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Tuesday, July 27, 2021

'Victorian Rebels' series review, by Kerrigan Byrne

From the BLURB: 

A young woman kidnapped by the villain who may be her long-lost love.

The actress who falls for the assassin hired to kill her.

The English governess who tames the wild Highlander widower.

The Victorian Rebels are most dangerous blackguards of society. They answer to no one and relish in their rebellion. But for the women who lay claim to their souls, their stoic fierceness is what makes these heroes so dark, and what makes their heroines want them like no other, in these three stunning historical romance novels from Kerrigan Byrne.

‘Victorian Rebels’ is a historic romance series written by Kerrigan Byrne and consisting of seven instalments (the last of which triggered a spin-off series called ‘Goode Girls Romance’). The series began in 2015, and there’s rumours of another instalment to come – but so far the last official book released in 2019, at which point Byrne began work on the spin-off and a new his-rom trilogy, ‘Devil You Know’. 

I started reading ‘Victorian Rebels’ at the start of my state, Victoria’s (ha!), fourth lockdown and I finished by the time we were coming out of our fifth. And I totally reached for these books because I needed comfort-reads, and that for me is dipping into a good historical-romance backlist with plenty of books to sink me into. I also gravitated towards Byrne’s ‘Victorian Rebels’ because I really loved her (now completed) ‘Devil You Know’ trilogy, and something about her writing notorious “villain” heroes reminded me of Sarah MacLean’s ‘Bareknuckle Bastards’ series, which I’ll maintain is a good similar-read to Byrne. 

I will say the main difference between MacLean and Byrne’s books though, is that while MacLean enjoys playing around with class and social stratification in her historical romance, and has been working hard at writing more nuanced male characters (something she speaks about with brilliant clarity; ‘How Trump killed off my romantic lead’), Byrne is not doing that. And that’s okay! She’s stuck to writing fairly brutish, thuggish Victorian-era men who also totally have layers, injuries, trauma, and deep affection to boot – but they do read *slightly* outdated for the conversations romance authors and readers have been having of late (and – totally worth acknowledging that Byrne’s series began pre-Trump, in 2015!). I’ll just say, the romance reading community has been having these long conversations about how we’re no longer into bodice-rippers and kidnapped heroines (there’s even a book about this; ‘Beyond Heaving Bosoms’) but that’s a recurring plot-point in ‘Victorian Rebels,’ to the point that it’s eventually spoken about with some joviality and in-joke repartee. 

All that aside; I still found this to be an enjoyable series, with more ups than downs! We start out the gate strong with London underworld figure Dorian Blackwell – ‘the Blackheart of Ben More’ – kidnapping the Scotland yard clerk, Farah, presumably for nefarious purposes that eventually unravel to reveal that Farah and the Blackheart actually have a past that unites them … that past is what the series hinges on; as we learn that Dorian Blackwell was in Newgate Prison as a teenager, and befriended a ragtag group of abused fellow young inmates, until they formed a kind of gang to protect each other. This gang become the leading adult men of the series, with two deviations. 

I’ll admit that book two ‘The Hunter’ dipped for me because the male lead – Argent, an assassin – had a really traumatic backstory in Newgate that I found really hard to read about, even as his romance with a London stage-actress he’s sent to kill (but ends up – yup! – kidnapping and saving) ended up in a decent place. 

I was a much bigger fan of ‘The Highlander’ which is the first kind of deviation from the Newgate Prison group, and instead a tenuous “bastard half-brother” story is interjected to loosely connect them … this was by far my favourite book in the series, even as the male lead, Lieutenant Colonel Liam MacKenzie totally exhibited gross alpha behaviour on occasion – I liked this one for the heroine, ‘Mena’ – who is from the aristocracy but thrown into an “insane asylum” by her peerage husband (as an aside; Kate Moore has just written a fantastic biography about this subject; ‘The Woman They Could Not Silence’) and there’s a lot more progress for the female character in this instalment, partly spun around how much more progressive the Highlands are when it comes to things like; women’s sexuality, at least as it’s presented in this world. Liam and Mena were totally my favourite couple in this series, and the ones that I’m constantly looking out for as secondary characters making surprise appearances in subsequent books. 

‘The Duke’ was a low point in the series, for me. Just … random characters, convoluted stories and all-round “meh”. ‘The Scot Beds His Wife’ was also surprisingly so-so (again; convoluted back-story and an annoying American plant for the heroine). But things really tick up again in ‘The Duke With the Dragon Tattoo’ – another favourite for me, and again because the heroine is more progressively written. 

All in all – I really loved this series, I’d totally recommend it to Sarah MacLean fans and historic-romance aficionados who don’t mind slightly thuggish heroes who’ll come around to a gentler and more attractive place, eventually. 

4/5   

 

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

'Malibu Rising' by Taylor Jenkins Reid

 


From the BLURB: 

A lifetime holding it together. 

One party will bring it crashing down. 

Malibu: August, 1983. It's the day of Nina Riva's annual end-of-summer party, and anticipation is at a fever pitch. Everyone wants to be around the famous Rivas: Nina, the talented surfer and supermodel; brothers Jay and Hud, one a championship surfer, the other a renowned photographer; and their adored baby sister, Kit. Together, the siblings are a source of fascination in Malibu and the world over-especially as the offspring of the legendary singer, Mick Riva. 

By midnight the party will be completely out of control. By morning, the Riva mansion will have gone up in flames.

But before that first spark in the early hours before dawn, the alcohol will flow, the music will play, and the loves and secrets that shaped this family's generations will all come bubbling to the surface.

‘Malibu Rising’ is the new book by American author Taylor Jenkins Reid, her seventh novel and the third in what is a loose “Cinematic Universe” of a part-fictionalised timeline of American fame … her first foray into alternate-Hollywood was 2017’s ‘The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo’ which is where readers first fleetingly met Dean Martin-style crooner, Mick Riva – whose four abandoned children are the protagonists of ‘Malibu Rising’. 

I’m not 100% sure if Jenkins Reid’s big breakout success, the 2019 novel ‘Daisy Jones & The Six’ (which looked at an alternate 1970s American music-scene, written as an oral history of one band) has character cameos feature in ‘Malibu Rising’ too … making this the third book in a loose Taylor Jenkins Reid Cinematic Universe? But I wouldn’t be surprised. In ‘Evelyn Hugo’, Jenkins Reid gave us 1960s Golden Age glamour of a claustrophobic Hollywood, ‘Daisy Jones’ was all about the love revolution of the 70s music-scene, and ‘Malibu Rising’ spins around the technicolour 80s – making a pretty neat trilogy of fame, fortune, and how fleeting it all is. 

‘Malibu’ spins around one night in 1983 that is about to become infamous – at the annual party of Nina Riva, the oldest daughter of American singing sensation Mick Riva. By the end of the night her house will have burned down, and multiple celebrities will be arrested for various hedonistic acts – the book takes us through the hour-by-hour play-by-play of the day and introduces us to Nina and her three siblings. 

There’s Jay – the eldest son of Mick Riva and a surfing sensation whose star is on the rise. Next there’s Hud – a few months younger than Jay – a talented photographer whose romantic optimism may be about to get the better of him. And youngest sibling is Katherine ‘Kit’ who has never been kissed and is determined to not examine too closely why that is, and also correct the situation at her sister’s big party this year. 

Then there’s Nina herself – a talented surfer who has found uncomfortable fame via a modelling career she’s embarrassed by, but needed in order to pull herself and her siblings out of near-poverty following the death of their mother and abandonment by their famous father. As a teenager, Nina became the head of her family and surrogate parent to all three of her siblings – and she now finds it hard to shake loose the shackles of responsibility, and finally examine what a lifetime of placating and keeping her head above water has done to her.

Amidst all this is the flashback unfolding romance of Mick Riva and their mother, June – a slow-moving car-crash we read unfold alongside another inevitable blaze burning across Malibu … 

Jenkins Reid in her other two books in this loose universe, has kept the children of famous people pretty firmly on the sidelines. They’ve quite literally been passive observers to the tale of their famous family, bit-players on the stage of someone else’s life. So it’s really interesting that Jenkins Reid has decided to take a secondary side-character from ‘Evelyn Hugo’, and give his kids the limelight … to tell a story of being on the periphery, the discarded backstory of someone else’s biography. Mick Riva is clearly a throwback to Desi Arnaz, crossed with Eddie Fisher, with the croonability of Dean Martin – and it’s the Eddie Fisher feel of the character that I found most interesting (he had five wives, was in a messy love triangle with himself, Debbie Reynolds and Elizabeth Taylor) and that’s because of his most famous child, Carrie Fisher.

Look, none of the Riva children are facing down the same mental and substance abuse battles that Carrie Fisher was (though there is an observation of alcoholism in the Riva family) – but there’s something about Carrie writing her semi-autobiographical Postcards from the Edge in 1987, the same time-period that Jenkins Reid has also thrown the Riva children into, to come into their own and reconcile with their larger-than-life and absent father, that is delicious in its crossover.

I really do love that Taylor Jenkins Reid is treating American fame as their modern mythology. This is something that I think she owes a lot Ryan Murphy who started playing with this idea of showing Americans their true modern genesis when he made American Crime Story and the first season ‘The People v. O. J. Simpson,’ in which he really posited that this was an impactive cultural moment for a whole generation, and one that largely shaped the future (this was an early version of modern reality-TV, from the car-chase to the courtroom; and Murphy hammered this home by alluding to the Kardashian family being hugely influenced by these events.) I do think Jenkins Reid has tapped into this observation beautifully – and many more have since followed; from ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ giving us an imagined female stand-up trailblazer (and now Jean Smart is showing us that progression and stagnation in ‘Hacks’), to David Fincher bringing us the true-story of ‘Mank’ and retroactively looking at the making of ‘Citizen Kane’ (commentary-within-commentary about the blurred lines of politics and Hollywood). 

This is also to say – Jenkins Reid has never written about the lives of imaginary famous people, their trials and tribulations, to say “woe is me” about their too-tight glass slippers. She spins these stories of fame and fortune to make bigger commentary. ‘Evelyn Hugo’ was brushing up alongside the commodification of women and femininity, touched on abuse against women within Hollywood – but more broadly; was revealing the queer history within Hollywood, and the ways it was kept hidden so as to project and protect a desire for heteronormative, nuclear family political aspirations to the general public. ‘Daisy Jones’ was a lot about the creative process, and what happens when a woman dares to not be cast as the ~muse~ but puts herself, her desires, front and centre in her art. Similarly, ‘Malibu Rising’ isn’t just about a dead-beat Dad flaming out on his family – rather, it’s about how much is just surface-level illusion. Mick Riva may be able to sing pretty, but he’s left a trail of destruction in his life. The Riva kids were able to bandage and paper-over their crumbling home-life after the death of their mother so as to go under the radar of social-services. And all of them as adults may be starting to look like success-stories; but it’s mostly just another façade, and what’s front-facing is not what is making them happy. These larger themes all have tendrils in today; whether it’s the #MeToo movement or living in a social-media age and the lies that brings … Jenkins Reid knows very well throughout all these books, that fame is just a distortion and amplification of reality. And if she has any over-riding message in all her works it’s to tell readers not to be fooled into worshipping False Gods. No matter how pretty and alluring their lives and exteriors may be. 

I really enjoyed ‘Malibu Rising’ – and I’m thrilled to learn that it’s been optioned for a TV series (even as I’m a little iffy on how that’ll work … I would have thought it was a slam-dunk for a movie adaptation?) and all I know for sure is that I’d love to see George Clooney cast as Mick Riva! Please! Make it meta by head-nodding to George’s old playboy persona in the media! 

I also think it’d be cool, since many real and imagined 80s celebrities are name-dropped (Jennifer Beals! Goldie Hawn! Rob Lowe!) and Nina as a model, reminds me of a cross between Brooke Shields and Cindy Crawford … so how cool if they played with the kids of those celebrities to appear in an adaptation? Pop Crawford’s daughter Kaia Gerber in there! Have Kate Hudson playing her mum! Go wild with tongue-in-cheek nostalgia! 

All in all though; this isn’t my favourite of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s book (it’s still ‘Evelyn’ for me, and always). I also think the ending was a little rushed and didn’t quite land the same way that the heart-in-throat revelations in ‘Evelyn’ and ‘Daisy’ hit? I also wondered if there was a dropped-thread toward the end; when much is made of Mick Riva not indicating as he turns into a driveway, just as a secondary character is also heading home in their car … I was expecting a crash; but maybe that was just a red-herring rather than an editorial hole? Maybe another reason this wasn’t as big a WOW book for me is that I do want more. Particularly youngest sister Kit’s story, which really felt like it was just getting started by book’s end and now I want more! 

4/5  



Wednesday, June 30, 2021

'In: The Graphic Novel' by Will McPhail

 

From the BLURB:

Nick, a young illustrator, can't connect with people. Whether it's the barista down the street, his own family or Wren, an oncologist whose life becomes painfully tangled with his, Nick can't shake the feeling that there is some hidden realm of human interaction beyond his reach. He staggers through meaningless conversations and haunts lookalike, vacuous coffee shops in the hope that he will find it there. But it isn't until Nick learns to stop performing and speak about the things that really matter that the complex and colourful worlds of the people he meets are finally revealed to him. 

Illustrated in both colour and black-and-white in McPhail's instantly recognisable style, In is poignant, fresh and hilarious. McPhail transforms the graphic novel with a heart-wrenching compassion uncannily appropriate for our isolated times.

‘In.’ is the debut graphic novel by award-winning ‘New Yorker’ cartoonist Will McPhail.

I have loved Will McPhail for the longest time, and have been following him on Instagram for years. He’s one of the smartest cartoonists around, who can flip you on a dime – from painfully accurate social commentary, to thoughtful introspection on humanity. One of my all-time favourite pieces of his is ‘Lady No-Kids’ which I yearn to own as a print, and hopefully will one day if/when he restocks! His ‘Bedtime’ cartoon is another fave; but just generally I’m always eyeing his online store and hope to own a print one day! 

I was thrilled when I heard that he had a debut graphic novel coming – even more that it would be an original work, not a collection of his cartoons. So excited was I, that I didn’t even wait for the August ANZ-release, but nabbed myself a UK copy from Foyle’s because it’s also signed with one of his signature drawings! I die! 

‘In.’ is somehow exactly what I expected from McPhail, and at the same time so reverently surprising and arresting. It tells the story of Nick Moss, an artist much like Nick himself – he’s playing at being a sad man in a sad bar, where he meets young woman Wren who catches him entirely off-guard. What follows is Nick going about his life – helping his Mum fix a fixer-upper apartment, avoiding his neighbour whose sex-life he knows far too much about, juggling seeing his nephew and having deep-and-meaningful’s with his sister, spontaneous sexual encounters with Wren … until one day when he stops pretending and avoiding and just – confronts. He tells a little truth to the plumber who comes to fix his toilet, and gets a little truth right back. He’s honest with his young nephew, and is gifted openness in return. And with each exchange comes a surrealist exploration of a foreign land – intercut with the black-and-white line-drawings of Nick’s real life, are these full water-colour depictions of familiar-but-not, grand landscapes and dreamscapes. 

At the heart of this story – more than just a magical realist New Yorker cartoon come to life – is a very human story of connection, and time running out. A call to throw off the social mores and just … be.

This story was … phenomenal! I cannot believe how much I laughed, and then at the end how much I cried and was so deeply moved – not least because the story took an acutely personal turn for me, and it just hit beautifully hard. 

McPhail excels at highlighting the atrocious awkwardness of life – it’s in the wide-eyed, slack-jawed horrified facial expressions of his characters. The ‘Bob’s Burgers’-esque storefront vignettes told entirely in signage. Awkward naked bodies, arms flung high in a bad dance move, and self-conscious inner-monologues alongside snappy speech-bubbles. It’s all here in ‘In.’ – magnified and personified by Nick and this snapshot of his life when he feels like he’s circling something bigger than himself … like his memories of being “a slippery little penny of a boy,” at a childhood waterpark, with a slide like a coin vortex funnel. 

This novel was wonderful and painful. I laughed so much, and it got such tears from me too. It is one of the best reading experiences I’ve ever had, and as well as reminding me just how brilliant Will McPhail is (truly; even his ‘unboxing’ video was comedic gold) it showed me what graphic novels can be, and do. This is working on so many levels of sophistication and with such a feathery light touch, it will absolutely get under the skin and imprint on you. 

5/5


Thursday, June 24, 2021

'Two-Week Wait: an IVF story' by Luke Jackson, Kelly Jackson (illus. Mara Wild)

 


From the BLURB:

An original graphic novel based on the IVF stories of its husband-and-wife authors and the 1-in-50 couples around the world like them. 

Conrad and Joanne met in their final year of university and have been virtually inseparable since then. For a while, it felt like they had all the time in the world. Yet now, when they are finally ready to have kids, they find that getting pregnant isn’t always so easy. 

Ahead of them lies a difficult, expensive, and emotional journey into the world of assisted fertility, where each ‘successful’ implantation is followed by a two-week wait to see if the pregnancy takes. Join Joanne and Conrad, their friends, their family, their coworkers, and a stream of expert medical practitioners as they experience the highs and the lows, the tears and the laughter in this sensitive but unflinching portrayal of the hope and heartbreak offered to so many by modern medicine.

‘Two-Week Wait: an IVF story’ by Luke and Kelly Jackson, illustrated by Mara Wild is a graphic novel from Scribe.

So, this is a graphic novel in a genre that’s loosely termed “graphic medicine” about illness, chronic pain, medical study and the healthcare system generally – all in the graphic novel format. It follows the likes of ‘Kid Gloves’ by Lucy Knisley, ‘The Facts of Life’ by Paula Knight, ‘Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant?’ by Roz Chast and ‘Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me’ by Ellen Forney. 

In ‘Two-Week Wait’ we get the story of Conrad and Joanne, loosely based on the real-life experience of authors Luke and Kelly Jackson. Conrad and Joanne at 34 decide they’re ready and prepared to become parents … but then 35 is creeping up and they’re still not pregnant. Thus begins their journey into infertility; chronicling their medical diagnoses and then the various specialty doctor’s plans to use in vitro fertilization (IVF) to combat Joanne’s previously undiagnosed endometriosis, and Conrad’s slightly-low sperm-count. 

This is an intimate quasi-memoir that tracks the emotional and medical journey through IVF, with illustrations by the Hamburg-based artist, Mara Wild. And I really did enjoy this, even as I was one-removed from the story; as a young woman who has always known she doesn’t want children, I do have friends who’ve struggled with infertility and gone through the IVF process and I suspect having that connection and grounding to the very real emotional arc will hit differently, depending on the experiences you bring to the reading.


That being said; I did read this and think it was fairly … prosaic? Maybe it’s that the Australian publishing landscape has been so painstakingly slow in taking up the graphic novel format for all readerships, but especially adult graphic novels. So it’s not surprising that something like ‘Two Week Wait’ is what gets up with one of our most prestigious small publishers – a fairly unassuming tale with broad general appeal to wary adult audiences unsure of the format, but responsive to the story generally. 

But for me I did find it a little one-note? Even as I thought it was very emotional, and beautifully told via Mara Wild’s cool-toned tenderness with pops or warmth, like the light of hope getting in. 


I couldn’t help but crave a story that goes deeper and more layered. I found myself latching and wondering more about the passing stories and experiences of Joanne and Conrad, and wanting a fuller investigation there. Like Joanne’s previously undiagnosed endometriosis, and maybe a tale about that medical journey – possibly with an ending that accepts infertility and childlessness, or adoption? And maybe the breakdown of, or overcoming in a relationship that comes with these new realities? Conrad begins getting weighed down by the medical costs of IVF, and a big part of me wondered what the journey is for those couples who simply can’t afford $10K per-round of IVF? What are the socio-economic barriers to fertility and family? 

All in all; I think this is probably a great graphic novel to introduce novice adult readers of the format to, and especially if the journey of infertility will be a personal and impactive tale for them. It delightfully reminded me of the British sitcom ‘Trying’, and I am always going to be glad to see more Australian graphic novels, especially for adult readers. But I also found it a little lean and ploddingly typical. 

3.5/5



Thursday, June 17, 2021

'Early Morning Riser' by Katherine Heiny

 

From the BLURB: 

Jane sees Duncan's old girlfriends everywhere – at restaurants, at the grocery store, even three towns away. While she may be able to come to terms with dating the world's most prolific seducer of women, she wishes she didn't have to share him quite so widely. His ex-wife, Aggie, still has Duncan mow her lawn. And his coworker Jimmy comes and goes from Duncan's apartment at the most inopportune times. Jane wonders how the relationship is supposed to work with all these people in it. But any notion Jane has of love and marriage changes with one tragic accident. Now her life is permanently intertwined with Duncan's, Aggie's, and Jimmy's, and she knows she will never have Duncan to herself. But is it possible that a deeper kind of happiness is right in front of her eyes? 

A novel that is alternately bittersweet and laugh-out-loud funny, Early Morning Riser is Katherine Heiny's most astonishingly wonderful work to date.

'Early Morning Riser' is the new contemporary fiction novel from US author Katherine Heiny, and my first book of hers that I've read.

I believe the title of this book spins around the old saying; "Waking up early allows me to fill my cup before anyone else starts to drain it," or some variation thereof. It follows 24-year-old Jane who has just moved to Boyne City, Michigan to teach second grade when she gets locked out of her house one day and meets local locksmith, carpenter, and all-round handyman (in more ways than one) - Duncan. The two tumble into bed and a relationship pretty quickly - but Jane comes to realise that 40-something year-old Duncan has quite the history in the approx 2000 population Boyne City and surrounds. He's been around, and it seems to Jane that she's constantly meeting or bumping into his ex-girlfriends and bedmates. Including his beautiful milkmaid of an ex-wife, Aggie.

Duncan is also closely tied to his co-worker; the developmentally challenged young man Jimmy - whom the town of Boyne City collectively looks out for, along with his Mama. And through a series of tragic events, it looks like Jane's life will begin inexplicably orbiting this town and Duncan's many relationships too ... forming a life she didn't precisely envision for herself, but is no less the one she maybe always wanted.

I really loved this book. I didn't know what I was really in for with a fairly vague blurb, and an invitingly bright front-cover seeming to follow the illustrated aesthetic of many contemporary romance and 'women's fiction' titles ... but Katherine Heiny's other book ('Standard Deviation') came recommended to me, and so I was keen to try her latest release. I will say that 'Early Morning Riser' kept surprising me, and I loved it for that especially.

If you need to hitch a theme or recurring thought to this story it comes in a small moment when Duncan's ex-wife Aggie comes round to Jane's house for a brief stay, and sees a chipped tureen sitting on the counter that she confidently proclaims is hers;

Jane stood at the door on the morning Aggie moved in, striving for an expression of warm and loving welcome, but the first thing Aggie did was gesture at the bowl of dried flowers on the kitchen table and say, "I believe that's my soup tureen." 
"No, it's mine," Jane said. "I bought it at the thrift store." 
"I'm sure you did." Aggie put her hands on her hips. "But it used to be mine. Duncan and I got it as a wedding present from the Mitfords. I recognize the chip on the handle. How much did you pay for it?" 
"Ninety-nine cents," said Jane. (It had actually been twelve dollars.)


Herein lies the crux of the story. Jane is a humble elementary school teacher with a penchant for secondhand everything, up-cycling and thrifting. Heiny hilariously plays with this, that Jane is not an Instagram-influencer level of vintage-shopper; her outfits are often odd and ill-fitting, when her mother comes to visit she'll make snide comments about their weird amalgamation. But Jane is happiest in a thrift store and enjoys her ingenuity ... much as she appreciates Duncan's clear sexual experience gained from many former lovers. Until the secondhand, passed-down nature of both is explicitly pointed out to her. Then as much as Jane tries, she can't help musing on Duncan's very nature and whether or not he'll forever be wandering.

That's a real over-simplification for what Heiny does here, ultimately. Especially because 'Early Morning Riser' is not following the typical trajectory of a contemporary romance. I kept expecting them, probably because Jane does too. She's that kind of relatable character and we're so beautifully given her interior by Heiny; that we expect her to be the classic movie-star hero of her own life ... there are many moments when I think we're built up to expect a big confrontation or AH-HA! moment, a loving declaration or accusatory revelation.

But they don't come. Because this isn't a fairytale or movie. This is ... life. So the big revelations are quieter; they come in raised-eyebrows, what's left unsaid, inference rather than dramatisation. It really is the little things. A quiet life built together. Shared struggles and messy, complicated families.

This comes back around towards the end, when Jane comes to a gentle understanding that maybe she's not the harbinger of her own bad-luck. That maybe the path she took was inevitable and self-determined because she chose her family, built them for herself - didn't have it all thrust upon her - and actually what she always thought of as 'bad luck' and her lot in life, is closer to the one she wanted all along.

In the thrift store of life, Jane chose the pieces that spoke to her - chips and all.

I really, really loved this story of quiet lives and building families. I will totally admit that because I came to it with my more commercial-fiction and romance genre background, I did find myself *wanting* and *yearning* for the big, definitive romantic declarations and revelations - and that I probably still had that desire by book's end, which didn't make for a fully-rounded reading experience for me. But much like Jane, I really ended up liking where the story took me.

5/5

Thursday, June 10, 2021

'Life's Too Short' The Friend Zone #3 by Abby Jimenez

 


From the BLURB: 

When Vanessa Price quit her job to pursue her dream of traveling the globe, she wasn't expecting to gain millions of YouTube followers who shared her joy of seizing every moment. For her, living each day to its fullest isn't just a motto. Her mother and sister never saw the age of 30, and Vanessa doesn't want to take anything for granted. 

But after her half sister suddenly leaves Vanessa in custody of her baby daughter, life goes from "daily adventure" to "next-level bad" (now with bonus baby vomit in hair). The last person Vanessa expects to show up offering help is the hot lawyer next door, Adrian Copeland. After all, she barely knows him. No one warned her that he was the Secret Baby Tamer or that she'd be spending a whole lot of time with him and his geriatric Chihuahua. 

Now she's feeling things she's vowed not to feel. Because the only thing worse than falling for Adrian is finding a little hope for a future she may never see.

'Life's Too Short' is the third book in Abby Jimenez's 'The Friend Zone' series - which I think is now over, completing as a trilogy.

This book centres around Vanessa Price - a renowned travel-vlog YouTuber who has just been handed the responsibility of taking care of her baby niece, because her 19-year-old sister - baby Grace's mother - is a drug-dependent addict and currently spiralling. So Vanessa is grounded, for the foreseeable future. This is how she meets her building's owner and her neighbour, Adrian Copeland who is also a successful criminal lawyer. They meet when Adrian knocks on her door one night to see if he can help her calm down a wailing baby Grace and the two strike up a friendship.

And that's all it can be - a friendship, because Vanessa makes it very clear that she can't get involved with anyone. That's because Vanessa has a history of ALS in her family - once known as Lou Gehrig's disease ALS is amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and it took Vanessa's aunt, mother and older sister all before they hit 30, which 29-year-old Vanessa is rapidly approaching and has early signs of same symptoms. She doesn't want to get romantically involved with anyone, and she is wholly focused on taking care of her train-wreck family, and Grace especially, before her time runs out. Adrian is a temptation she wasn't counting on, and as the two grow ever closer she begins to wonder how much marrow she can suck out of life with the time she has left ...

So - look - I know that above description is going to give lots of romance-readers pause, but let me assure you; this is still a technical romance and all the HEA that entails. Because this is Jimenez's modus operandi; to set up female characters who are dealing with impossible odds (often physical and medical) that presents a swerve away from traditional romance tropes (namely; the marriage plot and 'barefoot and pregnant'), only to have it all work out in the end and for tradition to be restored. She did this in first book 'The Friend Zone' and a protagonist with endometriosis who cannot have kids, falling for a guy who comes from a big family and all he wants is children.

And this is my frustration, ultimately. Yes I still want a HEA - I don't particularly want to read romance novels with depressing, no-hope endings (that's not romance) but what frustrates me is that Jimenez does such a good job for 80% of a novel, of setting up alternate-romances full of compromises and tenderness, where the male protagonists in particular have to adapt their idea of partner and family because the women they love are not the "perfect" archetype. Like ... I could totally get behind a HEA that includes a woman dealing with the very real hardships that come with infertility because of endometriosis, and her and a partner having to adapt their ideas of family. But no. Jimenez is more likely to just fix everything with a miracle, against-the-odds pregnancy that totally negates all the hard work she put into getting these characters together and working to form a relationship.

She does the same here, in 'Life's Too Short'. I learnt so much about ALS and the realities of living with a genetic roulette like Vanessa is. This is the perfect set-up for a big concept of 'Happy For Now' between Vanessa and Adrian, but no ... not to give anything away, but there is a large degree to which everything is magicked away by the end. Or not - it's probably a lot more open-ended than 'The Friend Zone' and I guess it depends on if you're an optimist or pessimist determines how much of a HEA time-limit they get.

But, this is a frustration for me. Jimenez's books could be so progressive and adaptive in the romance genre, presenting a different way for female protagonists to be happy, and inverting traditional nuclear-family tropes largely by having male protagonists compromise and adapt for the women they love and the life they want to build with them. But she doesn't. Not really. It's always a cop-out at the end. Even more so in 'Life's Too Short' because Adrian and Vanessa's time coupled on the page is so short and fleeting, it really feels like the last half of the book fumbled their coupling and didn't quite pay-off for the slow-burn build up.

Overall, this series has been ~fine~. But it could have been great, and therein lies the rub for me. Jimenez always seems to pull her punches.

I think if you want a romance author who commits to subverting romance tropes and presenting different ways for characters in romance novels to ~be~, then maybe try Talia Hibbert?

3/5

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

'Detransition, Baby' by Torrey Peters


From the BLURB:

Reese almost had it all: a loving relationship with Amy, an apartment in New York City, a job she didn’t hate. She had scraped together what previous generations of trans women could only dream of: a life of mundane, bourgeois comforts. The only thing missing was a child. But then her girlfriend, Amy, detransitioned and became Ames, and everything fell apart. Now Reese is caught in a self-destructive pattern: avoiding her loneliness by sleeping with married men. 

Ames isn’t happy either. He thought detransitioning to live as a man would make life easier, but that decision cost him his relationship with Reese—and losing her meant losing his only family. Even though their romance is over, he longs to find a way back to her. When Ames’s boss and lover, Katrina, reveals that she’s pregnant with his baby—and that she’s not sure whether she wants to keep it—Ames wonders if this is the chance he’s been waiting for. Could the three of them form some kind of unconventional family—and raise the baby together? 

This provocative debut is about what happens at the emotional, messy, vulnerable corners of womanhood that platitudes and good intentions can’t reach. Torrey Peters brilliantly and fearlessly navigates the most dangerous taboos around gender, sex, and relationships, gifting us a thrillingly original, witty, and deeply moving novel.

‘Detransition, Baby’ by US author Torrey Peters came out in January of this year and has become perhaps the most buzzed-about book of the moment – and not necessarily for the best of reasons. 

This book came on my radar – rather deliciously, in hindsight – when it was one of 16 titles longlisted for The UK Women's Prize for Fiction, and received backlash from trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs). Peters – a trans woman, writing about trans identity – dealt with the backlash with absolute aplomb in interviews and essays (as for iNews), and I simply had to know what this book was, that had won the admiration of so many readers and booksellers I trust, and the scorn of bigoted communities I despise.

Turns out – ‘Detransition, Baby’ is one of the most original, chaotic, luscious, and confronting reading journeys I’ve ever had the joy to experience. It’s a book that when I was reading it and had to put it aside, I’d keep thinking what I’d just read in that chapter and I’d count down the hours until I could crack it open again. It’s a book that when I finished reading, I was bereft. It’s the rare experience to know while you’re in the middle of something for the first time, that you’ll crave this moment of newness and wish you could go back to experience it anew all over again. 

‘Detransition, Baby’ is the story of three very different characters orbiting one another. There’s Reese – a trans woman living in New York whose long-term, five-year lesbian relationship with another trans woman ended years ago, when her partner decided to detransition and become a cis male. Reese is now aimless and slightly self-destructive, partnering up with married cis men who treat her rough and keep her secret.

Then there’s Ames – who when Reese knew him her name was Amy, and she was a trans woman and Reese’s long-term partner. A violent encounter had Ames detransitioning and cutting off all ties with their previous trans community, Reese included. Ames has been living in a somewhat liminal existence, but a slight grounding came when he started a clandestine affair with his married cis boss, Katrina – who does not know that Ames was once Amy.

Katrina is even more shocked when she gets pregnant and Ames is the father, since she assumed that he was infertile for his allusions to being unlikely to progenate. But conceive they have, and now the three of them – Ames, Katrina, and Reese – have a baby on the way. Because Ames has declared that he likely can’t go through with parenthood (and not that even more abstract concept, fatherhood) without the presence of Reese, the last person he was meant to start a family with. 

That’s the basic gist of the story – and forgive me if this sounds caustic for the pronouns, but I’m meaning to only refer to general concept when I say; ‘Three Men and a Baby’ 1987 film vibes. Which was itself meant to pull laughs from the supposedly ~ToPsY tUrVy~ flip of gender-roles to have three bachelors care for a baby, what madness! Peters and ‘Detransition, Baby’ is taking a similar premise but going, obviously, deeper and playing with gender-roles again and archetypes throughout society as she plays with what it means to be a family. Even in theory. And actually; ‘Surprise, baby!’ plots abound in literature, from the Virgin Mary of the Bible to Les Misérables and Jean Valjean becoming a single-father to Cosette. It is a truly ingenious plot-‘trope’ that Torrey Peters has designed to launch this far-reaching millennial story. 

And ‘Detransition, Baby’ is very much a millennial story … I eye-roll slightly (and still) when people say that Sally Rooney is “the first great millennial novelist,” because ‘Normal People’ was ~fine~ but honestly, Torrey Peter’s book pulled far more introspection out of me, and moved me in a way that Rooney just could never. In Torrey Peter’s novel I found a deep and cathartic confrontation of womanhood. Reese is undoubtedly the MVP of the novel, even though I came to love all three main players, it’s Reese who has the most poignant and sometimes toxic thoughts on femininity, and what it means to be a woman. It's Reese who is snarky-elegance, encased in fragile ego and a yearning so bone-deep it's beautiful.

When we meet her, Reese is fully-aware that she is entering into unhealthy relationships with cis men who are using her. At the start she’s the ‘other woman’ to a Manhattan Cowboy who has already contracted (barely detectable) HIV from a previous trans partner, and is again cheating on his wife who is currently trying to conceive via IVF, he’s now cheating on her with Reese. In Reese’s story of sexual encounters with this man and others like him, ‘Detransition, Baby’ often becomes fairly erotic and highly charged, as Reese enters into slight BDSM bedroom relations with these men. At one point she likens this to a desire to be meek and hurt; the ultimate feminine is to be vulnerable, aggression is the male response. Now – just because it’s written doesn’t mean it’s true, or that Torrey Peters actually believes this herself. But her character Reese does, deep down. Reese – like a true millennial – is in many ways caught between her boomer upbringing (the cusp of a bygone era of almost-Betty Draper’s and the American housewife she still secretly views as the pinnacle of womanhood) and a new generation of ‘baby transes’ for whom she is a sort of mother-figure and matriarch, but who have a very separate world outlook to her which she often, hilariously, comments on; 

This is what happens when the only trans voices out there are the loudest, shrillest trans girls constantly publishing dogmatic Trans 101 hot takes to rebuke the larger cis public. You get people thinking that in order to avoid offending trans people, you must locate and follow a secret guidebook filled with the arcane rites, instead of just thinking about them decently, as you would anything else.

It’s through Reese that I think we get some of the most perfect captures of pop-culture and nostalgia that Torrey Peters articulates beautifully. Like this one musing from Reese, which is entirely factual and something I didn’t even know I’d remembered and realised the difference until Peters put it right in front of me, perfectly;  

In Reese’s memories of childhood, night had a different blue-black tone than in her adult life. And, in fact, she later learned when she returned to visit Madison after a long hiatus, this change in the color of night was not an illusion of time and remembrance but a historical fact. Like most American cities, Madison, Wisconsin, had replaced the blue-white lighting of incandescent and mercury-vapor streetlamps with the orange of sodium-vapor. This not only required less energy to run but, because a trick of the human eye perceives orange light to be brighter and thus more revealing than the same lumens of white-blue light, cities installed sodium-vapor in the “super-predator”-panicked nineties as a method to deter street crime. 

The history of Ames/Amy and Reese is also a delectable and depressing story-thread in the book … possibly mistaken for soap-opera, but is actually Peters accurately and brilliantly inviting readers into the realities of queer communities and tangled relations. Ames is as much an enigma to himself as Reese and readers, but brings their story of childhood, young adulthood, transitioning and then detransitioning so honesty to the page that it reads painful, for being so bared. 

The past is past to everyone but ghosts.

If I had any issues with the novel, it was something that author Roxane Gay had a near-perfect explanation of on their Goodreads review; “Some of the storytelling was too... indulgent is maybe the word I'm looking for, like, when you're in the groove as a writer, loving what you're writing, digging down into it, and you don't know where to stop. But that's okay!”

It’s true; some of the monologues and character dialogues are a little too neat and sharp, I’d call it rehearsed if it wasn’t novel-form. But at the same time, much of these thoughts being made to a fine-point are so important that I was willing to let it pass when character maybe went on a little too long or too-articulately;  

Every year, the list of murdered trans women, most of color, grows longer. Among those cases, the number of victims who were misgendered in their own obituaries is greater than the number of victims whose murderer has been identified. 

Finally; I just want to acknowledge that I know this book won’t be for everyone. Maybe it’s too erotically-charged, sex-scenes are more graphic than some people want in their literary reads. Maybe people won’t want to engage with the ideas Reese is musing on about what it means to be a woman; ingrained in her from a myriad lived-experiences and distorted pop-culture that she’s absorbed and can’t dispel so easily when it’s ingrained in society and ideals of femininity. Maybe it’s just the audaciously lush and brilliantly true-chaotic depictions of queer communities and families that won’t sit well with people – for their own issues. 

Fine. 

Okay. 

I think those people are missing out – but at the same time I’ve been genuinely moved to see so many more take this book and just ~run~ with it. Which was my experience too. One of sheer joy and adoration for Torrey Peters and what she’s done here; this genuinely enjoyable and fabulous reading experience that had me gasping and crying and missing these characters as soon as I finished (but I am so glad it’s getting the TV adaptation treatment, it must be said. If only so I can experience them anew, again.) 

And I also want to say; ‘Detransition, Baby’ clarified for me that I need to read and engage with the ideas being put out by trans authors. This was also distilled for me in a recent (brilliant) write-up of cis male author Craig Silvey’s ‘Honeybee’ book, which features a trans protagonist. Sydney Review of Books had the ‘own voices’ piece ‘Review: Oliver Reeson on Craig Silvey. Not Who, But How’ … which is an important read regardless (highlighting how woeful Australian arts commentary is nowadays) but also reinstating for me why I had no interest in reading ‘Honeybee,’ or pretending I ever enjoy Silvey’s words or worlds. 

There. I said it. 

‘Detransition, Baby’ unlocked a lot in me. Not just a cathartically deep-down enjoyable read, but also an and edge-of-your-seat chaotic reading in which I was desperate to turn the pages and so joyful at being in this author’s world, nested in their words and characters. It is hands-down one of my favourite-ever experiences that I won’t soon forget, and I can’t wait to read what Torrey Peters does next. She’s an essential read to me now. 

5/5


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