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Tuesday, February 23, 2021

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


From the BLURB: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, February 20, 2021

'Long Story Short' Movie Review


Long Story Short 

2020 movie, written & directed by Josh Lawson 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, February 14, 2021

'Take Me Cowboy' Copper Ridge #6 by Maisey Yates


From the BLURB: 

She's just one of the boys, but with a new business in Copper Ridge, Anna Brown needs to change that. Her brothers bet she can't land a date for a fancy charity event. So Anna turns to her best friend—the hottest bachelor in town—for advice. 

Rancher Chase McCormack wants in on that gala. If Anna takes him, he promises to turn her into a lady. But the makeover reveals what he's long suspected—Anna's irresistible! Is his best friend prepared to be taken—heart, body and soul—by her very own cowboy?

I don't even remember when I purchased this little paperback of Maisey Yates's book ... probably from the fab Big-W 'romance reads' section, and knowing that I have a ton of Maisey Yates titles I've accumulated on my Kindle via NetGalley, she's a name I always look out for on those shelves. Because I have always known that I intend to get into reading her one day. She's beloved in the romance genre; a prolific author (with 100+ titles under her belt in a relatively short time considering she came onto the scene in 2010). I also know her background was as a mum of 3 living close to poverty in rural Oregon (where she still sets her stories, and lives) and writing for Mills & Boon basically pulled her and her husband out of hardship, and she's been very vocal about romance-publishing and her writing buying them their first house. Yes! I love a story of the matriarchy and possibility inherent to the romance industry that helps women become entrepreneurial and successful (for more, see 2015 doco 'Love Between the Covers').

So I dug this little paperback out when the need to finally delve into Maisey's backlist became too great, and this book was a great place to start! A point-of-order however; this is classified as both book six in the 'Copper Ridge' series but also the first book in the 'Copper Ridge: Desire' series which I *think* is a slight off-shoot wherein they offered two-for-one Harlequin's (my copy was 'Take Me, Cowboy' and 'Seduce Me, Cowboy' - which is No. 3 in the 'Copper Ridge: Desire' series ... confusingly)

I do want to go back and begin at the beginning of 'Copper Ridge' and for anyone slightly baffled and overwhelmed, Maisy has a helpful guide on her website; 'For New Readers' and she suggests with 'Part Time Cowboy' in the 'Copper Ridge' series.

But, anyway - 'Take Me Cowboy' is a friends-to-lovers AND dating-for-a-bet story of tomboy mechanic Anna, and her best friend (and ladies' man) Chase who both find that they need dates to an upcoming gala event ... Anna to prove to her brothers that even though she's 30 and never been in a relationship, she can most definitely pull a guy - and Chase, because he wants the town to see him as more than a one-and-done stud since he and his brother have an important business venture they intend to put forward. Anna and Chase agree to fake date in the lead-up to the gala, but deep down Anna knows she's playing with fire because she's always had more then just friends feelings for her bestie. And Chase knows he's putting his feet closet to the flames because he's always guarded his heart with empty one-night-stands and no-strings-attachments, and Anna is something very different.

I loved this set-up, it's two tropes in one and both that I love. I will say I was a little *shocked* that Maisey Yates writes steamy sex scenes. I'm not sure why, but I thought she was a 'cut to the billowing curtains' type romance writer? Huh. Pleasantly surprised to discover that's not the case, even if I also found Anna and Chase jumping into bed together a little too soon for my liking, considering all they had on the line with regards to their friendship.

This was a solid intro to Maisey Yates's books, and now I'm looking at the bounty of her backlist and *gleeful* at the idea of jumping in all over the place!


Saturday, February 13, 2021

Rom Com Pods


Okay, something slightly different from me ... a Podcast review! 

I don't know about you, but during the 111-days hard lockdown here in Melbourne I clung to my one daily walk, and podcasts became a lifeline for me too. The intimacy and joy of them, having people in my ear-holes chatting away or telling me a story was such a good stress-reliever. I have lots of favourite podcasts now; from political and pop-culture, story-driven, true-crime and mystery .... here's but a brief list of what I love and listen to; 

And then there's also my beloved - Rom Com Pods! This is a scripted podcast, "fiction romcom" listen created by Becca Freeman (Bad on Paper) and Rachael King (Pod People) and I am going to break both seasons down for you and review them. 

So far there have been two seasons (two totally different stories) both 7-episodes each and yes, a third season is currently in the works for 2021. 

Season 1 was Honeymoon For One and deals with 28-year-old Claire finding her fiancée cheating on her right before their wedding. Buoyed by her sympathetic bestie, and depressed at the thought of returning to her dead-end job, Claire decides to go on her honeymoon solo and gift herself a much-needed restart. 

It's just a little sad that the honeymoon they'd booked (and she'd meticulously planned) is a couples tour-group around Italy ... so Claire finds herself on a big tour with a couple of Instagram-influencers, an older couple who have lost *none* of their libido, and a seeming odd-couple of empty-nesters, and their tour-guide is an American living in Italy, Matteo. 

Honeymoon follows Claire on this weeks-long holiday as she lives out her traveller's dream, rediscovers her love for photography and gets closer and closer to guide, Matteo - who while charming, is also a little cagey about his background and just how he ended up living in Italy. Claire's curiosity is particularly piqued when she wanders into Matteo's local bookstore, and finds a book with a dust-jacket that includes his author photo! 

I really, thoroughly enjoyed this first season and as a first-intro to what Rom Com Pods is all about. It's not just that the set-up was great, it's that the story had a natural cast of secondary characters who really filled out the background and made for a more intimate listen. And of course, that Claire and Matteo's romance was so wonderful - they're played by Amy Stricker and Shajehan Khan, and I've got to say it's a staple of the whole production that their casting is *always* brilliant. These actors sparked off each other, and had such great beats that really amped up the feeling of the awkward getting-to-know you stage, and the I'm-developing-feelings-for-you journey. 

This season is very much Under the Tuscan Sun, and for some reason I also kept thinking of the Chasing Liberty casting and European zip-around'ing too. I loved this first season, and it got me so amped for what ever else this production had up their sleeve.

Season 2 is Vote for Love - also 7 episodes long, but a whole new story. This one deals with young woman Lucy, who works for the Governor of Texas when we first meet her - and she's nursing a pretty healthy crush on the governor's son, Lincoln. The two share a passionate kiss on the night that the governor is re-elected, and Lucy is elated to think that maybe her crush will turn into something more ... but then the very next day she learns that Lincoln has run off to L.A. after having yet another falling out with his father. 

Fast-forward 8 years and Lincoln is a legit music star, after breaking out on the reality TV show 'Sink or Sing' - he's like an older Shawn Mendes with the soulful song-writing of Ed Sheeran, and he's got a model girlfriend and chart-topping hits. His father meanwhile, is now running for President and Lucy is assistant to the Governor's chief-of-staff on the campaign. But they've hit a snag with Gen Z voters and poor youth turnout in the lead-up to the election, so even though the Governor and his son have a frosty relationship, Lucy is tasked with representing the campaign and reaching out to (/beg) Lincoln to use his celebrity prowess to help his Dad. 

Lucy and Lincoln come face-to-face for the first time since their electric kiss from eight-years-ago, and radio-silence from Lincoln after he left the next day and never reached out to Lucy again. But he - somewhat reluctantly - does agree that his Democratic father is the better candidate against a conservative Republican, and agrees to help his Dad boost poll numbers amongst 'the youth'. 

But Lincoln and Lucy still have mad-chemistry that just about explodes on the campaign-trail as they both get closer and closer to each other and reveal their insecurities and desires during the turbulent weeks leading up to a make-or-break Presidential election. 

I also loved this season, no surprise. It's The West Wing meets Nashville, by way of Michael Keaton/Geena Davis 1994 movie Speechless. That's a lot of my intersections! But this season was particularly great because of the added bonus of a music-component to the production, Spencer Sutherland who plays Lincoln actually does sing - and in episode one he even performs a rendition of The Backstreet Boy’s “I Want It That Way”! Sutherland is undoubtedly the stand-out in this season, especially the episode where they have him playing a huge concert as Lincoln - and it is just *swoony* (if you're a fan of the Stage Dive Series by Kylie Scott or any of those music-romance sub-genres, this is the season to give you heart-eyes BIG TIME!) And Lucy actress, Regan Shea is also fab - the two just bounce off each other and make this 10/10 cuter. 

So that's Rom Com Pods - - my favourite scripted podcast, and I am eagerly awaiting its third season! 

Saturday, February 6, 2021

'Blood Heir' by Ilona Andrews


From the BLURB: 


Eight years ago, Julie Lennart left Atlanta to find out who she was. Now she’s back with a new face, a new magic, and a new name—Aurelia Ryder—drawn by the urgent need to protect the family she left behind. An ancient power is stalking her adopted mother, Kate Daniels, an enemy unlike any other, and a string of horrifying murders is its opening gambit.

Okay, so - thoughts on 'Blood Heir' ...

First of all, I am SO HAPPY we got Julie's continued story at all. I remember not too long ago (2019) Ilona Andrews wrote a blog-post answering the question of whether or not they'd ever expand the 'Kate Daniels' universe to tell Julie's story (and by extension, Derek's - since it was understood that they were, or would be, HEA end-goals). Well. Their answer kinda broke my heart, because they went on to detail the fact that they get Julie hate-mail. No joke, the post is still up: 

And I quote: "Long story short, we get Julie hatemail. Half want bad things to happen to Julie. They literally hate her and want her to die. The other variation of the hatemail is, “I am just not interested in Julie as a character and I don’t think she could carry a book.” Right, because despite writing 12 books set in this world, all of which succeeded in being entertaining, we will lose all of ability to tell a compelling story just because Julie is the main character."

So first of all - Julie and Derek (and yeah, Ascanio) are three of my *favourite* characters. I am actually overall very partial to any and all spin-offs within the Kate Daniels universe (I loved Andrea and Raphael in Gunmetal Magic and also loved Jim and Dali in Magic Dreams and OMG, I hope we get to see the four of them in future spin-off minor appearances). I do not understand people who are morally opposed to more spin-offs, let alone one that focuses on one of THE MOST FASCINATING female characters within a multi-layered and wonderful universe. Which Julie *is*. We've seen her at her most frightened, saved and beloved by Kate, I am already a total trope-fiend for anything unrequited love AND enemies-to-lovers so the *slight* triangle we get between Julie, Derek and Ascanio has always delighted me (even as I am Team Derek, all the way and especially because he has tortured hero coming out his ears.) But basically, I thought a Julie spin-off would be a slam-dunk guarantee after the end of KD. 

Not so. 

And actually - there's a beautiful note in the acknowledgements of 'Blood Heir' where Ilona Andrews basically says they decided to write this story (originally presented in installments on the blog, before they fully committed to an indie-print run) where they explain that they wrote it for a reader of theirs who is an ICU-nurse, and said reading them during her breaks at the height of the pandemic was the one thing bringing her a semblance of sanity. *tears* 

In many ways we only got Julie's story when we did, because of the absolute trash-fire year 2020 turned into. And no, that's not a worthwhile bargain ... but it has become a small delight that I am certainly holding close to my chest and am thankful for, as a fan. 

And 'Blood Heir' is bloody delightful. 

I don't want to overly spoil anything for anyone - save to say, Ilona Andrews have come up with an ingenious work-around that keeps Julie away from her family core for the most part (Kate and Curran mainly), raises the stakes, and lets us see the young woman she has become while away from Atlanta. 

There's lots of reward to this work-around, high-stakes plotting that has Julie needing to sneak into Atlanta with a new face, body, and persona as Aurelia Ryder ... interact with beloved characters who don't know she's Julie Olsen, and yes - eventually - she does interact with Ascanio and Derek too. 

The Derek interactions have a bittersweetness to them. Part of it is Julie's childhood longing and full-fledged romantic love for him that was never returned, the mystery of where he disappeared to not long after she left Atlanta. And the mystery of who they've both become while away from each other. 

I will say, part of the plot about Julie changing her entire appearance bugged me when it comes to Derek .... because Julie is, by all measurements, royally beautiful now. She's taken from Kate's blood-line so looks as otherworldly stunning as Kate and her family. And that's sad, to me. But to Ilona Andrew's credit, it's sad for Julie too. Derek and Ascanio both definitely seem to respond to her new radiance, and that gives her a twinge of sadness - for who she was as pixie-faced and sweet Julie, and there's but a *hint* of the inadequacy she felt as that orphan girl who Kate adopted and Roland mentored, despite for a time - not being blood. I like that Ilona Andrews didn't just make Julie magically stunning and have all these bros falling at her feet and she's delighted. She's actually quite hurt by Derek's seeming interest in this face - and the Julie she was is jealous that he's so moved by a new body and look. I am keen for Ilona Andrews to keep feeling this issue out, because it adds layers to Derek and Julie's past - and also their future. 

And there will be a future. 'Blood Heir' ends on about 3 cliffhangers, I'd say - and they're *good ones* too. It's evident that maybe 2 of them will be short-term goals reached, but there's an over-arching 'Big Bad' that will - it has been confirmed - take up the topic of at least two more books in the series (confirmed after Ilona Andrews revealed they've landed on Bestseller lists for ebooks and paperback; which is extraordinary considering 'Blood Heir' is a self-published title). 

Ilona Andrews is one of my favourite author/s - hands down - their books make me happy, and 'Kate Daniels' was a phenomenal favourite series I was happy-sad to read come to a satisfying finale. But, I wanted Julie and Derek's story *so badly* and by no means is it a worthwhile trade-off (Julie spin-off and all we had to endure was a wee pandemic ... NO.) but after 2020 I am grateful for what Ilona Andrews gave to fans during a spectacularly awful time. Maybe, just maybe, those who so despised Julie can better understand the hardening of a young woman during trying times ... and come to 'Blood Heir' and the 'Aurelia Ryder' series with slightly more opened hearts and minds. But even if they're still morally opposed to Julie being a complex character (egads! The horror!) I know they'll be happy to strap in for what is a truly compelling ride anyway!


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