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Saturday, October 28, 2017

'Alex & Eliza' by Melissa de la Cruz

Received from the Publisher 

From the BLURB:

1777. Albany, New York.

As battle cries of the American Revolution echo in the distance, servants flutter about preparing for one of New York society's biggest events: the Schuylers' grand ball. Descended from two of the oldest and most distinguished bloodlines in New York, the Schuylers are proud to be one of their fledgling country's founding families, and even prouder still of their three daughters - Angelica, with her razor-sharp wit; Peggy, with her dazzling looks, and Eliza, whose beauty and charm rival those of both her sisters, though she'd rather be aiding the colonists' cause than dressing up for some silly ball.

Still, Eliza can barely contain her excitement when she hears of the arrival of one Alexander Hamilton, a mysterious, rakish young colonel and General George Washington's right-hand man. Though Alex has arrived as the bearer of bad news for the Schuylers, he can't believe his luck - as an orphan, and a bastard one at that - to be in such esteemed company. And when Alex and Eliza meet that fateful night, so begins an epic love story that would forever change the course of American history.

‘Alex & Eliza’ is the 2017 fictional YA retelling of the romance between America’s first treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton and the daughter of a Revolutionary War general, Elizabeth Schuyler – by US author Melissa de la Cruz.

Full disclosure; this book was not exactly what I would call “good”, but I gobbled it up in a day anyway, such is my fascination and obsession with all things ‘Hamilton’ the musical – upon which coattails this book is riding.

There are quite a few signs that this book was somewhat rushed to print, so as to meet the Hamilton craze sweeping pop-culture. First and foremost is Melissa de la Cruz’s authors note, which says she first attended the musical in 2016, and immediately decided to write a fictional account of the (somewhat?) central romance between protagonist Hamilton and his wife, Eliza. HAMILTON the musical premiered on Broadway on January 20, 2015 and it was a pretty immediate ignition of popularity and not at all hard to read the writing on the wall, of the phenomenon this musical was sure to become (I remember a friend of mine attended Book Expo America in 2015, and was baffled that there was an impromptu choir of teens singing the songbook in the middle of the book hall?) But still – I am very dubious of de la Cruz saying she saw the play for the first time at some point in 2016, and the book is now out (released in America, April 2017). That’s a FAST turn-around for publishing, and it somewhat shows in the quality of the work …

Firstly I should say I’m not all that surprised that this book isn’t great (to mine eyes, at least). I’ve tried reading a few of de la Cruz’s books and they’ve just never, ever grabbed me. First with her early-2000’s paranormal YA romance series ‘Blue Bloods’ – when I was consuming a LOT of subpar paranormal romance at that time, it kinda speaks volumes that hers was where I drew the line and could not invest. I also LOVED the TV show ‘Witches of East End’ which was – again – paranormal romance kitsch, and based on de la Cruz’s ‘Beauchamp Family’ adult romance series which I tried to read because I so loved the TV show, but … nada. Again – it was just too clunky and slow for my liking, and although I love romantic kitsch that involves supernatural *anything* I could not get past her delivery. My last ditch effort with her was YA contemporary book ‘Something in Between’ – but again, I found her writing mediocre at best, and gave up after a few chapters. I generally just can’t with Melissa De La Cruz – but clearly it’s just me because she has a HUGE backlist and impressive following (and her track-record for adaptation is kinda outstanding). But still – I found everything I disliked about Melissa de la Cruz’s writing previously, to be present in ‘Alex & Eliza’ too. Mainly – I think she tends to butcher a great concept with laboured, mediocre delivery. Ouch … sorry. But it’s true. She’s kinda the literary equivalent of a bad film ruining a great trailer. The blurb hooks you, but the actual writing puts you off.

With ‘Alex & Eliza’ the fault I think lies in the fact that historical romance is not de la Cruz’s forte, at all. And it shows. The rhythm of the writing is … off. I don’t know how to describe it, other than laboured. It reminds me of high school students essay-writing, where they think they need to incorporate “wherefore art thou” and endless conjunctions of “therefore” and “consequently” to sound smart. Obviously I read historical romances all the time, and the language is genre-specific but I never notice it and it doesn’t break my reading rhythm – whereas in this book it stuck out like a sore thumb.

There were also countless instances where de la Cruz had clearly researched a point of the period and her research showed, with a clunk. This is just one seemingly small example of what I’m talking about … where de la Cruz clearly asked herself; “What did people in 1780’s America use as a hot water bottle when hot water bottles weren’t invented yet?” and when she found the answer was very chuffed with herself so made the point three goddamn times.

When Eliza’s feet were finally as pink as a newborn’s Aunt Gertrude rang the bell for a maid to take Eliza up to her room with a brazier to warm the sheets. The maid plucked several coals from the fire and laid them in the brazier, which sizzled all the way up the stairs. She ran the brazier under the bedclothes for a full five minutes until the sheets were fairly smoking, then helped Eliza off with her dress and into one of Aunt Gertrude’s nightgowns because Eliza’s trunks were still lashed to the top of the broken carriage seven miles away.

Historical research, I think, should sort of be like a lift in ballet. I don’t want to see someone straining and labouring over the effort – as I did here, and countless other times.

There are writers who know their way around a cotillion and revolutionary red-hot romance – but de la Cruz is not one of them. I can imagine someone like Sarah Maclean (whose YA historical romance ‘The Season’ is OUTSTANDING!) would have absolutely SLAYED with this concept. Likewise – I’m currently still feeding my ‘Hamilton’ obsession with a trio of inspired romance stories by historical romance writers in ‘Hamilton's Battalion’ and *that* is delivering outstanding goods and I think a Courtney Milan or Alyssa Cole could have likewise taken this Alex & Eliza YA romance concept and just … BLITZED it! I actually still hope that just because de la Cruz got in early, it doesn’t mean we won’t see more Hamilton-inspo YA offerings (I’m keeping abreast with this Goodreads list, though it does seem to be adult-dominated right now).

But okay – execution aside. Was the actual bones of this book good, the romance? Um. Well. No – not really.

If you know anything about Hamilton the musical you’ll know that Alex and Eliza don’t exactly have a fairytale romance in the context of that fictionalised biography … what with her sister Angelia also vying for Hamilton’s affections, and the second-half upset of The Reynolds Pamphlet. Even in the musical context that de la Cruz is more referencing, Alex & Eliza are a hard-sell as OTP and HEA – given everything.

But can we also talk for a moment about how the real Alexander Hamilton was kinda a total jerk? (I know, I know – it’s hard to separate the man from Lin Manuel Miranda, but gimme a second here). Hamilton was a good-looking guy with a low station in life and serious insecurities stemming from that. He was a kinda total dick – as a person. Great treasury secretary and writer, for sure! But he’d have been a nightmare husband.

The period that de la Cruz is writing about in ‘Alex & Eliza’ – their initial meetings and coupling – there’s plenty of historic evidence that highlights Hamilton’s douche-baggery. For one thing – it’s pretty obvious that he had designs on a Schuyler sister to elevate his station. There are letters between him and his good friend (/probably paramour) John Laurens where he basically plots his ladder-climbing via marriage. But put that aside – the way he even writes about Eliza is … atrocious. Here’s an excerpt from a letter he wrote to Laurens, advising of his engagement;

I give up my liberty to Miss Schuyler. She is a good hearted girl who I am sure will never play the termagant; though not a genius she has good sense enough to be agreeable, and though not a beauty, she has fine black eyes--is rather handsome and has every other requisite of the exterior to make a lover happy. 
Ummmm. Exsqueeze me?

Let’s also talk about how when he was courting Eliza and writing to her, his flattery left a lot to be desired;

A new mistress is supposed to be the best cure for an excessive attachment to an old— if I was convinced of the success of the scheme, I would be tempted to try it— for though it is the pride of my heart to love you it is the torment of it to love you so much, separated as we now are. But I am afraid, I should only go in quest of disquiet, that would make me return to you with redoubled tenderness. You gain by every comparison I make and the more I contrast you with others the more amiable you appear.

Can we just – for a moment – spit all over Hamilton’s highest endearment to Eliza being that she’s “amiable”? He even signs off this same letter with;

Adieu My Dear lovely amiable girl. Heaven preserve you and shower its choicest blessings upon you. 
Puke. A guy calls me amiable and I’m gonna amia-ball him in the nuts.

But there’s certainly something here that a writer can play around with – turning Hamilton and Eliza into an almost Beatrice and Benedict type pairing – having fun by portraying all the ways that Eliza does not intend to be amiable.

De le Cruz does this to an extent, but it falls entirely flat. Sitting somewhere between too beholden to the musical and history, and not enough of her own writing flair making them well-rounded and romantic.

Maybe the heat and flair will more come with second book ‘Love & War’ that appears to hint at all the ways Alexander Hamilton would have been an aforementioned *terrible* husband to put up with?

Also – don’t come into this book expecting a Hamilton/Angelica/Eliza love-triangle. In de la Cruz’s account, Angelica of this book wanes in comparison to the spunk and spirit of ‘Satisifed’-singing Angelica Schuyler of the musical … in this book, she’s seemingly enamoured of her rich catch John Barker Church. And yes, this is somewhat disappointing because that one uttered line “At least I keep his eyes in my life…” from Renée Elise Goldsberry on the musical soundtrack can sustain me for DAYS! Also if you want to get technical about it, John Laurens is actually the more natural (and real) candidate for a love-triangle between Alex and Eliza … and I would have been 1000% here for that, let me tell you!

Look, I have been very harsh in this review – only because my love for Hamilton looms so large and I did have high expectations for this, regardless of my track record with de la Cruz reads. I think there’s just a big part of me that wishes they’d gone for quality over being first off the rank with YA to meet Hamilton-fever. Speaking of – there’s not even many fun Easter-egg references to Lin Manuel Miranda’s lyrics in this book. I think there was use of the word “ruffian” which … congrats? Another instance I think where, if this book had been more thoughtfully planned and edited and laboured over then all of that pop-culture background could have been a lot more charmingly and cleverly done. But as it is – it’s another missed opportunity and clunker.

BUT – I did gobble this up, regardless of my many issues with it. And I can appreciate that de la Cruz has actually tried to write this in such a way as it will be accessible for the young audience of all ages who love Hamilton – so I’d actually say that reading age for ‘Alex & Eliza’ starts at about 12. Which is impressive for historical-fiction romance.

Overall I know that people who love Hamilton will be like me and persevere just because we’re insatiable. But I am holding out hope that there will be far superior stories on offer, and soon!


Wednesday, October 25, 2017

'Fall Girl' by Toni Jordan

From the BLURB:

‘The secret to having people give you money is to act as though you don’t want it.’

Meet Ella Canfield, highly qualified evolutionary biologist. Attractive, if a little serious-looking in those heavy glasses—but then she’s about to put her career on the line. Dr Canfield is seeking funding for a highly unorthodox research project. She wants to prove that an extinct animal still roams in one of Australia’s most popular national parks.

Meet Daniel Metcalf, good-looking, expensively dishevelled millionaire. Quite witty but far too rich to be taken seriously. He heads the Metcalf Trust, which donates money to offbeat scientific research projects. He has a personal interest in animals that don’t exist.

Problem number one: There is no such person as Dr Ella Canfield.

Problem number two: Della Gilmore, professional con artist, has never met anyone like Daniel Metcalf before.

Someone is going to take a fall.

‘Fall Girl’ was the 2011 novel from Australian author, Toni Jordan.

Yes – this is my newfound Toni Jordan obsession continuing. Deliciously. Deliriously. Thanks to the character of Della Gilmore.

‘Fall Girl’ is indeed all about a family of scam-artists (emphasis on *artist*) and young woman Della who had a most unconventional upbringing, learning from her Fagin-esque father all the tricks of the scam trade. When we meet her she’s in the midst of her biggest haul yet – for a scientific grant being offered by the handsome millionaire, Daniel Metcalf. Della is posing as a scientist on the hunt for the biggest breakthrough of the decade – the Tasmanian Tiger.  

What follows is a Spencer Tracy & Katharine Hepburn type romance that also reminded me of nothing so much as the brilliant (if underrated, in my opinion) 2015 film ‘Focus’ starring Will Smith and Margot Robbie. Maybe with a smattering of 2004 British TV show ‘Hustle’ thrown in for good measure.

I’ve really gone from 0 to 100 with Toni Jordan – who I think I can now confidently count as one of my favourite authors. Hands down. ‘Fall Girl’ cemented the deal for me – a sexy and clever caper, that kind of reads like a magic trick (or another sleight of hand) … she waggles this high-stakes scam with a searing romance running underneath as the heart of the plot, but at the same time she’s unearthing a family drama and delicate character portrayals of an unconventional family unit, out of time and out of step with a changing world. I loved it.

I still have one more Toni Jordan book to read – her first historical novel ‘Nine Days’ – which I know will be a real change of pace, but one I’m curious to read. And after that …? I think I’ll become rather desperate for my next fix!  


Tuesday, October 17, 2017

'How Not To Be A Boy' by Robert Webb, on audiobook

From the BLURB:

Don’t Cry; Love Sport; Play Rough; Drink Beer; Don’t Talk About Feelings

But Robert Webb has been wondering for some time now: are those rules actually any use? To anyone?

Looking back over his life, from schoolboy crushes (on girls and boys) to discovering the power of making people laugh (in the Cambridge Footlights with David Mitchell), and from losing his beloved mother to becoming a husband and father, Robert Webb considers the absurd expectations boys and men have thrust upon them at every stage of life.

Hilarious and heartbreaking, How Not To Be a Boy explores the relationships that made Robert who he is as a man, the lessons we learn as sons and daughters, and the understanding that sometimes you aren’t the Luke Skywalker of your life - you’re actually Darth Vader.

‘How Not To Be A Boy’ is the memoir from British actor, comedian and writer Robert Webb. I listened to the audio book, which is read by the man himself.

Robert Webb is one-half of the comedy duo ‘Mitchell & Webb’ – with David Mitchell. I can’t actually remember when I first “discovered” Mitchell & Webb, because it honestly feels like I’ve known them forever, in their long careers of various comedy shows appearing on the ABC. It was probably Peep Show at some point, but various sketches from their That Mitchell and Webb Look stand out more, only because various jokes have been carved into my family’s lexicon – like when they want to make fun of my love for home-reno and property shows, they’ll pull out Mitchell’s deadpan “how are shelves?” And especially with politics lately, any of us while watching the news can at any given moment ask; “Hans, are we the baddies?” and know exactly what we’re referencing (and feeling). I also have a deep love for their movie, ‘Magicians’, their TV show ‘Ambassadors’ was fucking fantastic and needed a second season, and latest venture ‘Back’ is bloody brilliant and I hope that one gets a second season at least! Oh, and individually - my parents are goddamn *obsessed* with David Mitchell on ‘Would I Lie To You?

All of this means that when Robert Webb released his autobiography ‘How Not To Be a Boy’, I was always going to read it – but it was author Lili Wilkinson who raved about the audio book, and convinced me to come to his story that way. And boy, am I glad I did – because this has been a real treat in 2017, and a hands-down favourite listen/read. And – as it turns out – an absolutely vital one too.

‘How Not To Be a Boy’ has its genesis in the New Statesman, where Webb’s 2014 article on “growing up, and losing a parent” was such a visceral gut-punch and deep-bellied-laugh, that it unsurprisingly nabbed him a book deal for his memoir. If you haven’t, do read it as but a teaser of what is even more thoughtfully and hilariously investigated in the book itself.

The pivot-point of the novel really is the death of Webb’s mother when he was seventeen. The childhood he recounts is one peppered by the abuse of his father and this learned behaviour starting to be passed down to his two older brothers, and the sanctuary he found in a deep connection with his mother. When she passes away, he’s left in the care of mainly men – and the novel hones in on the overarching theme of how he avoided toxic masculinity (by first having to wade through it).

Of course, this is still a memoir of a comedic writer – so we are offered insight into how Webb went from being a shy child with little hand-eye coordination, to someone who’d perform a (rather rousing!) ‘Flashdance’ tribute on national television for Comic Relief. I felt real tenderness for young Webb, as he learns the thrill of comedic timing amongst his peers, and dares to dream of one day being famous … and his recounting early moments from his 20s, writing with David Mitchell is a little bit thrilling for a fan like me – being given some insight into their process.

But that’s not *really* what this memoir is about. Just as in his brilliant New Statesman article, Webb really is breaking down the patriarchy and our delusions of masculinity in a most relatable and thoughtful way – by pointing out how it’s all damaging horseshit.

He writes about denying his true interests as a child, to try and convert himself into the version of a “boy” that his family, friends and television wanted him to be. With absolutely heart-warming candour he describes falling in love as a teenager, with one of his best friends (alongside his infatuation with various female classmates, and discovering masturbating to Doctor Who female companions) – and one of the most tender moments comes when Webb tells his father of the gay relationships he’s had in the past, and discovers that family will out – even over small town conservatism.

I loved listening to this on audio book. It’s such a cliché to say that I laughed and cried, but I did – and then I wanted to go back and do it all again from the start. There are certain pronunciations and impersonations that I was so thankful I had Robert Webb himself to demonstrate for me, but really I loved it for his warmth. This book reads like a lay-it-all-on-the-line exposé, and Webb leaves nothing unsaid and no stone unturned (except perhaps for some teenage poetry). With steely-eyed wit and clarity he talks about abuse, alcoholism, grief, bisexuality, masculinity and love. There's so much love in this book. And to have Webb talk directly into my ear – even when his voice shook, sometimes – well, it was very special indeed.

I learnt a lot about Webb that I didn’t know, but has actually given new dimension to his writing and comedy for me – and actually, the creative process generally. Extraordinary to know the heartache and bullshit he went through, to be the kind of man he is today – who can confidently say that society’s male constructs are codswallop. And it struck me that one particular line about discovering the secret to Michael Jackson’s moonwalk, actually summarises the new sense of awe and respect I have for Webb;

Taking something to pieces doesn’t spoil the whole when you put it back together. You can still love the effortlessness, even when you’ve noticed the effort.


Friday, October 6, 2017

‘Can't Hardly Breathe’ Original Heartbreakers #4 by Gena Showalter

From the BLURB:

Bullied in high school, Dorothea Mathis's past is full of memories she'd rather forget. But there's one she can't seem to shake — her long-standing crush on former army ranger Daniel Porter. Now that the sexy bad boy has started using her inn as his personal playground, she should kick him out…but his every heated glance makes her want to join him instead.

Daniel returned to Strawberry Valley, Oklahoma, to care for his ailing father and burn off a little steam with no strings attached. Though he craves curvy Dorothea night and day, he's as marred by his past as she is by hers. The more he desires her, the more he fears losing her.

But every sizzling encounter leaves him desperate for more, and soon Daniel must make a choice: take a chance on love or walk away forever.

‘Can't Hardly Breathe’ is the fourth book in the ‘Original Heartbreakers’ contemporary romance series, by Gena Showalter.

I loved Showalter’s paranormal romance series ‘Lords of the Underworld’, and I’d been meaning to read her contemporary romance stuff – but she has SO MANY BOOKS, it was hard to know where to start. When I randomly picked up ‘Can’t Hardly Breathe’ at the bookstore, I was excited to read so many of my fave romance tropes in the blurb – unrequited high-school crush between nerdy girl and hot bad boy, TICK! So I decided to give the fourth book in her ‘Original Heartbreakers’ series a try, even though the series started in 2015 and I was coming into it cold.

Ok. So. Total honesty – ‘Can’t Hardly Breathe’ is not technically “good”. The story is fairly outlandish, the exposition sometimes clunky and the dialogue occasionally recalls some of E.L James’s worst ‘Fifty Shades’ monologues … and yet, I still had fun reading it.

Dorothea Mathis was an outcast in high school, relentlessly bullied by beautiful cheerleaders and generally invisible to the rest of her classmates. What gave her a modicum of hope in those years though, was popular bad-boy Daniel Porter once showing her a kindness … and then ripping out her heart when she discovered him canoodling with one of the girls making her life a living hell.

Fast-forward to adulthood and Dorothea has taken over running her family’s inn, where army ranger Daniel is back in town and currently occupying a room … so he can take his one-night-stands somewhere more private than his dad’s house.

Daniel is helping his dad recover after a heart-attack, and trying to downplay the old man’s wish for his son to settle down, marry, and start a family. When Daniel realises the inn owner he’s renting rooms from is Dorothea from high school, he suddenly can’t get the woman with pin-up girl curves out of his head … or heart.

I was hoping there’d be a bigger focus in this book, on who Dorothea and Daniel were in high school, versus now. Dorothea had a pretty crushing experience, of seeing Daniel getting hot n’ heavy with one of the very girls who bullied her mercilessly – and I was kinda hoping that in their small town, a lot of these teen traumas would be revisited and picked apart, so there could be some closure. Also for Daniel to interrogate his history of loving and leaving, and not making the best romantic decisions, even as a teenager … Unfortunately, apart from a first-chapter prologue set in high school, the novel is very much grounded in the present day.

Dorothea is instead bogged down in a messy separation from a cheating husband, that is connected to a much bigger loss … a public warfare with her young sister, trying to keep the rundown family inn from going bankrupt, and a secret desire to finish her studies to be a meteorologist – yes, there is a lot going on. And a lot of it is stupid – the meteorology thing especially, is entirely designed for a stormy climax that’s about as subtle as a sledgehammer.

At least the romance offers up a lot of good, steamy scenes and body-positivity discussions – as Dorothea has always been a big girl, she has body hang-ups around her weight and the scars she bares from a traumatic injury. Though I would have liked a little more discussion around this – especially because Dorothea has seen Daniel’s preferred one-night-stands, and they all tended to be thin … there was room in here for Showalter to provoke and poke at Daniel’s unrealistic beauty expectations too, not just Dorothea’s.

Overall though, the obstacles keeping these two apart are flimsy and stupid – like Daniel not wanting his dad to think he and Dorothea could have a chance of marriage and kids down the line.

Daniel is also said to be suffering from PTSD after quitting the army to start his own private security business, which – this must be the most lucrative business in contemporary romance for how many ex-Army heroes venture into that line of work. There’s really nothing to Daniel’s ex-army status, and it most definitely felt like Showalter shrugged and went with the most conventional romance hero job-trope and threw in a half-hearted exploration into PTSD.

But like I said … though this romance was perhaps quantifiably “bad” and not well-written per-se, I still found myself racing to finish and quite enjoying it. I may not venture back for book 5 (because that romantic pairing, as hinted at in ‘Can’t Hardly Breathe’ didn’t intrigue me) but I might tap back in for book number 6, at least.

So. Not “good” – but a nice little distraction nevertheless.


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