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Friday, August 30, 2019

'Brazen and the Beast' The Bareknuckle Bastards #2 by Sarah MacLean

From the BLURB: 

The Lady’s Plan

When Lady Henrietta Sedley declares her twenty-ninth year her own, she has plans to inherit her father’s business, to make her own fortune, and to live her own life. But first, she intends to experience a taste of the pleasure she’ll forgo as a confirmed spinster. Everything is going perfectly... until she discovers the most beautiful man she’s ever seen tied up in her carriage and threatening to ruin the Year of Hattie before it’s even begun.

The Bastard’s Proposal

When he wakes in a carriage at Hattie’s feet, Whit, a king of Covent Garden known to all the world as Beast, can’t help but wonder about the strange woman who frees him—especially when he discovers she’s headed for a night of pleasure... on his turf. He is more than happy to offer Hattie all she desires... for a price.

An Unexpected Passion

Soon, Hattie and Whit find themselves rivals in business and pleasure. She won’t give up her plans; he won’t give up his power... and neither of them sees that if they’re not careful, they’ll have no choice but to give up everything... including their hearts.

'Brazen and the Beast' is the second book in Sarah MacLean's new historical romance series, 'The Bareknuckle Bastards'.

I became OBSESSED with this new his-rom from MacLean, that is largely set in the "underworld" of London in Covent Garden, and is a bit of an upstairs/downstairs for centring around four siblings - three of whom are from the "gutters" and the first two books focused on brothers Devil and Beast, had them paired with ladies ("toffs") from the gentry. 

First book was about Devil and Felicity, who are now married when we dive into 'Brazen and the Beast' which is all about brother Beast and his Lady Henrietta Sedley. 

Surprising no one, this second book from MacLean is more brilliance; an absolute master-class in a new era of historical romance that is both feminist, progressive, and hot as all get-out! 

It starts with Henrietta 'Hattie' being a larger-than-life woman (literally) who has always been *too much* for the ton; too loud, tall, plump, ambitious ... her father runs a shipping company, and it is her great desire to inherit it over her brother and have some control over her own life and future. Since Hattie is 29 and unlikely to ever wed, running the family business is her one chance to be the master of her fate - until she crosses paths with Beast 'Whit' Bareknuckle Bastard of London. 

This is more of MacLean casting off the ballrooms and sitting-rooms of most historical romances, of putting aside this idea of nobility and class to delve into much more working-class and inclusive sides of London rarely seen in such books - and it's the reading-equivalent of loosening our corsets, for readers and Hattie alike. It even changes the tropes of his-rom, when we have Hattie who is so desperate to take herself out of that gentry equation and not marry into money or security, but make her own way and take care of herself. It's incredible that MacLean is totally upending the usual "rules" of the genre, but still settling us into this fabulous saga series based around a family whose rejection of title is both what made them, and what could break them ...

Hattie and Beast/Whit are SUCH a good pairing. MacLean really explores in them, this idea of equality - and what it means to truly be *partners*, especially in a world where women are reliant on men to dictate all aspects of their lives ... and it's also so interesting for how she puts a microscope on this within romantic relationships of the genre, when a key ingredient for a happy-ending is the hero choosing her own path. Also: Whit and Hattie are HOT. This is some of the best sex-scenes and scenes if intimacy, reminding why and how MacLean remains at the top of this game. It's pretty hard to see how future book/s in the series will top Beast...

On that note; I'm a little in two minds about the next book in the series being about Grace and Ewan - the latter being the menacing brother-villain looming over the whole series, and Grace as his childhood sweetheart he's been made to believe has died. Part of me was hoping that *maybe* Grace and Ewan wouldn't be paired up, only so we could get TWO more books in this series .... I also half-hoped that *maybe* Grace could get an LGBT+ storyline (though in 'Brazen' we get the hints of a fabulous one, between Hattie's friend Nora and Covent sentry Anika - that I hope continues into the next book) ... and I thought it could be interesting if Ewan's story was about having to move on from what he thought was his GREAT LOVE, and what that would do to who he eventually ends up with - someone who won't want to feel like they'll always place second? 

BUT; it does seem that MacLean is steadfast in pairing Ewan and Grace, and I am resigned ... and also keen to see how she'll flip and subvert what is clearly meant to be a Catherine and Heathcliff dysfunctional pairing (Please - I am here for MacLean to scream from the rooftops that "WUTHERING HEIGHTS IS NOT A ROMANCE!" and show us how it would need to be flipped and fixed to become one). 

I also appreciated 'Brazen and the Beast' for the little cameos from MacLean's other series (I noted two - but I'm sure there's more I didn't realise or haven't read yet?). It was a lovely reminder of how full and well-rounded this world feels that MacLean keeps dipping us back into, and why I'm so sad to think there's only one 'Bareknuckle Bastards' book left. Bring on 2020!


Thursday, August 15, 2019

'A Constant Hum' by Alice Bishop

From the BLURB:

It’ll all be okay, my mother said, and I remember the way her familiar face scrunched, afterwards – reflected back at me, in the fogged bathroom mirror, when she thought I couldn’t see. 

Before the fire – before the front of flames roars over the hills—the ridge is thick with gums. After the fire, all the birds have gone. There is only ash and melted metal, the blackened husks of cars. And the lost people: on the TV news in borrowed clothes, in temporary accommodation on the outskirts of the city, or remembered in small offerings outside the town hall. 

A Constant Hum grapples with the aftermath of bushfire with an eye for the telling detail. Some of these stories cut to the bone; others are empathetic tales of survival, even hope. All are gripping and stunningly written, heralding the arrival of a vital new voice in Australian fiction.

Well, that was a feast made from grief and completely, hauntingly, divine. ‘A Constant Hum’ by Alice Bishop is a Short Story Collection based on the aftermath of the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires. 

It features a variation of viewpoints and Short Story forms - everything from minisagas to microfiction, and microstory (of only a few words) interspersed with flash fiction and longer form short stories too. 

There were still reports, years later, of the horses that night: their coats matted and sweet from sweat in smoke-blurred headlights.  

The pace of them - longer and short form one after the other - makes it read like the waves and stages of grief. And sometimes we get the barest hint of an aspect of the tragedy, like it’s all we can handle of the whole. One line a character utters in a story hints at these fleeting moments: ‘It’s okay, Haze, sometimes things just disappear.’ 

It’s stunning, and unsurprising that Bishop herself grew up in Christmas Hills - one town devastated by the fires. This collection feels both assured and vulnerable, a hard and hurting reading but necessary and so very, very fulfilling. I loved it.

It’s also worth reading her acknowledgments at the back - and the very end, where Bishop lists all the places where many of the stories were previously published or recognised: journals and magazines, websites, and short story prizes ... it highlights how long Bishop has been writing and finessing this collection, and it’s proof-positive that building a writing resume (particularly of your short-story work) is well worth doing. It takes time, but the best things often do.


Thursday, August 1, 2019

'Pieces of Her' by Karin Slaughter

From the BLURB: 

What if the person you thought you knew best turned out to be someone you never knew at all? 

Andrea Oliver's mother, Laura, is the perfect small-town mum. Laura lives a quiet but happy life in sleepy beachside Belle Isle. She's a pillar of the community: a speech therapist, business owner and everybody's friend. And she's never kept a secret from anyone. Or so Andrea thinks. 

When Andrea is caught in a random violent attack at a shopping mall, Laura intervenes and acts in a way that is unrecognisable to her daughter. It's like Laura is a completely different person - and that's because she was. Thirty years ago. Before Andrea. Before Belle Isle. 

Laura is hailed as a hero for her actions at the mall but 24 hours later she is in hospital, shot by an intruder, who's spent decades trying to track her down. 

What is Andrea's mother trying to hide? As elements of the past return and put them both in danger, Andrea is left to piece together Laura's former identity and discover the truth - for better or worse - about her mother. Is the gentle, loving woman who raised her also a violent killer?

'Pieces of Her' is the new stand-alone crime/thriller novel from maestra, Karin Slaughter! 

Much as I adored Slaughter's 'Grant County' series (until it tore my heart out!) and am still loving her 'Will Trent' series, I've been absolutely enamoured of her stand-alone books of late. Her last one, 2017's 'The Good Daughter' was an absolute SMASH and I loved it, so I was super keen to dive into her next with 'Pieces of Her'. 

Andrea and her mother Laura find themselves at an impasse - Andrea moved back home after a failed stint in New York, ostensibly to help nurse her mother back to health after her cancer diagnosis. But Laura is in remission now, and Andrea is still spinning her wheels living at home and taking a crappy job as a police phone operator - and reluctant to let her successful speech-therapist mother know just how much she hated her old life in New York, and is unwilling to return to it. 

There's a great line in which Andrea comments that her mother is a woman "who knows where the lids to her Tupperware are kept" and it's just *chef's kiss* apt character description for a put-together older white lady from the South. 

What changes everything is an incident in a diner, when Andrea and her mother find themselves bystanders in a gun attack. Except Laura isn't a bystander for long - she confronts the young gunman, and turns tables - killing him in a most violent, professional manner ... that multiple people capture on phone-camera, so she makes the nightly news. 

Suddenly Laura's world starts unravelling, and Andrea along with it. 

This set-up is VERY 'A History of Violence' meets the Geena Davis classic 'The Long Kiss Goodnight' ... or so I thought. I was kind of hoping that with this set-up, 'Pieces of Her' would become a mother-daughter cover-operative spy-thriller - but sadly, it becomes Laura sending Andrea off for her own safety, and having to uncover the truth of her mother's past by herself on the road, while Laura stays home and answers to the authorities. 

There are inter-cut flashbacks to Laura's past that keeps readers guessing as to *which* player she is in an unfolding Patty Hearst-esque saga from decades ago ... and I found these interchanges to be quite dull, and the backstory not nearly as thrilling as I'd hoped. Even as I also appreciated Slaughter portraying a nuanced though extreme form of domestic violence, of both physical, emotional and psychological abuse. 

I guess my disappointment came from Slaughter keeping this story relatively grounded, when I kept hoping/expecting it to take off into Jason Bourne type territory. I was also really gunning for a Mother/Daughter "buddy cop" recipe, because the book was most fun when Andrea and Laura were together - and I felt like the second Andrea went solo, the present-day storyline also became dull. I was especially disappointed when a potential relationship with a guy is dangled before Andrea, but it's stalled from really building by having them not team up ... and then that the entire thing ends with an almost Hannibal/Clarice talking scene, that after so little action felt like yet another lull in what should have been a more action-packed finale. 

There's a lot of similarities between 'Pieces of Her' and the (I think) more successful 'The Good Daughter' - namely in both books pivoting around a relationship from the past that's been buried, and re-triggered by a violent tragedy in the present. But 'The Good Daughter' was so pacey and violent, a deeply torturous psychological read that kept me guessing ... where I feel like 'Pieces of Her' kept stalling and never *quite* reaching its full potential. The story just never went the way I wanted it to, and remained sedate instead of kicking pace and characters up a notch. 

It was just 'okay' when I've come to expect 'spectacular' from Slaughter.

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