Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Review: The Gossip by Jenny Holiday

4.5 stars
Release Date: 4 October 2016
I received a free copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review. My opinion is my own.

Romance novels where there is a imbalance of power between the two main characters can very easily go wrong. But this one didn't. In fact, The Gossip went very, very right, thanks to Holiday's customary lovable characters, plus a funky 1980s setting. 

Dawn Hathaway garners social power and popularity through her popular gossip column in the university newspaper. Maybe, if she breaks a few college-level Watergates, her media mogul father will finally take an interest in her. 

In the meanwhile, someone else has taken an interest in Dawn: Arturo Perez, well-liked campus cop. He sees Dawn's vulnerability and isolation, and keeps a close eye on her over the course of her university career. With eight years between them in age, as well as the cop-student divide, he knows that nothing can ever come of it, but when Dawn is caught up in a tragic series of events, Art can't stop himself from stepping forward and offering his support. 

It's been a while since I read any Jenny Holiday and I'd forgotten how much I loved her. Her heroes are consistent favourites for the feminist ways they relate to their heroines, and Art is no exception. He's all too aware of how his position could potentially affect their relationship. When he realises trying to stay away from Dawn isn't going to work, and she insistent on being physically intimate, he gets creative: 
"This is how this is going to work," he said, using his teeth to gently scrape down to my collarbone, where he started pressing urgent, openmouthed kisses. "I require not just consent, but continuous consent."  (loc. 1276)
With this policy in place, Dawn must explicitly ask for anything she wants Art to do, or he won't proceed. Later, he explain his reasoning:  
I'd been so over-the-top with the consent thing because I was so wary of the age and power differentials between us and of the emotional wringer she'd been through this past fall. So many people in Dawn's life had let her down, had "not seen her". I wasn't ever going to be one of those people. (loc. 1382)
And he isn't. Art is caring, considerate, sweet and honest. His yearning from afar and his interactions with Dawn both gave me butterflies. Dawn, on the other hand, is a much more ambiguous character. She trades in gossip and values social acceptance and popularity, but it soon becomes clear that she has her reasons, and she isn't shallow or malicious. Holiday builds her up well over the course of the story, so that the reader becomes extremely fond of and sympathetic toward a character who initially seemed like an anti-heroine. 

The novella follows Dawn and Arturo's encounters over several years. At the beginning, there are their infrequent encounters as campus cop and student. Slowly, their odd repartee develops into an odder friendship, and then, from there, the romance. The plot similarly weaves throughout these time periods, before reaching a denouement in the final months. 

Readers should be aware that the plot does include a suicide, which also had the potential to be a deal-breaker. It was - in my opinion - handled with appropriate delicacy and gravitas, so that while it was affecting, it was never overwhelming. But that is, of course, a very personal judgement, and one that each person must make themselves, given their own circumstances and the circumstances of those around them. 

The Gossip won't be released until October 4, but you can pre-order it at Amazon now. Alternatively, you can read the preceding novella in the New Wave Newsroom series, The Fixer, which features Dawn's editor Jenny and her attempts to enlist art student Matthew in her crusade to save the college's historic art building. I didn't love it quite as much as The Gossip, but I still liked it a lot. 

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Review: The Infamous Miss Rodriguez by Lydia San Andres

4 stars

In The Infamous Miss Rodriguez, Lydia San Andres has delivered another delightful story, set on the same fictional island in the Spanish Caribbean as her previous two books. It's a novella, but it's very well done, meaty enough to make for great reading, but not too meaty that it founders within a novella format. 

Nobody will listen to Graciela Rodriguez when she says that she doesn't want to marry Alvaro Medina, so she's taking matters into her own hands. She hopes that, if she creates a scandal, her well-to-do fiance will break the engagement. The sticking point is that none of her shocking acts are making their way through the grapevine. Unbeknownst to Graciela, that's due to Vincente Aguirre, who has been working with her guardian to prevent Graciela from sabotaging her engagement. But the more time Vincente spends with Graciela, the less inclined he is perform his role and ensure the wedding goes ahead. 

San Andres has such a strength for conveying the struggles and strictures of gender and class with extreme nuance. For Graciela, there's the sense that she's powerless to control her own life, and anger and annoyance at the microaggressions her fiance is constantly committing. As Vincente notes, Alvaro treats Graciela "as if she were a puppy yipping at his heels - tiresome, but too inconsequential to bother with" (loc. 300), and yet he doesn't treat her badly, so she doesn't have any cause to break the engagement. 

Graciela's experiences were so vividly and emotively written that it felt heart-achingly familiar. The part of me that is sick of the male microaggressions wishes that the horrible, dismissive fiance had received more comeuppance for his classism and sexism. But that's rarely achieved today, let alone in 1911, and anyway, probably the best comeuppance Vincente and Graciela can provide is to happily live their life. And I feel sure that they will do just that, because they were so good together. 

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Review: Screaming Down Splitsville by Kayla Bashe

3.5 stars

I'm a big fan of both alternate histories and less-used time periods as settings, so Kayla Bashe's sweet F/F romance Screaming Down Splitsville was right up my alley. 

It's set in an alternate 1950s where Magi with special powers are imprisoned and subject to experiments. Flip was rescued from a facility and placed in a safehouse. She's happy cooking and playing mechanic while other inhabitants of the house go off on my rescue missions, but she's never forgotten the girl in the cell next to her's. Then, one day, she's sent on a rescue mission of her own, to save that very same girl. 

Emma Rose has long since given up hoping, so even once she and Flip are on the run, she knows it won't be long until she's caught and returned to a miserable and painful life as a dehumanised guinea pig. But Emma really likes Flip: she's caring and she's the first person in a long while who has made efforts to communicate with Emma, who is mute. But, with her powers still shackled and the belief that recapture is inevitable, will she be able to fight for herself and Flip, and what they might have together?

I had to keep reminding myself that this was set in the 1950s, not because it didn't have a strong sense of place (it did), but because I associate the 1950s with housewives and roast dinners, and the women here broke all the stereotypes. To borrow my grandmother's lingo, they're real go-getters, even when they don't realise it themselves. But this doesn't come at the expense of other facets of their characterisation, but I'm not going to into this too much (or at all), because I think it's better if you just experience Flip and Emma Rose for yourself.

Both girls were given strong and unique voices, as part of a beautiful and lyrical style of writing. However, I did feel like there were isolated incidences towards the end where the writing became a bit clunky, and resorted to showing rather than telling. 

Information about the alternate world in which the novella takes place was integrated well, never overwhelming the story, but not leaving the reader with too little context. There were times where I would have liked for there to be more background given, but that was more out of curiosity than anything, and I recognise that it probably would have overwhelmed the story. I do hope that the author chooses to expand this world; there's one secondary character in particular that I would like to see get her own story. 

Overall, Screaming Down Splitsville was a lovely little YA or sweet F/F romance, with the characters' tenderness and youth making for a great low-angst read. 

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Review: Chocolate Cake for Breakfast by Danielle Hawkins

5 stars

My original review for this book got lost in the digital ether somewhere between Auckland and Sydney, so excuse me if this one suffers from rewrite-itis. As we all know, once a piece of writing is lost it becomes the most inspired, crucial thing since the Magna Carta, never able to matched no matter how you toil over it. Not that I'm being dramatic or anything.

Anyway, Chocolate Cake for Breakfast by Danielle Hawkins features quirky rural vet Helen McNeil. One night, escaping someone at a party, she runs into a guy called Mark and they make small talk. Only later does she realise that Mark is actually Mark Tipene, All Black and shirtless poster on the work tearoom wall. He could have any woman in New Zealand (as everyone keeps reminding Helen), but for some reason he stops by Helen's clinic and asks her out. Nor is he deterred by her on-call roster (formidable during calving season) and discussions of bovine uterine prolapse. But he's based in Auckland, and she's in the Waikato, and then something happens that throws their burgeoning relationship right off it's planned course. 

I felt like Chocolate Cake for Breakfast sat midway on the spectrum that ranges from chick-lit to contemporary romance. It was written completely from the heroine's point of view, the love scenes were closed-door, and the romantic arc saw the hero and heroine in a stable relationship for much of the book; all characteristics that I would associate more with chick-lit or 'sweet' contemporaries. 

However, in other ways, it did feel very much like a contemporary, but I'm not going to list those ways because I  promptly forgot most of them after writing them in the original review. The distinction between chick-lit and contemporary is extremely arbitrary, but I feel the to situate Chocolate Cake for Breakfast with reference to them because it felt...different than the majority of both. Somehow, the sense of fulfilment I got from reading it reminded me of those first dozen romance novels I devoured, which made me feel so gooey inside and and which still hold a special place in my heart, even if, rationally, I know that there might be nothing incredibly exceptional about them. 

I read Chocolate Cake for Breakfast in a day, driven by my love for the quirky Helen and her poignant but still comic struggle with coming to terms with an unexpected pregnancy. Her internal disquiet and insecurities surrounding her relationship with Mark and their impending parenthood were so raw and touching, and I think the lack of sugar-coating was one of the things that made the book feel so different and special. 

Helen can't understand what Mark sees in her, and feels sure that the pregnancy means that he'll stick with her just out of obligation. They develop massive communication issues that stem from the fact that they are very different people, who, because they have only been in a relationship a short time, don't understand each others' needs that well. Because the book is written from Helen's perspective, I've focused a lot more on her, but Mark was a great hero, a classic old-school Kiwi bloke with just enough new-age sensitivity thrown in. 

The fact that he's an All Black opens the field for comparisons with other rugby romances, particularly Rosalind James' well known Escape to New Zealand series. As much as I did like those, Chocoloate Cake for Breakfast feels far more organic, with New Zealand and the All Blacks undergoing far less fetishisation. This is much more made for an internal Kiwi audience, rather than people for whom New Zealand and rugby are exciting and exotic. 

Instead of having one of New Zealand's major draw-cards as a setting, here we have a fictional rural Waikato town, and the representation was both incredibly comic and spot-on. There's grumpy dairy farmers, the local pub, trips to 'big smoke' Hamilton and cousins who spot each others' cars in the local supermarket car park. 

I'm sure the way this book portrayed the familiar rhythms of life in the Waikato has impacted my rating, because it's impossible for me to separate my experience of Chocolate Cake for Breakfast with my near-constant sense of...not homesickness, exactly, but of nostalgia, longing and belonging. As a result, I've debated with myself a lot over whether I'm being rational giving this book 5 stars, especially since I 5-starred The Hating Game so recently. But, at the end of the day, when something is a 5 star book for someone, it's a 5 star book.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Review: The First Star I See Tonight by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

1 star
TW: Islamophobia, rape accusations

I feel deeply ambivalent about First Star I See Tonight, to be honest. The central romance was okay (until the end when everything went massively screwy), but there was an Orientalist subplot and some other elements that I quite disliked and was uncomfortable with. 

In some ways, the whole thing was vintage SEP, which is not surprising since it's the latest installment in her long-running Chicago Stars series. In others, it was SEP trying to fit herself to today's readers, market and society. If this had been a vintage SEP book, I might have written some things off as a product of the time, but I can't do that here, especially when she seems to have almost gone out of her way to make it 'current', including diverse characters and expounding on rape culture, Islam and other random things (even when her writing and characters didn't actually hold up to her throwaway political statements).

But, first, let me back up a bit. First Star I See Tonight features Piper Dove, a down-on-her-luck detective, who has been assigned to follow ex-NFL player Cooper Graham, now the proprietor of a hot new nightclub. He twigs pretty quickly, and eventually offers Piper an alternate arrangement: she'll work for him at the club instead, since she's noticed some things that don't seem quite right. 

SEP has always been the master of the redeemable alpha-hole hero, and Coop is walks the line well. His back-and-forth with Piper was priceless, but he wasn't too much of a jerk. He was also reflecting well on his behaviour and how that might come across to women, with a self-awareness I would personally like to romance heroes display more often. 

However, his 'save the cat' moment was a subplot that involved him using his influence to 'rescue' a Pakistani woman, Faiza, from her indentured servitude to a Middle Eastern Royal Family presumably based on that of Saudi Arabia. He does so by basically buying her, giving the prince the impression he is going to use her as a sex slave. The whole thing - from the white saviour element to the representation of the degenerate Arab prince - just left a bad taste in my mouth. Frankly, I just wish the whole subplot hadn't existed. 

To make matters worse, there was one really horrible incident of Islamophobia by the heroine, which was just so not okay:
Piper asked if she would consider taking off her headscarf until they went through [the US/Canada border crossing]. "We're an odd-looking group," she said, "Even though all our papers are in order, it would make the crossing easier." 
I'll paraphrase that in case those of you in the back didn't catch it the first time 'round: 
Please compromise your deeply held religious beliefs, so that Coop and I don't have to be inconvenienced if the border guards are racist fuckwits
That also came on the back of another uncomfortable - and frankly bizarre - exchange, where the author finishes recounting a conversation between Coop and Faiza like this: 
Only when he ventured into politics did Faiza grow fiery. "The word Islam means 'peace, purity, submission, and obedience," she said. "What has terrorism to do with any of those things?"  
It's just weirdly dropped in, and then normal conversation resumes. I can't see the point of it at all, and none of the reasons I can think of for so blatantly and randomly making such a statement in the middle of people apolitically living their lives (right after this, they get lunch from Burger King) are flattering. Does she think that her readers are going to associate Islam with terrorism and, if so, that this will dissuade them? Does she, in some way, feel that she needs to establish that her Muslim character is not a terrorist? I don't even know what to think about it, and after those two incidents, I skim-read the parts relating to that subplot. 

Overall, I think First Star I See Tonight is a powerful example of just because you can handle something in your writing, it doesn't necessarily mean you should. There's the use of Faiza to demonstrate Coop and Piper's compassion and to force them to work and spend time together, which belittles and erases the experiences of real maids in similar (or worse) situations. In the vast majority of cases, no-one is coming to save foreign maids, and even if they do escape or are injured so badly that someone intervenes, justice is scarce. 

But, unfortunately, it wasn't just that subplot; there's also a false rape accusation against Coop. He makes a statement acknowledging the damage false accusations do, but I still felt icky about it. I don't have the strength to go more in depth, but this review by Amanda on Goodreads explains it well (in actual fact, it explains everything, though I should probably issue another spoiler warning). (EDIT 28/11: Ditto with this review by Gabby and Rudi at Book Thingo, which draws out the weird gender dynamic and toxic masculinity of this book.)

Then there was the end. Pretty much everything I liked about this book - Piper as a resourceful woman, the way Coop avoided pulling rank over Piper, the lighthearted nature of their interactions - got obliterated. First, Piper got wishy-washy and ran away from her fears, but I could deal with that. What I couldn't deal with was when everyone drank the Koolaid and agreed with Cooper's insane idea that the only way to prove himself to Piper and remove her fears was for them to randomly get married. That is not a unilateral decision, or something woman should enter into reluctantly. 

Oh, and one more thing: the epilogue. Piper had stated throughout that she didn't want kids. In the epilogue, we find out that she "negotiated" with Cooper to have one child, provided he is the primary carer. There's nothing wrong with women not wanting children, so why do we always get these epilogues where they renounce on their decisions so we can see them play happy families? I'm so over it, especially since there are few enough heroines who don't want children in the first place. 

Writing this review has been exhausting and I don't know if I've been able to convey everything that I intended. I'm publishing it anyway because I think this is about as coherent as it's going to get; the book itself was just too much of a tangled hot mess. It had some okay moments, but it had major problems with representation, and I'm in no rush to have another similar reading experience any time soon. 

EDIT 28/11: A few weeks ago, I was shocked to see a Favourite Books of 2016 post, in which 6 of the 8 well-known romance authors asked rated this First Star I See Tonight as one of their favourite contemporary romances for the year, because all I remembered about it was its sickening racism and misogyny. Then, today, I read this all-encompassing and damning review of at Book Thingo and, since I couldn't remember what, precisely, I had written in my review, I revisited it, and I was shocked to discover that I had given it a 2.5. I think I was trying to be 'balanced' and 'fair' and was swayed by SEP's star power, so the occasional moments that didn't involve majorly problematic representation got built up into 'this book has some okay parts' in my mind. This was an unacceptable expression of my  privilege, and I apologise unreservedly for anyone who may have been harmed by it. I have changed my rating to 1 star to better reflect how I regard this book in retrospect, and to respect the fact that being wishy-washy about calling out a book for bad representation - especially from a industry stalwart such as SEP - is probably just as bad as staying silent. 

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Review: Starstruck Shifter by Kim Fox

2 stars
I received a free copy of this book from the author. My opinion is my own. 

Starstruck Shifter by Kim Fox was a very light, quick read. Although I'm not the biggest shifter romance reader, I liked the premise. The execution of it started out okay, but then it ran into some pretty big bumps.

The hero, Mason Maloney, is an ageing movie star with a fading career. On the set of the fourth instalment in his action franchise, he meets quirky intern Joni, who's fresh out of film school. His bear shifter - the reason he doesn't live the hard-partying, urban life that Hollywood requires - bonds with her as his mate, and for him there's only a matter of convincing Joni. Joni can't believe she's working on a movie starring her childhood crush, and when Mason takes an interest in her, she's thrilled. But the movie's having teething problems, and Mason and Joni have a vested interest in ensuring it gets off the ground.

I've kept my synopsis-writing formula of writing a vague line at the end that hints at the troubles to come, but, to be honest, it was difficult to come up with something for this one. Starstruck Shifter was running a bit short on conflict. There was enough external conflict, but without much discernible romantic conflict (except for one incident very early in the piece when Joni thinks Mason is dating his co-star), it still felt lacklustre. 

I probably wouldn't have been so attuned to the lack of romantic conflict, except that I wanted romantic conflict because Joni was an idiot, one of those cases where you don't know how they've made it this far in life because they're such a hot mess. In Joni's case, she is clumsy, lacking filter and not great at rational decision-making, instead going off the cuff after giving herself some weird pep talk. 

In essence, she was immature, and she never gets past her idol-worship of Mason, which is essential when using this trope. In fact, in many ways, the breaking down about expectations surrounding this should BE the romantic conflict: heroine realises he's just a normal bloke, and lets go of her childhood crush for the love of the man beneath (I'm looking at you, Kulti). Except that Joni was still googling gossip on Mason and (metaphorically, although only just) doodling 'Joni Maloney' on her binders the whole way through the book. 

It might have been comic for the first ten pages, but after that it wasn't cute and the whole story suffered because of her ill characterisation. It also made me acutely aware of the age difference between them, which I probably wouldn't have blinked an eye at if Joni had seemed like she could actually adult. At all. In any way. In the absence of any evidence of adulting, I found it hard to believe that Joni had apparently written this amazing screenplay, especially since the book itself was so poorly edited. 

Typos and grammar errors abounded, and while I could shrug off most of them, my reading comprehension and enjoyment was impeded by the severe lack of commas throughout. 

Also, one final gripe: the only apparent point of the shifter element is to bind the two them together (which doesn't negate actually showing us why they should be together), to make it clear that Mason isn't like other Hollywood stars, and to allow him to heal when Joni accidentally shot him in the stomach with a crossbow. 

Honestly, after that scene, I knew there was no coming back for this one. It's getting 2 stars for the premise and Mason, who was underutilised in favour of Joni-the-twelve-year-old. 
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