Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Review: Luck Be a Lady by Audra North

3 stars
Release Date: 23/01/16
I received a free ARC of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review. My opinion is my own.

It took me a while to get into Luck be a Lady, and I didn't enjoy it as much as Audra North's other books, particularly my gold standard, Giving It Up

Set in Ireland, Luck Be A Lady is the story of Aoife Gallagher and Michael Faraday (like the scientist). They were childhood friends, until Aoife overheard something that sent her running. Fifteen years later, after Aoife has built up an internationally successful cosmetics company based in the US, the two are in Dublin. Michael makes contact when he thinks Aoife might be able to help him professionallly, but he soon realises that he's interested in more than her connections.

My main problem with with Luck be a Lady was that the relationship between between Aoife and Michael was on the weak side. First, a miscommunication kept them apart for 15 years. To North's credit, the two of them got this sorted out quickly and in a pretty straight-forward manner. However, after that, we keep being told that they really enjoy being together, but their purported connection is told and not shown. To me, it doesn't feel like there's much extended dialogue or many extended interactions between Aoife and Michael shown entirely on the page. We're not shown that they have a good time together, instead Aoife informs us that when she is "with Michael, [they] hav[e]...fun simply talking" (loc. 1242) and "it was amazing to her, how easy it was to be with him....She loved talking to him, laughing with him..." (loc. 1651).  And big moments, like the one where they essentially formalise their relationship and decide that they're together, even if it's long-distance, take place off-page: 
They were going to try to make it work, though.  They'd agreed it was worth a shot, even if it meant a long-distance relationship and they'd only been together for a few weeks....They'd barely slept last night, talking and trying to store up enough moments to last them through the next few weeks apart. This morning, they'd said goodbye....
If I'd actually seen this conversation and some tender goodbyes play out, I think I would have been much more emotionally invested in the black moment and resolution of their relationship. 

As it was, much of the interesting, potentially hashing-out-a-relationship stuff got skipped over in favour of drama from external sources, which I didn't like, but which prompted both Michael and Aoife to think about themselves, their emotions and their relationships, which I did like, although I still felt this was somewhat inhibited by the weakness of their romance.

Although their relationship wasn't everything it could have been, both Michael and Aoife were characters with interesting facets. Michael's passion for Ireland and her history was sweet, while Aoife's experience as a teenager has led her to value and prioritise phyiscal beauty. The exploration of this theme was well done, as Aoife slowly challenged this mentality with Michael's help. Similarly, I enjoyed the way Aoife, having built her business up, slowly comes to terms with the fact that she is no longer enjoying her work and explores other options.

Overall, quick and easy summer (or, I suppose, winter if you are in the Northern hemisphere) read but not all that I'd hoped, given the strength of North's previous work. 

Friday, 23 December 2016

Reflection: Concluding Thoughts on Beyond a Single Story

At the beginning of the year, I dedicated myself to try and read more books set in different locations with something I called Beyond a Single Story. The initial idea was to read one historical, one contemporary and one non-fiction book set for a bunch of countries or regions. In the end, I didn't end up reading all three categories for any one country, because, as the year wore on, I became increasingly disillusioned with the way I'd set the whole thing up. It was, at best, arbitrary and, at worst, promoting bad representation. 

I had pre-set categories, and I wanted something that checked a particular box. But there were often slim pickings in a particular category, especially when it came to historicals. I had called the category 'historicals' because I knew that it was unlikely that I would be able to find historical romances for all the countries, and was expecting to have to branch into general historical fiction. This plays into the lack of diversity and ownvoices in historical romance, but also the the tension that romance writers - particularly POC - feel between the HEA requirement of the genre, and the stark realities of life for POC in many historical periods.

The work of Beverley Jenkins, Alyssa Cole, Piper Huguley and other authors writing romances with African-American protagonists demonstrate that the two can be successfully and beautifully reconciled, but it can be a delicate balancing act. And perhaps this example does not necessarily translate to other parts of the world; there is not always the historical continuity and modern relevance that underscores African-American historical romance, (and some other romances set outside the white European(-descended) default, such as Jeannie Lin's Tang Dynasty romances). However, for countries where the recorded past is largely associated with colonialism, but where independence has since been achieved, there may be less desire to reopen those old, painful chapters of history. Or, where the colonial past is being written about, there may be a desire to present it warts-and-all, rather than placing a HEA at its centre. 

That is a lot of speculation, and it must be noted that I read a wonderful romance novel for this project, Under the Sugar Sun by Jennifer Hallock, that managed to balance a HEA with conveying the horrors of American colonialism in the Philippines. But, although Hallock has lived in the Philippines, it wasn't ownvoices. And, when I was looking for ownvoices historicals for any of the countries with colonial pasts, I consistently noticed that there were few to none set during the colonial era. (In some instances, I'm willing to admit there may be issues in what gets translated or released internationally, but in many countries, as a result of this very same colonialism, English is a national or official language, and literature is originally written in English).

For example, looking for historical fiction set in Ghana, the books I found by Ghanaian authors were mostly set in the post-Independence era or in the transition period from colonial rule to Independence. It was books by white or outsider authors that were set during the colonial period. One featured a British couple living in a seaside fort that I can only assume would have been a slave castle, where slaves were taken before boarding ships. Another was about the Fifth Anglo-Ashanti War, and a review I read expressed an Ashanti character's desire to "kill all the white people", despite the fact that the conflict was very specific and was born of a British administrators lack of awareness (or care for) Ashanti protocol. Ultimately, I decided that it was better to leave that category blank than to read and review something like that. I had wanted to read these books to counter my lack of knowledge, and even if I read and reviewed books with bad representation critically, this lack of knowledge would mean that there would still be things I didn't pick up on and subconsciously absorbed, and I didn't want that. 

This brings me to the second critique of this project, which was touched on in the point above. It promoted a lot of false equivalence:
  • Between ownvoices and non-ownvoices authors
  • Between Western and non-Western countries
  • Between modern states and their predecessors
  • Between countries/regions with histories of colonial and other forms of oppression and ones without
This was inadvertent, but intent does not equal or excuse impact. I created, framed and implemented the project in a way that was less than ideal, and I am sorry for it. I am the product of two white settler societies who have both been very successful at whitewashing their histories, and that affected the way I thought/think about other nations and their histories. I wanted to educate myself more about the different parts of the world, but this too is an idea deeply ingrained in whiteness, from the 19th century armchair ethnologists and anthropologists, who became "experts" on races on the other side of the world from their comfy London townhouses, complete with racist theories like phrenology and social Darwinism. 

These realisations came slowly over the course of the year, as I listened, learned, grew and reflected. As my unease built, my enthusiasm and the desire I had to see the project through to a "successful" (i.e. completed) end waned. Therefore, the gaps in what was read do not only represent where I could not find anything appropriate to read; they also reflect where I did not find or even search for something to read because of my disenchantment. However, there are still a few books sitting on my Kindle that were originally meant for Beyond a Single Story, and which I will hopefully get around to reading and reviewing in the new year, although not as part of the project.

Despite my disillusionment with Beyond a Single Story - and with myself for undertaking it - it was responsible for bringing me into contact with some seriously cool books, publishers and resources. I'd particularly like to note:
  • Romanceclass - Independently published romance novels by Filipino authors, with a wide range of titles, sub-genres and settings.
  • Ankara Press - An African romance imprint. As they say, their stories feature "self-assured women who work, play and, of course, fall madly in love in vibrant African cities from Lagos to Cape Town".
  • Indireads - Publisher of South Asian popular fiction, including lots of romance.
  • WOC In Romance - I hope most of you already know about this resource for finding romances written by WOC. I discovered it before I started this project, but it was certainly useful.
Reflecting on my experience, and looking forward to 2017, I think that the most appropriate for me to do better in the new year is to keep in mind the two resolutions from my Best of 2016 post (be better at reviewing diverse books I read, especially when I enjoyed them, and read and review more Antipodean authors and books), while also reading diversely without a prompt, challenge or other such device (which is essentially what I ended up doing when this project bit the dust mid-year). However, this does not mean a lack of awareness or self-accountability about what I read. Just like this year, I will keep track of what I read through Goodreads, allowing me to reflect, find and fix holes in what I am reading. I still intend to read as widely as possible within romance (and non-fiction). If, part way through the year, I feel that this isn't keeping me on the course I would like to be on, then I will reassess then. I have also recently classified my reviews by setting, and intend to use this as another tool for self-assessment (you can know that most of the books you read and review are set in the US, but it's much more shocking to see the extent to which this is true!)

Lastly, the paragraph above has framed reading diversely in terms of responsibility, and I want to clarify that: as a blogger who has the potential to influence other people's reading decisions and as a person with privilege on many different axes, I do feel that I should read and review diversely. However, I also do it for my own enjoyment, and because it reflects the world I live in, and next year I hope to focus on this "Here's what I liked about this book, and it had [POC/disabled/queer/etc.] representation", rather than the approach that underlaid the Beyond a Single Story project, which was a questionable "I read this book because it had a diverse setting, and here's what I thought about it". 

Apologies for the navelgazing, but I think that transparency, self-reflection and -growth are important tools for making myself and the blog better, and I wanted to be clear on where we stood at the end of one year and the beginning of the next. As always, feedback is more than welcome.


Monday, 19 December 2016

Review: The Centurion's Choice by Sandra Schwab

4.5 stars

I can't remember where I stumbled across The Centurion's Choice, but since it only came out at the beginning of this month, I guess it must have been on a new release list somewhere. Anyway, I'm grateful I saw it, and decided to take a chance on it, because it was delightful. It has great characters, with a tender romance between the heroes, and the setting is amazingly rich in historical detail.

Although Lucius Satrius had hopes of being promoted to centurion, when Caius Florius Corvus is brought in instead, Lucius swears his loyalty to him as the unit's optio. But Florius - or 'Cranky Centurion Florius' as the centuria call him - is wary of his second-in-command. But, as their campaign in Germania drags on, they find themselves growing closer, and questioning whether their different ranks really mean they can't be together. 

It occurred to me after I bought The Centurion's Choice but before I read it that it might be annoyed if it anachronistically adhered to modern ideas of heterosexuality and homosexuality over Roman constructs of penetrator/active partner vs. person being penetrated/passive partner. But I shouldn't have worried. Not only has Schwab done her research, the question of Roman sexual norms and prejudices make up much of the romantic conflict between the heroes:
Romans didn’t fuck other freeborn men, though a man from one of the provinces and without Roman citizenship might be just about acceptable—as long as he let the Roman do the fucking, of course. But alas, Centurion Florius was Lucius’ superior officer, and if Lucius had gotten the man’s true measure, he’d say Florius would never do anything that might be construed as taking advantage of, and dishonoring, a man serving under him. (32%)
Most of the book is from Lucius' perspective, which worked well, because it saved Florius' point of view for pivotal moments that contained powerful emotion. For the most part, I thought the men's transition from wary colleagues to friends to lovers was excellent. I would have liked to have seen one or two more interactions with them as friendly colleagues or affectionate lovers, just to have a bit more of a basis to imagine the rest of their life together, but it is a novella, and Lucius' and Florius' romance was very well developed and satisfying even without these extra moments. 

Lucius' and Florius' lives in the giant Roman military machine is very interesting, and this really shapes the story, as well as providing a strong sense of place and time. However, even more than the military stuff, I loved the way that Schwab conveyed the breadth and diversity of the Roman Empire. Lucius and Florius serve in an auxiliary unit mostly made up of Gauls, while Florius - although a Roman citizen - has been raised in Caledonia (aka Scotland) and Lucius is from province of Syria (although his hometown is now located in modern-day Turkey). 

At the beginning of the book, Schwab provides a brief Author's Note to orientate the modern reader to the present-day names of the places mentioned in the book (for example, Vindobona is Vienna; Danuvius is the Danube). There is also another, more extensive, Author's Note at the end that provides more information about the military aspects, as well as Roman male-male sexual and romantic relationships. It's all fascinating, and the provides just the right amount of context to the novella itself.  

The Centurion's Choice was such an excellent read - especially for a novella - and I'm excited to see what Schwab has done with the full length novels in the series, Eagle's Honor: Banished and Eagle's Honor: Ravished.

Monday, 12 December 2016

Recommendations/Reflection: Best Reads of 2016

EDIT 12/3/18: In light of recent revelations about Santino Hassell, I am no longer comfortable featuring his co-written book Fast Connectionas on this post. it has been removed from the 'Top 5 Unreviewed Reads' section, leaving it with only 4 items, instead of the original 5.

It's that time of the year where wrapping-up-the-year's-reading posts are a dime a dozen, so here's mine. My best 10 books of 2016 - five that I reviewed, and five that never got reviewed - plus an extra five that I read this year, but were not published in 2016. They're listed 1-5 in each category in terms of reading order, not as an internal ranking within that category. In instances where I haven't reviewed the book, I've linked to other reviews where the reviewer has felt the same way about the book that I have. Looking back, I've had a really good reading year, with lots of great discoveries, but there are also some things that I'm looking to change and refine as we move towards 2017.

Top 5 Reviewed Reads of 2016

1. Level Up by Cathy Yardley
Sweet, geeky flatmates-to-lovers story between two colleagues at a video development company. Light-hearted, but nuanced. Read full review

2. Earth Bound by Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner
1960s space race romance, with female computer engineer squaring off against misogynistic sausage fest. Grumpy chief engineer hero who's her adversary during the day, and her lover once they clock off. Atypical romance arc makes it very engaging and satisfying. Read full review

3. The Hating Game by Sally Thorne
This office romance was one of the year's most loved romances, and I was a definite fan. Funny, off-beat with a great slow-burn enemies-to-lovers romance at its core. Read full review.

4. The Gossip by Jenny Holiday

It's campus cop versus popular college girl in this swoony 1980s novella that packs a massive emotional punch despite its short length. Read full review.

5. Summer Skin by Kirsty Eagar
An Aussie YA/NA romance where the hero and heroine are young, imperfect and at competing university colleges. Raw, honest and feminist. Read full review

Top 5 Unreviewed Reads of 2016

1. Let it Shine by Alyssa Cole
Bittersweet novella about the romance between a young black woman and her Jewish childhood friend, set in the 1960s against the background of the Civil Rights Movement and Freedom Rides. Read review by Rudi at Book Thingo.

2. Sofia Khan is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik
Chick lit-slash-contemporary romance told through diary entries. Sofia's attempts to chronicle Muslim dating for the publishing house where she works are hilarious, insightful and leads to a very sweet romance! Read review by Carrie at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.

3. A Gentleman's Position by K J Charles 
Inter-class romance between a lord and his valet in another strong book from K J Charles. I truly admire the way that she can take a situation and spin it so that the reader empathises with each character's perspective. Read review by Jay at Joyfully Jay

4. The Horseman by Charlotte Nash
The mystery sub-plot and well-developed characters in this rural romance set in Victoria make it a real page-turner. Read review by Lee at Scandalicious Book Reviews

Top 5 Not Published in 2016

1. Under the Sugar Sun by Jennifer Hallock (2015)
In the Philippines at the turn of the century, an American schoolteacher meets a kind-hearted mestizo sugar baron. Heart-squeezy romance and heart-wrenching exploration of colonialism ensues. Read full review

2. Act Like It by Lucy Parker (2015)
Probably one of the most praised books of this year, even if it was published in November last year. Fake romance trope-y goodness between a Darcy-esque West End actor and his castmate to counteract bad publicity. Read review by Sarah by Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.

3. Haveli by Zeenat Mahal (2013)
In 1970s Pakistan, headstrong Chandni resists her grandmother's attempts to push her into a union with a family friend's son, Taimur a.k.a 'Alpha Male'. Masterful novella with such strong characterisation. Read full review

4. Jasper and the Dead by R J Astruc (2013)
I only gave this M/M AU romance four stars (damn third-person present tense writing style) but the original yet familiar worldbuilding of Astruc's AU colonial Sydney has stuck with me over the course of the year, and I've recommended it to several people since, so I think it deserves to be here. Read full review

5. Chocolate Cake for Breakfast by Danielle Hawkins (2013)
Small-town New Zealand romance with All Black hero and vet heroine. Quirky but so emotional. Read full review.

Concluding Thoughts

The Top 5 unreviewed section is the most diverse, with 2 M/M romances, Cole's Let it Shine with a Black heroine and Jewish hero, and Malik's Sofia, a British Muslim of Pakistani extraction. This is disturbing and - quite frankly - not good enough. It's not good enough to be reading diversely if my blogging doesn't represent the full extent of this, especially when they are books that I could have reviewed positively. Clearly, next year, I need to more closely examine what I choose to review, what I choose not to review, and the unconscious bias or reasoning behind it. 

Recently, classifying my reviews by setting, I realised how few books I'd reviewed that were set on my own turf, which prompted my to check how many books from Australia and New Zealand I'd actually read this year. The results were dismal: 7 entirely set in Australia, and 5 in New Zealand. Given those stats, the Antipodes is grossly over-represented on this list, with 3 books set in Australia, 1 in New Zealand and 2 more (1 each) by Australian and Kiwi authors that were set elsewhere (Act Like It takes place in London, and The Hating Game in a unspecified New York-style city). Good books set in Australia or New Zealand bring with them a warm, familiar feeling, and every time I experience that, I wonder why I don't read more local fiction. Next year, I will. 

Lastly, thank you to everyone who has read and supported this blog over the last two years. It's been a blast. 

Onward and upward to 2017!

Monday, 5 December 2016

Review: Summer Skin by Kirsty Eagar

5 stars

Summer Skin by Kirsty Eagar lies somewhere between young adult and new adult romance. It's raw and unflinchingly honest, a feminist exploration of Australia in the social media age, where young, imperfect characters are both shaped by and fighting against the norms of their world. 

The synopsis says: 
Jess Gordon is out for revenge. Last year the jocks from Knights College tried to shame her best friend. This year she and a hand-picked college girl gang are going to get even. 
The lesson: don't mess with Unity girls.
The target: Blondie, a typical Knights stud, arrogant, cold . . . and smart enough to keep up with Jess.
A neo-riot grrl with a penchant for fanning the flames meets a rugby-playing sexist pig - sworn enemies or two people who happen to find each other when they're at their most vulnerable? 
It's all Girl meets Boy, Girl steals from Boy, seduces Boy, ties Boy to a chair and burns Boy's stuff. Just your typical love story.
Basically, last year, Knights College had a challenge to see who could be the first to sleep with a Unity girl, and Jess' best friend Farren ended up having her sexual encounter with a Knights boy streamed to other members of the college. This year, Jess isn't going to let sleeping dogs lie. Behind Farren's back, she and her friends set up an alternate challenge: the first Unity girl to get a Knights boy back to her room and give him a "make-over" wins a defaced Knights jersey that Jess has stolen from a Knights boy. Her meet-cute with the hero, Mitch, is when she is in the process of stealing that jersey from the Knights laundry. Jess writes him off as just your average Knights-attending dick, and in some ways she's right, but Mitch is also dealing with the aftermath of a personal tragedy that made him take a year off uni and reevaluate his life. Despite the fact that Jess and Mitch are two very different people with two very different experiences of the world - reflected in their very different college choices - they just keep crossing paths at inopportune moments. Or are they really opportune moments?

Summer Skin is set in Brisbane (implicitly at the Uni of Queensland), and, in some ways, it's quite Queensland-y, with lines like this: 
"Sugar mill, hates the smell of rum...You're not from Bundaberg, by any chance?" (p. 57)
However, it could just have easily been set in Sydney - where the University of Sydney's all-male St Paul's College is well-known for sexual assault, it's pro-rape Facebook pages, making young women drink toxic mixtures that see them hospitalised and, most recently, for refusing to comply with a University review into college culture - or any other major Australian city with an old-school university. 

I read Summer Skin in short increments, partly because it was one of the best books I have read this year and I wanted to savour it, but partly also because it was so close to home. I never went to college - one of the reasons I chose my uni is because it didn't have colleges -but this is the story of many of my friends and family members' college experiences. This is the story of my younger high school years, when I went to a private girls school, and our brother school had the exact same motto - and misogynistic mentality - as the Knights boys. Virgil AgiturDo the manly thing. This is the story of my experience with some uni societies. I ended up massively conflicted by paragraphs like this:
At that moment, a stocky guy with curly hair...blocked Blondie's path, addressing him as 'Killer' and telling him it was the Paddington Tavern for afters, acting like he couldn't see Jess, tucked under Blondie's arm. He probably thought he was being subtle. And Blondie played right along: widening his stance as if experiencing a sudden and significant surge in ball size, speaking in the drawl used by guys who are fluent in Brah.
"Yeah, right, the Paddo. Not gonna make it, hey."  
At that, the other knight finally focused on Jess, and she decided she didn't like his eyes. "Roger that." He smirked. "Killer." (p. 45)
You can't help but smile and even laugh because it's so spot on; "guys who are fluent in Brah" is pure genius, and I will be adding that to my vocabulary, thank you very much. But at the same time, it's also a bit painful. This representation can only appear on the page because it reflects widespread attitudes and behaviours and that, frankly, is depressing. 

And it's not just the sexism that Jess is fighting - even, and especially, in Mitch - that resonates. In the same piercing way that Summer Skin deals with gender, Eagar also talks straight up about class in a country that supposedly has none. Mitch is a rugby-union player from a well-off background, and, as Jess describes her family to him: 
"My family are probably your family's worst nightmare. Self-educated rednecks. Bogans with books. Other people worry about climate change; we worry Ford will stop making V8s. I'll know I've arrived when I buy a jet-ski."  (p. 109)
All of these things are so specific to the Australian context, but stripped of its quintessentially Australian characterisation and writing, at Summer Skin's heart is a story about hook up culture and binge drinking, rape culture, objectification of women, male entitlement and feminist push back that could occur in any number of countries. A story about women developing a take-no-prisoners approach because the establishment is just so weighted against them. It's the same story that saw a Columbia student carry her mattress around with her in protest after the university dismissed three complaints against her rapist, the UK's National Union of Students call for a summit on 'lad culture' or protests at University of Sydney's Open Day against the university's handling of  campus sexual assault. 

If I've spent too much of this review talking about myself or society, it's only because Summer Skin is so unapologetic about being a book about - and for - a particular generation of Australians, from the music references to the public/private school divide to the use of Instagram to the game of Classic Catches. It tackles love, sexism, class, body image, men's right to women's bodies and a bazillion other relevant themes with wit, grace and strength. It's sex positive, subversive and thought-provoking, and it has wonderfully complicated characters - both male and female - who don't get written off for being morally grey (too often it's only the guys who get a free pass on this). 

But potential readers should rest assured that the romance between Jess and Mitch is smart and funny and sexy and poignant. I was going to say 'equally engaging as the rest of the book' but that is misleading: the romance between Mitch and Jess does not exist outside all of these themes that Summer Skin deals with, but is inherently a part of them, and I love it for that. There can be no true exploration of sexism and objectification without a hero who, at times, displays sexist and objectifying behaviours, and more power to Eagar for somehow managing to make Mitch a attractive and sympathetic hero, even when he's being a bit of a dick. And if somebody could please give me the strength to stand up for myself and call these things out as strongly and coherently as Jess and her friends do, that'd be super.

I don't think I've ever called a book a must-read on this blog - people have a right to read what they like without being prescribed to - but I genuinely think that if there ever was a must-read piece of fiction for Australians of my generation, Summer Skin is it. It's like looking in a mirror, and while we may not always like what we see, it's ultimately a hopeful portrayal of what love and our microcosm of society can look like if we - both guys and girls - take no shit and accept that, as Jess says, "being human isn't two different experiences" (p. 214). 
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