Search This Blog

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

'Three Women' by Lisa Taddeo

Received from the Publisher 

From the BLURB: 

All Lina wanted was to be desired. How did she end up in a marriage with two children and a husband who wouldn't touch her? 

All Maggie wanted was to be understood. How did she end up in a relationship with her teacher and then in court, a hated pariah in her small town? 

All Sloane wanted was to be admired. How did she end up a sexual object of men, including her husband, who liked to watch her have sex with other men and women?

Three Women is a record of unmet needs, unspoken thoughts, disappointments, hopes and unrelenting obsessions.

Ok. So I’m a little obsessed with this book, 'Three Women' by Lisa Taddeo.

Not ... not so much the *topic* - which follows three white, ordinary, mostly heterosexual American women over the course of eight-years and specifically mapping their sexual history, encounters, and desires... But the FORM, the narrative non-fiction style in which it’s written is a master-stroke and makes for compulsive reading. It really does impress like fiction and it’s hard to remember these are real women, but it’s also so incredible to discover the research Taddeo put into this.

If you don't know the background to this book yet, you should definitely look it up (this Guardian article was good) - but the crib-notes are that it took Taddeo eight years to write as she went all over America interviewing dozens of potential subjects who, for various reasons either dropped out of her project or were suitable by the end ... until these three women were left. 

Quite a few people have already pointed out in various interviews and reviews that 'Three Women' isn't exactly a wide cross-section. It's three, heteronormative and largely lower to upper-middle-class white women and their (therefore) rather limited and specific sexual and romantic desires (plus Taddeo's migrant mother, whose story Taddeo tells in a type of flashback). 

I definitely think the limited scope of this exploration should be taken into account, but I didn't find that it lessened my perverse enjoyment of the writing, and begrudging curiosity of the subject-matter. At a time when white women are being particularly destructive the world over - but especially due to their social and political leanings - I think it's fair enough their their sexual provocations and machinations are put under the microscope, particularly in the realms of middle-America to try and unpick some of the Kinsey-ex logic to unlocking what makes them tick. 

I really did enjoy this book; and I can see how these women are maybe a microcosm for a small section of modern, middle-class sex & sexuality? But I really do think it’s Taddeo’s style that elevates everything and does feel like you’re reading an impressive new literary star. For that alone I do think it’s one of the must-read books of 2019! 


Tuesday, October 8, 2019

'Pumpkinheads' by Rainbow Rowell

From the BLURB: 

A smart and swoony Rainbow Rowell romance in full colour graphic novel form. 

Deja and Josiah are seasonal best friends. 

Every autumn, all through high school, they’ve worked together at the best pumpkin patch in the whole wide world (not many people know that the best pumpkin patch in the whole wide world is in Omaha, Nebraska, but it definitely is). They say goodbye every Halloween, and they’re reunited every September 1. 

But this Halloween is different - Josiah and Deja are finally seniors, and this is their last season at the pumpkin patch. Their last shift together. Their last goodbye. 

Josiah’s ready to spend the whole night feeling melancholy about it. Deja isn’t ready to let him. She’s got a plan: What if instead of moping they went out with a bang? They could see all the sights! Taste all the snacks! And Josiah could finally talk to that cute girl he’s been mooning over for three years . . . 

What if their last shift was an adventure? 

Beloved writer Rainbow Rowell and Eisner Award–winning artist Faith Erin Hicks have teamed up to create Pumpkinheads, a tender and hilarious story about two irresistible teens discovering what it means to leave behind a place - and a person - with no regrets.

‘Pumpkin Heads’ Graphic Novel by Rainbow Rowell, illustrated by Faith Erin Hicks 

I absolutely tore through this last night and thoroughly delighted in it. Basically the same premise as Rowell’s short-story ‘Midnights’ (from the Stephanie Perkins Anthology ‘My True Love Gave To Me’ and later included in a cute little novella) about the once-a-year meeting of two people who get along fabulously.

This time it’s the fall seasonal workers Deja and Josiah who’ve been working the Succotash Hut together at their local Pumpkin Patch for four years. They’re seasonal friends who don’t meet up outside of Halloween busy work, but when they are together in October it’s clearly a laugh-riot. But this is their final season together, with school ending and both of them moving on from the Patch - so Deja decides she’ll need to help shy Josiah *finally* talk to Fudge Shoppe girl who he’s been crushing on these many years.

Their final working night together becomes an adventure through the Pumpkin Patch and it’s completely hilarious and adorable; Rowell’s sweet Young Adult tale perfectly matched to Hicks’ bold graphic style, with plenty of delightful details throughout. I’ll admit - being Aussie - the enormity of the Pumpkin Patch lifestyle was a *little* lost on me ... but it’s charming more than confusing.

I think the true success of this graphic novel is that it's a contained timeline - spanning the dying hours of Dega and Josiah's last shift at the Patch - it's a completely self-contained story. Rowell's brilliant writing gets across what Deja and Josiah mean to one another, as they reminisce about their time at the Patch and have such an easy camaraderie and repartee, readers really feel the intimacy of their friendship and shared-history, and can also wallow in the feeling of something so special coming to an end ... it's a tricky balance that Rowell absolutely perfects; she does nostalgia very well, and has such an astute understanding of the connections young people forge and the power of place in their lives. 

Faith Erin Hicks was also the perfect illustrator for this long-awaited project. I'm familiar with her work because I loved 'Friends with Boys' and 'Pumpkinheads' reminded me to check out more of her work. Rowell brilliantly uses Deja and Josiah's dialogue to communicate nostalgia and connection; Faith Erin Hick's bold illustrations have so many tiny and delightful details throughout; it gives another layer of thoughtfulness and specialness to the Pumpkin Patch setting especially, that makes it feel so much more real and unique to characters and readers alike. 

And I’m just hoping Deja and Josiah end up getting more seasonal work together - maybe at a Santa’s Grotto? This was *gorgeous* and I highly recommend. 


Monday, September 30, 2019

'The Friend Zone' by Abby Jimenez

From the BLURB:

Kristen Petersen doesn't do drama, will fight to the death for her friends, and has no room in her life for guys who just don't get her. She's also keeping a big secret: facing a medically necessary procedure that will make it impossible for her to have children.

Planning her best friend's wedding is bittersweet for Kristen—especially when she meets the best man, Josh Copeland. He's funny, sexy, never offended by her mile-wide streak of sarcasm, and always one chicken enchilada ahead of her hangry. Even her dog, Stuntman Mike, adores him. The only catch: Josh wants a big family someday. Kristen knows he'd be better off with someone else, but as their attraction grows, it's harder and harder to keep him at arm's length.

The Friend Zone will have you laughing one moment and grabbing for tissues the next as it tackles the realities of infertility and loss with wit, heart, and a lot of sass.

‘The Friend Zone’ is the debut contemporary romance novel by US author Abby Jimenez.

Props to Dymocks 234 in Melbourne – their romance section is an absolute delight to browse, and a few weeks ago I did exactly that when I found Jimenez’s debut book! This had previously not been on my radar, which isn’t hard these days; I feel like I’m drowning in a TBR-pile which has resulted in this weird FORO (fear of reading-out) and a little reading-stagnation. So I’ve really tried blocking out chatter of the next “must-read” because much like grocery-shopping when hungry, you shouldn’t book-browse when in a rut because you’ll try to fix the problem buying more books you don’t really want to read. But buy this I did after the blurb intrigued me; I started reading it 2 days ago, and last night I finished it just after midnight and on an absolute high from having my mojo back!

What makes this book stand-out is the heroine’s journey and “obstacle” to her happiness. Kristen has fallen for her best friend’s fiancée’s best-man, and despite some initial relationship hurdles, the main thing stopping her from finding happiness with fireman babe Josh is her inability to give him a family. Josh wants enough kids to fill out a baseball team, but Kirsten suffers from Uterine Fibroid Embolization (non-cancerous growths in the uterus which can affect a woman’s ability to conceive children, results in 19-day periods for Kirsten and excruciating cramps/bleeding). Recent medical acceptance that things like endometriosis are in fact *real* and not female-exaggeration have made for really interesting discussions in the medical field (read Gabrielle Jackson’s Guardian piece ‘Why don't doctors trust women?Because they don't know much about us’ which boils down to; “The medical community have known for a century that women are living in constant pain. They’ve done nothing about it”).

In ‘The Friend Zone’ is the first book I’ve personally read that centres this narrative for the female protagonist – and really confronts the pressures and heartache of chronic pain, as well as the emphasis society places on women’s bodies to function a certain way (and when they don’t, some are left to feel “less than”). I’d love to read more books with this narrative focus; it’s refreshing, modern, complex and important. I’m sure many readers will feel seen via this book and story (which is also why the ending *kind of* fails on the premise – but romance is about wish-fulfillment and self-actualisation so I’ll let it pass).

It helps that ‘The Friend Zone’ is also a really HOT book; Kirsten and Josh are a fab couple to read about with just as much snark and spark as they have hot n’ heaviness – it means the stakes in their ‘happily ever after’ feel real and complex.

That being said – I will warn that the latter-half of the book becomes a REAL blindside gut-punch I was not prepared for. I’d already cried throughout the middle, so to be whammied with that ending was … a shock. I will say it left me *desperate* for the second book (‘The Happy Ever After Playlist’ coming in April 2020) but for a romance it was maybe just a little uneven for the last warm and fuzzy I want to be left with? But I guess that’s where ‘The Friend Zone’ is maybe hedging more into ‘chick lit’ and women’s fiction than straight-up contemporary romance. Fair warning.

Overall; I loved this book. It absolutely pulled me out of my reading-rut by delivering on heat and heartache and having me yo-yo between laughs and tears. I can’t wait to read more from Abby Jimenez; even if I’ll be going into her future books with a little more armour, knowing she’s one to enjoy a reader-blindside.


Friday, August 30, 2019

'Brazen and the Beast' The Bareknuckle Bastards #2 by Sarah MacLean

From the BLURB: 

The Lady’s Plan

When Lady Henrietta Sedley declares her twenty-ninth year her own, she has plans to inherit her father’s business, to make her own fortune, and to live her own life. But first, she intends to experience a taste of the pleasure she’ll forgo as a confirmed spinster. Everything is going perfectly... until she discovers the most beautiful man she’s ever seen tied up in her carriage and threatening to ruin the Year of Hattie before it’s even begun.

The Bastard’s Proposal

When he wakes in a carriage at Hattie’s feet, Whit, a king of Covent Garden known to all the world as Beast, can’t help but wonder about the strange woman who frees him—especially when he discovers she’s headed for a night of pleasure... on his turf. He is more than happy to offer Hattie all she desires... for a price.

An Unexpected Passion

Soon, Hattie and Whit find themselves rivals in business and pleasure. She won’t give up her plans; he won’t give up his power... and neither of them sees that if they’re not careful, they’ll have no choice but to give up everything... including their hearts.

'Brazen and the Beast' is the second book in Sarah MacLean's new historical romance series, 'The Bareknuckle Bastards'.

I became OBSESSED with this new his-rom from MacLean, that is largely set in the "underworld" of London in Covent Garden, and is a bit of an upstairs/downstairs for centring around four siblings - three of whom are from the "gutters" and the first two books focused on brothers Devil and Beast, had them paired with ladies ("toffs") from the gentry. 

First book was about Devil and Felicity, who are now married when we dive into 'Brazen and the Beast' which is all about brother Beast and his Lady Henrietta Sedley. 

Surprising no one, this second book from MacLean is more brilliance; an absolute master-class in a new era of historical romance that is both feminist, progressive, and hot as all get-out! 

It starts with Henrietta 'Hattie' being a larger-than-life woman (literally) who has always been *too much* for the ton; too loud, tall, plump, ambitious ... her father runs a shipping company, and it is her great desire to inherit it over her brother and have some control over her own life and future. Since Hattie is 29 and unlikely to ever wed, running the family business is her one chance to be the master of her fate - until she crosses paths with Beast 'Whit' Bareknuckle Bastard of London. 

This is more of MacLean casting off the ballrooms and sitting-rooms of most historical romances, of putting aside this idea of nobility and class to delve into much more working-class and inclusive sides of London rarely seen in such books - and it's the reading-equivalent of loosening our corsets, for readers and Hattie alike. It even changes the tropes of his-rom, when we have Hattie who is so desperate to take herself out of that gentry equation and not marry into money or security, but make her own way and take care of herself. It's incredible that MacLean is totally upending the usual "rules" of the genre, but still settling us into this fabulous saga series based around a family whose rejection of title is both what made them, and what could break them ...

Hattie and Beast/Whit are SUCH a good pairing. MacLean really explores in them, this idea of equality - and what it means to truly be *partners*, especially in a world where women are reliant on men to dictate all aspects of their lives ... and it's also so interesting for how she puts a microscope on this within romantic relationships of the genre, when a key ingredient for a happy-ending is the hero choosing her own path. Also: Whit and Hattie are HOT. This is some of the best sex-scenes and scenes if intimacy, reminding why and how MacLean remains at the top of this game. It's pretty hard to see how future book/s in the series will top Beast...

On that note; I'm a little in two minds about the next book in the series being about Grace and Ewan - the latter being the menacing brother-villain looming over the whole series, and Grace as his childhood sweetheart he's been made to believe has died. Part of me was hoping that *maybe* Grace and Ewan wouldn't be paired up, only so we could get TWO more books in this series .... I also half-hoped that *maybe* Grace could get an LGBT+ storyline (though in 'Brazen' we get the hints of a fabulous one, between Hattie's friend Nora and Covent sentry Anika - that I hope continues into the next book) ... and I thought it could be interesting if Ewan's story was about having to move on from what he thought was his GREAT LOVE, and what that would do to who he eventually ends up with - someone who won't want to feel like they'll always place second? 

BUT; it does seem that MacLean is steadfast in pairing Ewan and Grace, and I am resigned ... and also keen to see how she'll flip and subvert what is clearly meant to be a Catherine and Heathcliff dysfunctional pairing (Please - I am here for MacLean to scream from the rooftops that "WUTHERING HEIGHTS IS NOT A ROMANCE!" and show us how it would need to be flipped and fixed to become one). 

I also appreciated 'Brazen and the Beast' for the little cameos from MacLean's other series (I noted two - but I'm sure there's more I didn't realise or haven't read yet?). It was a lovely reminder of how full and well-rounded this world feels that MacLean keeps dipping us back into, and why I'm so sad to think there's only one 'Bareknuckle Bastards' book left. Bring on 2020!


Thursday, August 15, 2019

'A Constant Hum' by Alice Bishop

From the BLURB:

It’ll all be okay, my mother said, and I remember the way her familiar face scrunched, afterwards – reflected back at me, in the fogged bathroom mirror, when she thought I couldn’t see. 

Before the fire – before the front of flames roars over the hills—the ridge is thick with gums. After the fire, all the birds have gone. There is only ash and melted metal, the blackened husks of cars. And the lost people: on the TV news in borrowed clothes, in temporary accommodation on the outskirts of the city, or remembered in small offerings outside the town hall. 

A Constant Hum grapples with the aftermath of bushfire with an eye for the telling detail. Some of these stories cut to the bone; others are empathetic tales of survival, even hope. All are gripping and stunningly written, heralding the arrival of a vital new voice in Australian fiction.

Well, that was a feast made from grief and completely, hauntingly, divine. ‘A Constant Hum’ by Alice Bishop is a Short Story Collection based on the aftermath of the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires. 

It features a variation of viewpoints and Short Story forms - everything from minisagas to microfiction, and microstory (of only a few words) interspersed with flash fiction and longer form short stories too. 

There were still reports, years later, of the horses that night: their coats matted and sweet from sweat in smoke-blurred headlights.  

The pace of them - longer and short form one after the other - makes it read like the waves and stages of grief. And sometimes we get the barest hint of an aspect of the tragedy, like it’s all we can handle of the whole. One line a character utters in a story hints at these fleeting moments: ‘It’s okay, Haze, sometimes things just disappear.’ 

It’s stunning, and unsurprising that Bishop herself grew up in Christmas Hills - one town devastated by the fires. This collection feels both assured and vulnerable, a hard and hurting reading but necessary and so very, very fulfilling. I loved it.

It’s also worth reading her acknowledgments at the back - and the very end, where Bishop lists all the places where many of the stories were previously published or recognised: journals and magazines, websites, and short story prizes ... it highlights how long Bishop has been writing and finessing this collection, and it’s proof-positive that building a writing resume (particularly of your short-story work) is well worth doing. It takes time, but the best things often do.


Thursday, August 1, 2019

'Pieces of Her' by Karin Slaughter

From the BLURB: 

What if the person you thought you knew best turned out to be someone you never knew at all? 

Andrea Oliver's mother, Laura, is the perfect small-town mum. Laura lives a quiet but happy life in sleepy beachside Belle Isle. She's a pillar of the community: a speech therapist, business owner and everybody's friend. And she's never kept a secret from anyone. Or so Andrea thinks. 

When Andrea is caught in a random violent attack at a shopping mall, Laura intervenes and acts in a way that is unrecognisable to her daughter. It's like Laura is a completely different person - and that's because she was. Thirty years ago. Before Andrea. Before Belle Isle. 

Laura is hailed as a hero for her actions at the mall but 24 hours later she is in hospital, shot by an intruder, who's spent decades trying to track her down. 

What is Andrea's mother trying to hide? As elements of the past return and put them both in danger, Andrea is left to piece together Laura's former identity and discover the truth - for better or worse - about her mother. Is the gentle, loving woman who raised her also a violent killer?

'Pieces of Her' is the new stand-alone crime/thriller novel from maestra, Karin Slaughter! 

Much as I adored Slaughter's 'Grant County' series (until it tore my heart out!) and am still loving her 'Will Trent' series, I've been absolutely enamoured of her stand-alone books of late. Her last one, 2017's 'The Good Daughter' was an absolute SMASH and I loved it, so I was super keen to dive into her next with 'Pieces of Her'. 

Andrea and her mother Laura find themselves at an impasse - Andrea moved back home after a failed stint in New York, ostensibly to help nurse her mother back to health after her cancer diagnosis. But Laura is in remission now, and Andrea is still spinning her wheels living at home and taking a crappy job as a police phone operator - and reluctant to let her successful speech-therapist mother know just how much she hated her old life in New York, and is unwilling to return to it. 

There's a great line in which Andrea comments that her mother is a woman "who knows where the lids to her Tupperware are kept" and it's just *chef's kiss* apt character description for a put-together older white lady from the South. 

What changes everything is an incident in a diner, when Andrea and her mother find themselves bystanders in a gun attack. Except Laura isn't a bystander for long - she confronts the young gunman, and turns tables - killing him in a most violent, professional manner ... that multiple people capture on phone-camera, so she makes the nightly news. 

Suddenly Laura's world starts unravelling, and Andrea along with it. 

This set-up is VERY 'A History of Violence' meets the Geena Davis classic 'The Long Kiss Goodnight' ... or so I thought. I was kind of hoping that with this set-up, 'Pieces of Her' would become a mother-daughter cover-operative spy-thriller - but sadly, it becomes Laura sending Andrea off for her own safety, and having to uncover the truth of her mother's past by herself on the road, while Laura stays home and answers to the authorities. 

There are inter-cut flashbacks to Laura's past that keeps readers guessing as to *which* player she is in an unfolding Patty Hearst-esque saga from decades ago ... and I found these interchanges to be quite dull, and the backstory not nearly as thrilling as I'd hoped. Even as I also appreciated Slaughter portraying a nuanced though extreme form of domestic violence, of both physical, emotional and psychological abuse. 

I guess my disappointment came from Slaughter keeping this story relatively grounded, when I kept hoping/expecting it to take off into Jason Bourne type territory. I was also really gunning for a Mother/Daughter "buddy cop" recipe, because the book was most fun when Andrea and Laura were together - and I felt like the second Andrea went solo, the present-day storyline also became dull. I was especially disappointed when a potential relationship with a guy is dangled before Andrea, but it's stalled from really building by having them not team up ... and then that the entire thing ends with an almost Hannibal/Clarice talking scene, that after so little action felt like yet another lull in what should have been a more action-packed finale. 

There's a lot of similarities between 'Pieces of Her' and the (I think) more successful 'The Good Daughter' - namely in both books pivoting around a relationship from the past that's been buried, and re-triggered by a violent tragedy in the present. But 'The Good Daughter' was so pacey and violent, a deeply torturous psychological read that kept me guessing ... where I feel like 'Pieces of Her' kept stalling and never *quite* reaching its full potential. The story just never went the way I wanted it to, and remained sedate instead of kicking pace and characters up a notch. 

It was just 'okay' when I've come to expect 'spectacular' from Slaughter.


Tuesday, July 23, 2019

'The Bride Test' by Helen Hoang

From the BLURB:

Khai Diep has no feelings. Well, he feels irritation when people move his things or contentment when ledgers balance down to the penny, but not big, important emotions - like grief. And love. He thinks he's defective. 

Khai's family, however, understand that his autism means he processes emotions differently. As he steadfastly avoids relationships, his mother takes matters into her own hands and returns to Vietnam to find him the perfect bride. 

As a mixed-race girl living in the slums of Ho Chi Minh City, Esme Tran has always felt out of place. When the opportunity arises to come to America and meet a potential husband, she can't turn it down, thinking this could be the break her family needs. Seducing Khai, however, doesn't go as planned. Esme's lessons in love seem to be working...but only on herself. She's hopelessly smitten with a man who's convinced he can never return her affection. 

With Esme's time in the United States dwindling, Khai is forced to understand he's been wrong all along. And there's more than one way to love.

'The Bride Test' is the second book in what has become Helen Hoang's family saga, that started with last year's 'The Kiss Quotient'.

'The Bride Test' is focused on youngest brother/cousin Khai Diep, who is on the autism-spectrum and certain that he is incapable of love and destined to never have a family of his own. His mother has other plans however, and travels to Việt Nam to find him a bride - which she does, in the form of cleaner Esme Tran. 

Khai agrees to his mother's condition of pretending like he and Esme are already engaged for one month - after which she will either marry Khai for real, or return home. Khai is sure though, that he is only doing this to placate his mother - and after a month of attending family weddings with Esme purely platonically, she will be on her way and he'll be left alone and free of meddling women. 

Except fate has other plans ... like Esme falling head-over-heels in love with Khai, even as she's keeping a big secret from him. Khai likewise wasn't planning on becoming so attached to Esme, even as he remains certain that he's incapable of the emotion she most needs from him. 

I LOVED this book! I enjoyed it as much as 'The Kiss Quotient', though I probably prefer that story just a *little* bit more. I particularly loved Helen Hoang's authors note at the back of the book, in which she reveals that Esme is largely based on her own mother - who came to America from Việt Nam as a refugee after the war, and who rose from poverty to be a successful business-owner ... Helen admits that when she first conceived this story, Esme was only going to be the third-wheel in a love triangle between Khai and an American love-interest, but as she started writing, Esme started shining. She questioned why she felt the need to write a "Westernised" love-interest, and why she couldn't in fact have a heroine whose first language was not English, who came from poverty and had little formal education ... all of these are what make Esme a truly unique heroine in the modern romance genre, and also what made her character so fascinating and her story-arc so compelling. She's clever and determined, kind and hard-working and an utterly wonderful love-interest to play off of Khai. 

I will say that the *very* last few pages go a little off-kilter, with a secondary-storyline bursting in at the very end in the most unlikely and needlessly schmaltzy way I could have done without. My only other complaint was that since Hoang is making a family saga of this series (Quan's book is next, and I cannot wait!) I would have loved a little more scene-time of Michael and Stella from 'The Kiss Quotient'. We get a little of them, and it is happy - but Stella especially had no lines, I don't think? I totally understand wanting to write these books so they can be read as stand-alone, but for those readers who are checking back in with these characters it'd be nice to show us how they're continuing on in the universe ... 

I so thoroughly enjoyed 'The Bride Test', and still feel like Helen Hoang is one of the most exciting romance authors writing in the contemporary genre today. I am ridiculously keen on older brother Quan's book, because I do think he's going to be my favourite hero. 2020 better hurry!