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Sunday, September 16, 2018

'Magic Triumphs' Kate Daniels #10 by Ilona Andrews

From the BLURB:
Kate has come a long way from her origins as a loner taking care of paranormal problems in post-Shift Atlanta. She’s made friends and enemies. She’s found love and started a family with Curran Lennart, the former Beast Lord. But her magic is too strong for the power players of the world to let her be.

Kate and her father, Roland, currently have an uneasy truce, but when he starts testing her defenses again, she knows that sooner or later, a confrontation is inevitable. The Witch Oracle has begun seeing visions of blood, fire, and human bones. And when a mysterious box is delivered to Kate’s doorstep, a threat of war from the ancient enemy who nearly destroyed her family, she knows their time is up.

Kate Daniels sees no other choice but to combine forces with the unlikeliest of allies. She knows betrayal is inevitable. She knows she may not survive the coming battle.

But she has to try.

For her child.
For Atlanta.
For the world.

‘Magic Triumphs’ is the tenth and last book in Ilona Andrewws’ epic urban fantasy series, ‘Kate Daniels’ that first began back in 2007.

Okay. This is it. The end.

There may be some SPOILERS ahead so, consider yourself warned.

This book came out on August 28 but I held off until now (my birthday weekend, as a special treat) to actually sit down and read. And I fully admit, there was a degree of stalling to this strategy because I don’t think I was ready to say goodbye to this universe that I’ve been checking in to for eleven-years now … though with the caveat that; it’s pretty clear Ilona Andrews is not entirely done with this universe, even if Kate Daniels-focused arc is wrapped up …

This is the big-bad end to the ‘Kate Daniels’ series and show-down with Kate’s all-powerful, egotistical father. But from ‘Magic Bites’ to now, Kate has slowly been accumulating love, life and family from the loner she once was. There’s so much more she risks losing now, and the stakes (that have been accumulating across 9 books and countless short-stories) are higher than ever.

The books opens not with an adrenaline-rush – as most readers would have been coiled for – but with a more sedate pace and establishment of Kate and Curran’s home life. Including, yes – a child, a baby called Conlan who is developing at a rapid pace. And it’s in this sweeter side that Ilona Andrews remind readers of the true crown they wear in the realms of serial fiction – gifting readers the best example of life after ‘will they or won’t they?’ dramatic romantic tension. Conlan is another jewel in this crown, as possibly one of the best examples of a child-character integrating perfectly into a previously childless core cast.

But when the coil snaps – as it always needed to – Ilona Andrews hits the ground running. But it must be said, they owe a lot of the perfect pacing and wrap-up to ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ finale blueprints; particularly season 5 ‘The Gift’ and series finale ‘Chosen’. There was one moment in ‘Magic Triumphs’ that so perfectly harks back to season 5 episode ‘Checkpoint’ and Buffy’s epic power speech to The Watchers' Council (“You're Watchers. Without a Slayer, you're pretty much just watchin' Masterpiece Theater.”) I say this with the utmost respect that I could see these tendrils in Kate’s finale, because truth be told – nobody did season finales and big-bad arc wrap-ups better than ‘Buffy’ and that legacy carries over here to Kate’s grand finish to great effect.

I particularly loved that we got to touch-base with all the secondary characters we’ve come to love, and who populated Kate’s life to the point that those stakes became perilously high. A particularly lovely addition to the cast was a character named Yu Fong, who first appeared in Dali & Jim short-story ‘Magic Dreams’ and then later became part of Julie’s scholastic world in ‘An Apple for the Creature’ anthology short-story, ‘Magic Tests’. Yu Fong has long stayed with me and intrigued me, and I was so glad to see him become a player in ‘Magic Triumphs’ … it begs the question then; why establish such an intriguing character most fully in the series finale? Hmmmmm.

I would have also loved a Raphael and Andrea (and baby!) scene together, because I loved that couple. Ditto Dali and Jim (though we get a lovely sense of their future, even without the two sharing a scene physically). BUT … I am slightly wounded that a favourite character – teen bouda and bad-boy Ascanio – makes no appearance. He is alive, and well, and alluded to on a confusing number of occasions throughout … but he doesn’t get a single scene and it’s slightly maddening. The only thing that lessens this wound is a niggling suspicion that he has bigger things in store for the future; I do believe a lack of Ascanio and meatier role for Yu Fong were big hints of what’s to come.

As to that … I was GLEEFUL over that epilogue. Julie has felt like a storm gathering speed to become a tornado for a while now, and with that send-off cliff-hanger it’s an out and out confirmation from Ilona Andrews that they’re tucking her away for another day. I’ve no doubt that the writing-duo will concentrate on Hugh d'Ambray and his ‘Iron Covenant’ world for a little while (or not – maybe ‘Iron and Magic’ will be much like Andrea’s one-off ‘Gunmetal Magic’?) but I can see them having a little rest after their mad-cap ten-books-in-eleven-years publishing schedule, and any break could also act as time-passing for Julie’s character. Because – yes – much as I am ready for her to come riding back already, with Erra and a cast populated by Ascanio, Yu Fong, and especial concentration on Derek … Julie does need to mature, and the easiest way to do that is off the page where she can obtain some mystery and secrecy for readers too.

But it’s a testament to Ilona Andrews and the ‘Kate Daniels’ series that ‘Magic Triumphs’ is – wait for it! – SUCH A TRIUMPH that concludes so beautifully, but I’m also already desperate for them to keep carrying this world along. This tenth book walks a majestic tightrope of being both utterly fulfilling as its own entity, while also mouth-watering for the possibilities of Julie and more.

I will not begrudge Ilona Andrews a rest. But when you’re an author this good and so much at the top of your game, you’ve got to expect that your readers will be baying for more books. That’s the price you pay when you’re THIS DAMN GOOD – to end a series with such satisfaction, at the same time stoking the fires for more. Brava.


Wednesday, August 22, 2018

'Pestilence' The Four Horsemen #1 by Laura Thalassa

From the BLURB:

They came to earth—Pestilence, War, Famine, Death—four horsemen riding their screaming steeds, racing to the corners of the world. Four horsemen with the power to destroy all of humanity. They came to earth, and they came to end us all. 

When Pestilence comes for Sara Burn’s town, one thing is certain: everyone she knows and loves is marked for death. Unless, of course, the angelic-looking horseman is stopped, which is exactly what Sara has in mind when she shoots the unholy beast off his steed.

Too bad no one told her Pestilence can’t be killed. 

Now the horseman, very much alive and very pissed off, has taken her prisoner, and he’s eager to make her suffer. Only, the longer she’s with him, the more uncertain she is about his true feelings towards her … and hers towards him. 

And now, well, Sara might still be able to save the world, but in order to do so, she'll have to sacrifice her heart in the process.

‘Pestilence’ is the first book in a new romance series (yes, you read that right) called ‘The Four Horsemen’ by author Laura Thalassa.

Ok. So. This is a new romance series with alternating heroes, who happen to be the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Death, Famine, War, and Conquest. Though in Thalassa’s series, ‘Conquest’ is interpreted as Pestilence, and he is the first hero we meet – or rather, anti-hero.

I kept seeing this book crop up on Goodreads, and I admit – I enjoyed the juxtaposition of a very romance-y front cover with the title PESTILENCE in shiny gold font. I probably would have shrugged it off as a grab in bad taste, but then I saw the Goodreads star-rating of a whopping 4.08 with 9,464 ratings. Um. WHAT?! I had to know what this was about.

And, reader – I was shocked to discover that I LOVED every moment of ‘Pestilence’. I particularly loved imagining the author at a party, when someone’s all like; “Oh, you’re a romance writer! And what’s your latest book called?” And she’s just like: *sips martini* “Pestilence.”

Our heroine in this first book is Sara Burns who is a fire-fighter (I know, I know) amongst her station buddies, she draws the short straw to stay behind in her township and take-out the riding Horseman whose presence will immediately lead to death for everyone in the vicinity. 

So, let’s get something straight; the disease Pestilence spreads simply by projecting and visiting a town is less STDs, and more air-born black plague and influenza viruses. There are boils and pustules though, and it’s definitely a gross death – but at least it’s hands-free, right?

Sara does indeed attempt to kill the Horseman, but then quickly realises that he’s immortal and unstoppable, and PISSED at the attempt on his life and that of his ‘loyal steed’. He decides to exact revenge on Sara by keeping her alive and forcing her to journey with him, spreading death and destruction.

Ok – fair warning – Pestilence and Sara’s first stages of romance are anything-but, and involve her trying to burn him alive and then him tying her to the back of his horse and dragging her along asphalt if she can no longer walk. Yeah. It’s gruesome. And a big part of me (much as I weirdly enjoyed this book?) always wanted them to circle back to the genesis of their courtship, like; “Remember when I went Salem Witch Trials on your ass and you nearly tore my arms off torturing me? Good times.”

But trust me – the relations do improve. Greatly. And this becomes a very hot and heavy romance, that I can really only think to liken to Briseis and Achilles in the atrocious 2004 mega-movie ‘Troy’, when Rose Byrne and Brad Pitt smouldered on the big-screen playing conqueror and conquest.

I mean. Never in my life did I think to read the line; “Standing on the other side of the room, his hair still dripping from the shower, is a very naked Pestilence,” would make me sit up and take notice but there you go. Thalassa makes it work, and kudos to her.

I will say the groundwork for the ‘Four Horsemen’ as a series with alternating heroes is a *little* weak, but mostly because Thalassa has left the Horsemen so open to interpretation … Sara and Pestilence do talk about God – but Pestilence confirms it’s an all-being type thing, and okay’s referring to God as a woman too. The Horsemen don’t have names so much as purposes, and it’s a little unclear how long they’ve been on earth for (I think they’ve been here all along, but only made their appearance known recently?) but Pestilence also implies that his “brothers” are currently sleeping … I don’t know. What I do know is; I am intrigued. And I am already calling it, that Death will probably be the Zsadist-esque (from ‘Black Dagger Brotherhood’ by J.R. Ward) most tortured bad boy and fan-favourite of the series.

I am only a little bummed that there’s no release date yet for second book ‘War’ – because, DAMN am I invested in this series now and I am 1000% committed to this erotic extravaganza of a biblical apocalypse.


Thursday, August 16, 2018

'It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time' by Kylie Scott

From the BLURB:

Returning home for her father’s wedding was never going to be easy for Adele. If being sent away at eighteen hadn’t been bad enough, the mess she left behind when she made a pass at her dad’s business partner sure was.

Fifteen years older than her, Pete had been her crush for as long as she could remember. But she’d misread the situation—confusing friendliness for undying love. Awkward. Add her father to the misunderstanding, and Pete had been left with a broken nose and a business on the edge of ruin. The man had to be just as glad as everyone else when she left town.

Seven years on, things are different. Adele is no longer a kid, but a fully grown adult more than capable of getting through the wedding and being polite. But all it takes is seeing him again to bring back all those old feelings.

Sometimes first loves are the truest.

‘It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time’ is the new contemporary stand-alone romance by Australian author Kylie Scott.

Ok. So. Remembering that one’s romantic trope preference should never be shamed – no matter how niche! (hey, if The Shape of Water can win an Oscar we can all start respecting individual romance hot-spots, no matter how fishy) I am fully willing to confess that I love and actively seek out May-December relationship stories, in which there's a big age gap between the partners. Specifically, I like older-male and younger-female romances of this trope.

I don’t know why. Mine is not to question, but to read and swoon. But I definitely think that if I were to interrogate, it probably has links back to how much paranormal romance ushered me into the romance genre overall – Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight was really the first romance series I fell head-over-heels for, and it led me to Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse: Southern Vampire and Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series – all of which feature supernatural immortal or very much older heroes, falling for human (regularly-aged) women. I mean; Edward Cullen looks 17-years-old but is actually 107-years-old. And if we go one further, I guess the archetype for this trope is a little ‘Beauty and the Beast’, which is possibly my favourite Disney movie of all time (animated, not Emma Watson warbling)... and I guess if we're drawing parallels between men becoming grumpier, hairier, reclusive beasts as they age - then the tropes line up? Kinda?

In any case; May-December romances are my jam, and I’ve found some really great ones – like in all-time favourite historical-romance, The Secret Diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever by Julia Quinn which features a heroine in love with her best friend’s older brother, whom she has loved for most of her young life. I have also found some questionable stories, that I have still loved because I CAN’T HELP IT – like; The Surprise of his Life by Karen Keast, which is about a young woman in love with her father’s best friend and business partner, she confesses her adoration and is surprised to find it reciprocated. 

That last one is actually why I had an inkling that Kylie Scott’s latest stand-alone, May-December romance about a young woman who has been in love with her father’s employee-turned-friend-now-business-partner would be right up my alley. And I was not disappointed.

Adele (character named for one of my best friends, true story!) would visit her father in Queensland for six weeks of every year as a teen, since her parents’ divorce. Her father’s employee from the building business he runs was Pete, who’d hang out with young Adele – at first under the guise of scoring points and keeping barriers between him and the women he was casually dating (a kind of; ‘look, I’m such a nice guy minding the boss’ daughter, but also that means we shouldn’t do anything in front of her and OH, look at the time – isn’t it past when I should be ghosting you?’ type thing). But Pete and Adele ended up having a very buddy friendship, which inadvertently (on Pete’s behalf) led to Adele having a HUGE crush on him and telling him in the worst way possible at her 18th birthday party.

Fast-forward seven years and 25-year-old Adele is back in town for the first time since that terrible night, for her father’s wedding. She is begrudgingly staying with Pete on a purely platonic level because her father’s house is in full wedding-prep and storage mode … but old feelings resurface, and now that she’s of an age Pete is clearly in the hot-seat with admitting that he and Adele might have something.

I loved this book so much. I was 1000% right that it would be up my alley – and then some. This is Kylie Scott at her hottest, steamiest best – and it’s always a good sign when I finish a book, wishing there was another 100 or so pages. And hey, *maybe* this story could lend itself to a sequel? I’d definitely be interested to see what happened in the second-half of this evolving relationship, that’s for sure …

I maybe have a little qualm that it’s never precisely explained why Pete hung out with Adele so much as a teen, that they really did become best friends. It’s sort of explained as I mentioned, that he was using her to score points with the women he was seeing, but also as a barrier against anything more serious happening with them (he’d kind of take Adele on the ‘last dates’ with these women, so that it would remain purely platonic and hands-off so as to ease them into his dumping them).

I was waiting – horribly – for a moment when Pete admitted to 25-year-old Adele that he had totally fallen for her at age 18 (or – ick! – her17-year-old self back, in the day) but I shouldn’t have worried. This is Kylie Scott and she knows her shit around consent, and hot consent especially – not to mention power dynamics in romantic relationships. This moment NEVER comes, because Pete truly didn’t feel anything sexual or romantic towards Adele when she was a teenager. This part of their relationship totally evolves in the here and now, when she is of-age and has agency and you can feel the power dynamic has balanced between them. AMEN!

This book was hot, hot, hot and I loved every second of it. Brava, Kylie Scott – you have reinforced why this trope works for me, and why I still actively seek it out!


Tuesday, August 7, 2018

'Wicked and the Wallflower' The Bareknuckle Bastards #1 by Sarah MacLean

From the BLURB:

When Wicked Comes Calling...

When a mysterious stranger finds his way into her bedchamber and offers his help in landing a duke, Lady Felicity Faircloth agrees—on one condition. She's seen enough of the world to believe in passion, and won't accept a marriage without it.

The Wallflower Makes a Dangerous Bargain...

Bastard son of a duke and king of London's dark streets, Devil has spent a lifetime wielding power and seizing opportunity, and the spinster wallflower is everything he needs to exact a revenge years in the making. All he must do is turn the plain little mouse into an irresistible temptress, set his trap, and destroy his enemy.

For the Promise of Passion...

But there's nothing plain about Felicity Faircloth, who quickly decides she'd rather have Devil than another. Soon, Devil's carefully laid plans are in chaos, and he must choose between everything he's ever wanted...and the only thing he's ever desired. 

‘Wicked and the Wallflower’ is the first book in a new historical romance series – ‘The Bareknuckle Bastards’ – by bestselling US author, Sarah MacLean.

Sarah MacLean is already one of those ‘automatic-buy’ authors for me. Each one of her historical romance series has been better than the last, her books column in the Washington Post is *superb* as is her ongoing list of recommended romance reads. Not to mention her Twitter presence is *kisses fingertips*. But what really tipped this book over for me, from ‘automatically going to buy’ to ‘I NEED THIS BOOK IN MY LIFE’ was a column Sarah wrote back in 2017, ‘How Trump killed off my romantic lead.

She’s not talking about ‘Wicked and the Wallflower’, but rather ‘The Day of the Duchess’, final instalment in her ‘Scandal & Scoundrel’ series. But I do believe this revelation of writing romance (let alone historical-romance) in the era of Trump, has had wonderful ramifications on ‘The Bareknuckle Bastards’ series idea she’s now writing to – based around a family of illegitimate offspring, born to a cruel duke – who have spent their lives in the muck and mercy of the cutthroat Covent Garden, to become the “Kings” of that underworld realm of London.

But as MacLean wrote in that article, she no doubt had a dilemma while writing her first rough and tumble hero of the new series;

That hero? The one I’d lovingly crafted in that mold of masculinity that romance readers have loved for centuries? Sure, I had plans for him to see the promise of gender equality, but at that moment, I wanted him gone. This dude wasn’t just aggressively masculine. He was toxic. Indeed, I suspected he would have voted for Donald Trump. And I wanted nothing to do with him.

Suddenly, there was no promise that he would change. That hero — the one whom so many others in the genre have written for centuries, the one who grows into his awareness that everything is better with equality of partnership — he wasn’t enough. I wanted a hero who had that awareness from the start. I wanted an alpha feminist from Page 1.

Reader, I rewrote him.

I want to read that revelatory usurping of a historical-romance hero that I myself have loved to read.

And let me tell you, Sarah does not disappoint (does she ever?!) in ‘Wicked and the Wallflower’. This book is one that lifted me out of a months-long reading slump and dropped me right in the middle of a brilliant set-up to a fascinating new romance series.

There’s a level of ‘upstairs / downstairs’ to this tale, as the heroine – Felicity Faircloth – is desperate to be welcomed back as a sweetheart of the ton, until a rough and tumble Covent Garden ‘King’ named Devil makes her rethink everything she has ever craved.

The BANTER and dialogue in this book in particular is bar-none. But I also loved the little asides – a ‘proper’ heroine who is also mad for lock-picking (because she does not like doors being closed to her), and a dressing-down she gives the hero Devil when he dares suggest that how a woman dresses has a direct correlation to how inviting she is to men’s unwanted attentions. These little moments that tell me Sarah MacLean knows *exactly* where this historical-romance story sits in the modern-era, and she’s no intention of writing toxic clichés to appease any damn one.

I cannot wait for the next books in this series. The “underworld” of London that Sarah has set up – which isn’t the depraved, and gloomy setting we’ve read again and again – is beautiful in Felicity’s eyes, a place of freedom for women and made by the hard working-class men, women and children of London. It’s a place to thrive and one that welcomes change. It’s a wonderful fairground for these constrained heroines to break free, and their kind gentleman suitors to support them in their independence. 


Thursday, June 14, 2018

'My Oxford Year' by Julia Whelan

From the BLURB:

Set amidst the breathtaking beauty of Oxford, this sparkling debut novel tells the unforgettable story about a determined young woman eager to make her mark in the world and the handsome man who introduces her to an incredible love that will irrevocably alter her future—perfect for fans of JoJo Moyes and Nicholas Sparks.
American Ella Durran has had the same plan for her life since she was thirteen: Study at Oxford. At 24, she’s finally made it to England on a Rhodes Scholarship when she’s offered an unbelievable position in a rising political star’s presidential campaign. With the promise that she’ll work remotely and return to DC at the end of her Oxford year, she’s free to enjoy her Once in a Lifetime Experience. That is, until a smart-mouthed local who is too quick with his tongue and his car ruins her shirt and her first day.
When Ella discovers that her English literature course will be taught by none other than that same local, Jamie Davenport, she thinks for the first time that Oxford might not be all she’s envisioned. But a late-night drink reveals a connection she wasn’t anticipating finding and what begins as a casual fling soon develops into something much more when Ella learns Jamie has a life-changing secret.
Immediately, Ella is faced with a seemingly impossible decision: turn her back on the man she’s falling in love with to follow her political dreams or be there for him during a trial neither are truly prepared for. As the end of her year in Oxford rapidly approaches, Ella must decide if the dreams she’s always wanted are the same ones she’s now yearning for.

Okay, so - something about this book that I was not aware of until I read the author's letter at the back is ... 'My Oxford Year' is actually a novel adaptation of a film screenplay already in development with Temple Hill Entertainment, and *that* screenplay by Allison Burnett is the original source material. Whelan's is effectively a novelisation of a film, even though the film hasn't come out yet.

And, yes, I am very confused. Whelan goes into it a bit more in this Hello Giggles interview. 

It's even more confusing since it's not entirely clear if the film is technically still in-development? Sam Heughan (of 'Outlander' infamy) and Melissa Benoist ('Supergirl') were originally announced to star way back in 2015, but now there's really not a lot of information about the production, and it certainly seems like Sam and Melissa have dropped out - which, while disappointing for Heughan fans (who'd have gotten a kick out of him in this contemporary love story playing a character also called Jamie) is not that surprising and pretty typical for the fluctuations of Hollywood productions. BUT - it is a little odd that the novelisation of the film exists when it *kinda* feels like the film has stalled? Is ... is it still even a novelisation then, or just a novel? Again - more info on the murkiness of the film's fate is here at Fansided

Either way - what is clear is why Julia Whelan was tapped to write this book. She was an accomplished actress in her childhood and teens, even starring on a personal favourite TV series 'Once & Again' - before focusing on her education, and even studying abroad at Oxford. She was the perfect candidate to adapt a novel of this story about a young American woman called Ella, who is accepted into University of Oxford's Rhodes Trust - to study classic literature (with a focus on the romantics, naturally) 

On her first night in Oxford, while on a search for the perfect fish n' chips - she literally bumps into a suave and sexy Oxonian who splatters her in condiments and then tries to hit on her. Much to Ella's chagrin, the same sexy Oxonian is revealed the next day to be her new stand-in tutor ... the infinitely handsome Jamie Davenport, who comes with a fair amount of warning for a heartbreak reputation. 

From there we get a nice unfolding romance, of Ella being so sure she knows Jamie and his type - a real Romeo with a 'three date rule', and there are some epic scenes of chemistry between the two, while they debate prose and purpose of classic literature. And yes, eventually they fall into bed and decide to start a casual fling - casual, also because awkwardly wedged into the story is the fact that Ella is an up-and-coming politico back home, who has been offered to work remotely on a campaign for a congresswoman who could take out the next election. She only has one year in Oxford, so as to get home and being her new political position in Washington. 

I will say that after the initial *brilliant* slow-burn build-up of these two, who go from animosity to curiosity and were setting up such a sweet 'enemies to lovers' type trope, we suddenly get one clunky chapter written in Ella's third-person in which she whizzes through the last six-weeks of their intensely sexual relationship. It's literally a summary chapter where you can feel the pages flying off a calendar - just to rush us through six-weeks of them together. It felt very clunky and unsatisfying, but before I even had time to ruminate on the awkwardness - a bombshell hits the story. 

Now, this is the point that I don't think was really flagged in the blurb. Some people have pointed out that allusions to the book being for fans of Jojo Moyes ad Nicholas Sparks is hint enough, but ... the Sparks book being heavily hinted at is clearly 'A Walk To Remember' - which is from 1999. C'mon! And as for Jojo Moyes ... well, I wouldn't have classified her 'Me Before You' as a romance in the same way I feel 'My Oxford Year' has been (adding further confusion are endorsement quotes on the cover from romance author Jill Shalvis, and author Taylor Jenkins Reid). In any case - you can probably pick up what I'm putting down for you with these hints, but if you don't want to know more ... there be SPOILERS ahead. 


Jamie is dying.

He has a rare blood disease that his brother died from a few years earlier, there is no cure - only chemotherapy and stem-cell research to combat symptoms and try to elongate his life.

And yes, if you're getting heavy 'Love Story' vibes - the 1970 "Love means never having to say you're sorry" - tearjerker then, you'd be correct. And actually, at the back of the book in her author-talk section, Whelan points out that much like 'My Oxford Year' - 'Love Story' was an adaptation of a book by Erich Segal.

So ... I did not see this sharp-turn coming. And I actually found the second-half of the book with this tragic element really uneven to the gorgeous, heated set-up of the romance in the beginning. It didn't exactly help that Jamie and Ella's evolving relationship is condensed to one summary chapter that recounts their sexual shenanigans. But overall, I don't feel like I ever truly acclimatized to the change in gears once Jamie's terminal illness was revealed.

It didn't feel like a romance to me anymore. I will say the end isn't *tragic* - it certainly does not follow in 'Love Story' footsteps, so very technically it could still be classified as a romance, but ... I wasn't convinced or as smitten by the end, as I was by the meet-cute and build-up of the beginning. 

All in all - if this film ever gets made, I'll definitely go see it. And Julia Whelan - already a dab hand at audiobook narration - is clearly also a talented writer and storyteller, and I am eager to read whatever else she puts out. 

But 'My Oxford Year' was a little too uneven for me. As confused as its genesis is - as a novelisation of a film that may never exist - so too does the storyline feel discombobulated and disjointed from its romantic ambitions. 


Friday, June 1, 2018

'Never Greener' by Ruth Jones

From the BLURB:

The past has a habit of tracking us down. And tripping us up.

When Kate was twenty-two, she had an intense and passionate affair with a married man, Callum, which ended in heartbreak. Kate thought she’d never get over it.

Seventeen years later, life has moved on – Kate, now a successful actress, is living in London, married to Matt and mother to little Tallulah. Meanwhile Callum and his wife Belinda are happy together, living in Edinburgh and watching their kids grow up. The past, it would seem, is well and truly behind them all.

But then Kate meets Callum again. And they are faced with a choice: to walk away from each other . . . or to risk finding out what might have been.

Second chances are a rare gift in life. But that doesn’t mean they should always be taken . . .

‘Never Greener’ is a 2018 UK women’s fiction novel by television writer, Ruth Jones. Jones wrote the award-winning television series ‘Gavin and Stacey’, in which she played the incorrigible Nessa, and ‘Stella’, in which she played the titular role. ‘Never Greener’ is Jones’s fiction debut, the first of two novels sold off in a 10-way bidding war amongst UK publishers back in 2016.

Right. So. Fair-warning; this novel is going to be a problem for some readers. If there’s one universally problematic ‘trope’ in books – particularly romance, women’s fiction, or “chick lit” generally – that is despised, it’s cheating. There are scores of reviews on Goodreads, for instance, and tags denouncing a work if there’s even a hint of infidelity and designed to give plenty of forewarning to fellow readers. Well – fair warning – there is cheating in ‘Never Greener’. It’s there in the blurb and I am telling you, it happens within the first three pages … in which we first meet Callum MacGregor and Kate Andrews in 1985, when she’s a 22-year-old aspiring actress and he’s a married 39-year-old school teacher with two children, and one on the way. Yup. The hero cheats on his (heavily) pregnant wife within about five hours of meeting the young heroine – when Callum is helping out at his brother’s pub, and Kate comes in to work her first shift of a summer job.

The book leaps between 2002 and 1985 – describing Kate and Callum’s intense love affair when it first began (then ended in heartbreak) and again when it’s rekindled in 2002 after a chance encounter, when Callum is now in his 60s (still happily married to his wife) and Kate is a famous British actress with a husband and five-year-old daughter.

And listen, the cheating wasn’t an issue for me. It’s not a NEVER-EVER trope that I avoid. It’s certainly not the reason I disliked this novel… which was really more just about it being a muddled mess in need of a firmer editorial hand for the writer, whom I admire greatly for her television work, but found severely lacking in the novel-writing stakes.

Let me explain …

On the face of it, this sounds like a novel to slog through of hard-to-like characters making harmful and hurtful decisions. But I was okay with that, going in. After all, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s brilliant ‘Fleabag TV series showed us the bitingly funny and complex humanity behind “toxic” people and their self-destruction. Something of ‘Never Greener’ also reminded me of British drama shows that had explored infidelity thoughtfully, and from many angles. ‘The 7.39, starring David Morrissey for instance, and a David Tennant episode of ‘True Lovethat’s about a happily married-man bumping into ‘the one that got away’ and getting a brief, second chance with her. Both of these were examples of solid storytelling that didn’t reduce people down to ‘good’ and ‘bad’, but looked at the myriad ways we choose love, and exist within the ramifications of our choices.

And maybe that could have been ‘Never Greener’ too. It was certainly what I wanted. A David Nicholls-esque novel about the very adult mistakes that make us and break us, and that damages other people along the way – told with comedic flair, well-balanced drama and tender heart, from the woman who perfected it in two highly-successful TV series about the wonderfully funny complexity of ordinary people. Heck, Jones even has an endorsement quote from Jojo Moyes who romped this romantic quandary in ‘The Last Letter From Your Lover’! Alas … ‘Never Greener’ is not the novel I thought it’d be. It’s not even a novel I looked very much.

I had such high hopes for this book, and I did come away disappointed … but I don’t think I had unreasonably high expectations. ‘Gavin & Stacey’ was a solid British comedy; ‘Stella’ was a more blue-collar drama, but no less charming. ‘Never Greener’ though reads like someone who is very green when it comes to novel-writing.

For starters –it’s not just Callum and Kate we’re following in this tale. No, there’s Kate’s husband Matt and his best friend Hetty and Callum’s wife Belinda too … And we get *everyone’s* perspective with the omniscient third-person narration. We can even start a chapter following one person’s interiority, but when they make a phone-call to someone else, we’ll then get that person’s side of things too. It’s baffling that these basic fiction foibles weren’t edited and corrected, because they are confusing and quite clearly a TV-writing holdover (especially from Jones’ ensemble-cast writing) that she needed to be rid of.

And the really frustrating thing is that while we follow everyone in narration, that doesn’t actually lead to us learning more about any them. Kate and Callum between them make some pretty radically awful decisions in the spur-of-the-moment, but we only read the action, not the internal reasoning. So one moment Callum is refusing an attempted kiss from Kate, then while she’s on the phone to someone, Callum suddenly has a hand on her leg that’s creeping up her skirt…  it’s completely baffling that these moments are communicated in such sparse sentences (actually very similar to the directions of a script?) but never interrogated by the characters themselves, in the moment. It reads very much ‘Slot A into Slot B’.

This also means that unlikeable characters who are unlikeable for their actions remain so. Kate comes across like an absolute psychopath, and Callum reads like a middle-aged cliché. That their relationship is concocted of mostly sexual encounters on the page also erodes our ability to care about them … when they meet, Kate is a 22-year-old aspiring actress and Callum is 39 with three children, a schoolteacher. You’d think they’d have little in common – and because we literally only read about them shagging (or talking about how they’ll rendezvous to shag again) that’s certainly how it comes across (which further lends Callum to the cliché). Because of this they are – frankly – utterly boring. It’s a hollow horniness, if you will – of two dull people who are single-minded only in their own selfish desires for carnality. And it’s not well written sex either. Ruth Jones said in an interview with the Guardian that “the sex scenes were quite a challenge” and I can only think they were too hard, so she never actually wrote them. Because they’re not scenes – but summaries of sexual encounters. And honestly, they read like vague porn descriptions along the lines of “and then they shagged for 36-hours straight!”. Even when Kate and a 60-something Callum rekindle their romance, it’s straight back into the 3-hour long bonk sessions that are terribly erotic and wonderful – really! – we’re told. Callum not flagging at all. Uh-huh.

It’s a tough slog to read this unfolding “romance”, and certainly not a story about the nuance of affection and affairs (Ruth Jones is no Liane Moriarty, or Mhairi McFarlane – for instance – both of whom regularly unearth the murkiness of lust and love). In fact, the entirely of Callum and Kate’s intense sexual chemistry (we’re told) seems to be down to the fact that Kate is really really ridiculously good looking. Just really stunningly gorgeous. And Callum is a fit ex-Rugby man. Again – because we really don’t read them relating to one another as people, just the (summarised) very brilliant sex they’re having, it’s a real stretch to believe their fiery passion …

Another drawback of Ruth Jones never actually developing these characters is that with Kate in particular, it’s clear she’s trying to hint at something deeper and more disturbing going on in her psyche … but without a more realised internal monologue, we’re completely in the dark. Sure, we get some interesting interactions of Kate on set feeling the pressure of always being “on” and aware of people scrutinising her, but it’s a fleeting exploration of what drives this character.

I think part of the overall ‘Never Greener’ problem is … it’s telling the wrong story. Kate and Callum are boring. They’re humping lunatics, frankly (who are having the very good sex)  – with no redeemable or credible qualities. The only real character of interest is Callum’s wife, Belinda. A Welsh stalwart, her background is far more interesting (even how she and Callum first met, briefly hints at a more realised heroine than all of what we read in Kate!) and lends itself to an obvious re-emergence arc. Her husband has an affair with a stunningly beautiful actress who she then has to see on the telly in innumerable British dramas and then at the BAFTAs. Frankly, the actress in that scenario is not interesting – the wronged wife is the more natural protagonist for women’s fiction narrative – and given Ruth Jones’s background with ‘Stella’, it’s who I think would have been the more natural conduit for this story from her.

The timeline also jumps around quite a bit. We can go from Callum and Kate having a tryst at a Travelodge, to the next chapter is her back on-set and then she’ll recount how she got home … it flits and flies about, again – almost like Jones is used to on-set locations filling in the context with visual-cues, and not having to map her character’s whereabouts in timeline.

Now, I wondered if I was just being really harsh on this book – because my hopes were up? But then I read this Guardian books review, and I was relieved to find someone else who had the same frustrations; “Jones may have a good novel in her, but even her spark can’t set this soggy material alight.” Ouch. But – accurate.

Fair-warning too – there are no happy-endings here. There’s also no big ‘Fleabag’-esque climax that reveals real emotional and social consequences for the hurt caused prior, nor a sense of moving forward. It just kind of … ends. With a thud. And while the last 60 or so pages do have a better feeling of pace and urgency, it still all amounts to – well – not a lot, really.

I still believe that Ruth Jones has a few good stories to tell, that’ll come across in novel-form. But I think her publisher and editor need to help rid her of the lazy ways she seems stuck in TV-mode, to the detriment of these fiction attempts. Her star alone can’t carry a bad story, awkwardly told.


Wednesday, May 23, 2018

'Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World' by Michelle Scott Tucker

From the BLURB:

In 1788 a young gentlewoman raised in the vicarage of an English village married a handsome, haughty and penniless army officer. In any Austen novel that would be the end of the story, but for the real-life woman who became an Australian farming entrepreneur, it was just the beginning. 

John Macarthur took credit for establishing the Australian wool industry and would feature on the two-dollar note, but it was practical Elizabeth who managed their holdings—while dealing with the results of John’s manias: duels, quarrels, court cases, a military coup, long absences overseas, grandiose construction projects and, finally, his descent into certified insanity. 

Michelle Scott Tucker shines a light on an often-overlooked aspect of Australia’s history in this fascinating story of a remarkable woman.

So - full disclosure! - Michelle Scott Tucker is one of Jacinta di Mase's authors, and I work as youth-literature agent for Jacinta. 

Honestly though, I do not read much non-fiction, let alone historical-biographies. I just don't. So if I wasn't interested in this I just wouldn't have read it, and wouldn't say boo about it. The fact of the matter is, Michelle is a Jacinta di Mase client AND I genuinely thoroughly enjoyed this book. The two are exclusive :-) 

But I picked this one up (despite aforementioned minimal interest in the genre) because: 

1) - Even though it feels like we studied 'The First Fleet' and colonisation of Australia every freakin' year in primary school, I had no clue who Elizabeth Macarthur was. I really had zero knowledge of Australia's female founders generally. 

and 2) - the blurb had me so thoroughly intrigued: "In 1788 a young gentlewoman raised in the vicarage of an English village married a handsome, haughty and penniless army officer. In any Austen novel that would be the end of the story, but for the real-life woman who became an Australian farming entrepreneur, it was just the beginning." 

You throw Jane Austen out there, and I'm going to pick it up! 

And I've gotta say - 'A Life at the Edge of the World' 100% delivered for me, and I was so happy that I read outside my usual comforts and gave this a go. I truly found it to be such a nourishing, fascinating, and eye-opening read. Not to mention - it was just damn enjoyable, and easily one of my favourite books of 2018 so far. 

So, probably my last encounter with historical biography was my attempt at reading 'Alexander Hamilton' by Ron Chernow because of my HAMILTON the Musical and Lin-Manuel Miranda obsession. I got about 100 pages into that 818-page tome though, and had to throw in the towel. It was interesting but mired in minutiae I just couldn't pretend to care about. I will say though, that Chernow had a lot of documents and correspondence and just general first-hand pieces of information to wade through in building a picture of a man who did indeed; "Write day and night like you’re running out of time?" 

Michelle Scott Tucker has a slightly bigger obstacle in her way, in that her biography is largely built around Elizabeth's diary - documenting her marriage and voyage to Australia, and years in the established colony, and also her correspondence home. And as Tucker says early on in the book, much of Elizabeth's writing is tempered by her knowledge of an audience. She kept her diary, knowing full well it was an artefact she'd be passing onto her children so they'd have a keepsake of their life in this new land. Likewise, her letters home are slightly coloured by a wish to convince her friends and family (and put them at ease) that she and her husband John are doing fine and flourishing. 

But this biography, and indeed Michelle Scott Tucker's true talent - is in filling in the blanks, both logically and emotionally so. And you get this sense from her at the very beginning, when she goes over the fact that Elizabeth had a miscarriage during her voyage to Australia; 

Convict ship Scarborough was no place for a gentleman's daughter. Elizabeth Macarthur was cold, pregnant, and bone-weary. The Southern Ocean pummelled the ship with storm after storm and her soldier husband and infant son were both grievously ill. Elizabeth prayed. 
Somewhere on that roaring sea, exhausted by her nursing duties, and constantly pitched and tumbled, Elizabeth was 'thrown into premature labour, & delivered of a little Girl who lived but for an hour.' There was no one on Scarborough to help. No other women were on board, and the ship's surgeon was unlikely to have been sober, let alone skilled. We only know of the nameless baby's existence from a single line in a letter Elizabeth wrote to her mother, many months later. There is no record of a shipboard funeral, no record of where the small bundle wrapped in weighted canvas was delivered to the sea, and no record of Elizabeth's grief. All we have - all Elizabeth had - is that single tragic hour. 

Chills. And I knew I would be in good hands from the moment of that premise - and indeed, I was. 

Scott Tucker's empathy, interest and respect for Elizabeth Macarthur is so apparent throughout the book - it makes her story sing. I was actually surprised at the suspense created within the pages, but Scott Tucker masterfully leaves each chapter on a note of suspension and intrigue, and I did find myself rushing back to read. 

Scott Tucker also doesn't shy away from the inherent discomfort of writing about a 'founding family' of Australia, when ours is a nation of First Peoples and rightful owners. She navigates this aspect with the utmost respect and tenderness, and I was appreciative of the education she also gave me about our Indigenous historical figures - like Bennelong and Pemulwuy. As well as the (oft unheard of, because there were so few) positive interactions between colonists and First Peoples, particularly by those British who went to great lengths to learn from and about Indigenous populations - like William Dawes, who was an astronomer, engineer, botanist, surveyor, explorer, abolitionist and first person to record Aboriginal languages when he befriended a young woman called Patyegarang, who became his language teacher. And, yes, William Dawes sounds like a total spunk, his relationship with Patyegarang completely fascinating and sweet (but never improper - though one recorded phrase she taught him was; "Putuwá: to warm ones hand by the fire & then to squeeze gently the fingers of another person" and yes I SWOON!) 

I also loved that Michelle Scott Tucker doesn't try to impose a modern sensibility on Elizabeth Macarthur (who had really interesting relations with local Indigenous populations, but could still refer to them with the distressing disposition of a British invader) ... BUT, Scott Tucker does wonder if we can also judge Elizabeth by the company she kept - and funnily enough, William Dawes was a dear friend of hers, who taught her the stars. So there's that.

I rollicked through 'Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World' in a way I was never going to with Chernow's Alexander Hamilton biography. BUT - I think there is something of the Hamilton's to the Macarthur story, and certainly Michelle Scott Tucker's spirited writing of history is something I think even Lin-Manuel Miranda would applaud. I mean - the events of 'Hamilton The Musical' are going on while Australia is *just* being colonised. There's no comparison to story and narrative ... except that Elizabeth's husband (who was a bit of a moron, but whose heart seemed to sometimes be in the right place?) did LOVE a duel. And I genuinely think Elizabeth Macarthur and Eliza Hamilton would have got along like a house on fire as they commiserated over their brilliant but inept husbands who left the telling of history to the ladies and whose stories were, often, even more compelling than their famous husband's. Just sayin'! 

I really can't do justice to this book or Elizabeth Macarthur's extraordinary life! I can't even begin to tell you the ways Michelle Scott Tucker further elucidated on my abysmal early Australian history education, or the ways she bought this time and place to life for me. I love, love, loved this book and even if you *think* that historical biography isn't for you, you're guaranteed to love it too.