Thursday, 7 September 2017

(Super-belated) (Bi)Monthly Review: July and August

Reading Overview & Genre Breakdown

Soo...what are the chances anyone would believe that I follow the pre-Julian Roman calendar, and that's why July didn't get its monthly overview, and absolutely nothing was posted during August? Because that sounds way better than 'I got really busy with real life and had to put the blog on the backburner'. Even as I apologise for that and tell you that I'm back now, the truth is that my blogging will probably continue to be sporadic over the next few months, as I face the unenviable but unavoidable task of finishing my thesis.

To avoid the last two months being completely lost, I'm combining their monthly round-ups here, in a slightly more abbreviated form than usual. On the upside, after months of reading relatively little, the vagaries of real life seem to have bolstered my reading, and I'm back on track for meeting my goal of 200 books in the Goodreads Reading Challenge. August also saw a lot of comfort re-reading, which is quicker than reading a book for the first time, making the total for that month is unusually high.

Books read in July: 26
Books read in August: 33
Books read YTD: 156

Fiction Titles (July): 
  • 24 (17 contemporary romance, 3 historical romance, 1 fantasy romance, 2 romance anthologies)

Fiction Titles (August): 
  • 32 (18 historical romance, 13 contemporary romances, 1 steampunk romance)

Non-Fiction Titles (July): 
  • 2 (1 history, 1 urban studies)

Non-Fiction Titles (August): 
  • 1 (Mythography)

Noteworthy Novels

Contemporary

Historical

Noteworthy Non-Fiction

Noteworthy Settings & Sense of Place

  • Safe Passage by Carla Kelly - set in Mexico during the Revolution, although readers should be aware that it centres the experiences of white Mormon colonists.
  • Freedom to Love by Susanna Fraser - touching and sweeping romance between a British officer and a woman of the gens de couleur libres during the War of 1812.
  • Starlight by Carrie Lofty - Incredible sense of place in working-class Glasgow, where mill owner meets one of his factory workers.

Kick-ass Characters

  • Starlight by Carrie Lofty - Unionist, factory-worker heroine Polly is not here for your bourgeoisie shit. 
  • Saving Mr. Perfect by Tamara Morgan - ex-jewel thief Penelope at a loose end now that her husband has put the nix on her career, and watching her and Grant trying to grope towards a new, happy life together is surprisingly poignant, partly because they are both so kick-ass in their respective fields. 
  • Beauty Like the Night by Joanna Bourne - Sevie - sister of an infamous French spy, adopted daughter of an infamous English spy - was never not going to be awesome. See also: all of Joanna Bourne's other heroines. 
  • Rouge Desire Anthology - The heroes and heroines we need - but probably don't deserve - in these dark times. 

Monday, 24 July 2017

Review: Famous by Jenny Holiday

4 stars
I received an ARC of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review. My opinion is my own.


Jenny Holiday is one of the masters of the genre when it comes to earnest and heartwarming romances with considerate and self-aware heroes, and heroines who are strong, independent and - sometimes - a little emotionally closed-off. 

In her latest book, Famous, she tackles the rock-star romance, but flips the script: instead of the trope's traditional and much-loved jaded and world-weary rock-star hero, we have an art historian hero, and it's the Taylor-Swiftesque heroine who is worn out by her fame, and the pressure her managers place on her to keep churning out hit after hit. 

When Evan and Emmy first meet at a wedding, Evan is dealing with the fallout of his father's high-profile conviction for art fraud, while Emmy is about to move to Los Angeles to try and make it as a singer. As they part ways, he tells her: let me know if there is ever anything I can do for you

Seven years later and Emmy is Emerson Quinn, one of the biggest pop stars in the world. She's meant to be writing her next album, and her managers - deciding she should abandon her teenage fanbase and skew towards an older demographic - have hired "co-writers" to write her songs. Worn-out and unable to work in the conditions her managers insist on, Emmy escapes to the man who once offered her help.

Emmy shows up on Evan's doorstep at a precarious time for him. He's trying to make tenure at his small Midwestern college, and his family's background means he can't afford even a hint of scandal, let alone a big-name pop star hiding out in his house. But he also sees Emerson's vulnerability, and in the end he can't turn her away. As Emmy, with her new, anonymous look of sunglasses, baggy clothes and badly dyed hair, makes changes around Evan's house and charms the townsfolk, Evan finds it harder and harder to accept that this is Emmy's "Summer of No Men" before she returns to the high-paced pop star life. 

In some ways, Famous is what I think of as a quiet romance. This has to do with the levels and presentation of angst or conflict, and also the way main characters support one another, and are mindful of the other's wellbeing and emotional state. Both Evan and Emmy were vulnerable in their own ways: Evan is still dealing with the emotional legacy of his father's actions and how these affect his present and future, while Emmy is struggling with her lack of self-determination in her career.

On the other hand, the sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop - for Emmy to be recognised, for their idyllic time together to come to an end - but not knowing how this would come about, was incredibly suspenseful. It offset the domesticity of Evan and Emmy's life together well, and was one of my favourite aspects of the book.

I also loved the way Emmy related to her teenaged fans, and the teenaged characters in the book. It was refreshing to see teenagers' opinions being treated as legitimate, as opposed to the subject of scorn. 

Overall, Famous was a cute and well-done small-town-slash-rock-star romance. It was close to being a favourite within each of those tropes. Partially, that's because I'm not a big reader of either, but it's also because I'm yet to meet a Jenny Holiday book I haven't enjoyed, even if this wasn't amongst my very favourites. 

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Review: Sight Unseen Anthology

Multiple ratings


The concept of this anthology was that well-known romance authors would each write a story outside of their usual genre, but their name would not be attached to it until some time after publication, leaving the reader to guess which author wrote which story. I thought the concept was clever and was executed well - although I am pretty sure I know the author of one story, I can only make guesses at the rest. 

Even though I auto-buy three of the five authors included in this anthology (Thomas, Barry and Satie), and regularly also read and enjoy Duran's books, I found the majority of stories (3/5) just okay. I've been thinking about this: on one hand, it's very common for anthologies to be a bit of a mixed bag, while, on the other, I think the experimental nature of the anthology could also be a contributing factor. Not having the authors name attached to their work means there's a lack of confirmation bias, because the reader can't go in thinking: 'I've loved all of this author's previous work, surely I will love this as well' and is thus more critical than they might otherwise be.

Nonetheless, I think that Sight Unseen is full of quick, interesting reads, and contains something for everyone, except maybe readers who heavily lean towards historical romance. The novelty factor also adds something fun and unique to the reading experience. 

Lost that Feeling - 3 stars
Before being captured as the leader of a rebellion, Alma used her magic to wipe her memory. When her fellow rebels break her out of the prison where she has been kept, she must relearn her place in this underground movement against the King, and begins to question her motives her wiping her memory, and her relationship to Driss, the man who helped her escape. 

Objectively, the world-building in Lost that Feeling was great. I'm sure most people would have enjoyed it more than I did, but I have very been particularly interested in the kind classical fantasy setting that appears here. Given a strong romance arc - like in Grace Draven's work - I can sometimes let myself go and enjoy such settings, but there were only the slightest hints of romance between Alma and Driss. Having said that, I did like the open and hopeful ending, which reminded me of the teasing ending of a prequel novella, before the book actually dedicated to unravelling the hero and heroine's relationship.

A Clear View of You - 3 stars
Kate works as a psychic to pay off her student debts, even though she hates it and the whole thing is obviously bogus. But then North shows up, offering her an obscene amount of money if she'll use her 'skills' to help him locate an object. 

As a Fey, North knows that Kate has no psychic talent, but what she does have is a mother who is meddling with powers beyond her control. He needs Kate's help to gain entrance to the compound where her mother's so-called 'coven' live, and take back a Fey orb whose power is being misused, before it is too late.

Again, I liked the world-building and backstory of this one more than the romance. Kate has issues from growing up with a hippy mother who believes she is a witch, and just wants to lead a normal life. North is more of an enigma as a character, but the differentiation between the mundane and fey worlds were well-explained and -constructed. However, I wasn't convinced by the romance arc, and feel like the story would have benefited from being a bit longer, or having a bit more characterisation on North's part. 

Free - 3 stars
In small-town Montana, Wren's father and uncle run the local second-hand car dealership and a motorcycle club. She's sure that the club just a social thing for bored guys for like motorbikes and wearing leather jackets until the dealership's dorky part-time accountant, clues her into some suspicious stuff on the books. 

Brad has had it bad for Wren for ages, but she's the town's unofficial first daughter, not to mention the on-again/off-again relationship with one of the guys in the motorcycle club. But when he accidentally lets Wren in on what's going on behind the scenes, assuming she was already in the know, she begins to make her own investigations, and needs someone to turn to when she uncovers something unpleasant. 

Heroes in motorcycle clubs are currently all the rage, and Free used this trope in a creative way that I really appreciated. Making it MC-adjacent meant that the reader doesn't have to tackle the moral greyness or suspension of disbelief involved when the hero is actually a biker. The story was also very well written and paced. I considered giving it a higher ranking, but didn't, because Wren's portrayal of the dumb-blonde-with-smokin'-body portrayal rankled. There's nothing inherently sexist about it - in fact, it is a good example of Butler's concept of performative gender, but it was continually a point of focus in a way that centred the male gaze, and it dampened my enjoyment of the whole thing a bit. 

Chariot of Desire - 3.5 stars
The 70's were good to the legendary band Donjon, but as the 1980's roll around, the rock'n'roll lifestyle has taken its toll. Lead singer Donny has joined a Christian sect, and is thus unwilling to sing any of their backlist that contains immoral themes. So, basically, all of it. With the stress on the band reaching breaking point, Donny turns to the band's drummer, CJ, as they try to find a balance between Donny's religion and demons, CJ's standoffishness and the good of the band.

I found Chariot of Desire interesting and different, for a number of reasons. There's the mid-to-late 20th century setting (which I think is massively underused in romance), the use of religion and sectism and the fact that the main characters are past their prime and live (or lived) for sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. As with other stories in the anthology, there is an open ending without a definitive HFN or HEA, but for some reason it worked slightly better for me here, perhaps because it would have been too much of an about-face for the characters to commit to a relationship together. 

The Heart is a Universe - 5 stars
Every generation, on the planet of Pax Cara, a child is chosen and raised with the knowledge that, when they grow up, they will be a sacrifice to the old gods. With less than a month left until she must sacrifice herself, Vitalis is looking for a way out. A hero in his own right, Eleian of Terra Illustrata has watched the media coverage of Vitalis for many years. When they meet at an official function, he makes her a public offer of marriage. She accepts, but both of them are hiding things from the other, and the day of the sacrifice is growing ever closer. 

The Heart is a Universe was the anthology's stand-out story for me. The world-building, characterisation and plot were all amazing, and it several times it went in directions I genuinely did not expect. It has an unconventional HEA, and if someone else had told me about it, I would have scoffed and denied that anyone could ever pull that off, but somehow, the author does. 

Also, for those of you taking part it July's #RomBkLove on Twitter or elsewhere, yesterday's theme was "favourite Virgin Hero/Heroine", and many of us talked about our love for virgin heroes, and made some suggestions. I forgot to mention Eleian, but he is an awesome virgin hero, and I love the way this is worked into the story.

Concluding Thoughts
Looking back on what I've written, it strikes me that Sight Unseen is not just experimental in form, but is also pushing the romance boundaries in other ways, particularly in the way many of the endings do not fit genre conventions surrounding the HEA/HFN. That makes me feel bad about critiquing them, or - more accurately - critiquing some and accepting others. But I'm all about the HEA. 

Friday, 30 June 2017

Overview: June Reading

Reading Overview & Genre Breakdown


Books read in June: 19
Books read YTD: 93

Fiction Titles: 

  • 16 (9 contemporary romance, 5 historical romance, 1 paranormal romance, 1 romance anthology)

Non-Fiction Titles: 
  • 2 (History)

Other:
  • 1 Poetry

Noteworthy Novels


Noteworthy Non-Fiction



Noteworthy Settings


Kick-ass Characters

  • Small Change by Roan Parrish  - Heroine Ginger is not good at letting people get close, and it's lovely to see a spiky heroine and the hero who loves her.
  • The Lawrence Browne Affair by Cat Sebastian - the way the heroes were kind, caring and thoughtful to each other was absolutely my catnip.

From the Internet this Month


Romance
Literature, Craft and the Publishing Industry

Other Media

Women & Feminism

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Review: Ride Baby Ride by Vivian Arend

2 stars

Ride Baby Ride by Vivian Arend was a trope buffet: brother's best friend, amnesiac heroine and surprise pregnancy, to name the biggest three. But it's like when you arrive to the breakfast buffet 15 minutes before it closes, and are forced to make do with the one remaining crossiant, congealed baked beans and some tinned peaches, because that's all that's left. Not a particularly great combo, especially when you have to put them on a single plate, because they've started packing the dishes away. To unpack that terrible metaphor, I basically just felt like there were lots of different tropes and elements all smushed into one short novella, and they didn't have enough space to breathe. 

When Katy breaks up with her low-life boyfriend, Gage Jennick - a close friend of Katy's family - decides to make his move. It's far from ideal timing - he's  just about to leave for a gig on a oil field - but they spend the night together, and promise to continue the relationship when he returns. Except that, in the meanwhile, Katy has a car accident and loses her short-term memory, forgetting her night with Gage and situation with her ex-boyfriend. When she finds out she's pregnant, both step foward and claim to be the baby's father. Katy has to fit the pieces together, but that's hard to do when Gage is determined to win her back and prove to her that he doesn't just want her, but the baby and a long-term future as well.

There was a marked lack of development of Gage and Katy's relationship. At first, Katy is trying to hold him at bay and figure things out and and then, WHAM, they're going to spend their lives together. This was - at least in part - due to the time jumps littered throughout. Those also fell victim to my pet hate when it comes to time jumps: instead of 'two months later' or similar at the top of the chapters, it says 'November', thus requiring you to remember the month named at the previous time jump. For someone with a goldfish brain like mine, this is pretty much impossible, and I ended up skim-reading the first few pages after each time jump, looking for clues - like how much Katy's pregnancy had progressed - which would allow me to establish how much time had passed. 

There was also some toxic masculinity that interfered with my enjoyment of the story, as did the gigantic suspension of disbelief required to buy the way the external conflict comes to a climax. I'm not gonna spoil that, mainly because it's just so crazysauce I wouldn't even know where to begin, but there are some Goodreads reviews that talk about it if you are interested. 

Saturday, 3 June 2017

(Belated) Overview: May Reading

Reading Overview & Genre Breakdown

Five months in I'm really starting to see the value of tracking my reading like this. For example, I never realised before how, in the normal run of things, I read more contemporary than historical romance, but switch to pretty much 100% historicals  as soon as my stress levels start to go up. I wonder if it has to do with the fact that historical romance - obviously - bears less resemblance to me everyday life, and therefore is more escapist? Or is it because historical romance was my first love and gateway to the genre?

Books read in May: 14
Books read YTD: 76

Fiction Titles: 
  • 11 (8 historical romance, 3 contemporary romance)
Non-Fiction Titles: 
  • 3 (1 memoir/social history, 2 history)

Noteworthy Novels

Noteworthy Non-Fiction

Noteworthy Settings

Kick-ass Characters

  • Unseen Attraction by K J Charles - Neuroatypical hero & neurotypical hero unite to solve a crime threatening their home and businesses
  • Clean Breaks by Ruby Lang - heroine Sarah is feeling angry and threatened due to a melanoma diagnosis and the reappearance of the hero in her life, which brings up memories of a long-ago teenage scandal.

From the Internet this Month


Romance



Literature, Craft and the Publishing Industry


Other Media

Women & Feminism

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Non-Fiction Review: Bomber Girls by M J Foreman


This was a frustrating one. I picked Bomber Girls up to learn more about the Air Transport Auxillary in Britian during WWII, where civilian pilots - both female pilots and male pilots ineligble for service - shuttled planes across the country, and sometimes to the Continent, so that they would be where the RAF needed them, when they needed them. 

With its plucky heroines battling against the Germans, their dangerous and unwieldy planes AND institutionalised prejudice, Bomber Girls had the raw ingredients of a ripper. But it wasn't, because it talks of the the women and their work in ways that are alternatingly patronising, sensationalist, and just plain dull, not to mention the dubious handling of the sexism the female pilots faced. 

It is not until 16% of the way through the book that the institutionalised sexism the women faced is directly mentioned, with the use of the words "gender bias", which is then allowed to fall by the wayside again until 39%, when the same term is used again. Here are those two excerpts: 
Whilst forbidden to go into combat, and never required to drop bombs, the 166 women of the ATA flew right through the barriers of gender bias in such a noble way they couldn’t help but play a significant role in securing Britain’s eventual superiority in the air. Thanks to the political guile of Miss Gower they were also the first collective of women to earn the same salary as their male colleagues doing the same job. (16%) 
The fact that young women like Curtis got to fly at all, and got to pilot the RAF’s biggest aircraft, remains a miracle if we consider the disconcerting whiff of gender bias around at the time. (39%)
These excerpts capture the overall tone and framing of the book pretty well, in my opinion. Both dismiss the institutionalised sexism of the time in their phrasing, thus absolving the men, instutitions and hierarchies who did their utmost to prevent the creation of the female branch of the ATA, and, once it was created, to place as many roadblocks in their way as possible. In the first, Pauline Gower's relentless campaign for the inclusion of female pilots in the ATA, and, thereafter, for better working conditions for them, is dismissed as 'political guile'. Although this is perhaps not the most overt example, this is part of a broader pattern of presenting the female ATA pilots not as pilots, but as women (or 'girls' as Foreman often writes), 'socialites' or dilettantes. (I consider 'guile' here to be gendered language, because I cannot imagine that a man, in a comparative situation, would have a word with such a negative connotation attached to his behaviour, instead of a neutral one like 'skillful'). The use of the word 'miracle' in the second example is again agency-robbing and makes the institutionalised sexism perpetrator-less crime.

It's actually quite impressive the lengths to which Foreman has gone to avoid tackling the sexism systematically. One has to read between the lines in a lot of places to understand the links between what is being relayed and the instense misogyny the women faced. Similarly, stories from the women themselves that make the sexism overt are treated as humourous anecdotes.

There is also a distinction in the way the female and male pilots are characterised. The female pilots come off as glib and vain, and are frequently saved by the actions of their male counterparts, who are presented as skilful and heroic. I have no doubt that many of the female pilots were glib and concerned with their outward appearance, as these are both mechanisms through which they could manage the sexism with which they were faced. But that doesn't excuse the way these narratives - which were also used by the media and other sources to paint the women as dilettantes - are reproduced in a 21st Century text.

Foreman does make some genuine attempts to tackle the subject of sexism, just as there are stories that do not fit the pattern I've described above. However, in both cases, the instances to the contrary greatly outweigh those that do fit into these discourses, and are consistent enough to cancel out any such attempts. 

Bomber Girls initally caught my interest because last year I read His Very Own Girl by Carrie Lofty, in which the heroine is an ATA pilot. Ultimately, I think that His Very Own Girl succeeds where Bomber Girls fails, as it shows the sexism of the time and the every day life of the female ATA pilots in excellent detail, as well as having a satisfying central romance. 

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

(Belated) Overview: April Reading

Reading Overview & Genre Breakdown

Another slow reading month *sigh*. Maybe it's time to face up to the fact that this is the new normal, and adjust my expectations accordingly.

Books read in April: 13
Books read YTD: 62

Fiction Titles: 12
  • 12 Romance (5 historical romance, 6 contemporary romance, 1 historical paranormal)
Non-Fiction Titles: 1
  • 1 Scientific Journalism/Personal History
Poetry Titles: 1


Noteworthy Novels


Noteworthy Non-Fiction

  • N/A - Once again, I only read one non-fiction book this month, and I'll be damned if  I let it win by default, because it was self-aggrandizing and tone-deaf Kindle Single about Henrietta Lacks, written by the journalist who originally broke the story. I only bought it because I can't afford The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks at the moment, but I wish I hadn't. 

Noteworthy Settings

Kick-ass Characters

  • Bernie from The Undateable by Sarah Title - A great unlikeable heroine
  • Nate & Robyn from Perv by Dakota Gray - They're the dirty, fucked up couple you didn't know you needed in your life. Nate's your classic playboy with a fresh twist, but Robyn's not buying his practiced routine.
  • Gabriel from Devil in Spring by Lisa Kleypas - Come on, he's Evie and Sebastian's son. It was genetically impossible for him not to be kick-ass, but he endeared himself to me in the way he dealt with Pandora's worries about losing her legal personhood.

From the Internet this Month

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Review: Peter Darling by Austin Chant

4.5 stars


Peter Darling is a beautiful queer fairy tale that is both whimsical and poignantly real. It revolves around Peter Pan returning to Neverland as an adult, taking refuge from the real world where he is forced to live in the body of a young woman named Wendy Darling. Things have changed in Neverland and Captain Hook and the Lost Boys are no longer at war, but Peter resumes his old feud with Hook all the same, only to discover that his old nemesis now evokes a whole other set of feelings.

At the beginning of the book, we see Peter much as one would imagine: he's the boy that never grew up, playing his war games without thought for the cost of his vendetta. As much as I came to love Peter - and the book - I struggled a little bit with this initial third of the story because of the senseless and casual violence Peter inflicts. However, I think this has more to do with me and my sensitivity to violence than the book itself. Hook also reveals to Peter - and thus the reader - something about the nature of Neverland that made the violence much easier for me to bear, allowing me to get lost in the story in a way that I had previously been prevented from doing. Similarly, regardless of how I reacted to it personally, this initial immaturity is essential to Peter's character, and his progression to realising the consequences of his actions - while still maintaining his boyish enthusiasm - was masterful.

The energetic and impulsive Peter is balanced perfectly by Hook's ennui-stricken and world-weary facade, and the relationship between the two was everything you ever wanted from the enemies-to-lovers trope. Both characters are morally ambiguous, and the Neverland here is not the sanitised version of the Disney film, but - as I mentioned earlier - one with real dangers, real violence, and slightly sinister undertones like those in old fairy tales.

Nevertheless, Chant's Neverland is the best kind of fantasy world, the kind that frees us from the oppressive realities of our world, instead of replicating them. There, Peter isn't faced with gender dysphoria, or disapproval, judgement and condescension from his family. Neither must James remember the sorrows of his life in the 'real world' of post-WWI Britain.

This has been a short review - by my standards - but it's very hard to capture the magic of Peter Darling in words. It's rekindled my childhood love of the story, when I would open the copy of the book my great-uncle had given me just to look at the pictures, or when I watched my VHS copy of the animated movie so many times that it eventually unspooled in the video player, breaking them both. But it's added another deeper dimension to the story, and, as far as I'm concerned, Disney and J. M. Barrie can both go home, because Peter Darling is now canon Peter Pan. 

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Review: Against the Tide by Elizabeth Camden

2 stars
*SPOILER ALERT*

Against the Tide is an inspirational romance with a wonderful sense of place and a good premise, but I was disappointed by the male characters and the presentation of faith.

It takes place in 1890s Boston, where Lydia Pallas works as a translator for the Navy. Desperate to make enough money to buy her apartment outright before she is evicted, she takes on extra work translating Turkish and Albanian for Alexander Banebridge, a friend of her boss', in his attempt to crack the North American opium trade. Bane has dedicated himself to his crusade, and he won't be swayed by his attraction to Lydia, even as he puts her and her job in danger.

If my blurb doesn't sound entirely neutral, that's because it isn't. I really did try to write an blurb that uninfluenced by my opinion of Bane and the other male characters, but it was impossible, so in the end, I just went 'stuff it, I'm going to be talking about it in the next paragraph anyway' and cast some subtle shade. 

The two main male characters - Bane and his friend, Admiral Eric Fontaine, who is also Lydia's boss - both treat Lydia abominably. Bane sweet-talks and manipulates her into undertaking actions of questionable legality for his crusade against opium, trading on her desperate need for money, and when Eric discovers this, he promptly fires her, without any thought about what it will mean for her ability to provide for herself. Having got what he wants from her - translations about shipments of opium - Bane drops her like a hot rock, not even paying her the rest of the money he owes her until many months later. So Lydia is forced out of her home, and into a hand-to-mouth existence working in a bakery. Bane's actions are made worse by the fact that Lydia's upbringing in an orphanage has left her with a need for security and ordered surroundings, and she repeatedly makes him aware of how much she fears sliding back into poverty. It read like a penny dreadful, with Lydia as the poor, waifish heroine, whose fall from grace has a moral about consorting with men and being a heathen. Other elements of the plot also reinforce this Gothic vibe, such as - SPOILER ALERT - Lydia's addiction to opium, and her imprisonment in a isolated estate. 

Throughout most of the book, Bane is the one of the two who is supposedly a committed Christian, while Lydia isn't very religiously inclined (of course, the nature of inspirational romance means that Lydia does become Christian). However, in my opinion, neither Bane nor Eric comes off well as an example of Christian charity, or any positive Christian trait. Yes, Bane's desire to end the opium trade is driven by his faith, but it's mostly to absolve himself of his prior involvement in it, rather than any genuine desire to help others. I'm not very religious, but my grandmother is from the 'whatever you did for the least of my followers, you did for me' school of thought, not the 'cause an innocent woman's downfall and a lot of grief for a lot of people, but don't worry about the ramifications of your actions, because you're a self-righteous Christian man' one. But, you know, po-tay-tos, po-tah-tos . 

As though the whole ghosting-the-heroine-for-several-months wasn't enough, Bane also feels the need to constantly lecture the female characters about how they can save their souls. Other male characters also mansplain Christianity, and I came to resent the way that this was presented as a revelation from moral, Christian men (who weren't really that moral), to women, as though women are inherently immoral or need to have men interpret religion and proselytise it to them. However, while both are inherently gendered and adhere to the virgin-whore dichotomy, I did find it interesting to note the difference between the dynamic in Against the Tide and many other inspirational romances I have read, where the heroine is a pure and good Christian, and must teach the hero the error of his ways. 

But, back to my problems with Bane, he was also a bit holier-than-thou about the whole fight against the opium trade, and did this horrible 'I-told-you-so' throughout Lydia's recovery from opium addiction (when he wasn't evangelising).

At this point, you may well be wondering why I've given Against the Tide two stars, since I've just written a huge laundry list of all the things I *didn't* like (here's looking at you, Bane). But there were elements that I liked, or that worked for me. The naval and opium trade and usage aspects were interesting, well-researched and well-integrated into the story. It's always nice to see a historical romance heroine with an occupation, and I appreciated that Lydia was learned, employed and independent, although much of this is, of course, undercut in the course of the story. Similarly, she is an immigrant, she and her family having arrived from Greece when she was a child. I also admired what Camden tried to do here with having an opium-addicted heroine, even if the religious, paternalistic and moralising undertones meant that it didn't always work for me. Despite my problems with it, the story was also compelling, in that way that Gothic and old-school romances often are.

I have a strange relationship with inspirational romance, as I think many romance readers do. For me, this definitely fell into the 'too much inspie' category, and I wouldn't advise reading it unless you are a hardcore inspie-lover and are totally feeling the gender dynamic (although I'm not sure that inspie-loving gender-traditionalists frequent this small-time, rant-y, feminist blog). If you are interested in giving something of Camden's a go, I have previously read and enjoyed Toward the Sunrise and Until the Dawn, which feature all of the strong points of Against the Tide - strong, working heroine, good sense of place and interesting historical tidbits - without nearly as many pitfalls. 

Saturday, 8 April 2017

(Belated) Overview: March Reading

The blog's been pretty quiet this last month, because I've been drowning in uni work. I've come up now for a quick breath of air, but I suspect I'll be pulled back down in a week or two. Apologies in advance for that.

My uni commitments also meant this wasn't a very prolific reading month for me. Reading in English also seems to interfere with my ability to slip back into German when I step out my front door or put away my book at the end of a bus trip. Nonetheless, here is my reading for the month, in all its underwhelming glory:

Reading Overview & Genre Breakdown

Books read in March: 14
Books read YTD: 49

Fiction Titles: 13
  • 13 Romance (4 historical romance, 7 contemporary romance, 1 fantasy & 1 mixed anthology)
Non-Fiction Titles: 1
  • 1 Social History/Theology

Since I started this feature in January, I've been playing around with what I want it to look like. The previous months have focused heavily on setting, but I'm not sure that interests anyone as much as it interests me, so I've come up with something new and different this month that I think has better long-term potential (and is less time-consuming so maybe I'll actually get these posts up on time, even if I am busy). Also, if you have any opinions about what you would like to see in these posts, feel free to give me a shout.


Noteworthy Novels


Noteworthy Non-Fiction


Noteworthy Settings


Kick-ass Characters

  • Elle from An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole - Elle is a free woman with an eidetic memory, who goes undercover as a slave to pass information to the Union during the Civil War
  • James Hook from Peter Darling by Austin Chant - not all anti-heroes wear capes, but James probably would if you gave him the chance

From the Internet this Month



Sunday, 19 March 2017

Review: Spirtbound by Dani Kristoff

2 stars

Originally, I was intrigued by Spiritbound's premise of a Sydney coven of "folk" where young witches greatly outnumber warlocks. The basic plot had promise, but the writing and characterisation wasn't what I was hoping for.

As young children, Grace and Declan were inseparable, but that all ended when Grace accidentally raised her cousin's dead cat. Declan and his horrified parents moved overseas, while Grace became a pariah. Years later, Declan's back, and the shortage of available warlocks means that every young witch in Sydney has her eye on him, except for Grace. For her, Declan's presence is associated with the worst time in her life, and she knows that her marginal position within the coven means that she should stay well away from the new Golden Boy, even if he's showing interest in getting to know her again.

Much of the plot concerns Grace's ostracism and the prejudice against her, as well as the disparate gender ratio in the coven. I thought that both of these plot points were ripe for nuanced explorations, but both are superficial (while the latter is also somewhat problematic). Partly, I think that this can be traced back to the simplistic writing style, which tends towards telling and not showing: 
Of course it hurt being snubbed, but Grace had built up a tolerance for it. Still, having Declan notice and calling attention to it filled her with shame. It was as if the whole room was pointing at her, vilifying her, instead of just tolerating her. Forcing Rose to acknowledge her presence made Grace confront the ostracism head-on, something she had not done for years. (8%)
The gender disparity in the coven - which I had hoped would be all women-power - was pretty much the opposite. Grace continually calls the women who shun her, and/or who are making a play for Declan, "bitch-witches". The one or two of these women whose characters are developed in depth are shown to be cruel, immoral and sexually promiscious (in a slut-shaming way), while Grace is a virginal turn-the-other-cheek kind of gal. 

There were also other gendered behaviours that made me feel very uneasy. Firstly, when Declan and Grace are reintroduced, she is upset by the association between him and the necromancy incident, since he was the one to report her misuse of magic as a child. She is quite clearly distressed, and tells Declan to leave her alone, but he keeps talking, criticising her reaction and demanding a second chance. "Demand" is actually the word that he uses, and later in the book, they laugh about it, but I find it hard to see the humour in the way men think that they are owed women's time and emotional labour, regardless of circumstance. A few chapters later, Declan grabs Grace and kisses her - without her consent - in the school where they both work, in front of the students. Somehow, at this point, I still was wiling to accept that maybe this was just a old-school romance-influenced novel, even though it was published in 2015, but the last straw was a horrible scene in which Grace is gaslighted by Declan and her own mother, who paint her reaction as hysterical when it is really quite reasonable and proportionate to the situation. 

I feel like maybe the reader was meant to overlook all this stuff because Grace's mother has a sex-positive attitude, which she has passed on to Grace, but the scales absolutely do not balance. This may be fiction, but fiction reflects and impacts our real world, and these are things that women - particularly women of colour and women who are marginalised along other axes - struggle with enough in everyday life, and having it legitimised and reflected it back to us in supposedly female-oriented literature only makes it worse. 

Moving back to the story at large, I also had some problems with the romantic conflict. It's not that it's lacking, precisely, but one obstacle was exchanged for another late in the piece, which meant that there wasn't much build-up. Like the first, the second conflict was also dispensed with fairly quickly, thanks to a deus-ex-machina moment, leaving me feeling slighty unfulfilled, even though I thought I'd stopped backing the romance after the workplace-sexual-assualt and gaslighting incidents.

Ultimately, my experience of Spiritbound was defined by the diactic writing style and disturbing gender dynamics. I can chalk the first one up to personal preference, but find I'm unable and unwilling to do that in the case of the second. Make of that what you will. 

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Review: Follow Me into Darkness Anthology

Multiple ratings


In Germany at this time of year, as elsewhere across the globe, people celebrate Carnival, which here is called Karneval, Fasching or Fastnacht. The day I arrived was Weiberfastnacht, and it was the first day of the big festival in Cologne. Catching the train to the town where I am now living was a funny and wonderful experience, because many people were dressed up and getting into the celebratory mood, even though it was still early in the morning. Then, yesterday, I watched my social media as my friends back home in Sydney attended our Mardi Gras parade. All of this left me feeling a bit forlorn, because I had missed out on both set of celebrations. 

But then I remembered Follow Me into Darkness, an anthology of queer romances centred around Carnival that I'd been meaning to read, and which I devoured last night and this morning. It was a really mixed bag, as anthologies often are. Here are my thoughts: 

Hurricane by Santino Hassell - 3.5 stars
Two very different men find each other and explore New Orleans in one night during Carnival. The two heroes complemented each other well, but it's told entirely from one hero's (Zay's) perspective and I would have appreciated more insight into the other character, Keegan. 

If We Be Friends by J C Lillis - 4 stars
This was the stand-out in the anthology for me. Two teenaged cast-mates on a Hamlet-inspired TV show turn over a new leaf. Poignant, touching, and so much love for the unabashed and witty use of Shakespeare. 

Masked by J. R. Gray - 1.5 stars
God, I don't even know what to say about this one. I was riding high after If We Be Friends, and this brought me back to earth with a thud. Two childhood friends whose lives have gone in very different directions meet again when one comes to the aid of the other, who is being beaten up in a homophobic attack. Attacked hero wants to get it on with other hero, despite his injuries, and then there are a lot of artificial roadblocks put the way to prevent this, including a quest to find condoms and accidental cock-blocking by the beaten-up hero's lesbian beard wife (??!). I want to say that it's very cliched, but I'm also not comfortable making that assessment. 

It's supposedly set in Brazil, but who knows where because a city is never mentioned. I guess non-Western countries are just exotically cultured monoliths, so why bother? Also, I'm not sure if I missed something, but at the beginning a date of February 2000 is given and there's no apparent time-jump, yet the heroes have Kindles and iPhones??? /end snarky rant

The Queen's Reflection by Kris Ripper - 3 stars
The Queen's Reflection takes place in a fantasy world, which I would normally be fine with but the last story had minimal Carnival vibes, and it feels weird to have an anthology where two consecutive stories have only minimal connection to the prompt in real-world terms. Anyway, fantasy world is pretty standard, in terms of being medieval-inspired, until weird futuristic things like keystrips (essentially credit cards?) pop up. Stuff like this is just dropped in and not properly explained or connected to the existing world-building that has occurred. 

The female-assigned-at-birth main character, queen of the kingdom, has gender dysphoria, and fictional-world Carnival presents her with an opportunity to shed her skin and move around in disguise. Despite the fact that I started off with what I didn't like about this story, it was emotional, and the menage and self-discovery aspects work well.

Touched by Roan Parrish - 3.5 stars
Towards the end I thought Touched was for sure going to be 4 stars, and then it ripped my heart out with a very, very qualified HFN. The narrator, Phillippe, is a bar owner in prohibitionist New Orleans. When he touches people, he glimpses their futures, but during 1929's Carnival, his visions intensifies, and signal that something big is on the horizon. At the same time, he meets African-American trumpet player Claude, who he wants like no man or woman he's had before.

Writing was a touch florid in places - really, I hate the overuse of adjectives in people's visions/dreams, it just kills me - but this had so much history and story packed in to such a little novella, and I did enjoy it immensely. Even with the soul-destroying ending.

Other thoughts
I know that in the U.S., Carnival is strongly associated with New Orleans, so I guess it makes sense that two of the five stories in this anthology would be set there. However, Carnival/Mardi Gras is something that occurs across the historical Christian - particularly Catholic - world, with many different associations. For example, in Australia, it has become completely divorced from his Lenten roots, and is solely celebrated as a LGBTQIA+ festival, while in many other places the two exist side-by-side, and in some (like Germany), it has virtually no connection to the LGBTQIA+ community. I would have liked to see both the relationship between Carnival, Christianity and queerness and Carnival as a worldwide phenomenon explored in more depth, or tackled more overtly. I also feel like questions of who Carnival is for could have been more drawn out, although Hassell's story did deal excellently with this theme in a horribly realistic fight between the heroes and some homophobic tourists.

Ultimately, I feel like the fictional world and Brazil-with-minimal-reference-to-setting-and-interaction-with-Carnival stories didn't pull their weight in terms of actually exploring Carnival. But, in the introduction, the authors talk about shedding metaphorical masks for physical ones, and how this can be freeing for LGBTQIA+ people. So perhaps the metaphoric representation of Carnival is more important than the physical representation, and as a cishet person and someone constantly stuck in academic analysis mode, I haven't been able to appreciate that as I should (The Queen's Reflection did pull it's weight in this regard. No comment on Brazil.)

NB: 

  • Potential readers should be aware that some stories feature homophobic violence. 
  • I've stuck with the 'Carnival' spelling for consistency and because it's the most internationally recognised (at least, Encyclopaedia Britiannica and Wikipedia both use this spelling), but the subtitle of the anthology actually uses 'Carnivale'. 
  • I may as well take this chance to say that I don't know how active the blog will be in the next month or so - I have uni commitments over 8 hours a day, 6-7 days a week! 
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