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Monday, April 19, 2021

'Last Night' by Mhairi McFarlane


From the BLURB: 

Two best friends. 

One missed chance. 

And a night that changes everything. 

Eve, Justin, Susie and Ed have been friends since they were eighteen. Now in their 30s, the four are still as close as ever, Thursday pub quiz night is still sacred, and Eve is still secretly in love with Ed. Maybe Eve should have moved on by now, but she can’t stop thinking about what could have been. And she knows Ed sometimes thinks about it too. Then one night, in an instant, all their lives change forever. And, as Eve learns she didn’t know her friends as well as she thought, she also discovers she isn’t the only person keeping secrets…

'Last Night' is the seventh stand-alone contemporary women's fiction novel from beloved Scottish author, Mhairi McFarlane.

A new McFarlane book is always cause for joy; although I still haven't read her 2019 novel, 'If I Never Met You' - I think because my tastes were so mercurial throughout 2020. 'Last Night' (also called 'Just Last Night' outside of ANZ-territories) is more of what devout fans and readers have come to love in her books; something I like to call "Macbeth's Jonbar Hinge for 30-Something's". Allow me to explain...

I always think of her books in terms this 'Macbeth' quote I love; "I am in blood stepped in so far, that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o'er.” And 'Jonbar Hinge' is the fictional concept of a crucial point of divergence between two outcomes. These two concepts are where Mhairi McFarlane books meet, to me. They're usually about a woman in her late-20s to early-30s whose life is not going ~great~ but she's too scared to make a change, until a change is made for her in some alarming way that causes her to move or be moved, and take up the mantel of her self-determination once again.

In 'Last Night' our hero is 34-year-old Eve who is part of a foursome best-friend group also consisting of Justin, Susie, and Ed - who've been friends since school. The only downside to this foursome is that Eve has been in love with Ed for the longest time, even though he's been in a 16-year relationship with the God-awful Hester, who he is about to marry.

Something of this reminded me of the brilliant British TV series 'Lovesick' and the relationship up's and down's of besties Dylan & Evie. So this was right up my alley - unrequited love, and best-friends-to-lovers tropes are so *me*! And even though I raised eyebrows at the SIXTEEN-YEARS of pining, and Ed's poor from in the past ... I did love this friendship group, and I loved getting to know Eve straight out the gate in the context of a pub-quiz with her besties. This lot are *funny* and I legit guffawed for pages.

I particularly loved the character of Susie - Eve's longest best friend - who had some killed lines, like;

My infatuation was Jez the premier weed dealer, a bedraggled River Phoenix lookalike at a neighbouring college with whom I'd had my deeply unfulfilling loss of virginity months prior. ('River Phoenix?! Canal Phoenix more like,' I can still hear Susie saying. 'Canal Pigeon.')

The first few chapters of the book are all about Eve's pining for Ed and a bullet-dodged one-night-stand she's painfully living through ... and then the McFarlane twist comes in - in the form of Susie's sudden death in a car-accident.

This sends the book colliding off into a wholly different and deeper stratosphere as Eve, Ed and Justin band together to organise the funeral - since Susie's Mum is dead, her father has dementia and her older brother is estranged and living in New York. It falls to Eve - who grew up with Susie's brother Finlay as a vague presence throughout their childhood - to reach out to him, and bring him home.

But then the story takes on another layer, when Eve discovers a secret about Susie that fractures their friendship, somewhat - even in death. It also has complications for their friendship group, right when the brother Finlay returns and his taciturn and somewhat menacing presence keeps Eve off-kilter. Even more so when she has to help Finlay manage his and Susie's father ...

I loved 'Last Night' exactly because it both hits all the usual McFarlane notes (aforementioned "Macbeth's Jonbar Hinge for 30-Something's") but also seems to go a little deeper than her other books - which often spin around one-that-got-away, cheating partners, lost jobs etc. In this, she's really examining grief and the audacity of finality, mixed with the ways that we can still find hidden-depths and secrets to those we've lost, that maddeningly keeps a conversation going but never finished. And there's the added layers of pining for Ed, while the brooding Finlay comes on the scene - all very much in keeping with the McFarlane formula.

Female friendships are always an important, if secondary factor in a McFarlane novel. So I think the added feeling of depth here, comes from the gut-punch of a lost-love in the form of a best female friend. A very unique and acute pain - to lose the keeper of that secret side of us reserved for long-time friends who've grown and seen all sides of us (or so we think).

I also love that this is a novel that runs the gamut of grief - including anger. There are times here when Eve is truly *furious* and has every right to be. At one point she says; I feel like Bette Davis, gene-spliced with a cobra. And - ummmm - that's my *JAM*, right there! That's my perfect woman. I love that McFarlane uses the characters of Ed and Finlay to have rather deep and meaningful's about The Nice Guy trap, and the toxicity of people who don't take responsibility for their actions. Here are the subtle ways that romance and women's fiction authors are advancing the genre, and having truly deeply important discussions with their readers - Mhairi McFarlane is doing God's work here, truly.

I will say; I thought the novel was a little top-heavy. The 'Last Night' of the title plays out over multiple chapters and a very funny, extended scene between Eve and a potential one-night-stand. And I totally get why - this is Mhairi McFarlane playing with the elasticity of time where grief is involved. Hyper-specifics that stretch a moment, and then the rush of grief like jet-lag that speeds things up. But I wished that we got balanced out in the book more, with a little extra at the end about Finlay and more scenes there. But that's always my wish in a McFarlane book; more time. More time with these characters I come to absolutely adore in just 403-pages. 'Last Night' is no different, and I already wish I was back to the beginning meeting them all again.


Tuesday, April 13, 2021

'Dr. Ruth Galloway Mystery' Series by Elly Griffiths

‘Dr. Ruth Galloway’ is a mystery-series by British author Elly Griffiths. It started in 2009 and is currently 13-books deep, with a 14th scheduled for release in February 2022 and according to a recent ‘Poisoned Pen’ podcast I listened to, Griffiths thinks it’ll be a few more books and then concluded in some fashion (although she also mentioned liking Ian Rankin’s style of setting aside his ‘Inspector Rebus’ series for a number of years, and returning to a much older and much-changed Rebus for a refreshed take). 

Dr. Ruth Galloway is the protagonist and she’s a forensic archaeologist at the (made-up) University of North Norfolk, with a specialty in bone excavation and examination. In the first book – ‘The Crossing Places’ – Ruth is drawn into an investigation by Norfolk’s own Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson, who thinks he’s found a body in the saltmarsh, but that turns out to be an Iron Age preserved corpse. Still, Ruth gets drawn into the larger picture which sees Nelson trying to find a missing child gone 10-years, and a more recent missing child likely connected to the first. 

This first case is already of vital importance to Nelson who has been haunted by it for these many years when he crosses paths with Dr. Ruth Galloway, whose particular way of seeing the past and digging up long-dead secrets seems to open up new leads and leeway’s in the case. 

Now, this is important because I want to drop a semi-big spoiler here when I say that by the end of that first book, Ruth is pregnant with Nelson’s child after a one-night-stand borne out in the heady aftermath of a crushing and gruelling discovery in the case. From here on in, Ruth Galloway and Harry Nelson become the main players in this series – it’s told in omniscient third-person, and though we mostly stick with Ruth’s POV we also get a fair chunk of each book told through Nelson’s eyes and those of his closest police officers – namely Dave ‘Cloughie’ Clough and Judy Johnson, so we can see various cases unfold at a closer level. There’s also a local Norfolk Druid called Cathbad who befriends both Nelson and Ruth, and others on the team, and also becomes integral to the series and entwined in the lives of these characters.

And of course, the whole series is tightly woven around the increasingly complicated relationship of Ruth and Nelson – who share a child. 

Nelson is married to his wife of 20-years, Michelle, and they have two teenage daughters – Laura and Rebecca. Though Nelson forthrightly admits in interior dialogue that he’s had two previous ‘flings’ before cheating on Michelle with Ruth, he realises fairly quickly that there’s something different about this encounter, beyond the obvious conception of a child together. Nelson is a no-nonsense Blackpool original who is from a bygone era of policing. He doesn’t have a lot of time initially for Ruth’s world of academia and ‘Guardian-reading’ outlook on the world. Furthermore – and as he (annoyingly) mentions repeatedly throughout the series; Ruth is not his type. She’s 39 when they meet (Nelson is a few years older), stubbornly single living on the edge of the saltmarsh in a stone cottage; she’s overweight and ‘untidy’ (which I secretly suspect is fatphobic code for personally ‘slovenly’?), doesn’t wear make-up and doesn’t care what people – men especially – think of her, and least of all Nelson. All of which he finds oddly, confusingly, enticing. 

Ruth and Nelson do become a focal point for the series, and this will – I warn you – both frustrate and delight. Griffiths, in trying to capture Nelson’s gruff and non-PC generational masculinity often devolves to comparing Ruth and Michelle on these binaries of “hot” and “not” – he and Michelle may have been married for 20-years, but Michelle (who is a hairdresser, and I suspect there’s huge trope and cliché playing here too) isn’t at all interested in Nelson’s policing, her domain is domesticity and beauty … but in Ruth, Nelson increasingly finds a force to be reckoned with, a woman who he finds funny and intellectually stimulating – not least when they’re working a case together. But a lot of time in the book we’re subjected to Nelson being constantly ~BaFfLeD~ at the thought of a fat, non-blonde and beautiful woman being of interest to him because she has a personality and he likes talking to her. Shock. Horror.

From book 1 when Ruth and Nelson’s baby in conceived to current book #13 – the series spans a decade, to their child growing to be 10-years-old, and in the forthcoming 14th book the timeline of the series will bring us into the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic raging around the world in 2020. Book 13 set in September 2019, even enticingly has Ruth at her University getting a lesson on “remote-learning” and the foreshadowing from a fellow lecturer warning that one day all classes could be conducted via Zoom-meetings. I actually love this aspect of the series, that the timeline is very closely packed and often-times one book’s ending will be the beginning of the next. And very occasionally we’ll get a leap-ahead by 2-years to mostly speed up relationship complications, or to age Ruth’s child. 

I do love this series for that too – for Elly Griffiths writing a most unconventional of female ‘detective’ hero in Ruth Galloway. Not just because she’s older, fat and otherwise living a spinster life (these characters abound, especially in UK-crime; just think ‘Vera’) but because she actively dismisses the thought of living with a man (even when she begins pining for Nelson and something more with him), she’s a woman repeatedly shown to have a healthy sexual appetite and who is not short of enthusiastic partners. All in all; she’s a refreshing read and savvy hero to get behind, even as her more celebratory aspects often cast an even more dubious light on her affection for Nelson (he who cannot fathom being attracted to a fat women he enjoys conversing with.) I also love that as she digs deeper into her role as single-mother, this too becomes an integral part of the sleuthing and crime-solving; juggling childcare and constantly worrying at putting herself in danger if she is the sole-provider and only parent for her child. 

I also like that Ruth presents a flip from the typical (and mostly American) convention of gruff older male heroes in crime-fiction, who inexplicably entice a bevvy of beautiful young women to their beds, despite being ‘slovenly’ and grumpy. Ruth is almost that archetype gender-flipped and it is surprisingly refreshing, even as it’s occasionally regressive too. Case in point is how she’s often pitted (in his mind at least) against Nelson’s beautiful, blonde wife Michelle – a woman who even her own daughter at one point remarks, has a tendency to brush hard topics aside and try to forget them, certainly not think about them. This is contrast to Ruth, who often remarks that it’s her job to excavate the past and constantly examine it – I much prefer to think of Ruth and Michelle in these world outlook binaries, rather than physical ones. 

I also think the series is incredibly clever for the way Elly Griffiths essentially takes one careless act – Harry and Ruth sleeping together during one night of shared misery, conceiving a child by happy accident – and then the rest of the series is essentially the repercussions and fissures of that moment constantly playing out and reverberating around Nelson and Ruth’s lives. This is crime – in a nutshell, is it not? One devastating act that has a ripple-effect on life in so many ways, and affects so many people. That is the basis of Griffith’s series, more so than Ruth’s forensic archaeology constantly being needed, is the fact that she will always be in Nelson’s life now, and he in hers. 

For this reason too, the series is frustrating. Because that fracture – in Nelson’s happy home-life, and Ruth’s seemingly determined singledom – resulting in a child they share together; that fracture existing and constantly teetering, is essentially what the series is built on. Fractures are arguably the basis of crime-fiction too; series in which we get to know and care for characters and want to see them safe and happy, that by definition would disarm the genre in which they exist and we love reading them in. I fear that Nelson and Ruth getting together in some amalgamation of a Happily Ever After might result in a Karin Slaughter ‘Grant County’-level rupture to trigger a restart. Because there are no happy-endings in crime, right? 

Well. I don’t know. Maybe Griffiths has built enough high-stakes that should Nelson and Ruth get together properly, Nelson’s world in particular would fragment and falter – he’d arguably lose a lot, to gain the love he’s seemingly craving more and more. I think it could be done, and I’ve certainly been taken in hook-line-and-sinker to this series to keep reading and hoping I’ll find it. February 2022 does indeed seem a long way away, and I miss Ruth and Nelson already after bingeing this series over one fortnight … I find myself desperate to get back to the lonely, liminal space of the saltmarshes in Norfolk, and Ruth’s cozy cottage by the sea. 


Friday, March 26, 2021

'The Crossing Places' The Dr Ruth Galloway Mysteries #1 by Elly Griffiths


From the BLURB: 

A child's bones are discovered on the windswept Norfolk marshes. Believing them to be ancient, the police call in Dr Ruth Galloway, forensic archaeologist. But this is no prehistoric grave. A cold missing person case has now become a murder investigation.

Dr Ruth Galloway is called in when a child's bones are discovered near the site of a prehistoric henge on the north Norfolk salt marshes. Are they the remains of a local girl who disappeared ten years earlier - or are the bones much older?

DCI Harry Nelson refuses to give up the hunt for the missing girl. Since she vanished, someone has been sending him bizarre anonymous notes about ritual sacrifice, quoting Shakespeare and the Bible. He knows that Ruth's expertise and experience could help him finally to put this case to rest.

But when a second child goes missing, Ruth finds herself in danger from a killer who knows she's getting ever closer to the truth...


'The Crossing Places' is the first book in UK author Elly Griffith's 'Ruth Galloway' series, which currently stands at 13 books with a 14th releasing in 2022.

I bought this first book *ages ago* from a secondhand bookstore, because I recognised the 'Ruth Galloway' series as one that fans of ‘Rev. Clare Fergusson & Russ Van Alstyne Mysteries’ by Julia Spencer-Fleming recommend as a similar-read. And the main reason I knew it was a similar-read was the establishment of a slow-burn romance between characters, just like in Spencer-Fleming's books ... which is personally something that I find I need in my crime-series in order to hold interest, and alleviate the darker aspects of the story.

So I've had 'The Crossing Places' sitting on my shelf for a while, and I only pulled it down because these last two weeks I've been in a real reading-slump and haven't been able to find anything that holds my interest. So I figured I'd go to my tried-and-trusted genre, crime-fic ... problem solved. Literally and figuratively.

Ruth Galloway of the series title is a 39-year-old forensic archaeologist and college teacher who specialises in bones. One day a DCI Harry Nelson comes to her office at the local university requesting her presence at a possible crime-scene, because they've found some bones ... very specifically they've found bones in the saltmarsh and peet has preserved them in such a way that they can't at first glance tell if they're thousands of years old, or tied to a missing-child investigation Nelson is currently involved in.

'Ruth Galloway' takes place at a fictional Norfolk area surrounded by saltmarsh (think of the Nine Lives Causeway and secluded Eel Marsh House, in the Susan Hill gothic novel 'The Woman in Black' for how this setting is pitched in Griffiths book too. Eerie and full of buried secrets.)

It turns out that the body Nelson has is indeed two-thousand years old and from the Iron Age. A truly extraordinary find for Ruth to document ... but she also becomes intrigued by the case that the imposing Harry Nelson is investigating, linked to a historic disappearance of another little girl 10-years ago.

So the setting for this book is truly brilliant - the saltmarsh and their sinking, glugging, muddy waters with the tide coming and going and buried forests in the ground is truly exciting and extraordinary, even more that Ruth has a house on the outskirts of the marsh and this desolate, beautiful landscape becomes spine-chilling fodder for the crime to unfold.

I loved the twists and turns of this first book, even as a few of the characters and their connections became slightly too-outlandish and convenient for me to fully believe. I did pick the culprit early on, but throughout the book and with the introduction of red-herrings and new suspects I did find myself second-guessing ... and that's not at all a bad way to be reading a new crime writer.

What did surprise me in this book is the Ruth and Harry connection. I was fully prepared for a slow-burn, maybe checking on fan-forums to see which of the 14-books I could expect some movement and action on the romance front ... so I was *shook* to discover that this relationship has a bit more kindling to it. And the many layers of complications it present by the end is pure genius.

But I think the main reason I am excited to launch off into this series now, is Ruth herself. No, I didn't love the many mentions of her being overweight (this is probably the part that read the most 2009 poorly aged for me; it's not even other people commenting on her looks, it's Ruth's internal dialogue about herself on occasions that I just didn't need). Harry for his part, matter-of-factly says that Ruth isn't his type and is indeed overweight, but it's the way she carries herself that has him intrigued. She doesn't need him, or anybody it seems - she's self-sufficient and confident and that absolutely is a lure for him and readers too.

I properly got into this first book and now I can't wait to dive head-first in 12 more!


Thursday, March 11, 2021

'Love Lettering' by Kate Clayborn

From the BLURB: 

In this warm and witty romance from acclaimed author Kate Clayborn, one little word puts a woman’s business—and her heart—in jeopardy . . .
Meg Mackworth’s hand-lettering skill has made her famous as the Planner of Park Slope, designing custom journals for her New York City clientele. She has another skill too: reading signs that other people miss. Knowing the upcoming marriage of Reid Sutherland and his polished fiancée was doomed to fail is one thing, but weaving a secret word of warning into their wedding program is another. Meg may have thought no one would spot it, but she hadn’t counted on sharp-eyed, pattern-obsessed Reid.
A year later, Reid has tracked Meg down to find out how she knew that his meticulously planned future was about to implode. But with a looming deadline and a bad case of creative block, Meg doesn’t have time for Reid’s questions—unless he can help her find her missing inspiration. As they gradually open up to each other, both try to ignore a deepening connection between them. But the signs are there—irresistible, indisputable, urging Meg to heed the messages Reid is sending her, before it’s too late . . .  

'Love Lettering' is a stand-alone contemporary romance novel by Kate Clayborn that came out in 2019.

This is one of those much-buzzed-about romance books that came out around about the same time in the same contemporary category (I'd say books by; Talia Hibbert, Lyssa Kay Adams, Emily Henry and a few others) there seemed to be a real up-swing in these books being read by mainstream readers, not just the romance community, so I *heard* about them but the ability to read as they came out just got away from me ... I've bought lots of those books, but they just sat on my shelves because I have to build up an inclination to read them and really feel like diving into one genre.

But I finally did, and - gotta admit - the first couple of chapters I really struggled. I can't quite put my finger on it, but in the opening chapter we're kind of dropped into this very awkward first meeting between hand-letterer Meg Mackworth and Reid Sutherland, a groom she once met and did hand-lettering for his and his fiancee's invitations, but the wedding never went ahead ... something Meg knew would happen instinctively (they were ill-matched, and it was blindingly obvious to her) to the point that she even wove in a cryptic clue and the word MISTAKE to the lettering type. Well, when we first meet them, Reid is confronting Meg with the hidden word he can now see, and she's trying to deny and deflect.

It's a really weird opening scene, because you're *just* meeting Meg and getting a grip of what she does (which - I don't know how many people know the in's and out's of hand-lettering tbh) and she's being obtuse and vague because she thinks she's in trouble. On top of the fact that it's pretty hard to be reading a book that talks a lot about type-face and hand-lettering but not actually *see* it. Especially this scene where it's a hidden-message within lettering?

This was actually a slight issue I had with the book overall. There's not really enough done, in my opinion, to communicate the hand-lettering aspects. There are a few instances where we'll get a type change in the text but I didn't think it was enough and reading descriptions of certain loops and brush strokes, kerning, etc etc. just left me cold? And, look - not the author's fault I am sure! I am sure Kate Clayborn was all; "I bet my publisher will be able to do something cool with the actual lettering in the text!" but they ... did not. Not really. Even that cover is (I am so sorry to say) God-awful for a book that's all about this really unique hand-letterer working out of Pake Slope who hates the twee commercialisation of her art-form, to an extent - and wants to elevate it. That cover. My GAWDY.

But that's really my main qualm and I recognise it's less with the author and story, and more with the presentation - which is on the publisher. But in a book about hand-lettering, the lack of imaginations in its presentation *did* impact for me. That's just a fact.

But this is a totally solid romance overall and typeface aside - Meg and Reid are incredible. I'd say Reid is on the spectrum, and he's very reserved and unsure initially when clearly he starts having feelings for Meg. Meg is a little scatterbrained by comparison, but that's also because - and we learn this throughout - that she has her own familial hang-ups, a pretty emotionally traumatic childhood, and current fractures with her best friend and roommate. But when Reid and Meg do get together, OH BOY! It is explosive and surprisingly (happily!) explicit and sexy. I was not expecting that, but I appreciated it.

Something else I LOVED in this book was New York. New York, New York is another character in here and especially reading this when I've been deprived of travel, it was a freakin' visceral delight! Reid and Meg end up walking all over Brooklyn and New York and go to little hole-in-the-wall restaurants, ride the subway and hang out in the park and it was like I was there, exploring. That was wonderful.

Overall this was a really solid introduction to Kate Clayborn for me, and I can't wait to read more from her!


Tuesday, March 2, 2021

'I Talk Like a River' written by Jordan Scott, illustrated by Sydney Smith


From the BLURB:

I wake up each morning with the sounds of words all around me. 

And I can’t say them all . . . 

When a boy who stutters feels isolated, alone, and incapable of communicating in the way he’d like, it takes a kindly father and a walk by the river to help him find his voice. Compassionate parents everywhere will instantly recognize a father’s ability to reconnect a child with the world around him. 

Poet Jordan Scott writes movingly in this powerful and ultimately uplifting book, based on his own experience, and masterfully illustrated by Greenaway Medalist Sydney Smith. A book for any child who feels lost, lonely, or unable to fit in.

Absolutely beautiful messaging, wonderfully and artfully told. About a boy who stutters, and what that *feels* like both physically and emotionally.

On “bad speech days” when his classmates laugh and the words won’t come out, his Dad collects him from school and they go to the boy’s favourite place - the river. It’s here that the father makes the connection that he “talks like a river”, the “whirling, bubbling, churning, and crashing,” river . But beyond that is also calm, beyond the rapids where “the water is smooth and glistening.”

It’s not just that Jordan Scott has provided a fabulous simile for young people to think of their speech patterns, but he’s portrayed a caring and patient father gentle with his son and the obstacles he’s got before him. It’s heartwarming and wonderful.

Sydney Smith’s illustrations are watercolour, with delightful bleeds and runs that mimic the water theme - and they’ve captured light on water play magnificently.

At the back of the book is a letter from Scott called “How I Speak” which details his own childhood - and adulthood - having a stutter, being “dysfluent” and how that’s apart of his identity.

This book is very special. I bought it for my nephew who is 3 and stutters, and will be beginning speech therapy shortly - I wanted to gift it to him one day if he needs it, but I think I also hoped for some insight into how I could help him ... and I know Jordan Scott gave me that within these pages.


Tuesday, February 23, 2021

'The Russian Cage' Gunnie Rose #3 by Charlaine Harris


From the BLURB: 

No.1 New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Charlaine Harris is at her best in this alternate history of the United States where magic is an acknowledged but despised power in this third instalment of the Gunnie Rose series. 

Picking up right where A Longer Fall left off, this thrilling third instalment follows Lizbeth Rose as she takes on one of her most dangerous missions yet: rescuing her estranged partner, Prince Eli, from the Holy Russian Empire. Once in San Diego, Lizbeth is going to have to rely upon her sister Felicia, and her growing Grigori powers to navigate her way through this strange new world of royalty and deception in order to get Eli freed from jail where he's being held for murder. 

Russian Cage continues to ramp up the momentum with more of everything Harris' readers adore her for with romance, intrigue, and a deep dive into the mysterious Holy Russian Empire.

'The Russian Cage' is the third book in Charlaine Harris' alternate-history urban fantasy series, in which the Holy Russian Empire rules over a portion of America after influenza wiped out a majority of US politicians and left a power-vacuum that was filled by the escaped royal family of the Romanovs.

'Russian Cage' picks up a little down the ways from second book 'A Longer Fall', after which our 'gunnie' (gun-for-hire, strictly protection not assassination) Lizbeth Rose parted ways with magical grigori Eli, who returned to the Holy Russian Empire and left Lizbeth in Texoma ('Texas') - even though they'd established a powerful romantic entanglement. Eli had family and business to settle back home, and that side of the country is tricky for Lizbeth to enter into - because she's a descendent of Rasputin, and her blood is of great value to the Tsar for healing purposes.

But it's no surprise that Book 3 kicks off with Lizbeth getting word that Eli is in trouble - imprisoned and accused of a crime nobody will reveal - and she promptly decides it's finally time to visit the mysterious Holy Russian Empire (which roughly makes up the entirety of California) to save Eli.

Now, my heart kinda sunk once I realised that a chunk of this book would be Lizbeth and Eli separated and following Lizbeth as she tries to break him out and save him. I get it, I get it - it's way more interesting if she has to navigate Eli's territory solo and raises stakes if his freedom is her motivator. But I've come to really appreciate the Lizbeth and Eli romance, and a big basic part of me just wanted to read them together again (I know, I know - stories need 'tension' and 'plot' and all that jazz!)

It is really interesting finally seeing the oft-spoke-about Holy Russian Empire through Lizbeth's eyes for the first time. The story is mostly situated in San Diego, and involves Lizbeth meeting Eli's family (his mother, sisters, brother and stepbrothers) and getting up close to the monarchy and high-society. She also gets to reconnect with her sister, Felicia, who is situated at the Grigori School where she's learning magic and also subterfuge, as becomes apparent to a fairly proud Lizbeth.

I did really enjoy this story, *even though* the Holy Russian Empire was kind of a let-down after being so built-up in the previous two books? I think it's mostly that the plot is very focused on political intrigue and savagery, so the scenery kinda passes us by? But also speaking of the intricate machinations of the plot - I also found some really Big Events just whizzed by me and it wasn't until characters were recounting what happened that I even realised where we'd moved to in the story? I think it's because lots of these finer-points happen off-page, and it's hard to keep up when there's so many major and minor characters that fill out the Russian Monarchy coming and going.

I am usually a big fan of Charlaine's ability to pace and build tension, but honestly and compared to the finely-detailed and edge-of-your-seat finesse to be found in her 'Harper Connelly', 'Lily Bard' and 'Aurora Teagarden' books (I will concede that sometimes 'Southern Vampire' plots were *a trip* ... especially during the damn faerie instalments) - I just don't have the same admiration for the crime and thriller details of the plot in 'The Russian Cage'. It's not working like a well-oiled machine, and I think it's mostly down to a particularly bloated cast and too many layers of off-scene political infighting. Which - to be fair - previously Charlaine has focused on small-town intrigue and very insular-type stories (even Sookie mostly dealt with low-level vampire bureaucracy of Louisiana, and tried hard to stay off the radar of the higher-ups). 'Gunnie Rose' is Charlaine trying to fold in alternate histories, reconfigured politics, and all playing out on a much bigger stage of how an unstable Holy Russian Empire fits into this new America - with Lizbeth as a possibly lynchpin amidst it all too. It's a LOT.

I will also flag that I kinda read 'The Russian Cage' assuming it was closing out what would be a trilogy. But as I got closer to the end I started thinking; "Hmmmm, feels like there's more to come," and then LO! - I check and there's a fourth book due now too, for 2022. Which makes me nervous. Because Charlaine Harris is notorious in many of her series for totally and tragically upending her protagonist's lives once they get a *little bit* settled. And 'Gunnie Rose' has been the darkest in tone of all Charlaine's series so far, so I'm not holding my breath for everything to continue to be smooth-ish sailing for all involved.

But, I am excited to see where else this story goes. There's a real trend now for alternate American-history Western Dystopia's (see also: 'Outlawed' by Anna North, and 'Upright Women Wanted' by Sarah Gailey) that I am *so intrigued by* and wonder if its a byproduct of the Trump era to imagine all the sliding-doors ways that America avoided catastrophe throughout history (certainly in Charlaine's series, the question of what would have happened if Russia had a foothold in America, and a deadly pandemic was mismanaged to the point of fracturing the United States is ... *pointed*. And she started this series in 2016, in 'Unfettered II: New Tales By Masters of Fantasy' Anthology!)


Saturday, February 20, 2021

'Long Story Short' Movie Review


Long Story Short 

2020 movie, written & directed by Josh Lawson 

When time-poor Teddy wakes up the morning after his wedding to discover that every few minutes he's jumping forward to the next year of his life, he must use every precious moment wisely to keep from losing the love of his life, and to learn to love the life he's losing.


Okay, just because I got back from the cinema *buzzing* about this movie and desperate to hype it, and even though this is not a movie-review blog, I am bending the rules oh-so-slightly because Long Story Short is in the time-travel romance sub-genre; which I hope everyone knows is MY JAM! 

The movie is about Teddy (Rafe Spall) who has just gotten married to Leanne (Zahra Newman) after a long period of dating and a snap-wedding spurred on partly by meeting a stranger (Noni Hazlehurst) at Sydney's famous Waverley Cemetery - who cryptically tells him to stop relying on "later" and live his life now ... Teddy proceeds to wake up one-year into his marriage to Leanne, not having lived one second of the 12-months but finding her 18-weeks pregnant with their child. 

Around about here I thought this was going to be a matter of; each time Teddy goes to sleep he'd wake up one-year into the future (Groundhog Day rules, kind of?) but no - a little bit of magic in the air and Teddy gets only a few minutes or hours before he's being pulled a further 12-months into the future. This way he has to quickly catch-up on all the ways his life is going off the rails; he discovers he wasn't even in his infant daughter's Top 10 first-words ('daddy' ranked somewhere below 'cat' and 'dino'), first he's in marriage-counselling with Leanne, citing his workaholic nature (made worse because he doesn't love the job, just the money). Another year and they're going through a trial-separation, and so on and so forth. 

Okay, so - on paper this movie has About Time feels, the fabulous 2013 Richard Curtis movie. I actually count that movie as a favourite and a constant re-watch comfort ... BUT - and this is a big call coming from me - I actually think Long Story Short is a better movie overall and way better at hitting the laughs and feel-goods. I also genuinely think it's going to age *brilliantly* (and not just because writer/director Josh Lawson made what feels like a conscious decision to never mention time by putting a definite context on the yearly jumps). 

I often sit through About Time and have to semi-cringe through the parts that haven't aged too well (Tim is actually pretty stalky-creepy if you really want to get down to it, and many have started talking about those aspects of the movie that never sat well, but are ageing particularly poorly. Colin Dray's; ''About Time' Is the Donald Trump of Romantic Comedies' probably sums it up.) 

Not so with Long Story Short - which also comes down to the fact that the lesson Teddy is learning throughout is very overt and hella relatable, especially when communicated by the gruff and manic charm of Britishman, Rafe Spall. It's much more of an every-man (or, person) predicament - and while as an audience we can see the pitfalls of Teddy's workaholic lifestyle, it can't be denied that we've all been in his shoes too. 

What else helps this film feel like a new breed of rom-com (and one we won't be cringing over in the years to come) is a truly wonderful and diverse cast. Zahra Newman as Leanne is dazzling, a person you can feel genuine remorse at the thought of losing time with her. Ronny Chieng as Teddy's best friend Sam becomes a poignant marker in a different way to Teddy and Leanne's romantic souring, and I loved seeing Chieng tackle a role with such duality. And It was delightful to see Dena Kaplan as Teddy's ex, Becka (I loved her in Dance Academy and will always be thrilled to see her on my screen!). 

The cinematography and filming locations are also *stunning* - I think it filmed around Manly (I don't 100% know; I just recognised a spot that Looking for Alibrandi filmed when Josie is in the car with her friends?) but it was all gorgeous and more than ever made me just want to pack up and pop to Sydney for a weekend. 

I went into this film almost hoping it'd be an Aussie About Time - but then having it wildly exceed my expectations, and even possibly knock that film off my spot of top comfort-watch! It actually though, reminded me more of late-90s, early-00s Australian romantic-comedies when it really felt like we were taking the American blueprint and putting our own mark on it, to make something better and deeper? Josh Lawson is in league with those Australian gems - I'm talking about Pip Karmel movie starring Rachel Griffiths, Me Myself I (1999) or Antony J. Bowman's Paperback Hero starring Claudia Karvan and Hugh Jackman. We were *good* at this - and in recent years it does feel like Australia has started remembering that fact (see also: Top End Wedding!) 

Heck, if I'm honest ... this is something lockdown and a trashfire year has given me, and all of us. A reminder that Australian movies - our art - are so goddam good. And you'd think that me (of all people!) wouldn't need reminding, but I did. Right now we're seeing - for the first time in our HISTORY - Australian movies in the Top 3 spots at our box-office (article here). And with Long Story Short having dropped on Valentine's Day - we're now Top 5 Australian movies at the box office, US content totally locked out (BOOYAH!) 

Long Story Short was so goddam charming and delightful. It was good for my soul, and I can't wait to re-watch it ... I also can't wait to tell more people about it, and encourage them to behold another new-era in Australian cinema; a more heartfelt, honest rom-com that won't be a guilty-pleasure in a couple years, but will rather stand the test of time (ironically enough). I certainly know that I'll be turning to it for a yearly comfort re-watch in the future, when it comes.