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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.


Tuesday, May 15, 2018

'Third Son's a Charm' The Survivors, #1 by Shana Galen

From the BLURB:

Ewan Mostyn thinks a job as a duke's daughter's bodyguard will be easy—but Lady Lorraine has a few tricks up her sleeve that spark an undeniable passion.

Fiercely loyal to his friends and comrades, Ewan Mostyn is the toughest in a group of younger sons of nobility who met as soldiers and are now trying desperately to settle back into peaceful Society. Ewan trusts his brawn more than his brains, but when he's offered a job watching the Duke of Ridlington's stubbornly independent daughter, he finds both are challenged.

Lady Lorraine wants none of her father's high-handed ways, and she'll do everything in her power to avoid her distressingly attractive bodyguard—until she lands herself in real trouble. Lorraine begins to see Ewan's protectiveness in a new light, and she can only hope that her stoic guardian will do for her what he's always done—fight for what he wants.

‘Third Son's a Charm’ is the first book in a new historical romance series called ‘The Survivors’ by Shana Galen.

So I heard about this book because Kirkus gave it, and the second book a star-review. Admittedly, Kirkus is not exactly a leader in the romance book review stakes, but I really responded to their positivity for the series and when my local independent bookshop had BOTH copies in-stock, I saw it as a sign.

It took me about 24-hours to read the first book, and I absolutely LOVED it.

In short, the entire series is about this band of soldiers who fought together in an elite and unique military unit during the Napoleonic wars – unique, because they were all seen as “expendable” men of nobility (third sons, illegitimate heirs etc.). Originally there were some 30 odd soldiers in the unit, but only 12 survived – and are now notorious for their heroics and epic feats of survival. But now the men are living in ‘peace time’ and each in their own ways, are struggling to adjust to the real world.

Ewan Mostyn was nicknamed ‘the protector’ of the group – for his tough warrior-like focus and bullishness when it came to protecting his friends and comrades. Now that Ewan is out of the army though, he’s back to feeling like a failure. The rejected third son of his father, the Earl of Pembroke, because of Ewan’s various academic and life failures. You see, Ewan has a learning disability – he presents as dyslexic, but in 1816 is just labelled a ‘lackwit’ and an ‘idiot’. A brute who’s only good for knocking heads together.

That is until the Duke of Ridlington makes Ewan a proposal he can’t refuse. To guard the Duke’s wayward daughter, Lady Lorraine, who has her heart set on eloping with a young noble who’s merely after her dowry. A young noble who happens to also be Ewan’s conniving cousin – and childhood tormentor, who first made Ewan feel insecure and unwanted for his learning disabilities. So Ewan readily accepts the job of bodyguard … but he didn’t expect Lady Lorraine to be so spirited, curious and loving. Or that he’d find himself feeling safe and wanted for the first time in his life when he comes into her orbit.

I cannot recommend this book – and the entire series concept – enough! I love, love, loved it. Not least because it’s an example of progressive historical romance in so may ways. It’s very much indicative of the conversations that the romance genre has been having for a while now – around ‘hot consent’ and simply acknowledging that it’s a genre that has to appeal to modern women. As such – Lady Lorraine is a sex-positive and curious heroine, who challenges the double-standard between men and women in society when it comes to sex and experimentation outside of marriage. Ewan’s learning disability is handled with tenderness and understanding. And the overall series concept of military men trying to assimilate to peace-time is a complex and thoughtful one that I very much look forward to seeing play out over the course of the series.

Also – it’s hot! Ewan and Lorraine’s journey from mutual respect to friendship and then attraction is a beautifully paced build-up, and Lorraine’s vocal curiosity about her carnal desires means it’s a very equal coupling and coming together.

I would say Shana Galen’s ‘The Survivors’ is essential reading for anyone who is curious about, or considers themselves to be an aficionado of the historical romance genre. It’s bloody marvellous!


Tuesday, May 1, 2018

'The Prince and the Dressmaker' by Jen Wang

From the BLURB:

Paris, at the dawn of the modern age:

Prince Sebastian is looking for a bride—or rather, his parents are looking for one for him. Sebastian is too busy hiding his secret life from everyone. At night he puts on daring dresses and takes Paris by storm as the fabulous Lady Crystallia—the hottest fashion icon in the world capital of fashion!

Sebastian’s secret weapon (and best friend) is the brilliant dressmaker Frances—one of only two people who know the truth: sometimes this boy wears dresses. But Frances dreams of greatness, and being someone’s secret weapon means being a secret. Forever. How long can Frances defer her dreams to protect a friend? Jen Wang weaves an exuberantly romantic tale of identity, young love, art, and family. A fairy tale for any age, The Prince and the Dressmaker will steal your heart.

‘The Prince and the Dressmaker’ is a YA graphic novel released in February 2018, written and illustrated by Jen Wang.

Prince Sebastian is 16 and feeling the weight of a soon-to-be Kingdom on his shoulders. Frances is also 16 and a seamstress with dreams of wild dress designs to grace fashion runways and stages.

One day Frances designs a wildly inappropriate and fabulous dress for a socialite that lands her on the gossip pages – and out of a job. But Sebastian is enamoured of her design and has a proposition for her – to become his private dressmaker. Because Sebastian has two sides … one is a dutiful Prince, currently appeasing his parents by meeting eligible princesses to potentially marry. The other side of him, however, craves luxurious fabrics and fabulous outfits that transform Sebastian into the flame-haired Lady Crystallia. Nobody knows his secret, except private secretary Emile – and now Frances. Who agrees to become his very private designer and dressmaker, and together they’ll be the talk of the town.

‘The Prince and the Dressmaker’ is a subversive fable – a gender fluid celebration encouraging an embracing of ones true selves. I love that this YA graphic novel exists, and is telling such a complex but necessary story. That there’s also a romance in here between Sebastian and Frances, a gentle and yet bracingly uncomplicated unfolding, is also something to truly admire.

And I did really enjoy reading this, but I didn’t love it the way I wanted to. One aspect that I wanted amplified was the dress styles portrayed – a lot of them looked like somewhat ho-hum Disney Princess styling’s, and I was more hoping for Disney-meets-Lady-Gaga with the volume turned up to 150.

The other aspect I thought was just a little too gentle was Sebastian’s secret reveal. The fallout didn’t feel big enough for the pacing, like it wasn’t enough of a ‘Sebastian at his lowest point’ to properly meld with the dramatic finale.

At the back of the book, Jen Wang reveals that her original idea for the story had Frances and Sebastian as adults, before she changed her mind and thought telling this for a teen audience would be more powerful. I agree – I absolutely think this graphic novel being YA is impacting and meaningful for a readership that needs more nuance in all diverse tales. But seeing the rough sketches of the characters as adults, and the barest hint of something more tantalisingly sexual and lustful … I think that could have amped the story up even more, and would have benefited from it. And I’ve no doubt I also think this because I have recently discovered the joys of adult comic book publisher, Iron Circus Comics – via the very romantic and erotic, 'Letters For Lucardo' by Noora Heikkilä.

So, yes – I enjoyed this graphic novel. But I would have loved everything to be more drama and just amped up a little. From the dresses to the fallout, I’d have loved just … MORE!


Tuesday, April 17, 2018

'Burn Bright' Alpha and Omega #5 by Patricia Briggs

Received from the Publisher 

From the BLURB:
Mated werewolves Charles Cornick and Anna Latham face a threat like no other - one that lurks too close to home . . .

They are the wild and the broken. The werewolves too damaged to live safely among their own kind. For their own good, they have been exiled to the outskirts of Aspen Creek, Montana. Close enough to the Marrok's pack to have its support; far enough away to not cause any harm.

With their Alpha out of the country, Charles and Anna are on call when an SOS comes in from the fae mate of one such wildling. Heading into the mountainous wilderness, they interrupt the abduction of the wolf - but can't stop blood from being shed. Now Charles and Anna must use their skills - his as enforcer, hers as peacemaker - to track down the attackers, reopening a painful chapter in the past that springs from the darkest magic of the witchborn...

Burn Bright’ is the fifth instalment in Patricia Brigg’s urban fantasy series ‘Alpha & Omega’, a spin-off to her ‘Mercy Thompson’ series.

I thoroughly enjoyed this latest book in Charles and Anna’s story, and I’m so glad because I haven’t been on the greatest reading streak with Patricia Briggs lately ... I was pretty “meh” on the last ‘Alpha & Omega’ book from 2015, ‘Dead Heat’ and thoroughly unimpressed with Mercy’s from last year, ‘Silence Fallen’. But Briggs is one of my favourite authors, and this is one of the few urban fantasy series that I’ve loyally stuck with, when others have fallen by the wayside – so I always feel a little discombobulated when I’m dissatisfied with my once-every-two-years dose.

‘Burn Bright’ follows on from the events of ‘Silence Fallen’ – when Mercy was kidnapped, and werewolf Marrok Bran left his Aspen Creek home to help with her rescue mission. When ‘Burn Bright’ begins, Charles has been left in charge of his Da’s pack for a month, acting as pack leader – and it’s all going relatively smoothly, until he receives word that some of the pack’s wildling werewolves are in trouble in the Montana mountains, seemingly being hunted by a covert operation for purposes unknown …

All of Patricia Brigg’s books are whodunits, that’s a given. But I find myself tending to favour those that stick close to home – both in the ‘Alpha & Omega’ series, and ‘Mercy Thompson’. So I was really happy that ‘Burn Bright’ takes place entirely in Aspen Creek, and reveals more than any other instalment about Bran’s werewolf pack and operations. I just tend to find that Briggs is less likely to go off on unnecessary tangents, introducing superfluous secondary characters and settings we have no connection to (as indeed, I thought she did in ‘Dead Heat’ with a trip to Arizona). ‘Burn Bright’ is brilliant twofold, not only because it’s firmly grounded in Aspen Creek and works to pull readers into the Marrok’s ordering of his werewolf pack – but also because the entire ‘whodunit’ mystery is centred in that pack, and builds upon the relationships with many established secondary characters … like Bran’s mate Leah, and the Moor, Asil.

The mystery in ‘Burn Bright’ is such a good one, and I was buoyed to see a hint of potential to build a bigger bad-guy arc around it in coming books. If that is the case, I certainly have more faith that this could give readers the layers and subterfuge lacking from the fae/Greylords build-up across both series in recent years …

So the plot in ‘Burn Bright’ worked for me, in a way that the last couple of Briggs books hadn’t been. This one felt very tightly plotted, and like it was serving a wider series purpose overall.

The character-building in this instalment though, was sometimes a tantalising mix of too much, and not enough.

For one thing, with Bran not around in this book – it gave Charles and Anna a chance to talk out some things about the Marrok that certainly Anna probably wouldn’t have felt comfortable airing, had he been closer to the pack bonds. In particular, Anna drops some bombshells regarding her observances of Bran and his feelings towards Mercy, which … BLEW MY FREAKIN’ MIND, and then blew it again when Charles conceded her point and agreed with her. This was … I was shook, people. I had never thought of Bran and Mercy in that context (no, not even after the reveal in ‘Silence Fallen’, which now also takes on new meaning – not to mention a certain conversation that Adam and Mercy had early on in the series, about Adam doing the Marrok’s bidding in watching over her) so this was just a whole lot of revelations coming thick and fast and then just left to sit, simmering on readers minds, probably until the next ‘Mercy Thompson’ book most likely (March 2019, for anyone who is counting down).

These revelations also made me yearn, more than ever, for Bran to get his own spin-off. But I think Briggs has repeatedly nixed that idea, citing that he’s just too commanding a presence and would overwhelm any book. But still – Briggs threw these big character reveals about him out there, and now I kinda want her to pick them up and run with them.

But ‘Burn Bright’ also stumbles somewhat with continuing to advance Charles and Anna’s relationship, and in highlighting how loving one another is changing them, for the better. Charles briefly mentions Anna’s restlessness at not knowing what to do with her life. Seeing as werewolves are very hard to kill and can live immortal (or – more likely with all that could try and kill them – at least hundreds of years) it helps if a person can figure out what they’d like to do with all that time on their hands. Charles mentions Anna half-heartedly looking into finishing her music studies, and Bran offering to help them look into adoption … this particular aspect is key, since past books have given readers Anna’s interiority and desire for children (possibly even in defiance of Charles, similar to how his own mother sacrificed herself to have him). I totally accept Charles’ assessment that Anna isn’t the sort of person to feel restless and think that a child will solve all her problems of self – but I still feel like that aspect of Charles and Anna’s relationship (foreshadowed really, by the story of Charles’s mother) will have to come around again, and ‘Burn Bright’ might have been the book to continue laying that groundwork …

But, honestly, these are minor quibbles about Anna and Charles and their relationship. Overall, ‘Burn Bright’ is one of the best Briggs instalments in recent memory. Tantalising character tid-bits are dropped, secondary characters advance in my estimation and a whodunit to sink your teeth into make this a stellar instalment.


Wednesday, April 11, 2018

'The Upside of Unrequited' by Becky Albertalli

From the BLURB:

Seventeen-year-old Molly Peskin-Suso knows all about unrequited love-she's lived through it twenty-six times. She crushes hard and crushes often, but always in secret. Because no matter how many times her twin sister, Cassie, tells her to woman up, Molly can't stomach the idea of rejection. So she's careful. Fat girls always have to be careful. Then a cute new girl enters Cassie's orbit, and for the first time ever, Molly's cynical twin is a lovesick mess. Meanwhile, Molly's totally not dying of loneliness-except for the part where she is.

Luckily, Cassie's new girlfriend comes with a cute hipster-boy sidekick. Will is funny, flirtatious, and just might be perfect crush material. Maybe more than crush material. And if Molly can win him over, she'll get her first kiss and she'll get her twin back. There's only one problem: Molly's coworker, Reid. He's an awkward Tolkien superfan, and there's absolutely no way Molly could fall for him. Right?

‘The Upside of Unrequited’ was Becky Albertalli’s 2017 follow-up to her massively popular YA contemporary debut, ‘Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda’ (which I loved!)

I did not read this book when it first came out, but having recently seen a preview screening of the ‘Love, Simon’ adaptation which was *amazing* (and easily makes the Top 5 YA Adaptations of all time!), and what with ‘Leah on the Offbeat’ coming out next month, I thought I’d catch up on my Albertalli reads.

But I did not love this book. I did not hate it. I did not love it. I am fairly indifferent to it, overall. And I do know that some people are crazy about this story, and Molly Peskin-Suso’s quest to break her streak of crushes by getting her first kiss and boyfriend … and that’s wonderful. But this book just left me so lukewarm.

The novel has a backdrop of the legalization of gay marriage in the U.S. Molly and her sister Cassie, plus baby brother Xavier, are the children of two mums – Nadine and Patty. Cassie is also a lesbian, embarking on her first real relationship with the lovely Mina. Molly, meanwhile, has experienced 27 crushes in her lifetime and no romantic reciprocation (or so she thinks). The meeting of two boys – Mina’s friend Will, or her new co-worker Reid – sets Molly on a path to figuring herself out, and learning to love the body she’s in.

While reading this rather slow-burn of a contemporary YA, I did think how much goodwill Albertalli may have racked up with her wildly popular ‘Simon vs.’ – as well as how much more patience readers seemingly have for US authors of “quiet” YA. I personally love “quiet” contemporary novels – it’s a term used for anything that doesn’t have a rollicking action plot and is family or friendship focused, often with a lot of interiority – all of which, ‘The Upside of Unrequited’ has. It’s all from Molly’s perspective, and seeing as she’s particularly hung up on her body-image there is a lot of internal angst and anxiety (which she also takes medication for). Molly doesn’t just narrate events as they unfold, she tends to pick them apart, dissect and stress over them – it’s a very tightly-wound narrative voice to be stuck with.

It’s also a book that meanders for a while before figuring out its due-course. There’s no build-up to the moment of legalization of gay marriage in the U.S., it comes on page 85 of this 336-page book and catches all the characters off-guard and as a total surprise. But once it’s legalized, that becomes the end-point and building climax to the plot – when Molly’s mums decide to get hitched and throw a big party/wedding in their backyard. But before those goal-posts are established, it really is 84-pages of meandering through Molly’s teen angst as she watches Cassie’s new romance unfold, and deals with her feelings of inferiority and perhaps, increasing inconsequentially in Cassie’s life.

I just could not shake this feeling that, had ‘Upside’ been written by an Australian author – readers would have been a lot less forgiving of the meandering, and the while it takes for Molly and Albertalli to figure out where they’re going. But for me, it firmly remained a novel of low-stakes, and that was tough to slog through.

It must be said though, that the novel does have a cast of diverse and inclusive characters … and no wonder, when Albertalli made it abundantly clear in interviews that she owes a lot to the sensitivity readers who helped shape this cast. I will just say that even though the characters were clearly written with the utmost respect to their various backgrounds, I did not care about them. They were rather anaemic props, to me. And sometimes Albertalli’s grab for “teachable moments” made me wince – like at the wedding, when Molly and Cassie’s often un-PC grandmother apparently makes this faux pas;

Cassie wanders over to meet us. “So, I just had the best conversation with Grandma.” 
She grimaces, and I laugh. 
“Grandma has just informed me that when a bisexual woman marries another woman, she becomes a lesbian.” 
“Oh no,” Olivia says. 
“And I’m like … Grandma, just no. No. Infinite side-eye.”

For me, I just felt like quite a few of the characters became conduits for these sorts of not-so-subtle lessons in wokeness.

The shining point of the novel for me though, was Molly’s romance. Less her does-he-or-doesn’t-he-like-me with Mina’s friend Will, but the slow-burn and then instant ignition with Reid, her ‘Lord of the Rings’ obsessed co-worker. Their attraction led to some nice moments of clarity for Molly, and some pretty hot make-out sessions … and it was in these moments that I read Albertalli loosening up as a writer, and really letting go and allowing her characters’s instincts to lead scenes, rather than any social-messaging she wanted to engineer.

Overall I still think ‘Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda’ is one of the most perfect slices of contemporary YA written in recent memory. I am ridiculously excited for ‘Leah on the Offbeat’ and, for me personally, I am just going to pretend like ‘The Upside of Unrequited’ didn’t really happen.