Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Opinion: An Open Letter to a Bookish Charity


I discovered you in my quest to find new homes for some of my books, and thought highly of your mission to distribute book to people on the streets across Australia. At first, it seemed we would be a perfect fit. You only wanted books in good condition; I already had a 'to go back to the Salvation Army store' pile and a 'good quality' pile, so I'd give the quality stuff to you. Except that, on further research, I realised you wouldn't want them, because, while my pile has historical fiction, non-fiction and speculative fiction, it also contains many romance and chick-lit novels. GASP!

I know that this is not going to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, because "out of respect for your customers", you do not accept romance and chick-lit, or other inappropriate and pernicious influences such as religious materials and guides to getting rich quick and/or losing 10 kilos in 10 days.

Perhaps you fear that, if you did accept romance novels, you'd be swamped with tattered Mills & Boons and old school romances with dubious covers and even more dubious expressions of consent. Except that you have already stated that books must be in "near new condition", so anyone who did so would be showing a blatant disregard for your guidelines and the work you do.

Therefore, I can only assume you have made a moral judgement on the content of romance novels, in general but in specific as to their suitability for people who are homeless. It can't be that, despite greater visibility of men sleeping rough, you are unaware of the large numbers of women who are homeless. There were 45,813 women who were homeless on census night in 2011, which accounted for 44% of the total number of people experiencing homelessness. I cannot believe that, with the removal of government funding from domestic violence and homelessness services over the intervening years, that things are any better now.

Speaking of domestic violence, 55% of women state this is the primary reason they have presented to homelessness services, and I suspect this is where your reasoning for banning romance lies, given that you have also disallowed true crime books, and books that deal with drugs, depression and suicide.

And, of course, there are undoubtedly women who, after experiencing intimate partner violence, do not want to read books that centre relationships, some instances and sub-genres of which may normalise controlling or other problematic behaviours. But I also know many readers in the online community who have experienced domestic and/or sexual violence, and who read romance and chick-lit for exactly this reason. As romance author and scholar Maya Rodale said:
Unlike any other literature, romance novels champion women who defy expectations, they validate their interests and experiences, they declare women deserve love, respect and pleasure, and they reward them for refusing to settle for second best. 
They are escapist and provide a guarantee that everything is going to be okay, which can provide comfort in a world that offers no such assurances, especially to women.

Thus far, I've spoken exclusively about women, but statistics from America show that only between 82-84% of romance novels are bought by women, so perhaps your male clients would also appreciate the choice of a few romance novels now and again.

I can only assume that you think that romance is trashy, anti-feminist, not what your clients want, and potentially detrimental to their wellbeing. I don't even know what to say about the exclusion of chick-lit, because I'm finding it hard to see any objection there but undisguised literary snobbery. It's true that there may be sub-genres, tropes and themes that might not be the most suitable, but this is also true of literary and other genre fiction, all of which you accept without caveats.

If you get in contact, I would be happy to help sort through/read any romance novel donations and pull out ones that contain anything that might be triggering, and I'm sure there would be other people willing to do the same in other cities, including some of your current workers and patrons. Maybe that's not the best answer - I don't know - but surely it's better than completely removing choice and agency from your clients, as you are currently. After all, the entire purpose of your organisation is to counter the dehumanisation that can occur when people sleep rough, and yet you are treating your clients in a paternalistic and infantilizing manner. Unless you have asked your customers if they would like to read romance and chick-lit, and the vast majority said no, in which case I apologise. But somehow I suspect you haven't.

I still greatly admire the work of your organisation, and, although I can't make a donation without spending a sizable amount of time re-sorting my books, I'll send my serious literature friends your way.


P.S. You'll never see this, of course, and I'll never be brave enough to send it to you, so...I guess we'll never know what could have been. Keep up the otherwise good work.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Review: Rise of A Queen by Chanta Rand

3.5 stars
I received a free copy of this book from the author. My opinion is my own. 
TW: Male rape

Chanta Rand's West African historical romance Rise of a Queen was intense. It began with a male rape, and included a lot of treachery, death and destruction, reminiscent of old school romance sagas. While that wasn't necessarily to my tastes, it was also intertwined with fascinating characterisation and a wonderfully detailed setting, both of which I really enjoyed. 

The book opens with the heroine, Nabeela, being married to a prince much older than her in order to ensure her family's security. However, the overweight prince has a heart attack on their wedding night, and so she, her mother and their confidantes have to find another man to consummate the marriage and - hopefully - provide Nabeela with an heir, or the whole thing will be for nought. 

A year or so later, Rafan - of the rival Sahaja people - is sent on a diplomatic mission to form an alliance between Rafan's cousin, a Sahaja king, and the de facto ruler of Nabeela's kingdom, her power-hungry former stepson. Rafan recognises the woman who held him captive and "stole his seed", and everything begins to unravel as Rafan upsets the delicate balance of power between Nabeela and her stepson. 

As I said, the plot itself is a bit old school. There's a long set up with many separate conflicts and then the denouement comes very suddenly, and then is resolved quite quickly. I would have liked to see this more fleshed out. For example, it's never mentioned why Rafan turned around from the mission he is sent on, or the hows and whys behind the revelation of a plot against Nabeela. (I am being purposely vague here because I did enjoy this book enough that I don't want to spoil it for others). 

I found Nabeela to be a very well-executed heroine. Circumstance - and her mother - have taught her that power is the only security a woman can have, and this defines her actions. However, Rand does very well at highlighting that desire for power and position is not a result of naked ambition, self-absorption or callousness - although other characters see it this way - but of the turbulent socio-political context. 

In of itself, I think I probably would have only given the story 3 stars, but the way the author handled the setting bumps it up another .5 stars. Rand wove her research about the Empire of Ghana into the story so skillfully, without ever info-dumping. There was also a wonderful Author's Note at the end, which laid out everything that I had on my 'to Google' list in just the right amount of detail, complete with maps and pictures. 

It is thanks to that I realised that the Empire of Ghana is in no way geographically commensurate with the modern nation-state of Ghana, but was instead located in what is now southeastern Mauritania, western Mali and eastern Senegal. 

This was a good thing to know since I, you know, picked The Rise of a Queen as a Beyond a Single Story read for Ghana. So that's a valuable lesson for me. Don't rely on nomenclature and slack off on your research when picking books from countries where your knowledge is sadly lacking. If anyone knows of any historical romances set in modern-day Ghana or, before that, in the colony of the Gold Coast, I'd be grateful if you let me know.

In the meanwhile, I'm leaving Rise of a Queen under Ghana on the Beyond a Single Story page, because I think it points out the exact reason I started doing this back in January (and how little progress I've made). However, in doing so, I don't intend to imply that there is a common or interchangeable culture between the current Ghana and the other West African countries that once made up the ancient Ghana Empire. 

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Non-Fiction Review: Kicking the Kremlin by Marc Bennetts

Kicking the Kremlin by Marc Bennetts covers Putin's rise to and consolidation of power, and dissidence against him. It was interesting and well constructed, but in many ways, I wish either that I'd picked a book with a slightly different focus, or that this book had been written later and, essentially, was a different book itself. 

Bennetts raised several key points that I hadn't necessarily explicitly understood about Russia. The first is the importance of the 'good tsar, bad boyars' mentality that has persisted throughout the ages, which allows Russians to be dissatisfied with aspects of their lives, and yet still support the man in charge, because localise this dissatisfaction on their regional officials. 

Related to this is the idea that Western-style democracy simply doesn't and won't work in Russia, justified by the great demographic and geographic spread of its people, and by historical example. 

All politicians aim to create an 'us' and a 'them', but Putin has been very successful at this. I wasn't familiar with the situation surrounding Putin's rise to power, but it was interesting to see how the war in Chechnya created an Other and a sense of fear, and how he leveraged this to increase his popularity and demonstrate that he was the man for the job. There are obvious parallels here to the war in Ukraine and the current NATO/Russia tension but the book can't draw them out because it concludes its narrative in 2013 and was published a month before the annexation of the Crimea in March 2014. 

In the West, our picture of protest in Russia is one of Pussy Riot and mass demonstrations, but Bennetts draws out the lack of unity amongst dissenters. There's the far right, the far left, and many small groups in between, but there isn't - or maybe I should say wasn't, as of the end of the book - any mass movement that was universally appealing to people dissatisfied with Putin. Even people who were successful rallying points, like anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, had trouble connecting with wider audiences and movements.   

Bennetts also highlights the 'why now?' aspect of to the dissidence faced by Putin, who has been in power (including the time he spent as Prime Minister with his ally Medvedev as President) since the turn of the century. After the societal trauma of the collapse of the USSR and the tumult of the Yeltsin years, people liked Putin because he brought stability and economic security. They weren't so concerned with abstract political freedoms so long as there was bread on the table. Now, however, there is an younger generation who only remember these times as a child, if they remember them at all, and some do not feel that it should be an either/or scenario.

Overall, I'm not sure how relevant the book's conclusions, made in 2013, actually are. So much has happened in the interim - Crimea, Ukraine, M17, Sochi, Syria, just general tension between Russia and NATO/the US - that, in many ways, Kicking the Kremlin has more of a historical feel than a current affairs one. As a result, I've come away feeling like I don't have solid understanding of dissidence in Russia, despite reading a whole book on it. Essentially, for whatever is happening today, all that I've read is just the backstory, and I guess that's why it was in the bargain bin at the bookshop.

EDIT: It was been brought to my attention in the comments that Bennetts released an updated version of Kicking the Kremlin this year entitled I'm Going to Ruin Their Lives. I haven't read it (yet), but if he grapples with everything as well as he does in Kicking the Kremlin while discussing the current situation in Russia, I imagine it would be well worth the time.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Review: My Fair Concubine by Jeannie Lin

4.5 stars

My Fair Concubine by Jeannie Lin was a delightful Pygmalion story set in Tang Dynasty China.

Fei Long's sister Pearl has been given the honour of being a heqin bride, women of the royal family or court who are sent to rulers on the Empire's borders in marriage alliances. Unfortunately for Fei Long, Pearl's eloped with another man, and his family honour is on the line unless he can find another woman to take her place.

Enter Yan Ling, a servant in a small-town teahouse. Her meet cute with Fei Long has her throwing a pot of tea over him because she thinks he is propositioning her. She's let go from her position, so Fei Long agrees to take her to Changan and train her as a replacement heqin for Pearl. But that necessitates the two of them spending a lot of time together. Fei Long begins to admire Yan Ling's determination, and Yan Ling isn't sure what to so with her feelings for the gruff man of the house.

The characters were the real highlight of My Fair Concubine and gave me so many feels. Fei Long was such a vulnerable hero, with so much responsibility on his shoulders. Yan Ling and her/Pearl's lady's maid, Dao, are - excuse me for using the dreaded phrase - such strong female characters. Yan Ling is caught in no man's land; she's not Fei Long's servant, but neither is she his equal, despite the fact that she is masquerading as his sister and will eventually receive the honorary title of princess. She's having to forge forward without any template as to her status or behaviour, and not be discouraged by Fei Long's constant nit-picking. As a servant, Dao will never have the opportunity to marry, and she is outspoken if her belief that Yan Ling is jeopardising her chance at a better life by falling for Fei Long, whose status means he will probably only dally with her, or - at best - make her a concubine.

Yan Ling's low birth also provided My Fair Concubine with a different focus to the other books in Lin's Tang Dynasty series, and different insights into life in Imperial China around 800 AD.

I could see the way one complication was going to resolved a mile away, but the mystery was in how the romantic arc was going to get the characters to that conclusion. Throughout the novel, Fei Long is very concerned over his good family name, which is endangered by Pearl's elopement and his father's debts and which also puts his lifelong family retainers at risk. I kept turning pages obsessively to see what the catalyst would be that cause him to believe that his feelings for Yan Ling were more or equally important than his family honour. This catalyst did come as a surprise, and an emotional one at that.

Lin has consistently delivered with this series, but I found this one to be particularly satisfying.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Review: The Hating Game by Sally Thorne

5 stars
Release Date: 9 August 2016
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher. My opinion is my own. 

My romance catnip is where the hero is more aware of his feelings than the heroine and/or more invested in their relationship, so I nearly had to be hospitalised from catnip overdose while reading The Hating Game by Sally Thorne. I mentally placed it on my favourites shelf when I was only halfway through, and then, somehow, the second half got even better. Just to give you an indication of my insane love for this book, I'm a paragraph into this review, and I already feel all giddy reliving my reading experience. 

The Hating Game is about Lucy Hutton and Josh Templeman, who are the assistants to the to two co-CEOs of Bexley & Gamin publishing house. Bexley & Gamin was formed out of a merger of two separate mergers: Lucy and her co-CEO are from Gamin; Josh and his are from Bexley. They have different corporate cultures, and Lucy has hated Josh from the moment he walked into their shared office, when she smiled at him and he didn't smile back. Now, they spend their time playing games of brinkmanship and one-upmanship: The Staring Game, the HR Game, the How You Doing Game. Then, a new position is announced - Chief Operating Officer - and suddenly Josh and Lucy's games have real stakes, just as Lucy was starting to realise that Josh doesn't hate her the way she thought and maybe she doesn't hate him quite as much as she thought either.

That little blurb I've written above doesn't really do it justice, and it also implies that there's more of an element of sexist "he's mean to you because he likes you" than is really present. 

I've had big problems lately with the not-quite-redeemed hero, but Thorne has no trouble redeeming Josh. Once Josh realises that Lucy interprets his behaviour as enmity and standoffishness - and that this is affecting her self-perception of herself as a likable person - we begin to see a whole other side of him as tries to salvage their relationship and build something new and good. 

Lucy's relationship with Josh - where she gives as good as she gets - is markedly different to her relationship with others, where she values her reputation as a nice girl too much to rock the boat. I loved seeing her confidence grow as a result of Josh's support. In turn, Lucy's support was essential for Josh to face his family at his brother's wedding, and these make some of the book's best scenes. 

The whole thing is just insanely humorous and off-beat, and somehow manages to simultaneously have off-the-charts levels of sexual tension and sweetness. 

Thorne's writing is unique (maybe other people will think it's OTT, I don't know) but I thought it was perfect, both as writing and as the expression of a zany, Smurf-collecting, five-foot tall heroine. In fact, it's lucky I had a physical ARC, becuase I think if I'd had an e-copy I would have broken my Kindle highlighting all the beautiful turns of phrase. As it is, every second page ended up being dog-eared either because I loved the writing, or it was just too heartwarmingly cute, and I wanted to be able to find it again easily. Only, as it turns out, when you dog-ear everything, you can find nothing, so the joke's on me.  

I guess that's it, because I don't know what else to say. I feel like I used up all my praise on books less great than this one in the past and now I have no words that are strong enough to convey my feelings. Fangirl Dani out. 

EDIT 8/4/17: Apologies, Fangirl Dani didn't notice the problematic aspects in this book. Please see the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books review, and Silvana's review on Goodreads for details

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Review: Girl on a Plane by Cassandra O'Leary

2 stars

For me, Cassandra O'Leary's debut novel Girl on a Plane didn't live up to the anticipation and hype that surrounded it. The hero was frustrating, which has been a bit of a theme for me lately. I know I don't deal well with misogynistic, patronising or insert-dickish-tendency-here heroes (there's enough of that in real life) but am I asking too much to be able to track a hero's journey from jerk to not-a-jerk, or from emotionally stunted to not-emotionally-stunted?

The hero here, Gabriel, is the Australian CEO of a travel website, and en route to London to set up the European arm of his company, he meets Sinead, an Irish flight attendant. Due to a typhoon, the two of them end up stranded in Singapore, where the hotel has accidently double-booked them in the same suite. Sinead - who is on the fence about the way Gabriel has been behaving - isn't about to give up easily, and a power struggle ensues, until they fall into bed together. When the bad weather clears, they have to decide whether they simply go their separate ways, or whether their secluded few days is the start of something more.

For the first third or so of the book, Gabriel is shown to have serious man-baby tendencies and the emotional coping skills of a baby howler monkey. I might have been more accepting of the excuses given (he was tired, he hadn't meant to do whatever) if he hadn't been so calculating in the way he treated women, and if it hadn't been the female characters, including the heroine, who bore the brunt of his bad behaviour. I mean, he randomly accosts Sinead when she's off-shift in a neutral environment (the airport lounge) to take out his anger at her employer over an unavoidable situation.

While these overt instances of white male privilege fall away somewhat, we're still left with a less than admirable hero. I particularly disliked the male banter between Gabriel and his best friend. In one instance, Gabriel admits to having met someone, and this exchange follows:

Ryan leaned forward in his seat. "Now I'm intrigued. Give me the low-down." 
"Flight attendant, Irish accent, long blonde hair, fantastic breasts. She's hot, but she's more. Funny and sweet. She's got me agreeing to all sorts of crap to keep seeing her....She's making all these rules. No touching for a month." 
"Oh man, you'll be out of your mind. You agreed? She must be special." 
"Special." Funny, Sinead had used the same word. It was growing on him. "Yeah, you could say that. Lucky we already got down and dirty in Singapore so I know it's worth waiting for. It'll be hell in the meantime though."
There's a few things going on here, and elsewhere. First and most obvious is the objectification, followed by the male entitlement to a female's body. This might be a realistic portrayal of how men talk and think amongst themselves, but it left a bad taste in my mouth, especially since Sinead has left an abusive relationship and spends the whole book dealing with the fallout of this. Gabriel doesn't know this at this point (I don't think, I can't remember with 100% accuracy), but the reader does, and it I found it hard to back a relationship where the hero seemed to have some of the same entitled behaviours as the abusive ex.

However, Gabriel's backstory about his mother's early onset Alzheimer's was going some way towards redeeming him, at least until that all fell apart as well. His concern about succumbing to the same illness and not wanting Sinead - or anyone - to have to care for him was poignant and the major barrier to them establishing a long-term relationship. And yet, we don't see it being worked through. Gabriel breaks up with Sinead over this fear, then all of a sudden, he's back on the scene, saying he's been to a doctor and he's going to be fine. Cue HEA.

On the other hand, I did genuinely enjoy Sinead's observations on life in customer service. She describes her work-mode self as a 'flight attendant zombie', and is over the fact that she is clever, fluent in 3 languages and simply worth something as a person, and yet has to put up with being patronised, objectified and generally treated badly. She also holds some ill-will towards a male colleague, who does the same job as her, yet is sullen because he thinks he's above certain parts of it, and is treated differently. I related to her sense of disenchantment, and enjoyed the snark, wit and bone-tiredness that infused her observations. It went some small way to making up for my frustration at Gabriel and the plot. In other ways, however, Sinead's observations made my annoyance worse: the author doesn't have any illusions about being a woman in the service industries, and yet her hero is still exhibits those characteristics her heroine hates.
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