropped for ages, and I thought - because he's clearly psychic about her contraceptive choices - that he must not intend to tell her. But, oh no, he still does, he's just 'waiting for the right time'. Even though, by this point, they've been alone together about a dozen times. MATE, there is no right time to tell someone the condom broke, you do it ASAP so they have options and can be checked out. In the end, he doesn't tell her until she is already about to take a pregnancy test, which is so not ok. Chantelle is obviously angry, pointing out that if he'd told her earlier, she could have had the morning after pill. But then she forgives him, because, you know, love. That's where I started to detach from the story, because I was unable to trust his assurances that he wouldn't ever act in a similar manner (there are other incidents where he railroads Chantelle or doesn't respect when she says no), and so my desire for and belief in the HEA was reduced somewhat. 

It's a shame, because at other times, Lord could seem really sweet and be the kind of hero I wanted him to be. In one instance, Chantelle tries to initiate something, and doesn't proceed, concerned that she is emotional and still has regrets over the last time they slept together. I could get behind that Lord, but, unfortunately, he is ultimately eclipsed by his horrible twin.

So, overall, Most Eligible Bachelor was a mixed bag. It started strong, had good writing (although I wasn't a massive fan of the euphemisms in the sex scenes) and a well-executed plot (with the obvious exception of the whole I'm-not-going-to-tell-you-about-the-condom-breaking conflict). I just wish the hero had lived up to his potential, and allowed the heroine the freedom of choice she deserved. 

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Review: The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn by Usman T Malik

5 stars

The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn was a hauntingly beautiful speculative fiction short story. It's not a romance, although it does include two love stories; one has a HEA, and one does not. 

It starts with Salman Ali Zaidi, a young boy in America, whose grandfather tells him stories of the pauper princess he knew during his youth in Lahore, Pakistan. A descendant of the last Mughal Emperor, Zeenat Begum ran a small tea stall. She told people that a jinn had protected her royal ancestors, and now watched over her from the Eucalyptus tree that shaded her little stall. 

After Sal grows up, he discovers evidence in his deceased grandfather's possessions that his family have a much greater link to the Mughal princess than his grandfather ever let on. He travels to Pakistan for the first time to investigate and is caught up in the same eternal and otherworldly mystery his grandfather had stumbled upon half a century before. 

The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn drew in ontology of the creation of human and jinn, and philoshopy about myth and history. From reading Goodreads reviews, I gather the philosophy was a turn-off for some people, but as Sal's grandfather told him as a boy, "all good stories leave questions". Just as with much speculative fiction, especially the shorter formats, I don't feel like one is meant to get bogged down in the hows and the whys of it all. I certainly felt like everything was explained, in a lyrical way that befitted the story, and that nothing got overly complicated, unless you were trying to connect every dot. And this was the thing - the reader couldn't connect every dot, because Sal didn't even have that ability, and he was the narrator. 

Sal's voice - and the writing in general - was so lyrical and strong, and Malik has woven so many different things into such a short story and made them fit together seamlessly. It shouldn't have worked, but it does. However, if I was to critique the story for anything - and it's a such a very small thing, hardly worth bringing up  - it would be the story's reliance on a unbroken male line for five generations, given that the whole story hinged on a Mughal princess. 

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Review: Long Gone Girl by Amy Rose Bennett

3.5 stars

Long Gone Girl was a cute, little 1950s-set novella. Ginny Williams is recently returned from the Korean War, where she served as a nurse and had a short marriage to a medic before he died in action. Keen to escape stifling life in small town New Jersey, she heads to the shore for a weekend, only to meet her high school classmate and one-time crush Jett Kelly on the beach. Jett humiliated Ginny once, and Ginny won't let him do it again, but she's also very attracted to him. And, as Jett is a pilot who also served in Korea, they have a lot more in common now than they ever did in high school.  

Long Gone Girl is a light, quick and easy read, with a 1950s setting that made it stand out. Bennett does very well at giving the reader a sense of place and time, and the setting also shapes the characters and their interactions. Obviously, there's their mutual experience with the Korean War, but Ginny is also rebelling against her mother's conceptions of correct behaviour, and attempting to strike out on her own as a new type of woman. She was frank, both sexually and with reference to her career. 

This meant that it focused a lot on the physical attraction side of things, and not very much on what Ginny liked or thought she could like about Jett as a person. There was HFN and not a HEA, which I thought was fitting, but that's because I didn't see what would have held Ginny to a relationship with Jett, apart from sexual attraction, even though she says at the end that she was falling for him. 

There was so much that was yet to be explored, and in an ideal world I'd have liked an epilogue or something where this was touched on, however briefly. I also felt like the conflict could have been slightly more prominent or protracted or something, because both the two main obstacles in the romantic arc - Ginny's lack of desire for a relationship and her lack of faith in Jett - are dispensed with fairly quickly and with minimal angst. I would have also liked more information about the characters' experiences in Korea, or for this to have more of a visible impact, but this is probably very much a matter of personal preference. 

Overall, taking into account the fact that Bennett is working within the novella format, Long Gone Girl did its thing quite well. 

Friday, 8 July 2016

Non-Fiction Review: Freedom Ride by Ann Curthoys


While many Australians will recognise the famous image of Charlie Perkins and local Aboriginal children in the Moree baths on the cover of Ann Curthoys' Freedom Ride, I suppose I should probably explain something for the international audience: Australia had our own Freedom Ride, based on the more famous ones conducted in the American South, and it's this that Curthoys' title refers to. 

In one of her opening chapters, she draws out several distinctions between the American understanding of Freedom Rides and their Australian counterpart. For a start, in Australia, we usually use the singular, referring to only one Freedom Ride, although there were several subsequent trips. The American Rides had the specific aim of challenging segregation on interstate buses and terminals. While thirteen Freedom Riders (seven black, six white) set out, many more spontaneously converged on Jackson, Mississippi when racist violence was encountered (Curthoys, p. 30). 

In contrast, the Australian Freedom Ride was a bus trip planned, paid for and executed by a student organisation called Student Action for Aborigines, which was based at the University of Sydney. SAFA's aims with the Australian Freedom Rides were much broader: to raise awareness of and protest the racism, de facto segregation and poor conditions experienced by Aboriginal people living in or around rural New South Wales towns, while also conducting a survey on these experiences. The most famous Freedom Rider was Charles Perkins, an Arrernte man, who had been one of the first two Aboriginal students admitted to the University of Sydney. The other, Gary Williams, was also present for parts of the Ride, but the other 30-odd students were all non-Indigenous Australians. 

At school, I learnt about the Freedom Ride in a very uncritical manner, and I bought this book largely out of a desire to revisit this chapter of Australian history through a new lens, given that I now have a very different awareness of the implications of an organisation, made up largely of white Australians, advocating for Aboriginal rights. 

On the whole, Freedom Ride was far deeper and more nuanced than I was expecting. The subtitle or tagline a Freedom Rider remembers gives the impression that it's more or less a memoir, but this is somewhat misleading. Curthoys reconstructs many things based on her diary entries and memories from the time, but many other people are interviewed and many different sources used in the course of the project. Furthermore, the book includes a great deal of analysis, evaluation and historiography that covers not only the Freedom Ride, but the Indigenous Rights Movement and the political environment of the 1960s as well.  

Curthoys also regularly critiques the role, importance and impact of the Ride in the Indigenous Rights Movement. She raises questions surrounding Indigenous self-determination and the role of white and non-Indigenous Australians. Neither does she shy away from recognising the role of white saviour complex in SAFA's actions, although I don't think she ever uses that term. 

When they entered a town, SAFA would ascertain if there was support amongst the local Aboriginal population for a protest. In some towns, they already had contacts, in some they established links with local leaders on entering a town, and in others they found that there was less desire to cooperate with their aims, for a number of complex reasons. 

At the time, there was external criticism that SAFA was shooting into a town, protesting for a short time and then leaving the local Aboriginal population to pick up the pieces and deal with the hostilities. While much of this criticism came from people who thought there was 'no racial problem' and SAFA was just 'stirring up trouble', there were also some activists who thought a more softly-softly approach was needed. Interestingly, Curthoys reveals that the group were also conflicted about this. After their charged protest at Moree elicited a promise that the baths would be desegregated and Charlie Perkins and a group of local children were allowed in to bathe (see the photo on the cover of the book), the Riders left the town, agreeing that a white ally would test the sincerity of the desegregation by taking more kids to the baths the next day. They were refused entry, and when the Riders found out, they held a heated meeting to decided whether or not to double back and lend their support once again, or to continue on as scheduled. Ultimately - and I think to their credit - they did return to Moree.

The desegregation of the Moree baths - and the violence surrounding the protest there - is one of the common points of focus when discussing the Freedom Ride. Others include the protest of the RSL (Returned Servicemen's League) at Walgett and the incident that occurred afterwards, when the bus was followed and eventually rammed and run off the road by angry white locals. 

Both for my generation, who learnt it at school, and my parents' and grandparents' generations, who remember it, the tendency has always been to focus on those few flashpoints, or the Ride as a backdrop for Perkins as a personality or an example of university activism. So while much of the content will be familiar to an Australian audience, there was also great amount of new information for me, not to mention the analysis of it all. 

One aspect that features prominently, and which was a complete surprise to me, was the communist affiliation of many of the students; they joined SAFA from University communist societies such as the Eureka Youth League. In the middle of the Cold War, only three years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Perkins tried to keep this quiet and prevent the Communist organisations from being publicly associated with SAFA, because he knew that this had the potential to alienate the media and a lot of people who might otherwise support them, such as the churches. 

However, I don't think Freedom Ride should be restricted to an Australian audience. For international readers I think it would be very interesting to see how the toxic cocktail of racism, imperialism and economic interest, amongst other things, were - and are - applied in the Australian context. It's also interesting to note how SAFA, the Freedom Ride and wider public awareness about Aboriginal and TSI rights interconnect with the international happenings. SAFA was formed after student protests supporting the US Civil Rights Movement led to charges of hypocrisy; students were happy to be arrested protesting rights for people more than 15,000 kilometres away, but what where they doing for those being denied their rights in their own backyard? 

As many people will be aware, one of Charlie Perkins' daughters is today the well-known filmmaker Rachel Perkins. Her first film, entitled Blood Brothers, was a documentary about her father and the Freedom Ride. Some excerpts can be found on the Screen Australia site, and I found them eye-opening, particularly the contemporaneous film footage and Charlie's reminiscences. Just while I'm on the subject, Perkins also has another documentary which I would highly recommend. It's called Black Panther Woman and it's a poignant and sensitive portrait of activist Marlene Cummins, who was part of the Australian Black Panther Party. It is not only one of the best docos I've ever seen, but it also been one of the most profound and thought-provoking works on the intersection of race and gender I've ever seen or read or consumed in any way, and I think about it often with relation to white feminism vs. intersectional feminism and good allyship. So, I leave you, on a tangent, with the trailer for Black Panther Woman:

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Review: Indiscretion by Hannah Fielding

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

Man, I am on a roll choosing to read and review books that I am not in the mood for. Indiscretion scraped me raw emotionally and I eventually gave up just after the 60% mark. I couldn't deal with all the drama and heartache. On the other hand, I did appreciate the unique setting - 1950s Andalusia, and it had in-depth scene-setting and character-building, to say the least. However, there were also some other aspects that kept me from enjoying Indiscretion

The writing was, at times, very florid, and everything was always described in such detail, which was sometimes atmospheric and sometimes excruciating. The female characters - with the exception of our kind, virginal heroine - were all horribly cruel, not to mention the male characters. The hero was a sullen man-whore, and I couldn't stand the way the heroine's father treated her. Actually, I couldn't really stand the way anybody treated anyone. That's my brief take. 

I haven't given Indiscretion a star rating, because I didn't finish it and that seems unfair. Instead, I've brainstormed people for whom this book might work for, and people who might have a similar response to me. 

This book might be a hit with:
  • People who like/feel like reading something stylistically similar to old school epic saga romances of old, complete with dynastic complications and loads of angst. 
  • People with time on their hands.
  • People who make forays into women's fiction and literary fiction.

This book might not be a hit with:
  • People who have had enough of the real world at the moment and want to read for escapism. 
  • People who don't want to deal with the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, a barely reformed hero and duplicitous and cruel family members. 
  • People who will become impatient with pages of descriptions and backstory.
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