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Monday, February 26, 2018

'It’s Not Me, It’s You' by Mhairi McFarlane

From the BLURB:

Delia Moss isn't quite sure where she went wrong.

When she proposed and discovered her boyfriend was sleeping with someone else – she thought it was her fault.

When she realised life would never be the same again – she thought it was her fault.

And when he wanted her back like nothing had changed – Delia started to wonder if perhaps she was not to blame…

From Newcastle to London and back again, with dodgy jobs, eccentric bosses and annoyingly handsome journalists thrown in, Delia must find out where her old self went – and if she can ever get her back.

‘It’s Not Me, It’s You’ was the 2015 stand-alone romance novel from Scottish author, Mhairi McFarlane.

Okay – full disclosure – I’m a twit. I had no less than three friends whose reading tastes are very similar to my own, and whose opinion I highly regard telling me that Mhairi McFarlane is one of their favourite romance authors. I half-heartedly took their recs onboard, by buying three Mhairi books … and then didn’t read them. For about a year. And a half. Now I’m out the other side of one of the most enjoyable reading experiences of my life, and I’m fluctuating between beating myself up and just nosediving into her backlist!

‘It’s Not Me, It’s You’ presents us with Northen lass Delia Moss – and then proceeds to get her as downtrodden as possible when she discovers her boyfriend of ten-years (who has just become her fiancée) has been cheating on her. Delia’s life spins out of control upon this revelation – she quits her job, perhaps gets herself a virtual-stalker and accepts an invitation to go and live with her best friend in her London apartment while she sorts herself out.

What follows is Delia getting gainful employment with a rotten PR-agency, rediscovering her love of comic-creating, befriending someone over email and getting blackmailed into being a whistleblower … all while the relationship she left back in Newcastle remains with a giant question-mark over her future.

I love, love, loved this book – not least because nobody in it played to clichés. From the ‘other woman’ to the initially antagonistic new love interest, and even the rat-bag cheating boyfriend, and Delia herself … nobody plays to type (or, the archetype of romance fiction) but everyone is thoroughly believable, imperfect, and wonderful.

All these against-type characters also meant that the book kept me in utter suspense throughout – and the last 20 or so pages were a heart-palpitating emotional thrill-ride that had me bouncing between elation that a romance-book kept me guessing so marvellously, and pleading with Mhairi McFarlane to indeed fulfil the romance-genre promises.

Some storylines didn’t *quite* get the service I’d hoped for … like Delia’s virtual-stalker turned friend (whose storyline I half-anticipated was gearing up for a somewhat similar turn to Rainbow Rowell’s debut romance ‘Attachments’) but this was partly because of the aforementioned avoidance of clichés, where expectations could be set up but then pivoted and improved.

The book was also terribly funny. I snort-laughed as much as I swooned – and I swooned pretty darn hard.

'I wasn't trying that hard with men before Paul, though. I usually had the upper hand.' Delia swiped her travel-greasy fringe out of her eyes. 'Am I allowed to say I was quite a bit in demand, now it's so long ago?'
'You completely were,' Emma said. 'I remember in the union bar when you wore your hair in those buns which had all the boys sighing. You were one of those manic pixie dream girls. Without being a twat with a ukulele.'  

I think the best romance books are probably the ones that leave you half-desperate that the author had written an extra fifty, superfluous pages of just pure, giddy happily-ever-afterness … but much like a good meal leaving you salivating for one more mouthful, ‘It’s Not Me, It’s You’ was a satisfactory craving and now I’m just chuffed that I have her backlist to fall into.


Thursday, February 22, 2018

Interview with A.S. King - author of 'Please Ignote Vera Dietz'


Hello Darling Readers,

So, last year all my reader dreams came true because I got to meet one of my book idols - A.S. King. She is the author of everything I love, and she came to Australia for the Reading Matters Conference last year, to become living PROOF that you should definitely meet your idols.  
I am thrilled that Text Publishing is this month releasing King's Printz-Honor book, Please Ignore Vera Dietz - and gifting her words to a broader Australian audience.  
I was even more thrilled when Text asked me if I'd like to interview Amy (again!) 
So here she is. An author I most admire, letting me pick her brain.  
Link to the Text website feature (which also includes King's writing process and an extract from the book!) is here:

I work in youth literature. It’s pretty much my whole life. I write, advocate, edit, review, and even sell it as a literary agent.

I have bountiful thankfulness for the books I read growing up that ensured I’d always live for this readership, plus a deep respect and fascination with modern young-adult (YA) literature. 

But if you ask me who the one author is that’s writing YA today, who I wish with every fibre of my being had existed when I was a teen, I have only one answer. 

A. S. King.

Her books are not easy. Her books are not ‘nice’. But I know that she is one of the most important voices writing in YA fiction today for the very reason that she’s constantly testing boundaries and pushing readers out of comfort zones. 

Because A. S. King writes without limit. And I could have done with some of that, when I was growing up. 

Last year I had the thrill of my life getting to meet this author whom I have idolised since first reading her way back in 2011. I got to witness the impact and affect she had on teenagers when she joined the Centre for Youth Literature’s Reading Matters Conference line-up. The way A. S. King spoke to auditoriums full of teens – with steely-eyed honesty and deep-seated respect that only comes from truly knowing what it is to be young and hurting – that’s exactly the way she writes for them too. And they are so floored and shocked by her audacious authenticity – an adult who actually treats them and their pain as real and profound. It was an honour to witness the impact she had on each and every young person who was lucky enough to hear and read her words.

Which is why I am so excited that even more Aussie teens will get that chance, now that Please Ignore Vera Dietz has landed in Australia. It remains my favourite of hers. A novel of sheer magnificence, about heartbreakingly flawed and complex young characters – with no pulled punches, just deep understanding for the absurdity and beauty of life.  It’s about bullying and grief, abandonment and ignoring a problem until it festers and explodes. But above all else, it’s a novel of forgiveness. Forgiving other people and ourselves – the mistakes and bad choices, the pain inflicted and emptiness left behind. 

This book is a gift, and even if I wasn’t lucky enough to have A. S. King growing up, I am so thankful and relieved that today’s teens do. 

And that’s enough. Hell, it might even be everything. 

What were you like as a teen? And what were some of the formative works you encountered that still shape your writing today?

The farther I get from my teen years, the more I see myself as a fairly confident teen, even though I was a walking contradiction. For example: I was a determined athlete and a fantastic cigarette smoker. Also: I was determined to do something that would somehow help the world, and yet the prescribed path to this – school – was something I loathed.
But reading? And thinking? And writing? That was for me.

Funny that I separate these things from school but…now more than ever in American education, administrations are forcing teachers to teach to a test so maybe I was ahead of my time in opting out.

I read a lot as a kid, and once I got into my teens, I was required to read Paul Zindel’s The Pigman. I fell for Zindel. I read everything he’d ever written many, many times. I’d say the most important book for me as a teen and as a writer early on was Confessions of a Teenage Baboon. Zindel crafted well-defined and very strong adult characters and told stories of teens navigating adults. For me, that’s the definition of being a teen. Navigating adults.

When I first entered the YA world here in the US, I had more than one editor reject my work because it contained fully-formed adult characters. I stuck with what felt true to me because that’s what artists have to do.

Why do you write YA?

I believe teenagers are capable, complex human beings, and I love writing for them and about them. I didn’t do this on purpose. I’d been writing novels for a long time and at some point (far later than I should have) I realised that all of my characters’ stories started in their teen years. I wondered why. I came to this conclusion: our early years are called formative for a reason. Everything that happens to us before the age of ‘adulthood’ forms us. What an exciting, expansive time of life to study – the formative years. And what a fantastic way to help the world – to write honest portrayals of these formative years so teenagers could see themselves in books, face hard things and grow into stable adults. So, that’s my hindsight answer. But really, there was no why. I just naturally wrote this way.

What is it about teenagers that makes you want to write for – and about – them?

I’m really, so, utterly tired of seeing teenagers get a bad rap. They are the punchline to so many jokes. For what? Having an age that starts with the number one? When a toddler trips over their own feet, we ask them if they’re okay. Add ten years and if the same kid trips over their own feet, we snap at them or make them the brunt of a joke. I meet a lot of teenagers in a year and when I ask them, ‘Hey – have you guys noticed that adults roll their eyes at you a lot?’ they all say yes.

This upsets me because teen years are some of the hardest to get through and it’s hard enough without the added eye-roll. It also upsets me because all of us were teenagers once and I can’t quite figure out where this superiority comes from. I see it in twenty-somethings and beyond – as if the minute we are no longer teens, we are out to be better than the people still stuck there. I don’t know. I’m passionate about how smart and caring teenagers are. I’m amazed by how open-minded they are. I don’t understand why they are, in most cultures, the butt of our jokes.

And on a serious note…we are living in an age where teenage mental illness is an epidemic. I reckon it’s about time we STOP calling teenage emotions DRAMA. Stop it. Now. It’s time to take things seriously. I’ve had people argue with me on that – they say that teenage emotions are fleeting, they are happy one minute and sad the next. Yeah. Maybe. But will being an asshole about it help them in any way? No. So stop.

And what do you say to any critics who throw out the tired question ‘Will you ever write a “real” book – for adults?’

Oh, please. I’ve heard this a few times – always from someone who hasn’t read my books or who doesn’t read young-adult books or any books at all. Anyone saying that sort of garbage is just out to make another person feel small. Which, to me, makes the asker seem small. Seriously. I’m probably too busy writing an awesome book to answer this question in real life.

Why do you think parent characters often get forgotten in a lot of modern YA? You make a point of writing multifaceted adults in your teen characters’ lives – like the wonderful father Ken Dietz in Please Ignore Vera Dietz.

I will admit to not really liking books where teens or children are the only people populating the landscape. It seems so unrealistic to me. 

I will tell you what happened to Ken Dietz in Please Ignore Vera Dietz when editors were reading it and bidding on it. He nearly got cut from the book. It started with me asking one editor if she had any editorial ideas and she said, ‘We have to cut the father, of course.’ I was like, ‘Whoa, wait, what?’ Then I asked about Ken’s flowcharts. She said ‘Yeah, those go, too.’ I asked why. Her answer was: TEENS ONLY WANT TO READ ABOUT TEENS. 

Still breathing?


So, I don’t agree with that. Especially considering my earliest inspiration was Confessions of a Teenage Baboon by Zindel. I LOVED reading about adults. 

So, if I was to guess, the answer to the WHY of this question is: for some weird reason, there are editors and other publishing or even library professionals who have a problem with adults in YA or children’s books. Often, you will hear the agency reasoning, which goes like this: make sure there are no adults in the book solving problems because the whole point of a book for children and teens is that they have to solve all the problems themselves!
And we wonder why kids don’t come to adults for help.

I may be weird for thinking that way but I’m still reeling, ten years later, at the original misconception that teens only want to read about teens. As if all teens were just cranked out of the teen factory identical to every other teen.

I should add that my goal since I dreamed of being a writer at age fourteen was to write books that help adults understand teens better and to help teens understand adults better. So for me, there was never a question of including both age groups. My 2019 book is three generations wide. I’ve always been fascinated with generational differences, and how we navigate them as humans.

Your books are weird and wonderful, and like they’re sometimes showing the real-world through a fun-house mirror, slightly off-kilter… What do you say to those who ask if the surreal and bizarre in your books are ‘real’ or figments of your characters’ imaginations? For instance – is the pagoda really sentient in Vera Dietz?

Oh, that pagoda. Hmm. Well, I guess life is surreal, Danielle. I mean, it is, right? And who better to write about in that sense than teenagers? Teen years – talk about surreal. So I think literary elements like sentient pagodas make sense in all books, but especially YA books, I guess, because teens live lives full of surreal expectations. Do this, do that, don’t forget this, make sure you do that, get a job, do your homework, and WHY AREN’T YOU RELAXED/HAPPY/SMILING?

See what I mean?

In the case of the pagoda, that book wrote itself and when the pagoda started talking, I had to listen. It said some smart stuff. And it had the widest view of the town, the characters, and it knew the truth. The real truth – all of it. Which is more than the characters populating the book had.

But what do I say to people who want linear answers? I say: you may have read the book too quickly. See if you can read it next time like it’s a painting or your favorite band’s album.

What do you want to say to those who think that the real world is bad enough, so teens should only read ‘happy’ YA books that offer them a reprieve from fear and pain, instead of tackling it head on as you do?

I don’t even know what to say. I mean, children’s television is there if anyone wants to go back to watching Elmo, I suppose. But seriously. What part of life isn’t contradictory inside of every second? What part of our lives is just picture perfect for every minute? Um, none. If adults want to argue that their kids have everything they need, yeah, so do mine…but they also have pain and all kinds of things that make them sad. If no one talks about it, then they feel like freaks for this. And then they hold it all in. And then what? Look around. What happens when kids hold everything in to make their parents happy and meet social expectations? A lot of bad shit. That’s what happens.

Her are some numbers. One in four American teenagers are suffering from mental illness. 

Seventy per cent go untreated. One in four women are sexually assaulted before they graduate college. One in four girls and one in seven boys have experienced childhood sexual abuse. Forty-five per cent of children have lived through the divorce of their parents. This is the tip of the shitty iceberg that is life. For all of us. Denying teenagers a helpful and real outlet for their pain is cruel. Deciding not to educate teens who don’t fit into any of these categories is cruel, too, because life is on the way and bad shit happens to people they know, their spouses, their children.

On a more serious note (hold on…more serious than that?). In America, a kid could get shot and die while they sit in chemistry class because we have gun violence that is the most surreal and unimaginable thing I have ever witnessed. You want me to make my books HAPPY? How’s that going to help their trauma? All kids by the time they hit high school have trauma. We blow it off as drama. They watch kids all over this country get gunned down in school. Even if they aren’t in that school, that’s trauma. National trauma. Yesterday seventeen people died in a school shooting. Today, we are numb – I feel like I am living inside a zombie’s body. This is trauma. 

So yeah. Come at me. I’ve got a pocketful of stats for anyone who feels teenagers should be sheltered. Also, to anyone who thinks teenagers shouldn’t read curse words, I have a pocketful of those, too.

What is the number one piece of advice you’d give your teen self? (And is this the inspiration behind all your novels?)

I have never been asked this question before in this way and I love you for it. Because I sat here thinking about it at first, and I think if I was able to go back in time and tell myself not to worry so much about all the crap people told me was important, I’d have been a lot more relaxed and happy. In more blunt terms: keeping up with the Joneses is complete bullshit.
And yes, I’m pretty sure that’s the message inside all of my novels. Among other things. I never knew that before. Thanks.

When are you coming back to Australia?

thought I’d be back this year, but it turns out I’m heading to New Zealand for their smashing Auckland Writer’s Festival in May. I’m sad I can’t make it to your shores this time around. You know how much I loved being there last year. Australians are of my sensibility. That weird Ireland/American mix. (And you pronounce yogurt the same way as we do, which is how the world should be.)
Did your time here last year bring up any inspiration for you? 

I am now eight months from my time in Australia and there’s one thing that keeps coming back to me when I talk about it.

My time in Melbourne was particularly eye-opening in that it is a globally diverse city. I’ve been to a lot of major cities. Nothing comes close to the feeling of welcome global diversity there for me. I don’t know how else to describe it.

When the conference opened, Adele thanked the indigenous tribe on whose land the conference was being hosted. This was the coolest thing I ever saw. You must understand, I am from America where this may happen in some places, but I’ve never seen it and I’ve been around. So I’ve always been an American who craves diversity and difference, and who has always wanted to talk openly about the crimes that occurred in my country – the crimes that enabled my country to be a country/the crimes that this country was founded on. I want us to finally respect the people who survived our genocide. I’d like a lot more, but the first step is respect and acknowledging the truth of our history. 

Native American history isn’t taught outside of inaccurate and dismissive accounts of what really happened. And slavery is so inaccurately taught, proportionally distorted, still not being openly discussed in order to understand present day reality. Those are both understatements. I can’t really dive into how much work we have to do on those fronts or count how many other fronts we should be working on here. The list is enormous. But to see that simple gesture – thanking for the use of the land. That acknowledgement of true history. It made me cry on the spot. I wish we did that here. I wish we had the sensibility to talk openly about anything without an argument arising. So far, that’s not happening over here. So Australia was pure inspiration. Full marks for being awesome.

How do you think Aussie teens are different from American ones? 

From what I saw when I was there, Australian teens really understood my more Irish side – meaning the side of me that talks about communities and volunteering and being part of making things in your country/area better. They weren’t afraid to talk about mental health and they didn’t balk when I talked about it, nor non-consumerism or my years being self-sufficient. They seemed to totally understand why I talked about race and how important it is to know the privilege of whiteness. I felt less weird in Australia, generally.

Now, that’s not to give American teens a bad rap. American teens are plenty savvy and smart and capable and empathetic. However, they are often shocked when I speak so openly about mental health, race, or the personal responsibility we have to our communities. Some are either so used to being universally dismissed and devalued, or they are just not used to adults talking to them about personal things so openly? I don’t know. I do feel weird here but that’s because I lived so long abroad and I think I can be weird-seeming to people who don’t know many women who speak passionately about certain topics.

I felt a confidence among Aussie teens that came from something deeper in their education, an openness to learning – something that gave them credit for being almost to adulthood. A sense of belonging and maturity. I’m sad to say that I don’t see that as often here. (I DO see it, but not as often, that’s all.) American high school has become a series of standardized tests and rites of passage floating on the surface of a great education offered by great educators…who are often at the mercy of an administration that is distracted by what floats on the surface. Confident maturity – while juggling a natural rebellion against a culture that is constantly belittling them – is all over the place, but that belittling takes its toll on that confidence. 

Here’s a line from Please Ignore Vera Dietz that sums up how I feel about living in America, what it’s like for teenagers to live in America, and that sums up this entire interview! 
‘I’m sorry, but I don’t get it. If we’re supposed to ignore everything that’s wrong with our lives, then I can’t see how we'll ever make things right.’ 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

'Letters For Lucardo' by Noora Heikkilä

From the BLURB:

Ed Fiedler is a common man.

61 years old and employed as a scribe in a royal palace, his most regular client is Lucardo von Gishaupt, a forever-young aristocrat . . . and member of the mysterious and revered Night Court. When the eternally 33-year-old Lucardo and the aging Ed develop feelings for one another, both are forced to contend with the culture shock of a mortal man's presence among the deathless, the perilous disapproval of the sitting Lord of the Night Court, and Ed's own ever-present mortality, threatening to bring an end to their romance in the blink of an everlasting eye.

‘Letters for Lucardo’, written and illustrated by Noora Heikkilä is the first graphic novel in a planned four-part series from Iron Circus Comics.

I first heard about this book in a round-up of the best graphic novels and comic books of 2017, put out by The A.V. Club – a pop-culture website I greatly admire. I actually marked quite a few of the listed works for eventual purchase, but this one jumped out at me because it was marked as an LGBT+ vampire romance (and I do loves me some vampire and paranormal romance). So I decided to start here, and boy – am I glad I did.

However. I will say that in the condensed listicle style, A.V. Club did not warn that ‘Letters for Lucardo’ is an erotic graphic novel. They just said; “Heikkilä’s skill with expressions and body language are a little overwhelming” which I clearly brushed over (though to be fair, I could have deep-dived and found their original review which did stress the fact of ‘explicit erotica’). Because, yes, this is *explicit* erotica that I was not prepared for. I mean … I liked it. Heck, I loved the whole thing! While also blushing profusely and counting my lucky starts that I devoured this in bed with the flu and not, say, on the train during a city commute like I’d originally planned to.

Not only is this a vampire romance; it’s a vampire May-to-December, interracial, gay romance. Ed Fiedler is the 61-year-old human and scribe to Lucardo von Gishaupt (who has been 34-years-old for a few decades now) who is from an elite and mysterious society called the ‘Night Court’. The book begins with Lucardo admitting he has developed feelings for Ed over the course of a working relationship, and the book dives right into their first kiss and follows Ed’s giddy falling for the young vampire …

But as the two men fall deeper and deeper in love, Ed in particular has to deal with both the culture shock of Lucardo’s vampiric background (and the divide between their socio-economic standings), and the encroaching fact of Ed’s own frail mortality on their romance.

I loved this book. What’s really wonderful about it is how it deals with the emotional side of paranormal romance, minus action-thriller additions (which is really where most books about vampires end up existing). I mean, to a certain extent, all vampire romances are May-to-December ones. Edward was 100+ years-old when he meets 17-year-old Bella Swan, despite them both looking like teens. But in ‘Letters for Lucardo’ this fact is not taken for granted, but rather becomes a tender and heart-wrenching exploration of love surpassing all bonds.

Creator Noora Heikkilä’s author-bio at the back really hints at what this entire series is focused on, and portrays so beautifully;

She’s interested in stories about romance, creating soft spaces in rough lives, communication being an essential part of relationships and society, and the thought that nobody is too old or unskilled to start learning something new.

As to the erotic aspect … oh, boy! It’s probably up there with  ‘Blue Is the Warmest Color’ by Julie Maroh, and intensely hot. It doesn’t feel gratuitous, because it is so gorgeously harmonised with the entirety of Ed and Lucardo’s burgeoning romance and feelings for one another, but if you weren’t expecting it (like I wasn’t) I can imagine it’s a slight shock. A happy-shock, but a shock.

I also really loved the gentle fleshing out of the universe here – the alternate historical setting, in which the vampiric Night Court is a fact of life and their worship is both secretive and high-society. It does have a ‘Twilight’ Volturi feel, which I actually really appreciated because though I am a fan of those books (proudly) I will say that that whole world-building often felt like a giant missed opportunity, and I feel safer in wherever Heikkilä’s story is taking us.

Though a slim book one (of only 139-pages) this story packs a real emotional punch, and I am now so happily invested in this romance. But what’s really frustrating is – there’s nothing else quite like it. I mean – I did not know until I read ‘Letters for Lucardo’ that I needed LGBT+, interracial vampire romances in my life, STAT, but now here we are. And there truly is nothing else out there – in graphic novels, books, TV or movies – that quite fit the bill. AND – I am also having to deal with the fact that Book 2 of this planned four-part series isn’t out until second-half of 2018. I now have this void that ‘Lucardo’ left, and no way to fill it except with more of Noora Heikkilä’s overwhelming gorgeous story.


Monday, February 12, 2018

'Anatomy of a Scandal' by Sarah Vaughan

From the BLURB:

You want to believe your husband. She wants to destroy him.

‘Anatomy of a Scandal’ centres on a high-profile marriage that begins to unravel when the husband is accused of a terrible crime. Sophie is sure her husband, James, is innocent and desperately hopes to protect her precious family from the lies which might ruin them. Kate is the barrister who will prosecute the case – she is equally certain that James is guilty and determined he will pay for his crimes. A high-profile marriage thrust into the spotlight. A wife, determined to keep her family safe, must face a prosecutor who believes justice has been a long time coming.

A scandal that will rock Westminster. 
And the women caught at the heart of it.

‘Anatomy of a Scandal’ is a new courtroom drama/crime-thriller from British author, Sarah Vaughan.

So. This was a dud. And I am seriously disappointed that I have started my reading year with yet another disappointing adult-fiction book.

The endorsement quote on the front-cover of ‘Anatomy of a Scandal’ bills it as; “the best courtroom drama I’ve read since ‘Apple Tree Yard’.”  I do not know that ‘Apple Tree Yard’ is, but one of my favourite parts of reading Jodi Picoult for many years was the pattern her books followed – of going from human drama, to courtroom drama and I was hoping to get that same fix here. I also thought ‘Anatomy of a Scandal’ could envelop different aspect of this courtroom drama – maybe the police, prosecution, media pundits … maybe some ‘State of Play’ vibes? Especially as the crime in question – the rape of a woman by a politician who had just ended his affair with her – seemed to be uncomfortably prescient for the times and Time’s Up we’re living in.

The novel is broken down between several narrators – though all told from third-person interiority – the bulk of the story comes from prosecuting barrister Kate, the wife of accused Sophie, and only two or three chapters from the accused himself, Westminster conservative politician and friend to the PM, James.

The present-day chapters leap from 2016 – when James admits to having had a five-months’ long affair to his wife Sophie, then to his being accused of a rape during a clandestine meeting in an elevator, with the woman in question – to the 2017 trial where Kate is prosecuting. But the novel also jumps backwards to 1992/1993 and the year at Oxford where James, Sophie, (now PM) Tom and a woman called Holly were all first-years on a collision course for some alluded-to awful circumstance.

This is an interesting premise, I’ll grant you. On the surface, it sounds a lot like last year’s psychological British drama series ‘Liar’ which likewise breaks down the “he said, she said” faults of the justice system when it comes to rape trials and convictions. There’s also much made of the fact that James is devastatingly handsome, and popular – which Kate as prosecutor freely admits leans on people’s unconscious bias in these matters – in that, I was reminded of another British drama in ‘The Fall’ about a good-looking serial killer (not rapist) but was also playing on subverting people’s assumptions around “villains” in these instances.

But, but, but … ‘Anatomy of a Scandal’ is a sloppy book. All tell, no show. Cheap tricks and no pay-off. And it honestly feels like editorial was rushed to meet the newsworthiness of the book in this moment of women bringing down predatory and powerful men. The book hurts because of that rush (note that the rape victim, Olivia, never gets to tell her story through her own, independent chapters. Because her story and rape is really just a prop for others.) – and honestly, I wondered why it was even green-lit when it actually cheapens the entire wave of change we’re living in right now. To put it bluntly – it’s written more like the sloppy “investigative reporting” (or lack thereof) of the Babe Aziz Ansari piece than the meticulous and precise reporting on Harvey Weinstein by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey.

I’ll deep-dive into one of my biggest pet-peeves, but overall – Vaughan summarises. A lot. Even complicated emotions like Sophie first having to grapple with the fact that her husband whom she loves dearly, has been carrying out an affair for five months and is then accused of rape by the woman – all of that is brushed aside. Scenes of James trying to initiate sex for the first time since the scandal broke, and Sophie rebuffing him are later swept aside with oddly tight references to their resumed “lovemaking” later on. At one point in the middle of the trial, Sophie is wresting with her anger and fear for James when she whisks their two children away to the Devon countryside to escape scrutiny – and while watching them, she somehow has a light-bulb moment that ends with her *smiling* at the thought of James getting a ‘not guilty’ and their life going back to normal?

Kate as barrister is another one – early mention to a colleague she is having an affair with but whose wife has recently found out, are alluded to in one tantalizing sentence early on, and then never again. Beyond that, she has no interest or character development – we are repeatedly told that she has high-cheekbones and dresses androgynous, but beyond that … nada.  The tagline literally promises; ‘A scandal that will rock Westminster. And the women caught at the heart of it.’ But the women are hollow.

It’s a sloppy story, over all. One chapter from an entirely different secondary character’s perspective is used purely as exposition – to joint the dots out loud if we didn’t quite fit them all together from the previous chapter – and then we never get another chapter from them, having done their momentary Jiminy Cricket bit.

And though the book claims to be a courtroom drama, this aspect is more ‘tell’ than ‘show’. I can honestly say that reading newspaper accounts of Taylor Swift’s testimony was more heart-stopping, and had more interesting dialogue in the form of witness accounts.

So. This book is a dud when it comes to characters, storytelling mechanisms, writing … basically; everything sucks. Hard. But my biggest pet-peeve with this book was how LAZY and EASY it was.

The level of cliché to James as the “villain” was so frustrating. James and the Prime Minister are ex-Eton men, and all that that entails. They are quite clearly modelled on David Cameron and his set – and early allusions to a scandal during their time at Oxford very quickly conjured memories of “Piggate”, before it’s revealed how much more serious James’s past history is … And of course, these clichés of wealthy and entitled men belonging to a conservative party, largely made up of people who bought their way into positions of power (through socio-economic lottery, lordships, equally entitled family and friendship connections, etc.) while living hypocritical, scandal-filled lives is a cliché for a reason. To the point that James reels off a list of past conservative party men who lived through sex scandals, and still managed to have thriving political careers in spite of (and you bet it was an interesting week to start reading Anatomy of a Scandal at the same time that Barnaby Joyce’s gross hypocrisy was revealed).

So on the one hand – Vaughan is quite justifiably drawing on past public scandals and known political figures to build a believable character of James. His chapters do read on the knife-edge between typical entitled wanker, and outright sociopath – and as a reader you’re constantly asking yourself which he falls into (both, it’s definitely both – because – of course it’s both). moment.

Vaughan leads the reader the same way a lawyer does a witness. There is no gray-scale in this story, no ‘whodunit’, really – no meandering off the path from Point A to Point B. James is an awful character who is awful and shown repeatedly to be awful and is then revealed to absolutely be awful and – oh! – look at the other awful thing they’ve done. Um. Okay? Was … was there meant to be some guess work in this? At one point James says; ‘Look what Blair did with the Iraq dossier.’ AS A DEFENCE. And, reader, I eye-rolled. I eye-rolled hard. WE GET IT. He’s a Tory wanker. So what else is new and interesting? The fact that he’s ex-Eton with the moral outlook of Stephen Miller was just too quiet a characterisation until that line. Ugh.

But part of me wondered if the book wouldn’t have been more interesting, and kept me guessing (as opposed to outright believing James is guilty and thinking the whole thing was a sloppy snooze) if he had been a member of – say – the Labour party? More a Jeremy Corbyn than a David Cameron. As the Time’s Up movement rallies on, there are layers of abuse and gaslighting being revealed – in Hollywood specifically, but also as it alludes to the everyday too. Take the case of Louis C.K. – whose allegations of sexual degradation led to articles examining ‘Threat of Fake Male Feminists’ and ‘17 Types Of Male "Feminists" That Need To Be Stopped’. Joss Whedon’s problematic behaviour involving women and power structures have also been taken to task when talking about toxic ‘male feminists’.

I think this could have been an interesting angle to take a gander at, in ‘Anatomy of a Scandal’. Just as the myth of a rapist being a perfect stranger you meet down a dark alley (rather than somebody known to you, often a family-member) so too is there a myth that once existed but is now being debunked, of a male progressive feminist – with some now revealed to be dressing up as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, to perpetuate harm against women.

As the woman trying to bring a conviction against him, Kate often muses on how frustrated she is that James is such a good-looking man, because it instantly raises the sexist objectifications and biases from the jury (“would he really need to rape someone to get some? A good-looking guy like him?”). But as a conservative running on family values blah blah blah, it’s also deliciously hypocritical that he carried out a five-months long affair and that is an easy mark against him. My thought was how much more complicated could the story have been if, say, James had been a liberal Justin Trudeau-type, replacing ‘conservative family values’ with ‘progressive feminist establishment’? (not that I want such a narrative to come to non-fictional fruition, mind!) But just to shake the narrative up a little bit, and truly keep me guessing as a reader. I hope someone writes that book (if they haven’t already? @ me recs!) – but that someone was never going to be Sarah Vaughan. Jodi Picoult, she is not. Hell – if I’m honest –I’ve seen more complex episode of Law & Order SVU.

This book was an awful, amateur hour soggy “drama”. There’s a ‘Guaranteed Great Read or Your Money Back’ sticker on my copy, and I am honestly thinking of making good on the publisher’s promise for the first time ever on that.

Why was it even called ‘Anatomy of a Scandal’? Is … is this a really crude reference to James’ penis and trying to decipher consent at the point of penetration? I don’t care. I don’t know why I kept reading – I honestly think it was just to see if the last line of the book was going to be; “AND – he fucked a pig, once.” Because – honestly – I wouldn’t have put it past Vaughan to end with one final anvil-drop of subtlety.


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