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Tuesday, July 27, 2021

'Victorian Rebels' series review, by Kerrigan Byrne

From the BLURB: 

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

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

The English governess who tames the wild Highlander widower.

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

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

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

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men who also totally have layers, injuries, trauma, and deep affection to boot – but they do read *slightly* outdated for the conversations romance authors and readers have been having of late (and – totally worth acknowledging that Byrne’s series began pre-Trump, in 2015!).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

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

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

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

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

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



Tuesday, July 6, 2021

'Malibu Rising' by Taylor Jenkins Reid


From the BLURB: 

A lifetime holding it together. 

One party will bring it crashing down. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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