Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Overview: February Reading

This month was a bit of a slower reading month than January, mostly because of a big personal change that happened in my life: I moved to Germany to study!

Reading Overview & Genre Breakdown

Books read in February: 15
Books read YTD: 35

Fiction Titles: 12
  • 11 Romance (2 historicals, 8 contemporaries, 1 historical fantasy)
  • 1 General Fiction
Non-Fiction Titles: 3
  • 2 History
  • 1 Sociology/Social History
I am currently reading Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho, but I don't anticipate will be finished by the end of the day, so this will appear in March's stats. 

Setting Statistics

USA: 5

UK: 4

Australia: 1

  • Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms by Anita Heiss - this was my General Fiction read. Engaging and eye-opening story about a Japanese escapee from a POW camp in Cowra and the Wiradjuri family who shelter him. Romantic elements, but non-HEA warning!
Nigeria: 1

  • A Tailor-Made Romance by Oyindamola Affinnih - Cute romance where the conflict comes from the heroine's perception of a class difference between her and the hero. Had some trouble with her self-absorption, even though it makes sense in the context of the story.

Philippines: 1

Non-Fiction with a Setting: 3

Non-Fiction without a Setting: 0

As you can see, I'm still mucking around with the format for these monthly overviews. I liked the idea of highlighting books I read that took place outside the dominant settings of the US and UK, but I also don't want to focus on that at the exclusion of marginalised and/or ownvoices authors, and characters that are something other than the white, cishet able-bodied default. So we'll see what I end up feeling comfortable with; it may be that it continues to differ from month to month. 

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Review: Tempting Hymn by Jennifer Hallock

4.5 stars
Release date: 24/2/16
I received an ARC of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review. My opinion is my own.

I have to admit, I was nervous about Tempting Hymn, because Hallock has set herself a mammoth task: telling the romance of a 'fallen' Filipina nurse and an American missionary workman recovering physically from illness, and mentally from the death of his wife and children, in only 152 pages. Even though I have read and loved both of Hallock's prior two works, where she tackles similar storylines in comparative depth, I'm still impressed at the way she has pulled it off. 

Like the first novel in this series, Under the Sugar Sun, which I reviewed at the beginning of last year, Tempting Hymn manages to give adequate breathing room to the harsh historical realities of American colonial rule in the Philippines, while delivering a romance that is sweet, realistic and - above all - emotional.

Readers of Under the Sugar Sun will remember Rosa, the nurse assigned to care for Georgie's erstwhile fiance, Archie Blaxton. After the events of Under a Sugar Sun, Rosa gave birth to an illegitimate half-American son, Miguel, and was ostracised both by the people she had lived alongside her whole life, and the missionary community for whom she worked as a nurse. Despite the fact that she wants nothing more to do with American men, caring for missionary Jonas Vanderberg gives her a final chance to regain her nursing position at the local hospital, and give Miguel the life he deserves. 

Having lost his wife and daughters to cholera, Jonas has nothing left to live for. The surly and insistent Rosa is only prolonging his misery, until he realises the unjust way that she has been treated. There's fight left in Jonas yet, but a perceived connection between Rosa and another American man will only hinder Rosa's attempts to get her life back on track.

The Rosa from Tempting Hymn is very different to the Rosa shown in Under the Sugar Sun. Partly, that's because she was irreparably changed by the events described there, but also because her side of the story humanises her. As a heroine, she's at once heartbreaking and eminently relatable. The way the world has treated her hasn't left her much room to be emotional, so she just gets on with what she needs to do. 

Jonas is a salt-of-the-earth kind of guy. He decided to enter the mission field to impress his wife's well-to-do family, because, while he may not be an educated man, he can build anything, and the missionary movement needs jacks-of-all-trades as much as they need fancy preacher men. While I had initial concerns that his faith wouldn't sit well with me, the religious aspect was something that I valued most about this book.

As romance readers, we most often see representations and explorations of Christian faith in inspirational romances, but I want to make clear that Tempting Hymn is not an inspie. For a start, Rosa and Jonas would never cut it as a couple in an inspirational romance, because Rosa is Catholic, and she has no interest in converting. Secondly, I think Hallock's implicit focus here is the way religion is an ambiguous force. While Jonas is a man of God from the 'love thy neighbour' school of thought, the missionaries are able to justify the wrongs of colonisation because they are saving the heathen Catholic Filipinos, just as people - both Catholic and Protestant - use religious doctrine to ostracise Rosa (but not the man who got her pregnant, because of course not!). 

In this - and in other aspects of the book - Hallock highlights the way that repressing and proscribing sexuality adversely affects both women and men. Rosa and Jonas' tentative first love scene, where they are figuring out one another and themselves, was exquisitely done. In fact, all the sex scenes here are insanely hot, just like in Under a Sugar Sun

Ultimately, just like in her other books, Hallock doesn't pull any punches in Tempting Hymn, with either the romance or the historical detail. She does her setting and her characters justice, delivering a story that is raw and unflinching, but never too dark, because it has an engaging and touching romance at its core. 

Monday, 20 February 2017

Review: In at the Deep End by Penelope Janu

3 stars

In at the Deep End was a quirky Aussie romance by debut author Penelope Janu. I'd really been looking forward to this one, but I'm left feeling ambivalent, because, while I enjoyed the second half, I didn't connect to the first half.

Harriet 'Harry' Scott grew up in the public eye as the daughter of two globe-trotting conservationist documentary-makers. But an accident in her childhood has left her petrified of water. When the ship she is captaining - which was once her parent's but is now owned by the charitable foundation they set up - goes down in Antarctic waters, Per Amundsen comes to her rescue. He's a Commander in the Norwegian Navy, on loan to the Australian Navy, and he's unimpressed by Harriet's plight. The sinking of the The Watch has damaged Harry's reputation, but Per has lost his chance to undertake his research on the Antarctic ice shelves. 

Harry has a plan to put things right: the Scott Foundation will buy a new ship, and Per can use that for his research. But the foundation doesn't have the money. Although Harry's high profile and Per's scientific connections would help fundraising efforts, Per wants no part of it. He thinks that Harriet is incompetent, irresponsible and a danger to herself and others. When it becomes clear that the only way he will get what he wants is by working with her, Per places a condition on his involvement: Harriet must learn to swim. And, when Per takes charge of Harry's swimming lessons himself, sparks fly. 

The whole novel is written from Harriet's perspective. This gives the reader an awareness her phobia - which I thought was portrayed realistically and sympathetically, as were the other psychological matters the book dealt with - but it also means that, until late in the piece, the reader sees Per as Harriet sees him: as an uptight, overbearing pain-in-her-ass. 

This lack of insight into the hero was critical to me, because I had trouble relating to Harriet. She doodles in high-stakes meetings with lawyers, even when people are talking directly to her. In her day-job as a geography teacher, she seems to spend more time drawing pictures on the whiteboard or talking to her students about her personal life than teaching the curriculum. She's also massively clumsy, which never sits well with me. Some of her irrationality and juvenility can be attributed to her phobia, but not all of it. For example, about mid-way through the book, Harry elbows Per in the stomach, because he's holding her arm and she's having a panic attack. That's perfectly acceptable. But then, towards the end, she punches him - 3 times - because he's "frustrating and intractable" (loc. 4409). Not acceptable. The romance between the two is a very slow-burn, which I usually love, but characterisation here meant that I had trouble even getting to the point where the romance began to warm up. 

However, the second half, when Per and Harriet worked through their enmity, was nuanced and engaging. As Harriet and Per opened up to each other - particularly he to her, since we're already inside her head - I was better able to invest in their relationship. Their growing closeness allowed Per to be the kind of hero that I love, caring and compassionate. In fact, there were a few moments that gave me butterflies, especially around the way he handled consent and safe sex. 

I also really enjoyed the fact that In at the Deep End was set in Sydney, where I live. I can't help but feel a connection to a book that references and describes familiar places like the Quadrangle at USyd, the HMAS Penguin at Balmoral and Royal North Shore Hospital, which I have always known like the back of my hand, first because it was my dad's workplace, and then because it was my own. 

Because of my background in health care (and my general pedantry), I was pulled out of the story several times because of the artistic license taken with medical matters. While there's nothing wrong with that, and I doubt it will bother anyone else, I can't help but issue a PSA: if someone has hypothermia, don't massage or rub or massage their body or extremities. Best case scenario, you'll send the patient into worse shock and severely chaff their skin. Worst case scenario, you've got a cardiac arrest on your hands. 

Harriet's reminiscences about her childhood travelling the world also made me quite uncomfortable, because they were continually exoticising and primitivising other cultures: 
When I was fifteen I spent weeks living with him in stilted huts on the banks of rivers in South-East Asia. The village women forced me to eat even though their own children were far skinnier than I was. The following year...we catalogued the wildebeest migration from the Serengeti in Kenya to the Masai-Mara in Kenya. A few months after that we spent the summer on horseback with Mongolian herdsmen on China's Silk Road. (loc. 317) 
There's a lot of footage of Drew and me dancing together--with Ghanaian drummers, North American boot-scooters, Turkish belly dancers. He used to say that he only got into trouble when I wasn't dancing with him, like the time he waltzed with a dictator's mistress in Cuba, and did the tango with a Geisha in Japan. (loc. 2079)
Paragraphs like these occur throughout the book, and I suppose their purpose is to highlight Harriet's experiences across the world growing up, but they brought nothing to the story. In fact, they often interrupted the narrative flow, and the way people and their lives are made into props in Harriet's 'adventurous' life left me feeling a little bit off. 

Because I did have such disparate feelings about different parts of this book, I've been struggling with this review for a long time. I've had trouble putting everything into words, so this isn't a particularly eloquent or coherent review. It's very rant-y for something that I ended up giving 3 stars to, but I was just so damn ambivalent about everything. I'd think of something I disliked and lower my rating, then remember something that worked for me and bump it back up. In the end, I went with 3 stars, but it's one of those cases where I think people should make up their own minds. Almost all other reviews have been favourable, so if it sounds like something that's up your alley, give it a go. Maybe it's just me, and you'll have an easier time with it.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Review: A Dream Defiant by Susanna Fraser

4 stars

In my mind, there are two types of Regency romances: those that follow in the tradition of Austen and Heyer, showing the privileged world of the Ton and the upper-middle classes, and those that lift the veil and show ordinary Britons and the socio-political context that affected their lives. Over the past eighteen months I've really come to appreciate this second type of Regency, and A Dream Defiant is no exception.

It's a wonderfully detailed interracial romance, set in Spain during the Napoleonic War. The hero, Elijah, is an black man and an non-comissioned officer in the British army. When one of his men is killed looting after a battle, he promises the dying man that he will take care of his wife, including passing on a valuable looted necklace. Elijah has admired Rose from afar for years, but her husband's death has put her in a very difficult position. She's without protection in a rough army camp, with a young son and rumours swirling that she is in possession of a valuable necklace. She needs to remarry quickly, and soldiers are lining up for the privilege. Elijah is the only one she trusts, but he's also the only one who seems to have no interest in marrying her. 

The real beauty of A Dream Defiant is the way that it showed the realities of the characters' situations. The life of women who followed the drum was difficult, as is Elijah's position as the son of runaway slaves who now has command over white men. Most of the conflict comes from the interracial nature of Elijah and Rose's romance. Elijah wants to make sure that Rose understands what being his wife would mean, and there's some racist blowback from other characters. 

Around two-thirds to three-quarters of the way through, there's a time jump, and the rest of the book is about Elijah, Rose and her son's life back in England. I had mixed feeling about this last bit. It was nice to see the couple's life together when they were settled, and to see what Elijah's life as a black man was like in his homeland, but it also just felt like a really extended epilogue with it's own mini-plot. 

Without giving too much away, I'm also not sure how I feel about the quick resolution of that mini-plot. I know that some racism is the result of ignorance, misunderstanding and fear of the Other, but I also don't feel like we can write it all off as not being malicious, especially in the current political climate. And the impact on the individual and his family is the same regardless, so in the end it doesn't really matter what prompts people to be racist. Ditto when racism is mingled with or disguised as a non-racist grudge. Perhaps I wouldn't have the same reservations if the book were longer, but because this part of the book is little more than an addendum, there's not adequate space to give the issue the space it needs and deserves. It's sad, really, because the representation elsewhere in the story was so nuanced. 

In truth, I wish that A Dream Defiant had been a full-length novel. There would have been a smoother transition from Spain to England. We could have seen Rose and Elijah getting to know each other and falling in love slowly, and it would have given the reader a smoother transition from Spain to England, with more context to the scenes of them as a married couple in England.

Despite the fact that I've spent the last two paragraphs listing my quibbles, I really did enjoy A Dream Defiant, and I thought it was done very well for a novella. The way Fraser writes about life following the drum is intense that it stuck in my mind for weeks afterward, so A Dream Defiant joins the many books that I've given 4 stars to lately. But what can you do? There are books that just beg to be reviewed, and, lately, many of those have been 4 star reads.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Review: Stealing Mr. Right by Tamara Morgan

4 stars
Release Date: 7/3/16
I received an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. My opinion is my own.

Tamara Morgan's website describes Stealing Mr. Right as "Ocean's Eleven meets Mr. and Mrs. Smith", and that's pretty spot-on. The synopsis says:
I'm a wanted jewel thief. He's FBI.What's that saying? Keep your friends close...and your husband closer.   Being married to a federal agent certainly has its perks.
1. I just love the way that man looks in a suit.
2. This way I always know what the enemy is up to.
Spending my days lifting jewels and my nights tracking the Bureau should have been a genius plan. But the closer I get to Grant Emerson, the more dangerous this feels. With two million dollars' worth of diamonds on the line, I can't afford to fall for my own husband.  
It turns out that the only thing worse than having a mortal enemy is being married to one. Because in our game of theft and seduction, only one of us will come out on top. Good thing a cat burglar always lands on her feet.
One thing the blurb doesn't make clear - and that really reminded me of Mr. and Mrs. Smith - is that the narrator, Penelope Blue, and her husband Grant both entered their relationship knowing the other's identity but unaware of their motives. It's an elaborate game of bluff and double bluff, where they both maintain the fiction that Penelope is a dance teacher, and that the close bonds she has with her fellow thieves are more than friendship.

I loved Penelope as a character. Her humour and flexible morals reminded me of Stephanie Plum or Isabel Spellman, heroines from other romantic comedy series that deal with the criminal world. But Penelope differs in that she falls firmly on the wrong side of the law. She's a wonderful antiheroine, she's undoubtedly strong, but her upbringing and ambiguous relationship with Grant also mean that she is emotionally vulnerable. 

Somehow, despite the moral ambiguity surrounding his relationship with Penelope, Grant comes across as a stand-up guy and swoonworthy hero. He's the kind of hero that's my catnip: honourable, but just dishonourable enough. 

His courtship with Penelope - courtship is an old-fashioned word, but it somehow seems appropriate, given the way Grant restrains himself and declares his intentions - is told through flashbacks that are interspersed with what is happening in their present-day marriage. Because of this, Stealing Mr. Right simultaneously feels like a romance novel, where the hero and heroine are feeling each other out, and long-running romantic comedy series with established love interests, like the ones I mentioned earlier. 

From the next book in the series, currently available for pre-order on Amazon, I gather that there will be two more books about Grant and Penelope. It would have been nice to know this going in - or even to have some confirmation that this is indeed the case - but Stealing Mr. Right still functions well as a standalone and has a HFN. 

If I had to name the one thing that I loved best about Stealing Mr. Right, it would be the all-round depth of emotion Morgan manages to convey, the kind that makes your chest feel tight. Partly, this is because the relationships she has crafted between the characters are so messily real and evoke so much emotion. I've read four or five of Morgan's books now, and, as I said in my review of The Derby Girl, this seems to be a consistent strength of hers, as is the acerbic wit she gives her heroines. These similarities mean that, while Stealing Mr. Right might seem to be a change of direction, it will still appeal to fans of her comedic contemporary romances, while also drawing in news readers of romantic suspense, chick-lit and serialised romantic comedies.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Review: The Future Chosen by Mina V. Esguerra

4.5 stars

Like many people, I started 2017 uneasy about the world political environment, and I chose my first read of the new year - Mina V. Esguerra's The Future Chosen - because I liked the subtitle 'a political romance'. I wanted that alternate political reality where I was sure that everything was going to be okay. However, I didn't anticipate how invested I would be in the process of getting to that HEA; it's a month later, and I'm still recovering from this star-crossed romance.

To prevent political dynasties, the fictional country of Isla has a law where only one person from each family can hold political office, and Lourdes and Andres both have their families' political ambitions resting on their shoulders. They should be thinking about their bright political futures - and they are - but they are also thinking about each other, which is a problem: the only way they could be together is if one of them gave up their place in politics. Since neither is willing to do so, they're at an impasse. There's no point pursuing a relationship that's going nowhere - especially one that could destroy their careers - but somehow they just can't seem to give each other up. 

Starting with Andres and Lourdes' time in a school for future public servants, The Future Chosen is relayed in a series of short-ish installments, with time-jumps in between. We see Lourdes and Andres together, going their separate ways, and then finding their way back to each other again. 

Partly because of the episodic narrative structure and time jumps, Esguerra uses the introduction to warn the reader that The Future Chosen is different to her other works, and she's right. I am a big fan of Esguerra's contemporaries, but here she has constructed something that feels high-stakes in a way that I have rarely encountered. I loved the suspense of not knowing how everything was all going to play out (even though I'm usually the kind of person who reads the back page to make sure that things turns out alright!). Maybe this change of tone won't work for everyone, but it certainly did for me. 

I think I was able to immerse myself so completely in Lourdes and Andres' romance because it had a fictional setting - which gave it some distance from the overwhelming hopelessness that can accompany the real world - and yet it was also relevant and familiar. Esguerra is clear that the nation-state of Isla is not the Philippines, but there were some similarities. However, the idea of an anti-dynasty law, while having particular resonance in the Philippines, is also one of universal relevance: think the Kennedys, the Nehru-Gandhis, Trump appointing Jared Kushner as his advisor. 

Esguerra conducts an extremely nuanced discussion around her anti-dynasty law, called the Mayo-Matias law. As the old saying goes, one man's utopia is another one's dystopia, and the certainly has dystopic undertones for Andres and Lourdes' freedom to choose their partners and careers. There is also the question of whether it exchanges one type of gatekeeping for political positions for others. Andres muses that:
While the law that prevented him and Lourdes from marrying, once they were elected, had its staunch supporters, it was also a law that made their democracy less…democratic. It prescribed a path for public officials, defined the qualifications, in ways that could be abused, and that excluded some of the nation’s best and brightest. It was a program that was meant to level the playing field but Andres believed it bred, programmed, rewarded certain types of individuals. 
The counterpoint to that view is provided right at the beginning of the novel:
Mayo-Matias Law has not kept power, money, and fame away from those who may abuse it, but we know what it has done—it has restored our trust in those who serve us....We will not find better candidates by lowering the score requirements, allowing privately educated entrants, or by amending the law in any way. Give an inch, and we let in doubt. We erode what MML has given us: faith in public servants. 
There was one last aspect of The Future Chosen that I absolutely adored, and that was the way it was unconstrained by gender stereotypes. When a couple's career ambitions come into conflict in the real world, it is often the woman who makes the sacrifice. Here, there was not even the slightest hint that - as the woman - Lourdes would or should be the one to give up her career in favour of Andres' (although, admittedly, perhaps this is because it is a decision that doesn't just affect her, but would require a political freeze to be placed on her whole family). If anything, Lourdes has a stronger claim to having a political career, given that she is a granddaughter of a former president, while Andres' family have only held middling-level positions. Of the two of them, Lourdes is also the more pragmatic and unemotional, while Andres is the one upset by their parting of ways, and more invested in their relationship.

But it's possible I was even more invested than Andres. The Future Chosen was suspenseful and sweet and clever and just so good, and I didn't want it to end. The ending is more of a HFN with hope for a HEA than an actual HEA, which makes sense, because the characters haven't entirely overcome everything keeping them apart. Even though I understand that and I think - objectively - it was the right decision, I still feel a slight lack of closure from that little question mark hanging over Andres and Lourdes future. That's my problem, though, and not the book's. 

I really hope that Esguerra expands this world (although I'm not sure that she will, because this was inspired by discussion around an anti-dynasty law in the Philippines). The world-building is so strong, the tone worked so well for me, and - of course - it would mean that we could see Andres and Lourdes further in the future. 
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