Monday, 31 October 2016

Review: A Bride in the Bargain by Deeanne Gist

4 stars

A Bride in the Bargain is a historical romance with Christian elements set on the Pacific Northwest frontier. Given all the people on Goodreads who have their panties in a twist, there seems to be contention over whether or not Gist's work can be considered 'clean' or 'Christian' romance. I'm no expert, since my inspirational romance experience is pretty much limited to Piper Huguley, but I'd definitely class it as such. God plays an integral role in the characters' motivations and development, and Bible verses are quoted, particularly in the latter half of the book. However, I can also understand that some Christian romance readers would have disliked it for the exact same reason I liked it: even though the sex scenes are closed-door and occur within the sanctions of marriage, there wasn't too much moralising around sex and sexuality. 

Lumberjack Joe Denton was given his land under a grant for married men, so unless he can either prove that his wife died before joining him in the Territory or find himself another wife, he'll lose half of everything he's worked so hard for, and values so much. With his wife's death certificate lost in a fire, his best option is to pay for a Mercer girl, one of the women brought out to Seattle to be married to the bachelors who had settled there, and thus create a 'proper' society. Mercer brings Joe back the lively Anna Ivey, but there's only one problem: the contract Anna signed said she'll be his cook, but the one Joe signed said she'll be his wife. Joe needs to marry soon if he's to keep his land, but Anna's sworn that she'll never marry, and she's not budging. 

The slow-burn romance between Anna and Joe worked well, and I found Joe to be a sweet hero. There were moments where he was a bit sexist, but it fitted the setting, and was always contrasted with Anna's independence and determination to go her own way. Perhaps because Anna did have such strength in all other respects, I did become annoyed at her reasoning for not marrying Joe, which persisted unchallenged for most of the book. I can understand why that might be the case, but she was a bit of a stuck record about the whole thing and it diminished my connection to her character, because she exhibited no development of any kind. She just had a static position for the majority of the book, and then a come-to-Jesus moment (literally). But I also feel like a character having a revelation is a more common plot device in inspirational romance, for obvious reasons, and I'm just not used to it. 

I'm a sucker for an atmospheric setting, and Gist certainly fronted up with the goods. She's clearly done her research, and the seamless way that information about lumberjacking and the early Washington Territory is integrated into the story really made A Bride in the Bargain something special. Extra points for the informative Author's Note that helped me to distinguish fact from fiction, not being the greatest expert on Northwest American history (or any American history).

Overall, A Bride in the Bargain was well-written and richly detailed and I'm looking forward to reading more of Gist's work, because it seems as though she has many more books with equally intriguing plots, characters and settings. 

Saturday, 29 October 2016

#CritYourFaves Post: Colonialism and Representation in Meredith Duran’s The Duke of Shadows

I have a serious tendency to just chill in my own tiny corner of the blogosphere, but this October I'm taking part in a multi-blog series hosted by Aentee over at Read at Midnight. It's called #CritYourFaves and the idea is to - you guessed it - critique a favourite read in some way. There are a lot of really interesting topics (check them out), and I'm so thankful to Aentee for running such a wonderful event, and for letting a random such as myself by a part of it. 

I've chosen to critique Duke of Shadows by Meredith Duran, which I read circa 2012 and really liked. Four years, one sub-major in postcolonial studies and an imperfect - but constantly improving - awareness of representation in literature later, I'm re-reading it to see how I regard it this time 'round. 

Duke of Shadows is set - at least in first half - in British India during what known in India as The First War of Indian Independence, but which is more commonly referred to internationally as the Indian Rebellion or Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. 

Julian, Marquess of Holdensmoor, is a pariah in Indian colonial society because of his one-quarter Indian blood. He knows that the East India Company's military need to take the growing unrest seriously, but no-one will listen to him, convinced that he is only trying to stir up trouble. Emmaline has only recently arrived in India, to be reunited with the fiance her family had arranged for her, Colonel Lindley. Her parents drowned on the voyage, during a storm that wrecked their ship, but Lindley and the rest of the British elite are more interested in the scandalous nature of her rescue. She takes comfort in the one person who doesn't seem to care: the equally scandalous Julian. When the powder keg ignites and the unrest becomes a bloody conflict, Julian attempts to get Emma to safety. They are separated, and only reunited years later in London. Julian has spent years grieving for Emma, assuming she died in the conflict, but, for Emma, Julian is a reminder of a time she does not want to relive. 

You can see, even from that short blurb, the ways in which Duke of Shadows might be inherently problematic. Julian's Indian blood does not change the fact that it is a romance between two members of the British colonial elite in India, where full-blooded Indians make only minor appearances as supporting characters. Then there's the fact it it's set against the backdrop of the so-called Rebellion, in which it is conventionally acknowledged that at least 100 000 Indians died (although some estimates are much, much higher), compared with only around 2,000 British. 

Due to his Indian heritage, Julian is shown to understand the sepoys' grievances: 
"Emma, this land has been crushed by the English. Its wealth stripped, its honor trampled. You are not dealing with penny-dreadful villains here; you are dealing with embittered human beings who have been robbed of their dignity, their autonomy, their sense of self-worth. And that is what this mutiny is about." (pp. 127-8)
It's a pretty speech, but it leads me to one of my biggest gripes with Duke of Shadows: the 'rebel' soldiers are shown as ruthless and barbaric - much like the penny dreadful villains they supposedly are not - while the brutal English retaliation is glossed over. Emma relays graphic scenes of women being gutted (p. 83), having their throat slit (p. 164), their breasts sliced off (p. 164) and suiciding after her child was killed (p. 243), all at the hands of the sepoys.

By contrast, I found only one passage that referred to the British in comparatively violent terms, although even then, it's linked to the killings perpetrated first by the 'rebels' during the Siege of Cawnpore. Julian relays that
Half a mile away, near the building where Nana Sahib's men had had slaughtered scores of British women and children, the army was strapping mutineers to cannons. Blowing them apart in steady, rhythmic explosions (p. 173)
When Emmaline is describing the actions of the British, she does not hone in on single, visceral incidents in the same way, describing only "carnage" and fields of bodies. Whether or not this reflects her ingrained prejudices or is a result of the fact that she is not the endangered party in these scenarios, it still serves to reproduce colonialist dichotomies, in which the colonial Other is portrayed as savage and barbaric. 

To give Duran her due, she does do a good job of deconstructing the counterpoint to this: the construction of the European Self as civilised. She highlights the moral hypocrisy of the elite, and, while the atrocities the British committed are not described in detail, individual British soldiers are shown to be plenty depraved, with one trying to rape Emma (twice!). But deconstructing one pole of a bipolar discourse does little to ameliorate the damage of the remaining, intact pole, and the ways in which 'British coloniser as civilised' is deconstructed also give rise to more enduring stereotypes of the time, most particularly Emma as the delicate flower of British womanhood.

Another of these discursive binaries is the presentation of the colonial/Oriental Other as depraved, hypersexualised beings, in contrast to staid Victorian 'morality'. By virtue of his quarter Indian blood, Julian is constructed by the elite in this way, as can be seen when he talks about the desire officers' wives have to sleep with him: 
There was also an absurd set of ideas circulating about him in Anglo-Indian circles, variations on the theme of exotic Eastern eroticism, and he'd long since grown weary of it. (p. 8)
Despite this hypersexualisation, both Julian's half-Indian mother and full-Indian grandmother married British men, and this is something that I notice with the backstories of almost all British-Indian historical romance characters: they are legitimate, and, while there were many consensual relationships between Indian women and British men, very few resulted in marriage, particularly if those men were officers and of the upper classes, contrary to what historical romances would have us believe. 

I get it, we all love a Happily Ever After, but it's unrealistic here, and it perpetrates systemic violence and erasure. Indian (and colonial women in general) were seen in sexual terms, and the discursive separation between sex and marriage in Victorian times meant this pretty much automatically excluded them from being wife-material. Also, once a colony (or quasi-colony in the case of Company-ruled India) was established, one had to consider the precarious position ruling elite: all that separated them from the population they ruled was their whiteness, and the superior traits that supposedly gave them. While illegitimate offspring could be ignored, if 'miscegenation' that resulted in legitimate offspring occurred, this would undermine the distinction between the Self and the Other, and thus the justification for British rule. In a nutshell, this is everybody's problem with Julian: not that he has mixed blood, but that he has mixed blood and a title, and thus threatens the Self and Other as clear-cut, mutually exclusive binaries. 

Having all these happy British-Indian marriages also denies the fact that there was sexual violence committed against Indian women by British men, especially soldiers, though epistemic violence - the privileging of one point-of-view (that of the male colonist) and the suppression, erasure or ignorance of other, less privileged viewpoints - means that the historical record on this is slim. 

As I have mentioned, having a mixed Indian-British hero or heroine is the done thing when setting your historical romance in India. I've linked to this post before, when I wrote a rant-y review of a book with an Anglo-Indian heroine, but romance writer Suleikha Snyder has a post that succinctly and emotively tackles the half-Indian character, the psychological scars left by colonialism in South Asia, and the harm of bad representation. There's not much I can say that she hasn't already said, but she asks what stops authors from making the character 100 percent Indian, and I think this is an important point. In Duke of Shadows, as in other romances where the part-Indian character is a peer, my initial reaction is to go 'oh, no, but they couldn't be full-blooded, because then they wouldn't be a peer and that's important because xyz!'. In Julian's case, his peerage gives him entree to British colonial society, allowing him to meet Emma, while his Indian blood allows him to be more 'in touch' with the growing uprising, and to pass as Indian as necessary. But this reaction is disingenuous. Just because the plot's been set up so that mixed blood is necessary, that doesn't mean it gets a free pass, it means that we need to scrutinise the plot, characters and book as they currently exist, asking why it has been set up as it is.  That's a big call, and not my place or comfort zone, but it's worth a thought. 

Overall, my re-read of Duke of Shadows was fraught, and I was relieved when I finished it. I didn't connect to the book at all this time around, despite liking it last time. Partly, I think this was a result of having my analytical hat on at the exclusion of my reader hat (usually, they co-exist more peacefully), but it was also that heaps of things made me uncomfortable, and I couldn't get into the story as a result. The section set in India was shorter than I remembered, but even back in London, a lot of the focus is on their time in India, so it's not much of a relief. 

Although I initially intended to frame my post in terms of Duke of Shadows as a problematic fave - one of Aentee's intended talking points - I didn't end up doing so, because I couldn't find many reason for it to still be a fave. So, in the end, I didn't so much #CritMyFave as #CritSomethingIThoughtWasAFaveOnlyTurnsOutIt'sActuallyNot

Despite that, I'm incredibly glad I did re-read Duke of Shadowsbecause it really reinforced the value of something that someone I follow on Twitter suggested a while ago: not recommending books that you haven't read recently. 99% of problematic stuff or potentially problematic stuff about this book went over my head when I read it as an 18 year old with little awareness of my privilege, and no understanding of colonialism, Orientalism or any other number of important things. I suspect I'd have a different reaction to many of the books I remember favourably from that time, and so, to avoid harm, I won't recommend anything (both on the blog and IRL) that I haven't re-read recently, regardless of how I remember it. 

P.S. Sorry for the lack of blog posts lately, guys. My laptop carked it the day before by final assignments for uni were due. I'm sure I don't need to explain the horror! But I am now armed with a new laptop, so we can resume normal programming.

EDIT 5/11: There's been a review over at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books where Carrie verbalises really well what I clumsily touched on in this post. She writes:
In reflecting on my experience with this book, I realize that I compartmentalized a horribly problematic element of the book to such an extent that I almost managed to erase it from my own head....This allows me to accomplish some useful academic things, but it’s also an expression of my own privilege. 

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Review: Shifting Gears by Audra North

3.5 stars

In Australia last weekend, we had the Bathurst 1000. I guess it's like our Daytona 500, except with a much better shaped track, and the added complication of potentially hitting a kangaroo. (No joke, Google it). I usually have it on in the background as I go about my day, but I watched it more closely this year since I was with people who actually knew its intricacies, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. It also reignited my love of racing romances, and I remembered that I never got around to finishing Audra North's Hard Driving series about stock car racing, despite really enjoying the first one. 

So I picked up Shifting Gears, the second in the series. It features Grady Hart, who has been running the family-based Hart Racing since his father died. But it's not a natural fit, and he's happy to be able to hand over a lot of the responsibility to his future brother-in-law, Ranger Colt (Ranger and Grady's sister Kerri are the couple of Book #1), and to start his own business making carbon fibre car parts. But first, he and Ranger have two positions to fill: team manager and crew chief.

Annabelle Murray has returned home to live with her mother after the breakdown of her marriage. After years of her ex-husband and her mother tearing her down, she's decided that she wants to be someone - and do something - significant, and when Grady's mother puts her forward for one of the jobs at Hart Racing, she has the chance she's been waiting for. Grady and Annabelle are both trying to make something of themselves, and the sparks that are flying have the potential to get in the way.

My favourite part of Shifting Gears was Annabelle's characterisation. Raised as a Southern belle, she took over her alcoholic husband's garage by necessity and realised her long-time desire to work with cars. Her self-esteem has taken a serious hit from her no-good husband and old-fashioned mother, but she challenges the negative thoughts she has about herself and endeavours to be independent and assertive. 

As much as I loved Annabelle and her character arc, her negative self-perception drops off quite drastically quite early on, and I'm acutely aware that it's not that easy to shake. I wish that the we'd been able to see her struggle with it for longer, or that her fight against self-doubt had featured more strongly. Instead, they just kind of fade away without comment, and the focus switches to her fear of dependency. 

But, as with the other two books in the series, North depicts the realities of being a woman in a male-dominated environment very well, and this was another highlight (or the same one, perhaps, since it still centres on Annabelle). Grady's impulse was to intervene in scenarios where Annabelle was being treated differently because of her gender, and I liked watching him learn to manage this. I haven't spoken much about Grady, but he had his own stuff going on, particularly feelings that he failed his family and the team while he was managing Hart Racing. 

However, while Annabelle and Grady each had plenty of internal conflict, none of it went external until the very end. Then everything is cleaned up again quite quickly and, before you know it, we're in the epilogue. So, loved the racing aspect, liked the characters, but there were a few elements that could have been drawn out a bit more. 

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Review: Time of Grace by Gabriella West

3.5 stars

Time of Grace was a richly detailed romance, set against the backdrop of World War I and unrest in Ireland. 

After her brother's death on the Front, Englishwoman Caroline takes up a position as a governess in Ireland with a family of the Anglo-Irish ruling elite. Stuck midway between the family and the servants, her only friend is an outgoing maid named Grace, and, over time, Caroline comes to realise that she is attracted to her. As the boundaries of their friendship blur into something more, Caroline and Grace must contend with their different stations, backgrounds and ideologies, Grace's involvement in the Irish nationalist movement and the prejudices of their time. 

For me, the stand-out aspect was way that West conveyed the zeitgeist by weaving in so many different social developments of the time: Irish nationalism, female suffrage, World War I and the attendant changes to post-Victorian society, including social liberalisation and destratification. Caroline is a character who is often in her own head, and so we get to see her think through all these things, alongside her reflections on her sexuality. 

Having said that, my enjoyment dropped off somewhat as the book pregressed. The writing is very straight-forward, and while this didn't bother me initially, it became a bit info-dump-y as the plot reached its denouement in the Easter Rising of 1916. So, while I loved the historical detail, I also think it went a bit overboard towards the end, when the retelling of the Rising seemed to eclipse Caroline and Grace's romance. 

Maybe it was just a disconnect between me and Time of Grace. I'm primarily a historical romance reader, and perhaps this book leans more towards 'historical fiction with romance' rather than pure 'historical romance'. It does not adhere to some modern romance genre conventions, and is in some ways is more stylistically similar to the old school saga romances. Caroline and Grace's relationship is very on-again, off-again, which - while very understandable given their circumstances - meant that the book was essentially split in to three acts: first, Caroline and Grace together at their post, Caroline alone back in England, then the two of them reunited in Ireland. The whole book was also written in Caroline’s POV and I sometimes wished that I had more insight into Grace's thought processes, or that I could see her without Caroline’s lens of fear and middle class English morality (although she does come to challenge this). These things did my head in a little bit, particularly towards the end, but I do wonder if someone who does read more widely would have a different reaction. 

Readers who are pedantic about editing should also be aware that there are some issues with the Kindle text, particularly the placement of text that isn't speech inside quotation marks. As my engagement with the book waned, it became more frustrating to have to re-read a passage to ascertain where speech ended and prose began. 

Overall, though, the touching romance between two very different women, the impeccable sense of place and the chance to learn about the Irish revolutionary period made Time of Grace well worth the read. 

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Review: The Last Plus One by Ophelia London, Lindsay Emory and Alexandra Haughton

I'm deep into the university semester, so it's been novellas all 'round for me lately (as you can probably tell by the last 3 reviews). The latest is The Last Plus One, an anthology featuring one story each by Ophelia London, Lindsay Emory and Alexandra Haughton, all set at the wedding of a senator's daughter in Maine. Here are my thoughts: 

Bringing Home The Boss by Alexandra Haughton - 4 stars
Maggie's parents are the senator's groundkeeper and housekeeper, and she's always straddled the line between being a family friend and being the help. She's now a founding partner of a successful sportswear company, and no-one there knows of the circumstances in which she grew up, so it's a problem when her business partner and friend invites himself along as her plus-one. Cruz is entirely unaware of what he is walking into, or the trouble he is causing for Maggie. All he knows is that he can feel Maggie slipping away from him day by day. He doesn't know why, and he doesn't know how to fix it, but maybe accompanying her to this wedding - despite her protestations - will help. 

Maggie and Cruz's story was by far my favourite of the three. It was so evocative, with Cruz trying so hard to anticipate Maggie's needs and wants, and Maggie just attempting to hold it together long enough to make it back to life in Austin. The romance unfolded naturally and beautifully, and I loved it. 

Always on My Mind by Ophelia London - 3.5 stars
Ashton is the groom's sister, and she's agreed to be George Hawkin's date. For all he was originally her brother's friend, Hawk and Ashton have been best friends for years. Hawk has been biding his time, but with Ashton moving to Switzerland and him interviewing for a job at a prestigious private school, it's now or never if they're ever going to be together.  

Hawk and Ashton are very different people. She's a sex-positive therapist and researcher with next to no filter, and he's a buttoned-up teacher. I liked both characters, especially Ashton. The conflict between the two started off well, but I felt like it dropped off towards the end. They kept rehashing their differences, then did this big "I was wrong to want you to change", "No, I was wrong to want you to change" but it was just this big blame-myself-and-love-the-other-fest and I was left with little idea about how they were going to manage their differences - which had been so reiterated throughout - in the future. It wasn't a big thing, 

When We Were Young by Lindsay Emory - 3 stars
Bridesmaid and wedding planner Claire is livid when she finds out that Tom Harrington has been brought in as a last-minute groomsman. She hates him, and he hates her, and she doesn't know how they're going to get through this wedding being civil to each other, given their constant animosity and the unresolved one-night stand from college that still hangs over them. 

Emory did a good job of redeeming Claire, who had been called 'Wedding Planner Barbie' and 'The Meanie' by the two previous heroines. Unfortunately, the hero got no such treatment. Caught up in the fact that Claire doesn't fawn over him, he plays a cruel prank on her, throws her phone into the ocean and just generally acts like a dick. The bride spends the whole story reassuring Claire that Tom is really a nice guy, and she's right: he is a textbook Nice Guy. I'm deducting .5 stars for my issues with Tom, but even I have to admit, the ending still gave me loads of feels. 

The thing I enjoyed most about The Last Plus One can't be put down to any one story, but the way each built on the last, so that aspects of the same event as interpreted in varying ways. The characters in each story see things from a different, completely understandable position. Maggie (Story #1) thinks Claire (Story #3) is trying to prove she's a better friend to the bride and make a move on Cruz. Claire is genuinely perplexed by Maggie's attitude towards her, but in her anxiety over planning the wedding does accidently come across aggressively. Ashton (Story #2) is sour that, despite being the sister of the groom, she's been left out of the wedding party, and transfers her resentment to Claire as the wedding planner. Claire only took on the wedding planning because the Maid of Honor is sullenly useless, and because its something that she's good at, a way to pay back her friend for something that happened in the past. 

I loved the way it tied together as an anthology, and I'm off to find more multiple-POV, same event anthologies, stat!
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